Giselle

My first Theatre Bloggers outing of the year involved a trip to the Hawth Theatre, Crawley, a bit further away than I normally travel (it’s about half an hour south of London) but a pleasant venue with a modern and comfortable auditorium. I was there to see the St Petersburg Classic Ballet perform Giselle, a nineteenth-century Romantic ballet that is one of the few such ballets to still be performed today.

Giselle is the tale of a village girl who falls in love with Count Albrecht, who has hidden his true identity from her and claims to be a fellow peasant named Loys. Once she discovers who he really is, and that he is already betrothed to another, she dies of a broken heart. Giselle becomes one of the Wilis, spirits of young women who have been jilted, and who dance all men they come across to death. When Count Albrecht crosses their path, only Giselle’s forgiveness and interception can save him, and allow her to rest in peace.

Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier created the ballet after reading about the Wilis in De l’Allemagne by Heinrich Heine, and a poem called “Fantômes” in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo.The ballet was first performed in Paris in 1841, with music composed by Adolphe Adam. This production, directed by Marina Medvetskaya, is a traditional one and unlike many touring ballets it boasts a live orchestra: the Hungarian Sinfonietta.

The first act was a beautiful ballet in a rural setting, with gentle humour and appealing characters. Natalia Romanova made a charming Giselle, with Vadim Lolenko very good as the dashing Albrecht. I also liked Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, danced by Evgeniy Silakov. With his red hair and beard he really stood out, and I found him one of the most interesting characters in the piece, his jealousy contributing to Giselle’s discovery of Loys’ true identity and her subsequent death.

The second was very different in tone, an eerie, beautiful moonlight setting in which Yuliya Yashina shone as Myrtha, the aloof and commanding Queen of the Wilis. There was some really beautiful dancing in this act and Romanova’s performance as Giselle stood out.

I thoroughly enjoyed Giselle and with its straightforward story and impressive choreography it would be an ideal introductory ballet for someone new to the art form. It is also charming enough to appeal to the more seasoned ballet-goer. Definitely recommended.

 

The Gin Chronicles

What’s better than theatre? Theatre with gin, of course. On Friday night I attended a performance of The Gin Chronicles, an old-fashioned radio-style comedy by The Misfits of London, at the Old Sorting Office Arts Centre in Barnes. Written by Robert Blackwood and Nick Cowell, the show is set in a 1947 radio studio and recounts the disappearance of the owner of Captain Botanicals London Dry Gin. Can John Jobling (a Bertie Wooster-esque fop) and his intelligent secretary Doris Golightly uncover the mystery?

The show was a hugely entertaining mystery, with four talented cast members playing different characters, plus one Foley artist making all of the sound effects (I particularly liked his use of lettuce!). It was well-written and lots of fun.

The Gin Chronicles was unusual in that it had a sponsor: I wouldn’t normally approve of such commercial considerations in the midst of theatre shows, but in this case the sponsor – a local gin brand – really fit with the feel of the show. Audience members got to sample the gin along with a range of mixers. The gin in question is Juniper Green, the world’s first organic London Dry Gin, and I really would recommend it – I thought it was lovely and I’d certainly purchase a bottle for myself. Overall, I had a lovely evening.

 

Give Me Your Love

Give Me Your Love is the new show from Ridiculusmus, the theatre group who gained a reputation for examining mental health issues in an unusual and accessible way with their production The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. This piece, which I saw at Battersea Arts Centre, was inspired by research into MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The play is unusual in that we don’t actually see the face of the protagonist, Zach (David Woods), a Welsh squaddie who has retreated inside a cardboard box as a reaction to his experiences in Iraq. Also, hardly ever do we see the face of Jon Haynes, who plays both Carol (Zach’s wife, voiced offstage) and Ieuan, Zach’s friend. The plot involves Ieuan visiting Zach to let him know that ecstasy (MDMA) is being used to treat post-combat stress; we get plenty of physical comedy as Zach’s visitor tries to get the medication to him, as well as a Beckettian sense of the absurd.

A fascinating and quirky experience, the show raises more questions than it answers, and I was left wondering about how effective MDMA really is. Yet it was a useful insight into the mind of someone suffering from PTSD, explored in an unusual way.

The Dazzle

From one show about a pair of reclusive hoarders to another: after seeing the Grey Gardens musical last week, I come to The Dazzle, performed in the former St Martin’s College of Art building on Charing Cross Road, renamed Found111. However, whereas the former show left me with a sense of admiration for the mother and daughter living independently, The Dazzle had a much more melancholy tone.

Richard Greenberg’s play is about the Collyer brothers, who were found dead in their New York mansion in 1947, buried under a pile of junk. It begins in 1905, when Langley Collyer, a talented pianist, and his brother Homer, a former lawyer, live a privileged life mixing with society and – in Langley’s case – demonstrating his musical talent and sporadically pursuing the wealthy heiress Milly Ashmore. Later, the brothers start to retreat from the world, growing more and more isolated and eccentric, reliant upon one another and turning into compulsive hoarders.

The three-hander stars Andrew Scott as Langley: on television, I am not a fan of the actor (I find his Moriarty in Sherlock supremely irritating) but here I began to see why he is so acclaimed, his quirky performance and strong stage presence bringing his socially awkward character to life. I was also impressed with David Dawson as his brother Homer, bringing out the character’s love for and frustration with his talented brother. Joanna Vanderham has a difficult job as Milly, a much less rounded character than the two brothers, but I felt she did an excellent job, and was particularly moving in the second half of the play.

 

Husbands & Sons

This ambitious production in the new-ish Dorfman Theatre at the National combines three of D. H. Lawrence’s plays into one evening, telling the story of three different mining families. Adapted by Ben Power and directed by Marianne Elliott, Husbands & Sons combines A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law into one mammoth tale of love and hardship in the village of Eastwood, on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, in the month of October, 1911.

The set is pretty impressive, with plans for the three houses marked out on the floor, capturing the claustrophobic, fenced-in atmosphere. I was sitting in one of the on-stage seats, close to the action, in prime position to gain the greatest benefit from the raising of the steel barrier just before the play started, mimicking the lifts that took the miners into the bowels of the earth to begin their day.

Individually, there is much to admire about all of the plays. Louise Brealey shines as the new bride in The Daughter-in-Law, caught in a struggle with her husband’s mother (an excellent Susan Brown) for his love and attention. A Collier’s Friday Night explores the difficulties that arise when the son goes off to university and leaves behind his mining heritage, and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, the only play of the three that I have seen before, is a powerful study of a woman torn between her growing love for a young electrician and loyalty to her boorish husband, with a standout central performance from Anne-Marie Duff.

Having said that, I felt that bringing all the plays together as one was a mistake. The pacing felt wrong, and the tone of each piece had a distinct feel that was lost in the general atmosphere. The dialogue often felt stilted, as it was chopped up and scenes that might have taken a couple of minutes in the original plays ended up taking much longer as all three works jostled for space. Other than allowing some of the characters to cross over from one play into another, creating the feel of a mining community, I didn’t think there was much benefit in this approach.

I would have preferred to see the three plays as separate productions, perhaps performed on the same night with intervals in between, rather than in one combined production. However, I did find enough to appreciate in Husbands & Sons to make me glad I went.

 

 

Marcel

The London International Mime Festival is an event that often passes me by, due in no small part to the timing – in January I’m always a bit dazed and it takes me some time to get back into the swing of things after Christmas. However, this year I got my act together in time to check out the opening show of this year’s festival, Marcel, which was showing at the Shaw Theatre.

Created by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the show stars Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, the latter the protagonist who is being “tested” for something – we never find out quite what, but the inference is that his age is proving a hindrance. In his attempts to carry out his tasks, chaos ensues as he struggles to negotiate the huge curved ramp and other props on the stage.

There are some impressive moments, but overall the mood is one of gentle comedy rather than groundbreaking humour. Not that this is a problem – I found the show very amusing, and if it lacked structure somewhat, it was a warmhearted examination of the effect of ageing on the body.

Grey Gardens

At first the setting of Grey Gardens, the hotly-anticipated musical at the Southwark Playhouse starring Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock, struck me as a kind of twisted fantasy of my own future: swanning around a crumbling mansion, clad in vintage nightgowns, with fifty-two cats. In all seriousness, the show, based on the cult documentary by the Maysles brothers about ex-First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric cousin and aunt, is a homage to the quirky outsider, even as it emphasises the sadness of what could have been.

The show has a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, and employs a number of twists on the original documentary. After a brief introduction to elderly Edith Bouvier Beale (Sheila Hancock) and her daughter Little Edie (Jenna Russell), who live together in the decaying Grey Gardens (a beautifully designed, detailed set by Tom Rogers), we are taken back in time to the 1940s when Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) is preparing to formally announce her engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr, hoping that her mother (Jenna Russell), who loves to sing, won’t steal her thunder. This first act is largely fictional, although the real Little Edie did claim that if Joseph Kennedy hadn’t been killed in the Second World War, she would have been First Lady instead of her cousin Jackie. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan, and the engagement comes to nothing, leading into the second act, where Little Edie, after some time in New York, has returned to the family home to live with her mother.

Jenna Russell is undoubtedly the star of the show: she shines as the older Edie in the first act and excels as Little Edie in the second, delighting the audience with “The Revolutionary Costume For Today”. I haven’t seen the documentary on which Grey Gardens was based, but I’ve heard from those that have that her performance is spookily accurate. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front row and she actually had tears in her eyes during the poignant number, “Another Winter in a Summer Town”; an unforgettable moment, yet she is also able to bring out the comedic aspects of the character.

Sheila Hancock isn’t the greatest singer, but her overall performance is strong and really works within the context of the show. I was particularly impressed with Rachel Anne Rayham as the young Little Edie, as well as Aaron Sidwell who played two completely different roles, Joseph Kennedy and Jerry, the kindhearted teenager who helps out the older women in Act 2.

Musically, a lot of the score is pleasant but unobtrusive, but some tracks stand out, and it all works well within the piece as a whole. The switch in tone between the first and second acts is dramatic; the first an old-fashioned romance, the second a quirky comedy, but somehow it all comes together.

What I loved about this musical is that there are so many different ways to interpret the pair’s lives: are they to be pitied, envied, or something in between? For me, I was largely left with a sense of admiration for these women who, for all their troubles, had managed to carve out unconventional lives for themselves. Whether intentional or not, I detected an undercurrent of feminism in the piece: in the first act, Little Edie’s grandfather exhorts his daughters to “marry well”; her fiance cannot cope with the suggestion that she has behaved unconventionally; her father is held up as some sort of moral arbiter despite the fact that he has run off with another woman. The two Edies have been able to escape this masculine judgement to live independently together (the older Edith’s anthem “The Cake I Had” is almost triumphant), even if their independence is inextricably mixed with a mutual dependence on one another. If their lives are ultimately tragic, perhaps that’s a reflection of the society that wouldn’t accept them.

A deeply unconventional musical, Grey Gardens is worth seeing for Jenna Russell’s performance alone, as well as being a fascinating and bittersweet look at mother and daughter relationships.