A very enjoyable evening. I almost booked when I first saw cheap seats but reviews were mixed. Then I got a bargain seat on a miserable Bank Holiday Monday – I’ve never seen the West End so deserted – and I’m glad I did. The cast are excellent but far too old for the play, so Simon Brett has added some material about the annual production by the Bunbury Players. Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers reprieve the parts they played at the National Theatre in 1982. Add Sian Phillips, Cherie Lunghi and Rosalind Ayres and it’s quite a cast. Once they get down to the play itself, they are perfect and you quickly forget their ages and the audience, me included, was soon laughing away. It’s hardly surprising that the additional material does not match the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s but I think they could have worked on it a bit harder. The extension of the cucumber sandwich humour was perfect but we could have done without the cheap ladder joke. The second half drops the framework; it’s pure Wilde and pure joy. I think I enjoyed it almost as much as the actors clearly loved acting it.
I love opera on this scale, in a small, packed theatre with just five singers and three musicians so that you hear every note and every word clearly. The smaller scale doesn’t mean it’s easier for the singers, in some ways quite the reverse, particularly as it places much greater pressure on the singers to act naturally despite singing their heads off. I’m glad to say Louisa Tee as Violetta and Philip Lee as Alfredo both acted as excellently as they sang and Andrew Mayor as Alfredo’s father was also very good. The action was moved forward to the 1920s with a new English libretto by Robin Norton-Hale. The plot was necessarily simplified with basic scene changes but these were easily outweighed by the overall quality of the production, as shown by the massive applause at the end. It is deservedly selling out fast and casting changes each night so you might not get to see the same line-up as I did, but this is the third production by them that I’ve seen and I’ve never been disappointed. If you like opera in English, it’s also worth noting that, unlike the ENO at the Coliseum, the Soho Theatre has excellent air conditioning and plenty of knee room!
Greek tragedy: the chorus tells you what is about to happen; it happens; the chorus tells you what just happened. So how do you stage it nowadays? Carrie Cracknell, whose brilliant Doll’s House was one of the best things I saw last year, does it pretty much straight, playing it through with no interval in a fairly modern setting. The result is astonishing. Helen McRory as Medea dominates the stage, pulling the audience into her anger and desire for revenge. I was so grabbed by it that I had to look at my iPhone to check that 90 minutes really had gone by. The twitching dance of the chorus of Corinthian women seems slightly awkward at first but cleverly builds up with Goldfrapp’s excellent music to add even more intensity to the climactic moment when Medea murders her children. This is what the National Theatre at its best is all about. I hope that Nicholas Hytner’s replacement, Rufus Norris, can maintain it.
My interest in the play was sparked by the writer, Jack Thorne, who so brilliantly adapted Let The Right One In for the stage, and the writing is indeed excellent. It tells the true story of two moments in the life of Mary Bell, firstly at age 11 after she murdered two young boys, then at age 21 when she absconded from open prison with another prisoner to hitch up with a couple of young soldiers in Blackpool. It’s a sensible choice by the Tiny Young Theatre Company as it could only work with young actors. The performance was not as tight as the writing and it could have done with more rehearsal or more experienced direction but the youth and enthusiasm of the company make up for it and the play is very well worth watching. It’s only on for a few days so grab your chance to see it at this lovely little venue next to Turnham Green station with plenty of free parking spaces from 7 pm.
What a discovery! This is an astonishing, powerful play getting its well deserved UK premiere over 50 years after it was written. Lysette Anthony is superb as Sue, a successful, single woman living in Chicago with a younger partner Bernie, excellently played by Timothy Knightley. He’s struggling to hold down a decent job, won’t marry her and resents the fact that she pays for everything. Into this comes Louis Cardona, totally convincing as her delinquent son, home from a prison farm on the condition that he lives with his mother. The playwright, William Inge, was discovered by Tennessee Williams and there are echoes of the latter in the play’s incredible emotional intensity, although the characters are very different from Williams’s. I do hope it doesn’t take another 50 years before another revival of Inge’s work.
The set has been built on a tight budget and some of the lesser characters are not so well played but it really doesn’t matter when the central actors play as perfectly as this. One warning, though. The programme doesn’t say when the play was written so I made the mistake of looking it up on Wikipedia during the interval. I was amazed to find that it dates back to 1963 but unfortunately the article also gives away the powerful ending of the play, apparently based on a true story.
Other commitments prevented me getting to see Le Coq d’Or but at least I managed the second of the triple bills which included the final scene. First came Scheherazade in the version first performed as part of Les Saisons Russes du XXI siècle a couple of years ago. This was a much more polished performance, with terrific dancing from Julia Makhalina and Artem Yachmennikov as the leads. The excerpt from Le Coq d’Or was great fun but I didn’t really miss seeing the whole thing. Then came a gorgeous treat, a performance of Fokine’s Swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, originally created for Anna Pavlova. Infuriatingly, it wasn’t listed in the programme and I didn’t catch the name of the brilliant dancer.
The afternoon finished with Polovtsian Dances. This was much more enjoyable than when I saw it as part of Prince Igor earlier this year. In that case, the stage was full of scenery and singers, leaving little space for an unimaginatively choreographed version. On Sunday, the chorus stood in the boxes at the side of the auditorium, with almost no scenery, allowing the dancers wearing copies of Nicholas Roerich‘s original costumes to fill the stage with Fokine’s fabulous choreography. I’m not sure how authentic it was but the back flips by star dancer Maxim Pavlov, only added to the fun. This is the third programme I’ve seen put together by Andris Liepa to honour Diaghilev and it was easily the best, thanks largely to the incredible energy of the young company. At this rate, his next programme is going to be unmissable.
What a fabulous treat! The Kreutzer Sonata was one of those simple, brilliant ideas that makes you wonder why nobody did it before. The violin sonata is one of Beethoven’s most beautiful pieces which then formed the climax of Tolstoy’s story of the same name in which the jealous husband realises his wife is in love with her violin teacher when he sees them playing together. Janáček then based his passionate String Quartet No. 1 on Tolstoy’s story. Andrew McNicol’s ballet brings all three together, telling Tolstoy’s story, using both pieces of music. I hope other companies pick up on this brilliant ballet. If the Royal Ballet performed it then I am certain it would immediately join their standard repertoire. NEBT is a young company and this may not have had quite the same polish, and certainly did not have as expensive sets, but they easily made up for this is sheer energy and passion from the three leading dancers, Hayley Blackburn as the wife, Silas Stubbs as her husband and Joshua Barwick as the violinist. The live music from the Sacconi Quartet and Andrew Harvey on violin, accompanied by Anne Lovett, would have made a delightful concert in its own right but the fusion with the dance was magical.
The Kreutzer Sonata filled the second half of a mixed bill entitled Tryst: Devotion and Betrayal, the first half consisting of four much shorter ballets. The first, Tangents, was choreographed by Daniela Cardim Fonteyne to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Both music and dance were terrific but I was distracted by knowing the former too well and expecting the dance to reflect the titles of the movements which it didn’t. I enjoyed Valentino Zucchetti’s Orbital Motion more, even though it was performed to a recording of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The dance matched the music perfectly, with the dancers orbiting each other like suns, planets and galaxies. The short Toca from Érico Montes didn’t work for me, maybe because I couldn’t get into the recorded music by Villa-Lobos. The last work in the second half, Mad Women, choregraphed by Kristen McNally lived up to its title, “mad” in the funny sense and performed to a montage of music from many genres, with American adverts and sounds.
I could say much more but this is already much longer than my usual reviews. If you are at all interested in ballet, then this is an absolute must. My only, teeny grumble is that, in the year in which same sex marriage was introduced, I did feel a little disappointed to see an all-white (or near-white) company in which every portrayal of a relationship was between a man and a woman. The company’s work is firmly grounded in classical European ballet, which I do not criticise, but still.