Friday, 27 June 2014

Penny Wilcock's The Pearl Fishers at the ENO: Brilliant and seductive music in an Moonlit Aquarium ***

Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers was not a success when it first premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863. Until now it hasn't received the same astounding reputation as his later and most popular opera, ‘Carmen.’ Penny Woolcock’s current production at the ENO appears to have many ambitious stage ideas as presented by David Bird: floating silk satin sheets, cleverly coordinated actors diving into a bubbly abyss with Jen Schriever’s ocean coloured video projections yet, some of the most basic rules for aweing an audience were somehow misplaced.

The musical grandiose of the melodic and romantic opera, The Peal Fishers is unmistakably one of the most sublime of its kind, not only because it was originally written in the language of love – French – but due to the sweet yearning from the famous duet between baritone and tenor in "Au fond du temple saint." 

The libretto is set in the exotic land of Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, where two pearl fishers and fellow comrades Zurga (George von Berger) and Nadir (John Tessier) honour their friendship by making a pact to stay loyal, however this is tested 
by the unattainable Goddess Laïla (Sophie Bevan) who the people depend on to calm the seas and protect them from thunderous storms. 

The twist in this romantic tale however is through Nadir and Laïla’s clandestine relationship, which once found out, are condemned to death by the insanely jealous Zurga. By Act 3, Woolcuck’s production gets evil; von Berger portrays an ill-tempered and violent Zurga in an unforgiving and vulgarly mannered shantytown.

Bevan, as the heroine, manages to remind us of the romantic proponent Bizet was through the soft lullaby aria, “Me voila seule” and boasts her ability to prolong high notes, more times than not. 

Tessier and von Berger give their best performance of the duet, and even if it wasn’t vocally consistence throughout, there were moments of heartfelt poignancy that assured an audience that their money was well spent. 

Tessier serenade voice was clear yet, unfortunately for von Berger, his voice was only redeemable towards Act 3 as it was drowned out by Jean-Luc Tingaud’s direction of a fiery orchestra.

As mentioned, Bizet’s musical score is first class and, one may argue, the only success of the opera which makes it harder to address any potential flaws with the orchestra but Tingaud goes full steam at the finale of Act 2 were the secret lovers are discovered. 

All singers and chorus sang hard and loud with their arms raised to the sky, which was maximised by the roaring of an oncoming storm, the triumphant beats of drums and bold brass instruments.

However, why were the cast static? Why did the appear gormless?  When it came to scene changes, a silent audience was left with rotating digital footage of water, which may be unkind to anyone prone to seasickness. For as long as four minutes, the waiting was worsened by the awkward sounds of backstage; the banging and thumping of props and muffled conversations between what sounded like beer bellied construction workers. 

Even the woody set design of the shantytown was creaky which overshadowed the harmony and tranquillity of Bizet’s songs. There are some notable details such as the moonlit aquarium scenery, which added to the soothing ambiance yet, brilliant and seductive music aside, there were almost too many concerns regarding the stage itself.

The Pearl Fishers shows at the ENO until the 5th July 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Lear at the Union Theatre - An enamoured mother downtrodden by maddness ****

Ursula Mohan’s Lear is the King’s widow in Phil Wilmott’s new production at the Union theatre that begs the question: “what if King Lear were a woman?”. In a stuffy and smoke-lit room, the audience is warned that ‘some of the immersive production is promenade’.  

The first scene is set in a black tie event where Cordelia (Daisy Ward) gently plays the piano as her self-controlled stately mother announces handing down her kingdom in return for lavish words of endearment. The older sisters, Goneril (Claire Jeater) and Regan (Felicity Duncan) although, insincere and secret plotters could have been a bit more sinister. Yet, it is only within a matter of minutes before Lear looses her head and all logic is lost as she throws her younger teary-eyed daughter at Burgundy (Riley Madincea, who also plays Oswald) and France (Alexander Morelli).

The subplot between the illegitimate son, Edmund (Rikki Lawton) and the real son, Edgar (Tom McCarron) couldn’t have been showed in any neater form. Edmund is a spitting, in-your-face and rough-around-the-edges type of fella who reveals his bloody endeavours in a zany manner. Yet, Edgar is fooled by his half-brother’s antics and is spurred on to leave his fitness regime, of push ups and sit ups, and to hide away, ultimately becoming the naked beggar of bedlam. McCarron develops Edgar’s character from hitting rock bottom to become a stronger and more clear-minded ‘Tom’ towards the end - the polar opposite of Lear.

Standing has its perks particularly for getting close to the cast during the torture scene of Gloucester (Richard Derrington). The cocaine addict, Cornwall (Stephen Harakis) and Regan use cigarette butts and a spoon to pluck out Gloucester’s eyes and it’s just as juicy and gory as Shakespeare would have liked. 

Madam Lear quickly becomes madder, hitting her head whilst asking members of the audience, ‘who am I? And ‘are you my daughter?’ It is an immediate sign of the bitter onslaught of dementia and her indecisive conscience. One moment she hugs Goneril, her sympathetic noble blood, and then hastily pushes her away calling her an ‘ungrateful hag.’ In the second part, her fool (Joseph Taylor), dressed in a NHS uniform, accompanies her through the rain with a trolley filled with a laundry bag. She is later hidden under brown cardboard boxes to denote her mental poverty and lack of royal sanity.

 By the final part, a large table is brought in and the audience can get near to the action. A light cheesy saxophone plays a lady’s love song whilst Edmund asks himself which sister to pursue sexual liaison with. His violent struggle with France ends with a loud neck crack, having a domino effect on everyone else’s death, besides the awakened Edgar and bystander, Albany, confidently played by John Rayment. 

Overall, the use of Lear’s widow has a more enamoured effect on the audience given the relationship subscribed to a mother and child. Yet, the intrigue of an interactive stage is an unnecessary gimmick. Often the audience spends half their time concentrating on the show and the other half trying to figure out where to stand to avoid a collision. Luckily in part two and three there’s opportunity to sit down.
Ends on the 28th June

Gilbert and Sullivan: An witty and upbeat opera that pokes fun out of miserable poets and romantics ****

Taking place in one of the very first Elizabethan pub theatres, the King’s Head Theatre, is a contemporary and polished version of W.S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Patience.’ Directed by John Savournin of the Charles Court theatre sees a comedy opera on the rapturous undertakings of the aesthetic movement during 1870s-80s England, but with a satirical twist according to Gilbert. These aesthetes of the time included William Morris and even Oscar Wilde who felt that Victorian values stifled art and literature.

With such a witty libretto with a –rather- rapid tempo, all singers appeared vigilant about their poetically lengthy lyrics and like a game of lexical gymnastics, required use of  ‘very sophisticated’ vocabulary.

Two poets, Bunthorne (David Phipps-Davis) and Archibald (Henry Manning) fall in love with barmaid, Patience (Joanna Marie Skillett) yet, even though she favours Archibald, she understands love to be a selfless act as to love someone who not only returns her love but identifies themselves as a ‘trustee of beauty’ and perfection would be selfish. Gilbert’s mockery of these poets is heightened with the hilarity from the maidens played by Helen Evora, Andrea Tweedale and Amy J Payne as Lady Jane, who unlike Patience, desperately stalk and pursue these intellectual pups. This is parodied against the try-hard philistine men of the Dragoon Guards (Giles Davies, Michael Kerry and David Menezes.) Dressed in handsome soldier uniform they over-think the melancholic maidens’ preference for ‘early English’ men of poetic virtuoso and have a hand (later on) in dressing badly as clown and member of Led Zeppelin. Yet it’s just a ploy to capture the maidens’ hearts, which manages to work even if they have no idea of what they are doing.

David Eaton, music director and resilient pianist remained cool under pressure for a demanding and jolly score considering numerous catchy group choruses.  And Phipps-Davis’s dramatic and self-indulgent ‘Bunthorne’ is an easily likable character given his skill for accentuating every syllable and vowel. His voice, 17th century attire and wig thanks to Carrie Edwards gave him some note worthy praises.

Payne’s ‘Lady Jane’ is a frustrated devotee of Bunthorne who sing lavishly about her insecurities regarding her appearance whilst considering opening a bag of Walker’s crisps. Yet she manages to make the audience giggle through her woes and received the most applause. Whilst in Act 2,  Skillett stares into the audience as innocent Patience through her eloquent singing which drags viewers out of the jolly mood for a moment of sorrow.

If you want to see a comedy show laden with jokes that will uplift your spirits, look no further. There are special scenes including Archibald succumbing to Burnthorne’s moaning that result in a re-vamped Archibald with baseball cap, jeans and a funny South London. He enters accompanied by the once Goth-like Evora and Tweedale who turn into chavs operatically referencing  ‘TK Maxx‘ and ‘Sports Direct.’ This opera pokes fun out of the old-day version of our modern day hipster and EMO personalities. There’s no need to like poetry either to enjoy the performance, so happy frolicking!

This production has ended, but please click here for more shows and information on the Kings Head Pub.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

ENO Screen: Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini : A sensational production full of depth and texture *****

Yet again cinema has succeeded in carrying the gravitas and sincerity of a live stage production. However, Terry Gilliam’s version of Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini has a lot more to offer than his visionary expertise in two dimensional film directing.
The eccentric film director of award winning blockbusters such as 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, has produced his second opera at the ENO, Benvenuto Cellini. This follows on from a successful legacy from his first opera also at the ENO in 2011,The Damnation of Fraust, It is also another creation of Berlioz. I’d heard rumours of marvelled operagoers and 5 star reviews, but I resisted the temptation to read what critics had said and decided to see it for myself live at the cinema as part of the ENO Screen series.
In this compelling amalgamation of multiple themes: love, tragedy, comedy and violence, Gilliam sets himself the task of striping bare the finer details of an regretfully overlooked opera.
Balducci (Pavlo Hunka) a pious and ‘dear father’ plans for his virtuous daughter, Teresa (Corinne Winters) to wed the evil and clown-like foe, Fieramosca (Nicholas Pallesen.) Yet, she falls for the protagonist, her ‘soul mate’, the sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (Michael Spyres) who endeavours for them to elope from Rome with her. However, their plans are delayed when he is commissioned to the messianic Pope Clement VII (Williard White) as warned by his business advisor, Ascanio (Paula Murrihy.) Caught in a duel that leads to the fatal death of Fieramosca’s accomplice Pompeo (Morgan Pearse), in the presence of Mardi gras revellers, Cellini is stuck in delicate predicament: to run away with his love, complete the commissioned bronze statue or face death by hanging.
Only top grade singers were part of this production. Spyres’ ardent voice in Act Two where he prays to Saint Eloy was sang as if his life depended on it, holding onto every note. White sustained control over his impressive and deep-set vocals required for a demanding Pope. He also managed to squeal ‘No!’ like a high-pitched woman at the sight of Cellini pushing Perseus’ statue head over the edge. 
The pantomime-opera scene, choreographed by Leah Hausman, Aaron Marsden and Gilliam himself, leaves viewers lost in a quagmire of Mardi Gras madness. Early on, the entire auditorium space is emblazoned with a decorative cast and its artwork parading down onto an exhilarating stage. With confetti fluttering onto the audience and the involvement of a zany carnival troop, it is an opening that starts the production on a high and only gets better. A fun house with puppeteers, African voodoo faces, skulls, contortionists, jugglers, tarts and people on stilts flaunt the set, but it is far from being over the top - indeed we, the audience just wanted more. Evidently there were a variety of props and scenes utilised overall  however, in the shadows these were changed subtlety and seamlessly.  

Pale Constable’s creativity was highlighted by projections of news headlines in the opening scene and Cellini’s laughing enemies displayed just before the finale. Finn Ross’ clever coordination of multiple video screens of metal workers against an orange and red fiery furnace was mirrored against silhouettes of Romans preparing Cellini’s hanging execution.
Katrina Lindsay said ‘370 costumes’ were designed for the large cast and this included the most simplest dress from Teresa’s demure and conservative couture to carnival contortionists’ leotards to the most exuberant Santa Nino assemble worn by White accompanied with dollops of gold: long golden nails, golden eye lashes, and glittery gold make up.
Edward Gardner directed a mighty orchestra crowded with violinists that delivered a long overture with grace and a bass line that cinema speakers could -sadly- not handle.
During the interval, Hausman said in an interview that Gilliam ‘wanted to quit twenty times’ in the creation stages of the production which pinpoints Gilliam’s determination to direct an outstanding opera as complicated and challenging as Benuvenuto Cellini.  As an undisputed top-class director - and now Berlioz virtuoso – Gilliam has the graft to get every nook and cranny executed in the right way.  In an interview for the ENO he said when approaching the opera he was, ‘trying to work out the romanticism, outrageousness, scandalousness and true artistry’ to create an ‘interesting mix.’
The ENO’s live broadcast was sharp, with added charisma for showcasing visually pleasing pictorial shots. It is however, a shame that I wasn’t there to experience an explosion of confetti nor see the carnival performance from sitting in the stalls. Is it possible for opera to be semi-serious? Gilliam has provided a sensational production full of depth and texture proving that indeed, it can.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

1984: An extraordinary ‘flashy’ and disturbing performance that pulls you out of your comfort zone **** (Playhouse Theatre, London)

Even if you haven’t read George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ you may be familiar with words such as ‘Orwellian’ or ‘Big brother.’ The protagonist, Winston Smith (Mark Arends) plunges you into an uncomfortable state almost immediately. He has numerous panic attacks and is unsure of where he is. From the opening scene, he’s alone writing privately on his distain for Big brother and –within a flash second – is surrounded by people discussing the literary context of Orwell’s novel.

In this Big brother world that Oceania is, civilians take part in a ‘two minutes of hate’ session that entails aggressively screaming and shouting much of what they have been indoctrinated with as displayed on a large scale screens. The words, ‘war is peace,’ and ‘freedom is slavery’ come up on Tim Reid’s video designs. As a viewer, it is a scary sight to endure as it undermines the daily comforts of an English democratic society.

The stagecraft and character of Smith make a startled audience anxious, uncertain and stress: after all, it’s a world where no one can be trusted. Smith, who has suspicions about Julia (Hara Yannas), a supposed purist of the party admits to loving him and they begin a clandestine relationship that they believe Big brother has no knowledge of. Yet in reality, He knows everything. Arends and Yannas show variations of rebellion through the lovers’ gestures of tasting hard-to-get chocolate, sex, and display of disorder and destruction; throwing clothes, furniture and paper all over the room. Together, they plot to overthrow the party with the counter-revolutionary party, ‘The Brotherhood’ and once O’Brien (Tim Dutton) poses as a member, all hope of a free future diminishes. He ensnares them simply to trap and stop them.

Credit goes to Chloe Lamford for her stage design of the scene that separates the lovers with sirens and alarms, which lead to a nightmare; enter room 101. Surveillance cameras, speedy soldiers, helicopter interference, and loud airspace noises cover the corners of the stage. Smith is clothed in a straitjacket and the torture commences. Dutton plays a calm and collected O’Brien who presents the ideals of the party as if it were rational yet every time he hears Smith answer ‘4’ to his question, ‘what is 2 +2?’ flashes and silent screams shift the stage that sees him electrocuting Smith leaving the rebel spitting out blood, teeth-less and fingerless. The worst is to yet to come. Room 101, the brainwash room that uses fear to drive out thought crimes dig out Smith’s own fear: rats. Just as the rodent's squeaky sounds begin to accumulate, he cries out desperately, ‘do it to Julia!’ and it is here that he relinquishes all love for her.

This adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is a winner with its collaboration with Headlong, the Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida. After the success of sell-out runs at the West End, they have added more dates to stage one of the best English novels of modern times.

1984 is showing until to August 23rd at the Playhouse theatre

What to expect at West End Live

(Saturday 21st June 2014) Having returned home from almost 10 hours of standing in the basking sun at West End Live, I feel that I’ve learnt a lot more about West End musicals today than I had in the last 20 years of going to the theatre. It's often the case that there isn’t enough time nor cash to see all West End shows, but how about a large event where you can explore musicals by seeing – more or less- twenty of the best West End shows performing their most popular numbers, for free? The solution is none other than West End Live.

The man behind West End Live is Councillor Robert Davis aka ‘The Boss’ and Cabinet Member of Westminster City Council. With partnerships from the Society of London Theatre, the Mayor of London and MasterCard, West End Live has managed to become a massive success that has attracted up to 500,000 people from London and abroad. Throughout Saturday, Davis was walking around Trafalgar Square taking selfies with the audience as part of a twitter competition to win £100,000.  

Roberto, Robert Davies and Lisa Vickery
In an interview, Davis said:

I wanted to create an event that celebrated the magic of London’s West End – the fantastic retail, nightlife, restaurants, cinemas and of course the West End shows.

This year’s event will be no exception however it celebrates its 10-year anniversary making it a special occasion. There is an additional Theatre Emporium in Leicester square for those you want more insight into the inner workings of a theatre production as well.

Health Advice & Event Information:

For those who want to attend West End Live tomorrow (Sunday 22nd June) or West End Live 2015

  • This event was advertised as starting at 11am however people began queueing from as early as the 4am but don’t let this discourage you. I arrived at 9am and still managed to get to the front by 2pm as some people decided to leave after their favourite West End show had performed. With this in mind, staff members –actually- let people into the square at 10.30am, so if you want to get to the front (and take nice photos) I would highly advice you to get there early.
  • Be sure to bring enough water so that you don’t dehydrate.
  • Have some snacks in your bag as you will get hungry.
  • Check the weather: West End Live usually takes place in mid-June and is bound to be hot and sunny so dress appropriately.
  • Ensure to lotion up with sun cream which has good SPF and keep it with you for all day usage.
  • It will be sunny so don’t forget your sunglasses (and possibly a hat.)
  • Be mindful of the fact that you won't be able to return to the same spot you were in if you leave the square. Due to the crowd size and demand for West End Live, you may have to accept that you won’t be able to go to the bathroom if you want to see the entire event.
  • Be ahead of the game and check for the schedule

Today’s hosts were from Heart FM radio, which included Lisa Vickery, Jamie Theakston, Lucy Horobin, Jenni Falconer, Roberto and Katy Federman who kept us entertained with selfie photo-taking and West End Live ‘wave’ making. The schedule for Saturday was jammed packed and it was no surprise to hear that some members of the audience had queued up since 4.30am. Now, that is what you call commitment.

 The line up (for Saturday) included:
·      The Commitments
       Once the Musicals

·      Wicked

·      Billy Eliot: The Musical

·      Les Miséables

·      Phantom of the Opera

·      Miss Saigon

·      The Pajama Game

·      Matilda: The Musical

·      Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

·      Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 
·      Jersey Boys

·      Mamma Mia

·      The Bodyguard

·      Forbidden Broadway

·      Thriller Live

·      The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

·      Let It Be

·      Groove on Down the Road: Zoonation

·      Sylvia Young Theatre

·      Big Dance

·      Kasia Howley

·      The West End Gospel Choir

·      Nathan Amzi and Louise Dearman

·      In the Heights

·      Stomp

And last but not least, the Royal Opera House chorus conducted by

Plácido Domingo

As I have an interest in opera, Plácido Domingo and the Royal Opera House chorus' performance was the main driver for attending West End Live; however there were many West End shows that I had always wanted to see which performed today. 

There were so much talent on the stage with many songs to sing along to and a multitude of numbers to get the crowd dancing.  With such a variety it reminds people why we love the West End. It’s a combination of strong voices, a creative stage, moving music, dance choreographies and a well-thought-out story line, which touches us and - some how - makes us find a way to relate to the show. Enjoy your time at West End Live!

Photos of the performances Unfortunately, not all.
(Click to enlarge)
In the Heights
Plácido Domingo and Royal Opera House Chorus
Kasia Howley
Plácido Domingo and Royal Opera House Chorus
Groove on Down the Road
Louise Dearman & Nathan Amzi

Miss Saigon
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Let It Be
The Bodyguard

Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical
Mamma Mia!
Jersey Boys

Porgy and Bess

Forbidden Broadway
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Thriller Live