Did It Live Up To My Expectations?? – War Horse – New London Theatre – Review

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War_horse_new_posterAfter my post last week several theatre chums said before I went to see War Horse ; “I hope it lives up to your expectations and doesn’t disappoint you.”

That’s always the challenge with a long running and hugely successful show. I have to say War Horse didn’t live up to my expectations, it EXCEEDED them. I think it’s the first time a show has surpassed the expectations and hype in my mind.

So how did it manage to do this?

I think it surprised me in so many ways, firstly I wasn’t expecting the musical narration which I loved. It gave the piece a grounding in the period and added a layer of texture to the piece. The music set the emotional tone from joy to poignancy. The score added a cinematic element to the production that really added to the atmosphere. (The Soundtrack CD is now on my wish list, it’s THAT good)

Secondly the puppetry is really something to behold. I had excellent seats very near the stage and I was just in awe of the skill of the puppeteers bringing the animals to life. I also couldn’t believe the size of the horses – they’re huge! The whole spectacle and scale of the show is incredible.

The puppetry is really quite something when done at this size.

The puppetry is really quite something when done at this size.

Thirdly I surprised myself by how emotionally engaged I became with the characters and story. It is a truly horrific period of human history. Yet War Horse manages to get to the essence of the horrors of war and show that those on both sides are suffering. I enjoyed the fact that the French and German characters spoke their respective languages, that aided to the realism and whilst I can’t speak a word of German it was nice to be able to put my GCSE French skills to the test. In many ways it wasn’t what they were saying but how they said it that impacted the audience.

The final battle was also an epic piece of theatre and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a show that has got its balance right, there isn’t spectacle just for spectacles sake. It is used wisely and to jolt the audience.

It is not hard to see why this has had such a phenomenal success and I hope it continues for many more years to come as it is one of the most impacting pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

I spoke in my previous post about “theatrical alchemy” and how this piece has achieved that via its combination of writing, direction, set, puppetry, music and cast. It is truly a theatrical gold standard to measure other theatre trips against going forward.

I hope as and when you get to see it that your expectations are exceeded just as mine were.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★  (Unmissable)

ps.  I recommend looking at the free documentary and video diaries related to War Horse on iTunes U.

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War Horse – A Thoroughbred of Theatre.

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In recent years the NT production of War Horse has been wowing audiences throughout the world. It’s been on my “must see” list for the last few years but I’ve never got round to seeing it (that is being rectified tonight!).

I’ve found it an interesting production to watch as it has blossomed, becoming a resident show in London’s West End and then seeing it become a global export and sensation. In many ways it vindicates the public funding the NT receives as it has brought in much more than ever it took of public funding and must have repaid that back in tax tenfold (if not more) by now.

I’m pleased that it has also been able to be taken overseas. I’ve said numerous times on this blog how I hold the NT in high esteem and I’m glad its theatrical magic is being seen by those unable to make it to the Southbank in London.

A recent social media Q&A with author Michael Morpurgo also showed how this production is engaging with its audience. I was especially intrigued that the author has made cameo appearances in the play in the West End, Broadway, Canada, Australia and Salford! The life this production has outside of its stage confines is impressive. Whether it is engaging the writer via social media or Joey the horse appearing at national events, this show pops up all over the place, not in a tacky marketing way but as something people identify and engage with.

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The way the production has touched people across the spectrum of age and nationality again shows the power that theatre can have when all the pieces of writing, direction, cast and staging come together causing alchemy to occur. It happens only rarely and the NT is perhaps one of the best theatrical crucibles we have that achieves it regularly.

I know that many of my regular readers will be glad I am finally going to see the show (especially my antipodean friend Simon Parris!) . The review will follow soon. I’m excited to get to see this theatrical thoroughbred and I salute the success it has been and continues to be for British Theatre in the world today.

The Light Princess – The National Theatre – Review

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Review in one sentence : This is one of the most inventive, incredible pieces of theatre I’ve EVER seen.

Light Princess Poster

Review in more than one sentence:

I was excited by the concept of this when I first heard it was being workshopped a few years ago. It’s been a while in gestation but it has been well worth the wait.

This is a Victorian fairy tale (which was new to me), told with an inventiveness I’ve only seen in a few other musicals and pieces of theatre (London Road and Once). All of the various parts that make this an harmonious whole piece; the score, lyrics, script, design, direction, choreography and cast have achieved that magical alchemy that theatre seldom achieves but when it does and you’re present to witness it, leaves an indelible mark on your life.

Tori Amos has crafted a score that is a welcome fresh newcomer to musical theatre. Several of the tunes lodge firmly in the memory when leaving the theatre. There are moments of drama, comedy and a few that send tingles up the spine and one that sends a tear or two down the cheek. Hurry up National Theatre and Tori Amos and release the soundtrack please!!!

2 impressive talent combine in this production. Tori Amos and Rosalie Craig.

2 impressive talents combine in this production. Tori Amos and Rosalie Craig.

Rosalie Craig as Althea (the Light Princess of the title) gives a performance that is extraordinary. Her voice soars as effortlessly as she does. Singing this score would be hard for any professional, yet she does it whilst spinning, floating upside down and swooping over the stage. Performance of the year goes to her for this without a shadow of a doubt. If not greatest female lead I’ve seen, ever!

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Nick Hendrix as her romantic suitor gives a powerful performance. Clive Rowe as King Darius belts out his tunes and he also gives a tender performance in one song that had me going for my handkerchief as he sings to his dying daughter.

Sometimes the set, choreography and theatrical trickery can detract from a piece. Here they add volumes to it. How they’ve got Althea to float all the time is bordering on genius and the VERY hard work of 4 acrobats. If I try to explain it, you’ll think it sounds impossible. So I won’t bother, suffice to say it is definitely the cleverest theatrical idea and implementation I’ve seen. Truly magical. You’ll have to see it with your own eyes.

Just one of the never ending ingenious creations in this show.

Just one of the never-ending ingenious creations in this show.

Add to this intriguing and ingenious puppets and puppetry, with a focused direction from Marianne Elliott it is really a very special piece of theatre.

I came out of the National feeling like I too was floating I was so overjoyed by this experience. My advice is stop whatever you are doing and make sure you book tickets to see this as soon as possible.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Slightly Off Target – Bullet Catch – The NT Shed -Review

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The Shed is the National Theatre’s temporary theatre whilst the Cottesloe is transformed into The Dorfman. It’s a great 250 seater studio space.

Bullet Catch comes to it from its success in Edinburgh last year, and fresh from a Broadway run this year.

It says in the programme “this is not a magic show; it’s a theatre show featuring magic.” I disagree, it’s a magic show, albeit one with a thought through narrative. Narrative, trick, narrative, trick… is the order of the evening. It’s a tad pretentious to claim this is anything more than a magic show (and there’s nothing wrong with a decent magic show).

Rob Drummond is the “magician”(a term he doesn’t use in the programme or on stage). He’s an engaging, pleasant and skillful one. His narrative revolves around the notorious “bullet catch trick” that has claimed the life of numerous magicians over the years.

Throughout the 1hr 20 mins he is assisted by a single member of the audience. It’s a big ask for an audience member to become such a integral part of a show. (Leading some to speculate whether they are a stooge) Ours last night was confident and candid thankfully. I wonder how it’d work with someone not quite as confident or comfortable being on stage for over an hour?

I have two issues with this show;

Number one; he exposes a magical secret/effect (one also used by Derren Brown in his An Evening of Wonders show) that isn’t his intellectual property to expose.It comes quite late in the show. I think it serves no theatrical purpose, other than to make Rob come across as cold, heartless and as if he doesn’t care, which is a shame as he’s built such good rapport with the audience. In a show where so much has gone into the narrative and framing of the effects this exposure felt unnecessary and quite lazy.  He’ll no doubt argue that he gives option for audience members to cover their eyes. True, but he takes about 2/3 mins to expose it, sitting with eyes closed for that long is not really an option in a theatre.
He should have thought of his own secret to expose rather than ripping off someone elses. (as Penn and Teller expertly do) Strangely at the end when my colleague wanted to examine a prop on stage as he was leaving the theatre, he was told he wasn’t allowed to by a stagehand “as we doesn’t want people to know the secrets“!

Number two;  his big finale is a bullet catch. He produces (via a rather lame magicians prop box) a Glock 9mm handgun. Except we’re in the UK and handgun’s are illegal,  a recent case saw a former S.A.S soldier in trouble for keeping his firearms after leaving the service. If a former firearms specialist gets in trouble with the law, I doubt wielding a loaded illegal firearm on the NT stage would go unnoticed by the police. Plus it made a noise akin to a cap gun and the petite volunteer fired it single-handed with no recoil!
This effect also featured a really “clunky” method, a real shame as rest of magic was performed effortlessly.

So for me it was an enjoyable and interesting magic show, but it didn’t hit the bullseye.

STARS: ★ ★ ★

Regional theatres need continued investment

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Regional theatres have been in the news today, as their Artistic Directors met at the National Theatre to discuss how they can promote themselves and flag to the government (both local and national) that economic cuts will hurt not just theatres but communities, culture and the economy.

Danny Boyle has been on many radios and TV programmes today flying the flag, here’s him being interviewed :

Danny Boyle interview

A fuller interview was on Radio 4’s Front Row tonight, which will soon be available as a podcast.

Let’s hope local and national governments listen to the compelling arguments offered.

 

Was It Worth The Wait? – One Man Two Guvnors – Theatre Royal Haymarket

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I didn’t get a chance to see this when it opened. Over the last year if I had a pound for everyone who said “have you seen One Man Two Guvnors?” I could certainly have paid for  a trip to see it on Broadway.

So the other night I went along with some pals to finally see it. For 2 of my friends this was their second visit and for one it was his third time. With such a theatrical thumbs up I thought I was in for a treat. Alas this show failed to live up to its hype for me, let me explain why:

Firstly I’ve seldom seen a cast “going through the motions” as much as most of this cast did. It lacked any sense of spontaneity and the cast seemed to lack panache and zeal.
Some lines were lost as they failed to project fully, it felt a bit tired. They have a two-week break soon, it appears they need it. Except this is a West End show, they should be firing on all cylinders EVERY night. Nicholas Hynter needs to pop down and cast his directorial eye on it as they’ve grown complacent I think.

Secondly I think Act 2 really lets it down. The best jokes are in Act 1, in the second act we descend into plastic penis territory to get cheap laughs. As a wise performer once told me “not all laughs are good laughs”.

Thirdly the repetition of gags, pratfalls and jokes enters the realm of the law of diminishing returns far too often. It may have been funny when Martin Barrass falls downstairs the first time however on the third one it failed to get much more than a titter.

I felt Owain Arthur was too egotistical and self-indulgent in his role. My friend felt he was too aggressive compared to James Corden and didn’t engage as well with the audience.

The use of stooges was really the final nail in the coffin for me though. I think this is the root cause of why it felt complacent and tired as a show. I felt cheated when I realised they were stooges. I also don’t think there’s a need for them either actually, as the performers should be able to cope with handling “real people” as is occasionally shown by some of the banter they have with the “real” audience.

I think this would be better as a one-act play as I really don’t think it holds the attention for the 2hrs and as I’ve said Act 2 just doesn’t deliver, as the plot has nowhere to go really.

I DID like ; Ben Mansfield as Stanley and Phil Cornwell as Charlie “the Duck” Clench. They certainly gave their all and got the biggest laughs from me.

I did laugh out loud on occasions, don’t get me wrong, I did try to engage with it, I didn’t sit being all curmudgeonly. It’s just the laugh out loud moments were not as regular as I was expecting and I certainly wasn’t rolling in the aisle.

It’s not awful, I just fell for the hype so only have myself to blame, I should have known better. My friend who was seeing it for 3rd time commented how poor he felt this cast was in comparison to original one. The National Theatre have been striving to make a point the show was bigger than its original cast. It looks like that this is not the case.

Was it worth the wait? I’m glad I got to see it, and it was an enjoyable night out with friends at the theatre, but I can’t agree with the plaudits and praise some have heaped on this show however I’m aware they saw a different cast and so it seems a different show to me.

STARS : * * *

Collaborators – National Theatre – Review

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The sublime Alex Jennings and masterful Simon Russell Beale

The Olivier Award for Best Play went to Collaborators, I’d missed it when it was on at the Cottesloe, but was glad it was being revived on the Olivier stage. I’d heard mixed thoughts on it, one friend saying it was best thing they’d seen at NT for years, another found it dull and boring.

If the play was about a theatre critic rather than a Russian playwright it would go as follows:

Soviet Secret Policeman : Hey Dominic, we’d like you to write a review for Stalin’s 60th birthday as a surprise.

Dominic : I can’t do that he’s an awful man

Soviet Secret Policeman : We’ll kill your wife if you don’t do it.

Dominic : Ok they.

Dominic struggles to write the review – Enter Stalin

Stalin: Ha! Nothing is a surprise to me, tell you what, I’ll write the review and you can run the USSR while I do it.

Dominic : Ok, wow running the USSR is hard work, I never realised the tough decisions you have to make Stalin.

Stalin : Yes, you see what a demanding job being a dictator is, I’m not really that bad, I just have to make tricky decisions.

Dominic : Well I’ll be blowed, I’m now sticking up for Stalin.

Stalin : See you fell into our trap, if I can break you, I can break anyone. Snigger, snigger, snigger.( he says as he pockets Orwell’s 1984)

THE END

To me this play didn’t live up the hype it’s received. Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale’s performances are excellent and definitely worth seeing. Bob Crowley’s design is dazzling, especially the beams of red light that emanate from the back of the stage.

However as a play, this left me wanting. I personally thought portraying Stalin as a kind and comedic soft “Uncle Joe”, isn’t really appropriate as we know what a brutal, vicious and psychopathic dictator he really was. It also veered into the ridiculous on occasions, especially the scenes featuring the Doctor, which came straight from a Carry on Film. The play lacked pace to me and just seemed to plod along. I’m not sure what point John Hodge was trying to make writing this play, perhaps he wasn’t writing to make a point, but his characterisation didn’t make up for this in my view.

It certainly is not an awful play, but definitely didn’t live up to the hype, and I’m perplexed as to why it won the Olivier for best play in a year when there was stiff competition in that category. It is worth going to see Alex Jennings performance in particular. However as a piece of writing, without its strong two leading actors it would be more apparent for the dull and questionable play I feel it is.

STARS : * * *