Without You (Review of sorts)

I plan on using this blog to do more reviews as I reason I see a lot of theatre and blogging about it rather than  just my general moans occasionally makes for more interesting reading.

I also quite pride myself on my critical eye when it comes to theatre-seeing through the hype and also giving credit where credit’s due. Or just being my usual blunt honest self, whichever way you look at it.

The review I’m starting with however I hold my hands up and say it’s hard to be impartial for. Without You is the one man-autobiographical show from Anthony Rapp, for those who don’t know the original ‘Mark’ in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (one of my PhD texts for those not keeping up) and the show covers the period in his life around Rent and specifically the impact of the deaths of first Jonathan Larson and then Rapp’s mother. Based his book of the same name the show combines music from Rent with original music with the characters brought to life alongside Rapp’s monologues.

Theatrically this piece works well, it’s balanced and paced well so that the 80 minute show feels far shorter, the pace from one moment to the next gives a sense of urgency and frantic nature of the period-both historically and in his life that Rapp is trying to convey. Fans will be able to fill in the gaps and what happened next, while the uninitiated will find the story as it stands dramatically satisfying.

Musically the songs re-arranged from Rent  (and a rendition of R.E.M’s ‘Losing my Religion’) fit seamlessly alongside original material. As a fan of Rent (and one who has academically spent far too long analyzing these songs) loved the arrangements and  hearing parts not sung by Rapp in the musical. His voice is stronger  than ever a refined performance that still incorporates a raw edge aided by the emotion of the piece.

And there is a lot of emotion in this piece-the subject matter even the title leaves no illusions about this. However it’s never overly sentimental or indulgent, there is a real honesty about the way grief manifests itself in our lives and our behaviour- there is anger even selfish behaviour when we lose someone or are losing someone we love and all of this is tapped into. The show isn’t trying to tell people this is how to react to loss it’s simply telling the story of how one person did, and unsurprisingly I think a lot of the audience could relate to that. Yes it is also terribly sad at the end, depicting the memorial for Rapp’s Mother accompanied by Larson’s song from which the show draws it’s title Without You but it’s a kind of respectful fitting sadness that seems to draw the show’s themes and the emotions of the audience together. Much like Larson’s work Rapp’s piece also leaves on a positive note with a rendition of Seasons of Love from Rent a song that emphasises life and love.

I found Without You an incredibly emotional experience, but then it is drawn from material I’m incredibly close to, both personally and professionally. Everyone who loves Rent has their story for why it touched them, why it changed them. For me I was 19 years old a little lost in life-figuratively and literally having just moved from Britain to Canada-and my Father had just died. Rent had an impact on me personally, discovering the music and later that year seeing the show for the first time greatly impacted my life. Later Rent has come to professionally shape it too.

That said I’d begun to worry that through my analysis, the sheer amount I was forced to think about deconstruct and yes distance myself from it that I’d become too distant. Seeing Without You  reconnected me with what I felt was important about Rent and I really see Anthony Rapp’s piece as a continuation of Jonathan Larson’s legacy, while also showing his strength as a talented performer and writer in his own right.

As a final note I must add how grateful I am to Anthony Rapp for giving up his time to talk to me about my research and being so supportive and generous in doing so-the show and the chance to have those conversations renewed my confidence in the work I’ve done and my enthusiasm to continue.

I did say this review wouldn’t’ be entirely objective. Normal service resumed next time!

New York-Theatre Reviews

I’m back from New York, and will get to blogging about that, but priorities and all that-first I’m posting reviews of what I saw. It’s a lot-I saw ten shows along with the six recordings of shows I saw as research. However this was quite a disappointing trip theatre wise-not with what I actually saw which on the whole was brilliant, but in choice. Usually on a trip to New York, as with London I’d be seeing a show every night and still wishing I had time for more. This year however a combination of prohibitive ticket prices ($130 dollars being a ‘standard’ Broadway seat now) and an overwhelming ‘British invasion’ of shows (that I’d either seen in London or didn’t want to see in the first place!) made it a disappointing selection.

Anyway onto what I did see:

Clybourne Park

I saw this at the RWCMD in the Spring and loved the play. While the students gave brilliant performances seeing this with age-appropriate actors certainly helped! It’s a brilliantly written play, well deserving of the ‘Best Play’ Tony it won this year. Interestingly this an American play very much ‘about’ America was premiered in the West End, and actually I can see how the humour and approach of the play worked well with British audiences-there’s a dry humour to it and an almost self-deprecating tone that’s a more ‘British’ trait. However it was really interesting to see it with an American audience and gauge reactions-it deals with issues of race and prejudice and there are often moments of ‘should I be laughing at this’. A superbly acted piece overall.


This is set to come to London this Autumn so normally I might have given it a miss, certainly not gotten to the theatre at 8.30am for student rush tickets. However, as Adam Pascal was in the lead role I had to see it and getting up that early wasn’t a hardship! It was worth it too. The musical is well written and interesting-actually follows on from the racial themes of Clybourne Park, interestingly as I saw them back to back. Some wonderful music also and brilliant performances across the cast. Standout was (and although I’m a bit biased) was Adam Pascal, the role of Huey is a challenge vocally and performance wise and he was simply wonderful. A personal interesting aspect was the day before I’d watched the recording of  the original cast of ‘Rent’ at the archives, seeing his first Broadway performance followed by the most recent was like seeing a career and performance evolution in a fast-forward! This is the fourth time I’ve seen Adam perform and every time he gets stronger vocally and his performance grows. Ok enough gushing now about him! I enourgage anyone to see Memphis in London when it arrives however it’s a night out you wont regret!

War Horse

I saw and loved this in London (despite thinking I might not) The New York production is almost a direct transplant of the National Theatre production in London-aside from fitting it into the space at the Lincoln centre which is a little smaller, the physical performances of the puppeteers (which lets face it is what the audience is there for) remain thankfully unchanged. The moment you see Joey the horse come to life fully is still pure theatrical magic, and the production is still one of the most stunning pieces of theatre I’ve seen in years. Can you hear the ‘but’? yes, well there were changes to the American production which I can only describe as ‘dumbing down’ (I wont be specific in case of ‘spoilering’ anyone) this makes me so angry-either you want to import a production or you don’t, secondly I think the Lincoln Centre should actually credit it’s audiences with more intelligence. There was also a minor directorial alteration to the ending-it didn’t change the story but I just liked the way it was played in London so much better-again spoilers! I also witnessed the worst Welsh accent ever performed on a stage.  But for those who have seen the London production-don’t worry the goose is still there!


Based on a film that I haven’t seen-basic premise Marines compete to find the ugliest girl on their last day before shipping out, predictably one falls in love with the ‘ugly’ girl. It was staged beautifully by Joe Mantello (who I admit I’ve become a bit obsessed with during this trip as he was in two other productions I watched recordings of) sadly for this show the songs were forgettable and I feel it might have worked better as a play. It still had impact-oddly uncomfortable at times and still moving.

Warrior Class

Second play at Second Stage! an engaging play about politics in America-a political candidate deals with a ‘secret’ from his past but with an interesting twist at the end the play reveals more about American politics than it does about the candidates secret. The points it raises aside it was simply one of the most engaging plays I’ve seen in a while, I think it would work equally as well in Britain and I’d love to see it play places like the Sherman!

All the above I saw on my own, the rest I was joined by my Mum for.


Booked for the entirely shallow reason that Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, my Mum’s current favourite TV character and one she has unfavourably compared her daughter to). Also based on a film I haven’t seen Harvey is the story of a man and his best friend-a six foot rabbit that only he can see (or maybe not…). There is no way to describe Harvey other than ‘a really nice play’ it’s the kind of play you leave the theatre and just say ‘ahh’. Will it change your life? probably not (though there are a few good lessons to learn there) but it will perhaps reaffirm your faith in humanity a bit and in entertainment. Jim Parsons was brilliant, equally funny as in ‘Big Bang’ the character of Harvey reminded me of what Sheldon would be like if you took away his intelligence and arrogance-blissfully naive about the world but infinatly curious. To quote Harvey in ‘My Grandmother told me in this life you have to be either very smart or very pleasant. I tried smart for many years, I recommend pleasant.’

Cock-Mike Bartlett

Despite providing me with the opportunity to email my mother and ask her ‘do you want to see Mike Bartlett’s Cock’? (yes I’m that mature) It did mean I got to see a play I wish I’d seen in London. Cock is one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time-clever without being pretentious and moving without being sentimental. It contains one of the best monologues-or best explanations full stop, explaining sexuality for anyone who doesn’t fit into a ‘tick box’ category that I’ve heard. It was also amusing to be one of only a couple of people laughing at the intrinsically ‘British’ jokes or references that thankfully weren’t edited out.

Bring it on the musical

A musical about cheer leading. I know, I know it sounds awful. But I would pay good money just for the stunts these dancers performed. I love dance, my Mum more so-I booked this with her mind-I’ve seen a lot of tricks performed by dancers but these cheer leading moves were something else. Flipping a girl backwards from shoulder height, then someone else catching her at shoulder height-and that wasn’t even one of the ‘hard’ moves! Anyway stunning choreography, a strong score and an amusing if plot-light book, Bring it On is a solid musical. Loses points for being based on a film,  but gains them back for the stunts. I’m sorry did I mention the stunts?

Rent-off-Broadway revival

I was wary about this, I love the Original production of Rent, and in recent years have spent far too much of my life thinking about and analysing it. However I felt compelled to go and see the revivial for research purposes, and I was so glad I did. Michael Grief the original director of Rent has directed this revivial sensibly-apart from scaling down the production, the best description for the changes seems to be ‘tidying up’. It’s fair to say the original production became quite ‘enshrined’ after composer Jonathan Larson’s death, now with hindsight and enough years of distance Grief simply tweaks a few things I imagine he’d have changed in the normal evolution of the production from off-Broadway to Broadway but didn’t feel able to under the circumstances. Having an all new cast, with due to the reduced cast size, some tweaked roles also helps bring a new energy to the piece. It’s interesting to think, the cast now are the actors who grew up with Rent and probably dreamed of being Adam Pascal/Anthony Rapp or India Menzel, and somehow for me that was a lovely thought watching them bring it to life in their own way. For me too, it was a fitting end to my trip seeing this almost like a going forward after all the digging in the past I’d done for Rent. It was still an emotional experience seeing it on stage, and for me that’s when I know a production of Rent works. Ok so I’ve gotten sentimental about it here, forgive me I’m writing a PhD chapter on it and keeping my feelings firmly filed away.

Right so that was the theatre, as concise as I could make it! Trip blog coming in the next few days.

No more daydreams

“All those daydreams become fantasies rather than possibilities”

That’s a quote from one of my favourite films ‘Third Star’ highly recommend it (have tissues at the ready). It’s a highly accurate quote, and while I for the most part stopped dreaming of the big things a while ago (I think it’s called your mid twenties) I had thought my more moderate dreams were still obtainable.

My more moderate dreams consist of a good job-recently either a decent standard academic, knowledgeable and relatively successful in my field or should I choose the other route, a fairly successful component in the British theatre machine. I don’t want to run the National Theatre, I’d just like a decent literary manager post or a publicity position. Nothing fancy just something I’m passionate about and can enjoy. More and more I feel like even my modest dreams that I work hard for are slipping further and further away.

We’ll come back to the fact that my PhD is somewhere between a car crash and a joke at best at the minute and focus on my immediate issue. Until recently (about 18 hours ago to be exact) I had arranged to spend a month in New York doing some research for my PhD and doing some intern work for a theatre  company. I’d gotten a contact through my PhD supervisor and I’d been offered the chance to do some work with them. I did some work remotely, and I was all set to go out there do a bit of work and hopefully expand my contacts, gain some advice and some experience in areas I haven’t worked in before. It was taking me a while to get a chance to talk to my contact to sort out the finer details but that’s arty types for you and as I’m the complete opposite (I need everything organised yesterday to the finest detail) I just put it down to general disorganization.

I should have listened to the feeling-or lack of feeling-I wasn’t excited. I have loved New York for years, I’ve been there far too many times and I’d normally bite your hand up and be climbing at the walls to get there. This time, for this amazing opportunity all my friends were telling me how exciting this was how amazing an opportunity but I couldn’t get excited. Maybe I was nervous, maybe I’ve just been so stressed and busy I haven’t had time to be excited.

I should have listened to the alarm bells, should have done something sooner. I finally spoke to my contact yesterday and there’s no work for me out there. Nobody is going to be there. She said it in such an offhand way, as if that was the plan all along, as if it was no consequence. That wasn’t the plan. I’ve driven myself mad going over it all, I’ve looked at the emails. I was doing work remotely but I was also going there to meet with them, to do some work, gain experience gain advice. Well now I’m not.

I planned my life around this trip, yes the research trip is useful but I could have lived without-I was going to live without. It was a chance finally, the chance to make my CV look brilliant to gain experience and make contacts-which lets face it both academia and theatre are built on-who you know. I could have spent these months, this time and this money trying to do the same here in Cardiff, or in London. I should have.

I don’t know what I’m doing in the immediate or long term future now. I don’t want to go to New York (there’s a sentence I thought I’d never type). And for the long term I’m now left wondering what one earth I’m doing? I’ve been fighting long and hard enough for both career and PhD and you have to wonder when one more slap in the face is one too many?

Sex Swansea and Sian Phillips

Little review of ‘Little Dogs’ or ‘How I went to the pub with Arthur Darvill’
So me ‘The Watson’  (as regular readers of this blog may know her) and another work colleague took a road trip to Swansea in the rain (is there any other kind?) to see National Theatre of Wales/Frantic Assembly’s ‘Little Dogs’. Our friend Lisa Well-Turner worked on the production as ‘Emerging Director’ and well, she wont be ‘emerging’ for long because she’s fabulous, so watch this space…or her space. Anyway I digress….
The formally grand Patti Pavilion-now attached to an Indian Restaurant is a fabulous space for a promenade performance. Inside it was transformed in to what I can only describe as a theatrical playground, as we all sat like good little children cross legged on the floor waiting for the performance to begin all I could think  looking at the pieces of set scattered around the room was oooh what’s going to happen there. I wasn’t disappointed.
Having sat like good theatre going folk quietly on the floor we were soon dragged to our feet (almost literally) and separated into boys and girls-losing 1/3 of our party in the process oops! From this initial movement we were propelled from one side of the space to another by the cast-sometimes separated by a dance battle sometimes herded by ‘police’ sometimes beckoned over with a cry of ‘Oi! Haven’t got all day’ making for a fantastic immersive experience. Promenade has it’s downside, terribly British audience don’t always take well to being told ‘move the fuck down’ or variations thereof and older ladies with handbags have sharp elbows to push you out of the way  and Watson got annoyed at some tall skinny bloke blocking her vie (turns out it was Dr Who’s Arthur Darvill).  Overall the chance to move with the actors and move through the story, getting a different perspective depending on where you stood (or who blocked your view) is something special, the way audiences feed off each other to react in that situation is entirely different and interesting experience.
The promenade element (and amusing anecdotes aside) the content of the piece is equally engaging and visually stunning. Few companies managed the visual brilliance and meaningful content as well as frantic assembly.  Where the dialogue is as real as eavesdropping on Wine Street (in Swansea, where the piece is set for non-locals!) at  3am on a Saturday morning. It is also brilliantly funny and moving-from speeches how/how not to pull boys/girls to the raging disappointment of youth, to Sian Phillips’ rousing final speech all of which are balanced by stunning physical theatre and dance that puts some actual dance pieces to shame. This merging and perfect balance of the physical aspects and theatricality is something rarely seen and made for an electrifying performance. In Frantic Assembly’s work there is a seamless transition from the spoken to the physical and you are never left questioning why you are seeing one or the other as the movement is as organic as the young cast’s natural speech.
The cast themselves are equally flawless, merging as a company and standing out individually. Ridiculously talented dancers and it has to be said I’ve not seen as universally good looking a cast in a long time! Sian Phillips of course deserves special mention for sheer magnetism in every scene she is in and for the most wonderfully dramatic monologue that provides a rousing end to the piece.
Little Dogs was one of those pieces that you leave thinking ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like that’ and that resonates in your brain for hours (days?) later. This show is sold out but I urge you to go and see anything by Frantic Assembly and of course anything that involve Ms Lisa Wells-Turner.
Oh and for those curious to the other anecdote associated with this;  Watson spotted Mr Arthur Darvill on the way to the space (I was too busy talking to notice) and obviously noticed his tall self in her way inside. As it happened we also ended up joining the same group going to the pub that night too. Oh Swansea you height of showbiz luvviness you…..



London Town and Theatre Reviews

Last week I took a trip to London for both work (archive visiting) and pleasure (theatre viewing) is it wrong or odd that those tags are both interchangeable to me?
Anyway a good time was had by all (I think) we learned much in the archive, including that prompt scripts are a bitch to transcribe (actually I knew that already) even researchers at the National Theatre use Wikipedia,  and a good deal about Benedict Cumberbatch, a dressing gown and a skipping rope that it would be unprofessional to share here.
On the pleasure side, we also learned much.  A song about Maggie Thatcher can be fun, that in a Travelodge my archive partner will always find porn on the TV,  that another friend will accidentally take you on a tour of film locations-including that of a certain dominatrix, it is possible to make geek references and dirty comments out of anything (and often simultaneously)  and possibly  found the secret to rendering me speechless (it involves a Pret a Manger and a minor celebrity).
Billy Elliot
I resisted this for a long time, thinking that a musical couldn’t do justice to the gritty historical backdrop of the original film. Also anything that becomes incredibly commercially popular in the West End usually sends me running for the hills. Anyway long story short I saw it in New York last year and despite some dreadful accents, it was wonderful. So when the archive companion wanted to see this I agreed.
Despite being open for several years now Billy in the West end isn’t tired looking like most long-running shows. Perhaps the turnover of child actors actually helps this. Ah yes, child actors, another thing that normally sends me running for the hills. This lot however were pretty good, nobody who you wanted to a) slap or b) well slap. It’s not politically correct, so sue me that’s what I normally want to do to a gaggle of stage school brats on stage. It’s a challenge to find an actor who can sing/act and dance to play Billy. Ours was a decent actor, a passable singer and as a dancer a brilliant tapper and contemporary dancer, his ballet was decent (far better than I could do clearly but I’m being critical here). In terms of performance the family dynamic within the Elliot clan really came across and his brother’s emotional outburst nearly brought me to tears.
What comes across most in Billy Elliot is the staging, hats off to Stephen Daldry this is possibly his best work.  For me this is summarised best by the number ‘Solidarity’ where a children’s ballet class meets a police/strikers standoff. The brilliantly exectuted musical and dance numbers that show how Billy’s passion and talent develop alongside the gritty reality of the 1980s is something worth seeing and worth saying.
It struck us both that seeing Billy Elliot now, rather than in the midst of the Blair Labour years when the film and musical were originally produced adds another dimension and certainly makes both worth a re-visit.
Billy Elliot also contains two of the best lines I’ve heard in a long time ‘You look like a spastic starfish’ and ‘Yer Dad’s as pissed as a platypus’
Mike Bartlett
National Theatre (Olivier)
Mike Bartlett’s new play at the National was the original reason for this trip (ahem I mean it was for work, all for research) I was very excited about this and overall I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all this is how you use the National’s Olivier theatre, and the drum revolve (well at least in the first act) an ominous cube of grey and black spinning in the centre of the stage formed the main set. It because part of but also remained a dark looking force outside of the action, perhaps reminiscent of the shared nightmares the characters in the play have.
The first act tells a sweeping story across the character’s lives, some of whom intersect some don’t-Bartlett thankfully stays away from attempting to tie everyone’s lives too neatly together and the connections are real and believable and also forward the action. Set in a dystopian alternate version of our own world, eerily similar with a Conservative (female) Prime Minister who claims to be different from her party and a looming war with Iran, despite the surreal Bartlett twists this is a very recognisable world.  The combination of clever writing and a stunningly directed first half that used set, movement and music brilliantly-I never thought I’d commend the use of a Rhianna song but I do! The first act builds up to an exciting climax that led us all chomping at the bit for more.
The second act, while a bit strong to say it was a letdown or failure is not as strong. Momentum is lost by an overlong discussion between three key players, which while filled with interesting ideas loses the audience about midway. The second act was redeemed by a brilliantly executed and moving conclusion, the mere sight of the solider in uniform hits the audience with perhaps the true message of the play without having to say a word. The words the other characters say bring back the scope and momentum of the first act enough to redeem a sagging mid point.
The Haunted Child
Joe Penhall
The Royal Court
This play at the Royal Court is the microcosm to Bartlett’s macro in Thirteen. Telling the story of one family dealing with the fallout of modern life, or more accurately falling apart from it. A small scale story set in a living room of a family as the father returns after running away to join-for want of a better word-a cult. As he unravels at home he takes his family and the audience with him.
It’s a credit to the writing that we see clearly the point of view of everyone at one point in the play-from the child who wonders where his Dad has gone, to the wife trying to make sense of the man who comes home, to the man who has been away, who thinks’ he’s found the answers and can’t understand why his family don’t see what he does. That we just for a moment think that he’s right, that perhaps we should join his group illustrates just how on the pulse the play is here. We may not agree with the character’s choices or how the writer chooses to end it, but we certainly recognise their world.
It was a definite plus seeing this the day after 13, pulling back those massive sweeping political ideas to the absolute grass roots, the point at which we experience them certainly left me thinking. The skilful writing and directing that I’d expect from the Royal Court also left me inspired.
So that’s the latest shot of London theatre! On to the next…..

My life in ticket stubs

I spend a great deal of time talking about the experience of theatre, ethnography of it to use the technical term. The where, when and with whom of seeing something is as important as the what much of the time. If you’ve ever taken someone to the theatre/concert/cinema who really doesn’t want to go you’ll know what I mean.

I’ve just been hanging pictures on my office wall, and by pictures I mean theatre programmes. Going through deciding which to hang was as much about what they meant in terms of the event or the time in my life was just as important as the play or musical (or how pretty the programme is)

So up went ‘What the Night is for’ the first play I ever saw in the West End, starring Gillian Anderson who I loved as a teenager (X files obsession) and Roger Allam, who seems to have followed me ever since-as in I see something he pops up in it, I don’t mind he’s a very good actor.

Then ‘The Boy from Oz’ which was the first musical I saw and the first on Broadway. There’s a direct correlation to the research I do today-the issue of HIV/AIDS was rooted in my mind then and began to sprout a year later when I started to discover other plays. It also began a year long obsession and also made me a few friends along the way. I think of that musical I think of my friend Kathy who I’d never have known without it, I think of the times spent with fellow fans (good and bad) and of course I think of getting a kiss on the cheek (or three) from the wonderful Hugh Jackman.

Next ‘Bent’ a play by Martin Sherman, which to this day I think has had the most profound effect on me in terms of writing, academic interest and as a person. Only every so often something hits all the buttons at the time they needed to be hit and Bent did that for me. If I’d seen it at another time, with someone else (I was alone as it happens) would it have been the same? I’m not sure. Walking around London alone after, nobody to talk to and unable to put things into words, every time I walk past that theatre I still think of that day.

Then ‘Chess’ now this is less an emotional attachment than a sheer love of the piece, and the wonderful memory of calling in sick to work to see it in the Albert Hall, travelling down with my Mum and having a conversation about how people thought we were nuts to do such a thing-travel down for one day to see a show. We knew better.

Finally ‘Angels in America’ I thought long and hard about putting this up-partly it’s about keeping my work and my interests seperate-did I really want to look day in day out to the play I’m spending so much time studying? Really though I knew it was more, it was the first time someone-my MA course leader, pointed out it was important who you went to the theatre with, what was going on around you. That play, that production I should say, reminds me of a very dark time-leaving London, moving back home and a very destructive  person in my life. But summoning the courage I decided to exorcise my demons, I love this play it’s part of the reason I study theatre, that I do what I do, that I write. And perhaps it’s a reminder of how far I’ve come. I decided to put in the frame some feathers from the Angel and the tickets from one performance. Yes it looks great, the artwork is fantastic. I put the hook in the wall and lifted the frame, noticed my name is my old name on one ticket. Looked at the other ticket: it doens’t have my name on it. It has the last name I wanted to see.

So it’s not on the wall. I sat for a long time and stared at it. I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel sad or upset. I felt…odd. That play, all of them are so much more than the words on the page or the night on stage. They are stages of my life, perhaps I should take the ticket out and try again, perhaps I should file it away again….