Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coming Dancing – Book by Ray Davies and Paul Sirett – Music and Lyrics by Ray Davies, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 23-Sept-2008

I don’t like musicals. It’s not that I look down on them with disdain; they’re just not for me. I could make up some intellectual sounding reasons – something along the lines of a song’s ability to compress plot and emotional development into concentrated three minute bursts, often with the potent cheapness of legend, allowing writers to try to get away with not putting plot or emotional development anywhere else – but I would be making it up to sound as if I knew what I was talking about.
But the thing is, the music is by Ray Davies, the story is based on my favourite Kinks song and Mister Davies himself appears in it so I had to go, didn’t I?
People foolish enough to wish for a Kinks jukebox musical would be disappointed - I only recognised Tired of Waiting and the title song – but music used was at times sublime, there was a good mix of styles and some of the songs in pre-rock’n’roll style felt so accurate that I was sure I’d heard them before. I liked the acting and the story but could have done with a lot more character development to really nail down the relationships and tensions within Ray Davies imaginary family. I also felt the need for more specifics about Ray’s made-up youngest older sister Julie. I got a lot of knowing there was something better out there and the determination to get it but little of how she was going to do it.
The idea of the play is that it is the story, as told by Ray Davies, behind the writing of Come Dancing and I didn’t find it entirely convincing. I didn’t think that Ray Davies believed what he was trying to tell us. I didn’t buy the idea that the lyrics of Come Dancing referred to Ray’s tragic imaginary sister Julie when they actually suit the character of another older sister, Brenda, better.
This isn’t perfect but I was won over by the music and the charm of the cast. I still don’t like musicals though



Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Riflemind by Andrew Upton, Trafalgar Studios 1, 16-Sept-2008 – Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was slightly distracted watching this play, by trying to work out who the models for the Riflemind band were. From what I could see as I was watching, they were supposed to have flourished in the very early 90s producing half a dozen albums, touring the world and filling stadiums before splitting in the second half of the nineties. I don’t rate my musical knowledge too highly but I couldn’t think of any British bands that got close to fitting that pattern. Most decent British bands of the early Nineties (that I could think of) seemed barely to manage to finish their second album before imploding. I reckoned that it would have been a better fit to make them a Seventies or Eighties group (reading the blurb seems to indicate this). Then I realised, belatedly, that as the play I was watching an Australian play I should look for a model (but not an exact correlation) for the band from down under. And I could think of at least a couple. I blame the Scottish accents employed John Hannah and Paul Hilton for fooling me.
This play left me wanting more, which arguably is a good thing. It also left an awful lot unsaid which is probably a bad thing. I wondered if the playwright reduced the number of characters from seven to four and concentrated on the relationship between John (the band’s leader and composer), his wife, his band-mate brother and the drummer (and I’m not sure about the drummer), then perhaps it would have been much more powerful. I felt that the scenes between John, his wife, his brother and the drummer were the most effective but perhaps it would have been much more difficult to tell the story and set the scenes without the extra characters.
Of course, who am I to tell people what they should have written – I’ll be suggesting amendments to Hamlet next. The play works fine as it is and maybe letting too much light in on the personal relationships between the four would have diminished the whole.



Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Tom Stoppard, Wyndham’s Theatre, 15-Sept-2008 – Directed by Michael Grandage

Half through this play I was praying for Kenneth Branagh to be sexier. I’m not sure that I’m a good judge of sexiness in men so I may have missed it. I thought Ivanov was supposed to be a moody, interesting and sexily messy and Kenneth Branagh was more of a cuddly mess.
Before the interval I kept thinking just how good Branagh is going to be when he gets to play Uncle Vanya. The problem is that he should probably have been making me think of Doctor Astrov (from the same play) who is just as listless and possibly as self-pitying. Of course Ivanov seems to have given up on love and life while the Doctor still does passion.
In the second half we got glimpses of fire from this Ivanov, just in case anyone wondered what all the fuss about Kenneth Branagh was. All the same I didn’t feel that he possessed that magnetism that had attracted his wife and was now pulling on the daughter of his friend.
I wondered if it might be the play that doesn’t really allow you opportunity to see and understand why Ivanov is or was such an attractive person and personality. I keep saying this in my blog entries but we were more told that shown what Ivanov is like and it is never really explained what got him into his present funk. Obviously you can guess at factors like debt, no longer being in love with his wife and crossing the threshold of forty but I didn’t feel that I was getting the full insight into the why of Ivanov.
The play rattled along at a pleasingly brisk pace which I tend to think is a good thing for Chekhov. Tom Stoppard also played up the comedy in some scenes especially those featuring Lorcan Cranitch (Borkin), Malcolm Sinclair (Shabelsky) and Kevin R McNally (Lebedev). Also having just checked another translation it appears that in one major self pitying and potentially histrionic speech from Ivanov was peppered by Stoppard and/or the director with comic interjections from Lebedev and delivered in a deliberate monotone by Branagh. My description makes it sound appalling but actually I was rather impressed at the time. If the speech had been done straight I’m not sure it would have worked as well.
I couldn’t work out whether I was supposed to like Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Lvov, I suspect not but I would have liked to know more about his motivation.
I would also like to say that there is no such thing as too much Kevin R.McNally.



Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hedda (from Hedda Gabler), by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Lucy Kirkwood, Gate Theatre, 01-Sept-2008 – Directed by Carrie Cracknell

One of the criticisms levelled at this production is that we never really get to understand how this modern day Hedda Gabler has come to be the rather unpleasant creature that she is. While this criticism has some validity I think it has more to do with the adaptation not being adventurous enough. There are plenty of changes – maiden aunt becomes spinster sister, Lovborg’s work on a memory stick, General Gabler becomes Professor Gabler and so forth – but the plot, motivation and most of what people say remains about the same. If there isn’t enough detail about Hedda’s motivation it is, I think, actually the source material that’s at fault.
In its original setting we can take a lot of Hedda’s background for granted, There’s the position of educated women in the late Nineteenth Century and the fact that Hedda is raised as the only daughter of a widower General. We can see where she comes from just by the corseted dress and the senior military background of her father. Modernising the play means that you can’t use that convenient shorthand and you have to come up with other ideas to create a convincing modern Hedda; especially one who chooses marriage and possibly children over independence and a possibly career. I don’t think they quite succeed but it is certainly a worthwhile attempt and they get very close.
One of the things that I most appreciated about this production was that feeling of claustrophobia that I remember from when I first saw this play (Hampstead Theatre starring Lindsay Duncan) twenty years ago. It could just have been the smallness of the set in each case.
Another thing that has been said is that this Hedda isn’t very pleasant, of course I’ve never found the character sympathetic any way. I thought the point was that you are interested in her plight and I was.



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