Mike and I occasionally (OK - frequently) bunk off and see plays on our own, and sometimes I sit and think, "Oh, this is so good, I wish we'd taken the Group!". And so we're going to try to review some of the plays, etc. that we see on our own or with friends, with an explanation about why we didn't or couldn't or might book them for the Group, and what we think the Group reaction would be. Although individuals in our Group would have different opinions, our judgement of Group opinion refers to general taste and reaction, and the pleasure a production would give to most of those choosing to see it.
Do you think you might have booked for any of these shows? Or have you seen something on your own? Do let us know by email. Your comments may help us when deciding on future bookings. Fredo
Machinal by Sophie Treadwell at the Almeida Theatre
What's it about? A young woman caught in the rat-race of life and stifled by conformity commits a crime.
What did it have going for it? Great reviews for this production and we remember being impressed by the play at the National many years ago. It's short, sharp and should be devastating. It also chimes with a woman's place in the world in the time of #MeToo, even though written in 1926.
Did we enjoy it? Design is all for this play. When we saw it at the National many many years ago the stage was dominated by an over-bearing machine-like structure representing the conformity and repression of our metropolitan society. Here a huge angled mirror, simple but effective, did the same. With sound. The brilliant soundscape of traffic, typewriters, overlapping chatter, subway clangs, police whistles, shouting reporters, the hub-hub of the city, dominated. The plot is simple, and simplified into chapters – young woman is bullied at the office, coerced into marriage and childbirth, is bored by her husband, seeks brief satisfaction outside her marriage, and then...no spoiler alert! Emily Berrington has to carry the play in the central role of Young Woman with other actors covering a multitude of periphery roles. It works, up to a point, but with diminishing returns. After a hugely impressive opening, with the audience being pressurised to a degree of discomfort by the noise and irritation of the immersive city experience, the play settles onto a predictable downward slope to its inevitable end, emphasised by chapter headings and an amazing quick-change of props and costumes between the ten short scenes. Scene 10 which should shock ends in more like a whimper. Beginning in the 1920s, the subsequent scenes hint at times passing but with the pressures of conformity remaining the same...we get the message anyway, without mobile phones making an appearance. At 80 minutes in length with no interval, the play is long enough to make it's point and short enough not to over-egg its theme. It's also slight enough to need its impressively taught production. And that certainly does impress.
Our Rating: 3.5/5
Would the Group have booked? No 'names', short and dark, so maybe a difficult sell for our group.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Some would have been impressed, others would say it's not their sort of play.
Group Appeal: 2.5/5
An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
What's it about? Here we have a play within a play about writing a play, about a particular playwright (Dion Boucicault) and one of his early plays (The Octoroon), and about the conventions of staging plays back in its day (1859). But mainly it is about race and slavery. The word 'octoroon' means a person of one-eighth African ancestry,
What did it have going for it? In Gloria last year, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins showed total control in structure, character development and dialogue, and created one of the plays of the year. An Octoroon was first presented at the tiny Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and got 4&5-star reviews, resulting in the first ever transfer from that theatre to the National. Excitement mounted as it reopened to more rave notices. And I'd done my homework (Fredo writes) by attending a seminar on Dion Boucicault (see If You're Irish, in the Previous News Items section HERE). Further excitement was generated when our friend Rose told us that she had heard from other friends that it was the best thing they had ever seen. And then, intriguingly, Rose went to see it herself, and said she "wanted to have words with the director".
Did we enjoy it? The subject may sound weightily stagey but it's given an explosively theatrical treatment. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins includes great chunks of Boucicault's melodrama to illustrate the theme of how black characters have been depicted on stage and mistreated in life. It's a lot to take on. The presentation here is adventurous but a mess. There is no attempt at reality or consistent style; no cohesion - we are continually reminded we are watching a theatre piece, with abrupt mood changes, melodrama played as vaudeville, interruptions, surprises, black actors whitened-up and whites blackened-up, a red-faced indian, wigs and roles swapped, frequent "nigger" references, and ultimately a flash of flaming spectacle. Even a tap-dancing Br'er Rabbit (played by a woman) makes an appearance – he apparently originated from tales written by African slaves. It's all here, at length, as a kaleidoscope, and perhaps that is why my attention and responses were erratic throughout.
Boucicault was a respected playwright who often portrayed social situations of his day, bringing them to the attention of large audiences in an appealing and spectacular way to get his message across. His melodrama The Octoroon focused on the evils of slavery and yet here the extracts from that play are lampooned grotesquely – another reason for my lack of enthusiasm – why ridicule the play on which this piece is based when Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has the same ideas? Often, I feel, a play's good 'social' intentions get reviewed, rather than its success in realising them, and all the 4-star reviews for this production may be an example of this.
In the lead, playing the playwright BJJ (geddit?) and several of his characters of differing races, Ken Nwosu impresses hugely with his expressive agility and tale-telling ability to hook the audience. When I was not thinking this was a production styled for the amusement of five-year olds, I enjoyed a lot of the inventive staging and was more affected by the few moving scenes of melodrama played straight, than by the broadened scenes of slapstick farce. I wish I could have liked it more.
Our Rating: 2.5/5
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it, unless the title was puzzlement enough to lure some.
Would the group have enjoyed it? As an entertainment - perhaps. As something more - possibly. It certainly seduced some reviewers but not this one.
Group Appeal: 2/5
Fiddler on the Roof (music Jerry Bock, lyrics Sheldon Harnick, book Joseph Stein),
at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Silk Street Theatre,
What's it about? Tevye, an impoverished Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia, has to accept that while some things never change for his people the strength of tradition can be dented by the love matches of his daughters.
What did it have going for it? Fiddler has proved to be a strong survivor among musicals (1964). Its hummable melodies and witty lyrics stick in the mind. Its unchallenging endearing story line can (maybe) bring a tear to the eye. The GSMD’s fine record and excellent theatrical facilities are strong recommendations in themselves.
Did we enjoy it? This production was hugely enjoyable. All aspects were admirable: a visually captivating and adaptable set; a mellifluous band under Steven Edis, at home with punchy and silky big band numbers and with characterful klezmer; and a large enthusiastic student cast whose ensemble moments were outstanding - how one’s creaky knees envied such flexible dancing!
The show requires a powerful leading man and Alex James-Cox as Tevye absolutely dominated, fully inhabiting his role in wry delivery, in voice, and in gesture. The book rules and so, unavoidably perhaps, other roles, though very well handled, were less rounded in character and less impactful. There were some moments of tonal uncertainty in individual voices (assisted or not by technology). Of course, we are not talking Wagner here, though some surprising parallels struck me. Just as at Bayreuth, the Silk Street Theatre conceals its Orchestra from audience view in a deep pit. Into Tevye’s world comes Perchik (Toheeb Jimoh), a mysterious young radical who in the style of Lohengrin brings change to the traditions of the community – and then disappears to remote Kiev. And finally, rather like the Gods in Rhinegold retreating to Valhalla, Tevye and his neighbours disperse in the face of Tsarist threats and brutality to other places and inevitably to fresh uncertainties.
One could imagine a production that yielded starker contrasts of mood, given the plot line, but here, director Martin Connor kept things on the bright(er) side and Joanna Godwin’s energetic choreography reinforced that. Overall, the charm and commitment of the cast made for a terrific evening’s entertainment.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? Probably two visits would be necessary.
Would the Group have enjoyed it? They would lap it up like chicken soup with barley.
Tartuffe by Moliére, adapted by Christopher Hampton
at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
What’s it about? The central character is Orgon who falls under the influence of the messianic figure of Tartuffe, inviting him into his home. There are repercussions that affect Orgon, his wife Elmire and other members of his family and other acquaintances. The original 1664 version was set in Paris but here we are transported to modern-day Los Angeles. For some reason, never explained within the context of the play, the dialogue is delivered partly in French and partly in English, with surtitles to translate each into the other language.
What did it have going for it? Christopher Hampton has an extensive and impressive list of plays, translations and adaptations to his name. The cast includes Audrey Fleurot (Spiral) as Elmire, George Blagdon (Versailles) as the son Damis and Paul Anderson (Peaky Blinders) as Tartuffe. The role of Orgon was played by Sebastian Roché. Although the reviews had done little to encourage a booking, a price reduction from £75 to £25 for good stalls seats for its final few weeks was enough to get us there to judge for ourselves.
Did we enjoy it? The contemporary setting wasn’t an issue and the ultra-sparse set, comprising mainly a glass box that moved backward and forward, was odd but it had its place. The main issue was the alternating dialogue which severely affected the delivery of the text, especially any comic lines. By the time you had read the surtitle the action had moved on and it all made it harder work to get involved in the story. The cast gave strong and moving performances, with many switching between French and English (in the same scene sometimes) although not every actor came across as being entirely comfortable or convincing in their non-native language.
This version had Tartuffe as a white-robed evangelical Christian who held sway over Orgon to seize power and wealth. Just as he thinks he has won, the tables are turned and the US Government official delivering news-used phrases and referenced actions that were very thinly-disguised Trump-like. On the very afternoon that Mr Trump came to town, that played very well with the audience!
Our rating: Mostly the play warranted 2.5/5 but with that final scene we raise it to 3/5
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Those familiar with the play might have been interested to see an updated version and, in Christopher Hampton’s hands, it had its moments. But, overall, probably not. For those fortunate to be bi-lingual it would probably be a much richer and enjoyable experience.
Group Appeal: 2.5/5
PLEASE EMAIL US WITH YOUR COMMENTS OR SUGGESTIONS
This is a list below with ratings of everything we see in 2018, with and without the Group.
Our own theatre visits without the Group are shown in bold and the dates marked >.
The list will be updated occasionally.
*assessed from the comments on the Opinions page and feedback on the coach