Archive for September, 2011

07/09/11

I find Headlong a difficult company to be a fan of. For every Enron, there is an Earthquakes in London to convince you that the brilliance of Enron was a fluke; because of this, I had mixed feelings about Rupert Goold’s 9/11 retrospective, however, being a sucker for a site-specific piece, I thought I’d give it a go.

With contributions from 20 different writers, Decade takes an episodic structure, looking at 9/11 itself from a variety of angles and the way in which our world has changed since that fateful day. There is Headlong’s usual mix of movement, drama and striking scenography, as well as some fascinating insights into the effect that one day has had on all of us.

On arrival, we enter the performance space after a surly interview from US border control, we are then sent via a red staircase into a replica of the Windows on the World restaurant. There is something incredibly chilling about Miriam Buether’s design – particularly the walls on either side of the room as we look at the view as it would have been from the top of the World Trade Centre. Buether’s design is such that the audience around breakfast tables, while the cast move around on tables and on the high stage in the centre of the room.

The show is largely a collage of reactions to 9/11, but there are some stories that deviate slightly. The best part for me was Mike Bartlett’s contribution, about a journalist who cynically tracks down Osama Bin Laden’s killer and questions him – the pace is lightning fast and injected with humour and pathos in Bartlett’s usual inimitable style.

Ella Hickson’s contribution is also one of the standouts of the evening – telling the cynical tale of a gift shop salesman at Ground Zero, who exploits distressed and upset female tourists in order to convince them to go to bed with him. It illicited laughs of incredulity on the night I attended, and left me with an uncomfortable feeling as Headlong examine the nature of the Ground Zero tourism.

Perhaps the piece that stood out for me the most was the meeting of the widows, taking the form of ten short scenes mapping the progress each widow made since 9/11 – and in turn how the nation grieved with them. In the midst of this was a short scene from the waitress that served these widows, who discussed the fact that her birthday will never quite be the same again. This rang incredibly true for me, as my birthday is on September 11th, and many of this waitresses sentiments were things I have been heard to say these past ten years.

The episodic nature of the piece means that, inevitably, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sections I found moving and incredibly exciting to watch, whereas others felt a little unnecessary. Simon Schama’s piece embodied that for me, as an historian tries to place 9/11 in a historical context – it was lengthy, academic, and took on a lecture-like form that didn’t sit well with the rest of the show.

In terms of Rupert Goold’s direction there were a lot of positives. The use of the space was nothing short of brilliant. Each scene was treated with discretion and imagination, and Scott Ambler’s movement sequences took on an almost tribal-like quality at times, giving atmosphere to the piece and sometimes a pause to digest what we had just witnessed.

I must admit, I find this a difficult play to review. The piece was performed and directed incredibly well, but I do think that it was too long, and the episodic structure meant that the piece lacked clarity. The contributions of different writers was interesting, but with such a massive task to tackle, a single writer with a single vision would have been much more effective. At times I craved just a simple retelling of events – maybe there is room for exploration with regards to a verbatim piece?

I believe there is definitely a place in theatre to examine the lasting effects of 9/11, but tackling one or two of the issues raised would be a play by itself – looking at ten years of history in one play was just too ambitious. With dozens of different angles I simply felt bombarded, and the issues Headlong were trying to address became muddied and overwhelmed.

08/09/11

I don’t normally review shows that I see at my place of work due to previously stepping on a few toes with an ill-timed review, but as this show has now, sadly, left our studio for greener pastures, I simply could not contain myself any longer. I must tell you about this show.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer has won critical praise around the world, most recently in Edinburgh when it was a complete sell-out. Try as I might, I couldn’t get tickets for it – I am reliably informed that one intrepid theatre-goer even attempted bribery in an attempt to get in to see the last show, to no avail. And it is fresh from this success that Alvin Sputnik arrived in the Burton Taylor Studio. 

One-man storyteller Tim Watts tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world. Nature’s “Menopausal rage” has melted the ice caps, and only a few humans remain on earth, living atop skyscrapers to escape the rising ocean. Alvin Sputnik lives a quiet life with his wife, Elena, until she passes away in his arms. Alvin, with nothing left to lose and nothing to live for, decides to dive to the bottom of the ocean to search for her soul.

Watt’s has created theatrical magic here. Alvin is a triumph in puppetry – ingeniously portrayed by a white glove and a ball of foam. Watt’s breathes life into his creation (well…his hand.) in such a way that you just fall in love with Alvin. He is sweet, loving, kind and very very funny. Watt’s has also cleverly combined the live action scenes and puppetry with animation, music and film using a large circular screen with which he interacts throughout as Alvin explores the deep. The effect is completely original, and left the audience gasping in delight at times.

There is a child-like wonder to everything Watt’s has created; he is energetic, playful and charming, but also restrained when necessary. Nothing is overdone here, instead Watts allows the beautiful story to tell itself in a deceptively simple way. And that is the joy of this show – the story is funny, and heart-warming, but is also full of loss and grief, creating lots of lump-in-throat moments and some all-out heart-breakers. (I am particularly reminded of the sad and joyful cry of “I love you!” towards the end of the show.)

This show is worth every single word of praise it has already received; this is a show that kids will enjoy, but adults will probably enjoy more. To quote my boyfriend, who emerged from this show just as excited as I was, it’s almost impossibly sweet.  Wonderful, beautiful, heart-warming and tear jerking, Alvin is a story about quiet heroism and enduring love: is there anything more you could want from a trip to the theatre?

07/09/11

First a novel, then a classic Hitchcock film, The stage adaptation of The 39 Steps stormed onto the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and is now celebrating it’s fifth birthday in the West End. To celebrate the occasion, I thought it was about time that I saw it!

 The 39 Steps tell the dramatic tale of Richard Hannay, played admirably by Rufus Wright, who finds himself embroiled in the murder of a suspiciously teutonic sounding female spy. Following a clue left by the woman, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland to clear his name and foil the plans of the dastardly Germans.

Having read Patrick Barlow’s adaptation prior to seeing the show, I knew what to expect. Mixing comedy, satire and parody, Barlow presents the thrilling tale while both celebrating and lamenting the limits of the stage. A long bridge over a gaping chasm simply cannot be recreated accurately, so we must settle for a ladder balanced precariously over some dry ice. Aitken also gives a wink to the audience with little touches as the actors get bored of recreating the winds of the Scottish Highlands, sighing wearily as they shake their jackets vigorously.

Director Maria Aitken deploys her cast of four in an incredibly energetic production. Which involves playing 139 characters between the four of them, often playing two, even three characters at the same time with hilarious comic effect. The costume changes are rapid, sometimes represented by a simple change of hat, and the jokes have been lifted straight from Brighton Pier  – “I’m not surprised,” The sherriff says, as our hero is saved by a bullet-proof hymn book  “Some of these hymns are terribly hard to get through.”

Rufus Wright is fantastic as Richard Hannay, unflappable despite what is thrown at him, and lovingly paying homage to the Robert Donat role of Hitchcock’s classic. Laura Rogers plays mosdt of the female roles in the production, embodying the classic Hitchcock blonde, but also playing a Scottish farmers wife and an archetypal femme fatale. Dermot Canavan and James Hurn (understudying for Sean Kearns during our performance) have the most fun though, playing all the other roles in the show including everyone from underwear salesmen to railway porters, policemen to government officials.

This show is a celebration of the simplicity of the stage, and that is it’s greatest asset. While just round the corner Les Miserables is recreating the barricades of the French revolution with a high tech set, The 39 Steps is creating similar dramatic images on a shoestring, and it’s equally brilliant and just a lot of fun to watch.

It’s not without flaw of course, with all the hi-jhinks on stage, the story is somewhat undermined in places, and the Hitchcock thriller isn’t really all that thrilling, taking the form of a vaudevillian comedy instead. That’s just fine by me, of course, but I think there was a possibility to marry the two together. Saying that, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – and the audience lapped up the tale when we attended.

This show is not the greatest play the world has ever known, nor is it going to challenge your take on the world – but it is an awful lot of fun and a great night out. The 39 Steps absolutely deserves it’s spot on the West End – there really isn’t another regular West End show that gives the audience what this does. A heartfelt story, a bit of murder-mystery, and a spectacular pencil moustache.