Mother Courage and her Children Review ***

Olivier Theatre, National

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Walking into the auditorium, to be greeted by the sounds of white noise, the milling ‘stage hands’ with an actor already present on stage, we are reminded (just in case we had forgotten) that we are about to be treated to a play by Bertolt Brecht, complete with alienation techniques galore. For hardened fans,  it’s a promising start. While for those less familiar,  it’s a sneak preview of the gruelling three hours to come. The 1618 to 1638 Thirty Years War, means business for Mother Courage and her three children as she drags her wagon across Europe, selling and buying to armies on both sides of the religious divide. Yet Tony Kushner’s new translation, directed by Debra Warner, offers up a version of Mother Courage with a fresh postmodern twist.

Fiona Shaw in the lead, is an eccentric Mother Courage, with Rock chick qualities that explode on stage with ferocious dynamism. She exudes pride and stubbornness and we love her for her strength and hate her for her tragic self-survival focused choices in a world shaped only by the horrors of war. Tom Pye’s epic stage machinery, including grand scale projections accompanied by live music, imbues Shaw’s character with a strange holiness. The religious iconography  is especially apparent in the opening of the second half as Shaw makes a grand entry on the top of her circling wagon, belting out a rock song and the theme continues to the bitter end, when the wagon becomes her very own cross on the Via Dolorosa of Mitel Europe.  However it is not only Shaw’s mesmerising performance that deserves applause; this is a strong cast.  Harry Potter fans will recognise Harry Melling as the bullying Dudley Dursley takes on the role  of Mother Courage’s mentally disabled son, Swiss Cheese. His performance tugs at the heart strings as he is manipulated into joining the army against mother’s wishes. His child like view of the world sealing his fate in  a moment that you will carry with you for a long time.

Ruth Myers’ costume design,  offers a mix of 17th century peasant skirts and modern flak jackets. Shaw makes her entry in a Jacobean style skirt paired with a leather jacket and Ray Bans. The veterans are largely dressed in contemporary military uniform offering reference to the current war in Afghanistan, serving as a  reminder  that Brecht’s treatise  is as true today as 1939.  The message, is a simple one, war is always with us. The reasons may differ,  but the outcomes are always much the same.

Hats off too, to Duke Special, whose original songs lends so much to this production. An almost angel-like figure  in dreadlocks and Doc Martins , never physically interacting with the actors, the androgynous  Duke provides a hauntingly beautiful duet with Peter Gowen’s Chaplain in Scene Six on faith and humanity that lends much to Brecht’s epic tale and makes this spectacle worthy of three hours of your life.

Our Class Review

December 2, 2009

The Truth Lies in Ashes

Our Class

****

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History comes to life on bare stage in Bijan Sheibani’s gruelling three hour production of Our Class at the Cottesloe. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play follows ten classmates, five Jewish and five Roman Catholic , from 1926-2000 against the background of Soviet and Nazi invasions. Anti-Semitism flourishes and the classmates soon divide into victims of hate perpetrators. What follows is an orgy of hate, from rape and beatings to the final horror of sixteen hundred Jewish men, women and children herded into a barn and burned alive. Not as history might have it, by the Nazi invaders, but by their neighbours and childhood friends.

Set in the round, the staging creates a courtroom atmosphere. We watch both the innocent and the guilty and by the plays end, are left emotionally raw. One by one, we witness each character’s fate. Some we follow into old age, irreversibly altered by the sheer horror of what they have done or suffered. As each life ends, s/he moves to one of the ten wooden chairs placed on opposite sides of the stage. One by one they take their seat as ghosts, waiting in the shadows for their friends. The spreading of ash on the stage during intermission, provides a visceral reminder of the fate of millions and its casual trampling demonstrates how life carries on and lessons go unheeded.

Sinead Matthews’ Dora offers a moving account of her rape and it is she who describes first- hand the massacre, the unfolding panic and frantic trampling as she drops her child. Her vivid account leaves a knot in your stomach. Bunny Christie’s set design adds momentum to the scene as the metal roof descends to crush the terrified Dora, and her final scream, “This is life?”, will haunt your journey home.

Each act ends with the whole cast, living and dead, reciting a children’s nursery rhyme. This is a master stroke on Slobodzianek’s part, for this simple division not only marks the passage of time, but underpins the plays horror by juxtaposing childhood innocence with brutal inhumanity.

The massacre at Jedwabne has proved divisive and until 2001 a memorial at the site blamed the atrocity on Nazi invaders. Public opinion remains firmly divided in Poland Our Class has yet to be performed there. Refuting the crime has become a cause celebre for Poland’s far right. Our Class serves to remind us that religious hatred has not been consigned to history; the ghosts of those ten classmates casts a shadow over Europe’s past and its future.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

New Palace Theatre, London

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A pink bus, strutting divas, fabulous costumes, Tina Turner impersonations, the Outback , complete with rednecks, raining ping pong balls and, oh yes Jason Donovan! These are just a few of my favourite things from the West End musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, directed by Simon Philips. The much loved Australian classic steps out onto the stage in a pull all the camp stops out spectacle and I loved it.

It tells the story of three drag queens travelling across the outback to Alice Springs in a pink light up bus they call Priscilla, bearing the sign ‘Rear Entry Upon Request’. Beginning ‘downtown’ in Sydney Harbour club, Tick (Jason Donovan) makes his entry as a ‘losing her edge’ drag act, lip-synching  out of time and being booed and laughed at by a pack of ‘bitches’ in the club. Hence he decides it is time to re-evaluate his life and takes his two best friends, fellow drag queens Felicia (Oliver Thornton) and the now transsexual Bernadette        ( Tony Sheldon ) on the road to visit Tick’s (as we later find out) wife and son on the pretence that he’s got them a gig performing as a trio drag act.

The trio make you laugh out of your seat with disco filled musical numbers, slick dance routines and risqué humour. Thornton and Sheldon in particular, provide most of the laughs, with their love-hate relationship filled with bitchy comments, back stabbing and amusing character assassinations of one another. A particular favourite  moment included Thornton’s Felicia revealing how he has always dreamed of belting out a Kylie Medley on the top of Ayer’s Rock in his most outrageous costume, to which Sheldon replies ‘Just what this country needs-a cock, in a frock on a rock’. The comedic chemistry that sparked off these two alone, made up for a somewhat exhausted appearing and vocally underpowered Donovan. His singing was so frail that it was almost cringe- making and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as people in the audience let out silent chuckles. This was followed in the interval by clearly hardened fans of Donovan, remarking that ‘he’s just not as good as he was in Joseph’. However, though his vocals may have been a bit of a wish wash, he succeeded in stressing the anxieties of being a gay, drag queen dad. The scenes between Tick’s son Benjimin (Harry Polden) and Donovan are brought to life with touching poignancy that you don’t really expect to find  in a show that has just delivered a woman blowing  ping pong balls out of her nether region and a bondage inspired dance routine.

This show is every costume designer’s heaven, with  costumes in the shapes of cupcakes, flip flops, paint brush style dresses, super-human sized headwear made of flowers. It’s got Indians and cowboy attire, it’s got lizards, it’s got sparkles, pink fluffy feathers,  and feathers, feathers just about everywhere. The costumes alone are worth the trip, providing two and half hours of the most delicious eye candy and all the credit goes to designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. Just think Christmas, Easter and New Years all blended into one and then times that by about a hundred and you might get the idea.

The musical numbers, arranged by musical director Richard Beadle, are excellent, ranging from Burt Bacharach, Charlene D’Angelo’s ‘I’ve been to me’, Kylie Minogue and Elvis Presley numbers, to The Communards’ ‘Don’t leave me this way’. I  know it sounds awful, but trust me, somehow it works and by the end of the show the whole audience were up and dancing.

 This is not a piece of theatre that is going to change your view of the world, but it’s a great laugh and a good night out. On the night I went, the audience seemed to consist largely of gay men and women out with their friends. However, I think this is a show would appeal to the masses. Many critics have slated it for its crudeness and low brow humour, and I do think if serious drama is your niche than perhaps this is not the evening for you. However, as the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh says  this is a ‘joyful antidote to a world of hatred and violence’. You just have to leave reality at home and enjoy the journey.

Avenue Q

October 18, 2009

Sesame Street has been sabotaged in Jason Moore’s production of Avenue Q which has opened at the Gielgud after a three month hiatus. The friendly frog and peevish piggy of our childhood have been replaced by profanity-spewing doppelgangers. The special word today is p-u-r-p-o-s-e, and that is exactly what new graduate Princeton is seeking in this Lopez and Marx musical, through drunkenness, pornography and casual sex.  If puppet-bonking appeals, then this play is just up your street.

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Designer Anna Louis’ avenue comes complete with   boarded-up windows and broken panes,  plenty of trash and a washing line. Into this stereotype walks Princeton, his dreams of making it slowing shattering as he is ‘laid off’ from a job he hasn’t even started and finds himself rapidly running out of money. His opening song ‘What do you do with a B.A in English?’ hit uncomfortably close to home with the largely student audience.

The multicultural band of neighbours is an obvious parody of some of Sesame Street’s best loved characters.  Closet gay Rod and his roommate Nicky provide an adult spin on Bert and Ernie and the beloved Cookie Monster is now the porn-obsessed pervert,   Trekkie Monster. They are joined by  real people; out of work comedian Brian and his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve, a seemingly clientless therapist who  still manages to dole out life changing advice.  Topping  off this odd melange,  we have  child star Gary Coleman  ready to provide us with amusing anecdotes about how his life went downhill from the age of fifteen, hence his current status as the handyman. The characters provide some brilliant comedy, Rod in particular attempting to deny rumours that he is gay by going off on a giant spiel about his fictional girlfriend in Canada and oh yes, puppet sex. You won’t believe it until you see it.

The songs are blunt and even outrageous,  ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’ was a popular one with the Monday night audience.  Hats off too, to Tony Parsons (Trekkie Monster, Nicky and Bear) and Cassidy Janson (Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut) whose multi-puppet performances required numerous accents,  at times speaking for two characters at once.  However, this avenue offers no master puppetry or ventriloquism.  It’s the actors who are the stars here, not their synthetic friends.

Despite the focus on harsh realities,  accompanied with songs like  ‘It Sucks to Be Me’,  the ending, while formulaic,  harks back to its roots on a happier street.  Even if ,  ‘Only for Now’,   ‘”everyone’s a little unsatisfied”,  you won’t be unsatisfied with Avenue Q.

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October 18, 2009

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