Long Live Bohemia: RENT at the Greenwich Theatre

Rent

Bohemia is dead, long live bohemia! The 90s cult musical about a group of impoverished friends and artists from New York’s Lower East Side comes back to London in a visually appealing and vocally impressive production. At the Greenwich Theatre.

For many people, especially in America, RENT is not simply a piece of light evening entertainment. It is a cult show that epitomised the struggles and confusions of a generation that tried to claim free love for themselves and consequently got hit by a wave of disease of unimaginable proportions. Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème and dealing with the AIDS/HIV problem it had a huge impact when it came to Broadway in 1996. RENT’s world is gritty and yet life-affirming in spite of disease. Without being overly sentimental or pretentious, it deals with characters that try to make sense of their relationships and careers in the little time they have got left.

This seems to be a high season for fans of RENT or “Rentheads”, as they call themselves: Anthony Rapp (who played Mark Cohen in the original Broadway production) is currently in town doing his one man show Without You at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the current New York Off-Broadway show had its last run only a couple of days ago, and now there is Paul Taylor Mills’ slick interpretation of this modern classic.

What he offers is not original or new but it is highly enjoyable, and Jonathan Larson’s music and story take care of the rest. Mark (Benjamin Stratton), the filmmaker, and his flatmate Roger (Edward Handoll) don’t have enough money to pay their rent and are threatened to be evicted by their former friend and now landlord Benjamin (David Hinton-Gale). There are drugs, sex, guitars and plenty of existential questions to be dealt with. As an artist, how do you prevent yourself from being a sell-out when you can’t pay the bills? Can you find true love when confronted by a numbing disease? And what can offer comfort in a life that seems hopeless?

This version is a bit relentless, and some of the big questions in Larson’s piece don’t get a lot of breathing space to be explored. But in the quieter numbers like “Will I?” we are allowed to sink a bit deeper into the desolation of the characters, and that’s the big strength of the original material. Among all of the outrageous and obscene moments that lend the show its roughness, it is the tenderness and sincerity that make RENT such an unforgettable experience.

The vocal performances of the cast are convincing and strong across the board. One of the stars s Zoe Birkett who, while vocally impressive and with impeccable comedy timing during the number Over The Moon, tries a bit too hard in her characterisation of the over-sexualised performance artist Maureen. It’s probably not the easiest thing to be effortlessly sexy and in with the audience at the same time. Gary Wood plays the feisty drag queen Angel as fierce and touching at the same time and Stephanie Fearon’s Mimi shines especially in quiet numbers like “Without You”.

But the one who really stands out is Jamie Birkett, who plays the lesbian lawyer Joanne as a strong no-nonsense power woman and who can speak volumes with merely the lift of an eyebrow.

Andrew Beckett’s costumes and David Shield’s set, an effective scaffolding structure dominating the stage, are both very reminiscent of the original Broadway version. If you have never seen RENT live before this is definitely the show for you. If however you have already seen your “favourite” version of the show all of this might be a bit too polished. And certainly for my taste it was all just a tad too shiny – that applies to some of the musical arrangements as well as the direction both of which seem to loose a bit of their focus towards the end at “What You Own”.

But this is just picking holes into what is overall a well-presented and round show with a very strong ensemble and generally believable main characters. Definitely watch out for Maeve Byrne and her excellent solo part in “Seasons of Love”.

Proving its enduring popularity, later this year Interval Productions will bring an amateur-licensed version of the show to The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and it will be interesting to see how both productions will compare to each other.

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Psychoanalytical Birdhouse at Jacksons Lane

Birdhouse

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director. At Jacksons Lane.

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense, and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director.

I have to admit, to my shame, that my memories of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds are rather hazy, but it’s not essential to know all the intricacies of the film’s plot to appreciate this piece of physical theatre. What you need to know is that there is a quiet, small California town, and suddenly there are birds appearing from nowhere and they attack people seemingly at random. Oh, and maybe that the central character is a woman who gets involved with a man and struggles with his overbearing mother. Hitchcock’s horror is almost always psychological and Jammy Voo capitalises on that.

Birdhouse is, if you will, a kind of postmodern sequel, that uses the story universe and minor characters to paint an absurd picture of the life after the attacks portrayed in the film. In Jammy Voo’s narrative the survivors of the horror seem to have formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the attacking birds. The four women that take centre stage wear feathered head-dresses and talk about their personal, rather domestic horrors – be it about supporting a family or cleverly illustrating issues about female fulfilment through giving birth with the help of eggs. It might sound a bit pretentious and abstract, but the concept is put into action very demonstratively, and so the birds in this piece serve as an intriguing metaphor for oppression. It’s not just a one-sided preachy piece about all that though; in a fascinating moment in which a woman gets seduced by bird puppet, the room for all kinds of ambivalent readings is opened up.

It has to be said that Jammy Voo’s is a very intellectual approach that might leave some people cold. There are moments of deliberate ennui, which (in a Hitchcockian manner) skilfully coax the viewer into the next visual or acoustic climax. Audiences aware of psychoanalyst theories might recognise nods to the cheeky and convoluted pop culture analysis of academia’s enfant terrible Slavoj Zîzek, but even if you’re not in the slightest interested in psychoanalyst musings about female oppression and womanhood, you will find a lot to enjoy in this piece.

The most striking quality of this piece is definitely its stylistic vigour and its nearly cinematic scope. Visually sophisticated and nuanced, the performers include convincing bird puppets and a model of a house to bring up traumata connected to issues of motherhood or society judging women by their ability to bear children. Masterfully treading the fine line between clownery and expressive physical theatre movements, the created characters, although definitely distinguishable, remain deliberately abstract. They don’t have names or a distinct back-story, and they don’t talk a lot anyway – or at least not to each other. In a somewhat alienating way, the company manage to create little moments of truth without relying heavily on an overarching story.

The live music written and performed by Greg Hall is nothing short of revelatory. The arrangements are tender and soothing harmonies, which achieve so much more than merely illustrating the performance; it becomes part of the seductive suspense. The show, incidentally, had one of the best sound performances I have heard on stage in a long time. It was crisp and clear and let the music and actor’s voices seem like a perfectly mixed film soundtrack. That is especially remarkable, seeing as touring shows like this are in a constant provisory state of having to adapt to local premises.

After seeing this intelligent reworking of the source material I will definitely watch The Birds again. If, like me, you feel the need to brush up on your knowledge on Britain’s cult filmmaker, the BFI Southbank runs an extensive retrospective of Hitchcock’s work until October. But more than that, I cannot wait to see what Jammy Voo’s next “eggsperiment” is going to be. With their distinct visual concept, this company is definitely one to look out for.

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A Life in the Theatre

Camden Fringe, A Life in the Theatre

David Mamet’s play A Life in the Theatre is a well-observed study of mannerisms and quirks some actors develop over years of working on stage. This production is funny, but unfortunately slightly unremarkable. At Upstairs at the Gatehouse.

David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is a quirky little play. A well-observed study of mannerisms and ticks some actors develop over years of working on stage, it is a sweet little gem, especially for people working in the industry. This production is funny, but unfortunately slightly unremarkable.

The set-up is simple. We meet two male actors backstage in a theatre: an experienced thespian and his young, promising colleague. While the first epitomises all of the cliches about actors’ idiosyncrasies, the latter is a more down-to-earth sort of man for whom acting is a profession like any other and who approaches it with the according nonchalance. A massive table dominates the stage, and is used to good effect in the play-within-a-play sequences. A plane, a flask, a globe and other seemingly random objects are suspended from the ceiling on strings, and allude to the fact that, in a theatre, the players are not simply on their own, but are always surrounded by all of the stories they are telling and that have been told there before.

John Fleming plays Robert, an experienced and somewhat conceited know-it-all with a strong propensity for pretentiousness as a constantly sweating, insecure wreck. To compensate, grand gestures and big speeches come easily to him, and he seems to be in constant state of reminiscence. He seeks to educate his colleague, the struggling young actor, and sees his own fading youth in him. Unfortunately, there is not enough charm in Robert to rehabilitate the demanding and annoying personality of the character completely. So when, after a couple of more anecdotal scenes, the stakes do eventually rise for the stage veteran, it didn’t evoke any real pity.

Duncan Wilkins gives the character of John a genuinely lovable quality, and we feel for him when his colleague dares to give him a somewhat vague directing note or indulges in overly-dramatic monologues about actors’ souls or the human condition in general. Wilkins’ performance is captivating and he is incredibly good at acting as if he was acting badly.

There are enjoyable Abbott & Castello-like exchanges that had the audience in stitches. In some respects it reminded me of Noises Off, which played successfully at the Novello earlier this year, but it has the emotional depth Michael Frayn’s piece lacked by nature of its genre.
But although some of its humour is farcical, in rare occasions even slapstick, A Life in the Theatre is not a farce. All of the funny bits are handled very well by the two actors but, on top of that, Mamet’s play is full of honest rumination about what drives people to work in theatre and how it usually turns out to be so much more than just a job. Becoming someone else every day on stage will change an artist’s personality, and the playwright has a good eye for subtle details. But it is not just another piece of meta-theatre, these are real characters with real struggles.

It’s a shame then that what sets the play apart, its insights into the artists’ emotional roller-coasters, fall slightly flat. There is something very touching about the play, something that rings true, and it’s not just the hysterical cries of “I think I’ve missed my cue!” which are not far off from what sometimes really happens backstage. Robert makes some valid points in his speeches, but they are almost always met with a playful or hidden sneer by the young actor. Although it’s an easy thing to do, I think that turning Robert’s struggles and his existential angst into the constant laughing-stock is playing it a bit safe.

Hiraeth Productions and Ovation have worked together to put this on at the Camden Fringe and, with the solid direction concept and good performances, it shouldn’t be too hard to take this production further. One merely would have wished for a more audacious approach to the characters and an end that’s more of a bang rather than a fizzle.

 

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Not Awesome: The Awesome Show

The Awesome Show

I know that sometimes experiments simply can go wrong and that audiences may remain unresponsive. I am more than ready to see past those weaknesses if there is a brave idea at the heart of the performance. But Wish Experience’s The Awesome Show, however, had a disconcertingly lewd and witless vacuum in the place where its heart should have been. At the Tristan Bates Theatre.

I would like to acknowledge a couple of things before I start in on sharing my thoughts about what was undoubtedly the most uninspired and, for that matter, uninspiring thing I have ever seen performed on a stage. I know that sometimes experiments simply can go wrong, I am aware that performers have bad days from time to time, audiences may remain unresponsive… so what starts out as a piece of theatrical exploration can fall flat. I acknowledge all that and am more than ready to see past those weaknesses if there is a brave idea at the heart of the performance.

The version of Wish Experience’s The Awesome Show I saw, however, had a disconcertingly lewd and witless vacuum in the place where its heart should have been.

There is no real set, only a laundry line spread across the room, and the little paper pendants with mysterious words on them make me hope for an existential-explorative evening. Immersive and participatory theatre is always a risky venture with performers making themselves vulnerable and subjecting themselves to the mercy of the audience. On entering the space, the audience gets handed old pots, pans and spatulas. From the little explanation I get, it might be to cook an egg should I start getting hungry. After some time, everyone seems to settle on banging them together loudly because that’s what you do with kitchen utensils when you’re in a theatre. It’s not because I feel like doing it, but I kind of don’t want to keep the performers hanging and they tell me to make some noise, so I bang my spatula. I get a coloured pen to fill in a pop quiz which consists of random pictures of kittens, human sex organs and atom bombs being projected on a white sheet. I circle numbers on a little sheet of paper, circles which never will be returned to and, in a way, already represent the futility of life. I am being informed that the purpose of all this is to find out what “awesome” means for different people, because apparently “awesomeness” is a fluid concept. Already I am awed by the audaciousness of the experiment and wonder where the promised champagne is.

Admittedly, I had quite a few preconceptions about a show that chooses a name like this and features sparsely clad people presenting cupcakes on their advertising material. The only thing that made me dismiss these preconceived ideas about the show was the fact that this has been initially developed in cooperation with BAC and has been worked on for nine months now. I can only assume that the workshop phase consisted of producer and performers reading every available book on theatre games to each other and patting each other on the back when they managed to sneak in a reference to sex or rainbows.

Basically it’s a succession of trivialities, pointless sketches and little games like throwing cupcakes in baskets or making rainbows with spray bottles. For lack of a better comparison, it was like children’s entertainment on a cruise ship. Surprisingly, there was nothing childlike or wonderlike about The Awesome Show, which from this point onwards I shall refuse calling it that. This show has not grown beyond its scratch performance beginnings and I did not see a glimpse of anything that indicates it ever will.

So, no, I did not feel challenged to question my idea of “awesomeness” nor was I moved to even care about the concept. I shouldn’t be so hard on the show though, because in a way it succeeded in demonstrating to me what my “awesome” is, namely, exactly the opposite of The Awesome Show. Even as a Wednesday evening diversion, the show failed because after twenty minutes I became slightly aggravated by the infantilising tone some of the performers had towards the audience. So the reason this project fails is a combination of both: weak concept and fatigued performers.

But here is the beauty about scratch performances and workshop phases – they constitute a space that should allow for enough room for artists to develop material, to be outrageous, to recognise when an idea has run out of steam, to tweak and sometimes even to fail. It’s part of the artist’s job who goes out to explore: to recognise and acknowledge artistic failure and stagnation. That’s the awesome thing about art that even failure allows for everyone involved to grow and hopefully Wish Experience will find new, more coherent and relevant projects in the future.

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