The Emperor Jones – October 2007

6/10

By: Eugene O’Neill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2007

This was a pretty unusual O’Neill play, one we may not see again for a long time. It was experimental for its time, which makes it seem quite modern. The play looks at racism, oppression, and the effect this sort of abuse has on the human psyche. We see the Emperor at the point where his subjects have deserted him, and are about to boot him out. He flees, and his journey through a forest takes him, and us, through a montage of experiences, some from his own past, some even earlier. We see his escape from a chain gang after killing a guard, a slave auction, and what I think must have been part of a journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship. As all these ghosts appear, he fires off his bullets, until only the silver one is left, the one he’s keeping for himself. Finally, the madness drives him to kill himself, and the natives of his former realm achieve their goal without appearing to have done anything.

The play is basically a one-man piece, and demands a great deal from the lead actor. There are a few other speaking parts, and a dancing role, but Brutus Jones dominates from early on. Fortunately, Patterson Joseph is well up to the challenge, and gives an excellent performance as the swaggerer brought low by his own fears and fantasies. He’s a charming rogue, and it’s easy to see how he could have hoodwinked the natives on his island, but his lies catch up with him, and he can’t handle being alone in the forest. The other parts mainly serve to pad out his story, as with the white trader who helped him after he escaped from the chain gang.

The set was fantastic, and was another good example of how to use the vast Olivier stage. A central disc was surrounded by a crescent slope. The back wall of the central part had steps leading up to a platform with a gaudy throne, and not much else, apart from a carpet and a couple of doorways. After an initial scene where the white trader meets the last woman to run away from the emperor, there’s a long conversation between the trader and Brutus Jones, during which we learn all we need to know of his past. He’s already laid plans to escape once the natives rumble him, only he didn’t think it would be so soon. Still, he’s confident, and sets off for the forest sure that he’ll make it to a waiting ship.

For the forest scenes, the back walls are lifted away, and another disc, ragged this time, descends to form a sloping roof to the action. It’s a patchwork of corrugated iron, interwoven with wood and other materials, with strategic slits which allow the moonlight to shine through. Along with the lighting, it gave the whole stage an eerie feel. And in the background was the constant beat of the drums, enough to drive anyone mad.

For this part, Patterson Joseph had to be fit, as he spent a lot of it running around the place. I spotted the black men secretively creeping onto the stage a good while before they clambered onto the disc and started to form the chain gang – this all added to the spookiness. The final arrival of the natives looking for him gave us some lively dancing, and then the expected end – there was no way Emperor Jones was getting out of this alive.

While it was interesting to see this style of a play from this period, I wouldn’t say it was a complete success. The performances were great, especially the lead, of course, but that was all there really was to it. The points about slavery and abuse leading to more abuse were well made, but without any real context to give the play greater substance. On the whole, I left feeling glad I’d seen the play, and the performances, but not entirely satisfied with the afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Woza Albert! – October 2007

6/10

By: Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon

Directed by: Paul Jonathan Savage

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Saturday 27th October 2007

Two black actors sang, danced, spoke and sound-effected their way through this entertaining piece, based on the idea of Jesus Christ coming back and going to South Africa. They had round pink things hanging round their necks (ooh, you are awful), which turned out to be pink noses, so they could “white up” at a moment’s notice and play the non-black characters as well. They started off with a representation of a jazz band – very lively, very good, then we got to meet the characters we’ll be following through the play. Mbongeni, a Zulu with a preference for dancing over work, and Percy, who sings hymns in his sleep and believes Jesus is watching over him and everyone else. They used Jesus’ African name, Morena, throughout the play, but we got who they meant.

These characters, and a host of others, show us how Jesus would be treated if he had returned during South Africa’s apartheid period. Many black folk were seen to be waiting for his return, wanting things like jobs, bricks, and even a lollipop – that one was a young girl. The white folk were smug at first, reckoning his return made them look important, but then they decided his message wasn’t so useful, so first they imprisoned him, and then they tried to bomb him, but only ended up smashing Cape Town to smithereens. They’d forgotten that the Archangels were at His beck and call, so Gabriel kept springing him out of prison, even Robben Island, where they apparently had anti-angel missiles.

Finally, Christ wakes up in a cemetery, where Mbongeni is now working, and to keep his hand in, decides to revive a few corpses. Mbongeni takes him round to all the dead black leaders – Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko, etc – and he wakes them with a call of “Woza Albert” (or whatever). When Jesus spots the grave of Verwoerd, he’s about to woza him as well, but Mbongeni steers him away, understandably.

Apart from the amazing energy and talents of the two actors, what impressed me most was the amount of humour they were getting out of some appalling situations. Even at the time it must have been funny, and I guess it just shows how important it is to keep laughing through even the bleakest times. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about laughing, just surprised. I’ve learned a lot about humour this week (see Parade), and it’s all good.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Fiddler On The Roof – October 2007

10/10

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Directed by: Lindsay Posner

Venue: Savoy Theatre

Date: Saturday 27th October 2007

This was only ever going to be 10/10, from long before it started. I was sobbing before the opening music, as Steve reminded me of the signature image of the fiddler on the roof (trust him not to have seen the film, not know who was in it apart from Topol, but to remember the name of the fiddler!) and that set me off. Sorry about this, it’s been an emotional afternoon, and I’m still recovering.

This was absolutely wonderful. I’m so glad we took the opportunity to get up to London and check out the ticket availability (half-price ticket booth, of course). Henry Goodman as Tevye was superb. It’s a part he was born to play, and from what we know of him, he’ll have thrown himself into it body and soul. It shows. He was a huge presence on stage, not drowning out the others, but always holding it together, keeping us involved, and giving us most of the laughs. Even the smallest change of expression came across back in row P. And his singing voice was a revelation. His range was wider than I expected, sort of a bass-baritone, and it was wonderfully rich and expressive. Of course, we bought the cast recording, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to appreciate it again.

All of the cast were good, of course, and the energy they put into this performance was amazing. I only wish they could have a space like the Olivier to show off their talents even more, as occasionally the Savoy stage looked a little cramped. I know it’s meant to be a small village, but this is make-believe, after all. The set was all tattered wooden slats and beams. The revolve came in handy to change the setting quickly, but there was still a lot of table and chair shifting to do. Fortunately, there was  always some music to keep us engrossed, so the momentum was never lost.

What else can I say? There were lots of laughs, some great dancing, the fiddler was very good (dancing-wise), the orchestra were fine, the dream sequence vivid and highly amusing, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, with occasional intervals. I wasn’t the only one enjoying it, either, as we gave Tevye a standing ovation at the end, and would have carried on applauding if there hadn’t been one of those charity appeals to do. Henry Goodman managed it very well, including an impromptu comment about accidents after a loud thump came from off-stage, and we all went away happy, and singing to ourselves. Happy day.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Northanger Abbey – October 2007

8/10

Adapted by Tim Luscombe from the novel by Jane Austen

Directed by: Tim Luscombe

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 26th October 2007

We were treated tonight to some very good performances in a fun adaptation of Northanger Abbey, which brought out much of the humour of the novel. This was all the more remarkable as the actress originally playing Catherine Morland, Jenni Maitland, was stricken yesterday afternoon. Her part was taken by Helen Bradbury, who had been playing Emily and Eleanor, while those roles were played by Emma Hamilton, in her spare moments when she wasn’t on stage as Isabella Thorpe. Minor roles were passed to someone else, presumably the ASM, and the two actresses had scripts to help them through the unfamiliar bits. Who cares! They did an excellent job, regardless of circumstances, and I hope this boosts their careers. All the other actors were also excellent, I should add.

The set was a row of eight doors, which were opened in different combinations to give a host of scenes. There was also a series of gothic arches which appeared from behind a screen or curtain above the doors, to give us the sense of the Abbey itself. Apart from this, one or two occasional chairs, and a mysterious trunk, the set was wonderfully bare, and lighting and acting were all that was needed to engage our imagination and emotions.

I realised as we went on that I remembered more of the story than I had thought. The missed appointment to walk with Henry Tilney and his sister, the attempts by the scurrilous John Thorpe to win Catherine (and her presumed fortune) for himself, the dark imaginings in Northanger Abbey, were all eventually resolved thanks largely to Henry Tilney’s uncommon good sense and suspiciously perfect nature. I enjoyed it all, and especially the way that parts of The Mysteries of Udolpho were interwoven with the narrative, pointing up the similarities and also the differences, as when high melodrama was brought down to earth by prosaic trivialities.

This was good fun all round, and a good adaptation. I hope we’ll see others attempt it in the future, but in the meantime I wish good luck to this company.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Parade – October 2007

8/10

Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Co-conceived by Harold Prince

Directed and choreographed by: Rob Ashford

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Wednesday 24th October 2007

This was a marvellous experience – the first time I’d seen a musical in the intimate space that is the Donmar. I had no idea how they would fit it all in, but it worked superbly. The set was basically a wooden frame with a raised platform at the back and stairs on the right up to a wooden balcony which could be the office of the factory, a fishing perch by a stream, etc. Chairs and tables were brought on as needed.

The story concerns a real life event in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1913-15. A teenage girl was found murdered in the basement of a factory, and the factory manager, a white Jew from New York, was accused, tried and convicted for her murder, despite the amazingly dubious testimony from the locals, who had been whipped into a frenzy of racist loathing and desire for revenge by the combined efforts of the press, the politicians and the clergy. It’s a powerful story, and one of the amazing things about this production is the way it manages to make us laugh at things that are pretty dark. On more than one occasion I found myself laughing at something and wondering if I really should be. For example, the first song in the second half is a wonderful number where two black characters, Angela and Riley, get to put their point of view about the whole furore. They’re clearing the table after the governor and his wife have finished breakfast, and as they do, they’re commenting on how different it would be if a black man had been convicted, or if a black girl had been killed. Comments about how often you see black men hanging from trees didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the energy and humour of the song, yet the images are shocking, and the contradiction seems to underscore that fact. I feel more moved now than when I was watching it, and maybe that’s the intention. We weren’t beaten over the head about the moral issues, but they snuck in while we weren’t looking and took up permanent residence. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to call for encores, or this number would have worn out the actors before it wore us out.

As would a number of other routines. The dancing was fast and furious at times, though not so much when the stage was packed, obviously, and the standard seemed pretty high to me. I loved the party scene where the governor is stepping out (in the dancing sense) with every pretty girl he can get his hands on, and I especially liked his grimace as he realised he wasn’t as young as he used to be.

The singing was also excellent. Malinda Parris and Shaun Escoffery (Angela and Riley) were particularly good, with Shaun’s voice resonating beautifully and powerfully as he sang a blues number later, on the chain gang. I also felt Bertie Carvel gave an excellent performance as Leo Frank, the Jewish New Yorker who felt like a fish out of water in the South. He was totally confused by the way the local Jews seemed to do things the southern way, rather than the Jewish way. His discomfort was clear to see, and well expressed in some witty song lyrics. It explained a lot of his behaviour around southern folk, and why he acted so strangely. It was bound to make them suspicious anyway, although the pressure was on very early for a quick resolution, and something more special than just hanging another “nigra”.

The most moving part for me was the scene between Leo and his wife, Lucille, in the prison. With his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Leo’s been moved to a secret location to prevent public disorder, and gets a chance to see his wife. He’s learned a lot about what really matters, and tells her in a very moving song about how much she means to him. I cried. After that, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, as hooded men snatch Leo from his cell and take him away to lynch him. Paradoxically, they’re prepared to let him live out his life in prison if he confesses and repents, but determined to hang him if he continues to claim he’s innocent. Wonky thinking, if you ask me, but then nobody did. There’s a final scene where the journalist gives Lucille Leo’s wedding ring, and then we’re into the finale and a standing ovation for this magnificent company – well deserved. I’m looking forward to getting the cast recording.

The only thing that didn’t quite gel with me was the recurrent theme of the old soldier and his erstwhile girlfriend who was willing to wait for him while he went off to the Civil War. I understood the scene at the start to be establishing the romantic patriotism of these folk, and their determination to defend their state at all costs during the war (even though they did, in fact, lose), but I wasn’t so clear about the other times these characters reappeared during the play. I couldn’t see what they were meant to represent then.

However, that’s only a minor point, and overall the intelligence and wit of this musical was good to see. Reminiscent of Sondheim, the music has themes which echo and repeat, building up complex layers of meaning as different characters take the tune or lines and use them in a different way. “Go on, go on, go on, go on” is one example, used by Mary Phagan and Frankie Epps early on as we find out just how precocious thirteen year old Mary (the murder victim) actually is, and used again during Angela and Riley’s song. There’s also an amazing sequence as Leo acts out the lecherous behaviour the girls are accusing him of at his trial, another brilliant performance from Bertie Carvel. If only this was sort of thing that packed ‘em in in the West End. Ah well.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2007

6/10

By: Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Michael Lunney

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th October 2007

This seems to be the year for multiple productions. This production was very enjoyable, and gave us a good balanced version of the play. The two men attempting to be Ernest were well acted, with good reactions between them. Ernest/Jack was indeed very earnest, and even aspired to noble poses once or twice, while Algernon was an aristocratic ne’er-do-well, with charm and not much else. The ladies of the Ernest fan club were a bit more muted, but still well performed, with Cicely showing less sophistication in her manner, and Gwendolyn being all elegance.

Lady Bracknell was a good match for these youngsters. She carried her part off with authority, and dealt with the handbag monster by being so shocked she couldn’t even speak the word – Ernest/Jack had to do it for her. This worked very well. She recovered sufficiently after Miss Prism’s revelations to actually speak the word for Ernest later on. Miss Prism was a bit underpowered, and Tony Britton as the Reverend Chasuble appeared to be having difficulty remembering his lines fluently, which slowed things up a bit in their scenes. Still, they got across the fanning of tiny embers of love very well, and Miss Prism’s confession was still good fun. Merriman and Lane were played by the same actor, who gave Lane a predilection for sherry, and Merriman a shaking hand and a touch of deafness. The shaking hand was useful when pouring tea, and also when Jack and Algernon had a hand-gripping contest, leading them to do their own hand-shaking till Merriman appeared.

The set was simple but effective, with a doorway at the rear, and two disconnected walls or balustrades either side. The backdrop gave us the setting each time, with the London scene being particularly impressive. The costumes were excellent, especially Lady Bracknell’s blue travelling number.

I was impressed with the detail in the production. When Algernon is chatting with his aunt on one sofa, Ernest/Jack and Gwendolyn are on the other, sitting as if they don’t have a thing to say to each other, and making it quite clear that they’re longing for a rampant clinch as soon as possible. They tried sneaking their hands together, but Lady Bracknell was ever alert, and soon stopped their canoodling. There were various examples of this extra working, and I had to be on my toes to get it all. No nodding off tonight! Algernon’s piano playing was also very good, in that it was so obviously bad. The first piece I didn’t recognise, but his attempts at The Wedding March were pretty atrocious, scarcely recognisable, and much enjoyed. One of the better productions at the Connaught this year.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Awake And Sing! – October 2007

5/10

By: Clifford Odets

Directed by: Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 13th October 2007

This is the second play we’ve seen at the Almeida this year which is set around the time of the Depression in America. Big White Fog (16 June 2007) showed us the impact on a poor black family, while this play centres on a Jewish family with a strong mother, a father who’s achieved failure-hood at fifty, a daughter who’s well on the way to becoming a single mother till a marriage is arranged, a son who wants a better life, and a grandfather who has a lot of spirit but no way of doing anything about it, as he’s in a wheelchair. There’s also a chap called Moe Axelrod, whose connection with the family I couldn’t figure out but who eventually runs off with the daughter, and a brother, Uncle Morty, who’s done very well for himself, apparently.

Showing us a particular period through the lives of ordinary people can work very well, but here I felt it came across as more of a domestic drama, on a small scale. I didn’t get any sense of larger forces at work, although what did come across in both this play and Big White Fog was human resourcefulness triumphing in the end. Both plays left me feeling that these folks would get by.

The performances were all good, the set was fine, and Steve noticed that the Almeida is diversifying in order to make ends meet. They’d taken in a load of washing and it was hung up over the stage to dry – presumably the heat from the lights would do the job in double quick time. Or it could just have been set dressing to indicate the washing strung out between apartments. Whatever.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me