Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theatre Round-Up

I've never been to the theatre often enough to have a round-up, but as I've been to two plays in one week, now seems like a good enough time to have one.

Ghost Stories at the Duke of York Theatre

There is ultimately something very cosy and old fashioned about Ghost Stories. The marketing may gleefully play on extremities – a video nasty style orgy of horror that is not advised for “those of a nervous disposition”; a performance that has “even the most hardened of viewers gasping for breath and reaching for their coats to hide behind”.

But behind the William Castle-esque chicanery, its really a more familiar scenario, one that’s more inspired by the 60s and 70s horror anthology – horror with humour and tongue in cheek.

It certainly sets itself up as being relentless, heart-stopping experience. The walls of the Duke of York Theatre are distorted to seem like the passages of a dark excavated cavern, draped with yellow and black caution tape. As the lights go down we are informed that we will not be allowed re-entry during the performance.

The set-up is a mock lecture, in which a professor explains the evolution of the ghost story, and how easily we can be made to believe in fantastical phenomena. Only 3 stories he has ever heard have defied explanation – these are the 3 we will hear tonight.

The first story builds up the suspense almost unbearably; a night watchman goes through his mundane duties against darkness and silence. He ambles around doing nothing for such a long time – the audience waiting on-edge for the shock occurrence that must come.

But when it does, it's very much a-la-Hitchcock; it provokes as much laughter as it does terror – the man’s torch gliding over a large doll/mannequin totally exaggerated in its grotesqueness as to be a bit silly. Not that when it gets up and starts walking that it’s not a bit unsettling.

This sets up the tone of the rest of the show, a blend of shocks and scares mixed with giggles and laughter – it’s hard to be too frightened when a gigantic plastic demon desceneds from the ceiling – not it doesn't make you jump.

Ghost Stories is really charmingly familiar as it unfolds, right up to the surprise ending in which our host not unexpectedly relives his own personal horror. One wonders if the extreme angle of the marketing has actually done the play a disservice - Ghost Stories is really a lot of fun, a refreshingly nostalgic stab at horror, rather than a visceral pushing of heart-attack inducing boundaries.

The Government Inspector at the Voung Vic Theatre

Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century satire is no less appropriate today as it was when it was written. A corrupt major and his cronies are horrified that a government inspector is coming to the town, incognito. In the flurry of activity to hide their own abuses of power they discover a wealthy stranger is staying in the local inn and is running up a tab which he insists will be paid by his superiors.

The wealthy stranger is in fact a spoilt young fop who has lost all his money at cards and is having to blag to even get dishwater soup and stale beef. He soon exploits the craven grovelling of the major, and after much consumption paints himself to be one of the most powerful men in Russia. The major is panicked that he is done for, and he and his officials give the man hundreds in “loans” while he seduces the major's wife and daughter.

The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barrett is good as the nervous spineless major, but even better is Doon Mackican as his classless nouveau riche wife who gets to deliver such golden lines as “I j’adored it”. Perhaps stealing the show is Kyle Foller as the camp faux inspector who manages to be the most over the top in a thoroughly OTT show. Looking a bit like Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, if were to play Batman’s The Joker, he deftly delivers tremendously epic monologues whilst dancing across the stage and climbing the furniture.

In a show that has its fair share of terrific dialogue - “oh my god, the church – we forgot to build a church!” - one of the elements that stands out is the constant choreography; the constant synchronised movements of the large ensemble cast. There’s almost too much to look at, from servants covertly filling up glasses to the incompetent seductress strutting ridiculously for attention.

Some of the more surreal moments don’t always come off, and some of the scenes could do with a little trimming. But overall The Government Inspector is a thoroughly delightful frantic bit of comedy that despite its age and eccentric presentation never feels too far from reality.