Postcard from London – Woody Sez, March 2011

Woody Sez: the words, music and spirit of Woody Guthrie – An ensemble cast of American roots music multi-instrumentalists prove that an unabiding passion for your subject matter can elevate a biographical piece to inspiring theatre. This is not an ordinary stringing together of songs, Mama-Mia-style, to tell a story. This production uses nearly 30 of Guthrie’s songs to bring his story to life and explain the foundations of his underlying themes and commitment to human rights. The show also uses Guthrie’s own words from radio broadcasts and his articles for The People’s World to get across his humour and intelligence.

The New-York-based Paul Lucas Productions present the show with the Melting Pot Theatre Company, a professional, not-for-profit theatre group that delves deep into American history and the events that shaped the nation.  I can only guess that their current tour is a result of a successful UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007.

This is an understatedly talented ensemble cast, but special mention must go to David Lutken, an actor and musician whose connection to Woody goes back 20 years with Woody Guthrie Publications and history lessons for school children in the US. He takes up the challenge of narrating Woody’s story as well as bringing the man himself to life. He imparts the music and the tragic life of the man without over egging the performance. His sturdy back-up team were in fine voice, tackling fiddle, guitar, banjo, double bass and spoons to bring the songs to life.

The troupe received a standing ovation, not just for their joyful musical performance, but partly in thanks for honouring the subject matter and illuminating their passion for Guthrie and telling his tale in such a warm way.

Cheers for now, Beth 

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Postcard from London – Jersey Boys – Oh what a night! March 2011

Jersey Boys: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

It seems like Jersey Boys has been playing at the Prince Edward Theatre for years. I’ve walked past it just about every other week while taking the shortcut through from Denmark Street to Bar Italia on Frith Street or my hairdresser’s on Dean Street – the songs of Franki and the boys pumping out onto Old Compton Street to compete with the surrounding buzz, the ticket touts trying to convince the passing tourist trade to take their chance and see the show.

So, why have I resisted this show for so long? Well, to start with, who knows anything about the Four Seasons? You’d recognize Franki Valli but you could be sitting beside one of the Four Seasons and not know it. Then, the price of a hit show – even the cheap seats ain’t that cheap, if ya know what I mean. And when you visit the show’s website, it is overloaded with promotional videos, phone apps, competitions and special offers: it’s a commercial cacophony, not unlike the mix of Four Seasons songs which, although great, always remind me of 1970s slumber parties when my mates and I would be stuck listening to the local radio for sustenance.   

But I have to admit, once you actually commit to the show, these niggling weaknesses all turn into strengths. It’s great that you don’t know a thing about the band’s story; that holds your interest in a straightforward narration of the chain of events. The art deco glamour and glitz of the wonderfully opulent theatre make you feel like you’ve invested good money in an extravagant treat; just the remedy we need in these boring and depressing times of austerity. And the commercial nature of the songs is what makes the show toe-tappingly infectious, especially when performed by a live band.

And what a band! I thought the cast of The Buddy Holly Story were talented. This cast gives them a run for their money – and then some. I defy even the inclusion of the pop star cred of Jon Lee to top the cast I saw – notably Ryan Molloy as Franki, Matthew Wycliffe as Bob Gaudio, Jon Boydon as Tommy De Vito and Eugene McCoy as Nick Massi. These guys are so talented I didn’t even realise they were all from the UK and NOT from New Jersey.

So, lessons learned: sometimes the hype is there for a reason, and sometimes you shouldn’t tar ALL 1970s hits with the same brush – ya know what I mean?

Cheers for now, Beth 


Postcard from London – Robert Lindsay shines as heartthrob Onassis, January 2011

One of my Christmas stocking fillers one year was a book called Heartthrobs. Inexplicably, positioned after Paul Newman was Aristotle Onassis. I quickly flipped over to Pablo Picasso. But what a Hollywood obsessed girl doesn’t understand about the allure of power and money, the Woman’s Day knows only too well. And what the play Onassis does very well is hint at the dangers of that allure.

Just in case you still miss the point, a Greek chorus – Onassis’s entourage of minders, accountants, drivers, pilots, cooks and nannies – is there to remind you with their Greek songs and myths, along with a stunningly simple stage design featuring a surround of glittering water with a back projection of crashing waves. And we all know what happens to sailors who follow the sound of the Siren’s songs.

Robert Lindsay certainly has the on-stage charm to reignite Onassis as a heartthrob. Having seen an early live taping of the My Family sitcom, I can say that Lindsay is a perfectionist. Retake after retake, his fellow performers would have to maintain consistency while Lindsay built up the nuances, the gags, the’ ticks’ that would make the final take’ tock’. As Onassis, he balances a complex and mainly dislikeable character by using humour and charisma to sweeten the undertone of violence. He meticulously positions his Aristotle as a ‘classic’ – somewhere along the longitude of ‘classic Greek clown’ and the latitude of ‘classic wife beater’. He uses the pool of water on stage like Pontius Pilate, cleansing himself of his sins. And it does hold the audience’s intrigue, knowing as the play unfolds, that he is certain to crash on the waves.

Martin Sherman’s play allows us the frivolous fun of playing voyeur to the famous affairs with Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy. But then he uses Onassis’s circling shark to draw us into a very dark world with the allegations that payments Onassis made may have contributed to financing the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a man he detested. Christina Onassis is conspicuous by her absence in the story, possibly because it is said that she commissioned the book Nemesis by Peter Evans which Sherman’s play is based on, after coming across evidence of her father’s possible connection to Kennedy’s death.

The women in this play are but minor roles. Lydia Leonard as Jackie O and Anna Francolini as Maria Callas both rise to the challenge of bringing these two icons to life, Francolini relishing Callas’s operatics more than Leonard’s Jackie O, who needed more help from  the costume designer to fill the glamorous shoes. But perhaps this is the point – no one can live up to that amount of glamour and fame.

After he marries Jackie, it becomes obvious that, like Icarus, Onassis has flown too close to the sun, ironic since he knew and loved his Greek myths. Within a few years, Onassis, his son, his ex-wife and his lover, Maria Callas are all dead. And the Kennedys – well, we all know what happens to them. Whatever else you can accuse him of, Onassis lived a life. And that is possibly why a 1970s publishing editor deigned to classify him as a ‘heartthrob’.

Cheers for now, Beth 


Postcard from London – Commuter computer, October 2010

Sitting on a slow London tube train this week I couldn’t help but notice that the ebook – in all its guises and brand-name splendour – has taken over the commuter carriages. And why not, I thought to myself: it’s compact, neat, slim, and, unlike the annoying free Metro newspaper, it does not result in the felling of thousands of trees each week just so miserable commuters can be distracted from the daily grind with grim gossip and loud advertising.

Still, I wondered why I, quite keen on the written word myself, and fiercely supportive of digital progress in publishing (currently volunteering with the Race Online 2012 campaign which is  championing Get Online week in the UK) have not exactly rushed out to embrace the new technology. Too expensive? (that’s not exactly a good excuse these days when some readers sell for less than £100) Too many gadgets already? (possibly: my first shining mini-disk player resides in a small graveyard of superseded technology in a divan drawer).

Today I discovered the real reason for my resistance. I sat in the member’s bar of the Southbank Centre, taking advantage of the free wi-fi access to check my emails. But I had been browsing a paperback, my first foray to Howard Zinn’s ‘The Twentieth Century’. As it languished on the table underneath my spectacle case, something wonderful happened – the barman came over to sweep up my empty coffee cup. He turned with his tray and said: ‘Are you enjoying Howard Zinn?’  ‘Very much’ I replied. He asked if I’d read the companion piece ‘A People’s History of the United States’. I had to confess I’d baulked at that starting point due to its inches-thick page count! He told me it was one of the best books he’d ever read, fascinated by the vast tracts of US history it dealt with, urging me to give it a try. We agreed that Zinn’s writing style proved that history and politics could be accessible to the average reader and I promised to give it a go. Had I been indulging in an ebook, the anonymous leather jacket, contemporary cool case or silicon skin revealing nothing more than a brand name, I doubt if he would have stopped to ask what I’d downloaded.

And dearest Mark Ruffalo would have never fallen in love in ‘My Life Without Me’ were it not for his smarts to leave a ragged copy of Middlemarch, signed with his phone number, concealed in Sarah Polley’s laundry bag!

About ten years ago, I picked up a copy of the first Harry Potter book, conveniently left on the seat of a bus. Perhaps it was part of one of those schemes where books are left in places for people to discover. Or like a literary festival in Edinburgh one year that gave away copies of books by local authors such as Ian Rankin and Arthur Conan Doyle. (Come to think of it, JK Rowling wrote in Edinburgh too).  This is just not going to happen with an ebook, is it?

Tonight, on the bus on my way home, a couple of young university students swapped notes on recent films. He’d, naturally, enjoyed ‘Despicable Me’ while she’d seen ‘The Social Network’ and lamented that it wasn’t so good. ‘Well, for a start, it’s not true. They’ve played around with the facts. It portrays Mark Zuckerberg as an anti-social geek with no social skills. But he invented Facebook, proving that he has a deep understanding of the psychology of socialising!’ The conversation at least was taking place in person and not via an avatar of electronic means. And that girl may be right: the human impulse to socialise will not be quelled, not even by computer geeks.

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – El Greco: legendary! August 2010

 

When old Rat Pack palster, male vocal hipster, Buddy Greco hits the stage at the Leicester Square Theatre, he coolly takes a seat at his piano amid whistles and applause from a small but enthusiastic crowd. We pretend we are at the Copa Room at The Sands; a famously intimate venue. We’ve just been entertained by London’s ‘original’ Rat Pack tribute act, and now it’s time for some of the real deal. To start with, you could be forgiven for spying that Buddy’s not exactly, shall we say, as ‘glossy’ as his publicity snap. He’s more distinguished, his hair’s a little greyer; maybe he’s a little world-wearier? Fear not! The twinkle in his eyes a-lights as soon as he tickles the ivories. The years fade away and all you see is a young, hip, wise-talking wise guy, ready to charm you with his wit and woo you with his songs. Yes, that’s right, Buddy Greco is 84 years old this month but, thankfully, is showing no signs of ever slowing down. (He and his wife, the singer Lezlie Anders, will joke that this is due to the fact that he can’t afford to – he has four ex-wives and many children to consider after all! More of the fabulous Ms Anders later.)

A performer since the age of four (on his father’s radio show in Philadelphia) Greco became an arranger-singer-pianist with Benny Goodman and his band at the tender age of 16. Buddy went off with his own band in the early 50s, eventually taking up residence in Las Vegas in the 60s (to put you in the picture, his most successful single was The Lady is a Tramp) a stint due to which he can now lay claim to the honour of being the last surviving Rat Packer, having turned up on stage with Sinatra and Co at The Sands in that hep-cat heyday era.

Weathering the intervening decades by continuing to wow them live in the States and Europe, Greco is now riding the swing revival wave. And may I say, Mr Greco is a sight and sound to behold. Every song is a standout, a surprise, a treat and another chance for Greco to charm us, the audience, by now firmly in the palm of his hand. Highlights might be: Girl Talk; Misty; Yes, Sir, That’s my Baby (where audience participation was insisted upon) and an absolutely finger-snapping version of Me and Mrs Jones – where the singer joked ‘And if you think you know the words and feel like singing along: don’t!’ He certainly out-cooled and out-crooned today’s retro lounge lizards like Connick Jr and Buble.

Lezlie Anders had already treated us to her Peggy Lee tribute, a sultry segue between the Rat Pack and Greco the Great. As she returned to the stage for a final few numbers, Greco was seen snapping from the piano, urging the band to keep up with him as he set a mean tempo. Greco and Anders obviously enjoy playing together and it shows – our leading man was suddenly stripped of a further decade, his warm grin an instant facelift. The couple have now made a second home in London and will be touring Fever: a Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee, later this year: stay tuned!

For more than 20 years, Greco has been closing his show with a high-octane instrumental version of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park. Highly unusual, and a song that’s not to everyone’s taste. But Greco’s repertoire is like the man himself – distinct. And so we were treated to this strange but aptly unique choice, a showcase of Greco’s energy, his enthusiasm and passion for the power of music. By now his band were definitely having trouble keeping up the pace!

Happy Birthday, Buddy!

Cheers for now, Beth 


Postcard from London – Arthur Schnitzler resurfaces in redux at the Young Vic, April 2010

Unrequited love’s a bore … and poor Christine (Kate Burdett) has got it pretty bad for Fritz (Tom Hughes)  in Sweet Nothings, a new interpretation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Leibelei (1895) by David Harrower. Unfortunately the tumble for Fritz is ill-timed just days before he meets his fateful end in a duel with an enraged, cuckolded husband. The love affair is over before it starts: After a brief, flirtatious party at Fritz’s luxurious Viennese apartment, the couple get together only one more time when Fritz visits Christine’s modest bedroom before disappearing into the night forever. The big question is: So what?

You see, when Tom Stoppard adapted this play as Dalliance in 1986, he used the days between the challenge and the duel to build the love affair between the two characters. Fritz is a young cad whose designs on Christine are a mere flirtation to distract him from an obsession for a married woman. To his surprise, he finds himself falling in love with this simple, lower-class girl. Unfortunately, in Harrower’s version, the couple meet only twice in scenes that fail to nurture any real feelings, convey passion, or show the conflict that the society’s class and honour systems would have caused the relationship.

This production never conveys that sense of another time, never fully transporting us to the era when conventions demanded dueling as a solution to moral dilemmas. It all seems young and modern, and ‘whatever’, which is entertaining (particularly Natalie Dormer’s wonderfully comic performance as thoroughly modern Mizi) but seems ajar to the twilight time of Schnitzler’s dusky jewel-like writing.

The credibility is not helped by phrases such as ‘wham, bam, thank you m’am’ in the script, or that the crucial scene between Christine and Fritz (the only time we will see if there is a sensual connection) is comically reminiscent of the ‘love’ scene in the film, Twilight: young man unexpectedly appears in girl’s bedroom only to back off and disappear into the night, leaving unresolved lust. Unfortunately, the charming Tom Hughes, on this occasion at least, was no match for Robert Pattinson’s brooding vampire and seemed less likely to inspire passion than Pattinson’s wax work – recently unveiled to frenzied crowds at Madame Tussauds.

It’s not his fault. You can’t act what is not on the page. Even Romeo was allowed to consummate his love for Juliet: and this is Schnitzler after all! Why are the cast given sweet nothing to do? Perhaps the fault lies with the touch of sang-froid that European director, Luc Bondy, lent to the production? Yet, when older actors (Andrew Wincott as the husband, Hayley Carmichael as neighbour and David Sibley as Christine’s father) appear on stage, their experience milks the weak script, there is sadness and laughter and I finally stop cringing in my seat. 

With all the sweet nothing happening in this overly long, two-act play, it beats me why Schnitzler keeps resurfacing in redux. My guess is that directors and designers can’t resist the challenge to create a little smoked glass stage curio, a delicate snow-globe of dreamy twilight time.  And producers are tantalized by the box office potential of Schnitzler’s reputation for frank sexual dealings and scenes of a sensuous nature.

Sir Ian McKellan and Richard Wilson, sitting a few rows behind me, appeared utterly unmoved, or did I just catch them sighing with the relief that their jobs  as seasoned stage performers are not exactly under threat;  not just yet anyway!

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – Candid, cool, crooner: Nick Cave, November 2009

“This is not as rehearsed as it looks!” quips Nick Cave as he struggles to find his place while reading from a jumble of photocopied pages of his new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, on a dark stage backlit by video projections. Earlier he’d beseeched the stage manager to locate a particular set of lyrics, only to find that the handy, laminated sheet was within arm’s reach on top of his piano all along. A sly aside to the crowd: ‘My memory’s not what it used to be: I blame the Eighties,’ he explains. Cave’s candour and coolness has the crowd on side. And the fact that this performance is a somewhat informal affair, temporarily taking over residence from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, at The Palace Theatre for only two Sunday nights, means that all is forgotten and forgiven.

In an evening that promised to be ‘intimate and strange’, Cave was joined on stage by Grinderman and Bad Seeds buddies, Warren Ellis (drums, guitar, violin, gizmos and effects) and Martyn Casey (bass) for an eclectic selection of musical numbers from their combined back catalogues. The early performance of ‘West Country Girl’ particularly resonated when Cave bravely challenged the crowd to ask him any question they like and one fan cried out: ‘If Polly Jean Harvey were in the audience tonight, would you invite her onto the stage to sing?’ Quickly recovering from a slight chink in his coolness, Cave replies: ‘Ah, well, of course, but I don’t know if Polly Jean is here tonight. Is she?’ Indeed she was, in a balcony box overlooking the stage. And so, after some coercion (and location of the appropriate lyric sheet) she ventured onto the stage to perform with Cave the duet ‘Henry Lee’. The fans went wild and this impromptu performance (the pair were too visibly nervous for it to have been a set up) was a definite highlight. Other crowd-pleasers include: ‘God is in the house’, ‘Tupelo’, ‘The weeping song’ and ‘Grinderman’ with its eeriness evoking ‘The End’ and showing that Cave can croon as well as Jim Morrison any day.

A given virtuoso in the musical world – as well as his near 20-album collection, Cave has written soundtracks for The Assassination of Jesse James, The Proposition, and the upcoming The Road (now available on a double album, White Lunar) – Cave has re-entered the literary scene in a roundabout way. After writing And the Ass saw the Angel 20 years ago (that is not a typo!) Cave said he had no desire to write another novel. He didn’t even have an interest in screenwriting until fellow Aussie, Director, John Hillcoat (Ghosts of the Civil Dead, The Road) asked him to pen the screenplay for The Proposition. As a follow-up for Hillcoat, Cave said he wrote something called ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ which, subsequently, no studio was willing to touch. Languishing in the bottom drawer, this unproduced work started to bug Cave big-time. He says he is not the sort of writer who has boxes of half-finished work sitting in piles surrounding him. He couldn’t stand that. He works on one creation at a time, often taking weeks to complete one song before moving on to the next piece. (No prizes for guessing that Cave is a Virgo!) Anyway, that script became the basis for the new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, first draft completed, he claims, in a marathon six weeks, due in part to the excellent foundation that the script provided.

I’ve been listening to the enhanced audio book – downloadable as an application for iPhone and iTouch. As well as the e-book text, the application includes the author’s reading of the book, along with some evocative music from Ellis, a 3-D ‘spatial mix’ soundscape of audio effects, and video clips of Cave’s readings. The words are superbly chosen, with Cave’s lexicon deftly handling horror as well as humour, and the audio enhancements suit the cinematic nature of the piece (how soon before an independent producer wakes up and green-lights the movie?) Cave claims to be a technophobe and says he has ‘no idea’ how the ‘app’ works, but you get the idea that this publishing project, and theatrical happening is an example of the best collision of old forms and new technology. The crash could open up a new Renaissance for those artists cool enough and brave enough to explore the possibilities. Cave has already shown us he’s ready for anything.

Cheers for now, Beth