9 July 2011: The Village Bike, One Man Two Guv’nors, Park Avenue Cat

Weekly review roundup: 2-9 July

The most polarising show of the week: The Village Bike (Royal Court)

The show was both sold out and extended before it opened, on the combined reputations of the Royal Court, young playwright Penelope Skinner, and actress Romola Garai; possibly also on the erotic tone it promises, of which more shortly. We spotlight it here because the show received three glowing ones and four cutting reviews; as such, it provides a bit of an (ahem) acid test as to how much you might agree with a particular reviewer.

The plot is simple; Garai’s pregnant protagonist wants sex, but her husband is too limply focused on being the world’s most sensitive birthing partner to realise his wife is still the same carnal creature she was a few months ago. Thus she takes up with a variety of men in the village to which they’ve just moved.

All reviewers praise Garai’s strong performance, as well as Joe Hill-Gibbins’s clever direction, so the difference all comes down to each reviewer’s opinion of the script. Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard said the play “brilliantly captures what few dramas even bother to deal with: that liminal time in a woman’s life when she stands poised between two very different states of being”, while Sarah Hemming of the FT lauded it as “a daring play about sex and the confusing impact of pornography on intimacy” that “revels in erotic cliches.” Sam Marlowe of the Times rather breathlessly pronounced it “a hurtling ride through gender politics, sexual powerplay and the highs and hazards of desire”, and later “a wickedly wise, furiously funny play that freewheels among the mess and indignities behind the many myths about sex”, calling its humour “impishly astute” and its intelligence “impeccable.”

However, other reviewers wanted more bite. Michael Billington at the Guardian said that while the play “is both observant and funny, it has a strangely conventional core”, and that Skinner’s “vague cop-out” on what happens when the headiness wears off gives you “a good night out without quite having the courage of its initial convictions.” Michael Coveney of What’s On Stage also expected the play to eventually pick a direction and go with it; “farce, for instance, or a really dark tragedy with some grim, chaotic consequences.” Regrettably, “Skinner pulls back from any hard decision on this”, resulting in “a steep loss of intensity even as the situation gathers”. Paul Taylor of The Independent breaks a remarkable string of eight consecutive 4-star reviews to note his disappointment that “the play, which seemed to promise that it would unsettle conventions, turns into a pretty standard cautionary tale.”

(EES aside: astute readers who note that there seems to be some correlation between a reviewer’s attitude towards a sexually charged wife with a wandering eye and that reviewer’s gender will receive extra credit.)

Runs to 30 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/123

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The close runner-up for best (or another show you should know about): One Man, Two Guv’nors
This winner has been open for weeks, and surely would have been featured in the top slot had we been doing the review roundup when it opened; it garnered several five-star reviews and an average above four. Since it has now been extended to 19 Sept, and also has one of the highest “Peer review” scores on our site, we bring it up this week, since it’s on the verge of selling all the way out. (One of our Pro reviewer friends also said recently it was one of only two shows this year he wished he could go back and give five stars to, which helped overcome our own feeling that it was perhaps a bit insubstantial.)

Charles Spencer of the Telegraph called it “an evening of riotous delight”, highlighting performances from actors James Corden, Daniel Craig, and Oliver Chris, and Henry Hitchings at the Evening Standard said Richard Bean’s adaptation “luxuriates in the copiousness of comic tradition and honours the possibilities of improvisation, but is also packed with brilliantly original lines.” The best of these go to Chris, whose performance as a posh, dim killer is “sublime”. Not surprisingly, “it is Corden who has to sell the trickiest moments of physical comedy, and he does a delightful job of it.” Only Ian Shuttleworth at the FT went below four stars on the performance, enjoying the overall quality but saying that “what Nicholas Hytner’s production lacks throughout is pace and crispness of action.” “There is never a dull moment in the evening,” he admits, “it’s just that there’s too damn much of it.”

Runs to 19 Sept; Sold out except for the afternoon show on Tues 6th Sept, but with the giant Lyttleton theatre there are always bound to be a couple returns.
UPDATE: This production will transfer to the Adelphi Theatre, running from 8 November to 25 Feb 2012.

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/553

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Park Avenue Cat (Arts)

This show has only received one review from the sites we typically watch, but its suddenly omnipresent advertising might have led an average mass-transit-using theatregoer to wonder if there was something they had missed, or if they were supposed to know who Frank Strausser was.

As The Stage is keen to point out, Strausser is the “Los Angeles-based” writer behind this show which features a women who can’t choose between two men, those two men, and their therapist.What’s On Stage sees where this is going, saying the romcom/sitcom setup “make Park Avenue Cat reminiscent of programmes like Sex and the City, but there the similarity ends, as the show lacks not just the necessary humour, but also any sense of dramatic tension or narrative arc.” Stausser’s characters, “each of them as unsympathetic as the next,” don’t respond to each other like real people, despite the fact that the cast is “clearly doing their best with terrible material.” The Stage also credits the cast’s attempt “to inject variation into their one-dimensional characters,” but claims it impossible to overome “Strausser’s tendency to define women as baby-obsessed, insecure narcissists and men as top-achieving Neanderthals who can’t resist a fist fight over a ‘high-maintenance’ female.” London Theatre Guide pulled no punches on “this insipid, lacklustre play”, and were not the only ones to criticise Glen Walford for what they called his “limp, uninspiring direction”. Aside from the cast gamely trying their best, LTG also applauded “Mark Walters’ clever and ingenious design”, but aside from that, “the saving grace of Park Avenue Cat is that it is mercifully short”; a “bland, moribund, damp squib of a play.” So, in short: no, you haven’t missed anything; the ads are there to try to help the investors overcome the fact that the reviews are not good.

Runs to 20 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/690

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