Saturday 29 June 2019

29/06/19: Godspell in Concert, Cadogan Hall

Godspell is a 1971 musical written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on a series of Bible parables, it has been revived countless times and seen by millions. A successful film version emerged in 1973, the same year that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar also hit cinemas. Directed by Dean Johnson, this semi-staged version by the British Theatre Academy saw those popular songs performed by a huge ensemble of teenagers (representing a community of disciples) and a handful of West End and TV star guest singers. Their renditions were interspersed with scenes of the younger folk partially acting out the teachings of Jesus.

The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy. But on the downside, some of the vocals were better than others and the sound was at times painfully shrill. There was no set to speak of, but visual interest came from the bright neon technicolour clothing (Day-Glo tops, tie-dyed T-shirts, rainbow-striped leggings) and sparkling accessories. A five-piece band (coordinated by musical director James Taylor) played with gutsy efficiency, but the sound was fairly muddy from where I sat (eight rows back).

Although the songwriting and the overall concept retained a very dated early-1970s feel, there were admirable attempts to modernise the material. For example, it was a nice touch that the show began with seven of the performers wielding mobile phones, texting and scrolling as they debated religious philosophy. A less successful contemporary element was the moment in which, if I’m not mistaken, a Donald Trump impersonator was condemned to Hell by a group of Mexicans he had wronged.

Jesus was surely one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. It’s difficult to reconcile that image with Luke Bayer’s slightly underwhelming figure reading out his lines from an iPad. There must have been an awful lot of lines to learn, it’s true, but you’d expect these words to emerge from deep within his soul rather than be cued by an interchangeable gadget anyone has access to. It eroded any sense of the commanding presence such a figure would exude.

The production also suffered from the lack of a narrative arc or any real emotional complexity. Despite ending with the crucifixion (and controversially not the resurrection), the bulk of the “story” is just a series of simplistic preachings – lively, unrelated episodes that could have been delivered in any order without changing the overall effect. And the much-needed flashes of wit (a parable rendered as interpretative dance, children pretending to be goats and sheep) are little more than temporary diversions from an unrelenting sequence of moral lessons. How much you can take away from those lessons is a personal matter, of course, depending on your theological stance. But if you know the teaching of Jesus already, do you really need to hear them presented this way? And if you aren’t aware of them, is a loud rock/gospel musical the best way to take on board that guidance? Beyond the hordes of clearly delighted parents in the hall (enhancing the feel of a well-presented school play), I wasn’t sure who this show was intended for. Christians might consider it too flippant and irreverent. And non-Christians are unlikely to have the patience to sit through so much of the New Testament, however catchy songs such as “Day by Day” might be. In 2019, religion is a divisive, often contentious business, so a more nuanced treatment of the topic would have been welcome.

The best parts were when they kept it low-key and immediate. When one of the performers rapped over a rhythm built from the ensemble’s perfectly coordinated claps and foot stomps, there were a few seconds of real dynamism. And there was an endearing interlude in which a member of the audience was brought on to the stage without warning, handed his lines on a prompt card and made to play the part of Lazarus.

No one can deny the sincerity and goodwill behind the production, nor the obvious vitality of the cast, but Godspell came across as a wearyingly one-dimensional affair. Sadly, it was very much a case of preaching to the converted.


Wednesday 5 June 2019

05/06/19: Flat Out, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Flat Out is a good, old-fashioned farce. It details an afternoon in the lives of a small group of people in a prestigious but mice-infested South Kensington flat (hence the pun of the title) during the Brexit-centric month of March 2019.

The plot is too much of a tangled shaggy-dog story to summarise sensibly, but it begins with an illicit tryst between dental hygienist Angela (Jennifer Matter) and lawyer Giles (Richard Earl). It certainly grabbed everyone’s attention when, in the opening seconds, Angela removed her coat and dress to reveal a skimpy Ann Summers outfit. But the couple’s anticipated pleasure is endlessly delayed by a chain of unexpected visitors.

In keeping with the style of a typical farce, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstandings and mistaken identity drive a sequence of increasingly absurd and improbable events. The comedy comes from the thickening web of inexplicable statements and actions that only the audience can understand. Jennifer Selway’s exceedingly clever writing is maximised by a cast able to expertly tease out every laugh possible from each other’s escalating misfortunes.

It’s very much a London show, with an obvious fondness for the city demonstrated by references to its locations, landmarks and public transport. There’s a fair amount of satire, too, with nods to gender politics, greedy estate agents, social media and what it means to be rich or poor in a bitterly divided Britain. While the Brexit theme is a subtle one, it’s nevertheless an important thread running through the narrative.

Timing all those entrances and exits so perfectly can’t have been easy, but the coordination of this complicated, often highly physical comedy is superbly managed by director John Plews and the entire Ovation company. And the ingenious, economical set design by Emily Bestow made it possible for the various comings and goings within the flat to interact seamlessly as doors opened and closed and windows were hastily clambered in and out of.

The way the various loose ends are resolved at the end makes for a hugely satisfying conclusion to a play that balances hilarity with a sophisticated look at the way we live.


Saturday 1 June 2019

01/06/19: The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play comes with the baggage of taking on an all-time classic, but it does so with empathy and style.

Tom Wingfield (Michael Abubakar) is “starting to boil inside”. He feels stifled living in a small St. Louis apartment with his loving but controlling mother Amanda (Lesley Ewen) and his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh), who suffers from both crippling shyness and the after-effects of childhood illness. Tom works joylessly in a shoe warehouse to support the three of them while dreaming of adventure and travelling further afield – like his father, who abandoned the family 15 years previously. Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend to dinner in the hope that this “gentleman caller” will fall in love with her fragile daughter and save her from poverty, solitude and her dreamy remoteness.

The first half unfolds slowly, allowing plenty of time to fill in the characters of the three family members. There are flashes of humour amid an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. The second half introduces Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher), the gentleman caller upon whom so much expectation rests, and the intensity goes up several gears. As the plot develops, so too do the performances. Subtle – and less subtle – transformations ensue.

The moments in which Jim and Laura begin to reveal their true selves are utterly heartrending and exquisitely judged. My only criticism is that part of this key scene, with the pair sat on the floor, was difficult to see from the section of the theatre in which I was sitting. That said, it would be impossible to make such an intimate exchange equally visible from every angle. And anyway, the acting was so assured that their conversation was compelling even when I couldn’t see their faces. The devastating vulnerability on display takes you aback.

The set – often dim and shadowy, in keeping with the memories of the narrator – brilliantly frames the action. Beyond the claustrophobic interior of the apartment, there’s the moonlit fire escape with views of the dancehall along the street and the promise of greater freedoms beyond. With these simple elements a whole world is evoked.

Wisely, this production doesn’t attempt to reinvent Williams’ work. With the sparkling dialogue and perfect pacing of the source material, it could hardly be improved upon. What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing, exploring the various shades of the emotional truths implicit in every line. The result is deeply affecting.