Cor! monkeys…

reviews by stewart pringle, some of them anyway

Category: Reviews

Puss in Boots review

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★★★★

Do you know the story of Puss in Boots? I mean, do you actually know what happens? It’s the one with the cat who becomes mayor or something, isn’t it? No, that’s Dick Whittington (and the cat doesn’t become mayor, that would be mental). The one with the weird under-the-sea bit with the dancing octopi? Nope, see above. The one with the evil Rat King and his legions of rat accomplices? Na-ah, that’s DW again. So what, I ask you, the hell happens inPuss in Boots?

Loads of stuff, it turns out, loads of really strange and disconnected stuff. Despite having a very familiar panto ring to it, and having been mulched up into a fewShrek films along with everything else that was pure and good about childhood, Charles Perrault’s story of a bossy, suited-and-booted magic cat isn’t actually a very familiar one. And it’s not going to be a whole heap more familiar after a night at the Hackney Empire, that’s for sure. This is as confusing a night in the theatre as you’re likely to have this December, but it doesn’t really matter because panto-goddess Susie McKenna has pulled off another evening of pure joy and spectacle that makes the finer details of the plot (almost) irrelevant.

It’s all got something to do with an evil miller who cheats his brother Tom out of his inheritance by threatening to drown his cat, leaving Tom and pussy-cat to roam the fields of France until they run into a shoe shop, where the cat requests some boots which may or may not make him magical, because actually it’s pretty damn magical for a cat to request boots in the first place. The evil miller might look like a likely villain, but actually he never turns up again and Puss and Tom instead travel to a kingdom populated by a villainous queen, a villainous witch, an ogre and assorted rogues and unfortunates. There’s a bit where Tom gets nekkid for Reasons and a complicated wrangle over royal succession, with Puss applying his skills in sword-fighting and silver-tongueing to save the day.

It’s glorious nonsense, and McKenna makes no effort to untangle it. It means there’s plenty of room for great comic set-pieces and musical numbers, but it does also create some basic problems. With at least two villains floating around it’s not always clear who to boo and hiss and who to root for, likewise the romances get hopelessly muddled and muted, and characters such as Celestine the Good Sorceress vanish almost entirely. Panto thrives on plot twists, but its moral universe must be clear and explicable for the audience to throw themselves into. McKenna hasn’t quite managed that here, and it makes for a slightly less satisfying evening than Hackney usually pulls off.

Luckily, there’s a glowing cast, Steven Edis’ winning musical score and more good-hearted, glitter-streaked pizazz than you can shake a fibre-optic wand at. The superlative Kat B, who played a mean King Rat in last year’s whizzo Dick Whittington and his Cat, plays Puss with slinky charm and a thick Jamaican accent, sparring with the audience and putting his charms to work on the ladies in the front row. Sharon D Clarke blasts the roof off as (slightly) evil Queen Talulah, raising Edis’ gospel-inflected score to spectacular heights, while Josefina Gabrielle pulls out some classic panto villainy as (very) evil witch Evilena.

Two years after Clive Rowe hung up his wig, there’s another new dame in Hackney, with Stephen Matthews taking on the role of Nettie Knowall. Matthews is loads of fun, though perhaps a touch less engaging than either Rowe or last year’s excellent Steve Elias, and he’s unfortunately saddled with a lot of dated jokes about social media. Nevertheless, he gets a great slop scene during a bout of (inexplicable) art restoration that puts the Lyric Hammersmith’s half-hearted milk-squirting bit to shame.

The decision to cast Matt Dempsey as Tom rather than the traditional cross-casting of the male hero is something of a break from panto tradition, and unfortunately Dempsey lacks the sparkle to justify it. Compared to the high-energy performances put in by the super Amy Lennox as spoiled Princess Petunia and Darren Hart as screeching maid Amnesia and Dempsey’s hero has trouble standing out.

Stephen Edis’ music can scarcely be praised enough. Where other panto’s stump for a solid score of re-worded chart hits, Edis creates a blend of genre pastiches and original tunes that gives Hackney panto it’s own thrilling identity year on year. The highlight of Puss in Boots comes during an inspired mash-up of ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis and ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods that opens Act 2 with an uproarious hurrah. If there’s a better moment in a London panto this year I’ll eat my hat.

All things considered, it’s another winner from Hackney panto, and you’d have to be a sour-puss indeed not to fall in love with it by the final number. The problems here are bound almost inextricably with Puss in Boots itself. There was a barmy article by John Stevens in the Daily Mail earlier this month predicting the death of the pantomime dame in the face of political correctness (in a reversal on their usual perspective on men who choose to wear dresses). It bemoaned the rise of pantos such as Aladdin and Robin Hood, usurping ‘classics’ such as Puss in Boots and Mother Goose but rather than seeking some nefarious lefty plot to explain the shift, isn’t it more likely that they’ve fallen out of popularity because those Perrault stories just aren’t very engaging? That the best of their component parts have been refigured and reconstituted into ‘new’ panto scripts that also boast greater clarity and speak more coherently to a modern audience? After all, re-arrangement and cross-textual borrowings have always been at the heart of the commedia dell’arte and pantomime traditions.

But if it must be Puss in Boots, you’ve got to be thankful that it’s this one. Combining home-spun charm with great-hall razzle-dazzle and performed by a belting, brilliant cast. The Lyric Hammersmith’s side-splitting Jack and the Beanstalk may just have the edge on Puss for me this season, but it’s a close run thing, and fans of a more traditional bout of ‘It’s behind you’ would probably give it to Hackney on points. Quite seriously, McKenna and the stunning team at Hackney Empire could do a panto of Finnegan’s Wake and still have the whole family cheering in the aisles.

Written for Exeunt

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Amygdala review

Amygdala

★★★

Actress Geraldine Alexander’s first play examines the synapses of an age gap, as buttoned-up lawyer Catherine loses her sense of self and eventually her mind in a relationship with a smooth-talking young musician. The amygdalae are areas of the brain that oversee emotion and memory, so think of them as a 21st century version of the heart, probed here by somewhat unlikely psychiatrist Simon after Catherine’s illicit squeeze is arrested for a terrible crime.

‘Amygdala’ feels weighed down by the familiar. The psychiatrist/ interview structure feels dated and casts an ominous pall over everything, smearing out the colour and detail with a patina of gloom and inevitability. The contrast between prim middle-aged Catherine and sensual, vital Joshua falls victim to cliché, despite strong performances from Hermione Gulliford and Alex Lanipekun.

But set against its flaws, ‘Amygdala’ contains some forceful, bone-shaking writing. Alexander (who also directs) keeps her powder dry until the final moments, and when she finally unleashes hell, it packs quite a wallop. Gulliford excels in those tense scenes, and Fran Reidy’s elongated, claustrophobic design makes the Print Room feel like an autoclave.

Written for Time Out

Halbwelt Kultur review

Halbwelt

★★★

To Stefan Zweig, writing in his rambunctious The World of Yesterday, ‘Even the Rome of Suetonius had never known such orgies as the pervert balls of Berlin, where hundreds of men costumed as women and hundreds of women as men danced under the benevolent eyes of the police.’ It was a world where traditional categories and boundaries, between class, gender, sexuality and politics, collapsed in on one another in a hedonistic madness where ‘To be sixteen and still under suspicion of virginity would have been considered a disgrace in any school of Berlin.’ That is the dusky environment of halbwelt, a world that director Patrick Kennedy hopes to plunge us to in this evening of punchy, politically-savvy Weimar cabaret.

Originally a one-woman performance that told the story of seven of the period’s greatest sheroes, this is a full-cast production that glides through a roster of classic cabaret tunes intercut with all-too-slight narrative vignettes. The cast is sparkling, the band is satin smooth and the songs consistently impressive, but for some reason the evening never quite crackles into life and the halbwelt atmosphere fails to coalesce.

The fourteen foot-stomping and tear-jerking tunes that make up the score are contextualised through the life of one of the seven stars. We see Claire Waldoff’s relationship with Olga von Roeder flourish in the liberal glow of the party scene and teeter on the brink of the looming fascist crackdown; we’re serenaded by Marlene Dietrich and Anita Barber performs her infamous cocaine dance, ‘Morphium’ by Mischa Spoliansky.

From the chorus opening number ‘Chuck Out the Men’ the focus is defiantly feminist, with the Weimar period celebrated as a time of paradoxical liberation for the performers, despite the salacious content of their acts. Like Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Halbwelt Kultur plays the anything-goes world of the Weimar Republic squarely off against the grim and intolerant future that’s goose-stepping towards Germany. Through Alyssa Noble’s witty, often rather acid choreography, we’re never under any illusion that the good times of sexual freedom and shadowy lawless zones is about to fall beneath a jackboot.

The occasional flat note or fluffled dance-step merely adds to the evening’s rickety charm, and the cast is generally excellent. Gabrielle Schmidt brings a moving but understated pathos to Waldoff, and Sarah Bradnum’s turn as Dietrich is a clear highlight. The full-chorus numbers are the most rousing, and smaller set-pieces such as ‘Supply and Demand’ work beautifully. Another Spoliansky number, ‘Lavender Song’ becomes a bittersweet anthem for lesbian love under the threat of returning oppression.

There are sections that are less successful, however: the presentation of ‘Morphium’ lacks necessary contextualisation and juts out awkwardly and inexplicably, and things begin to drag before the show concludes. The script, by Finn D’Albert, barely has time to breathe, meaning that the exchanges that bookend musical routines often come off as rather half-baked. The meeting of Waldorf and Roeder in particular rings like a sub-par Sarah Walters clone, and hence lacks vital credibility.

It’s a real shame, as Halbwelt Kultur is scattered with gems and, at its best, is a sex-positive celebration of freedom and the power of performance to speak love’s name when all other avenues have been blocked. It’s also an unfortunate truth that, however pleasant, the Jermyn Street Theatre is about as un-Halbwelt as London venues get, and it’s difficult to feel fully engaged by the performers in such a polite black box studio. Put this promising show in a grimy cabaret bar or a gin-sodden music hall, let the wine flow freely and the performers spill out through the audience, and Halbwelt Kultur could become something truly Weimarkable.

Written for Exeunt

Feathers in the Snow – Review – Southwark Playhouse

Review of Feathers in the Snow for Exeunt

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★★★★

Philip Ridley closes a gala year for his work, which has seen the premiere of Shivered, top-flight revivals of The Pitchfork Disney and Mercury Fur and a home run for recent smash Tender Napalm, with a barm-pot children’s adventure that’s teeming with bright ideas. It’s a fond toodle-pip to the Southwark Playhouse’s current venue, too, and feels like an appropriately inventive and chaotic way to close what has been a consistently thrilling and artistically expansive chapter in the theatre’s history.

Cheerily, Ridley and director David Mercatali have pushed the boat out and thrown caution to the wind with an epic narrative than spans decades, pulls together a boggling cast of bizarre characters, and utilized the boisterous masses of the Playhouse’s Young Company ensemble. After the high-tech cluster-fuck of last year’s Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s invigorating and cockle-warming to see a festive production that favours ideas over gadgetry and performances over technophile wizardry.

Feathers in the Snow begins with the story of Shylyla (Deeivya Meir), a young girl born mute and impassive, who comes to life only when presented with the feather of a Blazer Bird. Defrosted by the touch of the feather, she is thrown into a discursive quest that sees her befriend the magical bird, meet a unscrupulously hungry soldier, a lazy king, a tsunami and a witch who shacks up with a dolphin. In structure it resembles an Old Norse saga, its focus and sense of chronology constantly zooming and pulling back, as snatches of the story play out in detail while, elsewhere, centuries are crossed in minutes. It shares some Skaldic themes too, with the creation of myths and of nations, long voyages by sea and great wars fought for facile ideologies. As a comic battle between pernickety historians illustrates, Ridley is concerned with how stories are formed, hierarchies constructed, religions carved out. His conclusion is ultimately incomplete and chaotic, but with a deterministic insistence on the ability of tiny decisions to move huge armies and shape whole worlds.

Its scale necessitates the severe compression of characters, and few even aspire to three-dimensions. Meir is a strong centre-point as wide-eyed and quietly ferocious Shylyla, and there are plenty of engaging comic turns, but the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet, and unless an audience is willing to go with the flow, they’ll quickly be overwhelmed by Ridley’s iterating fancy. Children have never been troubled by imaginative overkill, and the cheeky glint in Ridley’s eye is likely to be mirrored in those of his youngest critics.

There’s plenty for adults to enjoy too, though it’s possibly too long and too fragmented to retain the focus its quick-fire characters demand, and is riddled with shoddy songs, including a closing number that sounds like a regrettable B-side from a Belgian EBM outfit. Ridley has injected a healthy dose of 21st century reality into the situations and dialogue, and as well as murmurings of urban riots and immigration wobbles, there is also a strong undercurrent of pacifist and humanist ethics. Even in the playground discourse of Ridley’s script, the horror and suffering of war is a pre-eminent refrain. There’s also plenty of black humour and some surprisingly harsh plot-twists; Feathers in the Snow is at its best at its gutsiest, such as in a scene which riffs off the Raft of the Medusa. Here another of Ridley’s leitmotifs is defined: the sacrifice of the weak to utility. For all of its free-wheeling fun, Feathers is a complex piece, and sees Ridley unafraid to seize his young audience and strike out into fresh and dangerous moral territory, and it gives his latest work the bite it needs to see off occasional lapses into syrupy schmaltz.