The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.

Much Ado About Nothing at Wiltons Music Hall review ****

Much Ado About Nothing

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19th November 2019

The Tourist has been very much taken with previous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory productions, Othello and Henry V, both here and on home turf in Bristol. This latest, MAAN, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, as was Henry V, and who will be bringing Stef Smith’s take on A Doll’s House to the Young Vic next year, didn’t quite match these predecessors but still provided an entertaining, if inconsistent, evening of Shakespeare comedy.

At least it did when I snuck downstairs in the second half. I had forgotten just how dire the sound is upstairs at WMH, blighted by reverb, even if there are now some comfy perches. Not a big deal, and for some of the actors no deal at all, but it did mean that I had to strain to hear the lines of, particularly Alice Barclay as Ursula, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice and Imran Momen as Claudio. And, in Shakespeare, every word counts, however often ypu may have seen or read the play. In fact the more viewings the richer the language becomes.

Now MAAN is a comedy. And, unlike some of the Bard’s other comedies, it largely sticks to the make the punters laugh script. Even so, in amongst the comic couplings and the gossip, rumour, eavesdropping and misunderstandings, the “noting” of the original title, there are some dark ideas, to do with honour and patriarchal dominance, as Daddy Leonato (Christopher Bianchi) farms out his daughter Hero (Hannah Bristow) to Claudio and doesn’t for a moment consider she might be innocent of the charge of adultery. As ever with WS there is a questioning of gender stereotypes, even as those stereotypes are played out, which is what drives the comedy and is what Ms Freestone alights on in her interpretation through her gender blind casting, notably Georgia Frost (who stood out as she did in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase), as Don Pedro’s (Zachary Powell) here sister Don Jon, and, less successfully Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry.

Of course MAAN largely succeeds or fails on the “chemistry” between Beatrice and Benedick and here Ms Myer-Bennett, who it has been my pleasure to see in multiple plays in the last few years, and Geoffrey Lumb, who is a fine, and experienced, Shakespearean, were up for the fight. Verbal sparring only, of course, but sufficiently pointed throughout that at the end, you still sensed they would be chary of each others’ true feelings long after the ceremonies when we had all left Messina. Maybe not quite up to the benchmark set by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett in Christopher Luscombe’s RSC version from 2017 but still eminently watchable. Ms M-B’s Beatrice is, by some way, the smartest person in the room, but wields her fierce intelligence deliberately. Underneath the boorish exterior typical of his profession and sex there lurks a sensitive soul in Mr Lumb’s Benedick.

Some of the other relationships in the slimmed down dramatis personae don’t work quite as well. This tender Claudio’s love for his demure Hero persuades, his harsh about-turn later on less so. The soldiers’s banter works, the sibling rivalry between the Don’s seems forced. The party, complete with superhero costumes, clever, excites, the pivot to the disastrous wedding day, feels telegraphed, and the switch back to what is, in fairness, not the most hilarious Watch scene I have ever encountered, seemed to take this audience by surprise.

All in all, whilst there are some splendid passages and performances in the production. all set against Jean Chan’s delightful design, the rhythm of this STF production is just a little too erratic. However, once I was up close, the largely prose dialogue was, without exception (which is not always the case), pin sharp in its delivery. Whilst the look, feel and intention of the production is to present a MAAN for all time, that it works is largely down to this lucid approach.

Minus the echo of course. Won’t make that mistake again.

Man to Man at Wilton’s Music Hall review ***

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Man to Man

Wilton’s Music Hall, 15th September 2017

I am confused about this. Is it an expressionistic masterpiece that explores the nature of gender identity and German history through devastating poetry, or a piece of pretentious fuck-wittery which couldn’t be bothered to serve us up a coherent story? Was it a visual and aural treat using the best that lighting, sound, video and set designers can conjure up in this always atmospheric space, or a bunch of hackneyed theatrical tropes to mask the fact that the content was tired and banal? Was this an intense bravura one woman metamorphosis or an actor crawling up the wall in a baggy suit doing funny accents?

Truth to tell is was a bit of both but net, net I am pleased I saw it. This might, though, have been one of those nights when I should have been flying solo. Instead I roped in the SO and the TFP’s who I suspect got more sustenance from the curry beforehand than this work. And I have form with the TFP’s. It was the German connection you see. Still maybe next time I will get it right.

Man to Man tells the (true) story of Ella Gericke who is forced to assume the identity of her dead husband Max to keep herself alive in pre WWII Germany, Her struggle to evade exposure is set against the rise of Nazism, the war itself, the reconstruction of Germany and, finally, in an addition to the original play, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this is no ordinary narrative. This is a memory play and Ella’s memories are, to say the least, personal, confused and distorted. Which means over the 75 minutes or so you have to be on your mettle to keep up. We see Ella forced to deceive her workmates and enter a masculine world fuelled by beer and schnapps. We see her rueing, I think, the absence of a child in her life. She gives up her own passport to a woman she cares for so that the woman might escape Germany. She has to avoid conscription but cannot bring herself to renounce her Max identity to do so. She denounces one of her neighbours. She ends up, I think, in the SA and has to kill to evade capture. She works in a factory after the war and conspires with the bosses to illegally bring in female labour posing as men. She returns to the grave of her husband.

And these are just the bits I can remember. The story is like a series of inchoate shards colliding through time (sorry that is the best I can come up with). It examines themes of identity, gender obviously, but also Germany itself over the period (I started thinking about Ella’s male/female divide as a metaphor for East and West though I may have got carried away with all the symbolism), as well as grief, loss, deception, alienation and power.

Now all this is portrayed by one woman, Maggie Bain, in one room, though this is as far from a monologue as it is possible to get in a theatre. She adopts a broad Glaswegian accent to portray the husband, which I fear to say, was not always as clear as it might have been. My ears and the Wilton space are to blame. This contrasted with the voice of Ella, though over time the separate identities seemed to bleed into each other. All I can say is that whatever Maggie Bain was paid, it wasn’t enough. The production, created by directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham, with a text translated by Alexandra Wood, from the original German, places huge demands on its sole actor, both in terms of voice and body. Mind you I can see why an actor would relish the chance to take this on. (The UK premiere saw the fiercely intelligent, chameleon Tilda Swinton take on the role of Ella which makes eminent sense).

Now apparently this is what German playwright Manfred Karge is all about. No lazy Anglo-Saxon naturalism for Mr Karge. This is the full-on, modern European theatrical experience (I know we are in Europe but you get my drift). But it isn’t dull, worthy and full of theory in a way that might imply. But it is elliptical and does ask a lot of the audience. So if you do take the plunge, for this production, which is off to Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Liverpool (and even New York thereafter), or a future production, do bear this in mind. It looks and sounds amazing, with props, lighting, video, projection, sound, music, movement, even some puppetry, all used to maximum effect, but be prepared to relax into the moments when your theatre of the mind will be frantically asking “what the fuck is going on”.

Consider yourself warned.

 

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

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Othello

Wilton’s Music Hall, 17th May 2017

I think Othello is my favourite Shakespeare tragedy. And it follows, therefore, that it is my favourite Shakespeare play since the tragedies generally kick the most arse. And it therefore also follows that it is probably my favourite ever play since no-one bests big Will. Mind you I have so much more to explore so lets not be hasty. But to date this is the Daddy.

This means I might not be the most objective judge. Which for this production really helped. I fear that a combination of my hearing which is no longer up to snuff, my seating position up in the gallery, the acoustic at Wilton’s and, perhaps, the sound engineering here meant that I couldn’t clearly hear a lot of the lines. Which is a shame as pretty much everything else about this Othello was mightily impressive as it cut straight to the core of what this play is about.

So what made it so good despite my blinking ears?

Well, first off, the programme is at pains to explores Othello’s “otherness” as a “Moor” in terms of his colour, but also more so his faith, as probably a Muslim who is forced to, or chooses to, embrace Christianity. The production serves to handsomely illuminate this (it starts with Othello on a prayer mat and crucifixes are liberally bandied about), such that it is not just the vitriolic racism that is on show but also the suspicion accorded Othello by the Venetians because of his roots in Islam. This despite his victories over the “Turks”. This may be C16 Venice (and Wilton’s itself does a nice line in atmospheric material decay), but clearly there is plenty of food for thought in this production for our own times.

It also rightly centres on Iago. There are multiple ways to explore why Iago is driven to do what he does but I think this production gets as close as possible to the heart of what drives him.

Of course Iago is disfigured by the racism and misogyny of the society that he lives in. And, as he says, being passed over for preferment in favour of Cassio portends a powerful grudge. His hatred of Othello is certainly borne of envy yes – of his masculinity, his power, his sexual relationship with Desdemona (in contrast to what may be his stagnating marriage to Emilia, look out for the “non-kiss”) – but at its heart is the dissonance between his admiration (and even attraction) to Othello and his incomprehension that this “other” should have everything he can’t have. He loathes himself and cannot, and will not, stop until he has brought this man down. His jealously is so all encompassing that he can justify his actions to himself and, for me, the final vow of silence is a sign that he still believes he was “right” to do what he did in his own mind.

So the “why the f*ck should he get everything when I am better than him” is the bigger lesson here. And this is what Will S nailed as it seems as if it is a permanent feature element of the human condition. It is this deep psychological impulse that lies at the heart of the alienation that pervades neo-liberal capitalism and is what some will always seek to exploit. So the play is relevant in my mind, not just because of the way it explores the “fear of the other”,  but also because it shows the hate people can be driven to by perceived “unfairness”.

Blimey I think I may have got all carried away there. Sorry.

Anyway none of this would work if the players are not up to the task. And here Mark Lockyer as Iago was about as good as it is possible to be. His Iago properly hates himself. Not just in his words but in his movement – pacing, pointing, finger-clicking, advancing and retreating – all in some sort of Prosperian performance to justify his thoughts and actions to himself, as well as hide his intentions from others. Brilliant and horribly plausible.

In contrast I saw a “man-child” Othello who was maybe more open to manipulation than in other productions which perhaps better explains, whilst still condemning, his brutally misogynistic destiny. It is stating the obvious that debutant Abraham Popoola has an extraordinary physical presence, but the way he used this in the scenes with Desdemona, both tender and violent, and especially with Iago, where Iago is winding his jealously up to the max, was remarkable. As Othello oscillates between his disgust at the imagined betrayal by Desdemona and his trust in her true nature, so Iago oscillates between a visible fear that he has pushed Othello too far (he actually physically shrinks when this Othello gets right in his face) and an almost smug satisfaction in what he can do to his “friend” and, always remember, his military superior.

There is also another very fine performance in the form of the diminutive Norma Lopez Holden as a sensual Desdemona. Constantly in motion, tactile and perfect in conveying, even to the end, the sense of disbelief at what has come over her husband. Throughout the sexual attraction between her and Othello pervaded the theatre. This actor will surely go far. To round it off we had a fine, upright Cassio in Piers Hampton and an Emilia in Kate Stephens who is, ultimately, the best side of our nature. In fact the whole ensemble seemed to me to perfectly execute director Richard Twyman’s laser-guided vision.

BTW Mt Twyman s a very important man. As Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre he will have a hand in bringing the best of theatre to venues outside of the London commercial and subsidised venues. A vital role. From what I have seen of their past production and what he has achieved here it is therefore an immense blessing that he is very, very good at his job.

In this directing role, and along with his sound and, especially, lighting team, he has brought a prodigious energy to this Othello and some absolutely first rate scenes with an absolute minimum of props and costume, particularly through Acts 2 to 5. The soldier’s partying and drinking, the big fight scene, the Iago wind up of Othello, the murder of Cassio in the dark, Emilia and Desdemona’s drunken but unswerving dissection of the relationship between the sexes, Desdemona’s murder (a yoga mat replaces the usually crassly symbolic bed and calls back the beginning) – all these scenes were as good as I have seen. And that wretched hanky gets an early look in – as part of the apparently non-Christian wedding ceremony at the start – how brilliant is that.

But if I was to single out one contributor it would be movement director Renaud Wiser. Like I said some of the lines, particularly Othello’s, floundered on the rocks of my dodgy hearing. This, together with the harsh downlighting and fluorescent tubes at the corner of the tight, bare, in-the-round stage, maybe meant I focussed on movement in a way that I might not normally do but here I could see just how vital this ingredient was to the whole.

So, as you may have gathered, I liked this. And this despite the aural handicap without which I might even be prepared to rate it alongside Nicholas Hytner’s NT production in 2013 which, to this day, still leaves me nervous of befriending anyone who comes across like Rory Kinner’s matey Iago.

So please go along. There’s another three weeks or so and it looks like plenty of tickets. Probably best to go downstairs, maybe have a quick snifter beforehand and it will help if you like the play already. But if you do go you will be reminded of just how vital Shakespeare can be. I am pretty sure Mark Lockyer’s Iago will rank as one of the best performances of the year. And all this for 25 quid tops.

This is the first time that I have seen a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. If this is what they do then it won’t be the last. Hopefully Wilton’s Music Hall will snap up anything they tour to allow the good burghers of London a chance to enjoy. Otherwise I now have the perfect excuse to go to Bristol. Here is the link to the website. Read it. This is how theatre should be done.

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory