Review: Girl from the North Country


Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinzé Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty. The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound

Isobel McArthur as Daphne Oram

Photo via Dundee Rep

We had a chance to catch the Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre presentation of Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound at Dundee Rep. This show is touring Scotland, so if you can do be sure to see it. If you don’t know anything about Oram, there’s a good primer at her official website. You may recall that her book on sound theory An Individual Note was kickstarted last year, a project spearheaded by the fabulous Sarah Angliss.

Co-written by star Isobel McArthur (pictured above) and director Paul Brotherston, the play gives an overview of key moments in Oram’s life from her childhood interests in music in archeology, to the 1942 séance where the 17 year old was encouraged to pursue music instead of a more traditional ‘girl’s path’ to safety and suffocation. Sheer determination and unflagging confidence in the power of sound eventually brings her to co-founding and becoming director of the famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop. McArthur embodies Oram with an enthusiasm and a dogged primness that allows the passionate creative force to burst out to great effect when it’s been denied too long.

The ensemble cast Robin Hellier, David James Kirkwood, Dylan Read and Matthew Seager move adroitly between parts, shifting accents and body language to make transitions clear. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has designed a set that supports that nimbleness of the cast. The true magic of theatre is creating places and people in an instant that you completely believe. A small ensemble can sometimes feel like Tommy Cooper changing hats. With a minimum of props, this group portrayed a succession of situations with vivid clarity.

The live sound score by Anneke Kampman was simply amazing. She created ambience, soaring melodies, a wide variety of sound effects and really brought the whole philosophy of Oram to aural life. You can follow her on SoundCloud to hear more, but if you can catch her live do. The frisson between the music and the players energised the whole audience.

You can get a taster here:

British Library: Punk + Bard

My last full day in London I headed over to the British Library to catch the Punk exhibit. On the way, I nodded to Saint Jerome‘s holy place:

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It was quite gratifying to see PUNK emblazoned across that bastion of quiet intellectual historicism, though it reminded me of the line from that much-treasured film which I think was called What is Creativity? that we saw in 6th and 7th grade and then I have not been able to locate even though it has John Astin in it.

In the sequence that shows the history of art, there’s an exchange between two snakes (or maybe worms?) that goes something like:

Snake 1: Do you realise that radical ideas that threaten institutions eventually become institutionalised and in turn reject radical ideas?

Snake 2: No.

Snake 1: Oh, for a minute there,  I thought I had something.

This film has stuck with me. That idea, too, has stuck with me.

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It was kind of glorious to see this in the lobby gallery of the venerable British Library. On the other hand, there was nothing much interesting that you hadn’t seen a millions times (well, I hadn’t anyway) and yes, the overarching impression was that punk was white and male. Here’s the ‘chicks’ corner:

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I want to see that documentary on the women in punk. The snippets were tantalising. But the rest, meh. The shop — well, there was nothing there you’d want to buy. It was kind of embarrassing really. I was so glad to hear that Viv Albertine took it upon herself to make some corrections. Rahr!

So feeling dispirited — even the Beowulf manuscript was not on display! — and it being too early to head to my next destination, I decided to go to the ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’ exhibit in the main gallery. And I’m SO very glad I did — how energising!

This display focused on the performance history of Shakespeare’s works. Coming from the lit side of things, there is so much I don’t know about the practicalities of performance. I remain grateful for sitting in on the course at the Globe back in ’99 because I learned so much (besides, the Globe remains the only theatre where I have trod the boards). It starts with the Globe and Greene’s famous sneer, then moves to Blackfriars. I am sooo longing to see a show at the restored indoor theatre. And it was a real epiphany to realise that The Tempest was at Blackfriars, not The Globe as I’d always pictured it, which in many ways makes it more amazing.

Even more now, I wish I could be there for one night (in case the Doctor reads this).

It’s exciting to see how the plays rippled out across the world: Hamlet on an East India Company ship anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607, in India, in Russia. The first woman to play a woman’s role (Desdemona in Othello) in 1660 broke one barrier: the first black actor, Ira Aldridge, played Romeo briefly in NY in 1822, then sailed to London in 1825 to debut as Othello. He was just 17.

The exhibit details the bard’s censors, forgers, actors and visionaries, including a room that recreates in small part Sally Jacob’s astonishing design for Peter Brook’s 1970 intoxicating incarnation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It really is inspiring.

Go if you can: it runs through September. You can get yourself an Elizabethan ruff necklace.

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NT Live: Hamlet

I thoroughly expected to enjoy the new production of Hamlet from Barbican via the National Theatre, and as always am so very grateful for the live broadcasts because so far no one’s willing to pay to send me to London to see them all and I can’t always get there myself. There had been folderol about yet another ‘television star’ taking on a role and gibberings about reshuffling of scenes.

Can we get back to the theatre is live issue? Theatre is a living thing. Every production of a play is a new life. The magic of theatre is the simple joy of a communal experience. There’s joy in even the most scrappy am-dram production because you’re part of it. What’s truly astounding is when a production teaches you new things about a play you’ve seen and read many times.

This is one of those experiences.

The Barbican has brought me many amazing delights: a transcendent Diamanda Galás concert, Nigel Hawthorne’s Lear, the stunning Olivia Williams in Middleton’s The Changeling (just thinking of it is still…wow). This Hamlet is no exception. Lindsey Turner’s direction, Es Devlin’s production design (WOW that first image of the dining room) and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes (oh man, I’d love to have Gertrude’s first dress but in red or black for Halloween): it all provided a sumptuous feast of seamless action punctuated by rare moments of silence that echoed all the more so because of that. There was no frantic changing of scenery which seems to be a staple of big productions now, but resettings of the huge set and movement around it, echoing the idea of Hamlet’s comments about being king of infinite space while bound in a nutshell. I loved the staging so much.

Yes, of course Cumberbatch was good. Really, anyone who dismisses an actor just because they’re big overlooks all the hard work it took to get there. Hamlet can be such a drab that you want to smack him for self-pity sometimes. The reshuffling of the scenes at the start — beginning with a grief-stricken prince looking at old photo albums and playing (presumably) his father’s favourite record — put that sorrow at the center of the performance. There was so much wonderful acting between the famous lines. He smells his fathers old coat and cries, then puts it on. It’s heartbreaking.

But all the attention on the star overshadows the superb cast: Jim ‘Bishop Brennan’ Norton as Polonius! Ciarán Hinds as Claudius (a little too pompous at times), Karl Johnson with impeccable comic timing as the Gravedigger (of course doubling as the Ghost) and Anastasia Hille as a very fragile Gertrude, which made me realise of course! As Hamlet describes his father being overprotective of his mother (“…so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly…”) it’s easy to imagine her as an anxious mess upon his death, looking for another protector. When Hamlet puts on an ‘antic disposition’ at first he sees everything in black and white, but as the play goes on his will falters largely because he begins to see the shades of human frailty in himself and others. It’s really about the maddening impossibility of knowing what are the right choices in the complicated web of reality.

Siân Brooke (photo © Johan Persson)

Siân Brooke (photo © Johan Persson)

This comes out especially with Ophelia. The real star of this production is Siân Brooke, who made me really see that role for the first time: Ophelia’s madness is a rebuke to Hamlet’s playing at it (literally in a hilarious scene where he’s playing at GIANT soldiers). Brooke is utterly heart-rending as the doomed woman. I don’t think I’ve ever thought much of the role before. They make her a photographer and it fits perfectly. She sees everything yet has no power to change it. Bullied by her father and her brother and the entire court, Ophelia struggles to survive. Hamlet and Polonius both manipulate her to achieve their ends, but don’t pay any attention to her until she is dead. The trunk she drags around with her in the mad scene is the baggage of all that; when Getrude opens it up and sees the huge cache of photos and the smashed camera, she understands at once what will happen and the horror knocks her back. Absolutely brilliant innovation.

Go to the NT Live site and find a broadcast somewhere in the world near you. I absolutely recommend it.

Review: NT Live – Coriolanus

Thanks to mega-Hiddles fan Jay I got to see the NT Live production of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and a very fine cast broadcast from the Donmar Warehouse all the way to Glasgow, which gave me an excuse to visit that fine city again. My visit included a stop by the Glasgow Women’s Library in their new home which is quite lovely, an older library with a lot more space than their previous home with some really beautiful woodwork as well. I donated a copy of Unikirja so if you’ve been meaning to read it, there’s at least one copy in a UK library now. 😉

Coriolanus hasn’t been one of the most popular of the Bard’s plays, though the recent film version with Ralph Fiennes helped raise its profile. Director Josie Rourke spoke about the timeliness of the themes — the general who’s great at war but cannot make the transition to politics because his privilege makes him blindly callous to the needs of the people. Yet the people — or at least the tribunes who lead them — are shown to be vindictive opportunists ready to vilify the man they had just recently celebrated.

Required tourist photo in Glasgow (at last)

Required tourist photo in Glasgow (at last)

In short, there’s a lot of petard hoisting in this play.

While Emma Freud babbled about the sold out audience being there for the sexy Tom, Rourke championed her very sexy cast (admirably without getting prickly at Freud’s obliviousness). That’s what made the play work and superbly so.

Of course Hiddleston was terrific: anyone who’s seen his turn in three of the four plays in The Hollow Crown (and if you haven’t shelled out the mere £10 for the box set you’re missing terrific value) knows that while he might be an internet phenomenon for his dance moves and spontaneous sense of fun, he also has serious ambitions. His Coriolanus is a passionately proud man, who spurns those who spurn him with tragic results. Shakespeare’s leaders can be utterly capricious and require a lot of the work to make their turnabouts believable. Hiddleston’s bloody-soaked general remains convincing as he takes a town more or less single-handedly, then persuades his bitter enemy to join him in attacking his mutinous land.

But he’s part of a terrific (and compact) ensemble. Mark Gatiss is so funny and erudite in so many different projects like his snarky Mycroft Holmes, that you can forget just how good an actor he is. His avuncular Menenius supports his protegée, but he also basks in the reflected glory, so he’s stung to find that even he can be denied when the city turns on the hero.

Deborah Findlay, probably fixed in many minds from her turn as the hand-wringing, dithering Miss Augusta Tompkinson in Cranford, offers an imperious Volumnia, proud of the ruthless son she has nurtured, who loves every scar he bears and the blood that crowns him. In contrast to the relatively minor role given to the general’s wife (though well embodied with a great deal of sympathy and pathos by Borgen star Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), his mother has been his model and his inspiration. To see her humbled by his about-face, to beg him to relent, only a heart of flint could be unmoved. Findlay really amazed.

Helen Schlesinger is another one of those tireless actors who’s been in everything, though the first role that came to my mind was her turn in Persuasion, as the ailing and impoverished friend of the suffering Anne Elliott. In league with Elliot Levey’s Brutus, Schlesinger’s Sicinia seethes with a righteous anger and the two tribunes take advantage of the grain shortage to turn the cheering crowds into a jeering mob by focusing their fear and anger onto the convenient target of the would-be politician/general. Coriolanus makes it easy for them by sneering at the hungry throngs, whom he believes do not deserve to eat because they have not fought in battle:

Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.

Hadley Fraser imbues Aufidius with a passionate hatred and convincing admiration for the man who defeats him with such courage. When the banished Coriolanus appears before him and offers to let him execute him, his every limb shows the conflict between the satisfaction killing him would give and the waste such a murder would be. You can tell Aufidius wants to kill him even as he kisses him in forgiveness and they join forces to lay Rome waste.

The production is spare and yet vivid with an inspired use of paint and light in creating the scenes. The costuming for the most part had a timelessness (Levey’s costume alone looked disconcertingly modern) and a flow. I loved Gatiss’ costume in particular. The copious use of blood left no doubt to the military cost of the events — especially the big final splash which gets bonus points for gruesome vividness.

A superb theatre night — all the better for the fantastic gift that is the NT Live transmissions. For the majority of the world that can’t make it to London for every performance, this is a real treat. I know Chloë was watching in Switzerland — and millions doubtless around the world. The National Theatre is a real treasure; it’s wonderful that we can have the experience virtually, too.

Be sure to check out Todd’s round up of Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V.


Today is also Russell Hoban‘s birthday; we keep up the tradition of the Slickman A4 Quote Event and spread the words of this wonderful writer around the world so others may discover his singular voice. I made a virtual quote this time around because I’ve been playing around with Pixlr far too much.


Review: The Light Princess


You can count on the National Theatre to offer interesting projects and imaginative stagings, so I was delighted to hear they were doing a musical with Tori Amos. Of course The Light Princess was so long in development that I had missed the news that it finally opened! Fortunately a fellow writer posted on it, lamenting that she could not get to London to see it and I got a ticket at once, knowing I would not regret splurging on this performance.

The play is based loosely on George MacDonald’s Scottish fairy tale of the same name, which tells the tale of a princess cursed to have no gravity in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Amos and her collaborator Samuel Adamson turn the tale into a very modern one that touches on serious issues like environmental devastation and cynical drives to war, but the story really centers on the conflicted messages for girls in modern culture — the push toward frivolity, the scapegoating and victimisation and the sheer terror about their sexuality.

But it’s done with magic, so it seldom feels like a heavy-handed message — in fact, it soars. Director Marianne Elliott has done a fantastic job with her cast and the music and musicians are, of course, superb. You can’t imagine any less from Amos. The puppetry and aerial effects are a wonder. The four acrobats who make the princess float are so effortless and integrated to the visuals that when they switch to wires during her dance with the prince, it takes your breath away because all at once she seems to really be flying.

The cast shines. Rosalie Craig has already won Best Musical Performance in the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards this year for her portrayal of Princess Althea, and you may have seen Clive Rowe belting out a song from Guys & Dolls during the National’s 50th celebration — simply stunning both, but the whole cast is amazing and treads a very fine line between the mythic and the modern, swinging from grief to soaring joy with such skill.

I want this on DVD so I can watch it over and over, and give it to friends who couldn’t get to London to see it and I hope it comes to Broadway, too. Oh, sure, there are quibbles here and there but on the whole I was absolutely delighted with the look, sound and thrill of it. I even bought the programme which has a bonus essay from Marina Warner about the power of fairy tales. And when we came out of the matinee, all of us floating above the lobby carpet, we heard popping sounds and rushed outside to see the Lord Mayor’s fireworks. Magic.

See the full cast & crew and remember these names.

Interview with Tori on the development of the production.

In Other News:

The Fox Pocket series now has a video trailer.

I’m over at Savvy Authors talking about how outlining can save you time and frustration and speed up your writing.

I’m pleased as the proverbial punch by the kind words from Vince Zandri on my Chastity Flame series:

“Londoners (and the world) beware! How can you not be drawn into the fire by a beautiful but lethal dame by the name of Chastity Flame? K.A. Laity has been proving for quite some time now that her noir prose ranks right up there with the likes of Meg Abbott, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Sara Paretsky. A Cut-Throat Business only further solidifies her standing as a contemporary master of the genre.”

Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

jeeves wooster

On my first night in London this past week, I found myself in Leicester Square pondering the embarrassment of riches. I wanted to see  a play and followed my usual plan of visiting the Half Price ticket booth to see what I could get for cheap; London theatre is a lot cheaper than Broadway, but still relatively expensive. I knew I ought to want to see Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones — after all not one but two legends! But it didn’t hit the mark for me (and I am relieved to hear that it’s been described as ‘disappointing’ for my own selfish reasons). I considered Jez Butterworth’s Mojo but it didn’t feel right for the night.

How can I resist a little P. G. Wodehouse?

Well, I almost did, because I don’t like Stephen Mangan. I never watched Dirk Gently because I dislike Mangan’s oily smugness. Perhaps his character in Green Wing overrides every thing else, but I can’t put it aside. But I did, because obviously I chose Jeeves & Wooster. My adoration of Wodehouse was enough to overcome that doubt and I like Matthew Macfadyen well enough. Most of all, I wanted to laugh and as much as I love comedy, it’s actually very hard to make me laugh.

So, I’m delighted to say I enjoyed Jeeves & Wooster. Yes, it’s quintessential Wodehouse and it might be well-trod ground with Fink-Nottle and Madeleine Bassett and policeman’s helmets, it’s still terribly funny stuff. Wodehouse’s Edwardian world is so much a construct it might as well be called fantasy, but it’s a delightful (yes, my favourite word) one.

It’s a three-hander: Macfadyen and Mangan are joined by Mark Hadfield and they play all the roles. Mangan stays in the role of Bertie and he brings to the role something that gets buried in, for example, Hugh Laurie’s charming embodiment of the role: what an awful person this privileged young man would be if you had deal with him in real life. Mangan gives him an energetic enthusiasm.

Macfadyen plays the shimmering Jeeves with a little more realism, I suppose it is, than the quintessentially perfect version of him played by Stephen Fry. You can see his exasperation with his gentleman and at times you wonder if he can keep up the charade. Plus Macfadyen has to play other roles, including Madeleine Bassett’s grumpy father and her cousin Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng — once in the same scene and that’s where the real fun lies. It’s the kind of thing you can only do in live theatre, quick changes and a dropping of the fourth wall.

There’s a lot of fun in the quick and sometimes incomplete changes, in Bertie’s pride in his own (as he sees it) fabulous performance and his amazement at Jeeves’ mastery of the magic of theatre. Hadfield constantly ricochets between the butler Seppings, Aunt Dahlia and the ever-taller arch-enemy to Bertie, Roderick Spode.You’d have to be churlish indeed not to get caught up in the fun of it and the very full audience in attendance that night showed their appreciation with enthusiasm.

A fun night out for us frivolous folk: I recommend it. If only more women got the opportunity to do shows like this, sigh. AbFab on stage: could it work?

Here’s the Telegraph’s review.