Miss Saigon

Listening to the Miss Saigon gala performance on Radio 2, I was reminded of the genius of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical. It’s less than a month since I day queued on a (thankfully mild) December morning, getting seats in Row A of the Stalls, and the recording brought back great memories. But, perhaps because it’s sung-through, it also translated perfectly to radio in its own right, just as the iconic songs stand on their own merit.

Like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon is an epic musical set against the background of a turbulent period in history. And like Les Mis, Miss Saigon focuses not on the grand historical perspective but examines the impact of these events on the personal lives of people involved. While never overtly political, Miss Saigon has a lot to say about American culture as well as the tragedy of war. Coming hot on the heels of the war of resistance against the French, when Vietnam was part of Indochina, the Vietnamese suffered three decades of continuous war in their country. Miss Saigon captures the disruptive impact of a war on every citizen of the country where it is fought.

The cast boasts a wealth of talent. Understudy Niall Sheehy gave a good performance as Chris, but he was dwarfed by the vocal talents and charisma of Eva Noblezada as Kim who, along with Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, was the standout star of the show. Poor, Vietnamese and a woman, Kim has arguably the least agency of any of the main characters. Along with the other bar girls she has very few options. Yet her (slightly naïve) faith in Chris and her determination to provide her son with a better life give her strength to fight against her situation and survive the war. Noblezada brings both a naivety and a steely determination to the role.

Though unlikely to become a poster boy for the ideal, the Engineer embodies the American Dream and his spirit of entrepreneurialism would surely have seen him prosper if he had found himself born in America. Briones, who played the role in the original West End cast, brings humanity to a man who has learned the only way to survive in turbulent times is to play the game. His morals are questionable but you find yourself feeling for this man who always finds the elusive American Dream just out of his reach. He both demonstrates the overwhelming power of the Dream in giving hope to the downtrodden and gives the lie to the idea of meaningful social mobility for the majority of the world’s population.

Nowadays Vietnam War has perhaps slipped from public consciousness, at least in the UK, with a younger generation who know very little about it. But you don’t have to have any knowledge of the history to appreciate the musical – as the adaptation of the plot from Madame Butterfly demonstrates, Miss Saigon deals with universal themes. The impact of war, cultural difference, personal courage and cowardice are all as relevant today as they have ever been.

When the helicopter comes to evacuate Saigon, both Americans and Vietnamese are swept up in events beyond their own control – it is purely an accident of birth that the Americans are being airlifted to safety while the Vietnamese are left to suffer.

Chris’s ignorance of Vietnamese customs and his and his wife’s inability to comprehend Kim’s desire for a new life for her son are symptomatic of the cultural gulf between the two worlds that have been thrown together. His broken promises, social strictures and his inability to understand Kim’s culture have disastrous consequences – echoing the unintended repercussions of many Western interventions.

Miss Saigon is not only a rousing musical filled with iconic songs but also a fascinating social commentary exploring universal themes.

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American Psycho

The much-hyped (thanks to the presence of ex-Doctor Matt Smith) new musical American Psycho at the Almeida was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. I’m a big fan of quirky musicals and, although I didn’t know much about the book or the film I thought I’d give it a go. It turned out to be annoyingly inconsistent – with some intriguing parts, but leaving me a bit unsatisfied. Although not the fault of the musical, I also wasn’t impressed by the reveal about Patrick Bateman’s mental state at the end of the show, which somehow rendered the whole thing a bit pointless for me.

Matt Smith was ok as Patrick, a hard part to play, with a fine line between capturing the emotionless monster with a charming exterior and creating a character that people are bothered about watching. But I didn’t find him particularly engaging or scary and was left pretty unmoved by his serial murdering. In fact at times I almost forgot that he was a serial killer, a fact that for much of the musical seemed pretty inconsequential to the plot. As someone with a serious squeamishness about even the least gratuitous violence, I was at more than one point watching through half-closed eyes as Patrick prepared to kill his next victim. I needn’t have worried – the violence was so symbolic that even I wasn’t bothered by it.

Among the rest of the cast, Cassandra Compton stood out as Patrick’s secretary Jean. There’s a rare touching scene as Jean prepares to meet with Patrick, where I for the first time felt that he harboured any humanity beneath his blank exterior. I found the whole musical a bit soulless – which I guess is an occupational hazard when creating a musical based on a book that satirises the empty, vacuous lifestyles of American yuppies. In general it proved hard to care about the majority of the characters.

At points, as a scene became increasingly serious I would find it increasingly comical – I’m pretty sure this wasn’t intentional. There were some purposefully amusing moments but from the laughs these seemed to appeal largely to the posher elements of the audience.

Again I found the original score patchy – the opening number Clean is a bit grating and You Are What You Wear dragged. I was however a fan of Cards, and the show’s version of In The Air Tonight. The choreography was strong and I particularly liked the Christmas party tableaux created by various members of the cast.

Bret Easton Ellis says in the programme – ‘I think Patrick Batemans have existed throughout history’. This is probably true, and excessive consumerism has always been a characteristic of the social elite. How else to validate your social worth than with an elaborate sugar sculpture at your feast or a conspicuous excess of candles to light your ballroom?

Perhaps because the elite lifestyle is now so commonplace in everyday life – from television and magazines to the street full of designer stores that I walked down to reach the Almeida itself – I found the satirizing of the yuppie lifestyle in American Psycho a bit clunky. As chef Francis Derby points out in the programme, while in the eighties the fine dining of the characters may have seemed elite, ‘now everyone eats like that’. And it doesn’t seem at all unusual that a man would top up his tan. This consumer culture is ingrained in public consciousness, and large swathes of the population aspire to knock-off versions of elite cuisine and fashion. Elite cuisine and fashion that, despite increasing social inequality, is probably accessible to a wider section of the population than ever before.

In satirizing the yuppie lifestyle American Psycho doesn’t seem to say anything new, but merely points out some fairly obvious tenets about the negative effects of vacuous consumerism and social conformity. And yet, despite my reservations, the show did receive an enthusiastic standing ovation – so maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps if you’re in Doctor Who you get a standing ovation whatever you do.

Cabaret

I missed Cabaret when it was in the West End, but managed to see it last week as it embarks on a national tour. The musical is a haunting portrayal of the insidious nature of Nazism in 1930s Germany and its effects on ordinary inhabitants. Set largely in cabaret venue the Kit Kat Klub, the clash of tone – from debauched partying to harrowing Nazi attack – is handled sensitively and only serves to emphasise (and perhaps explain) how a party as divisive and dangerous as the Nazis could creep in to power.

There isn’t a weak link in Rufus Norris’ production. Visually, the choreography is stunning – and slickly and enthusiastically performed by the ensemble. The imaginative use of set and set changes are equally slick – impressively so for a touring production. The cast ring the emotion from Kander and Ebb’s music, and the songs are still in my head two days later.

Siobhan Dillon’s Sally Bowles grows in depth as her hard, carefree shell crumbles to reveal a mentally fragile and self-destructive woman struggling against the ‘prophets of doom’ who are threatening to bring her life and the Cabaret crashing down around her. This culminates in a heart-wrenching rendition of Cabaret – Dillon manages to stamp her own mark on this iconic song.

Will Young commands the stage with his astonishing performance as Emcee, veering effortlessly from frivolous jollity to sinister. He has a skill for bringing out the sinister in the overly cheerful, capturing perfectly the atmosphere of Nazi Germany. Tomorrow Belongs to Me is particularly chilling.

This is one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time, and demands your attention right to the last moment, yet its strong themes don’t detract from its entertainment value.

The Pride

The Pride

The Pride, the third production in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed Season, follows the complex relationship between Philip, Oliver and Sylvia as they live their lives simultaneously in 1958 and the present. Both plot strands are engaging, and it’s interesting to see two takes on a group of characters defined by their time. Yet at times the play seemed somewhat directionless, perhaps because of the jumping narrative. Or maybe this confusion is a reflection of the mental state of many of the characters.

Harry Hadden-Paton gives a brave performance as a closeted gay man constricted by society and his own crippling self-loathing – a stark contrast to his modern counterpart. Both Hayley Atwell and Matthew Horne also give strong performances, yet Al Weaver stands out with his absorbing performance, bringing an appealing vulnerability to a character that could have become grating in less able hands.

The programme has an interesting discussion about ‘gay’ plays, and the categorization of the work of gay playwrights. The parts of The Pride set in the present are perhaps best described as a portrait of a foundering relationship (incidentally a gay one). Yet people like to categorize, and by alternating between the present day and 1958, Alexi Kaye Campbell brings the issue of society’s attitude to homosexuality centre stage. This is emphasised by a tipsily self-righteous monologue by modern-day Sylvia about the casual use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult. It is apt that the play, which examines the social and political persecution of gay men, is being performed against the backdrop of protests at Britain’s participation in the Russian Winter Olympics.

The Pride is an interesting exploration of relationships, and the impact that society has on the choices (and personality) of the individual. It is held together by a strong ensemble cast, and is well worth a look.

Northern Ballet – The Great Gatsby and Mixed Programme

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A couple of weeks ago I saw Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Sadler’s Wells. It was a vibrant production, encapsulates the spirit of the jazz age, and the choreography allowed the company to demonstrate their versatility and acting ability. We were sat at the back of the large Sadler’s Wells auditorium, but the production carried to the back of the Second Circle – the simple sets allowed the dancers and choreography to really stand out.

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Northern Ballet always takes interesting and varied subjects for their full-length productions – their repertoire includes Hamlet, Cleopatra and Wuthering Heights. Yet they translate these complex stories into dances that are surprisingly easy to follow. David Nixon’s choreography, and the acting ability of the dancers, means that Northern Ballet excels at narrative-led ballets. While it’s impossible to translate the language of Fitzgerald from the page into an entirely visual medium, as a standalone production it is highly entertaining.

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The emotional capacity of the Northern Ballet dancers also translates into their forays into non-narrative works. The company’s recent Mixed Programme at their Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre featured Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, a beautifully simplistic piece inspired by the Shaker people, using brooms, chairs and skirts, and Hans van Manen’s powerful and dynamic Concertante.

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But the piece I was most looking forward to was Luminous Juncture, a new piece by Kenneth Tindall. Before seeing his debut piece Project #1 last year I didn’t have any preconceptions, and the piece left me stunned in my seat at the emotion and physicality of the performance. I haven’t seen anything as good since, and so I was slightly worried that Luminous Juncture wouldn’t live up to my (now very high!) expectations. But after an explosive start which certainly grabbed the audience’s attention, it had me as captivated as Project #1 had the year before, and more than once I had to sit back having found myself leaning forward to the edge of my seat.

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The combination of music, movement and light led to a sublime piece of dance that was thoroughly engaging. Often when choreography is overly demanding it can lead to movements which, though very impressive, can detract from the overall impression of the piece and leave it more like an acrobatic circus feat. Yet Luminous Juncture featured seemingly impossible balances and lifts, expertly performed by the dancers and woven seamlessly into the choreography, creating beautiful and striking phrases and images.

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Perhaps because he is still dancing, Tindall’s choreography brings out the best in his dancers, showcasing their abilities. Up close in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre the dancers can really showcase their emotional range, and you can appreciate the full force of their strength, flexibility and athleticism.

Northern Ballet are consistently producing high-quality, inventive and entertaining work, in Leeds and on tour. Now I’m looking forward to seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer.

King Lear

It feels like summer has started, now that I’ve made my first visit of the year to the Globe to see King Lear (even if it was a bit chilly…).

A couple of years ago, working Front of House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse while at Uni, I wondered how I would cope with seeing their production of King Lear (3 hours and 10 minutes) three times in a fortnight. But the production kept my attention for all nine and a half hours. It featured an amazing cast, led by Tim Piggott-Smith as Lear. James Garnon, as Edmund, had a natural way of conveying Shakespeare that I’ve only seen surpassed by David Tennant. And as Edgar, Sam Crane’s physical and vocal transformation to Poor Tom was astonishing. I also found it a useful undertaking. The first time of watching I had to concentrate on following the plot, while the second and third viewings allowed me to focus more on the performances and appreciation of the language.

It also gave me a good grounding from which to see the Globe’s touring production. The multiple roles taken on by each member of the cast made it slightly hard to follow, and I imagine if I was coming to the play for the first time I would have relied heavily on the synopsis in the programme. Despite this, the production was full of committed and energetic performances, and the actors dealt well with their transitions between characters. They also made the most of minimal props and set, although inevitably the touring production wasn’t as well suited to the space as the Globe’s normal output.

The impact of the play’s tragic finale was somewhat undermined by the customary song and dance at the end of the performance, but the audience certainly enjoyed it and the play received enthusiastic applause. While perhaps not as in-depth as the WYP version, this is a solid and engaging production.

The Low Road

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It is impossible to miss the unwittingly apt timing of Bruce Norris’ play The Low Road, a self-described ‘fable of free-market economics and cut-throat capitalism’, in the week when the death of Thatcher has led to the re-emergence of debates which have not been this prevalent or strongly waged since the years of her premiership.

The play’s themes of individualism and community, genuine and tokenistic charity, greed, materialism and generosity are as relevant today as they were in eighteenth-century America. At the interval, I was left with the feeling that it made a refreshing change to see a new play dealing with modern issues by distancing them to a historical setting – the opposite of the current fashion to make an unnecessary relocation of a historical play to a contemporary setting with the sole purpose of ramming its ‘relevance’ down the audience’s throats.

Then the second half started… and did just that, with a modern interlude as we witnessed a conference Q and A on the financial crisis. I’ll forgive Norris though as this section was one of the funniest in the play and gave the actors involved an opportunity to milk some hilarious caricatures.

The whole cast was excellent, with a brave performance by Johnny Flynn as the unremittingly unlikable protagonist Jim Trumpett. Thatcher would certainly have approved of the enterprising Jim’s ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps and ensure his prosperity, even if this was at the expense of the surrogate family that had taken him in as a baby (and of almost everyone else that has the misfortune to have any dealings with him). The values of capitalism and the free market may seem unpalatable when put bluntly – and screamed at the bewildered members of the religious colony who have just rescued, fed and clothed him – but they are the values that our society is governed by.

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I’ve read comments criticising the play as a cheap shot against capitalism, yet narrated by Adam Smith the play sets out a scenario that could be seen to advocate it. Predictably it is Jim, with his individualistic outlook and championing of cut-throat capitalism, that prospers – and his descendents are seen to live on and thrive. The poor and the disadvantaged who find their home in the New Light of Zion Colony fail to look out for themselves – preferring to help other unfortunates – and they come to a horrible end.

The play, then, merely brings out the viewer’s own opinions of capitalism. If you believe that profit justifies immorality, and that the poor, weak and idle should be left to fend for themselves, you would see vindication of your beliefs in the play’s outcome. It is the sentiment of the typical Royal Court audience that allows this tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at the creation of the capitalist financial system to be a negative one. It is their sensibilities that condemn Jim for his actions, and sympathise with the kind-hearted yet naive members of the Colony. The audience laughs at the financial leaders in the Q and A, but the humour comes from accurate characterisation and the recognition of the well-worn arguments of the privileged and upwardly mobile. And Norris isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him – or at least to give it a quick nip – with more than one jibe aimed at the funding of the subsidised arts.

Jim’s assertion that ‘’tis and ‘twas heedless on your part to care for one [a heavily disabled community member] who could contribute so little to your livelihood’ is certainly true when applied to the Colony’s rescue of Jim, who repays their kindness with disdain, violence and theft. Yet Jim’s arrogance, pig-headedness and total lack of empathy means that he can’t see the irony of this statement in the light of his own recent predicament. It is perhaps the play’s highlighting of the hypocrisy and double-standards of many of the proponents of a free-market economy, and the cruelty that ensues when this is rolled out to include social policy, that has riled those complaining of the play’s left-leaning attitude. That, or feeling alienated when they disagree with the pretty much unanimous reaction of the audience. Dismissing the play because you dislike its politics is a lazy critique – nobody is apolitical and criticism of capitalism is a perfectly valid stance.

The Royal Court is renowned for its challenging and political new works – if you don’t want a play that challenges the status quo you might be better off seeing something less controversial like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera. Or Legally Blonde, a musical where a well-educated, attractive, mega-rich women uses her father’s money to buy her way on to an elite degree course on a whim, and overcomes the apparently disabling disadvantages of wearing pink and owning a Chihuahua to become a successful lawyer. Attorney Emmett Forrest has worked hard for years to lift himself from his humble origins but it is when he befriends the wealthy Elle and she buys him an expensive suit that he really gets taken seriously. The fact that I take exception to some of the assumptions and implied attitudes of Legally Blonde didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, and similarly The Low Road is more than just its ‘political leanings’ (although as I have already argued, they are implied rather than solidly embedded in the text).

Random left-field ending aside (so random that I can’t really elaborate without it being a spoiler), this is a solid thought-provoking period drama with enduring themes – but it’s also thoroughly entertaining.