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Guest Review, Melonie Clarke: Singin' in the Rain

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on Friday, 15 March 2013
The 1952 MGM movie Singin' in the Rain is one of the greatest big screen musicals of all time. Indeed for myself, Singin' in the Rain is always the dvd I reach for first if I'm at home in the mood for a good dvd to watch.

With that in mind, I wasn't sure what to expect from the stage production. Obviously I know all of the big numbers, but would a stage environment do this big screen wonder justice?

Well, I can only say if you don't leave the theatre with a smile on your face I can only guess that you fell asleep during the performance and missed the entire thing.

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When the story first made its transition to the west end in the 1980s, it was somewhat of a flop. However Jonathan Church's new staging, with exciting new choreography by Andrew Wright (which wouldn't have looked out of place in the '52 original) makes for an evening of sheer delight.

If you haven't seen the film or the stage performance, the story is based on the arrival of talkies to Hollywood. Think The Artist but with more humour and a score only MGM could compose.

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The cast is superb. Adam Cooper, former Royal Ballet, star is fabulous, his Don Lockwood making easy work of the classic Gene Kelly steps. Louise Bowden as Kathy and Stephane Anelli as Cosmo together with Cooper make a terrific trio.
Jenifer Ellison as the screechy voiced, silent movie star, Lina Lamont is hilarious. The scene where she is practising her elocution with a long suffering tutor is particularly humorous.

The whole show is brilliant, and each number sees the audience rise up in their seats and tap their feet along to the tune. When the opening notes of the number Singin' in the Rain tinkle through the air, the excitement amongst the audience is clearly evident- excited gasps and excited laughter rings ringing out as the first few drops begin to hit the stage.
If you're looking for a good night out, look no further. Just be warned, if you're sitting in the front few rows you may need your waterproofs!

Tickets for the performance from www.superbreak.com/theatre-breaks.htm

Guest Review: Leyla Nazli, Mare Rider, at the Arcola theatre

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on Monday, 28 January 2013
Play: Mare Rider
Venue: Arcola Theatre   http://www.arcolatheatre.com/  020 7503 1646 

Playwright: Leyla Nazli
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Cast: Kathryn Hunter, Anna Francolini, Matthew Flynn, Hara Yannas
Until: February 16th 2013
 
4 Stars 
 
By Hafiza Butt
 
'Mare Rider', written for Kathryn Hunter, who plays 'life sucking Elka', the mythic Turkish character who steals new-born babies lives, is a tight suspense drama which explores the trauma we suffer in being alone and the desperate need we have to be held and belong to others. Leyla Nazli's play is gutsy - not only in its dramatisation, its characterisation, but also in its ideas.
 
It all begins with a woman in a hospital bed, who, just having given birth, dreams Elka, once more, into her life. Selma's (Anna Francolini) nightmare has just become real. 
 
Kathryn Hunter, who was so superb in the Peter Brook production of several Beckett shorts- 'Fragments' at the Young Vic a few years ago, plays Elka with deep emotional energy. She threatens and scares, leaping all over Selma's bed, but it is her near expressed sexual reining in of Selma, and her later motherly caresses that moved me the most.

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Fig 1 Kathryn Hunter and Anna Francolini  credit Simon Annand


As the curtain is drawn around the bed, Elka, the rider, the stealer of her uncle's horse, the girl who wouldn't be the good woman her family wanted her to be, leads Selma  on a journey she'd once made. The simple lighting device of bolts of wavering light and star lights evokes those childhood lamps one either had or kept a quiet desire for. Selma is pulled into Elka's back and then, presses in. The sexual charge is high; the sensuality is not only in the act but how it is viewed, from behind  the curtain's thin gauze.
 
The contrast between the everyday world and the world of myth Selma has entered, where the stories are richer and grander in scale is brought out beautifully in the scene where all four characters are on stage. Mark (Matthew Flynn), Selma's husband, and the nurse (Hara Yannas) talk in the prosaic way of strangers, though when he reveals how he was once on the verge of leaving Selma, he begins to melt. Elka and Selma can see and hear the two others talk, though they themselves are not seen and heard. This is a reminder of one of the things the stage can do so brilliantly that film can't quite carry off. As Elka looks on, it's as if she's watching TV; her asides providing an acerbic running commentary. Selma looks on in torture, willing her husband to reveal less of himself and the life they lead. This is, of course, ironic, given how much Selma has bared herself to Elka. Elka has not however, bored Selma's story from her; she has teased it out, in-between the telling of her own tale. And locked as Selma has been for so long in her own head, we see that this is what she needs; this is her release. And if each moment of great pain is a falling off of an outward shield to reveal a purer form of whom we are, then Selma and Elka's journeys, entwined as they are, have been both hard and momentous.
 
Nazli uses soliloquies to explore the state of womanhood and to re-live her characters' pasts: the latter, both presenting moments of love and the grotesque. Both types of soliloquy have their own kind of beauty. The play's revelations are made as they should be made; left unpadded, explanation-less.

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Fig 2. Kathryn Hunter credit Simon Anannd

The dancing didn't work for me. If it was supposed to be the dance of a dervish, I'd have liked greater abandon. But this is to quibble over small details in what is indeed, a very fine production.
 
Kathryn Hunter flits smoothly between each transition of her changeling role. The intimacy of the Acrola studio space allows us to see and catch her softening. Matthew Flynn as the husband, though he has a less central role than the two female leads, portrays his pathos well; he is a man who's been broken by what life has dealt him. Anna Francolini, who looks remarkably like what I imagine Jodie Foster would look like without the Hollywood paint, is the cold one to Elka's fire. It's Elka who unfreezes her. Joined at first by hurt, they are later joined by their sisterhood and also, something else. When Elka says, 'I'm beginning to like you', we see that the complement is returned.
 
It's been two days since I saw 'Mare Rider' and it's still playing in my head: its images, its actions and its words. 'Mare Rider' is a deft piece of stage-craft and deserves to be widely seen.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Sappho … In Nine Fragments, at The White Rabbit Theatre

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on Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Sappho … In Nine Fragments, director Jessica Ruano.

Wednesday 16th January 2013 to February 3rd 2013.

The White Rabbit Theatre, 125 Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 0UH

Web site http://secondskintheatre.com/pages/productions/sappho-in-9-fragments   

4 stars

 

Fluently and fluidly directed by Jessica Ruano of Second Skin theatre, this is a stunningly athletic and entirely sensuous one woman performance by Victoria Grove; she plays not only Sappho, but all the other voices and characters in the play. Ana Ines Jabares has created a rather impressive stage set of a spider web lattice of ropes and scaffolding to suggest Sappho is at once always constrained by myths and by the way she has been read and presented by others and perhaps elusively forever out of reach to those who would know her. An intangible personality of whom little survives but fragments of poems, and yet is capable of sublimely transcending these limitations just likes the ropes and bars of the set. The same set also helps to add a powerful sense of sexuality to Grove’s lithe and acrobatic, twirling performance and together with an evocative sound set from Luca Romagnoli does much to bring the performance an important visceral immediacy.

However, the star of the production is certainly Grove with her voice at once sepulchral in its smoky-jazz tones and her lithe, supple ability to wind her way around  the set, constantly moving from position to position, wrapping herself round ropes and bars to create drama in the performance. The fact that six foot tall Grove looks much like an ancient Greek goddess with her long brown tresses, bare foot in a blue-grey, attic gown only aids  the piercing intelligence which she brings to the words she has to speak. Few actors could manage to portray at once a character who is feisty, haughty, enigmatic and function as an object of desire– this desire isn’t always about sexuality so much, as for the truth which people have always desired – to know who the real Sappho is. It is this hermeneutic problem which the play above all oscillates around.

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Figures 1-4. Victoria Grove as Sappho. All pictures are by Jessica Ruano.

I was less enamoured of Jane Montgomery Griffiths' pseudo-biographical script than I was of the qualities of Second Skin’s production. It was certainly fragmentary and I think is was rather hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with Sappho’s work. The trope that Sappho the ghost was being embodied by this production, in a way she hadn’t been before was just that - a familiar theatrical trope -  we know as little of Sappho’s life now as we have for the past few millennia. We do not know if her lyrics should even be read autobiographically – after all the ‘I’  in a lyric is not necessarily autobiographical in the Renaissance and afterwards – we just do not know its status within Sappho’s ancient Greek literary culture.


This conjured up figure of Sappho we see in the play seems to protest frequently at the way others through history have attempted to fill ‘her gap’, ‘ her absence’, with interpretation of various kinds via Montgomery Griffiths’ script.  This seems rather disingenuous as that is exactly what this production itself is doing in reading Sappho as a very contemporary kind of  sexy lesbian figure and which often over-interprets or sometimes deliberately fails to explain the few known facts to make a more acceptable, dramatic and contemporary ‘feminist’ story. Sappho can never tell her real story any more than Shakespeare or so many other famous writers can – it will always be invented by others of which Jane Montgomery Griffiths is in the final analysis, just another interpreter fighting for her place in the sun. One thing the play doesn’t achieve is making us feel though is that we are in ancient Greece with an ancient Greek; as say Annabel Lyon’s novels The Golden Mean or The Sweet Girl achieve so memorably.

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Sappho’s ‘neglect’ in the ancient world after her death  in  c. 570 BCE  was no conspiracy, but simply because like others she wrote in  Aeolic Greek, a very different form of the language than that which developed and became dominant. She became read largely in translation subsequently, except by expert scholars and dropped off the classical syllabus for the Byzantines. As any poet knows the original language of composition matters for poetry: what will Shakespeare becomes when only a few specialist scholars can read his work in his original English? How many British people today really appreciate Chaucer's fine poetry, let alone that of the Anglo-Saxons? The burning of the great library of Alexandria was an immeasurable cultural cataclysm of the ancient world, but Sappho was hardly alone in its consequences and by that time her manuscripts were already copied much less than they had been. Of the nine great lyric poets of ancient Greece esteemed by the Alexandrians, the situation of Sappho’s texts is sadly like that of the vast majority; only Pindar’s work really survived that fiery apocalypse, by luck rather than design.

 A few other things also irritated me about the script and particularly the decision to interpolate a new, contemporary fiction. This was a Jeanette Winterson style account of a contemporary, obsessive love / coming out story of rather masochistic desire between a young actress called Atthis   (named after Sappho’s lover mentioned in the surviving fragments), and an older, successful woman called Sappho. I think a play based on how women have read and used Sappho would be fascinating, but here it felt like an attempt to construct what loving the real Sappho was like for the audience: otherwise why would the ghost of Sappho draw it to our attention? Montgomery Griffiths created a figure here who was aloof, cool, wealthy, narcissistic, aristocratic, beautiful and somewhat emotionally sadistic - if only an actress, hardly a great literary figure like Sappho– and the play seemed to imply this was what the real Sappho was like. However, this is just an interpretation based on the writer’s imagination rather than anything else, and one that the ancient Greeks would I think have found unrecognisable, so different is our culture from theirs, most especially as regards ‘homosexuality’, a concept as Foucault among others have noted, that they would have struggled to understand.

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I was left somewhat unsettled after this reinterpretation of Sappho because of these elements,  despite Victoria Grove’s exhilarating, powerful and immensely physical central performance. Sappho now seemed a smaller figure, more ordinary and of a more contemporary sensibility. However, was she really as good a poet as the ancient world and others subsequent believed her to be? Turning at home to Anne Carson’s spare, glowing translation in If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, however, I was relieved to find myself once again impressed by the fragments of Sappho that have survived. Canadian Carson is both a classicist and poet of considerable note and she manages to convey the sheer quality of Sappho’s poetry in a way that the play can’t achieve, partly because it is lost in its own desire to remake Sappho. Montgomery Griffiths aim of ‘embodiment’ is really just another fancy word for a stage biography; no different say from Simon Callow’s recreation of Dickens, where there is an infinitely larger amount of reliable biographical material to go on than for Sappho.  Pace Grove’s brilliant performance, we really learn more about the interpreter’s interests here, than we do about Sappho, just as we have in other period’s attempts to recreate the poet.

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But above all, let’s remember that Sappho has always been considered a great lyric poet by other great poets and commentators. It seems more than a little sad that we seem to need to turn her into a contemporary figure by creating a new, more fulsome pseudo-biography for her than previous generations managed with, in order to ensure that her words still shine with their ancient radiance and luminosity.

Guest Blog - Suman Bhuchar interviews Victoria Grove, January, 2013

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on Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Guest Blog An Interview with Victoria Grove for The Lady Suman Bhuchar 17th January 2013 Victoria Grove is a stunning woman who stands over six foot tall in her stockinged feet, and is currently appearing in Sappho...in 9 Fragments, at the White Rabbit Theatre, a small cocktail club tucked away in Stoke Newington.

It’s her first one woman show and she’s continuously on stage for the entire seventy minutes during which time she is hanging from a bar or entwined in ropes, lounging in a makeshift hammock or just ‘in-yer-face’ as she portrays the life and longings of the Greek lyric poet, Sappho, who was born on the island of Lesbos sometime between 630 and 612 BC.

There is no hiding place in this intimate venue which only seats twenty audience members at a time. Victoria, the daughter of celebrated writers, Valerie and Trevor Grove is no stranger to such challenging roles. She is the ‘resident artist’ for Second Skin Theatre Company, who produce ‘bold reinterpretations of classics’ and was last seen playing the lead in their show, La Chunga, written by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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The 31-year-old, who was born and brought up in North London, studied at City of London School for Girls, Barbican (Ramola Garai, was a contemporary). She thanks her headmistress Lady (Valerie) France for instilling in her pupils the idea that women can do so much.

“It was a wonderful thing to learn,” and it has stood her in good stead. She clearly relishes playing bolder and risqué roles than that of ‘the girl next door’, but jokes that she can be typecast as a transsexual or dominatrix, due to her height and incredibly husky voice. Her unique voice was caused when as a teenager, she accidentally landed on her throat and crushed her larynx and had to painstakingly learn to speak again, a task that took several years. During this time she had to abandon her childhood ambitions to tread the boards and became a photographer’s assistant.

“I was a singer and actress, it was really debilitating and really crushed me,” she recalls. She decided to return to theatre and attended the Actors Company at the London Centre for Theatre Studies, and it was the best decision she made. When not performing, she can be found at the Nightjar in Shoreditch, sipping cocktails and listening to blues and jazz, and indulging in some old school glamour.

Sappho .... in 9 fragments at White Rabbit Theatre until 3rd February Box Office 020 3556 3350. www.secondskintheatre.com

Fair Em by Anon at the Union theatre

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on Saturday, 12 January 2013
Anon, Fair Em adapted for the stage by Phil Willmott, director Phil Willmott.

 Tuesday 8th January 2013 to Saturday 9th February 2013.

The Union theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 OLX

Web site http://www.uniontheatre/  Telephone  Box Office 020 7261 9876

3 stars

Phil Willmott and his company have done good work in adapting the anonymously written Fair Em (full title from the two quartos is A Pleasant Comedie of Faire Em, the Millers Daughter of Manchester. WIth the love of William the Conqueror) for production. But in the end, however much energy and inventiveness a production has: you just can’t make a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

If anything this production should have come even closer to a boisterous Elizabethan version of pantomime and eschewed some of its attempt at taking the action seriously, as a solution to dealing with the Pythonesque meanderings of the increasingly improbable plot developments that unfold.

Fair Em is really one of the weakest, flimsiest Elizabethan stage comedies you will come across and there’s no real surprise that it hasn’t been revived in four centuries. Although what can only have been an example of misfiling in Charles I’s library may have led some cock-eyed optimists to think Fair Em might possibly be by Shakespeare: it is hard to imagine how Shakespeare could ever write so poorly, even if he had been dying of the plague at the time. As an experiment in staging one of Shakespeare’s Apocrypha this more or less proves conclusively he had no hand in it and that it almost certainly isn’t worth reviving again, when there are so many much better Elizabethan comedies deserving of performance.

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Figure 1. David Ellis as Manville and Caroline Haines as Fair Em. Photography by Scott Rylander.

It isn’t just the plot is such a ramshackle affair of two quite separate stories uneasily yoked together, one based upon traditional ballad sources such as The Miller's Daughter of Manchester’ and another intertwined story about how William the Conqueror is tricked into marrying a Danish Princess. Nor is the problem that it plays around so ridiculously with history in a retelling of William I’s life, that it could almost be termed post-modern; it would no doubt have surprised William’s actual spouse, Matilda of Flanders, or indeed the average Elizabethan theatre goer who knew some history. The paramount problems are that there is so little poetry in the lines or psychological insight in the presentation of the characters.

Of course, there were Elizabethan entertainment duds, just as there are today, and this is probably their equivalent of what you sometimes find late in the evening, while flicking channels on satellite TV and there is a desperate need to fill a schedule. Who on earth could have written that mess you wonder? In the case of Fair Em no one wanted to own up. Laughing at it, rather than with it, is the way to enjoy it.

The most likely candidate writers of Dear Em were either Robert Wilson or Anthony Munday, but if so, then neither was on good form, or else this was a rush job to fill a hole in the schedule.

Em and her father, Sir Thomas Goddard, who are Anglo-Saxons living in post-Conquest England have been banished to the North of England where they pretend to be a miller and his daughter. However, Em is so luminously beautiful that not one, but three Normal nobles fall for her, even in her lowly guise as a miller’s daughter. To try to placate her jealous lover Manville she tries to put off the other two nobles by pretending to be struck blind and deaf.

Meanwhile William I in disguise as Sir Robert of Windsor has travelled to Denmark, where he has discovered in shock that the woman he thought he was in love with, the Danish Princess Blanch, is not as beauteous as her image suggested. (‘Ill head, worse featured, uncomely, nothing courtly/ I never saw a harder favoured slut.’) He falls for a captured Swedish princess instead, Mariana, who actually loves his ambassador, the Marquis of Lubeck and Mariana cunningly arranges that William will steal away with Blanch – who has fallen in love with Sir Robert of Windsor - while thinking it is actually Mariana he has eloped with. No one seems worried what William will do when he discovers this trick. Amazingly enough, all ends well - if that is extremely unlikely - as William suddenly seems for no apparent reason to finally decide he does love the Danish King’s daughter he previously loathed after all and war is narrowly averted between William and the unnamed Danish King.

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Figure 2. Caroline Haines as Fair Em and Robert Donald as Trotter, 'the miller's boy'. Photography by Scott Rylander.

Em marries the one nobleman who truly loves her, Lord Valingford, and in a moment of insanely preposterous Elizabethan retrospective nation-making by wish-fulfilment, Anglo-Saxons and Normans all start getting along happily (quite unlike the endless Anglo-Saxon rebellions of the real William I’s reign). Odd’s blood - William even gets offered the Danish throne in the future upon Blanch’s father’s death!


The interpolation of anachronistic folk songs by four performers called Green Willow was quite pleasant as a way to liven up the action and it is always good to see some neat playing on the musical box. The songs did bring out a summery feel. It was also pleasurable to hear the pagan sounding, ‘All around my hat’, although that is a nineteenth century ballad about a lost love and scarcely Elizabethan nor actually appropriate to the action. The cardboard cut-out set by Phillip Lindley, recalling Wenceslaus Holler’s Elizabethan panorama of London, with an additional windmill, was also watchable, as were the beautiful mediaeval styled costumes, though little of the play is actually set in London (mostly in Denmark and the north of England). The acting was certainly bold and pantomimic though I think it might have been better to have been even less serious. Caroline Haines as the ‘beautiful’ Em and Madeline Gould as Princess Blanch were agreeably feisty, while Robert Donald played a doddering ancient ‘miller’s boy’, Trotter, in a style that would have suited a Carry On film. However, there were decent comic turns from others in the cast.

I can imagine that if I had seen this production at an open-air theatre in the summer - preferably after several ales like a proper Elizabethan - it might have worked better than it did on a wintry night near waterloo.  It is a shame though, that Willmott and his excellent company have rather wasted their considerable talents, when there are so many other seldom seen Elizabethan comedies that really are worth reviving: Fair Em, I fear, has curiosity value alone.


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