Category Archives: Theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Theatre Review (National Theatre Live @ Cineplex)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of my favourite novels. Imagine my delight to learn that not only was the book being made into a play, but that the play was going to be performed by the National Theatre in London, and that the performance was going to be broadcast in movie theatres around the world (including here in Toronto) as part of the NT Live program. Luke Treadaway (who recently appeared in Attack the Block) plays protagonist Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (he has difficulty understanding normal social interaction and relies on repetitive patterns and peculiar personal rules to cope with life) who one day discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed. Against his father’s wishes, he starts to write a book about his investigation into who killed Wellington the dog which leads to all kinds of experiences and revelations that change Christopher’s life. One mystery leads to a second much more personal mystery. At first I wondered how they were going to dramatize this book, since a lot of it comes from narration and monologues of Christopher’s thoughts. Being a character with such a special mental world, his way of thinking was not going to be something that viewers could just intuit from his actions or dialogue. Somehow we needed to stay inside his head. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott not only decided to include passages from Christopher’s own book-within-a-book read by his teacher, Siobhan. That teacher also became one of the voices of Christopher’s thoughts, in the same way that his father and mother did as well.

The actors in this production all gave wonderful performances. Treadaway was able to help us understand Christopher a bit, and gave him a kind of sweet warmth despite the often technical and long-winded dialogue (Christopher is really into math, logic, and astronomy, so the things he says aren’t your average conversations). At 27 he was still somewhat convincing playing a teenage character (It didn’t hurt that Christopher’s age is difficult to pin down because of his autism) and didn’t come across as a caricature or someone acting abnormally juvenile. I love the character of Christopher Boone because I really identified with him on the page. However, since I am not autistic myself, I connect less with him on that personal level when he and his mental condition are portrayed in the flesh. With Treadaway’s performance, I really bought his autism, so this time I enjoyed that character from more of an outside perspective. Paul Ritter, who played Christopher’s father, was also really good. Mr. Boone was already a very rich character, being something of an average working-class man’s-man, not particularly touchy-feely but a very strong, patient, and loving father. Ritter made him into a normal, flawed and ordinary man who has weaknesses and limitations, gets frustrated, but is always conscious of how he needs to do what’s best for his son. Similarly, Christopher’s mother was portrayed by Sophie Duval in both a tender and realistic way. How she admitted her failures with her son and tried to make up for them was very touching.

In every theatre production I am eager to see how the staging is done. I am amazed at how many theatrical tricks are used to turn the stage area into so many different places and ideas. This performance was done “in the round”, so there were audience members on all four sides of a black rectangular performance area. The area was filled with lines and lights in a grid like graph paper. The lights would change depending on the configuration to simulate walls or streets, but the masterpiece was the overhead lighting that projected images onto the stage floor (I’m surprised that the people in the audience could get the full experience when it took an overhead camera shot for those of us watching in the movie theatre to see the entire picture). At first, lines were used to outline building frames like floor plans, but then the projections became more sophisticated: from text indicating an explosion of thoughts to one incredible scene of Christopher reluctantly making his way down an escalator. There was even the amazing effect of imitating a subway train track by using lighting and opening a divide in the stage floor. The projections were also used in the encore scene where Christopher explains how he solved a math problem (it’s pretty funny). The play is full of humour, often ironic because Christopher might make a statement of something he considers mere fact, but it’s humourous to the listener because it is not something we’d normally say out loud.

Overall I really enjoyed the play. The NT Theatre Live experience was just as adequate as it was last time. The image is far from HD-quality. In fact, the blacks were mostly greys and nothing was sharp like real life. Nevertheless, without NT Live, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to see this play — even if I had been living in London (sigh) — since the show is constantly sold out. For anyone interested in the book or the play, I would highly recommend them both. If I were reviewing the book, I would give it a 5 out of 5, but for the NT Live Theatre experience of this theatrical adaptation, I go with 4.5 out of 5


Frankenstein – Theatre Review (National Theatre Live @ Cineplex)

This production of Frankenstein has a lot going for it that’s right up my alley. It’s in London (and despite my love for the city, I’m not in London right now, but I can attend this show thanks to the magic of the National Theatre Live series of broadcasts in movie theatres around the world — I am in Toronto); it’s directed by Danny Boyle (who I’ve concluded is one of my favourite directors, since I’ve loved everything he’s done from Trainspotting, to Slumdog Millionaire, to 127 Hours); and it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who became one of my new favourites after I saw his top notch performance as Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC TV series. Also, I should love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (on which this play was based) because I’m both a sci-fi geek and an English literature nerd and Shelley’s novel is a foundational classic of the genre. (But before I go on, I must confess that I have not read the novel. I know … Bad nerd/geek!) Suffice it to say that I was really anticipating this show.

The play begins with a womb-like structure on stage and the Creature (played by Jonny Lee Miller) emerges from it and flails around, learning to use its body and limbs. It quickly learns to run and grunt, until its creator, Victor Frankenstein (played by Cumberbatch) shows up and is horrified by its grotesqueness (all scars and nakedness). He covers the Creature in a cloak and runs away. What follows are a series of scenes where the Creature encounters various people as it learns and grows. An old blind man even shows compassion, takes care of the Creature, and even teaches it to read. Unfortunately, all encounters end with revulsion, fear, and rejection. When it discovers Frankenstein’s journal in the cloak pocket, it decides to seek out its creator. The Creature ends up killing Frankenstein’s young brother in order to lure him into the mountains where it asks Frankenstein to create a mate for it. Frankenstein promises to do it in return for the Creature agreeing to live isolated from human contact. In the end, he does not hold up the bargain, leading the Creature to seek revenge on Frankenstein. It rapes and murders Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night and flees into the icy wilderness where Frankenstein has no choice but to follow it, seeking to destroy it.

Though a recap of this plot may be more interesting than most, it’s the dialogue and staging that are often key to making good plays. What is featured in this play that often gets lost in other presentations of the Frankenstein story (especially the Boris Karloff-inspired ones where the Creature is a clunky, moaning brute with bolts coming out the side of its neck) is that the Creature learns to think and speak very quickly and it has a lot to say about what it observes of humans and how it is treated by them. Miller gives a pretty good performance as the Creature, but unfortunately it reminded me more of someone suffering from cerebral palsy than an undead creature given new life. I had also expected Frankenstein to either be more intelligent, more obsessed, or more insane. Instead, this Frankenstein came off more as selfish, conceited, and unfeeling. The staging of the play was pretty interesting. The stage was round, with a large chandelier-like lighting apparatus above it that was really cool. The set was minimal, but they were able to raise up or drop down enough to give the very convincing illusion of a country farmhouse, large mansion, or barren wasteland.

All in all, I can’t say that I loved this play. There were definitely a lot of thought-provoking and intriguing moments, but I really didn’t feel an emotional connection with the characters or their conflicts. As far as watching a play in the movie theatre, the picture quality was mediocre. The blacks (and remember that plays often have very stark lighting) were mostly greys, and the contrast was poor (so I kept feeling like they needed to peel off a layer of gauze from the camera or something). It’s a good way to see some productions that aren’t local, but I’m not sure if I would have paid full price (~$23) for the ticket. (4 out of 5)

Whistle Down The Wind – Theatre Review

Did you know that there are many more Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals than just Cats, Phantom, Evita, and Joseph? One of the better second-tier ones (IMHO) is Whistle Down The Wind. It’s based on an old movie (which was itself based on a book) set in a southern American town in the late 50s. Three kids who have recently lost their mother find a mysterious man hiding in their barn. A misunderstanding leads them to think that he is Jesus Christ returned. Meanwhile, tensions and excitement in town start to build as the sheriff hunts for an escaped murderer (hmm, coincidence?), and a group arrives to put on a Christmas eve religious revival (featuring snake-handling and all). Containing a lot of good musical numbers, this show suffers from a failing common to productions of Lloyd Webber works. Some songs just don’t have much going on while the actors are singing so we end up with a lot of standing around. Those moments (along with some stilted choreography that brought back unwanted memories of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) are probably the lows of this pretty good show. The highs include an incredible rendition of “The Nature of the Beast” by Eric Kunze as The Man (who might be Jesus) and my favourite song of the musical: “Long Overdue” (aka “When Children Rule The World”). The entire number is performed exclusively (and very well) by kids.

The performance I saw was by the U.S. touring company which did a quick stop at the Princess of Wales Theatre here in Toronto. I like being a stop for touring companies — first Wicked, now Whistle — because it allows me to enjoy a show that would otherwise not be produced here simply because it might not sustain an extended run. The casts are pretty good (not second-rate, as I originally feared). Besides Kunze, the other lead was excellent as well. Justine Magnusson played Swallow, the oldest of the kids. She carried many numbers vocally with a strong and beautiful voice; and her character’s being on the verge of womanhood was expressed really well in her performance.

Being very familiar with the original cast recording, I noticed that they cut out a pair of pretty memorable numbers (The Man was telling the kids a tall tale about a wild couple known as Annie and Charlie). They really fit in well with the tone of the story, but if you had to cut something, I guess they do lift out pretty cleanly (but if you pick up the CD you should definitely check them out). Unfortunately the songs were replaced by a clearly-inferior, non-Lloyd Webber song called “The Tribe” that tried to throw in pop culture references of the day and just didn’t fit. Still, almost all the other numbers were just as I imagined them.

Compared to most other shows I’ve seen, this one had a less elaborate set and required less staging (again, there were numbers with characters just standing around), so it was not quite the spectacle that Wicked or Joseph were, and in that regard resembled a play more than a musical. Nevertheless, the story itself was full of drama, bringing together several story-lines in a satisfying way. (4 out of 5)

Wicked – Theatre Review

Ever since I caught a couple of numbers from Wicked on the 2004 Tony Awards, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the show live in person. I missed it when it came to Toronto the first time, but I was able to catch the touring company on its return to town this fall. It definitely exceeded my already high expectations from having enjoyed the CD soundtrack for the last couple of years. The lead performances by both actresses as the Good and Wicked witches (Megan Hilty and Shoshana Bean respectively) were outstanding; and the sets, costumes, and theatrical effects were exciting and spectacular.

wickedcdcover.jpgSimply characterized as a “prequel to the Wizard of Oz”, Wicked tells the story of Elphaba, a green-skinned loner of a girl who would eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West (the one who torments little Dorothy and her three travelling companions). Intertwined with Elphaba’s story is the story of Galinda (who eventually becomes the bubble-riding Glinda, Good Witch of the North). Adapted from a novel, the show starts off in their boarding school days where the two become accidental roommates and discover their mutual loathing (there’s a great song about that). Elphaba is kind of a social outcast and the butt of teasing from the popular kids, but Galinda is the blonde, rich, and super-popular yet ditzy teen princess. After their initial friction, they begin to bond and eventually become lifelong best friends (even despite the inevitable love triangle involving new dreamy-boy Fiyero).

Though it all sounds like trite teen melodrama (the stuff that you’d expect to see from Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan), the show actually flits onto many more serious themes as well, including discrimination, racism, terrorism, animal rights, celebrity politics, ambition, loyalty, integrity, love and friendship. (Whew, what a mouthful!). In a short span, you can really see the characters mature as they tackle the crises and issues that come at them. (Now I’m making it sound too heavy.) There is a lot of humour in the show as well, and the soulful, tragic ballads are outnumbered by festive, happy tunes.

The music is definitely a large part of what makes the show great. Sometimes musicals contain maybe only a handful of good tunes that get reused in variations throughout the show. Composer Stephen Schwartz has created so many memorable, catchy and warm-hearted melodies for Wicked that there is very little need for recycling. Highlights for me include “Popular” (Galinda’s dissertation on how popularity rules the world and how to achieve it), “What is this feeling?” (the previously-mentioned song where the two girls discover common ground in their mutual dislike—it’s one of those excellent musical dialogue-duets where both characters sing simultaneously), and “Defying Gravity” (Elphaba’s triumphant declaration that she’s going to soar with her heart and beliefs no matter what anyone thinks—the number includes an awesome effect of Elphaba levitating high into the night sky). There are a few weak songs (including a Vaudeville-style song from the Wizard himself), but the best thing about shows is that musical deficiencies can be overcome with spectacle (which definitely redeemed the showy “One Short Day (in the Emerald City)”).

Though most of the really memorable tunes are used up by the second half, that’s when the story really kicks into high gear. The most unexpected surprise about this show is how well it works as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Everything from the iconic black witch’s hat; the origin of the flying monkeys and the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion; how Elphaba gets her powers; what caused the tornado that brought Dorothy to Oz; and what happened when she poured the water on the Wicked Witch are all plausibly and carefully accounted for in this prequel (Take that, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith!). Because the connections are made in such a well-thought-out manner, it was exciting to anticipate the upcoming events but see them from a completely different angle (you know I love that). At the back of my mind nagged the question, “How are they going to explain what happens next?” and when the answer was something fresh and intriguing, it made me appreciate the show even more.

Overall, I haven’t enjoyed a show as much as this one in a while. If you like this kind of thing and get the chance, you should definitely check it out… (I wonder if they’re going to make a movie out of Wicked. I sure hope so, but until they do I’ll probably be popping the CD into the player a few more times). (4.5 out of 5)