Monday, July 22, 2019

Chichester Festival Theatre

In my rather music free home as a child we only had two Long Playing records - one a collection of ballet numbers called “Nights at the Ballet” and the other the film soundtrack of “Oklahoma!”. So if you see me at “Swan Lake” watch out for me humming along to the Pas de Deux. And at “Oklahoma!” at the “Chichester Festival Theatre” on Friday it was inevitable that at some point I’d sing along. I managed to restrain myself until the final reprise of the title song, then off I went.

Virtually every number in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical is a standard from the “Great American Songbook”. (Interestingly the only two that are not - “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage” and “Lonely Room” were omitted from the movie.) But familiar and wonderful though the songs are the things that made “Oklahoma!” unique back in 1943 when it first appeared were the book and the staging. And it also established R&H as the writer of quite hard-edged musical dramas - musically lyrical for sure but also with real and quite challenging story lines.

“Oklahoma!” is engaging but never comforting. The land on which the settlers had started to farm in the mid 1850s was Indian Territory. The scandal of the confiscation of lands from the Native Americans is well-described in the Chichester programme by an academic from Florida State University. The marginalisation of “First Nation” Americans is not referred to in Oscar Hammerstein’s fine book, but it is the elephant in the room to some extent.

But the settlers in what was “Oklahoma Territory” were quintessentially symbols of the Great American Dream. All of European origin they were part of the extraordinary story of the expansion of the country from its East Coast colonial origins to the West. In the late 1890s that West was still “Wild” and the gun and often rough justice ruled. But human emotions were present as well and they were as raw as the environment and the social mores. When Curly appears singing the gorgeous “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” at curtain-up he is establishing an optimistic tenor which will mostly drive the action. It’s upbeat and positive and youthful - appropriate for all those involved in the adventure of creating a “Brand New State”.

But this is Rodgers and Hammerstein and to balance the light, upbeat, sun-shining optimism of Curly and his love interest Laurey there has to be a dose of hard reality - provided by the hired hand Jud Fry. Jud is gloomy whilst they are gay, resentful and disgruntled where they are happy and cheerful. The optimistic and youthful charm of Curly and Laurey is the norm - Ado Annie and Will Parker are equally full of life and determined to live it to the full whilst Jud Fry broods in his smokehouse.

The “outsider” is a ever present theme in R&H and here we have the Persian peddler Ali Hakkim. This is a wonderful character creation and the way this gentle intruder is seen by the others is utterly delightful. He is played by Scott Karim with total conviction, great comic timing and roguish charm. There is a subtle symbolism here - America is an immigrant nation and Hakkim is not just a classic example of this but a reminder that diversity adds value. 

In many ways storytelling musical theatre started with "Oklahoma!" (though "Showboat" also has a good claim). We are a long way from Busby Berkeley. There is dance though - a sophisticated and authentically choreographed ballet, another R&H innovation. To pull off Rodgers and Hammerstein you need a strong cast, first class musicianship, tight direction and design. This Chichester production has all this. 


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Height of the Storm.

The Height of the Storm
Richmond Theatre

Somebody has died. There are flowers. The bereaved daughters are rallying round offering support to the surviving partner, their father. But then their mother appears from the vegetable garden and it is she who needs the counselling and it is the father who they mourn. Or maybe neither parent has really died and what we are watching is the struggle of people to cope when the once intellectually powerful faculties begin to succumb to the ravages of dementia?

What is the reality and what are the imaginings? Is the question to be resolved and does it matter if it is? The tension is maintained to the end in this astonishing, thoughtful drama. We explore age, marriage, loyalty, gender, generational differences, the battle of the sexes, the Pinteresque  presence of unexpected visitors and much more in this extraordinary play by Florian Zeller. The translation by Christopher Hampton is idiomatically excellent and Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins are pitch perfect.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A musically great but dramatically woeful “West Side Story” at the BBC Proms

“West Side Story” will always rightly be associated primarily with Leonard Bernstein. But as Mozart needed Da Ponte so Bernstein needed Arthur Laurents, who wrote the story, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics. And all three of them needed Jerome Robbins whose choreography took the whole conception to a unique level of achievement. For Sondheim it was his first big breakthrough and though later he expressed some dissatisfaction with his rather uneven lyrics (they do range from the banal to the inspired) overall his contribution to the success was important. It was with a palpable sense of excitement that we went to the “Royal Albert Hall” to see the BBC Prom featuring WSS. The production would be driven by the John Wilson Orchestra who have a skilled way with the American Musical Theatre classics. Last year they did an excellent semi-staged “Oklahoma” which like WSS combines a great story with fabulous songs and brilliant dance sequences. That Prom in 2017 (see photo) was well cast, the staging though somewhat limited by the available space, excellent and the costumes, the props, the acting, and the dance and ballet superb.

“West Side Story” as a musical event under John Wilson’s direction was admirable. If you only caught it on Radio then you will have been impressed. The orchestra was in top form and the singers complemented them very well. But in the Hall it was nothing short of a travesty. True we knew that this was going to be a “Concert Performance” but I’m sure those of us who saw “Oklahoma” last year expected something similar.
The Prom programme showed two of the iconic elements of the story with drawings of New York and of the dance. In this production the Big Apple was maybe implied but there was no attempt to create a New York ambience. Unforgivably there was no dance either! Despite space constraints plenty of Proms have dance sequences in them (as in “Oklahoma”) and there was even a “Strictly Come Dancing” Prom in 2016. It can be done!

If there was no dance there was precious little acting either and the story stuttered along. Not everyone in the Hall knew the story as well as we did and there were some puzzled looks around. As Tim Ashley put it in The Guardian “Anyone unfamiliar with the piece would have had trouble following the narrative, while important characters such as Bernardo, Riff and even Anita tended to become ciphers”. The Jets and the Sharks ran on and off the “stage” a bit but there was little to distinguish the one gang from the other and even the fight sequence was omitted. Richard Morrison in The Times summed it up “… the dialogue was shrivelled to shreds and there was no dancing”. There were no proper costumes either and little real attempt at character development.

I came away little the wiser about “West Side Story” other than to have confirmed for me what a true work of musical genius it is. But it is more than the music – perhaps the greatest of all the American musicals because of the book, the lyrics and the dance. To quote Richard Morrison again “… what happened to Arthur Laurent’s masterly rewrite of Shakespeare, Jerome Robbins epoch-defining choreography and Stephen Sondheim’s deftly crafted lyrics?” What indeed.

Paddy Briggs
August 2018

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review of "Present Laughter" Chichester Festival Theatre's woeful production with Rufus Hound

“Present Laughter” at Chichester
Paddy Briggs on a farcical revival of Noel Coward’s Light Comedy masterpiece.

(This review appears in "Home Chat" the magazine of the Noel Coward Society)

The work of Noel Coward is not Holy Writ that you tamper with at your peril. Every theatre director is entitled to put his own interpretation on the master’s work and whilst a degree of respect is in order new and interesting interpretations, if well done, can add to our appreciation of the work. Noel called Present Laughter a “very light comedy” and that should give directors a clue. Of his great plays only one, “Blithe Spirit”, was described by Coward as a “farce” which I think was a bit of modest self-deprecation. There are no dropping trousers or slamming doors in it. So what about the farcical (in both senses of the word) production of “Present Laughter” at the Chichester Festival?

The poster should perhaps have been a clue. Noel (or is it Rufus Hound?) as Garry Essendine dressed in what looks like a clown’s outfit. This was not going to be a conventional production.  Coward fans are generally agreed that peak Coward as a dramatist (and performer) were the five undisputed comic masterpieces of the inter war years – “Hay Fever”, “Private Lives”, “Design for Living” “Present Laughter” and “Blithe Spirit”. In all of them wit is paramount – the display of an effortless talent to amuse with words. There is situation and character as well of course and in all of them, at times, the action borders on farce. In “Private Lives” the two-hander second Act certainly ends in farce and, as Frances Gray[1] puts it in respect of “Present Laughter”, “The play contains episodes which come closer to French farce than anything else in Coward’s oeuvre”. But the farcical episodes in these plays do not make them, or indeed any of Coward’s work, pure farce. In ignoring this basic fact Director Sean Foley has vulgarised “Present Laugher” to such an extent that whilst it does get some belly laughs from some in the Chichester audiences those of us who understand Coward better left the theatre spluttering with anger.

Coward was not called “The Master” for nothing and his “Talent to amuse” relies on dialogue and character rather than slapstick. “Present Laughter” is full to the brim with brilliant lines many of them requiring study and practice to get them right. As Michael Billington in his coruscating review of this production put it “Coward was a fastidious verbal stylist who had a faultless ear for the right word and the rhythm of a sentence”. Much of that subtlety is lost as the actors indulge in “… an orgy of stylised exaggeration”. I discussed an earlier production of “Present Laughter” with its Director Stephen Unwin[2] .  He said that the characters are “…real human beings, albeit ones who crack good jokes”. In farce the characters are generally unreal, exaggerated and often stereotypes.
The first scene of the play has the excited deb Daphne phoning a friend to tell her that she has spent the night in Garry Essendine’s house (and implicitly in his arms). Lizzy Connolly has been directed to play this character as if she was in a pantomime with grossly exaggerated gestures and a comic cuts upper-class voice and braying laugh. She trips around the stage as if the play is a Monty Python sketch. Subtle it isn’t. But that sets the tone for the rest of the play. The key role of Garry Essendine is played by Rufus Hound who unusually is the right age for the part (approaching 40) – it is an interesting casting. His brief acting career on his CV looks unpromising for the subtleties of Coward and he does not have matinee idol looks or physique. I have a feeling that despite this under more intelligent and sympathetic direction he might be able to play Essendine quite well. That we will never know. As it is he shouts and pratfalls his way through the role as if he was a character in pantomime at a third rate provincial theatre. To be fair in the (relatively) calmer seduction scene with Joanna (Lucy Briggs-Owen) he impresses suggesting there is more to him than the loud and boorish style the rest of his performance offers.

Coward’s writing for women, especially his character creation, is good in most of his work and Present Laughter is no exception. Ms Briggs-Owen has a jewel of a part in Joanna and despite the constrictions of the director’s wishes restraining her she does well. The same applies to Tracy-Ann Obermann’s Monica (another terrific role) and Katherine Kingsley’s Liz Essendine. I wonder what these excellent three actresses felt about finding themselves in such a dumbed-down production.

The reviews for this production were mixed, some are along the lines of Billington in condemning it as a travesty others more complimentary – excessively so in the case of Ann Treneman in The Times who says it’s an “absolute hoot” and enjoyed the fact that “gestures are coordinated to corps de ballet perfection” – which for this reviewer was probably the low point of a truly gruesome disaster.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who directed last year’s revival of Present Laughter on Broadway with Kevin Kline as Garry Essendine, which secured three Tony Award nominations including Best Revival of a Play, says that “…each production needs to be built around the lead actor playing Gary”. That makes sense but not to the extent that you move out of genre from light comedy to raucous farce just because you’ve cast a comedian not an experienced actor in the main role. The strength of Kline’s performance was that his humour was subtle and his timing exquisite. But he was true to the character and von Stuelpnagel was true to Coward’s instruction that the play is a “Light Comedy”. 
Sean Foley in a promotional video for the Chichester production says “They sent me this play, will you read it and will you direct it?” Having revealed that he only came to the play when somebody sent it to him (!) he then goes on to lambast and mock the traditional way of presenting the Master’s work. If you want to understand the reasons why this production will be anathema to all of us who believe that Noel Coward is “something of an English Chekhov” (as Stephen Unwin put it to me) rather than an English Feydeau then watch this video. Both Foley and Hound profess admiration for Noel Coward and for the play. But (in that gruesome phrase of our times) want to bring a “new audience” to Coward. Well fine, but the way to do that is to be true to the author’s intent to write a charming, funny often subtle and always superbly crafted light comedy. Not to turn it into a Whitehall farce.    

[1] Modern Dramatists – Noel Coward. Frances Gray. St Martin’s Press 1987
[2] See “Home Chat”

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The gentle world of "Gary Williams at the Movies"

Gary Williams has a fine reputation as a distinctive interpreter of the Great American Songbook in a relaxed jazz idiom. His latest album “Gary Williams at the Movies” has fifteen songs all of which, as the name suggests, are from movie soundtracks. Not all are standards – a number were new to me – but all in his hands appeal. This is in a way a crossover album – we are on the cusp of jazz and popular music throughout. Some of the fine arrangements are heavily jazz inspired others owe more to Nelson Riddle or Billy May (though there are no lush strings!).

It is an eclectic collection with songs from “The Aristocats”, “The Jungle Book” and “Dumbo” sitting comfortably with the great “Isn’t this a Lovey Day” from “Top Hat”. The Bee Gees “How Deep is your Love” (from “Saturday Night Fever” of course”) is a long way from the original – and all the better for it! There are one or two other songs closely linked to one artist – Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and the Carpenters “Close to You” for example. The arrangements and Williams distinctive vocal style give these classics new life.  This style I would describe as “less is more”. His voice is never strained - always laid back. This is music to play late at night when you’re alone on the sofa with your love and the lights are low. In our raucous “in your face” age it is a delight to hear more gentle music - great songs elegantly sung with great sincerity but no sentimentality. To sing “Home is where the heart is” and make it sound rather more than the soppy ballad it usually is is quite an achievement!

The Band is exceptional with Graeme Blevins slinky Sax perhaps the highlight! The balance is good throughout – the band never obscures the singer but it is not in the background – some clever sound engineering here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"All Our Children" at the Jermyn St Theatre - a "Warning from History"

“All Our children”
Jermyn Street Theatre 16th May 2017

"We had a huge number of very low-value, low-skilled people coming through” – Iain Duncan Smith on BBC Newsnight 9th May 2017

The grotesque idea that you can judge people and divide them by their value to society and discriminate accordingly – as expressed recently by Conservative ex Minister Iain Duncan Smith with his we need fewer "low-value, low-skilled people" remarks – was at the core of the malignant philosophy of Adolf Hitler and was to lead to the Holocaust - the greatest crime the world has ever known. This discrimination placed healthy heterosexual Aryan Caucasians in the “High value” category and Jews, Homosexuals and those with physical or mental disabilities into “Low value”. They were referred to as “Untermenschen” and included citizens of the Eastern European nations, such as Poland, that the Nazi war machine conquered.

By the autumn of 1939 the euphemistically termed “euthanasia action” killing mental patients was underway across the Reich and was, as Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw called it, “… to provide a gateway to the vaster extermination programme to come”. Kershaw explains[1] that the notion that at the bottom of the “low value” pile there were grounds for destroying “life not worth living” (Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens ) dates back to the immediate post WW1 years and was in part an economic argument – why spend money on the care of those who are otherwise a social burden when that money can better be used for “productive” purposes?

In August 1941 a Catholic Bishop, Clemens August Graf von Galen, preached a sermon criticising the Gestapo, and by connection Hitler, for the “euthanasia action”. Von Galen’s initiative was widely publicised, especially in Catholic circles and, wanting to avoid the negative publicity at a critical time in the war, Joseph Goebbels recommended to Hitler that the large scale and organised “euthanasia action”, which by then had killed 70,000 victims, be stopped. (In fact, as Laurence Rees[2] points out, “individual hospitals continued to starve disabled patients to death and to kill them by fatal injection”).  But Hitler followed Goebbels advice and the systematic murder was stopped.

In his new play “All Our Children” Stephen Unwin has constructed a drama around the real life figure of Bishop von Galen. It takes place in a clinic in Winkelheim in January 1941 where Dr. Victor Franz (powerfully and sympathetically played by Colin Tierney) the clinic’s Director, is responsible for the monthly transportation of twenty or thirty disabled children to the killing factories. This involves selection from their patients and deception as to what happened to the children when they were taken away. Frau Pabst has a son, Stefan, in the clinic and visits Franz to discuss him. From their discussion it is clear that she loves the boy who is severely handicapped but the unspoken reality is that he will be selected for one of the transports (it later transpires that this has already happened and Frau Pabst is informed that he has “died of natural causes”). When Frau Pabst has left Dr. Franz’s deputy, a young staunch Nazi called Eric, explains the ideology. “These youngsters here, they’re nothing really they aren’t… the Fuhrer’s right: they’re leading “lives unworthy of life. It’s as simple as that”. When Frau Pabst hears the news about her son she returns and confronts Dr. Franz who is forced to admit what has happened. “He was killed because of his condition. Because he’ll never be able to make a contribution to society. Because looking after him costs too much money and because there’s no need for such people in the Third Reich”

Bishop von Galen (a very authentic-feeling portrayal by David Yelland) has made an appointment to see Dr. Franz and the last part of the play comprises his challenge to Franz about the moral basis of the “euthanasia action” of which he is part. Although the Bishop bases his challenge on his Catholic faith it is actually a broader argument arguing that Franz’s “Ends justify the means” defence – that there are no absolutes and that as a doctor he is always involved in making tough choices - is “moral relativism”. Von Galen segues from the purely religious to the argument that Germans are “not barbarians. This is Germany: the land of Goethe and Schiller… how can we be doing this to our fellow human beings?”

The cultured Germany - the sophisticated modern 20th Century European State descending into unimaginable barbarism - is at the heart of this play. “The Holocaust” was around the corner in 1941 and the audience of course knows that. The characters – the “Only obeying orders” Dr. Franz, the Nazi apparatchik Eric and the others just caught up in, and often victims of, the terror – Frau Pabst the mother and Martha the maid - are symbols and victims of the utterly dysfunctional society that the Nazis created and of the further, greater terror to come. Bishop von Galen is a special case. Opposition to the Nazi regime was not tolerated and was ruthlessly put down. But the Bishop was a distinguished figure in the church and Hitler knew that recent attacks on the churches were causing morale problems in the population which he, in the end, judged it was unwise to exacerbate. Others in the Nazi leadership wanted to hang von Galen. Martin Bormann, Goebbels and eventually Hitler himself decided to wait. In the end von Galen survived dying of natural causes a year after the War’s end. He was beatified by Pope John Paull II in October 2005.

Ian Kershaw and Laurence Rees collaborated on the TV Series about the Nazis “A Warning from History” and the title was well chosen. I think that Stephen Unwin, with his fine first play, is also warning us. Was his character Dr Victor Franz a “Bad man” – certainly no more so than others caught up in, rather than being instigators of, the terror.  Was Bishop von Galen a “Good man” as his later beatification suggests he was – perhaps yes, certainly one who challenged the system rather than acquiescing to it. And the lessons? It shouldn’t need stating, but judging from the hierarchical categorising being indulged in by some like Iain Duncan Smith it does. John Donne said “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”. And Robbie Burns probably summed it up best of all: “A Man's a Man for a' that”.

And who are we to judge the value of a life anyway?


[1] “Hitler 1936-1945. Nemesis” Penguin Books 2001
[2] “The Holocaust” Penguin Books 2017