Saturday, February 15, 2014

“Lost Boy”–a thoughtful musical about Peter Pan after Neverland

At its best the theatre experience should offer more than “just” what takes place on the stage. I remember years ago being excited about going to see “Gypsy” on Broadway. The musical is regarded by many as being the greatest of them all and surely Broadway is its home? Well the experience was dire. The theatre was dirty, old-fashioned, grossly over-crowded (long lines for the rest rooms) and very expensive indeed. When the “Star” (I forget which American Diva it was) came on the stage the audience started cheering and stood up before Ms Rose Lee had even opened her mouth. And that continued through the rest of the evening – even when Rose tunelessly mangled “Everything’s coming up roses”!

I mention that Broadway “rip off” (for that, to me, was what it was) to contrast it with my recent evening at the wonderful “Charing Cross Theatre” in London. The theatre is one of the smallest in London with only 275 seats and as such it has a rather “Off-Broadway” feel to it. It is located underneath “The Arches” below Charing Cross Station and its nearby predecessor was once a famous Victorian music hall. When the accountants Price Waterhouse built their big office block in Villiers Street the old Music Hall had to go, but in return they created what is now the Charing Cross Theatre.

The Theatre is a lovely space built in traditional proscenium arch style with comfortable seats and good sight lines. It has the feel of a Victorian “Matcham” theatre – albeit in miniature and with modern facilities. It still has the original glass-panelled Victorian bar, from the old music hall, at the back of the stalls. The theatre also has a very nice bar and restaurant where we had an excellent supper before the show.

The show was “Lost Boy” a new musical by Phil Willmott which transferred after a successful run at the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earls Court. “Lost Boy” is an original and engaging imagination of what might have happened to “Peter Pan” after he grew up and left Neverland. And the “Lost Boys” ? Well Barrie explained what they are:

“But where do you live mostly now?"
”With the lost boys."
”Who are they?"
”They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way.”

Or, as the Author puts it in the programme:

“For a generation of boys their rite of passage to adulthood began with the sunny carefree adventures of …Peter Pan…and ended with them naively leading men into the slaughterhouse of the trenches.”

So 100 years after that slaughter began Willmott imagines that Peter Pan, Wendy and the rest would have been caught up in it. “Lost Boy” is not really an anti War drama as, for example, “Oh What a Lovely War” is. The death and destruction is almost taken for granted as we watch how one young officer rises swiftly to become a General – “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” has to grow up very quickly indeed. This is not fiction – thousands of the officers who fought and died in the Great War were barely out of their teens. The normal rites of passage happened in fast forward – the night with the tarts in Paris happened only shortly after the first kiss in that concentrated wartime. Edwardian society  did not prepare young men for the horrors of war. This applied whether like the fictional Pan or his real life alter-ego George Llewelyn Davies their class made them officer material or whether they were from the other side of the tracks to become the lions led by donkeys. 

The music of “Lost Boy”  is made by three onstage musicians (keyboard, cello and clarinet), and the songs are funny and touching. There were echoes of Sondheim in some of the songs and there can be no higher praise than that! It is a thoughtful and impressive production enhanced by the quality and the intimacy of the venue – a full house enjoyed it very much as did I.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kindertransport - a powerful story of loss and rebirth

Diane Samuels’s remarkable play “Kindertransport” is on tour in a new production directed by Andrew Hall. The issues and the history behind the story are huge – War, The Holocaust, Prejudice, Discrimination, Nationalism – all the ghastly features of man’s inhumanity to man that characterised so much of the 20th Century. But whilst the canvas is huge the drama is quite minimalist – the experience of two families whose lives were thrown upside-down by what happened in 1938/9. I am reminded of Steven Spielberg’s device in “Schindler’s List” when he had one moment of colour in a bleak and monochrome film. A little Jewish girl is seen in red when all the horrors around her are in stark black and white. She isn’t named and her brief life and inevitable death are not central to the story – but emblemic of it. So it is with Eva and those around her in “Kindertransport”. They are “just” innocent, unimportant victims of the great tragedy of the persecution of the Jews by the Third Reich. At best a number on a scroll of infamy, at worst anonymous human cattle to be disposed of at will.

Eva is nine at the beginning of the play and her family has been offered the chance of her being evacuated to Britain as part of the “Kindertransport” charitable initiative to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis. She has to travel alone and is allocated to a family in Manchester where she is looked after by an ordinary, non-Jewish, British family. There is nothing sentimental about this though the emotions are high. She leaves her parents behind in Hamburg and at an impressionable age has to adapt to an entirely different world.  In parallel with the telling of this story we roll forward forty years where she, her adoptive mother and her daughter are helping the latter pack to move away from home. Artefacts from the war years turn up and the story of Eva’s adoption, naturalisation and eventual complete assimilation into her new world are found.

Essentially Kindertransport is about family and especially about mother/daughter relationships. Eva is forced to move from one world and a mother, Helga, she adores to a different world which she gradually becomes accustomed to, and an adoptive mother, Lil, who she now loves no less. When she is in her late teens, a few years after the war, Eva (now “Evelyn”) is visited by her mother who had survived the concentration camps. Helga expects to take Eva with her to America to start a new life there. But “Evelyn” has a home and a new family she loves and decides not to go with her birth mother and stay with her adoptive mother. It seems like a heartrending choice but, the author suggests, it is inevitable that having successfully created a life in her new home Evelyn wants to stay there. She has changed from being a German, Jewish child into being a British, Christian teenager on the cusp of adulthood – and there is no turning back.

At an abstract level the play is about how we are all, or can be, innocent victims of forces way beyond our control. At a personal level it is about the human capacity to survive, adapt and to move on from the past. About growing up, if you like and being born again. The performances by a virtually all female cast are very good with Paula Wilcox especially memorable as Lil and Gabrielle Dempsey as Eva.

The evening I saw the play at Richmond Theatre the stalls were at least a third full of young people – perhaps on a school outing as the play is a GCSE text. I found these study notes in connection with the play as a set text - I think they are very good! My faith in the English Literature syllabus and its teaching have rather been enhanced by this discovery! And the fact that the young audience were engrossed in the production and cheered at the end made me also feel that the theatre is alive and well !

Monday, February 03, 2014

“Fallen Angels”– an early showcase of Noël Coward’s “extraordinary gifts”

“The Times” reviewing the first production of “Fallen Angels” in April 1925 said of its author, Noël Coward, that he is “…the most uncannily adroit of our younger dramatists.” And young Noël certainly was - just 25 years of age in the year which saw the triumph of “The Vortex” as well as of “Fallen Angels”. Both of these plays are not just by a young playwright but are, as we shall see, also about young people. The plays created more than just a rush for tickets, though they did that, as they were highly controversial in their subjects – drug dependency in “The Vortex” and pre-marital sex and infidelity in “Fallen Angels”. The Times review of the latter is almost entirely complimentary but others were not so kind “degenerate”, “obscene” and “shocking” were some of the epithets used. But even where there was criticism of the subject of the play there was also praise – the “Sunday Times” said that Noel had “extraordinary gifts” and The Times complimented his “brilliant dialogue” and said that “…his wit never seems to fail him, even in the presentation, which might, clumsily handled have been so offensive, of two ladies who have drunk too much champagne”!

The whole of Act Two is given over to Jane and Julia who together battle with their consciences, and with each other, about how to handle the imminent arrival of the handsome Frenchman Maurice with whom they had both had an affair in the past. That was seven years ago, before they were married, and they have both been faithful to their husbands since. Their five-year marriages, whilst placid and rather complacent, are , it seems, not very exciting. Julia makes this clear to Fred when she says “We’re not in love a bit now, you know” Fred is a bit offended but agrees that “The first violent passion is naturally over” and that they have “…reached a remarkable sublime plane of affection and good comradeship…” For the two women this is perhaps not enough and that gives the arrival of Maurice so much excitement.

This was all rather daring for an audience in the mid 1920s . The convention was that whilst men played the field before marriage nice girls didn't. There is one deliciously funny exchange which addresses this hypocrisy:
Julia: It isn't as if we’d been unfaithful since marriage, it all happened before.
Jane: Yes, but men never forgive that sort of thing, whenever it happened.
Julia: It seems so unfair that men should have the monopoly of Wild Oats.
Jane: They haven't really, but it’s our job to make them think they have.
This is stunningly witty writing and like so much in Coward’s work seems light, but has an inner depth. In The Times review from 1925 this is described as “…the art of suggesting à demi-mot, what might prove embarrassing if said outright.”  

The latest revival of “Fallen Angels” is a touring production produced by Bill Kenwright, directed by Roy Marsden and starring Jenny Seagrove (Julia) and Sara Crowe (Jane) in the two leading roles. I saw it at the Rose in Kingston – the second of its nine venues. It is a pacey, well acted production with a strong cast and a good house at the Rose enjoyed it enormously. The success or failure of a production of this play must revolve around the casting and performances of the two lead roles – especially in the second Act where only they are on the stage (apart from the maid who keeps them vittled). Now I am going to be a tad ungallant here not to be unkind but because I think it shifts emphasis of the play to have two middle-aged actresses in the key roles. Miss Crowe is 47 and Miss Seagrove 56. They are well-preserved and attractive mature women, but “Fallen Angels” is not really a vehicle for women of a certain age. In 1949 the two Hermiones, Gingold and Baddeley, were similarly middle-aged  in a London revival in which Noël Coward thought their performances “vulgar, silly, unfunny and disgraceful”.

The 1925 first production of “Fallen Angels” starred Tallulah Bankhead, who was 23 and Edna Best, who was 25. If we assume that Noël meant these two parts to be women in their mid twenties the story becomes rather different than if they are twenty or even thirty years older. The affairs with Maurice become teenage flings before marriage at around 20. Five years into marriage they are still very young and to reunite their passions with Maurice would be a very different matter than if they were aging ladies enjoying a nostalgic last fling. Indeed the story just doesn't work if the ladies are middle-aged. If they are fifty and have been married for five years what on earth were they doing between the ages of 20 and 45!

The theatre today, especially touring theatre, is obsessed with star names and audiences are drawn to seeing “someone off the telly”. Jenny Seagrove and to a lesser extent Sara Crowe are well known and will no doubt have drawn the punters in. But good though they were I do not think their casting was appropriate to Noël Coward’s original concept for the play. At about the same time that he was writing “Fallen Angels” he was also working on “Hay Fever” which does have a part for a woman of more mature years – Judith Bliss who is probably just the right side of 50. Noël did not intend June and Julia to be the same otherwise he would have structured the plot very differently and cast different actresses initially in the role.  I hope that a future revival gives a chance to two of our young actresses and that it is not just a vehicle for those with some name appeal.