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Review Round-up: Rivers Makes Good Progress?

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American comedienne Joan Rivers’ (pictured) auto-biographical show, Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, hit London last week (5 September 2008, previews from 29 August), opening at the newly relaunched Leicester Square theatre (formerly The Venue), where it runs initially until 18 September, and then returns from 2 December to 29 January 2009 prior to a Broadway transfer.

During Rivers’ second stay in London performing her self-penned, autobiographical comedy, the American comedienne (pictured) will also be performing hostess duties at the launch party for the 2009 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards at the Café de Paris on 5 December (See News, 26 Jun 2008).

Part-confession, part-performance comedy drama, A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress presents the public Rivers from TV appearances and stand-up shows, as well as the private one. In her dressing room backstage at the Oscars ceremony, Rivers is preparing for one of her legendary annual TV catwalk commentaries on the fashion hits and disasters at Hollywood\'s biggest night of the year. But all is not well...

Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress is directed by the Right Size’s Sean Foley. Rivers is joined in the cast by Emily Kosloski, Carrie Paff and Mark Philips. The play had its world premiere in Los Angeles this past February and ran at last month\'s Edinburgh Fringe, in the Underbelly Cow Barn venue from 7 to 25 August 2008.

The show – structurally described as “cleverly disguised stand-up” – was warmly received by both London and Edinburgh critics. Rivers - labelled as a “brilliantly funny clown” and America’s “most impossibly youthful-looking comedienne” - strikes the right balance of humour and poignancy with her septuagenarian stories. Although some found her “demands for pity and applause” to be “more distasteful than the profanity”, the overwhelming response was one of appreciation and respect that Brooklyn’s most notorious daughter can still deliver a “five-star lick” with her famously pointed tongue.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “She’s bold, she’s sassy and she’s 75 years old. What more do you want? A great show, perhaps, but this is an interesting mix of stand-up and stand-off in sitcom … The best thing is her vulgarity, though I rather miss her gag about the big white stain on her small black dress as an aftermath of a one-on-one interview with Bill Clinton. This was the woman who said that without her own bra she’d be kicking her own chest all the way to the bathroom … She’s a brilliantly funny clown, supported here by Emily Koskoski as her stooge, Carrie Paff as a semi-romantic rival and Nathan Osgood as her co-producer. Her unseen daughter Melissa features, too; boy, what a pain in the butt she sounds. They’re all good and dutifully conspiratorial … The event is billed as a work in progress by a life in progress. Where next? Who cares? I was happy enough to be stalled in the stalls for an hour and a half with radiant Rivers in full flood.”

  • Bruce Dessau in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Anyone hoping for conventional theatre last night soon had their expectations trampled. Rivers immediately addressed the audience directly and throughout proceedings slipped into filthy stand-up mode, sticking the Manolo Blahniks into the likes of Russell Crowe, Sophia Loren and Victoria ‘does this tampon make me look fat?’ Beckham. Some gags were nearly as old as Rivers, yet she spat them out with such venom they still merited a laugh … Above all this story is about surviving in an industry where youth is the ultimate commodity. As she talks of nobody going to Mae West\'s funeral because she ‘outlived her fame’, it is clear that Rivers is determined to avoid the same fate. Every time she has been knocked down she has fought back and she is not about to give up now. If the energy dips slightly towards the end, that is understandable given the star\'s age. And if her face is not the most mobile we know why that is. Yet somehow, reasonably reined in by director Sean Foley, this works. Maybe because it is all true.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent – “Although Rivers\' schtick is her paint-blistering contempt for creeps and phonies (Mel Gibson and Victoria Beckham get a few quick kidney punches), she talks to the audience as to an old friend whose sympathy is guaranteed … In this work of metafiction, Rivers tells us anecdotes while preparing, in her dressing room, to appear on TV. A shabby gofer and an all-thumbs makeup artist wind her up, and her clock is stopped for a moment by a slinky female producer who sacks her: ‘You\'re too old’. It\'s a wonder Rivers didn\'t make the woman wear a swastika on her back … The demands for pity and applause, the pretence that her troubles are the same as ours are more distasteful than the profanity and gynaecology. Rivers is more likely to get us on side – indeed, is more lovable – when she drops the quivering victim business and goes for the throat with an expertise Count Dracula would envy ... In the end, Rivers\' energy and earthiness triumph over the rest. Her frankness may be qualified, but it\'s more than we get from most performers: ‘I can\'t lie to you,’ she says. ‘I don\'t want my nose to grow back.’”

    NOTE: The following reviews were in response to the show\'s run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2008.

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – “This is a thoroughly entertaining hour and three quarters of cleverly disguised stand-up … In the twilight of her years - she hit 75 this summer - America\'s most famous, and most impossibly youthful-looking comedienne, continues to spin conversational gold from a life lived under an artificial showbiz sun. There\'s affecting tittle-tattle about the low points in her life and career: being shunned by Johnny Carson, the suicide of her producer husband Edgar, her own dark moment staring down the barrel of a gun. She\'s a survivor, a trouper. We get all that, we applaud her for it, but it wouldn\'t matter a nickle if she didn\'t have one-liners that stick in the mind like perfume-tipped darts: ‘I\'ve kissed so many asses in my time, sometimes I don\'t recognise the celebrities until they\'re bending over,’ she rasps … The whole thing is flimsy as a postage stamp - but it\'s the viciously amusing spittle of Rivers\' tongue that gives it that five-star lick.”

  • Brian Logan in the Guardian (three stars) – “To accuse Joan Rivers of ego is like complaining that the Pope is Catholic. It comes with the territory. But even by her standards, this is a remarkable exercise in self-mythologising. The show is ostensibly a play, set in Rivers\' dressing room on Oscars night. There are two supporting characters, a Russian makeup artist and a gay producer, to whose careers the fictional Rivers generously gives a lift - even as the real-world Joan totally monopolises the limelight. ‘I wrote this,’ she reminds everyone. ‘Like I\'m gonna give them the best lines? Fuck them!’ … The show\'s most eye-catching aspect is Rivers\' account of her husband\'s suicide, and of her own suffering at the whims of sexist, ageist TV bosses. The jokes stop, tears well in her eyes: her emotional frankness is striking. But the theatrical effect is to generate sympathy for the indefatigable Rivers, so that when she tells us, climactically, that ‘performing for you is my life, and no one has the right to take it away from me’, the standing ovation might as well have been pre-programmed. The sheer force of personality is almost irresistible.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

    ** DON’T MISS the chance to sponsor the 2009 Whatsonstage.com Awards & get exclusive access to the Café de Paris launch party - hosted by Joan Rivers in ‘true’ Oscars style!! - click here for more info! **

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