Friday 29 November 2019

West Side Story

Curve, Leicester
28th November 2019

“You make this world lousy –
- It was like this when we got here”

Following a couple of very festive seasonal productions in 2017 (Scrooge: The Musical) and 2018 (White Christmas – now playing a limited run in the West End), Curve have changed tempo for this year’s Christmas treat with Nikolai Foster’s epic new production of Bernstein’s West Side Story. While it’s not the cheeriest of musicals for the Holiday season the production homes in on the persistently significant topics of immigration, racism, gang warfare and the disenfranchised youth. So, considering we have a general election just round the corner, you could say that, despite the lack of festive cheer, Curve’s programming has proven to be the perfect finale to a politically charged 2019.

The familiar tale of star-crossed lovers is given fresh bite, with Foster placing a particular focus on the futility and brutalism consequential to the subjugation of large sections of society. Maria, Anita, Bernardo and co. arrive in the Upper West Side of New York City against a backdrop of tattered stars and stripes and are welcomed with unfettered hostility from the Polish-American Jets. A large garbage pile looms over our (anti)heroes. We are placed amidst a neighbourhood of detritus – the forgotten masses left to fend for themselves. The ensuing turf wars are somewhat inevitable, as the sole authority figures in the piece, Schrank (Darren Bennett) and Officer Krupke (Christopher Wright), are shown to be bigoted crooks, stoking the flames of hatred. Michael Taylor’s set – bar a few minor sightline issues with the upper storeys– provides an atmospheric and suitably grubby playground for the action. A huge concrete and iron tower conveys the claustrophobic sense of families – communities – living on top of each other, crammed into a city fraught with yearnings for prosperity.

Ellen Kane retains the fluidity and exuberance of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography while introducing a flair of her own, imbuing the routines with punch and machismo. In blissful contrast to the more vigorous numbers (eg. ‘Cool’ and the dance at the gym) , Kane’s choreography for Tony and Maria is beautifully simple. Their first meeting demonstrates the lilting magnetism between the two characters; their stillness a bright beacon amid the frantic, competitive strutting of their fellow Jets and Sharks.

Bernstein’s score is given the full orchestral treatment and rightfully shines. There’s a reason that so many of the songs from West Side Story have become standards – I still marvel at Bernstein’s menacing horns and irregular beats, which, coupled with Sondheim’s extraordinary lyrical wit, are the epitome of musical theatre class. There’s not a dud number in the entire show, but standouts include Jamie Muscato’s soulful rendition of ‘Maria’ and an ecstatic and timeless ‘America’ – minimal staging, three performers, Kane’s energetic choreography, and a rousing song prove that crowd-pleasers needn’t rely on large-scale spectacle.

I also commend Foster for his neat take of my favourite number in the score, the show-stopping ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. Placing the remaining Jet’s whimsical rebuke of the ‘system’ within a vaudevillian arena offsets the structural complexities resulting from having such an upbeat song feature in the aftermath of the fatal rumble. It also paves the way for some nice comedic staging which underpins Sondheim’s razor-sharp satirical lyrics. As the ensemble of wide-eyed young men tramp and play the fool, a sense of desperation emanates from the stage, despite the outward display of ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ bravado. Foster’s production demands we acknowledge these characters for what they are: na├»ve kids, let down by a society that places ultimate emphasis on the self. That’s why the refrain from ‘Somewhere’ resonates so deeply; the stress is not on the individual, but the collective – ‘we’, ‘us’ – and Kane’s dream ballet sequence, in which the stage brims with an amplified cast of young people dancing, hugging and smiling together, is a utopian depiction of what could be. That is, until the dream dissipates and Tony and Maria are, in fact, alone; isolated upon a bare stage.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Jamie Muscato’s likeable Tony leading the young cast. However, the stars for me are Adriana Ivelisse and Carly Mercedes Dyer as Maria and Anita, respectively. Ivelisse’s Maria is utterly charming, her smile lights up the room, and she radiates with sweetness and childlike mischief. In contrast, Dyer’s unbridled spirit is unleashed in her tour-de-force performance of ‘America’. Dyer’s Anita is warm, brazen, but brittle, and when she finally breaks the consequences are heart-wrenching.

Foster and co. have wrung the musical for every last drop of emotion, intellect and topicality. West Side Story has been given the full blooded revival it merits and I would love to see this production have further life beyond this initial run.

West Side Story plays at Curve until 11th January 2020.
Jamie Muscato and Adriana Ivelisse in West Side Story.
Credit: Ellie Kurttz.

Saturday 2 November 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - October

Family Voices (1981), by Harold Pinter

‘Tell me one last thing. Do you think the word love means anything?’

Pinter’s one act play (first heard on BBC Radio 3 and then performed at the National, followed by another run as part of a triple bill in 1982) is something of an oddity. Three voices (Voice 1, Voice 2, and Voice 3) communicate to each other in what seems like an epistolary form. This isn’t obvious but there’s certainly distance conveyed between them in what they’re saying: ‘The weather is up and down’, ‘Have you changed your address?’. It becomes clear that these exchanges are between a mother and son, with the dad (who may or may not be dead) coming in as a late third voice. It reads like a radio play, and it posts questions about how it may be performed. Do we see the other lodgers on stage? Where are the three speakers placed in relation to each other?

We can speculate that the letters, if that is how they’re communicating, are not being received, and that there is a rift between Voices 1 and 2. Has he run away? Why does she think he’s ignoring her? Why is he not bothered about an apparent lack of reply? The main point of curiosity though comes from hearing about with whom Voice 1 is living. He’s a lodger of Mrs Winters and although he initially assumes the other guests are also lodgers, he later deduces that they may all be related. Among them is a rambling nonsensical old man, and a woman who invites him into her room to eat copious amounts of buns. Her room is consumed with a sense of luxury, but in the way Voice 1 describes it, it connotes more of a sense of threat rather than comfort. It’s a proto-family in a shared space, not dissimilar to those in Pinter’s full length plays like The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Caretaker, in which each person assumes their own roles and peculiarities. Family Voices is an interesting, evocative ghost story.

Published by Faber

Fewer Emergencies (2005), by Martin Crimp

The light is improving day by day

Fewer Emergencies is made of three acts, each a separate drama with its own title, played by three actors (joined by a fourth in the middle act). Sometimes their gender is specified in the dramatis personae but we learn little of them and their relationships other than that. It appears that they even change roles for each act. In each, the characters tell stories – however (un)reliable – in which vignettes of family life take a more sinister turn. Marriages turn sour, the routine of everyday lives is disrupted by violence, unhappiness shadows over bliss.

In the third, the story takes us inside a house where there are cupboards at the top of the spiral staircase. In them, top universities are lined up in a row, Beethoven symphonies hang on a hook, a secret draw pops open which contains the island of Manhattan, Paris is kept under a cloth to keep the dust off. There are shelves of oak trees, drawers of harpsichords, wardrobes full of cobalt. And a secret button in case of emergencies, a key hanging up to escape in an emergency. We hear that there are fewer emergencies these days, but there is a crisis at the moment, shots are being fired, and windows broken. The text is intriguing: there are parts of it which have an air of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘list poetry’ that’s in some of her dramatic work. But it’s more absurd and memorable because of that.

Published by Faber

salt. (2017), by Selina Thompson

Time accumulates

I won’t try to unpack everything in Thompson’s extraordinary text, which tells the story of the writer’s journey through the Transatlantic Slave Trade Triangle. She tells the audience that she first travelled to Ghana on a cargo ship, barred from filming and isolating herself away from the racist Italian crew, before going on to Jamaica where both of her birth parents and one of her adopted parents are from. It’s made up of many short scenes that take different forms, from nursery rhymes to internalising her thoughts. It’s performative and playful and, as a text, a written document of how this clearly very visual show might have been performed.

Huge lumps of rock salt play a key role. The performer instructs the audience at the start that whenever she puts her safety goggles on, the front few rows of the audience must do the same. With a sledgehammer, she smashes these rocks into smaller and smaller pieces, timing it with particular words in the text. Salt as a rock, Europe as a rock, smashed to bits. And we are also prompted to think about salt in sea water as being a physical legacy of what’s been left behind from all of the drownings that took place in the Slave Trade era. I think it’s a typical example of how Thompson takes us from hugely physical bursts of theatre to the more poetic, achieving an articulate and theatrical experience, an example of theatre-making as part of an ongoing process, and a personal and epic exploration of home.

Published by Faber

Wild East (2005), by April De Angelis

Every civilisation has pursued art…

We know instinctively that it enriches our lives

I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly take to De Angelis’ three hander. Her play sees two anthropologist doctors (who used to be an item) interview a candidate for a high-profile job in the depths of rural Russia. Set over one scene in what seems a formless play, the male candidate acts very unorthodoxly and later reveals he stole an ancient bird from somewhere he was working. It’s a corporate-set comedy in which a power play ensues between the trio. It could be taken as a guide on how to perform well in job interviews even if you are abrasive or scrutinise the questions. But, to ask an anthropological question, what’s the point of it?

Published by Faber