Sunday, 25 July 2010

Love changes everything...

After four days in Bath, Inception the next day, then walking over 84 miles in 6 days, there was onyl one remedy. Of course, I went to the theatre. The show in question was "Aspects of Love". Now, though, after 11 days of constant activity, all I could do today was write my review and listen to the cast recording of the wonderful German musical, "Tanz der Vampire". Luckily, I now have three weeks before I go on holiday to relax. Not that I am ever physically able to relax, but you know what I mean. For now, here is my review of "Aspects of Love":

Trevor Nunn’s revival of “Aspects of Love” is the latest musical revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Anyone who knows me and my theatre obsession well will also know that the Menier is my favourite Off-West End theatre, and that I try and see as many of their productions as possible. I am not a fan of Andrew Lloyd-Webber by any means, but after consulting the opinions of several trusted acquaintances and listening to a few songs, I came to the conclusion that the score of “Aspects of Love” is probably one of his best scores. It is also very repetitive, like many of his other scores, but this one seems to have several layers, and reflects the simple, contemplative nature of the piece.

I am less keen on the lyrics, by Charles Hart and Don Black. It is still a mystery to me as to how love can change your hands, and I did spend a long time last night wondering how Sondheim would have written the lyrics. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have written that love changes your hands. What I’m trying to say here is that, whilst the lyrics are passable, they are nothing special. What they do succeed in doing, though, is telling a story; even if it is spelt out in as slow a way as possible.

The musical is adapted from the novel by David Garnett. I haven’t read the novel, but I quite want to now. The plot of the musical is simple: it focuses on Alex Dillingham, who falls in love with Rose Vibert, a French actress who is older than him. He invites her back to his uncle’s villa, without his permission. As they begin to fall in love, Alex’s uncle, George, unexpectedly arrives. This is where it becomes complicated, because Rose also falls in love with him. Later, she claims she has to leave, so Alex goes off and joins the army. When he returns two years later, he finds out that Rose has married his uncle. They go on to have a daughter, Jenny, who ends up falling in love with Alex. At the same time, George has an Italian mistress called Giuelletta, and Rose a lover called Hugo. All in all, the plot actually seems less complicated than it does here, because it is very drawn out. The musical is almost sung through, although there are several snatches of dialogue, which breaks it up a bit.

Overall, Act One was quite boring. It seemed to go on forever, with not much happening. It was difficult to learn anything about the characters, and impossible to gain an understanding of why they were acting this way. By contrast, Act Two seemed jam packed and almost too quick. The ending was good, because it did leave some questions in my mind, which is what I like. My consensus was that the production was very good overall, it is more flaws in the material which let it down.

The production reminded me of last year’s West End production of “Sunset Boulevard”, which, like “Aspects of Love”, was a minimalist version compared to the original productions. What “Sunset Boulevard” had that “Aspects of Love” lacked, for me, were characters which drew you in and made you really empathise and care about them, partly why I couldn’t rate this production as high as I thought I would be able to.

Trevor Nunn is one of my favourite directors. I know many people say that his productions are too slow and drawn out, but what they forget is that the pieces he choose usually lend themselves particularly to this. I thought that the direction was very good, fitting into the space well and drawing out aspects of the story. I obviously didn’t see the original production, because it closed two years before I was born, but am now wishing that I had done, because Nunn also directed this production, and it would be interesting to compare the two. I know that the original production was at the Prince of Wales in the West End, which is very large, although the piece was originally intended as a chamber musical, so it must have been wonderful to finally do it in this way. It was also clear that he had done a lot of text work with the cast, because they seemed to really feel many of the lyrics and convey emotion through them.

The set design was quirky, remaining the same throughout the production, but designed so that it could adapt to all of the scenes well. The screen in the centre of the stage was perhaps unnecessary – did we really need to see mocked up photographs of the characters when they were on stage? I sort of wish that it hadn’t been there because it wasn’t fitting with the period the piece is set in, and was a minor distraction. The rest of the set was dragged on noisily for each scene, usually by the ensemble, because the way the layout of the Menier had been changed and they way the backdrop curved round into the wings meant that tracks couldn’t be used. This was distracting, and there were quite a few long blackouts where it was just the orchestra playing. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, but would almost definitely be changed should the production transfer to the West End or beyond.

I had no idea about the plot or the characters prior to seeing the show. The only thing I really knew, other than who the composer and the director were, was that Sarah Brightman and Michael Ball had originated the two leading roles. With Brightman originating the role of Rose, I thought that the part would mainly focus on singing, and that there wouldn’t be much of a character for the actress to become, since Brightman was not rated particularly highly for her acting abilities (the fact she receive no Tony nomination for “The Phantom of the Opera” when her co-star did and the show was set to dominate is another tell-tale sign of this). However, I have since learnt that the character of Rose Vibert is complex, and difficult to pull off. Katherine Kingsley, last seen in “The 39 Steps”, did this well, although sometimes her acting was too over the top for such a small space. I didn’t really empathise with her that much, not even at the end when she was left with nothing.

When I heard that the Menier would be reviving “Aspects of Love”, I sort of hoped that Ruthie Henshall and Julian Ovenden would be cast as Rose and Alex respectively, reuniting my favourite on-stage couple, who I saw in Marguerite. With Ruthie currently on the Great White Way in “Chicago”, this was never going to happen, but at times, Kingsley really did remind me of her, both facially, in her build and through her acting.

Alex was played by Michael Arden, who wasn’t as attractive as Julian, but was definitely in the same league from a talent point of view as him. He had great stage presence, despite playing Alex very shyly in contrast to Kingsley’s Rose. At several points during the show I felt as though he was looking at me directly (I was sitting on the central aisle of the second row, so he was at my eye height), and my Dad commented on this afterwards, which made me realise that it wasn’t just me.

Overall, the two leads had good chemistry, and throughout I felt as though it was their story, and that the other characters were what they were – supporting characters. I very much enjoyed Dave Willetts’ performance as George, since I his performance as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard last year was one of my favourite performances of the year. Yet again he was one of the highlights of the show, conveying a subtle maturity and understanding. Even when his character was silent, he managed to draw my attention to him.

The ensemble were very good, despite having a lot less stage time than I suspect they would have had in the original, more flamboyant production. They only had one opportunity to dance, which was in Act Two, and this was a welcome occasion to break up the show a bit. The rest of the cast playing named characters were nothing special, their performances were good but by no means outstanding. It is worth noting, though, that Dominic Tighe, who used to be a member of the classical group Blake, played the role of Hugo, Rose’s lover, showing that he is obviously serious about pursuing a theatre career as opposed to a singing career.

Overall, I don’t feel disappointed, because everyone who I spoke to prior to seeing the show told me that it is essentially a flawed show. After Paradise Found, anything was going to be an improvement, and I’m glad that the Menier is back to producing productions of a really high quality. I’ve only given the production three and a half stars, because whilst it was good and even great in most ways, it just lacked something special that could have made me give it more.

To conclude, one of my childhood illusions was shattered yesterday. I always believed knife-throwing to be real, and that the person on the target could be seriously injured if it went wrong. During the knife throwing in the show, as part of the circus scene, I tensed every time a knife was thrown. Afterwards, my Dad told me that the knives were not actually being thrown at all – the actor was flicking them down his sleeve, and a knife was simply popping out of the board. So for my whole life I had believed that someone could be seriously injured, when all the time it was just a joke!

3.5 Stars

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