Daisy Pulls It Off at the Park Theatre review ***

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Daisy Pulls It Off

Park Theatre 200, 16th December 2017

Funny thing the memory. Even more curious is consciousness itself. It used to be that clever folk conceptualised consciousness as a kind of “theatre of the mind”. Apparently now the cutting edge of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy says this dualism is claptrap and tends towards a more functionalist explanation. As the bard said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. A very clever man, and great admirer of Mr Shakespeare, a certain Mr Tom Stoppard even had a crack at writing a play about The Hard Problem.

Anyway the point is that I distinctly remember really enjoying Denise Deegan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off at the Globe Theatre, (now the Gielgud), when it was such a smash hit in the mid 1980s. As did the SO. It was very funny. Or so I thought.

This latest revival at the Park Theatre was OK. Occasionally funny, but quite often a bit of a chore. Daisy Drags It Out. Now as I understand it this production, directed by Paulette Randall, presents pretty much the original script. It reverts to the original seven strong cast, which means some doubling or trebling up for all but two of them. Which, in my view, led to some of the more amusing moments in the play. Ms Randall and her creative colleagues have chosen to cast the production in a largely age, colour and gender blind way. Anna Shaffer, who debuts as Daisy, was most age appropriate. In contrast, Freddie Hutchins doubled up as Belinda alongside his Mr Scoblowski, Pauline McLynn was a plucky Trixie and Claire Perkins revelled in her roles as Monica, Mr Thompson and Mademoiselle. The rest of the cast, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fulbrook, Shobna Gulati, are all excellent actors, based on other stage and TV performances I have seen, and it was hard to fault their industry or execution here. The production was played moreorless “straight”, as intended, with any hamming up emerging largely from character or costume changes and not from an overly arch, or slapstick, delivery. Libby Watson’s set and costumes were on the money and, in the hockey match and the rescue scene on the cliff-top, the cast conjured up some fine visual drama from inventive movement, using only minimal props.

So why was this such a disappointment, for me, and for LD, who gamely agreed to come along, despite being somewhat suspicious about Dad’s big build up. Well, as I say, I don’t think it was the production, or the cast. I see that some, though by no means all, other proper reviewers got a real buzz out of this. Three possible explanations then. Either it wasn’t as good as I though it was first time around, (though, with the magnificent Lia Williams, alongside Samantha Bond and Kate Buffery, this production did launch some extraordinary acting talent). Or I, and the world around me, has moved on, such that reverent spoofs such as this are no longer novel. Finally it may be that my memory has, to coin the vernacular, “played tricks on me”. This third explanation is likely scientific fact, and not just doddery middle age, the second explanation probably has a great deal to do with it, but I worry that the first may actually bear the bulk of the responsibility. It just may not be as good a play as I thought it was.

I wouldn’t put you off from seeing this if you are new it. There are laughs, (though apparently, to my surprise, there is nothing amusing about the words “frightful muff”), some spirited performances and some fine stagecraft. It does warm up in the second half but never really takes off. The underlying message, snobbery can and will be routed, is so gentle as to be barely perceptible and, it turns out, the whole thing is just a little too in thrall to its sources.  An A for effort, a C for achievement, I am afraid to say.

The Hound of the Baskervilles at Jermyn Street Theatre review ****

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Jermyn Street Theatre, 10th December 2017

Everyone likes Sherlock Holmes right. And everyone can see that the stories are ripe for comic treatment. Indeed you have probably seen this done on numerous occasions. Even the amazing Cumberbatch/Freeman/Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, which is regarded with reverence in the Tourist’s household, mines the humour in Conan Doyle’s stories. So if a comedy version of Holmes takes your fancy then you simply must get along to this. A Christmas treat. Take the kids. Any age will do.

It is adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Mr Canny writes and produces for the Beeb and has worked with Complicite. Mr Nicholson is part of theatre company Peepolykus, which specialises in this type of comedy, though he has plenty of other comedy writing and directing credits to his name. This Hound of the Baskervilles was first performed in 2007: this version is a co-production with the English Theatre Frankfurt. (I’ve been there, its great, who says Frankfurt is dull, not me). The creative team of Lotte Wakeham (director), Derek Anderson (lighting) and Andy Graham (sound) have done a marvellous job in bringing this to life but my hat goes off to Louie Whitemore who has adapted David Woodhead original design to fit the tiny JST space. If you go and see this you will understand just how clever Ms Whitemore has been here. This comes on top of her fabulous design for Miss Julie in the same space recently.

Now you will know the plot, or you can find out. A few liberties are taken to make this work but most of the key scenes remain. Suffice to say a fair few characters pop up along the way and one of the biggest joys in this production is seeing how writers, director and the three strong cast cope with getting them on and off the stage. It is acted at a furious pace: now wonder they needed an interval. Simon Kane plays bumbler Watson and is a moreorless continuous, and very amusing, presence. Around his bluff, dull-wittedness, Max Hutchinson plays Holmes in mordant fashion, and Shaun Chambers is an ebullient Sir Henry Baskerville. However, on top of this, Mr Hutchinson plays Stapleton, sister/wife Cecille (with frightful wig and dress), and the servants, Mr and Mrs Barrymore. All I can say is he must be knackered at the end of each performance. Mr Chambers enters as Sir Charles Baskerville, does a fabulous turn as Scottish Mortimer as well as a Cabbie. All three have various stints as Yokels of some description. And, if the logistics are stretched too far, then a couple of dummies appear.

Like I say the comedy derived from movement, props, costumes and accents, (even the ones that don’t appear), is delicious. So is much of the script. In particular the occasions where the fourth wall is broken, especially at the beginning of Act 2, are hilarious. I laugh out loud when I find something funny. BD and the SO who came along, (LD had to bail out which is a real shame as this was right up her Baker Street), are less animate but there was many a chuckle and smile from both. There are a few knowing lines, mostly to do with the bromance between Holmes and Watson, but there was enough for the youngsters in the audience as well.

So if you find the forced entertainment of panto at Christmas a bit wearing but you still yearn for something to do with all the family, I heartily recommend this. It is on this week (to 20th December) and then again from the 8th to the 13th January. There are tickets available as I write.

 

Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

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Rules For Living

Rose Theatre Kingston, 13th November 2017

The Tourist loves the Rose Theatre. Admittedly it helps that it is just a hop, skip and a jump, (well brisk walk), away from him. It does serve up some interesting theatre though, in amongst the music and comedy, and it does a grand job for the local community, notably for the young people. Understandably most of the theatre it produces is shared with other venerable regional houses but this makes eminent economic sense. And by and large, when it has nabbed something for itself, the decision has paid off. All this is achieved without an Artistic Director or commissions. Given the size of the place, 900 seats, comparable with the Lyttleton say, or the newly opened Bridge, this seems to me a laudable strategy.

Over the last couple of years we have had the excellent productions of My Brilliant Friend (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****) and The Good Canary, the outstanding Junkyard, (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), which was a massive positive surprise for me and BD, a pretty good recent revival of The Real Thing (The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), the ambitious and largely successful Wars of the Roses, a fine All My Sons and decent productions of Toast, The Herbal Bed, The Absence of War and Maxine Peake’s Beryl, (looks like the marvellous Maxine will end as good a writer as she is actor). Oh and we got the Play That Goes Wrong before the West End.

Coming up we have a new production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mel Giedroyc, (which means BD and LD are already signed up), as Beatrice, (dying to know who will be Benny), and a Don Carlos, (shared with the Nuffield Southampton and the Northcott Exeter so LS will be instructed to attend), in which Tom Burke, (you know him off War and Peace), will partner again with the fancy-dan Israeli director Gadi Roll. A bit of Schiller should wake up the good burghers of Kingston.

Right that’s the puff piece over. What about Rules for Living? This play by Sam Holcroft premiered at the National Theatre in 2015 where it was, by and large, well received. Brothers Matthew (Jolyon Coy, last seen by me in the somewhat different Little Eyolf at the Almeida) and Adam (Ed Hughes) have returned to the family home with, respectively, partner Carrie (Carlyss Peer) and wife Nicole (Laura Rodgers), for Christmas Day. Matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) is marshalling the troops ahead of her husband Francis (Paul Shelley) coming home from hospital, after, it transpires, having had a stroke. Last, and probably least since she is off stage in bed until the end, is Emma, the fragile daughter of Adam and Nicole.

So far, so middle class sitcom. Carrie is a flighty actress, who wants successful lawyer Matthew to pop the question. Adam was a cricketer whose career was ignominiously cut short when he froze on his Test debut. He is now a provincial solicitor. Adam and Nicole’s marriage is on the rocks. Dad Francis was a judge and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Under Edith’s direction the festive activities are run with military precision. 

Now the twist, because, as it stands, this cracker would be more Poundland than Waitrose.  Each of the characters has to follow a rule to govern their behaviour. This flashes up above Lily Arnold’s lovely doll’s house set. The detail of this rule is expanded through the play. So, for example, Matthew has to first sit down, and then eat, when he tells a porkie. I will refrain from trotting out the other rules in case you chance to see this. You get the picture I am sure. Ms Holcroft took learnings from cognitive behavioural therapy as the inspiration for the play and cleverly ensures each of the rules matches the characters faults, frustrations and personalities.

This then is the catalyst for the hilarious goings-on and, initially, at least, there is much humour in this conceit. Having weaved this into the plot though, Ms Holcroft then doesn’t see to entirely know what to do with it, so we veer off into a quasi-farce which ends with a food fight. Amusing yes, and it bears comparison with the master it emulates in Alan Ayckbourn, but it felt to me that the idea was too clever for the execution. The conceit boxed the characters in and didn’t leave enough room for the pathos which was needed to balance the farce.

The cast entered into the spirit of the venture with energetic enthusiasm, even Ed Hughes and Carlyss Peer whose “rule’ was the trickiest to pull off without being annoying. Jane Booker had the pick of some very funny lines and Paul Shelley, with no lines as such and precious little stage time, was a hoot. Laura Rodgers probably dug deepest though her “rule” gave the most opportunity for nuanced development. Director Simon Godwin, who has had some notable successes at the NT, especially his Twelfth Night, chose to anchor proceedings in the family home and play down the “game-show” context of the original production.

All in all then like a game of family charades. A really good idea when it kicks off but wearing after an hour or so. We are going to try doing massive jigsaw maps in silence for Xmas this year. Yo ho ho.

PS. I see that Sam Holcroft is writing a play for the Bridge based on the novel The Black Cloud by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Blimey. There will be some big ideas in that for sure.

 

 

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

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The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

The Criterion Theatre, 15th October 2017

Abandoned by the SO, and with BD now, like MS, deep in academe, LD and I needed entertaining. The solution. A fix of Mischief Theatre. Now it is not the first time we had seen this. The whole family had been to TCAABR before, and we have hoovered up the rest of Mischief’s output with relish.

Why? Because it is very, very funny. We would probably still say The Play That Goes Wrong is the best of the three, and TCAABR works in a very different way, what with its “screwball” feel and American setting, but frankly all three, (assuming Peter Pan Goes Wrong pops up again – maybe courtesy of Auntie Beeb), are must sees. TPTGW is on tour in the UK next year. Do not miss it if it comes anywhere near you.

Comedy in the theatre is tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which really makes you laugh is really tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which makes a diverse audience laugh is even tougher. TCAABAR takes a surefire plot winner, a bank heist, and, with a combination of unsubtle punnery, farce, slapstick, visual jokes, often spectacularly constructed, and one-liners, the nine strong cast, (the three original MT founders are now in the Broadway runs I think), fair whizz through the action so that the whole thing is done and dusted in a couple of hours. This is an extraordinary physical performance from all concerned as much as anything else.

No plot details here. You will see for yourself if you have any sense. What I will say, and this is where a second viewing, (from stalls vs our original circle perch), really drives it home, is just how flipping clever the whole thing is. Not just in terms of the action, but how this fits together with the set. The proscenium arch stage in the Criterion, which itself is buried underground, is not huge and shifting between the scenes requires precise stagecraft. The eight main characters, and one other actor who takes on all the other roles, also act as a chorus during the transitions which are often accompanied by musical numbers which match the 1958 Minneapolis setting. Adding yet more texture.

My guess is that this is going to run for some time yet but no point in delaying the pleasure. Get the family out for a Christmas treat. It might turn out to be your seasonal highlight.

 

Daniel Kitson at the Roundhouse review ****

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Daniel Kitson: Something Other Than Everything

The Roundhouse, 25th July 2017

I really can’t be doing with most stand-up comedy and will rarely pay money to go and see it. Most stand-ups are mildly diverting at best and often begin to grate as they default to cheap laughs from tired observational tropes.

LD and I recently went along to the benefit gig at the Hammersmith Apollo for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Good cause so well worth it, but, with the exception of that Russell Kane and Rob Beckett, in flashes, it served as a reminder of the above rule. Don’t get me wrong, I will laugh and generally have a good time, but this doesn’t normally do much more for me.

There are some exceptions however. En famille we can still get a lot of pleasure out of the quality punnery of Milton Jones and Tim Vine. And Stewart Lee will likely remain mandatory viewing every year until I die. (See here Stewart Lee: Content Provider review *****). As, probably, will Daniel Kitson.

Now I can’t pretend I have pitched up to everything Mr Kitson delivers but I have seen enough routines over the years to know his gifts and I also have a high regard for his more recent theatrical forays, notably Tree at the Old Vic which was a 2015 Top 10 Theatre pick for me, and the more challenging, but still very rewarding, Analog.Ue at the NT in 2014.

So high hopes going in to this. And by and large Mr Kitson delivered. Several strands woven together, enhanced by sound and lighting effects with the usual mastery of comedy technique. When it works it is still very very funny as well as being reflective to an almost exquisitely painful degree. Comedy self-examination requires discipline and by and large Mr Kitson exhibits this. However he sets such a high standard that, just occasionally here, the edifice wobbled. Two hours with this many paths through the material, with diversions, reversions, checks, balances is asking a lot of us mere mortals. How to be a liberal, how to be good, determinism and free-will, empathy, all this and more, presents an awful of possibilities for Mr Kitson to explore and sometimes I frankly wasn’t up to it.

So a qualified recommendation. It’s Daniel Kitson so if you know what to expect you will be rewarded. and it is only £12 thanks to Mr Kitson’s principled generosity. But I still have this nagging feeling that if he could just rein in the brilliance a bit and revert to a more conventional stand-up format it might have been even funnier.

Still mustn’t grumble. Like I said most stand-up comedy is pants.

Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Austentatious

Leicester Square Theatre, 26th February 2017

So I am guessing that a good number of people have already stumbled across the comedy joy that this improvisatory troupe bring. So I’ll get to the point. The premise is simple. Take some suggestions from the audience for daft, “unpublished” Jane Austen novel titles and then improvise plot and character over the thick end of an hour around that. I suspect there may be a little “deus ex machina” in the choice of title that is actually picked out of the hat but even so, the revolving cast of actors are so honed at this that there are guaranteed chuckles, titters and, for me, quite a few belly laughs.

Now obviously if you see this you probably will have some regard for the work of Austen. And it helps that the great lady herself was a master at the art of gentle situation comedy. So taking her stock situations and characters and poking fun at them was, in hindsight, always going to be a winner. But this lot are doing it in real time, whilst having to gauge the reactions of each other and audience, resolve the narrative twist and turns, and make it properly funny. I massively take my hat off to anyone brave enough to do improv and it is often a device that disappoints or annoys. But not here. They are outstanding, including the cellist on the night we went, and very clever, as they have to be to incorporate the multiplicity of references and the barrage of sight gags. And I assume the more they practice they better they have become.

So if you think this sounds like your cup of tea then do not hesitate. They regular pitch up here, elsewhere in London, in Edinburgh during the festival and on tour, so it should be easy enough to track them down.

There is very little on which the tourist’s family can agree on in terms of entertainment. The complex negotiations required even to watch a DVD or Netflix film would test the Foreign Office. We are constantly praying for a new comedy series to appear on the box as this is the one likely constant in a sea of argument and resentment. MS, and even more so MSC, are careful to time their visits to avoid any potential TV watching longueurs. We can, just occasionally, look forward to the next Bond movie or backwards, misty-eyed, to anything by Mischief Theatre, but otherwise it every man or woman for him/herself, tapping away or staring aimlessly at their own devices.

For one precious hour though Austentatious brought us together. It might work for you too. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn” as Ms A apparently wrote in P and P.

Stewart Lee: Content Provider review *****

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Stewart Lee: Content Provider

G Live Guildford, 10th March 2017

There are only a few stand up comedians I would pay money to see (or even go for free for that matter). The vast majority of the observational comedy types off the telly cannot sustainably make me laugh or think over a couple of hours and I don’t put enough effort in to find out about the “lesser lights” of the comedy world. Moreover comedy is the one genre where I need a chum to go with, that’s the nature of this live experience. Finally I prioritise theatre, art and classical music performance over books, film, comedy, dance, opera and people chatting about stuff. There’s only so much time.

However, with Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson at the cerebral, reflexive end of the spectrum and Tim Vine and Milton Jones at the punning end I have more than enough to keep me happy.

And Stewart Lee is by some way the funniest man alive or ever. It’s probably to do with content (same age, sameish world view), delivery (mocking, occasionally vicious) and technique (he is just really good at his job). In this year’s show he sets his sights for a tiny bit on Brexit and Trump (in a smart repeat), the value of his own material (I confess I probably laughed the most at the economics of his DVD sales – that’s the accountant in me), bondage in days gone by (historicism as a device to mock the youth in hyper-consumerist capitalism) and narcissism generally (always a target for scorn from those of us who deny or are embarrassed by our own attention seeking behaviours). Sometimes direct, sometimes in collusion with the audience (or parts thereof), always the deconstruction. Who else would use Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer to frame a show – a figure looking away from his apparent audience? Oh and the reference to a post-laughs show – brilliant.

The astounding thing is you kind of know what you are going to get in theory with Mr Lee but you go in completely blind to the practice (praxis?) of how it will be delivered. And he just keeps on toying with you even when you have see him enough times to be wary and to think you know what’s coming next. Much like The Fall I would say. His favourite band. And mine. Or like a comedy version of the Frankfurt School (look it up).

Oh and once or twice he genuinely laughed at his own jokes. Which was quite nice. Maybe he is starting to age gracefully. I hope not.

Anyway if you know then you will be going/have gone to see this. If you don’t then it is easy enough to find out if you will like him on t’internet. If you are tempted you will not regret it. The SO came along for the first time – “yes he was pretty funny” – trust me that is as ringing an endorsement as it is possible to get.

Next year’s show will also get five stars as will the year after that, and the show after that.