My London Your London

A cultural guide

Month: January 2006 (page 1 of 3)

Theatre Review: The Andersen Project by Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina

It is seldom that you get to see a master actor, and a master creator, at the top of his or her form. Robert Lepage’s The Andersen Project at the Barbican is one such show. If you have to borrow the cash, or sleep with someone to get a ticket, do it.

You could write a summary that would make the plot sound like a bad Victorian novel. This account of Frederic, the Canadian pop lyricist brought to Paris to write a libretto inspired by one of the darker fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson for a European “co-operative” project right out of the horror files of the Telegraph, is, however, instead a deeply human story that never strikes a false note.

There are plenty of laughs, with a rapid-fire string of European and Atlantic arts in-jokes that almost, but not quite, descend to a stand-up routine. You are, however, always laughing with Lepage, never at him. On the wilder artistic avant garde: “what makes the English furious makes the French delirious”.

This is a one-man show, in the sense that Lepage plays not only the would-be librettist, seeking professional and personal validation, but also all of the other characters, from Arnaud, the conniving but troubled administrator of the Paris Opera, to the Dryad of Anderson’s tale. Yet there’s a long list of technical credits, from the puppeteer who produces a wonderfully believable mutt out of thin air to the “horse cart-maker”, and these are well deserved. Every aspect of The Andersen Project from the supra-realist video backdrops to the elaborate but designerista set, has been polished to almost eerie perfection.
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Theatre Review: Amato Saltone by Shunt

Hot pies, fluorescent lights, bustling commuters. You step, for Shunt’s latest production, from the commuter world of London Bridge station into a long, very dark, very spooky tunnel. As you progress – your feet feeling for solid ground – the buzz of a bar is heard in the distance, then you’re in amidst the smoke and the laughter. But this is only the ante-room.

Explore, and you’ll find your way into the production of Amato Saltone. Hand over the keyring you were given at the entrance and you’ll find yourself with a business card with your name for the evening. This lets you into the party proper.

Disconcerting, you’re in the depths of a penthouse – very effectively created – and a swinger’s party. Circulating waiters record your preferences for obscure sex acts – if you don’t recognise some of them, and you won’t – and they’ll fetch the dictionary stored in the piano stool. (A nice touch.) On and around the piano is a very pregnant cabaret singer (and she’s rather a classy cabaret singer, if heavy-handed on the flirting with the audience bit). Happily, however, the threat of audience participation is never taken too far.

Then the storm starts and the lights go out. Windows slide back, and we’re voyeurs, looking into two attic rooms where assignations are underway; not open, swingers’ party assignations, but furtive, secretive contacts. Then the male participants, in a weird variation of a post-copulation ritual, go out on the roof for a smoke. Then two men in pig masks kill the women.
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Book Review: Underground London by Stephen Smith

When you walk around London, beneath your feet are layers and layers of history. There are also, so we’re told, millions and millions of rats, massive but leaking Victorian sewers, and more than the odd plague pit. These are the aspects of the city that captured the imagination of Stephen Smith, and in his Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets he seeks to find all of these and more.

He’s a journalist, and has the journalist’s knack of talking his way into the oddest places and situations, from the crypt of St Andrew’s Holborn as workmen clear out a noxious mix of bodies, coffins and maybe the odd anthrax spoor, to a river boat from which a small boy is being dangled by his ankles while he beats the water with a cane. (No, we’re not talking hideous Satanist ceremonies there; rather an old City tradition.)

He starts out in the Tube – noting that in 2002 a new record for visiting all 272 stations was set (19 hours, 18 minutes and 45 seconds) – and ends up at the Thames Barrier, (the definition of underground sometimes being rather loose), with a nasty reminder that the foundations of the city might be less secure than they seem, its use having risen from only nine times between 1982 and 1991, to 14 times in one week in 2002.
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Theatre Review: The Sugar Wife at the Soho Theatre

If conscience is to be your guide, is it actually possible to live in the world? If you put every action, every dependency, to intense moral questioning, how can you act at all? In today’s secular world that’s a question with which many individuals wrestle, and it is one that Quakers, and religious groups that like them put the focus on a guiding inner light, have been grappling for centuries.

These are the questions facing the two central characters in Elizabeth Kuti’s The Sugar Wife, which has just transferred from Dublin, the setting of the play. But this is the 1840s city, in a nation already on the edge of economic and social collapse.

Hannah Tewkley (Jane Brennan), an intense, mid-30s, childless Quaker wife almost consumed by a career in “good works”, has an uneasy relationship with her own body, but an even more uncomfortable relationship with her husband Samuel (Barry Barnes). He is a tea, coffee and sugar merchant who plans to branch out into oriental tea-houses. He squares his own rather flexible conscience in using America – slave-grown – sugar, amidst other moral “crimes”, by funding his wife’s philanthropy and pointing to the likely fate of his employees were he to go out of business.

Into this volatile, uncomfortable house are invited – at the insistence of Hannah – two visiting anti-slavery campaigners, the former slave Sarah Worth (Susan Salmon) and the man who bought her out of slavery, the rich-boy turned rebel Alfred Darby (Robert Price). The latter has apparently solved the problem of conscience by living entirely by his principles – to the point, it emerges, of living on Sarah’s earnings so he can devote himself to his “work” and to “art” (producing daguerreotypes).
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Theatre Review: A Fine Balance at the Hampstead Theatre

There are some moments from Tamasha’s production of A Fine Balance, which has premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, that I will remember for long time. There’s the opening scene, of a legless beggar, who skims around the stage seeking alms amid an imaginary traffic jam, evoked by a soundscape and smellscape that immediately transported me to Calcutta, the site of my first encounter-shock with the sub-continent. Then there’s the stunningly effective puppetry that solves the problem of animal and child characters – the “death” of one animal puppet produces an almost audience-wide audible gasp.

Yet these excellent moments are blended to produce a dull, if worthy, whole. The play is based on the eponymous Booker-shortlisted novel by Rohinton Mistry, one of those classic Indian sprawling epics, in this case exploring the impact of Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency, which imposed martial rule on the world’s “largest democracy”.

The story, by and large, is of the effects on the poor – the slum-dwellers thrown out of their homes and driven into pointless stone-breaking, morale-sapping labour; their employers, only marginally more economically secure, left without workers; the men and women sterilised by force … the novel is a great sweeping tale. The play takes in all of their stories, yet while it leaps from drama to drama, from crisis to crisis, the action on stage is slow, even langorous. This is a neat synopsis of a play, but the heart, the soul, is missing.

Part of the problem is that none of the characters is developed – they are more archetypes than people. I naturally sympathise with Dina Dalal (Sudha Bhuchar). We meet her as a sweat-shop employer, but she gradually emerges as a struggling woman, a widow, determined to maintain her independence in a male-dominated world, if only to remain out of the uncaring clutches of her bullying brother. But she is a stereotype, if an admirable stereotype; we never learn more. What was her relationship with her husband; what gave her the steel to battle on to the bitter end? (The book answers these questions; the drama does not.)
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Theatre Review: Gem of the Ocean at the Tricycle Theatre

In 1904, in a small, ragged parlour in a house in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nearly 40 years after the official abolition of slavery in America, a mismatched group of black people are struggling to find a way to survive and thrive in a white world.

Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marvell), professional dog-shit collector, looks like a buffoon, until he explains that his stick is notched 62 times, for each slave he helped guide to freedom on the Underground Railroad. He sums up the predicament these ex-slaves and younger freeborn Blacks face: “Freedom. I got it, but what is it? I still aint found out.”

Eli (Lucian Msamati), his friend and comrade, is building a wall around this house, hoping to keep its inhabitants safe, with the help of an intruder, the ironically named Citizen Barlow (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), who looks like a man with problems. He’s tried to find a decent, fair-paying job, and failed, but the weight on his shoulders is more than that.

Always in the house is Aunt Esther Tyler (Carmen Munroe), who claims to be 285 years old, and certainly is regarded, almost worshipped, as a seer and problem-solver. She’s also fervently religious – but does this really help the people she guides? Caring for her is Black Mary (Jenny Jules – who is notable for a really stunning stage presence), who has fled the “Uncle Tom” ways of her bullying brother Caesar (Patrick Robinson), who has chosen to carve out a place for himself by enforcing the white men’s law.

The play is Gem of the Ocean, the work of August Wilson, who died last year at the tragically young age of 60, and one of a cycle of ten that, decade by decade, tell the story of the black experience in America. It is the fifth of his plays to have UK premieres at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, that northwest London theatre jewel.
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