Comedy of Mistakes, Fela Explodes, Dog Tenor Scratches: Review

Sahr Ngaujah with the female ensemble in "Fela!" at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti married 27 of his backup dancers, whom he called ``Queens," in a single ceremony in 1978. Photographer: Tristram Kenton/National Theatre via Bloomberg

U.K. national treasures Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles were last seen sparring in the popular sitcom “To the Manor Born.” They now have been reunited on stage for an evening full of mistakes.

The delighted audience at the performance I attended included Kevin Spacey and willowy actress Rebecca Hall.

The mistakes are intentional. Keith plays Mrs. Malaprop, a forthright soul who misuses and mangles words, in Sheridan’s 1775 comedy “The Rivals.” “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile,” is a crisp example. Keith, an attractive mix of innocence and worldliness, breezes through the role like a galleon in full sail.

Peter Bowles is the authoritarian Sir Anthony Absolute, who wants his son Jack to marry Mrs. Malaprop’s niece Lydia. The plot hinges on the fact that the youngsters are already in love, although Lydia believes him to be a poor soldier. Jack thus becomes his own rival.

The two main stars explore the darker sides of their roles. Bowles, an imposing figure who stands 6 ft. 2 in., suggests a mania in Absolute’s authoritarianism that hovers between funny and disturbing. When Malaprop is comically rejected by everyone in the final scene, Keith’s look of quiet dignified pain isn’t played for laughs. Both give an object lesson in stage ease, comic timing and perfect diction.

Bath Crescent

They’re the cream of a high-quality ensemble in a quickfire production. Director Peter Hall uses period costumes, and puts the action on a simple set that suggests an 18th-century crescent in Bath, the English spa town where the story is set.

It’s not all plain sailing. None of the other actors looks beneath the surface of the comedy. There’s a sameness of tone and a dip in tension after the intermission.

That said, it all winds up again to a sparky denouement. Keith and Bowles deserved the loud applause. Rating: ***.

From a polite comedy of manners to a raw explosion of black power: The music of Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti is celebrated in “Fela!” at the National Theatre.

My heart sinks at musicals with an exclamation point in the title. It screams “fun!” in a way that really suggests “car crash!”

If “Fela!” isn’t a flawless show, it’s still better than the lazy title. Director and choreographer Bill T. Jones creates an energetic, booty-shaking piece of razzle dazzle in which the energy never lets up.

Jazz Funk

Kuti (a high-octane performance from Sahr Ngaujah) developed the afrobeat style, which is a tuneful mix of African drumming, hymn-like chants, Cuban riffs, jazz and guitar-heavy funk. I can write that with confidence because there’s a great number called “Breaking It Down,” which cleverly builds up the soundworld layer by layer.

There’s a plot, of sorts. Kuti was an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, and the show is supposed to be his last performance before leaving Africa in 1978. His dead mother appears in a dream sequence and convinces him to stay. It’s weak stuff by any standards, and it’s not enough to support 2 hours and 45 minutes. Kuti’s real-life complexities are sanitized for the sake of feel-good.

A history lesson it’s not. A riot of color and choreography it is. Rating: ***.

There are riots of a different kind in “A Dog’s Heart” by the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov at English National Opera. Based on a 1925 satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, the new opera tells the story of a dog who’s transformed by an operation into a vulgar, noisy, libidinous proletarian. He begins to get mixed up with revolutionary politics, before being transformed back.

Squeaks, Growls

Director Simon McBurney encourages the singers to give highly physical, exaggerated performances to great effect, and his production is full of visual flourishes. Tenor Peter Hoare, who plays the central dog-man, is astonishing in his canine whines, leaps and scratchings.

The opera itself comes nowhere near the level of the staging. Raskatov uses itty-bitty chopped phrases that create no tension. He uses a grab-bag method of shifting styles too, from atonalism to Russian chant, that aims at a manic cartoon effect. It’s not nearly as amusing as it thinks it is. It’s not amusing at all, in fact.

The singers are required to use extended vocal technique, from the highest squeaks to the lowest grumbles, which soon comes to feel tiresome. With no musical differentiation, the characters have no musical reason to live, which is crucial for an opera. The staging, for all its virtues, can’t make a silk purse out of a dog’s heart. Rating: *.

“The Rivals” is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, or +44-845-481-1870.

“Fela!” is in repertory at the National Theatre, or +44-20-7452-3000.

“A Dog’s Heart” is at English National Opera, or +44-871-472-4088.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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