Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review- Private Lives- Stylus Theatre

"Noel Coward's script is extremely witty. This production doesn't showcase the script to the best of it's abilities."- Anonymous
"Shirley Sheung is the standout actress tonight."- Mary
"Bad Wig." Jake, 21
"The production 5 years ago was better."- Jake, 51
"Did I just pay 200 dollars to watch someone's marital therapy session?"- Anonymous
"Not Funny."- Eric, 34
When I started this blog I knew it was not going to be all love and roses. I made a vow to myself to be honest but nice when it came to judging my peers work. I felt that the Hong Kong community was lacking a voice that saw everything and gave an opinion on the quality of the work. Ticket sales and Sold out runs do not mean the show is good, it means the advertising is good and that the theatre has an excellent relationship with the community.
Today's review is going to be a difficult one for me, because I have to write and tell artists that I love and respect that I did not enjoy the show tonight. And from the overall opinion of people in lobby, the consensus was that the show was not a positive experience.

A little background on the show, Noel Coward's Private Lives is a British Comedy written in 1930. Coward's style of comedy is known as the Comedy of Manners. The Comedy of Manners is a style which satirizes the manners and habits of the social classes. Particularly the upper crust. Oscar Wilde, Moliere and even the comedy, Modern Family are examples of the style of Comedy of Manners.

*As a bit of HK trivia, the final draft of Private Lives was written at the Peninsula Hotel and there is a suite named after Coward in the hotel in honor of the famous playwright's stay at the hotel at this time.*

Onto the review, I will talk about the good first. As I feel it is always best to start out with the nice information first!
Of the cast, I thought Shirley Sheung's performance tonight was the strongest. I really loved her as Cybil. She was funny and sympathetic and her turn on Victor in Act 3 was the one of the few parts of the show where I laughed out loud . I thought she had excellent pacing, pronunciation and I enjoyed the tai tai take on her character. (Which made the character very accessible to the audience.)

I also enjoyed Jonathan Nazer and Gaelle Gognau-Koerckel. Both were excellent additions to the cast and were memorable for good reasons. Nazer for his inability to speak a word at the table part in Act 3 and Gognau for her vocal reactions to the mess that Elyot and Mandy made in the apartment. Her part was very small but I enjoyed her physicality and you understood her feelings in the situation even if you didn't speak french.

Style wise the show was excellent. It looked expensive; had a lot of details and was costumed in period correctly. It wasn't an easy show to design from the looks of it, so I give the production crew serious props for working on this one. (Especially the props person!) Excellent costume design by Garbellini-West.

The Bad....

1) The Show was Not Funny.
Sometimes, when one is standing very close in a situation it is hard to see the bigger picture. In this picture, Adam Harris and Nicole Garbellini West wished to use Art to imitate life and produce this play. I think they were too close to see how uncomfortable it was for the audience, and how much their character choices affected the script. Elyot and Mandy were turned from flippant, neurotic characters who are madly in love with each other to violent, drug abusing, home wreckers.
It was like watching a Jerry Springer version of Coward's piece. Elyot did not come across as witty, he came across as an asshole. Mandy came across psychotic and lacked all the silken touch she needs to be considered the seductive vixen the character is. Neither one of them was an example of Coward's "Bright young things." They looked tired and the way the drug and alcohol abuse was handled came across as just plain tragic. (And not a good kind of tragic.)

Act 3 where the characters were all sitting at the table was the only glimmer of hope for this production. Otherwise, it lost all the magic Comedy of Manners usually possesses! The only society they may have been satirizing were the expats currently getting shitfaced in LKF; not the glamor filled flappers and Gatsbys of roaring 20's England!

2) The Lighting Made it Look Worse
The lighting in Act 1 was terrible! It turned Garbellini's wig a weird yellow/green color and her lipstick black. It made every actor looks about 10 years older (including Sheung who has the skin and complexion of an infant!) and did nothing to help the costumes or scenery.
Act 2 and 3 improved. And although, I personally wish the musical vignettes had never appeared. They did. And the lighting only helped them come across as melodramatic bullshit. I normally enjoy Burt's work, but this one looked phoned in. If he had seen the costumes with the lighting he would have noticed the problem with the gel and changed it. In Act 1, Garbellini's wig looked like a muppet rather than the fingerwaves it was supposed to.

3) Feeling Unsafe in a Theatre is Unacceptable
I have a serious problem with a show that shoves sofas so close to audience members that the audience member loses all their leg room. I have a problem with a sugar bottle being thrown very close to audience member's head. I have a problem with fight choreography that involves real slapping and hitting. It comes across as unprofessional and dangerous. And parts of the show left several members of the audience not pleased; whether it was the lady on the first row who had her purse covered in the sugar bottle remnants, to the people with splashes of spit and water in their faces in Act 1, to the people who had their feet ran over by couches and arm chairs during the Act 2/3 interlude. I feel that as audience, we should get more respect and programs should be included in the 200 dollar price tag. It comes across as cheap to ask for a donation* to get a program. They don't even charge for playbills on Broadway!

*The 20 dollar donation was going to the SPCA.

Grade- D
I love my friends and I think they are incredibly talented, but I did not love this show.
The show is sold out, so I really think Harris should do what he does best. Marketing and Production of Theatre, he is good at it. This was just not his best work as an actor or director. But if he can sell this, I think he can sell anything. Hopefully it will improve over the run... Break some legs!


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    1. I think it will improve over the run. I'm really interested to see how it evolves and how each audience perceives it. Being the only interactive media, theatre is always a subjective artform.
      This does not change my love for you as an actress, I know you're uberly talented!

    2. Thanks Meaghan, will keep you posted. The good thing about theatre is to create different opinions and, even, create some sort of debate. tw, may l just point out that the programmes are on sales for charity, so it is not for lucrative purposes but it is just to support the Spca. Thanks again for doing this!

  2. An arduous journey; I really felt the cast lost its relationship with the wonderful dialogue that is the essence of this play - the fight scene descended in to a farcical and hysterical rampage that was not comedic, it was violent. Adam (Elyot) tried hard to keep the banter and pace but, to quote the original script - it was all a bit like Norfolk - flat!

    The closing act around the table did capture the sense of stifled conversation etc but more as a result of the audience
    being by that stage bored out of their minds.

    Too many missed cues, pacing out, lines forgotten are allowed in dress rehearsals, they cannot be allowed in a paid performance.

    It is a shame, as Adam and the cast put so much effort in to getting it right, yet the performers appeared to always be searching for their characters ... I hope they find them.

    1. It was well produced and you could see the effort put in, I do commend them on the quality of the set and costumes but it wasn't really didn't stay true to Coward's essence. I guess that's the main reason a lot of people didn't like it. They came for a night of comedy and got a dark, twisted night of abuse. (Both of substances and people)
      I did like the table scene as well. The only funny part.

  3. I agree. This show was terrible.

    1. Did you see it on Opening Night? According to many sources it improved over the run... More info would be appreciated.

  4. I saw the show on Friday and can say with assurance that the show was well-received by the audience and, on the basis of the reviews posted, irrecognisable from the early performance. It was funny, fast-paced and evidently much enjoyed by the audience. I have some sympathy with remarks that suggest the production lacked the lightness of touch required for Coward, but the brilliance of the writing still shone through this more visceral take on the work. I thought it was both interesting and valid to see a darker side of The Bright Young Things.

    1. Glad to hear it improved! I didn't like the darkness in it, personally as I felt it changed the characters and the meaning of the script. But theatre is subjective, so that's all it is, an opinion.

  5. Didn't see this show, but I have a real issue with the Amateur Theatre community considering it acceptable for a show to 'improve during the run'.
    You are either ready to go, or you are not.
    If 'near enough is good enough' is the attitude, then charge the early audiences less, and let them know why.
    A paying audience deserve the same show on Wednesday as they will see on Saturday.
    Anything less is poor form, disrespectful and rude.
    To me it shows a lack of preparadness and is a sign that the director is not in full control of the process.

    1. For me I don't like the word amateur for our productions in HK. One, the ticket prices are he equivalent to off-broadway so I expect quality.
      Two, the best show I EVER saw in my life was a community theatre piece.
      I always strive for professional and perfect in my shows. And the opening night for this production was REALLY rough, sadly.

  6. Meaghan, I applaud you for having the courage to speak your mind, even when it was clearly difficult for you. Many people will tell each other that their show was great even when it was terrible, which doesn't do anyone any good. Just because English speaking drama is mostly amateur in Hong Kong ("amateur" meaning doing it for free, as opposed to "amateurish"), is no excuse for providing a paying audience with less than the best show possible.

    The quality of am dram shows in Hong Kong is usually very good; poor quality shows can tarnish the reputations of other directors/producers/performers who spend significant time and effort to provide polished productions.

    Having said that, Adam Harris makes money out of his productions, therefore he could be defined a "professional" in that sense. So it is more the pity if he doesn't present a decent show. Perhaps he might strive to improve if he is given the truth.