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Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Hodge’

Summer wouldn’t be summer without an Open Air Theatre musical and this one is their first new musical for almost forty years. It’s based on a 1956 novel set here in Regent’s Park which has been adapted as films, TV series and video games, and even one musical before this, but has now come home in a show with music by Douglas Hodge, better known as an actor and one of the cast of that last OAT new musical, and a book by Johnny McKnight based on a stage adaptation from Zinnie Harris.

Though I’m not familiar with the novel nor any of its adaptations, it appears to be faithful to it. Danielle and Dominic meet in the park as they walk their respective Dalmatians. In no time at all they are a couple, and the dogs produce a litter of fifteen puppies. A clever updating gives us Cruella as an influencer, a brilliant creation, who sees the dogs first as enhancements for her instagram feed, but then as material for a coat for the Black & White Ball. Her nephews Jasper and Casper are her reluctant henchmen.

Toby Olie has done a wonderful job creating the puppet dogs and puppies (and a few cats) and these provide the ahh moments (which become uber ahh when a real puppy appears!). Kate Fleetwood is a terrific Cruella, so terrific that she didn’t get the customary baddie boos at the curtain, as appreciation trumped panto response. Jonny Weldon & George Bukhari are a fine double act as Casper & Jasper the hapless nephews. Karen Fishwick & Eric Stroud are charming as the loved up dog lovers. I adored Katrina Lindsay’s costumes, a whole wardrobe of OTT creations for Cruella and a riot of black & white for the dogs and puppies.

There’s something missing, though. The music is OK but not particularly memorable and what I could hear of the lyrics were good, but there was too much lost for some reason other than amplification. I wasn’t keen on Colin Richmond’s set, with ever present giant letters revolving to become items of furniture; it all seemed a bit tacky to me. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Liam Steel’s choreography had great moments, but it is a bit inconsistent and unevenly paced – it took a while to take off, but ended well. It feels like a hybrid of a musical comedy and a kids show, struggling to decide what it is.

I suspect it will grow as it beds in. Hopefully they’ll have a lot more great summer evenings like the one I experienced, as there’s nowhere better at this time of year.

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The most common criticism of this show seems to be ‘all spectacle, no heart’ which is a puzzle to me as I thought it had both heart and spectacle. It has always been one of my favourite stories so it had the potential to disappoint, but I thought they were spot on in this adaptation. I loved it.

Even though you don’t get into Wonka’s factory until the second half, the first didn’t lag. It focuses largely on Charlie’s word in the slums, with introductions to the four other silver spoon – golden ticket winners inside a giant TV. By the interval, you were in love with Charlie’s entire family. In the second half, the spectacle increases as we move around the factory and each of the four little monsters gets what they deserve. The Ompa-Loompas are brilliantly created in a surprisingly lo-tech fashion; in fact, the spectacle does have a charming retro feel to it that seemed to me completely in keeping with the material and its pedigree. I find it difficult to judge the score on first hearing, but there were a couple of stand-out solo numbers and some rousing choruses.

What impressed me most I think was the casting. Douglas Hodge captures the combination of eccentric, benevolent, mad and magical that is Wonka very well indeed. Nigel Planer is excellent as Grandpa Joe, the leader of a fine quartet of bed-bound grandparents. It was great to see Alex Clatworthy, who I first saw as (kiss me) Kate at the Guildhall School just two years ago, in such a high-profile role so soon and it was also good to see Jack Shalloo leap from the fringe (Departure Lounge & The Kissing Dance) to this; they were both great as Charlie’s parents. At our performance, Charlie was played with great confidence and charm by Louis Suc and the children playing the four less sympathetic characters were great too.

I actually enjoyed this more than Matilda, not only because the sound was a whole lot better, but because I thought it served Roald Dahl’s story better. It works equally well for children and adults of all ages – my younger adult companions adored it and for our 7-year old theatrical first-timer, well it may be all downhill from here!

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Sometimes you look back on an old classic and it seems ever so of the moment, but on a more modern classic and it seems ever so dated. So it is with this 30-year old three-acter (not a trilogy i.e. three plays, in my view). Having said that, there was much to enjoy at this Menier Chocolate Factory revival.

In the first act we meet drag queen Arnold as he meets Ed. This takes place in his dressing room, in front of a row of light bulb bordered mirrors. In the second act, Ed is now in a relationship with Laurel and Arnold with the much younger Alan. This is brilliantly staged in one big bed as they writhe and turn into different combinations. In the third act, Arnold is in the process of adopting a dysfunctional youngster when Ed comes back on the scene and mother turns up.

The first act doesn’t get the play off to a particularly good start, but it hits its stride in the second. There are some great lines and the relationships between Arnold and his typical though somewhat stereotypical mother is nicely spiky and with David, the potential adoptee, very moving. Ed isn’t a particularly believable character though, and this proves to be a fatal law. Even though I saw the original West End production of Harvey Fierstein’s play (with Anthony Sher as Arnold), I’m not sure if this is the character or the characterisation of Joe McFadden.

Douglas Hodge stages the second and third act well and Soutra Gilmour turns this small space from dressing room into bedroom into virtually a whole apartment cleverly (using the same row of mirrors / windows). David Badella is very good as Arnold and there’s a lovely cameo in the third play from Sara Kestleman as his Jewish mom.

I enjoyed the evening, but more as an opportunity to check out the play after 30 years than anything else. 2 hours 50 mins is a long time to spend on the Menier’s unrelentingly hard seats (on a uncharacteristically hot evening), so perhaps it’s a tribute to it that it held my attention despite this. Worth a re-visit or a first visit, but don’t go expecting too much.

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I find it very hard to write about a bad play whose main character is a monster but where there’s an outstanding performance in an excellent production!

John Osborne’s play is really a one character play, even though there are 10 other characters played by 7 actors. Bill Maitland is a borderline illegal solicitor who bullies his staff. He’s unfaithful to both his wife and his lover. He’s a lousy father. He’s a sexist misogynist. He’s self obsessed and self loathing. You can’t help but hate him. Though he appears to be having a breakdown before your eyes, you can have no sympathy with him. If he slit his wrists, I don’t think I’d care. Good riddance. How can you like a play that revolves around this man that, to make matters worse,  may be a self-indulgent exercise in exorcising the playwright’s hang-ups about himself.

Douglas Hodge’s performance is however extraordinary. He’s a dominant presence, on stage for two hours; I felt really sorry for the supporting actors who have to play punchbag, counsellor, target, sex object, foil….. It’s a character in search of a play. It’s hard to know how much of it is in his head and how much is actually happening. It opens with a clearly imagined court scene. Somewhat ambiguously, one actress plays three clients and his junior later appears as a client – is that as written or is it director Jamie Lloyd’s idea? Soutra Gilmour’s realistic design provides a claustrophobic 50’s office, with an outer office behind a glass screen, for all of this to be played out brilliantly.

It’s a fine production, but I didn’t like the play and I hated the character…..but Hodge’s performance is masterly and I’m glad I went just to see that – just…..

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