2009 Roundup Part I–The Disappointments

Most people who write ‘Worst of’ lists are after one thing: revenge.  These lists tend to be bitter slaps at things writers have already taken shots at within their original reviews, and they are back for seconds.

I took a long look at my potential list of the worst of the year and just didn’t care.  Most of the dreadful productions (and there were many) just didn’t make me want to take another shot.  Some of them were so bad that, had I spent more time dissecting them and moaning, it would have felt as if I were empowering a bully; some made me feel that black and blue.

And there were others that, overall, weren’t that bad but had one or two links that were so weak that it brought the production crashing down.  Upon reflection, those productions filled me with more pity than anything.

And yet, I looked at another list and felt much more emotion: the list of disappointments.  Productions that were not bad (well, mostly), but productions that just didn’t live up to their potential.  They filled me with far more desire to speak up a second time.

And so, in lieu of a Worst of 2009 list, I present my five biggest disappointments.  And as their reason for being here (and my original reaction to them) greatly ranges, I shall put them in alphabetical order.

Curse of the Starving Class—Royal Lyceum (original review here)

For me, this was one of the most anticipated productions of the first half of the year.  I am a bone fide Sam Shepard fan.  While Shepard (as a writer) may not be too well known to British audiences, he’s a staple in American theatre.  And Curse was the first play of his I ever studied.  I love the characters, the wacky dialogue and the way realism, absurdity and symbolism come crashing together.  It’s a tough nut to crack, but successful productions are an absolute roller coaster.

And yet, anyone whose first experience with Shepard was this production would wonder what the fuss was all about.  It certainly wasn’t for lack of passion or trying; the programme notes made it very clear how well the creative team regarded the play.  And my original review even painted a fairly positive picture (not a rave, but forgiving).  And yet, the more I thought about it, the more disappointed I was.  It just wasn’t as funny or dramatic as it should have been, and it completely got the American vernacular wrong.

I can be forgiving of some oversights, but having the actors use Southern accents (as if they were doing Tennessee Williams) when the play takes place in Southern California and for the production to be allowed to be upstaged by the live lamb onstage were just unforgivable.  In the end, it was messy and felt like a noble attempt that just didn’t come close to hitting its mark.

The Girls of Slender Means—Assembly Rooms (original review here)

Not the worst production of the year but the one that made me the angriest.  I am still aghast at how such a talented production team could have made such a cock-up on one of the basics of theatrical production: sightlines.  This is something that beginners make mistakes on, not well-regarded professionals.  And I became angrier still when I saw clips of the production on The Culture Show because it looked really good.  I didn’t even realise it was from this play until the announcement said so.  I only wish the director and designers would have allowed more than those sitting square in the middle of the audience the opportunity to experience the obvious hard work that went into it.  What a waste.

Hoors—Traverse (original review here)

Okay, I was willing to let bygones be bygones with this.  It got hammered, not just by me but just about every critic around, and most seemed happy to stipulate that this not only plain sucked but should just be forgotten.  And I was happy to comply.

But then something happened: I rediscovered Gagarin Way and Black Watch.  I’ve had students perform scenes and monologues from the former, and I am preparing to teach the later in my Higher Drama class.  This recent exposure reminded me just how fantastic playwright Gregory Burke can be, which just made me all the angrier at what he did with this script.

And he isn’t alone in the blame.  There is absolutely no excuse in this script seeing the light of day.  Sorry, but this is why theatres have script reading procedures and staged readings.  Surely, throughout the development process of this script, somebody noticed how dire it was.  So, the award for disappointment doesn’t go to Burke alone but also to whomever it was who knew this was the train wreck it was bound to be but chose not to speak up.

Quadrophenia—Touring the UK (original review here and retrospective here)

If you want in-depth knowledge in why this broke my heart, read my retrospective.  And in a way, I’m still conflicted because this was performed with great energy.  But if one is to judge this as a piece of musical theatre, it must be seen as a failure.  Every song was performed with gusto and drive, but from a dramaturgical sense it just lacked clarity.

I honestly believe that The Who’s Quadrophenia is one of the greatest albums of the 20th Century and is wonderful material for a theatrical production, and it seems like a tragic waste if this is the best attempt at such a project.  So, should this be further developed, or should the producers just pack it in and allow Pete Townshend to find a new theatrical team and start from scratch?  I honestly don’t know.

Trilogy—The Arches (original review here)

Okay, hear me out.  Because, of all the reviews I wrote in 2009, my original views of this were easily the ones that got me in the most bother with people.

For me, Trilogy is the perfect candidate for this type of list.  Had this been a Worst of 2009 list, it would be nowhere near it—not even on the long list; it had way too many positives for such consideration.

But I was still greatly let down, not only by the production but frankly by many of the raves that have come attached to it.  Even now, as it prepares to launch in London, many are writing glowing reports on how brilliant it is, not only as a piece of innovative theatre but as an important piece of feminist political platform.

And for me, that is where it failed.

I have seen far smarter and more daring feminist productions in my time.  In fact, I even saw one of the best of the year (The Chronicles of Irania) a few hours prior to seeing this.  And maybe I had most audiences at a disadvantage by knowing the full content of the debate that serves as the cornerstone of the second act, but anyone who has watched that full recording as I have will surely be as underwhelmed by what is reproduced onstage as I was.

And though my original review may have been a tad harsh on the nudity, I still stand by my view that a person getting onstage without clothes is a personal journey, and the production did nothing to allow the audience to share in such emotional triumphs.  Yes, the female body seems stigmatised in our modern age.  I share in the anger of most about this, and I am pleased that someone is taking a stand.  However, I felt an invisible curtain drawn between any emotional context such a choice should have inflicted and my reaction to it all.  In short, the only word that comes to mind in describing the amount of nudity onstage is ‘tedious’.

When most think of political drama, they tend to conjure up images of anger and hot air, two things this doesn’t contain.  Everything is frankly so nice and charming, and maybe that is its appeal.  I don’t know.

But I do know this: I saw enough within my viewing of Trilogy to be utterly convinced that creator Nic Green is capable of five-star work.  She shows intelligence, passion and nerve, a combination that is not only rare in newcomers but from most of theatre in general.  I look forward to being in the audience of a production of hers where she not only hits her political target but does so with the grace, drive and energy that she and her company has here.  But this isn’t that production, and I hope that the raves that she has gotten for this one doesn’t detract her from pushing herself to the obvious heights that she is capable of.


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