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Theatre trips - John C. Kirk

Aug. 12th, 2010

01:11 am - Theatre trips

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"And if elected president of our small community I will determine once and for all how far we can go without being gay."
(Homer Simpson, "The Simpsons: Midnight Towboy")


It's been a while since I posted any theatre reviews, so here are some thoughts on the performances I've watched since November 2009. As always, I try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but some are necessary to discuss plot points. Some of these shows are no longer on (or at least not where I saw them), but they may reappear.

* Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Novello Theatre).

This is probably the most "cultural" of everything I've been to see, although the main thing I got out of it is that I now understand why one of the characters in Gargoyles was called "Maggie the Cat"!

I wasn't familiar with the story before I went: all I knew was that it had an entirely black cast, and it was set in the southern USA during the 1950s, so I assumed that it would have something to do with civil rights. Actually, it didn't, probably because it wasn't written for a black cast.

I went along to one of the previews; it's the first time I've done that, and I wasn't quite sure what it meant. Basically, it seems to be the next step up from a dress rehearsal, i.e. the cast are doing a real performance in front of an audience, but they may not have quite worked out all the kinks yet. (The tickets are then a bit cheaper, to reflect this.) For instance, one scene ended and all the actors stood still, waiting for the lights to dim so that they could move off stage. After about 10 seconds they got fed up of waiting and started to walk off anyway, and then the lights went dim as they were leaving. It's not a major problem, and hopefully they were able to sort out these issues before the main run started.

The cast all did a good job, and it was good to see James Earl Jones in person, although he didn't appear for the first hour. It's odd, though: I've seen him portray some villainous characters before (notably Darth Vader and a dictator in House), but his character in this play seemed far more unpleasant than any others. That may simply be because he swore a lot, and I'm used to him having a calm, reassuring voice. Still, that reflects well on him as an actor, showing that he can take on significantly different roles.

As I watched the play, it reminded me of A Streetcar Named Desire, which I studied at school. It turns out that they're both written by the same person (Tennessee Williams), which would explain it. However, I think that this play would really benefit from having a strong editor to go through and chop out half of the dialogue; sadly, that's unlikely to happen with such an established playwright. For instance, some of the dialogue goes like this: "I'm Maggie. I'm Maggie the cat. And I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof. Because I'm Maggie the cat. I'm Maggie. And I'm a cat." I'm paraphrasing from memory, and there were other lines in between, but I'm really not exaggerating. At first I thought "Ah, that's clever, I see where the title came from", but after a while I just thought "Yes, ok, I get it, you can shut up now!"

While I'm comparing plays, this also reminded me a bit of The Homecoming (by Harold Pinter), although Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written first. They both deal with a family reunion, and the rather bleak nature of some of the relationships. I noticed that lots of other audience members were laughing at lines that made me wince, and I don't think that they were intended to be funny.

Regarding Maggie, one review says: "However, she finds herself at the abusive hands of her alcoholic husband Brick". That seems rather like a rather harsh assessment to me, but to explain why I have to reveal spoilers. Basically, Brick was an athlete, and he was close friends with one of his teammates (Skipper). When they went on tour, the two men shared a room, and sometimes a bed. According to Brick, this was completely platonic, but Maggie thought that he was in denial about being gay. She had sex with Skipper (trying to prove some kind of point, but I forget what it was), and he then committed suicide. After that, Brick refused to have sex with Maggie, and he also made it clear that he didn't want to discuss the event at all. When she insisted, he eventually tried to hit her, but fell over (because he was on crutches) and went sprawling on the floor. I wouldn't praise his behaviour, but I wouldn't condemn him for it either, since Maggie clearly provoked him.

The play (or at least this production) is ambiguous about the exact nature of Brick and Skipper's relationship, but personally I sympathise with him. I remember the writer of Men Behaving Badly saying that if you have two young guys sharing a flat, that's fine, but after a certain age their friends would start dropping heavy hints about their sexual orientation. I'm sure that lots of "slash" fanfic writers would eagerly conclude that these two characters were gay, but I'm equally sure that you could find people who believe that any given fictional character is gay. (Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy? Clearly a gay couple. Han Solo and Chewbacca? Absolutely.) Looking at my own life, I went on a school trip to Italy when I was 16: there were three of us sharing a hotel room with one double bed and one single bed, so I shared the double bed with one of the other boys. There was nothing sexual about it, and we both kept to our own side; it was purely a pragmatic choice, rather than getting someone to sleep on the floor. Anyway, this explains the Simpsons quote at the top: where do you draw the line between friendship and something more?

All in all, I'd say that it's worth watching the story, although you may be better off with a DVD version.

* Dirty Dancing (Aldwych Theatre).

I first saw this in April 2009, then again in December 2009 and March 2010. My views haven't really changed since the first time, i.e. it hasn't got any better or worse with repeated viewings.

* Mamma Mia! (Prince of Wales Theatre).

I've basically done this one backwards: I saw the film first (in August 2008), then the stage version later. I think they're both fun, and I'd be happy to watch either of them again. However, I certainly enjoy the stage version more when I'm sitting inside the main theatre area, rather than watching it on a small TV screen from the bar area. (This isn't like watching the DVD, because there are no close-ups, so you can't easily make out facial expressions.) I've been to the theatre four times for this:
1) November 2008 (bar).
2) May 2009 (main theatre).
3) January 2010 (main theatre).
4) April 2010 (bar).

* The Mousetrap (St Martin's Theatre).

One of the notable things about this play is that the cast basically swear the audience to secrecy at the end of each performance. I'm honouring that request, but some people choose to ignore it. In particular, it's interesting that TV Tropes won't spoil the ending (pretty much every other book/play/film/etc. is fair game), whereas Wikipedia do reveal the murderer's identity (there's a lot of debate about that decision on the discussion page).

I've now seen this play four times.
1) July 2005. During the half-time interval, I made my prediction about who the murderer was, and this turned out to be correct, but it was more of a lucky guess than anything else.
2) January 2010. I remembered the murderer's identity, but I couldn't remember all of the other secrets (i.e. the things that make other characters seem like plausible suspects), so I focussed on them.
3) May 2010. This time I remembered all the plotlines, so it was interesting to look for the foreshadowing, i.e. clues that I might have missed before.
4) August 2010 (last week). Sadly, I think I've now exhausted any benefit from repeated viewings, so I mainly noticed the mistakes, e.g. the sheer ineptitude of the police. (Admittedly, this is pretty common to most of Agatha Christie's work, otherwise Miss Marple would have to find another hobby.)

* Legally Blonde, The Musical (Savoy Theatre).

I saw the film version of this a while back, which was better than I'd expected, mainly because the lead character was so likeable. I don't think it really benefits from being converted to a musical, but it's harmless fluff, and some of the songs are quite funny; I particularly liked "Serious" (which you can hear on the website), mainly because it subverts the normal pattern. One of the cast used to be in Blue (a boy band), so I assumed that he'd be a terrible singer, but he's actually quite talented. From a technical point of view, they did some effective stuff with colour, e.g. lots of brown and tweed at the university. I was sitting in the middle gallery, and I had a decent view of the stage. The only minor snag is that I could see one of the cast making hand signals to the dog; that hand was hidden behind her head, so most of the audience probably didn't see it.

* The Little Dog Laughed (Garrick Theatre).

The play begins with one of the characters (played by Tamsin Greig) saying "The beginning of the show!", then waiting for applause, and appearing disappointed until she gets it. I don't mind them poking the fourth wall like that, if they want to have one character acting as narrator, but they shouldn't expect much more than polite applause until they've actually done something to earn it. Similarly, she followed this up by asking the audience whether we'd seen Breakfast at Tiffany's (the film, not the stage version). Only a few people answered, and she complained about the lack of response. In my case, I haven't seen the film; all I know about it is that it starred the guy who played Hannibal in The A Team. Would it really have been better if I'd called out "No" rather than staying silent? So, this didn't get things off to a great start as far as I was concerned.

There's a video on Cracked.com: A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever. The joke of that video is that all the dialogue consists of "placeholders", e.g. "Naive yet inspiring statement". The play did something similar, with lines like "Flattering remark", "Modest self-deprecation". In a short parody video, I think that works well, but in a longer play it just seemed lazy. Instead of saying "Insert funny comment here", how about actually putting in a funny comment? When I write a computer program, sometimes I'll start out by designing the layout, so if you click a button then it will just display a message like "TODO: Implement print preview". That's fine for a first draft, but I'd be ashamed if that ever made it into production code. I'm sure that this was a deliberate stylistic choice, but I disagree with it.

The plot involves a gay actor hiring a male escort. It's not too graphic, but it does involve male nudity and an interrupted sex scene. The escort claims not to be gay (just doing it for the money), but then the two of them wind up spending a lot of time together (without payment), implying that they're becoming more than just friends.

The actor is still "in the closet", and his agent gets him a role playing a gay character. The theory is that this will be easy for him (since he's actually gay), but other people will see it as a very brave choice on his past (since they think he's straight), so he'll get various awards for it. However, the agent then pushes for various rewrites to the script, and he winds up playing a character who's straight. I understand that they're going for some kind of meta thing, where the play we're watching mirrors the inner play, but it doesn't really make sense. If the agent wants her client to play a straight role, why bother starting out with a gay part? Equally, if he does play a straight role, he won't get any special acclaim for it.

All in all, a bit of a mess.

* Private Lives (Vaudeville Theatre).

I had high hopes for this one, but I was a bit disappointed. It's written by Oscar Wilde, who I associate with witty dialog, and it starred Kim Cattrall; I'm sure most people associate her with Sex and the City, but I've never watched that, so I mainly remember her from Mannequin. She made her entrance just wearing a towel, and that was quite handy because it gave the audience a chance to get their whooping out of the way, then we could focus on the characters rather than the cast.

The basic plot is that a couple have split up and married other people, then they wind up spending their honeymoons at the same hotel (in adjacent rooms). Verbal sparring can be quite fun (e.g. Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing), but in this case it all seemed rather mean-spirited, and I wasn't really comfortable when some of it turned into violence. So, it was a bit too bleak to be a comedy. However, I did like the male lead, particularly when he refused to get into a fistfight with another man: he came across as intelligent and relaxed, rather than a coward.

I was standing at the back of the stalls, and I had a perfect view of the stage.

* Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace Theatre).

This is another film that's been turned into a musical; I haven't seen the film, but this story really doesn't work as a musical. The basic storyline involves a young boy in a northern mining town who takes ballet lessons, against his father's wishes. High School Musical has a similar theme: there's a teenager who wants to go on stage but the rest of his basketball team aren't in favour. The main flaw of HSM is that all the characters have a tendency to break into spontaneous song and dance routines, which weakens his friends' position; that's never addressed in the film, but that's ok. I like the film, but it is just fluff, so it doesn't have to make sense. Billy Elliott has the same problem, but the creative team seem to be under the delusion that they're telling a gritty story about serious issues, which simply doesn't work.

The script is quite explicit about the fact that young Billy isn't gay; after all, it would be ridiculous to suggest that he is, just because he likes ballet. No, the gay boy is the one who cross-dresses. I'm not sure whether that's really much of an improvement.

The story is set in the 1980s, and at one point the working men's club announce a visit from a young MP called Tony Blair. Now, that's fair enough, and it could offer a decent opportunity for irony (based on what we now know). Sadly, the writers have no grasp of subtlety, so the character said things like "He'll be telling us how to start an illegal war" (I'm paraphrasing from memory). Regardless of your views on Iraq, this makes no sense at all in the context of the story, so the effect was "We interrupt this musical to tell you about our political views", which is self-indulgent.

I lived in Durham for three years (while I was at university), and I heard various people complain about the mines being shut down. I sympathise with people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, and I understand that if a whole community is based around a mine then it will have a devastating effect. However, the harsh fact is that there's only a finite amount of coal in any given mine. Eventually it will run out, and then the mine will have to close. Maybe the mines should have stayed open for longer, but that would only delay the inevitable.

Anyway, since there's not going to be much of a future in the mines, Billy's big chance is to get out of there and become a dancer. However, one of the other characters does point out that "200,000 men can't all be dancers." I think this is actually quite topical, since lots of people see The X-Factor (or equivalent) as their big opportunity; obviously it does work out for a few people, but most of the applicants will be disappointed, so I think it's better to save singing/dancing as a hobby rather than pinning all your career aspirations on it.

By contrast, I strongly recommend the book Rocket Boys, written by Homer H. Hickham. It's autobiographical, talking about his youth in a mining town, where he started to build model rockets; eventually he wound up working for NASA. As with Billy Elliot, the community rallied around to help out, e.g. scrounging bits of spare metal for him to use: they all saw that this was his opportunity to have a better life. In order to build his rockets, he had to understand the science behind them, so he worked really hard at school and borrowed extra textbooks from his teacher. I'd say that's far more valid as an inspiration, because there are a lot more jobs available to people with a good education.

There's been a recent trend for theatres to have elaborate stages, so that bits can revolve around or move up and down. However, in this case it mainly seemed gratuitous, and I think they would have been better off keeping things simple. I was standing at the back of the stalls, and I could see everything fine.

* "All The Fun Of The Fair" (Garrick theatre)

There are a few musicals that are based around the music from a particular pop group: Mamma Mia! for Abba, We Will Rock You for Queen, and Never Forget for Take That. This is the David Essex version, although one notable feature is that he actually performs in it himself, rather than passing the songs on to other people. I wasn't familiar with his music beforehand, and I think this mainly appealed to an older audience; one effect of this is that the merchandise included jigsaw puzzles as an alternative to T-shirts. Anyway, it was pleasant enough, although there was no real depth to it. I was sitting near the back of the dress circle, and most of the time I had a pretty good view of the stage. The only problem came near the end, when several people were sitting/lying down, and I couldn't see who was moving (which was significant to the plot). David Essex impressed me with the graceful way that he handled an overzealous fan at the end; presumably that's a sign of his experience and maturity.

I realise that I've been fairly negative about a lot of these, so I think I need to be a bit more selective about what I watch, rather than doing "theatre roulette". In particular, there are four plays I've seen at the theatre which I would happily pay to watch again:
* A Christmas Carol (Patrick Stewart's one-man show).
* Avenue Q.
* Mamma Mia!
* Wicked.
I've heard that The Lion King is good, but that theatre won't come up in my random list, so I'll have to buy a ticket if I want to watch that.

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