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Broadway comes to Budapest

Photo credit: Stephen Collison

Photo credit: Stephen Collison

The things I don’t know about Hungary and Hungarians never cease to amaze me. I hear something new that I think I should have heard by now, or should even have known from a previous life, and I wonder where I’ve been all these years.

Am I the only person in the country who didn’t know that Rogers and Hammerstein based their musical Carousel on Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom? Or that the musical She Loves Me, is set in 1930s Budapest and is based on the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos László? And although not related to Hungary or Hungarians, does everyone know that the song Count Your Blessings from White Christmas  was inspired by composer Irving Berlin’s doctor who, when asked to prescribe something for Berlin’s insomnia, suggested he recite a list of everything he had to be grateful for? Berlin lived to be 101, by the way, so perhaps there’s something in this.

Anyway, you might wonder where this newfound trivia knowledge has come from.  Enter esō theatricals – the latest addition to Budapest’s English-language theatre offer and the first to my knowledge in the English-language musical theatre business.  I went to see the highly entertaining A Night of Broadway last weekend and was educated.

Photo credit: Stephen Collison

Photo credit: Stephen Collison

With numbers from the greats like Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Fiddler on the Roof to more modern musicals like Rent, Hair, and Once, it was the stuff cold evenings are made for. The international cast, all currently living in Budapest, hail from Brazil, the USA, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Hungary.  I was particularly taken by What is this Feeling from Wicked where 13-year-old Sonya Ewing nailed the green-faced Elphaba and sixth-grader Gianna Martinelli stood her ground as Galinda. Texan Danielle Jones did Velma justice with her take on All that Jazz from Chicago. And hats off to Ireland’s Declan Hannigan and Brazil’s Nicole Chufi for their take on my favourite number from the musical Once: Falling Slowly.

What tied it all together though was the narration. Introductions to each number gave it context as we travelled through time and followed the evolution of the Broadway musical. [It was a shame that the soundtrack was often louder than the voices. I found the same, the last two times I’ve been to concerts at Mupa, too. And no. It’s not me. I’ve had my hearing checked.]

The evening was directed by American Peter Schueller.  Schueller, originally from California, is no stranger to TV and film (watch out for him in NBC’s upcoming Emerald City) and since being in Budapest has been acting, directing, music directing, and choreographing showcases and performances throughout the city. I saw him recently in Budapest English Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and was impressed.

Now esō theatricals are in the process of becoming a non-profit organisation with the aim of developing community and professional English-language theatre in Budapest. They’re looking for in-kind donations and fundraising opportunities so if you’ve always fancied yourself as a patron of the arts, here’s an opportunity. And if you’re interested in performing, they’re open to that, too.

In addition to last week’s amateur musical revue, they’re also planning a professional musical theatre show later this year. I hear tell it’ll be the musical horror Sweeney Todd. Next month though, esō theatricals will be flexing their acting muscles when they stage Theresa Rebeck’s provocative comedy Seminar at Spinoza Színpad on Dob utca featuring Tamás Lengyel as Leonard, an international literary figure (originally played by the late, great Alan Rickman when it was first staged on Broadway in 2011) who gives private writing classes to four aspiring young novelists. There’s two performances scheduled: 7.30pm on Saturday, 28th May and 2.30pm on Sunday, 29th May. Definitely one to out watch for. http://www.esotheatricals.com/

First published in the Budapest Times 6 May 2016

Get Shorty!

When I lived in London, I felt like a tourist on a permanent holiday. Yes, I had a job that got me out of bed each morning. And I had a commute to suffer through. And I had to deal the mania that is the London rush hour. Yet it never felt like home. In the eighteen months I lived there, I moved flat four times. I just couldn’t settle. And while it certainly doesn’t rank up there in terms of favourite places to live, London has one huge advantage over anywhere else I’ve ever lived, including Budapest … its theatre.

My key worker friends – nurses, doctors, and teachers – had access to reduced-price theatre tickets. And as I didn’t have much of a life really, I could always be relied on to accompany them at the last minute. I got to see some stellar performances. I was a regular at the half-price ticket booth and knew of every offer and deal going. I would go as often as three times a week. I once took two days off work to see back-to-back performances of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials.

I didn’t just limit myself to the big theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue and the West End. I hit the fringe, too. From the Tricycle in Kilburn to Ovalhouse and the Hackney Empire, I saw some memorable performances for next to nothing. Pay-what-you-can is a fabulous concept that makes theatre affordable for everyone.

While English-language theatre in Budapest is definitely affordable, it’s not nearly as plentiful as it is in London. I’ve had to wean myself off my addiction to live performance and settle instead for cinema. And although I might have been a little more discerning in London, considering all the choice I had, in Budapest I’d watch pretty much anything. And I’ve seen some doozies.

Given the artistic vibe in the city, and the number of English-speakers (both Hungarian and ex-pat), there is a marked lack of decent theatre companies that cater to the English-language market. Budapest English Theatre is one to be noted. Led by Australian director Virginia Proud, this international collaboration of theatre artists was established in 2012 to develop quality English-language performances in Budapest. BET’s recent entry into the world of dramatic readings has certainly raised the performance bar in the city.

MOHDLate last year, I went to see a dramatic reading of the Master of His Domain. It’d been a long time since I’d seen a theatrical performance that the audience was still talking about three hours after it was all over. There we were, glasses in hand, heatedly debating our futures and how we envisioned our old age. The stark reality that our children (if we had any) might stick us in a nursing home and leave us to the mercy of random strangers was a sobering thought.  At times introspective, at times hilarious, at times reflective, the Master of His Domain really lends itself to the dramatic reading format. And when art becomes reality (or reality becomes art) and gives us something interesting to talk about, it’s done its job.

It’s not often enough that English-language theatre in Budapest offers up intelligent entertainment that makes us laugh and gets us thinking. For two dates in May (Friday 6th and Tuesday 31st), BET will stage another reading of this original script from the pen of Virginia Proud. It features the inimitable Rupert Slade as Shorty, Beth Spisljak as Nurse Gloria, Declan Hannigan as Shorty’s son Paul, and Virginia Proud as Nurse Angela. Curtains go up at 19.30 on the night at Vallai Kert, Rumbach Sebestyen ut 10. Tickets are a steal at 2500 ft and can be booked online at www.budapestenglishtheatre.com/tickets. Don’t dither. Tickets will go quickly. This is one to be seen.

First published in the Budapest Times  22 April 2016

Intimate apparel

Back in a previous life, many lifetimes ago, I lived in London. For about 18 months, I went to the theatre at least twice a week. I caught pay-what-you-can shows on the fringe. I watched for deals for shows at the West End. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who had access to free, last-minute tickets for many of the big names, the classics. I was in heaven. I could ignore the humdrum, nearly robotic existence that was my lot in London as I didn’t have the bank balance to make it otherwise. I had an escape.

Budapest has many things in its favour. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous city with plenty in the line of music but not enough in the line of English-language theatre. So when I get the opportunity to see a show when I’m travelling, I’m never one to say no.

In Bath recently, the gorgeous MC had gotten tickets for the last night of Intimate Apparel, a 2003 play by American Lynn Nottage about a seamstress in 1905 New York which was enjoying its British premier. Esther (Tanja Moody), single and in her 30’s, makes underwear for rich women and harlots. She buys her material from a Romanian Jew (Llan Goodman), betrothed to a woman he has yet to meet. The chemistry between them is electric, but theirs is a forbidden future. All of my silent urging couldn’t make it happen. It was 1905. New York. She was black. He was Jewish.

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

Chu Omambala

Chu Omambala

Esther receives a letter from George Armstrong (Chu Omambala), a labourer working on the canal in Panama. Illiterate, she asks one of her rich, bored clients, Mrs van Buren (Sara Topham) – who herself is trapped in a loveless marriage into which she has failed to bring a child – to write a reply. Through van Buren’s life we see that money can only make up for so much. Esther’s landlady, Mrs Dixon (Dawn Hope), mothers her. Dixon’s life is founded on an inheritance from her dead husband whose wealth was a compensatory factor – he was neither socially ept or good looking.  The correspondence thus continues and by the intermission, I find myself thinking of any potential suitor as ‘my man from Panama’. But as is often the case, I changed my mind.

Rochelle Neil Credit: Simon Annand

Rochelle Neil
Credit: Simon Annand

Esther’s best friend Mayme (Rochelle Neil) is a hooker, clothed in her friend’s creations. She, too, is in on the romantic correspondence. George finally arrives in town and he and Esther get married. His life as we see it mirrors that of many immigrants, lost in a world they know little about, trying desperately to find a way to fit in.

We sat in the front row – up close and personal – in the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It was a mesmerising production. There wasn’t a weak performance on stage. For nearly three hours, I sat enthralled, transported to another world, completely engaged in the lives that were unfolding before me. The disappointment I felt when nothing worked out as I wanted it to was real – very real. I went from love to hate with a passion that surprised me. I found myself making excuses for the characters, as I might with real friends, forgiving them their foibles and rooting for their success. I felt their pain, their frustrations, their fleeting joys. When the final curtain came down, I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. I felt as if I’d been through the wringer; I’d been to the theatre.

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman Credit: Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman
Credit: Simon Annand

The play is about intimacy, the politics of which are understated but well understood. Intimacy between friends. Between men and women. Between women and women. It is a compelling piece of work, one that is worth seeing again and again. Nottage’s plays are about people who have been marginalised. Her intent is to write forgotten voices back into history. See it if you can.

couch-teaser1Back to Budapest, though, and good news for English-language theatre. This week saw the evolution of the much-loved Budapest Secret Theatre into Budapest English Theatre. A new show, PreText, is planned for this autumn. And that makes me happy, very happy indeed.