Anna Christie

Anna Christie, an early play by American playwright Eugene O’Neill, was performed by the US Cape Ann Shakespeare Troupe (CAST) at the Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington. The play is about Anna, the American daughter of a Norwegian immigrant bargeman, and her relationship with Irishman Matt, whom she meets while travelling with her father.

The play explores themes of family, alcoholism, violence and sexuality and the motif of the sea runs through: Anna’s father left her with cousins so that she could grow up away from the influence of the sea. However, it appears that this decision led to less desirable consequences, and Anna’s life headed upon a trajectory that might have been avoided.

Anna Christie is an impressively modern play in many ways, particularly in its exploration of female sexuality. However, the ending really surprised me. The performances were very strong, particularly Ariel Sargent as Anna, who made her character extremely convincing.

Overall, this is a very good production of a fascinating play.

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Andrea Chénier

I had the last-minute chance to see Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera House, and it was well worth the trouble. The opera, with music by Umberto Giordano and libretto by Luigi Illica, is the story of Chénier, a revolutionary poet during the French Revolution, his fall from grace, and his relationship with the woman he loves.

It’s a beautiful production, with elaborate sets signifying the drawing room of the wealthy family at whose home the opera begins, before settling to a sparse simplicity when the action has moved to revolutionary Paris. Roberto Alagna is superb as Chénier, as is Sondra Radvanovsky as his lover Maddalena, but I thought the most interesting character was Carlo Gérard (Dimitri Platanias), the former footman who enthusiastically joins the revolution and is torn between his love for Maddalena and his feelings about Chénier, who inspired him to revolution but has captured the heart of the woman Gérard loves.

This was my first opera by Giordano and it was an enjoyable experience; I’d certainly like to see more in the future.

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Jeffrey Bernard was a twentieth-century journalist whose boozing and gambling were as famous as his work. Often, his drinking prevented him from submitting his articles on time, and when this happened his paper would print, instead, the phrase, “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell”. This became the title of Keith Waterhouse’s play about this infamous London character, set in one of his favourite haunts in Soho, the Coach and Horses, run by well-known landlord Norman.

In a pleasing twist, this new production from Defibrillator Theatre is staged in this very pub. Audience members sit on stools and chairs ranged around the pub while actor Robert Bathurst stumbles backwards and forwards behind the bar, regaling us with tales of Bernard’s life. It’s a fabulous performance and a truly entertaining production, featuring an egg trick, cat racing, and a large quantity of vodka.

Suffrajitsu

Despite the fact that Suffrajitsu, a piece of puppet theatre co-produced by the Little Angel Theatre and Horse + Bamboo, was described as being suitable for 7-11 year olds, I knew I still wanted to see it. I thought it sounded great: a story based on the real life suffragettes who learned Jiu-Jitsu to help them defend themselves against the policemen and others who tried to thwart them. This particular story wasn’t exactly a true one, featuring an airship and a daring prison rescue, but it was no less entertaining for that.

The star of the show is mill worker Annie, who follows and ends up rescuing suffrage leader Helen. I did like that the suffrajitsu gang were made up of real-life suffragettes who were not just white and able-bodied: members included Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess and goddaughter to Queen Victoria, and Rosa May Billinghurst, who took an active part in the movement despite being a wheelchair user. I did think the scene changes took too long and detracted from the pace of the story, and I didn’t see the point of the framing story about a modern dojo under threat of closure, but overall I thought this was great fun.

Donnerstag aus Licht

I went to see Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht mainly out of curiosity. Performed at the Southbank Centre for the first time in the UK since 1985, the description on the website made it sound intriguing.

The opera was the first to be composed of a seven-opera cycle, each named after a day of the week and a colour. The title translates as Thursday from Light, and the colour theme is bright blue, although I didn’t see much evidence of this during the production. It tells the story of Michael, an allegorical figure meant to represent the composer himself, as he grows up, travels the world and ascends to heaven.

Beginning with a Greeting, performed outside the auditorium in the Clore Ballroom, the opera told the story in three acts. In the beginning, we see Michael’s childhood in the world of humans. His youth is marked by tragedy, as we see his mother lose a child, threaten suicide and be condemned to an asylum. In the second act, he travels around the world, and in the third, he ascends to heaven. The evening is rounded off with a Farewell, performed by musicians on the balcony of the Southbank Centre as the audience leaves the building – sending strains of music over the water as I crossed the bridge to the station.

The music is – to my emphatically untrained mind – that twentieth-century ‘modern’ sound that isn’t particularly melodic and makes use of unusual sounds both instrumental and vocal. There were times when I got rather bored and my mind began to wander, particularly during the second act, which can hardly be called an opera as there was no actual singing. On the other hand, there were some superb and very amusing moments when orchestra members became full participants in the action. A pair of trumpets had a kind of duel, another bass player appeared to attack the pianist (don’t worry, no pianists were harmed) and a pair of clarinettists had a dance-off. In the third act, as Michael has a confrontation with Satan, a trombonist, who previously impressed with his tap-dancing, slowly crawls off like a frightened caterpillar while everyone is distracted by the warring pair. This third act has some impressive light effects, which certainly break the monotony.

I’m not sure if I would rush to see the other six operas in this cycle. Nevertheless, this performance was an interesting experience and there’s no doubting the ability and commitment of the musicians involved.

Snake in the Grass

Snake in the Grass is a thriller by Alan Ayckbourn, which I saw performed at the East Lane Theatre in Harrow. It is about two sisters, Miriam and Annabel, whose father has just died, and the problems they encounter in the shape of their father’s nurse, Alice, who claims Miriam killed him – and that she can prove it. The sisters join forces to get rid of the threat posed by Alice, but this is just the beginning.

This was a hugely entertaining play with lots of twists and turns. The performances were good and the characters, especially the two sisters, were well drawn and fleshed out. This was an interesting play about family relationships and loyalty, but it was also lots of fun.

Paul Bunyan

This work, an early folk opera by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by W. H. Auden, is currently being performed at the Alexandra Palace Theatre. I managed to get a ticket to see it in this beautiful, restored space.

Paul Bunyan was inspired by American folk tales of a giant by that name who helped to build America. We never see Bunyan on stage, and he doesn’t sing (Simon Russell Beale provides his speaking voice) – the implication being that he is too big to fit alongside the ordinary-sized workers and lumberjacks working to cut down the trees and build a new America. I must admit the first ten minutes of the piece, during which trees (represented by assorted singers, who are dotted around the auditorium) sing about being cut down, made me think it was going to be some sort of environmental fable, but I was completely wrong: chopping down the trees is presented as a good thing, something that has to be done to form the world they want to create.

There are some very funny moments in the opera, such as when the workers sing about their lives, and when two chefs compete for attention by declaiming the relative merits of soup and beans. I loved the staging and costumes, particularly Bunyan’s cow Babe, who was represented by assorted fridges: starting with a mini fridge and ending with a whole row of big fridges.

There is some excellent music, much of it inspired by American folk traditions, and many strong performances. This opera was a treat, and the venue added to the enjoyment. I’m glad I got the chance to see it.