Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dinner and a Show ... my night out for 2019



Once upon a time, I used to go to the theatre a hundred times and more a year. But those days are gone. Of course, the fact that, nowadays, I share my time between Sefton, New Zealand (nearest theatre town: Christchurch), and Yamba NSW (nearest theatre town: er ....) rather than London and Berlin, is, if not exactly responsible for my C21st lack of theatrical enterprise and enthusiasm, certainly supportive of it.

But, still, ten years ago, I used to make the best of what Christchurch had to, intermittently, offer. One or two shows per year at the professional Court Theatre (but no touring productions or opera), the productions of the often very good NASDA students, even the occasional musical by the Christchurch amateurs. They don't call themselves the Operatic anymore: it's Showbiz. The change in name goes with a change in attitude which doesn't rightly suit me, any more than their sad nowadays choice of shows.

So, you will understand that, now, I very rarely go to Christchurch theatre at all. And, yes, the main reason is the dreary choice of shows produced. Do I want to see Les Misérables yet again? Do I want to see the ghastly Miss Saigon? Do I want to see amateurs attempting Wicked or Evita? I hope never, ever again to see a Disney show: plastic beyond belief! Mary Poppins? what a mess the rewriters made of that! Legally Blonde? Perhaps the worst and shriekingest piece of trash I've been subjected to in the last decade. And, as much as I enjoyed the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar in the 60s, and the first performances of Cats in the 80s, why need I go to see those shows, yet again, now? In recent years, we have been given nothing new, nothing remotely original or interesting, from either professionals or amateurs ...  Showbiz and the Court had to leave it to NASDA to produce such as Spring Awakening and Once on this Island ... both highly enjoyable pieces, which were theatrically new to me ... as well as the glorious The Music Man, Sweet Charity and, once upon a splendidly adventurous time, even pieces such as the intelligent City of Angels and the brand new and brilliant Far from the Madding Crowd ... before they, too, slumped back into Hair, the incompetent Curtains and Beauty and the Beast .. sigh, it'll be Rent next, and lower than that (except for pop pasticcio) you cannot, in my opinion, go.

Gayle Spence as Bathsheba in NASDA's Far from the Madding Crowd
The Court Theatre habitually stages a musical piece at Christmas, and I, in past years, habitually took it in. In the last years, I have attended but thrice. I simply did not want to see a mucked-up Mikado, the painful Legally Blonde, an umpteenth Jesus Christ Superstar ... I went, only, to an enoyably lively version of Grease (oddly, I'd never before seen it on stage), that unsupportably awful, botched version of Mary Poppins, and to see a favourite student of mine play Roxie Hart in Chicago. She played it superbly, and the production was the best I've ever seen in Christchurch. So, it can be done ...

Nomi Cohen as Roxie Hart
Anyway, all that is preface to my saying: this year I am going to the Court Christmas show. Yes! So what are they doing to drag me from my cosy home, my bacon-and-egg pie and chardonnay, and the bf's new CD (, for seven hours in the city? The answer: the 1990 British National Theatre version of The Wind in the Willows. I shall report back in the morn.


I had a very nice night out. My dear friend, Richard, collected me in his wonderful electric limo, and we drove to ... the airport? For a pre-theatre dinner. The dinner turned out to be the first success of the evening. I can't remember when I last dined in a chain restaurant. Berni Inn, Scarborough, 1968? This one is called Lone Star (Spitfire) and I know of it because its owner also owns most of New Zealand's harness-racing horses. The menu was meaty and hearty, and Dolly Parton sang 'Jolene' while you were having a pee in the startlingly glamorous rest rooms. I ordered lamb, Richard a ribeye, and some garlic bread. We got a loaf. Honestly. But a simply delicious loaf. We devoured it entire. Bugger what was to come. Well, what came was a glorious piece of oven-lamb, with mashed potato ... made me think of the dear old Katz Orange in Berlin. Of course, it was huge ... but I wasn't leaving a skurrick, and with the help of a pint of pretty fair export Guinness, I made it to the end of the largest meal I have eaten in ages. After a quick reprise of Dolly Parton, we bulged contentedly out of the restaurant ($123 for two) ...

We were rather early for the theatre, so Richard took me for a small tour around the remnants of Christchurch. Remnants is right. I, who lived five years in the heart of Christchurch, only recognised two or three places. The lovely old brick post office, the revamped Theatre Royal, the river, of course ... Christchurch, as I knew it, is gone, and I don't much care for the concrete boxes and car retail yards that are replacing it. The topless Anglican Cathedral, I was glad to hear, is being obliterated; the lovely Catholic Cathedral, alas, also; both to be relocated (doubtless in concrete and glass boxes) on one of the endless blocks of now bulldozed nothingness ...

I was glad to get to the theatre, where there was life and warmth and a buzz noticeably lacking elsewhere. And it brought all sorts of emotions rushing back to be sitting in a theatre auditorium for the first time in two years ...


It must be nigh on seventy years since I read The Wind in the Willows. And I think I saw a stage version at Farnham rep in the 1980s. So I am not too hot at giving chapter and verse on the text. But amongst the familiar (to me) episodes and lines, I am pretty sure that there were new elements in Alan Bennett's dramatisation. Maybe not, maybe I've just forgotten some bits. There are, indeed, some bits that are forgettable. Just as their are some bits that are delicious.

Oh. A quick sidetrack to say this is not 'a musical', as such. It is a play with three or four sung bits and a lot of incidental music. Fifty-three pieces so I was told. At the National, apparently, it had a full scale live orchestra. Whether in the pit, or with euphonium and cor anglais playing squirrels, I do not know. Here, the entire score (all 54 pieces) had been tracked. Well, Christchurch does not have the governmental resources of the NT. But ... the music turned out to be my favourite element of the evening. At the start of the play, a lone woodland creature produced an old 78rpm player from a mushroom or tree-stump, put the needle on ... and out came the 'orchestra' with a delightful, warm, olde worlde sound ... no need to explain the musical sound of the piece further! But the triumph of the evening was the 'first-act finale': the little forest creatures, in the most enchanting Woodland Christmas costumes, singing a beautiful harmonised arrangement of 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.

Sidetrack to the sidetrack: the scenery, with its false proscenium of windowed trees and its turntable river, was really pretty, and, now that the theatre has that practical train, perhaps they can schedule On the Twentieth Century for 2020; but the other triumph of the evening was the costume design! Those bunnies and squirrels were so huggable! Not to mention darling Ratty. Mr Badger was a treat! I'm not sure weasels have fur coats ... but they were fun. And the Christmas costumes were wholly, wholly memorable.

Now the play. Curate's eggy. No, that's not fair. Many more nice bits that iffy bits. But I think, perhaps, Mr Bennett tried to fit too much in. Incidents such as the weasels' theft of the baby rabbit, the whole fortune-teller episode, or Mole's venture solo to Toad Hall do not have any effect and purpose in the main stream of events, nor any particular value in themselves. I'd have cut them. But, of course, they may have been done differently at the NT. Albert, the depressive horse, is a gift of a role, but his dialogue is very 1990s. As is the fuss over cross-dressing. There is no reason why Wind in the Willows should not, like a pantomime, be updated (eg the depiction of the weasels and stoats as property developers), but it needs to remain coherent, and that bit, to me, doesn't fit in with Toad's discovery of the motor car -- definitely NOT a 1990s model -- , the presence in the tale of washerwomen and open-cabin trains ...

Toad in a hole
Should one be worried by such incoherencies, or just suspend belief and treat the play as a timewarped or timeless hotchpotch?

Still, like any (ex)-theatrical, I was delighted at little touches such as a brief cross-over by Little Red Riding Hood, and the White Rabbit scurrying down his hole exclaiming 'I'm late'! Author or director, I know not! Coherent - not! But I guffawed.

So, in total, slight reservations about the play, none at all about the music, scenery and costumes, and, indeed, none about the direction, which was straightforward and apt to both piece and subject. Which, in my book, is the best kind of direction there is. But as a very wise international director once said to me: 'direction is 90% in the casting. Get that right and my job's easy'. And here, I think, things went a little wrong. And, once again, I don't know whether it is the author or director who is responsible. And the sound man may have something to do with it..

Casting Mole with an actress, in the National Theatre style of Felicity Kendal in On the Razzle (of glorious memory), seems a valid idea, especially here, where Mole is presented as a simple, childish wee beastie. Alas, the Mole of Eilish Moran (who was a wonderful Judy in Over the Rainbow), was, while she looked and acted grandly, so squeakily pitched as to be all but incomprehensible to me, and, I suspect, to anymal other than bats. When the bunnies and beastlets all took on similarly squeaky tones, the children in front of me (who were clearly not bats) lost interest, and I just gave up. We only got some properly less squeaky lines when good old baritone Badger (Tom Trevella) and the Bargewoman came into the plot.
But worse was to come. In the famous court scene, the actress playing the Magistrate gave a wholly grotesque and garbled performance, which seemed to have been copied from Legally Blonde, and of which I understood only the words 'devilled kidneys'. I can't believe a writer of Bennett's stature wrote the part to be played like that. It was the low point of the evening. Putting on a silly voice is not acting.
Which brings me to my other complaint. Why were Rat (Gregory Cooper), Mole, Badger and Toad (Cameron Rhodes) given moulded-glass English accents, and the 'lower' characters, on the other hand, a confusing array of versions of British provincial and suburban accents? Are we meant to assume, thus, that Rat went to Harrow-by-the-Pond and that the Riverbank, alone, is home to the intelligibly-speaking classes.

Casting Norman, the daft Stephen-Lewisish weasel henchman, with a very obviously female actress, was not a good idea either -- the joke of the character, somehow, vanished -- however, the male Bargewoman (Isaac Pawson, the superb Mary Sunshine of Chicago) was a total success. This young man has playing travesty down to an art. Never campy or flaunting, a genuine bit of on-the-nail character acting. Like. Like. Like.

And one final (I promise) grumble. Most of the young actors in the play's supporting roles were graduates or students of the splendid NASDA. They must be taught not to GABBLE. Look at your four lead players, Messrs Cooper, Trevella, Rhodes and Ms Moran (when not squeaking), you young people, and LEARN. Voices projected, words enunciated, phrases comprehensible ... a basic actor's necessities. One young lady (who shall be nameless) barely took a breath ... one young gentleman who should know better ...

There! Grumbles over. And all of them on the audio side. For there was nothing to grumble about on the visual. Nor, of course the musical ...

The highlights of the evening for me? 'In the Bleak Midwinter', Mr Cooper's characterful, crisp Ratty, Mr Pawson's Bargewoman, the sweet oh-so-sweet costumes, 'In the Bleak Midwinter', 'In the Bleak Midwinter', the bunnies and meeces, bluff Badger and .. of course, everybody's favourite, Albert the Horse (Andrew Todd, who managed to mumble just above the audibility threshold) ...

An enjoyable evening. Infinitely preferably to a Legally Blonde or a Mary Poppins. But I see the theatre's problem. The house last night was but two-thirds full. I imagine that for Grease or Chicago or any other musical with a buzz-word 'film' name, it would have been sold out. I don't suppose for a minute that the Court needs to be self-supporting (witness the rest of their year's programming), but they probably -- like the National Theatre and others such around the world -- need to make up the shortfall from their not generally attractive plays on a festive musical. Shame. So I suppose I sha'n't be back, failing pleasant surprises, to the Court soon.

I certainly won't be attending their next musical production. Guess what. The programme tells me that it is ... Rent! I should have kept my mouth shut. And the amdrams are doing Buddy. So, unless NASDA comes up with something fascinating, as they have, from time to time, over the years ... my next visit to a theatre may be a long time in the coming ...

PS Sadly there is no photo of the Critturs Christmas ... I have asked the theatre for one, and shall add it if and when it comes ..

PPS The theatre tells me it does not want to supply one. Apparently, because they do not want to give away their most picturesque effect before the event. I had to smile. True non-commercial (ie subsidised) theatre thinking. Does it not enter their calculations that if they DID advertise their prettiest scene, they might have full houses instead of 60-70% ones. Oh well, when the run has finished maybe I can ask again...
The theatre also wants me to credit one Danielle Colvin with the photos reproduced (from the programme) above. Well, I'm an agreeable bloke, so, for whatever good it does to the said Ms Colvin: Done. I'd rather have credited the costume designer (Stephen Robertson) and makers ...

No comments: