Thursday, November 17, 2005

London theatre and the hobgoblin of unfulfillable expectation

Was in London until last weekend, and managed to squeeze in a couple of shows.

First was Ducktastic, the latest extravaganza by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl (aka The Right Size), the pair who came up with the Morecambe & Wise quasi-tribute The Play What I Wrote, possibly one of the funniest shows I've ever seen in the West End. I've loved The Right Size for many years - they manage to combine self-referential surrealism with vaudeville timing in just the right proportions. Think Brecht meets Bunuel meets Marx (Bros) meets Jackie Mason.

Ducktastic wasn't bad, but it sure as hell wasn't up to their usual standards. The premise - a seedy, deluded conjurer gets involved with a dimwitted pet shop owner - was perfectly OK as a starting point, but they don't seem to have taken much time to work out what happens next. Some OK magic tricks, rather too many nob gags (and I like a good nob gag), fat suits and many (real) ducks do not make a show unless someone can impose some order. They've clearly taken Siegfried and Roy as their inspiration, but how can you parody something that's beyond taste?

Kenneth "I have no lips" Branagh was nominally directing, but he seems to have nipped out to the pub during the important bits.

Then to Richard II at the Old Vic, with Trevor Nunn directing Kevin Spacey. It's a modern dress production of a play I don't know too well (memories of Jacobi doing it on telly and a new American lecturer asking us to summarise it in rhyming couplets at college). Clear Blairite overtones, with occasional stabs of al-Jazeera (all fuzzy video footage, riots and soundbites). Ben Miles (aka the prematurely grey guy from Coupling) was surprisingly good as Bolingbroke, balancing the man-of-action determination with the equivocation of someone who really doesn't want to be a regicide. The best performance comes from one of my favourite underrated actors, that old smoothie Julian Glover as John of Gaunt. As you may know, J of G croaks early on, but flashes of his "This England" speech keep coming back on the two big screens that flank the stage.

The disappointment is Spacey. His camp sarcasm is amusing, but it's clearly "business", and seems imposed on the action. Thank God he doesn't do a funny walk a la Verbal Kint. Towards the end, his serviceable Brit accent begins to shift into something Australian, and the audience rather yearns for the stroppy ponce to keel over.

Well, some of us do, but the starstruck dullards in the stalls give him a standing ovation. I'm reminded of when I was a kid and used to see shows at Chichester Festival Theatre - big names (John Mills, Alec Guinness, Alan Bates, even Ian bloody Ogilvy) would get a brisk round of clappity just for making their first entrances.

I have this problem with live theatre anyway. When I was about 19 I saw the Deborah Warner Titus Andronicus at The Swan in Stratford and the experience was so devastating that nothing I've ever seen since can compare. In every other area of art, I'm constantly striving for something new and exciting to become my new best friend. In theatre, it's done, it's over. It's as if I've run a sub-two-hour marathon, proved Fermat's last theorem and conclusively identified who killed JFK, all in one evening. Very satisfying, but does leave you with a sense that there's not much point in getting out of bed tomorrow.

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