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…..

http://www.franticassembly.co.uk/

http://nationaltheatrewales.org/

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’
13
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….