Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is, like many of his late works, an odd play. Written in 1978 it defies not only conventions of genre but offers a poetic richness of characterisation that is rarely to be found in a theatre these days. In a dilapidated New Orleans house surrounding an old court yard the confused land lady of a guest house, controls the comings and goings of her tenants with a sharp eye. At the King’s Head.

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is, like many of his late works, an odd play. Written in 1978 it defies not only conventions of genre but offers a poetic richness of characterisation that is rarely to be found in a theatre these days. In a dilapidated New Orleans house surrounding an old court yard the confused land lady of a guest house, controls the comings and goings of her tenants with a sharp eye. Among them is a young writer (Tom Ross-Williams) who struggles with his sexuality and ghosts from the present and past.

In its style Vieux Carré is very reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with it’s accumulation of little stories and motives rather than focusing on strong narratives. Set in the infamous French Quarter of New Orleans, establishing a certain tone takes precedent over conflict and motivations. It’s a melancholic social study that doesn’t fall back on a social realism devoid of any poetic beauty. Set designer Nicolai Hart Hansen and the prop department have done a wonderful job giving it a colour and effectively using the intimate space of the King’s Head. Three bedbug-ridden cots and a piano dominate the stage and represent the rooms of the residents of this madhouse in 722 Toulouse Street. Capturing the decay of moral and society, the set is wistful but unobtrusive so that the Williams’ text can shine.

Set in the Great Depression and at its heart a play about sickness, the light-heartedness of the beginning is probably one of the most surprising things about this piece. David Whitworth as the ageing artist Nightingale, who tries to seduce the nameless writer, has great comedy timing especially in the first half. But then of course Williams doesn’t really do light-hearted, and as time passes it all transforms into a horrible cesspool of human failure and disease. Everyone is this play is plagued with some sort of ailment: lungs, brains and eyes are failing them. However, there are so many beautifully crafted facets to all these characters that it is a twisted joy to bathe in their misery.

Standing out is Paul Standell’s over-sexualised Tye, a rather simple-minded being who initially doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. As the only character who is not physically lacking (actually very far from it, I might add) and aided by Standell’s convincing performance, the production is forcefully anchored outside of a mere dream sphere. When it’s his time to let his guard down and we discover his depths it’s horrifyingly violent and heart-breaking at the same time. There is a great bit of casting with Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil as the two starving old ladies who are malnurtured and yet still obsessed with food. Sadly their story isn’t taken to any sort of conclusion, but that’s also part of the morbid magic of Tennessee Williams’ writing – he knows how to pick at the scabs of humanity and leaves the audience itching.

It’s a bit of a theatrical sleight of hand by both writer and director to create a melancholy the audience is drawn into and repulsed by at the same time. There are one or two strange stylistic decisions that are a bit jarring, but they don’t really deter from the fact this is a bold revival.

I could never quite understand why Williams had fallen into disrepute in the late stages of his writing life, but then again I wasn’t even born when he died. His experimental style, his outlandish ideas and his twisted, dancing language deserve to be heard and seen – not because of unquestioning reverence for the man himself, but because issues like self-worth in the face of sickness and decay of society are relevant now as they were when this was written. Williams might have been ahead of his time in 1978 and with this production director Robert Chevara has done much more than simply staging a stylistically daring play; he has proven that a Tennessee Williams renaissance is truly in order. There is still much more joy to be had and more pain to be suffered.

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Valli of Music: Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys tells the remarkable story of the rise to fame of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. From their humble beginnings in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, to their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has contributed countless influential songs to the popular musical canon. At the Prince Edward Theatre.

Jersey Boys tells the remarkable story of the rise to fame of the vocal pop band Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. From their humble beginnings in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, to their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has contributed countless influential songs to the popular musical canon: “Sherry”, “Walk Like A Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, to name only a few. Here, each of the four members Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli share their different perspectives on the history of the band.

While some jukebox musicals only excel in awkwardly pressing previously released songs into thinly spun narratives, Jersey Boys, with its biographical story, handles the transition of chart hits onto the stage much more smoothly. In the same vein as Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, personal anecdotes and tragic moments are interspersed with renditions of some of The Four Seasons’ most successful hits. For those who aren’t hardcore fans of the band, which was originally formed in 1960, there are several aha moments. For example, when the first bars of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” start to play, the audience suddenly becomes aware who actually penned the famous opening song from Dirty Dancing.

The cage-like set proves to be very versatile and can convincingly be turned into a prison, mobster hideout, a recording studio or even a church with only a few stylised alterations.
Atmospheric background projections inspired by pictures of American photographer George Tice or colourful Pop Art illustrations reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s art help the fast-paced action, especially in the first part of the first act which seems a bit rushed and fragmented in places. Because of the distinct focus on telling the story and introducing a lot of characters, the music steps into the background. It is a bold decision for a musical, but one that pays off because it lends more gravitas to scenes of a more emotional nature later on. Half an hour in, the show settles into a more comfortable but still snappy pace and allows more space for story and songs to interlink.

Behind Frankie Valli’s “angelic” voice there are surprising things to discover about the Four Seasons. As many modern day pop stars can vouch for, coming of age in the limelight is not easy, and performer Dan Burton does a convincing job in portraying the impressionable 17-year old Francis Castellucio who grows into the worldly-wise entertainer Frankie Valli.

There’s a lot more going on under the hood of this musical than one would imagine from the outset and the glossy surface. The characters find themselves confronted with various figurations of family and delicate questions of friendship and loyalty. Themes of manhood and creative power struggles are explored and more than one relationship falls victim to success. Several poignant moments let us witness how show business is not always about glitter jackets and perfectly coiffed quiffs (and here the production and costume design deserves an honourable mention), but about broken hearts and broken promises too. There are also hints about the involvement of the mafia in the success of the group, and we even meet now famous actor Joe Pesci as a kid meddling with other people’s affairs (Ben Jennings in an eerily accurate impersonation), adding a splash of Italian-American attitude that television audiences have come to love in The Sopranos. In a way, Jersey Boys is as much a success story of a music group as it is a surprisingly unaffected retelling of the American Dream.

Matthew Wycliffe gives a beautifully understated and convincing performance as Bobby Gaudino, the band’s song writer. And there is a monologue in which he claims that they might not have caused a musical revolution like The Beatles, but in their time they were nothing less than the musical heroes of America’s working class.

However, even with all of the praise, it has to be mentioned that the show I went to see had a lot of understudies performing instead of the main cast, and there were some obvious technical difficulties with the sound mixing. For a show that has been running for over four years, this is simply inexcusable. Also, if vocal pop from the 60s isn’t your kind of music and jukebox musicals leave you cold, you’d better give this one a pass.

But, generally, it’s not hard to see why this musical has been showered with awards all over the world and this London production is no exception. It is funny, sometimes touching, has a great look and definitely a unique sound that’ll stay with you long after the last curtain call. “Oh What A Night” indeed!

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Borges and I

borges and i idle motion review

Idle Motion’s Borges and I is an intelligent parable about one of literature’s most creative minds, Jorge Louis Borges. A visual feast for those who love books and reading, this physical theatre piece throws down the intellectual gauntlet and challenges the audience to confront its notions of memory and identity. Surprisingly, it remains quite entertaining while doing so. At the New Diorama.

Starting with a projection of someone turning pages in Hermann Hesse’s Fairy Tales, the audience is taken on a journey through Borges’ literary biography, which leads us from his early childhood readings of Kipling through crucial stages of his life, like when he became the director of the Argentinean National Library right through to his death in 1986. Borges, for those who have never come across him or who slept through that one course on South American literature at uni, had a huge influence on the post-modern school of thought and, among many things, concerned himself with the relation of identity, the individual and memory. For him the library as an institution was of endless fascination, and in his writing motives of mazes and endless mirrors feature very prominently. Borges asks what remains of a single man when confronted with the vastness of a potentially unlimited archive of knowledge.

Idle Motion have succeeded in turning Borges’ convoluted philosophic and aesthetic legacy into a compelling piece of theatre without risking audience alienation by becoming too abstract or intellectually bloated. On the contrary, the show refrains from being too cleverly self-referential and manages to reflect beautifully on the disjointedness of the human condition.

To that end, we are introduced to the members of a somewhat dysfunctional book club, who rejoice in reading Margaret Atwood and bicker about Elizabeth Gilbert. These comically well-timed scenes are intercut with dreamlike sequences focusing directly on Borges and his obsession with books. In our digital age, with ebook readers and mobile internet, it is constantly lamented that the pleasures that come with the physical act of reading a book get lost more and more. And yes, there is a certain nostalgia about the way devoted book lovers handle their objects of desire. Some bibliophiles have been known to smell the pages, they stroke the spines or press books to their chest when particularly affected by a passage they have just read. Reading to them is like making love. And, indeed, there is a scene in Borges and I where a young couple brought together by their shared love of books makes love on stage. It’s a beautifully choreographed dance, tender and spell-binding.

The relationship of Nick (Julian Spooner) and Sophie (Sophie Cullen) very loosely mirrors stages of Borges’ life and allows glimpses into his extraordinary mind and philosophy, but also into his direct personal biography. As a man obsessed with reading and writing, it is perhaps most tragic that, from an early age onwards, he started turning blind. A veracious and beautifully simple performance by Sophie Cullen, who plays the young woman befallen by the same fate, takes the audience through the stages of denial and anger towards what Borges called being trapped in a “luminous mist”.

But this show really is an ensemble effort, and what a few of the young performers seem to be lacking in acting experience is more than made up for by the dexterity and diligence of the special effects. And this term can indeed be applied here, because in its style the piece has a rather filmic quality. Between the cover and the back of a book there are hidden worlds and Idle Motion makes these worlds come alive. Books turn into seagulls that land softly on Borges’ (Nicholas Pitt) shoulders or they serve as projection screens for pacing animals. The clever use of light allows for these creatures to climb out of the pages and to manifest themselves in front of our eyes. These visual interludes rarely ever seem gimmicky, but pay tribute to the fragmented narration techniques of post-modernism. Shadow play, puppets or a coat coming to life as a tiger – all this stuns visually while still supporting the basic idea of the piece.

In the beginning the stage is nearly empty, apart from two simple plywood flats and a couple of books arranged neatly against the walls. Throughout the show, the stage fills up with countless pages and haphazardly tipped over stacks of books. And although we have witnessed the journey of every single of these torn out pages, in the end we cannot quite recall how all of these references to words once written and uttered ended up being literally strewn all over the stage or our cultural memory.

All this could have been dull and pretentious in the hands of less capable storytellers. The most astonishing thing about Borges and I is probably that, while telling its story in a very stylised way, it manages to avoid the trap of self-indulgence. It’s not perfect by any means, but has an undeniably captivating charm. I am, however, not entirely convinced that those who aren’t overly fond of books will take the same pleasure in viewing it, but then again an encounter with Borges might be just what they were waiting for.

 

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Havana Rumba

Havana Rumba

Cuban live sounds, dizzying dance routines and a heartthrob singer in a white suit – objectively, the ingredients of Havana Rumba sound promising and should be able to push the same buttons as the widely successful Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon in the 90s. The show has stellar dancers and good musical performers but unfortunately doesn’t add up to much more than the sum of its parts. At the Udderbelly Festival.

Cuban live sounds, stories of old cars, dizzying dance routines and a heartthrob singer in a white suit – objectively, the ingredients of Havana Rumba sound promising and should be able to push the same buttons as the widely successful Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon in the 90s about a group of ageing performers from Havana taking over the world by storm. The show has stellar dancers and good musical performers but unfortunately doesn’t add up to much more than the sum of its parts.

Imagine you’re walking the dilapidated streets of Havana, the Cuban heat weighs down on you and suddenly, from afar, you hear noises: someone plucking on a guitar and these enchanting drums! Drawn in by the melody and the cigar smoke wafting past you walk on, and when you turn the corner you see two stunning women bickering over who gets to dance with the handsome fellow in the Chevrolet. This is roughly the creative idea behind Havana Rumba and the mindset you’ll need to enjoy it.

Playing out as a kind of street scenario, the six dancers act as an intermediary between band and audience, which (over and over again) is encouraged to become part of the show. There’s even a shot of rum to get you in the mood! The band is lined up against a backdrop of big posters with stereotypical Cuban scenes that could very well be out of some travel guide.

Hovering awkwardly between live concert and dance revue, Havana Rumba tries extremely hard to establish a connection to Buena Vista, for example by bringing in one of the original dancers of the club or by featuring the famous song “Chan Chan”. Random scenes of dance-off street fights and girls wooing for boys’ attention (or vice versa) alternate with renditions of 1950s cha-cha-cha routines. There are stunning dance numbers in there: when legendary dancer Eric Turro, known to connoisseurs of the scene as “The Hurricane of the Caribbean” (and who looks like he is at least in his sixties) takes on three ladies on the dance floor simultaneously being a prime example. The dexterity of the dance and the precision is certainly breath-taking.

However, despite its musical skilfulness, the show remains an oddly soulless succession of music and dance numbers that are performed flawlessly but are neither captivating nor enchanting. The lighting design is, at points, really effective, but generally too shy to actively nourish the mood of the scenes.

There are occasional glimpses of what this hour-long format could have been, especially in the very end when singer Juventino ‘El Chico Divino’ Mendoza tells the story about his passport arriving only 15 minutes before having to leave for the airport. “When you find joy and freedom in a dance – this is rumba”, he adds in an emotive voice. And as charming as the leading man with his boyish good looks might be, in words or music he is not a convincing storyteller and ultimately fails to engage in a meaningful way.

The astonishing thing about the Buena Vista documentary by Wim Wenders was that it showed a slice of Cuban life the audience could truly empathise with. It was about the extraordinary lives of talented musicians and about how the music helped them cope with the hardship of a restrictive regime. Music and life were inextricably interwoven with each other and this is what made it touching and managed to open the world’s ears to a style of music that had been utterly forgotten about. There is nothing left of that fascination in Havana Rumba.

Advertised as being suitable for all ages, I had two little children sitting right in front of me: half an hour in, they started to become bored with the charming lilt of the front man and the continuous hip-shaking playing out in front of them. And who can blame them? By nature, many of the rumba numbers are way too sexual for younger audiences, sometimes, in the case of a Raggaeton beach routine, even uncomfortably so. What’s more, the moments that are supposed to be seductive and sensual look a bit too laboured, but the performers ease into it after awhile and so does the audience. In fact, it has to be said that for all its superficial shine, the audience seemed to love it nonetheless, as was proven by the standing ovations and the continuous clapping throughout.

It certainly is to the show’s credit that it allows you to step away from the sorry excuse for a summer that London is offering at the moment into an atmosphere that promises to be sizzling rather than drizzling. But having a Mojito in a salsa bar would probably have the same effect – you’ll enjoy it while it lasts but there’s nothing you’ll take home with you.

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