“I am to wait, though waiting so be hell”

Sonnet 58, Line 13

William Shakespeare

I was literally in the process of reading Beckett’s famous masterpiece when the chance came up to see the new play Waiting for Waiting for Godot at the St James’ Theatre Studio (blog-5thanks to #LDNTheatreBloggers and Debbie – Mind the Blog –  for the ticket!). The drama of two understudies desperately hoping to play Beckett’s two most famous leading men, Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Waiting for Godot seemed like a fun premise, if a little limited. And indeed, this is what it turned out to be; a reasonably entertaining evening for theatre buffs with sadly no particular point-of-view or depth to take it further.

The St James Studio, however, is the perfect location for the play. The set is a crowded dressing room, complete with tiny toilet and ironing board table, and full of entertaining props and costumes to be used throughout.The actual auditorium is intimate and relaxed, with bar stools and drinks tables adding to this atmosphere. Certainly at press night it seemed almost the entirety of the audience was made up of ‘theatre types’ – critics, bloggers, friends and family of the cast and crew, and theatre buffs. blog-2This helped enormously, as jokes about Pinter, RADA and Brecht I can imagine falling flat in a larger, more diverse audience received a warm chuckle from the luvvies. This isn’t to say the jokes weren’t funny, just that they were tailored to a specific audience. For example, the melodramatic vocal warm-ups of Simon Day as the older understudy Ester ponderously pronouncing the names of Latin American countries (“Costa Ricaaah” “Nicaraguahh”) were a great way to start the play. The script is indeed witty, but, by imitating much of the repetitive nature of Beckett’s original script, the wit ran on far longer than was necessary not only for one joke, but on multiple occasions.

Day and James Marlowe (as the much younger understudy, Val) perform their parts with gusto, showing both characters as inexperienced and naïve about “show business” as each other, and finding plenty amusing about passing the time as they wait for the mysterious ‘director’ to call them for their big break.blog-3 Day’s self-important older actor who firmly (and wrongly) believes he knows all there is to know about theatre is by turns pompous and pathetic, whilst Marlowe is sweetly credulous as the younger man believing in the pretension of Ester. It just does feel like they are simply passing the time, rather than having anything deeper to say. The biggest points Dave Hanson’s script makes is that the backstage crew are underappreciated, and that being a successful actor is based predominantly on luck; points which have been made many times before. Laura Kirman nonetheless plays her part as the put-upon ASM with frustrated energy, and the three actors work together to produce some fun Python-esque physical comedy. The two men have a companionable bond which helps us warm to them, and understand their relationship even when both are behaving ludicrously (classic Waiting for Godot territory I guess…).

However, they are not helped by director Mark Bell’s decision to interrupt a 75 minute drama with a seemingly unnecessary 15-minute intervalblog – leaving the second act at only around a quarter of an hour long. For all its cleverness in imitating Beckett’s style and for all its wit and humour, this script simply can’t sustain that kind of treatment. Saying this, it’s always pleasant to have seen a full performance by 9.30pm – and this isn’t a play with nothing to offer. The analogy between understudies and Beckett’s leads is clever and interesting (both waiting in blind hope for a mysterious figurehead to come and deliver them from an eternity of anticipating). Perhaps I should dodge trying to put it into my own words and pretentiously quote Beckett himself to sum up the essence of Waiting for Waiting for Godot:
Vladimir: That passed the time.

Estragon: It would have passed in any case.

Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

 

Waiting for Waiting for Godot at the St James’ Theatre Studio: 2/5 stars

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“O, she is rich in beauty”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of great things at the St James Theatre recently, and indeed lots of great theatre starring Catherine Tate, so buying tickets for Miss Atomic Bomb was an obvious one. blog 5It’s also refreshing to hear of a new musical that isn’t based on an existing film, book, or music; which has a completely original plot. And original this certainly is! It’s just a shame that the five years which have apparently gone into developing the production aren’t particularly evident from the overall scrappiness of the narrative, as hard as the performers work to cover this up.

To quickly summarise the plot for you – or at least attempt to (!) – the whole thing takes place around Las Vegas, where in the deserts of Nevada, farm-girl Candy Johnston (Florence Andrews) and her fashion designer friend Myra (Catherine Tate) watch the atom-bombs go off like they’re a “second sunset”.

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Through a series of extremely random coincidences involving an escaped soldier, a pair of ruthless gangsters, an officious bank employee, and a lot of dead sheep, Candy ends up deciding to enter the brand new Las Vegas ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ beauty pageant. As I said, it’s complicated.

The thing is, there are quite a few funny moments in here; it’s not like it isn’t an enjoyable evening out. ‘All My Sheep Are Gone’ is utterly ridiculous, the drag queen entrant Carol (Charles Brunton) to the beauty pageant is fab, and I really appreciated the hyperbolic Les Mis-Javert tribute by Daniel Boys at the end – but it was just all so haphazardly put together that it was hard to focus a lot of the time.

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It felt like each idea with potential had been developed by a different person or team and then they’d had a quick meeting and kind of smushed it all together.

This means there are several amusing jokes either buried under tons of dancing Las Vegas girls, crazy scientists or army generals, or drawn out for rather too long – like Simon Lipkin and Tate’s duet about sugar daddies and beards (I can’t find the titles of the songs anywhere, and I was too cheap to buy a programme, sorry!).

 

To be more succinct, the jokes are either dwelt on too much, or not dwelt on enough. The timing of the script seems off, a fault saved only by the excellent comic timing of some of the cast, particularly Lipkin and Tate.

The singing was also of an extremely high quality.blog 4 In the lead male role of Joey, Dean John-Wilson produced some absolutely beautiful moments, particularly those in his higher range. I found myself thinking about downloading the soundtrack simply because of the vocals to be honest. It was just a shame we didn’t really get a proper exploration of his character; and that, in the twenty-first century, we’re still lumped with the whole ‘boy-meets-girl, they fall in love almost at first sight (or at least within the space of a song), and change everything bad about themselves in order to get together’ trope. To be fair, Joey and Candy’s relationship could perhaps be taken as a pastiche of this, but only at a pinch.

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Thank god Tate and Lipkin’s characters had a more interesting relationship. Still, Andrews’ voice, too, was lovely and very expressive. Tate had a fine pair of lungs on her, although – as I think many have noted – her accent sways from Southern to Australian and back with astonishing rapidity.

This is a show, then, where the overall scrappiness of plot, and the general blandness of the music lets a strong cast down. Tate and Lipkin’s comic talent deserves better than jokes about having a long name, or being shot in the foot. I should also mention David Birrell’s excellently camp number in the role of General Westcott. There were just so many random moments in this musical that the real issues of nuclear bombs, when to run away and when to stick around, and indeed the central love story between Candy and Joey weren’t focused on nearly enough. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable evening out; the cast is of a high enough quality to smooth over the cracks, and there are quite a few pretty funny moments. Miss Atomic Bomb isn’t one you should be hurrying to buy tickets for, but if you’ve already booked definitely go, you’ll have a fun night out.

Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre: 2/5 stars