Saturday, 27 October 2012

War of the Worlds, Supa Productions

Yes, I'm reviewing this late. In all honesty, I wasn't intending to see this at all, but friends invited me late in the run and I needed the afternoon off. And, since I've seen it, and I have a blog ... I'm reviewing it.

First, a disclaimer. I'm a big fan of theatre with a plot, with characters who interact to make that plot develop, and perform actions that materially matter in the resolution of the story.

War of the Worlds is not that kinda show. Jeff Wayne's musical is a prog rock extravaganza, based on the HG Welles novel, with lots of repeated leifmotifs as Martians blast their way through Victorian England (act one) and various humans react to their impending doom (act two). The majority of the time, you're looking at an orchestra (very well conducted by Sharon Tree), a whole lot of lighting effects (Chris Neal, clearing out everything that's in the Eclipse catalog) and a filmstrip (borrowed from the professional tour of a few years ago, including a lot of images from the various paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that came with the LP back in the seventies).

And the orchestra's nice (though I did hear a couple of audience comments on it being very loud, the sound produced is of just-like-the-album quality), and the lighting is good, and the film strip is perfectly reasonable. So why don't I care more?

Well, there's not a lot for the actors to do. Joe McGrail-Bateup handles the narration well, with suitable stern-ness and clarity. Roy Hukari as his singing-doppleganger is perhaps less well handled, he tends to spend a lot of time on stage wandering vaguely about, with not a lot of urgency for a man who's meant to be in the middle of a cataclysmic disaster. Of the rest of the cast, who mostly have one-song-per-person, Simon Stone and Steve Herzog both, unfortunately, do a lot of rock-posturing that substitutes for acting (particularly surprising in Stone, who I've seen be much better in other stuff - his believability is perhaps slightly limited by a bible that looks far too thin to be convincing) as the Parson and the Voice of Humanity respectively. Sarah Gooding is better as the Parson's wife, but has an unfortunate exit where she just wanders off midway through a song, to have her demise narrated later.

That leaves Max Gambale as the Artilleryman. Max is ... astounding in this for his one big song, "Brave New World". In act one he registers decently (although, again, there's a slight problem of lack-of-urgency in this section), but in his big song in act two, he brings a level of madness that is quite unnerving and spectacular to watch (hitting every falsetto note in the song at full intensity). It's the highlight of the production by far, for me, because it's about an actor presenting a character and telling a story. I am gobsmacked by Gambale, again. It's a good thing to be.

Anyway, a lot of people loved this. I ... didn't, entirely. I could just hate prog-rock, and wish the composer would get on with the plot, rather than repeating the same leif-motifs a few dozen times. But the album is a best-seller, and this, for better or worse, largely captures the album accurately. As a non-album-fan, I was probably never going to be the main audience for this show. And Supa productions have absolutely done a production that impresses fans of the album, which is what the production should do. I just kinda wish there was more for the actors in there. (but having said that, 99% of theatre I've seen is, in some ways, all about the actors, it's probably good for their egos to have a show which is this manifestly Not All About Them).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Private Lives, Belvoir Street Theatre

Yes, I occasionally see theatre outside Canberra (actually, I have a subscription to Belvoir Street - have been watching them on-and-off for over two decades). And this one's touring to the Canberra theatre in November anyway, so ... why not review?

The first thing to note is, yes, this is Noel Coward - who would seem to be the king of traditional theatre, with people swanning around in smoking jackets dropping bon mots stylishly. And ... certainly, there's a lot of bon mots in this one, as two couples on honeymoon discover that the husband in one couple used to be married to the wife of the other. And of course, the old familiar feelings start to swell to the surface, leading to all measures of bad behaviour. But it was never entirely a gentle romantic comedy - this is a play where the two leads are deeply selfish people, who leave a fair bit of disaster behind them (and, indeed, are probably physically dangerous to one another). Over the years, though, through a combination of casting too-old actors (Coward and Gertrude Lawrence were both in their early 30s when they orignally did it, but pretty much every revival I've seen lately has cast actors in their late 40s and 50s) and downplaying the physical combatitiveness, this has become the gold standard of safe, uneventful theatre.

So Belvoir gives us Noel Coward with the stick taken out of its arse. Belvoir's current house style is to perform plays in the actors natural accents (which in his case means, largely Australian, with Zahara Newman performing in her own natural Jamaican accent, which is to say, a slight American twinge), in a largely contemporary style. The production isn't perfect - I think the set choices are a little perfunctory (and sometimes work against the actors moving clearly - a shelf or two to put the cocktails in act one wouldn't have gone astray), and it's peculiarly poorly lit in places. But a good mix of quality performances (Toby Schmitz and Zahara Newman bring stylish charm, Toby Truslove continues his good line in "complete dork", and Eloise Mignion is suitably annoying - plus Misch Grigor is hilariously grumpy as the french maid) and some very clever blocking ensures that this is a very funny night out with a nicely cynical view of lust and love over a tight 100 minutes (no intermission).