Just how aware of soundbites should reviewers be?

Shawshankgate? Charles Spencer

It is slightly ironic that a show about prison could land it’s Producers in one, but it seems that the Westminster Trading Standards Office are out prima donna-ring the best of us and threatening them with such.  Indeed looking at the enormous whirlwind of bureaucratic dust that has been blown up over the alleged misquoting of Charles Spencer, no one could say the West End wasn’t fabulously over-the-top.

But whilst it’s been funny to watch the WTSO up in arms like mini Mary Whitehouses; “It is not acceptable for any theatre to mislead the public” they say rather officiously (I mean steady on there deary) it’s also a bit worrying.  As Spencer himself points out, this hoo hah is in danger of being used to set a dreaded ‘example’, an example which could end up (after long tedious legal battles) in reviews which are so blandly non-committal as to be worthless.

Even if ‘Shawshankgate’ doesn’t lead to such a disheartening conclusion, it raises the question of just how aware (and responsible?) reviewers should be of possible soundbites.  With friends on both sides of the fence, I know how expected it is to include snappy sentences that can be used on advertising material, although obviously only if the review is good.

It does seem a bit foolish of Spencer to include such a quotable line of praise in the middle of a mediocre write up; he’s been doing it long enough to know someone was bound to pinch it .

Surely you should be able to write what you want but in the light of the over-the-top reaction to the current Shawshank debacle, should we all be keeping one eye on the possible manipulations of desperate marketing men?  They couldn’t use it if we didn’t put it out there.  In the crazy dance of promotion and critic, aren’t we both a little bit responsible?

Bold As Brass – Second Run This Week

Bold as Brass is going back up this Thurs (26 Nov) and Sun (29 Nov) at The Duke of Clarence in St George’s Circus.  If you missed it the first time make sure you take a trip to Elephant and Castle and enjoy this incredible building and surreally charming show.  Do it whilst you still can.

To reserve tickets email  jon@jon-cooper.co.uk.  Show begins at 7.30pm.

Icons

Michael Twaits

Written for Whats On Stage  20 November 2009

There is something terribly beautiful about the rawness of Michael Twaits’ work and something rather spiritual about it too. He’s not afraid to reveal all to his audience, offering himself up completely on an alter to the gods. It is therefore fitting that in his new show Twaits takes us through an exploration of our new holy of holies; celebrities.

Icons is a caustic multi-media cabaret that is as far away from the calm religious portraits of the past as Jesus is from Jade Goody. But maybe these two figures are closer than we like to think; as Twaits rather eerily puts it, “If Heat is the celebrity Bible, Jade Goody is its parable”.

It’s this mixture of wit and scary insight that makes Icons more than just a pithy piece of celebrity fun. Twaits is out to find the meaning of our modern icons and he does so using both sparkly schadenfreude and a disturbing amount of common sense. We are introduced to Lucky, a Britney Spears fan who is trying to transcend herself and literally become Britney (if she could eat her body and drink her blood you genuinely feel she would), a hesitant yet defiant Garry Glitter obsessive and of course the fabulous Lady M, Twaits’ infamous drag alter ego.

Whirling through a blend of video footage, Q&A sessions, monologues and songs, we’re plunged into their obsessions, seeing them in all their desperate neediness and vulnerability. At points it’s a bit of a messy journey, with not all the sequences totally working, but holistically Icons packs a punch. For although Twaits’ vicious wit is out in force, so is his empathy, and through our laughter we feel for these star worshippers. Because in the midst of all this glitter and gold it’s the sad realisation that our icons have fallen from their celestial posts that hits you the hardest. In the face of their fall where does this leave us mere mortals?

Twaits’ greatest skill is the ability to marry the frivolous with the serious and in the midst of all this fluff to make you think. The defining number of the night comes as Lady M heart-stoppingly sings “Stonewall”, Twaits’ joyously defiant song. In this moment, as Judy Garland inspires a group of individuals to change the course of their lives, you are transcended from the mundane to the sublime and surely whether religious or famous, that’s the purpose of a modern icon.

When Henri Met Oscar

Written for Whats On Stage 19 November 2009

It’s always exciting to look into the lives of those artistic giants who have shaped our modern culture and delight in the surprises to be found there. Mark Rothko’s hatred of Andy Warhol, Claude Monet who, long before his bourgeoisie water lilies, was the enfant terrible of the art world; the list of real life intrigues is endless. 

Following this gossipy ‘tude therefore, When Henri Met Oscar, Michael Gannon’s new play, is bound to be a corker. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec with his painted whirling dervishes and Oscar Wilde’s delightfully sharp yet frothy wit, both outsiders of the Establishment, both in their separate ways obsessed with beauty; this was to be a meeting of titans. But instead of the explosion longed for, all that results in this confused play is a bemused fizzle, and a damp one at that.

We begin in a high class brothel in 1894 Paris, and end in a cafe in 1900.  During this time Wilde is imprisoned and released whilst Toulouse-Lautrec has been sectioned and is dying. Bewilderingly these life changing events do not affect any discernible personal development within Gannon’s characters. All we get to see is a continuous and tedious routine of griping and quipping at one another which bears no relation to a two-way friendship. Interspersed between their waspish discourse, prostitutes giggle and flirt, supposedly giving us a taste of the bohemian atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge.

Sadly for all this intended hedonism, the only joyous moments come when Wilde is quoted verbatim, with all else in this staging being quirky and awkward. This is a mess of a script that jumps incomprehensibly from the past to the present and gives no in-depth sense of these two men as either individuals or friends. After two hours the question still remains; what did happen when Henri met Oscar?

Director Sinead Kent fails to get a grip on the piece, leaving the cast to fall into either overacting, or under confident performances. Moments of silence are all too easily seen as accidents and consequently there are no moments of tension. Within this hesitant bumbling there are some valiant attempts at detailed physical characterization from Steven Rodgers, who at points succeeds in channeling a little of the spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec.  But this is more than can be said for the rest of this show, which disappointingly lacks any of the sublime clarity and conviction that made its eponymous heroes so exceptional.

 

Wicked – artists who can actually sing! MT Producers take note.

Wicked has singing munchkins, a teaching goat, a green protagonist and a mechanical dragon, which may make the whole thing sound terribly silly.  But I can honestly say that it is, well, wicked.  And the reason for this prognosis? The outstanding quality of its two stars, Dianne Pilkington and Alexia Khadime, whose vocal skill easily matches those of their operatic counterparts.  This is pure talent people, sit back and enjoy the ride because you really will be thrilled at this helter skelter of a show with its non-stop spectacle and panache.

What makes Wicked so damned impressive is the quality of its product; and it is impressive, whether you’re a musical fan or not.  Not only are the leads fabulous (a very MT phrase), the design sits beautifully in between Tim Burtonesque expressionism and high camp and the choreography is modern and grotesquely stylish.  Last but not least the story, though on the surface quite slight, has deeper echoes of the Nazi’s gradual segregation and attempted negation of the Jewish people.  All in all it’s a bit like the bastard child of Cabaret and Disney, and all the better for it.

If only all musical producers were so concerned with maintaining such high standards.  Audiences are being asked to part with over £50 for the best West End seats and should be given their money’s worth.  Value for money is an old and seemingly obvious argument but it’s one which is backed up by an artistic need as well.  As someone who works in the musical industry it’s vital to feel that you are working on a product that has genuine integrity.  Sure money makes the world go round, but can’t we ensure it’s the best possible world we can show our paying public?  It should be important to us to maintain the best standards whether we’re involved in the candy covered pink genius of Grease, or the hill like heavenly glory of The Sound Of Music; musical theatre producers need to remember that just because they can get away with mediocre standards doesn’t mean that they should.   Moreover money and talent don’t have to be mutually exclusive; as Wicked proves; you spend money on quality and you make it back in spades. 

We need to stop employing ‘stars’ (who never actually are that starry) and start going for artists who can, well gosh I don’t know, actually sing.  We need to begin employing fresh designers and choreographers to breathe new life into old material.  We need to be as spectacular as shows like Wicked, and as inspirational as the Billy Elliot’s of this West End world. Only then will the majority of musical theatre be taken seriously as the invigorating and enthralling art form it can be and only then will people really get their money’s worth.

Pilkington and Khadime were recently voted the winners of The Women of the Future’s Arts and Culture Award; if that doesn’t prove that talent is the way forward, I don’t know what will.

Bold As Brass

At St George’s Circus there is a performance going on in the midst of an atmospheric building with a fading grandeur and massive holes in the floor.  Lit only by lights wired to a generator, candles and torches, the members of the South London Free Arts Collective (SLFAC) are performing the quirky and uplifting story of Brass Crosby.  We are in the middle of what is ungraciously called a condemned building, but what could easily be one of the most interesting site specific venues in London; The Duke of Clarence. 

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This much is true and I’m not pulling any punches.

This Much is True picture

Sally Stott has written an interesting and seemingly controversial blog asking the question already buzzing around my own head since seeing This Much Is True.  The Theatre 503 show is the newest play to deal with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.  Sally posits the idea that, in the light of the two productions already surrounding this topic, it’s time for leftwing playwrights to broaden their scope and tackle a new subject.  She has been quite strongly reprimanded for her comments but I feel that hers is a completely valid and pertinent assessment propose that she was actually a little too kind to the newest edition to this canon.

I had an incredibly strong reaction to the ‘in yer face’ nature of Peter Unwin and Sarah Beck’s play.  Dazzling as it may have been, with it’s over theatricalised stage dressing and genuinely impressive and versatile performances, overall it smacked of a desperate knowledge that they didn’t have enough new material to justify the creation this show. The term bandwagon springs lightly to mind.  Maybe it was this slightly vacuous feel to the work, or the high level of emotional manipulation that upset me but I really felt its stylish yet wide reaching and unfocused approach made the whole thing seem gratuitous and consequently in bad taste.  Style won over substance and when you’re dealing with life and death that just can’t be allowed to happen.

Unwin has responded to Sally’s piece and Lyn Gardner’s review vehemently, saying they did in fact have reams of new material.  It’s funny how it really didn’t feel that way.  True, we did hear more from the family but it is hard to know how this enlightens our understanding of the tragedy which unfolded here except to make us feel more emotionally connected with him as a person.  I for one felt this human connection to Jean Charles de Menezes strongly enough through watching his actual family on television speaking about him; how does copying it word for word, using an actor as a mouth piece and adding some gratuitous theatrical wizardry really help? 

This could be seen as a bigger issue with verbatim theatre as a whole.  It can clearly be a powerful tool as the seminal Black Watch, the amusing The Girlfriend Experience or the touching Caravan have proven.  But using people’s real words is so en vogue that people seem to be using it willy nilly now in order to simply sell a show.  It should be used to give voice to those whose issues can’t be heard any other way.  By repeating what has already been spoken in a truer, less jazzy sphere, Unwin and Beck’s seem to be doing nothing but treading old ground to try to glorify their own artistic ambition and very little else.

That’s incredibly tough of me, but for some reason I feel the need to be extreme in this situation.  I wish that Unwin and Beck had taken their considerable talent and turned it elsewhere to tell stories that aren’t really vocalised yet.  Then maybe I would have felt that their integrity matched their prowess and turned my concentration away from the spectacle to listen to them a bit more.