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Brits Off Broadway

Jenny Sandman, Amanda Cooper, Robert Hicks, Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District
About the Festival
The Brits Off Broadway dramafest at the new 59E59 Theaters runs through July 4th and includes 10 shows playing at three different theaters at 59 East 59th Street (Park/ Madison). Ticket information: 212/ 279-4200 or Ticket price range: $30-50. Follow this link for Amanda Cooper's Interview with executive producer Peter Tear

Last Update: 6/23, 2004
Names and dates of all shows that are part of the Brits Festival are listed in alphabetical order. Brief reviews of shows covered follow that listing with critic's name at end of the review. Below are links to specific titles -- with a * added before titles when a review is posted.

ARM by Tim Crouch. 4/14/04 to 4/25/04 at Theater C. Runnng Time: 60 minutes long without an intermission. What it's about: A boy tests his will and the patience of his parents by raising one of his arms above his head and keeping it there for 30 years.

SUN IS SHINING, Written and directed by Matt Wilkinson and presented by the British- Chinese Mu Lan Theatre. 4/20/04 to 5/09/04 at Theater B. Running time 80 minutes.

From the moment Sun Is Shining begins, us Americans are inundated with the fast talking, hard hitting, strong accented Dave (Daniel York) and Lorna (Pauline Turner). I have to admit that particularly Turner's Scottish accent was hard to understand 100% for my New England ears, but these two sole performers are stellar and held my attention no matter what was coming from their mouths.

Dave is an investment banking Englishman who is half Chinese. Lorna is a recovering alcoholic Scottish artist. They are the modern Odd Couple: cutthroat businessman and abstract artist. We hear small facts throughout about Dave's relationship with his Asian heritage, but unfortunately this plot point is not explored enough to support the show's ending. Writer/director Matt Wilkinson has created a clear and solid vision of his story on stage, even if the story itself could use some fine-tuning. Though the soundtrack can get blisteringly loud at times and the shine from the gorgeous steel set backdrop a bit distracting, they provide a no-holds barred ambience for York and Turner to spin their tale. [Cooper].

THE WOMAN DESTROYED, translated by and starring Diana Quick, directed by Richard Cottrell. Lighting Design by Duncan Coombe; costume and Set Design by Metka Kosak; Sound Design by Neil Gavin. 4/28/04 to 5/16/04 at Theater C. Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sundays at 3 pm and 7 pm. Running time: One hour and twenty minutes with no intermission.

The Woman Destroyed, is sure to showcase Brit legend Diana Quick in much the same way that The Waste Land and Medea brought Fiona Shaw to New York's attention. Quick, in her own translation of Simone de Beauvoir's novel, is a tour-de-force. She plays Murielle, a lonely Parisian woman wallowing in betrayal and self-pity on New Year's Eve. She is living apart from her husband and is fighting him for custody of their son. She's dependent on him for money, she can't sleep, she's become addicted to sleeping pills, and she's still grieving over her teenager daughter's suicide. Probably emotionally disturbed, Murielle is a needy, grasping wreck. She's desperate for some sort of dignity, but her sexual frustration warps this into intense disgust for almost everything (including herself at times). In the wee hours of the morning, she tries to call her husband and mother for support, but they both hang up on her. As she talks to the audience about her life and her problems, we are witness to her steady and inexorable mental decline.

Though one-person shows often suffer from lack of visual stimulation, Quick's personality more than makes up for the bland stage. From her first appearance, we sense that she's a woman on the edge--she keeps the audience riveted. I hope that my next experience with Brits Off Broadway's offerings will be equally first rate. --Jenny Sandman based on 5/02/04 performance.

HEAVENLY, presented by Frantic Assembly, to ponder 59 things you need never do again when you are dead. From 5/12/04 to 5/30/04 at Theater B. Running Time: 70 minutes.

Apparently Frantic Assembly, the company putting on Heavenly, is known for packing in the teenagers and twenty-somethings in London. Though the crowd in attendance in New York City the night I went was a little older, there was a youthful feel in the room, and I would not be surprised if favorable word gets around this city's younger generations before the end of the run. One of the reasons this show attracts young audiences is that the Frantic Assembly thirty-somethings (writer/directors Scott Graham, Steven Hogget and Liam Steel) have found non-heavy-handed ways to approach life lessons. Oh wait, that explanation sounds exactly like the type of phrase Frantic Assembly would try not to have associated with their work - but it's true.

Heavenly, which is based on a story by Gary Owen in which two brothers and one lifelong friend have, apparently, died. Through a game of, "one of these things is not like the other," , we slowly find out why one brother is not receiving the same treatment as the others. Essentially it's about getting a second chance to do something worthy with your life (or perhaps using one chance to do something worthy…). If this sounds a bit earnest, don't let it keep you from going to Theater B. From the moment I entered the theater I was put in a great mood. Though the dialogue was uneven, I often laughed out loud at the quirky phrases (and not just because they were British!). The choreographed sections were, for the most part full of fun antics and odd movements which at times felt a bit drawn out. Special kudos to set designer Dick Bird, whose superb vision of heaven -- with just mattresses and two Ikea couches -- allowed for unreal stunts on the back wall.

This was my second foray into Brits Off Broadway. It proved to be fun as well as an entirely new perspective on theatre. [Cooper].

COOKING FOR KINGS, written and performed by Ian Kelly, directed by Simon Green and based on Kelly's best-selling biography of Antonin Careme. Lighting Design by Jason H. Thompson; costume design by Charlotte Sewell; original music by George Taylor. Running time: One hour and forty minutes with no intermission. 5/18 to 6/06/04 at Theater C. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 3 pm and 7 pm

These days a chef is nobody unless he has his own line of cookware, a television show or two, and a string of notable restaurants. Contrary to popular belief, the first celebrity chef was not Emeril, or even Julia Child. It was eighteenth-century cook of the kings, Antonin Careme.

Careme's meteoric rise from Paris orphan to international celebrity is documented in Ian Kelly's solo show Cooking for Kings in which we learn how he became head chef for Napolean, the Prince Regent, Czar Alexander I and others. He was the first chef to become rich and famous by publishing cookbooks; he invented the chef's hat, the vol-au-vent, piped meringue and the soufflé; and he brought to the Western world the Russian style of serving-one dish at a time, in order-as opposed to the French style, in which everything was served at once. He cooked Napoleon's wedding cake and was most famous for his extraordinaires -- enormous elaborate replicas of buildings made entirely of spun sugar. One of his more famous banquets included 450 hot entrees, 28 roasts and 56 desserts, among a host of other dishes.

"Nothing worse than an unset blanc-mange," declares Ian Kelly's Careme upon first entering. He goes on to tell us, "Never trust a man who does not like food," and, "In the kitchen, time heals and order sets." Besides being a talented chef who rules his kitchens with an iron fist, Kelly's Careme is a bit of a philosopher, as well as an incorrigible gossip. While preparing an elaborate feast for the Prince Regent, he tells us of his recipes, his life, his daughter, and all the secrets of the royalty he serves. The venerable British actor who here not only embodies Careme, but actually makes us one of his signature dishes-choux swans, dusted with sugar.

Mr. Kelly's passion for his subject and his meticulous research infuse the show with an admirable mix of familiarity and authenticity. The small stage would put most Manhattan kitchens to shame with its suspended steel bars and large steel and copper pots and kitchen utensils, framing a steel butcher-block table with hot plate. Kelly, a swirl of energy, moves continuously about the space, even while he's cooking. the subzero temperature of the theatre, is offset by the considerable pleasures of the play and Kelly's phenomenal performance. [Sandman]
ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING, a satirical musical comedy presented by Britain's trio, Fascinating Aida. Directed by Simon Green, original lighting design by Douglas Kuhrt, Original Sound design by Graham Naylor; sound and lighting recreated by Linda Winton. At Theater A from 5/19 to 6/13/04. Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes long, including a twenty minute intermission

Fascinating Aida is not one fascinating lady but a cabaret trio: Dillie Keane (founder, score and lyric writer, and performer), Adele Anderson (lyric writer and performer) and Liza Pullman (performer). Joining them on stage is musical director and pianist Russell Churney who occasionally joins in on a song or three. Their performance format is rooted in traditional cabaret. The music has that snap-along, easy to hum feel These traditional byrds wear gowns or matching suits, yet what differentiates Fascinating Aida from your run-of-the-mill singing trio is that their patter is risque. Just ten minutes into the show Adele starts singing about golden showers and spanking. . .but she never loses that zippy, proper cabaret demeanor which makes what you hear that much more surprising. The audience, myself included, found much to laugh about but there were times when the jokes seemed overdone and familiar before songs were halfway finished.

As tradition may have it, this threesome is comprised of straight white women (well, at least that is how they choose to identify themselves onstage) spanning at least three decades in age. And their performance content spans everything from relationships gone wrong and right, menopause, exhausting sex, kinky sex, terrible art, faux mistaken identities and much more. Though the majority of ditties are meant to be funny, we are treated to a fair share of serious ballads as well. The show does not come across as repetitive, but over two hours is a long time for a cabaret act.

Dillie warrants special mention (she's the elder and the one who tells us that she's often mistaken for the black model Naomi Campbel). Her stage and audience demeanor shines at all times. However, all four of these performers are great. [Cooper]

GHOST CITY, presented by Wales' Sgript Cymru, written by Gary Owen and directed by Simon Harris. Follows the events of 24 linked lives, over the course of 24 hours. 6/01/04 to 6/13/04 at Theater B, June 1-13.

BERKOFF'S WOMEN, in repertory with No Fear/!, both starring Linda Marlowe in a compilation of the most rewarding moments of Berkoff's female roles. A rotating performance schedule allows seeing both shows on Saturday and Sunday and on consecutive weekdays. 6/08/04 to 7/04/04 at Theater C.

HURRICANE, presented by Ransom Productions from Belfast, starring the author, Richard Dormer, and is directed by Rachel O'Riordan. Portrait of life of Northern Ireland's World Champion snooker-player. 6/15/04 to 7/04/04 at Theater B. Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Irish actor Richard Dormer portrays the rise and fall of Northern Ireland snooker champion, Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, in his one-man show. The 70-minute piece is fast-paced and energetic and recently won Dormer, the BBC Stewart Parker Award and The Stage Edinburgh Fringe Best Actor. He does a wonderful job of conveying the euphoric highs and depressive lows of Higgins' career and personal life.

Emerging from a working-class Belfast family, Higgins became the youngest world champion, but his insolent behavior cost him dearly with the elitist, upper-class governing body of his sport. His numerous marital infidelities caused familial discord, resulting in his second wife gaining a court injunction to block his visitation of his children. Daily chain-smoking gave Higgins throat cancer. In the end, he was banned from his sport for lengthy periods, which led to his debt, tax problems, impoverishment and alcoholism.

Dolmer's text is another matter. It is full of clichés and his quick, snapshot impersonations of other characters in Higgins' life -- while humorous at times -- ultimately lack psychological depth. Director Rachel O'Riordan's staging gives the show a sweaty, feverish pulse. Gary McCann's boxing ring design underscores Higgins' battle with himself on a world stage and John Riddle's lighting conveys the sudden shifts from celebrity to dark despair in Higgins' tumultuous life. (Robert Hicks, based on June 20th performance)
THE STRAITS, presented by Paines Plough, written by Scottish writer Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany. About a summer in the lives of four teenagers in the Straits of Gibraltar during the Falklands War of 1982. 6/15/04 to 7/04 at Theater A.

One might question the relevance of this coming-of-age story about three teenaged boys (and the sister of one of them), set in Gibralter at the time of the brief Falklands War. To do so is to underestimate the power of this sophomore effort by up-and-coming thirty-something playwright Gregory Burke. In a trim eighty or so minutes (excellently staged by John Tiffany), Burke, who is Scottish, manages to limn the dynamic of the characters as they posture, as adolescents do, revealing the macho veneer that compensates for their insecurities.

What makes The Straits fascinating is the exploration of the sort of comraderie among a certain type of young men that points them toward a stint in the military, not always for the best of reasons. The fine young cast of Peter McNicholl, James Marchant, Freddy White and Alice O'Connell, under the taut direction of John Tiffany, makes for a most worthwhile trip to the theater. Kudos also to Steven Hoggett for the excellent movement work of the cast, and to designers Neil Warmington, Natasha Chivers (lights) and Cormac O'Connor (sound and original music). (Les Gutman based on a June 17, 2004 performance.)

Interview with the Brit Festival's executive producer Peter Tear
by Amanda Cooper.

Peter Tear has found, as he puts it, the perfect job for himself. As executive producer of the spanking new 59E59 Theaters he gets to scout not only the newest in American theater, but the contemporary happenings in the UK as well. Since Tear is Scottish, and loves American work, all seems to hit the mark.

Tear and Artistic Director and Founder Elisabeth Kleinhans have brought together 10 of Great Britain's top contemporary theatre companies to show those of us who don't cross the Atlantic for our theatre just what we are missing. This is to be an annual event, allowing those of us who are New York centric or who cannot afford the plane trip a consistent opportunity to see what's hot and happening across the way. What follows are excerpts from an interview with Peter Tear at 59E59:

CU: How does the Festival work?
Tear: The foundation is set up as a not for profit foundation that operates these theaters. . .so if a theater company that we feel very strongly should come that can't afford to do so, the foundation can support them in some way or get them funding to pay their way over.

Any plans for when the festival ends question needs a return space after that CU: Where do you find most of the shows?
Tear: Seven of these shows have come from the Edinburgh festival via tours. And indeed we'll go every year to the Edinburgh festival and scout. On the others, I went round to all the regional repertory companies that I knew well. I can say that hand on heart that every one of these is absolute number one in their game. And that I thought was essential the first time.

CU: How are these shows different from say Tom Stoppard or other transfers?
Tear: They are small productions. What I'm always amazed at is there's a certain level of excellence you find in the UK that I am sure exists here, but I don't think it exists every week in NY. What I see is like a class A level of excellence over there with very minimal production values; when it's minimal it doesn't mean no production values. For example Sun Is Shininghas a breathtaking set, but it's very simple, and it looks exactly perfect. There's something about that level of production that I see rarely over here.

CU Is it about creativity?
Tear: It's very hard for me to explain. Last year because I was going to be running a theater and there are a few things that I didn't know about, I asked the Glasgow Citizens if they'd take me on as a mature student for almost two months. To take me through everything, from the first production meeting right until opening night on their shows. And over that last year I saw all of their twelve shows. You couldn't see twelve consistent shows at that level in the West End. What we're trying to do with this, is to actually say ok, here's the stuff from Britain, come on, this stuff is HERE. The equivalent here is, I suppose, Off Broadway, which is why the festival is called Brits Off Broadway.

CU: Any plans for when this festival ends? Tear: In July we're going to have week-long runs of American companies who are heading to the Edinburgh festival. We'd like to have them in for a week's tune-up, and then invite the press in but not to review. What we're trying to make it is a part of the neighborhood community and would like to call it 'downtown uptown.'

CU: What about the different genres in the Brits Off Broadway Shows?
Tear: They are all very different genres -- a three-female musical group; a new leading writing group; a new leading writer etc.

CU: Are all the plays US premieres?
Tear: Every one. . . [And] they are not just cutting edge for the sake of cutting edge.

CU: Tell us a bit about your background.
Tear: My background is mainly in advertising and marketing and publicity. I wrote theatre reviews for years in the UK. The big breakthrough was in 1979 when I produced a show called the liberty silk cut collection at liberty store in London and it was like an in-store fashion show -- except that I asked Elaine Stritch to star in it and she starred in it for a week with a 20-piece orchestra. We did three shows a day and it sold out before it even opened. She told me 'get the fuck out of fashion and into theatre and do what you do best.' And so I did.

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