Fringe Reviews they didn’t publish

August 21, 2012

Broadway Baby has a funny policy of not printing reviews where the reviewer walks out of a show, or gets delayed in getting to the venue (very common with the state of Lothian Buses).  So I’m posting two of my reviews here which didn’t get published.  The rest can be found at http://www.broadwaybaby.com

Booking Dance Festival

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*****

Thanks to the vagaries of Lothian Buses I missed the first number in this multi-company showcase of short dance items.  I arrived as two tap-dancers (Hammerstep) were giving their all in a blackout with just small LED lights twinkling on the toes of their tap shoes.  The music was provided by what can only be described as a mouth percussionist (Deoro) of incredible virtuosity.  Hammerstep’s tap routines are like nothing you’ll see in the West End, pouring a bit of Irish dancing, hip-hop and classical dance into the mix.  Astaire it ain’t, mighty fun it is.

This was followed with ‘Character’ a solo piece performed by Daniel Gwiirtzman to the classic Louis Armstrong track, ‘West End Blues’.  Music and movement blended perfectly.  Gwirtzman proved that the body can swing in the same way as jazz does.

Most of the first half was jazz-inflected, the second more experimental.  Perhaps the most startling and novel item was Moth, by Kim Gibilisco, with projections of ultra-violet camera and Live Image Capture technology as well as dance.  Startling and innovative, and riveting to watch.

The largest ensemble is provided by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, who close each half: a classic Alvin Ailey piece from the 80s, ‘Escapades’ in the first, and Christopher Huggins’ ‘Night Run’ in the second.  They are sassy, flow beautifully and are full of energy.  To quibble, when the ensemble is meant to be in unison, they fall a tad short of that pinpoint precision of movement and line which you get from the very greatest companies.

In short, this is all exhilarating stuff in a great variety of styles.  Each item was greeted with whoops from a smallish audience scattered around a huge auditorium, and at the end many rose in a standing ovation.  A true festival within a festival – it’s a celebration of life and the body.

It only runs till Sunday 19th, so catch it while you can.

Peter Scott-Presland

 

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Puppet, Book of Splendour

Half-Arsed Symbolism

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neTTheatre are an experimental Polish physical theatre company, who here produce what they describe as ‘the Clinic of Dreams’.  There is back projection with cabbalistic symbols which mutate into their English translations: Justice, Beauty etc.  The Director talks to us over a microphone with a running commentary for the first twenty minutes or so, telling us what we are about to see, and explaining the meaning of what we are seeing now, for the hard of understanding.  ‘It’s all very complex and cabalistic.’  ‘Audiences say the first part is interesting and the second part is boring, so if you get bored, you know you are into the second half.’  This is funny for about five minutes.  Make the most of it, because it’s the only funny thing in the show.

There are subtitles, which you can’t read because the overhead lighting on swirling dry ice obliterates half of them.  In any case they come and go before you can read them.  I just made out ‘We are a nothingness in our flesh and bones.’  Yeah, me too.

There are three angels in silver-white fright wigs, who sing in close harmony.  A child with Hassidic ringlets who seems to be asking questions and playing with stones.  Four dwarfs who do a dance.  Five people in hessian sacks with numbers on them are whipped around in a circle by a ringmaster type who seems to be wearing convict pyjamas.  Is this meant to be a concentration camp?  Search me.

 There is a lot going on all over the stage, but little attempt to organise it so your eye is drawn to specific images in a coherent way.  In any case it is all terribly underlit, so you can’t see very well.  And it is interminable.  People who came in as teenagers went out as grannies; babies grew up and gave birth to their own babies in the stalls by the end.  After 75 minutes or a lifetime in sweltering heat I could stand it no longer, and, since the playing area shows scant regard for fire regulations and there is no audience passageway marked along the front, clambered over a bit of scenery and marched past an astonished actor in pyjamas.  I have never walked out of a show I was reviewing before.  Think of it as the ultimate in dramatic criticism.

Peter Scott-Presland

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A lost masterpiece of 20th century satire

February 15, 2012

From the dull constitutional cover you would think that this is yet another dry verbose governmental report, blah blah blah.  Until you look a little closer.  It is presented to Parliament in October 1984.  1984?  Ring any bells?  Then you look at the Members of the Committee, which include Mr Oliver Mellors, Mrs Winston Smith and Miss Frances Hill.  Any more bells ringing?

Within this framework, sociologist Michael Schofield has written an extraordinary satire on British attitudes to sex (on the whole we’re Agin It), and on government hatred of any aspect of human behaviour which is not firmly under control.

In the not too distant future, scientists find a way of recording every orgasm, male or female, in the country.  (The science of this, contained in Appendix A, is frighteningly plausible.)  The way then becomes open to ration sex, through the Sexual Containment Act, and the novel, for such it is, works out both the mechanisms and the human implications of that.

He maintains the framework of the government report with extraordinary virtuosity and accuracy, which comes from a lifetime of sitting on such committees.  In this respect, the novel is a kind of revenge on all those acres of dullness.  But within those official paragraphs, complete with genuine references to scientific journals on human sexuality, are little time bombs of surreal humour that had me laughing out loud on the tube.  Here’s a paragraph to give you the flavour:

“159.  There is also less pornography, but it is difficult to be sure whether this is due to the Sexual Containment Act….. It is our impression that there is not much pornography being sold even in the back rooms of back streets.  The desire to see it is not usually very powerful or compulsive and few people are going to risk the heavy prison sentences now being given for being in possession of an obscene article or for conspiring to commit an obscenity (eg possessing a book catalogue or a theatre ticket.)  As one of our witnesses said: ‘Most people can take it or leave it and if they are forced to do without pornography, they’ll happily do something else, like reading comics, drinking beer, eating sweets, watching sport, gambling, or any of the other simple things people like to do when they’ve got a moment to spare.’”

The lightness of touch makes the Swiftian savagery of the attack on Puritanism all the more effective.  While the case studies (Appendix B) take the operation of the Act to brilliant absurdist heights.  Here in History 5 the ORD (Orgasm Recording Device), which sets off a klaxon when you exceed your monthly orgasm allowance, has gone off, so the poor man has to report to the Emergency Inspector:

“It was too far to walk and I couldn’t afford a taxi…. So there was nothing for it but the tube…  It was terrible, everyone looking and laughing and shouting.  Then waiting for the bloody train.  It was diabolical.  All those remarks, like calling me ‘Dirty Beast’ and ‘Serve you right, you sex maniac’.  Some of them were just kidding, like the chap who said, ‘What you been doing then?  Riding your bike?’  But I wasn’t in the mood for jokes and anyway most of it was very nasty.  One woman just came up and spat at me.”

This, in its own way, is a highly moral as well as funny book.  Having created, indirectly, a portrait of a complete totalitarian society, which the reader fills in from the outlines and incidents described, Schofield finally delivers the Author’s Message in Appendix C, an extract from the evidence submitted to the Committee by SIF (SIF/Syph, geddit?), the Sex Is Fun society:

“We do not worry about who does what to whom and how.  We are not concerned whether you are attracted to the same or the opposite sex or both.  We do not think any part of the human body is shameful or sordid.  We refuse to dictate which portals of entry are permissible.”

If there were any justice, this would be recognised as one of the great satires of the twentieth century, up there with “Scoop” or Tom Sharpe.  Of course it is of its time (written in 1978) but the underlying truths about human nature remain the same.  It is a crying shame that it is out of print and rarer than hen’s teeth.  Hopefully some enterprising publisher will recognise it for the masterpiece of humour that it is.  In the meantime, if you can afford the £20-£30, which second-hand copies go for, treat yourself.

Follow up to Chandler post

May 17, 2011

Since writing about Cleveland Street I’ve had two comments from people who saw the show and broadly endorse what I said, and one saying they didn’t see what the fuss was about, and writers were too-touchy creatures.  More disturbingly, one of the cast has emailed me the reviews of the show which show a broad appreciation, with reservations, of a show which is “only a bit of fun”.  The most disturbing thing is how much attention it had, which only goes to show the power of a TV name and having enough money to employ a professional PR company. 

It also raises the disturbing possibility that both critics and audiences have lost any sense of what a musical might be, and therefore any touchstone by which to judge.  Have Sondheim, Flaherty and Ahrens laboured vain?! That would be pretty much the death knell of the form, and leave it as much of a minority taste as the 12-tone Second Viennese School of composers.  I really don’t want to think about that.

BTW, for completeness, and to show my beastliness to the full, I remembered something from the original “Cleveland” review about the horrible stage cockerney, to-be-sure Irishry and ooh-la-la Frenchery of a kind I thought had died in Hollywood in the 1950s.  Again I think this is is the fault of the script rather than the hapless thesps.

Cleveland Street – the Musical

May 16, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I went to see “Cleveland Street– the Musical” because a friend, the talented Joe Shefer, was in it, and another friend had worked with the Director and Musical Director, and rated them highly.  Frankly, I hated it, and the review I wrote for the theatre website Remote Goat reflected that.  It was particularly hard on Glenn Chandler, book writer, lyricist, and the man with the money behind the show; but it was difficult to find anywhere else to lay the blame.  Glenn contacted the website and alleged that I had an axe to grind and couldn’t be dispassionate, and the administrators pulled the review within 24 hours of its appearance.  I had an email correspondence with Mr Chandler, who repeated much the same thing and accused me of a lack of professionalism; however, I cannot for the life of me see see why a practitioner of a trade cannot also be a critic of it; critics and dramatists have done it from Robert Greene in 1592 to George Bernard Shaw to Nicholas de Jongh.

I do not like censorship; I don’t like websites bowing to pressure from companies or people who do have a vested interest in what appears; and I don’t like anyone accusing me of a bias in order to avoid accepting legitimate criticism.  The “Cleveland Street” website has a few very selective excerpts from its reviews; my own company, Homo Promos, always publishes full reviews on its website, whether good or bad.  My own view is that alternative views, criticism and even personal polemic do nothing but good for the theatre, and give it as a medium the oxygen of excitement and a sense that it matters.  Puffs and poodles do nobody any good in the long run.

So I am reproducing the review here, insofar as I can remember it.  I wrote it straight onto the website and retained no copy of my own, never imagining it would get the reaction it did.  Just so you know, I have written musicals for over 30 years, and most recently provided the book and lyrics to “La Ronde” (music by David Harrod), which closed at the Rosemary Branch on 3rd April.  Since then it has been nominated for an Off-West End award for Best Musical of 2011.  “Cleveland Street” opened at “Above the Stag”, a venue which I greatly respect, on 26th April, and continues to May 29th.   If you feel that this disqualifies me from having a disinterested opinion, you will discount the following.  It was written with a passion which comes from the twin convictions that musicals are a vital and serious art form, and that you have to sweat blood in order to produce a good one.  OK, so here goes:

“Anyone who wants an object lesson in how not to write a musical could do worse than visit Glenn Chandler’s vanity project, “Cleveland Street– the Musical”.  This is a musicalisation of a gay scandal of 1889, the first after the Labouchere amendment criminalised a variety of homosexual activities.  In it, aristocrats frequented a brothel in order to have sex with Post Office Telegraph boys, who were also not above making a little on the side while delivering telegrams to the gentry.  The game was blown accidentally during the investigation of another crime, a couple of boys were prosecuted and got comparatively short sentences, the brothel-keepers fled, the aristos escaped, and the most seriously harmed character was the editor of a radical newspaper who tried to cover the story.  The case was given spice by the allegation that one of the clients was a grandson of QueenVictoria, but this is, at best, Not Proven.

Mr Chandler is responsible for the book and lyrics, and produced it with his own company, so it is clearly his vision that we see.  In another life, he is best known as creator of “Taggart”, the crime series which trademarked the connection between “dour” and “Scot”, and started upping the ante in body counts for TV sleuths.  In addition Mr Taggart has written several TV plays about Victorian crime and criminals, and so is clearly an expert on the period.  Would that he were as expert on musicals.  Would that he had had the humility to acknowledge his ignorance and actually bothered to learn his craft.

The first lesson he fails to learn is that you have to provide a reason for people to sing, and that the songs should in some way relate to, and forward, the action.  Here they burst into song for no reason at all, and often to the detriment of the action.  For example, the brothel keepers are told that they have three hours to leave the country with the police hot on their heels.  So what do they do?  They burst into a nostalgic, slowish-temp song about the joys of living inParis. 

The second question he fails to answer is, “Whose story is this?  What is their journey?  What do they learn?”  There are half a dozen principal characters – far too many – none of whom seem to develop, and we end up being interested in none of them.  In this we are not helped by a wordy and wandering script.  I find it strange that someone who has spent years – decades – in TV drama isn’t able to transfer the skills of concision to the theatre.  If this was going to be filmed none of the scenes here would have got beyond the first script conference.  And the gap between the different standardsChandlerapplies to two media really indicates the contempt in which the form of the musical is being held – somehow it “doesn’t matter” as it’s “only” a musical.  A few – too few – smutty jokes can’t rescue it.

Sloppiness is also evident in the anachronisms in all departments: trousers with zips (debut in 1893 inChicago), the use of the word “homosexual” (not heard till 1896, and then in a textbook), the appearance of a tango in the score (first tangos in Europe heard inParisin the early 1900s).  The busy cast work hard, but there’s not a lot they can do with the material.  The overbusy direction by Tim McArthur has all the hallmarks of a director who doesn’t trust the material either.

The music is by Matt Devereux, a potentially talented composer who is hampered by the straitjacket of banal rum-ti-tum rhythms and incompetent lyrics.  The words are clogged, which is why we can’t hear half of them, the rhymes are inept  or forced (mission/depression; oyster/choice, sir), and the song structure shapeless.  Mr Devereux seems to have taken as his model the Victorian parlour song, which is provided by an onstage trio of piano, cello and flute.  However cello and flute anre under-used in the arrangements, and a more full-blooded Music Hall idiom would have provided more energy and variety.  That said, the composer still manages a few unexpected twists and turns.

The wasted opportunity of “Cleveland Street” is sad, because there is a good show struggling to get out here.  There are compelling themes of class, power, sex and money, and a more Brechtian approach with a strong Music Hall framework, as in “Belle” or “Poppy”, could work well.  It has to be said that the audience on the night I saw the show were enjoying it.  So could it pass muster as a harmless romp, a kind of “Carry onCleveland”?  For some, maybe.  But for anyone who cares about musicals as a serious and transporting form of theatre, or indeed about gay history as a means to explaining us to ourselves, it emphatically is not enough.

Audition day – the fun starts

March 24, 2010

A room crowded with other shows’ props; a not-so-tuneful piano in the corner; a bag of coffee, tea, sugar and ginger nuts.  Yes, it’s another audition at our favourite theatre, the Rosemary Branch.  The manager Cec has been terrific in letting us have the space free (again), and hovers to see if we need anything.  She’d be an earth mother if she wasn’t so svelte.

Cec, I should explain, runs the best pub theatre in London.  And having spent 20 years doing the rounds of pubs which were only interested in making money out of lettings, where you were grudgingly tolerated with the minimum facilities possible to get away with, I can’t tell you how much it means to have a landlady who as an ex-dancer lives and breathes theatre, who will be your most acute critic but also your most creative supporter.  Need a set built?  Cec will find someone to build it.  Red sequined tap shoes?  She’ll find someone who’s got a pair. Lighting design, a director even…. She’s held more than one staggering production together simply by plugging the gaps in the visiting company.  I count myself lucky to be one of her regulars.

And we’re sitting in the rehearsal room looking at our watches and wondering when the first auditionee will turn up.  “We” being myself, as Producer and lyricist, the other Peter (Murphy) as composer and Michael Derrick as choirmaster and rehearsal/audition pianist.  The work – “Desire”, based on a book by Edmund White; our need – 12 male singers, four tenor, four baritone and four basses. 

We run out of things to say to each other.  The silence becomes oppressive.  Michael and Peter retreat into discussing the intricacies of the score.  Peter is wholly in love with his creation, and adores to talk about it, its intricacy, the thought that went into it.  This makes him a bad judge of what needs cutting, and we have a tug-of-love over two numbers which I think will be no great loss in terms of quality, and will make the show considerably slicker.  You can imagine Peter’s reaction if you think of telling a mother you’re going to kill and eat her baby.

We’re blown out by the first three auditionees.  More particularly, four actors have rung or emailed to withdraw, including two scheduled for the first morning.  Though they claim to have found new work, my cynical mind calculates that this is unlikely.  More likely is that they have found Peter M’s complex score too demanding for brains and larynxes brought up on Lloyd-Webber and Jerry Herman.  All actors are sluts, but they are also lying sluts.  (I mean this in a nice way.)  This pusillanimity has left our originally tight schedule as gappy as a street boxer’s overbite. 

One withdrawal however has left me more than a little angry as well as considerably disappointed.  Italo Londero (Italian, in London – do I detect a stage name?) has very striking D & G male model looks and, what is more, a strong true baritone voice; true, it’s a bit of a bull-calf bellow and the accent is pretty atrocious, but these things could be fixed.  However, (I quote from his email): 

“It s too orientated towards the gay community considering what I want for my career in the short term.  It deviates me too far from a character that I am developing for a concert tour.  I also don’t know what I could do with the experience later.”

So here is a gay man saying that the show is too gay for him because he wants to turn straight??  (Is this the character he is developing?  I try to imagine him rehearsing drinking 14 pints of lager after the footie, but I can’t leap that far).  Cos it’s no secret that he is gay – there’s a forum discussion for gay Chileans including him as a famous local gay.  (Chile?  Italy?  I haven’t worked that one out yet, but there’s no mistaken identity.)  What makes me angry is the idea that a gay identity is something you can put on and take off at will, like a pink bomber jacket.  Italo, I have to tell you, that closet door only opens in one direction, and once you are out, there’s no turning back. See text today - 23-03-10

We are a gay theatre company, and you have to ask what he was doing auditioning for us in the first place if he felt like that.  What did he think we’d put on?    Evita?  But we have never asked anyone whether they are gay or not, and this is the first time that anyone has ever suggested to us that playing gay characters with a gay company would be a bad career move.  You’d think we were dealing with Rock Hudson or Cary Grant here, not a handsome, multi-talented, multi-cultural male model in 2010.  But no, homophobia is alive and well.  And it is the homosexuals who are the worst homophobes, because they are doing the bigots’ dirty work for them. 

But no point in  regretting, because boys like Italo are not that uncommon, and there’ll be another one along in ten minutes, like a Number 78 bus.

 And here comes the first one – Fabian.  Pale, beautiful haunted grey eyes, nervous and a bit insecure vocally….  Let’s go, Michael. 

 What have you brought for us, Fabian?  Thank you.  Hit those keys, Michael.