Sunday, 31 October 2010

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Queens Theatre

“Feel the flow, hear what’s happening”

As part of the ongoing Sondheim birthday celebrations, the Donmar Warehouse is staging concert versions of two of his shows which have previously played at the theatre, but using the larger space of the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The first one was Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 show with music and lyrics from the man himself and book by George Furth, and this performance saw 12 of the original 15 members of the original Donmar Warehouse production from 2000 reunited on the stage.

The show covers two decades in the life of three friends but tells the story in reverse, starting with Franklin Shepherd a and works back in time to show how his professional and personal relationships, especially with collaborator Charley Kringas and confidante Mary Flynn, developed and changed as his success grew. And where this show really shone was in the superlative strength of the central trio: Julian Ovenden as the smooth-voiced and piano-playing Franklin was excellent in tracing the journey from jaded bitterness back to youthful idealism, Samantha Spiro was simply fantastic as the ever-constant Mary whose professional success can’t hide her personal disappointment at her unrequited love for her friend and Daniel Evans’ silver-voiced and nicely comic Charley was delightful. Anna Francolini also deserves a mention with a brilliantly judged acerbic performance as Gussie, Frank’s second wife.

Cast of Merrily We Roll Along continued

Review: Blue/Orange, Arcola

“Why do you think you’re here?”

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange is the penultimate production to be played in the main space at the Arcola Theatre before their enforced move to new premises. Celebrating its tenth anniversary with its first London revival, Tiata Fahodzi, a UK theatre company set up to provide an African cultural perspective to British theatre, have reworked this three-hander into an all-female production, changing the gender of all three of its protagonists. This is a review of the final preview performance.

Set in October 2002 in an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, Juliet, a young black woman, has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and is coming to the end of her period of commitment. Emily, her psychiatrist who is in her first year of practising has her doubts about Juliet’s suitability to be released, suspecting that she may have schizophrenia and has invited her superior, Hilary, to witness her final interview with her patient with the hope of having her recommitted. What we soon come to realise though is that Juliet’s interests are not necessarily at the forefront of the minds of the doctors as there is much more at stake here for these two women.

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical (cast change), Savoy Theatre

"Ohmigod youguys! Ohmigod!"

So after an impromptu visit to see Legally Blonde a couple of weeks ago as a favour to a friend, my scheduled return to the show took place this weekend in order to see how the new cast members are settling in, with the first major cast change since the show opened. Since I saw it so recently (and I saw so much this week too…), I’m linking to my thoughts on seeing it again here instead of repeating them: this post will focus mainly on the newbies.

Simon Thomas has taken over as Wagner, which marks a change from casting a more famous name in this role as has been done previously despite it not really being a major role at all. I remember being surprised first time round at how little the character is featured in the show, given that Duncan James’ face was plastered all over the publicity. He does well in what is quite a thankless role really, but I did enjoy his performance and his handsomeness definitely helps! Carley Stenson did well as Margot with a more endearing and sweet take on this girl, having already developed a great chemistry with the other Delta Nu girls but Siobhan Dillon just exudes confidence as Vivienne, seeming as if she’s been in the ensemble for ages with a great performance both acting-wise and in her singing, especially that whopper of a note in the 'Legally Blonde Remix' at the end. 

Denise Van Outen has probably the hardest job in replacing Jill Halfpenny’s Paulette who was a real highlight for me and I have to admit to not really liking DVO’s spin on the role here. Part of this is my resistance to change but she wasn’t vocally as strong as I would have liked especially in the song Ireland and it generally felt like she was trying perhaps a little too hard to differentiate her interpretation by making her considerably tougher.

Review: Legacy Falls, New Players

“Call it fate or call it karma, I was made for daytime drama”

Legacy Falls is a new musical from James Burn, with assistance on the book from Ian Poitier who also doubles as director and choreographer. It is a tongue-in-cheek look at the on-screen and off-screen antics at an American daytime soap opera, Legacy Falls, which is suffering from falling ratings and so when a new producer is brought in to shake things up, the bitchiness and back-stabbing is ramped up as the actors begin to question their security and their happiness in life, especially Edward the long-suffering leading man with a big secret.

It starts off brilliantly with the great title track which is lyrically very sharp and nicely tuneful, enhanced by a witty video of the opening credits for the show which nails the windswept posing which makes them so ridiculously comical! When pursuing the soap side of things, this show is really very good and laugh-out-funny on a number of occasions. It mixes up the Acorn Antiques-style parody of comically bad soap acting with missed cues and overacting with the sheer ridiculousness of US daytime soap operas with their classic catfights, smell-the-fart acting, rapidly ageing child characters and their propensity for outrageously complex personal relationships. It also borrows the device of portraying the actors playing the characters to show the neuroses of this group of actors who see their steady paycheck being threatened. The best songs are here, with witty group numbers (I particularly liked the female trio on Somebody’s Gonna Get Killed and the duo on Normal People) and powerhouse solos like Larger Than Life all having huge amounts of fun and genuine comedy that make it a delight to watch. Tara Hugo’s huge voice makes her performance as Stephanie the leading lady one of the highlights of the show but she is well matched by Joanne Heywood’s conniving Madison and Aimie Atkinson’s incredibly ditzy Brandy.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Review: Novecento, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

“When you don’t know what it’s jazz”

The second play in the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios showcasing their Resident Assistant Directors is Novecento by Italian Alessandro Baricco. Narrated by a single man, Tim Tooney a scruffy trumpet player who tells of a six year period in his younger days spent on a transatlantic liner called the Virginian. It is there where he strikes up a friendship with a pianist called Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novecento who, despite having been born on the ship and never having left it in his lifetime, happens to be one of the greatest jazz musicians the world never knew. This is a review of a preview performance, for better or for worse I still stand by my comments here.

Irish director Roisin McBrinn has just the one actor to work with, Mark Bonnar who plays Tooney and delivers his recollections over 100 minutes in a sustained virtuoso performance. This is a feat of great stamina as Bonnar’s intense energy never really flags at all and in certain scenes, like the account of a music duel between Novecento and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton, he is just electrifying. But to be honest, these moments were few and far between for me. The play is centred on the premise that one is fascinated by this main character whom we never meet but once it has been established that he is a sociopathic recluse, and that comes very early on, there is little other place we go with him and there’s only so much description of amazing jazz playing that one can take before it becomes crushingly repetitive. 

Friday, 29 October 2010

Review: When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre

“Marriage isn't perfect"

J.B. Priestley’s farcical comedy When We Are Married arrives at the Garrick Theatre in London for a limited season with a substantially star-studded cast donning their finest Edwardian gear. Set in 1908, three middle-class couples in Cleckleywyke, Yorkshire have their world turned upside-down when, in preparing to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries, the validity of their marriages is called into question and they face certain social ruin but also huge personal issues as the very nature of their relationships is called into question.

There’s no doubt that it is extremely strongly cast with stalwarts of screen and stage forming the ensemble, especially in its six leads. I enjoyed Susie Blake and David Horovitch as the Helliwells with a particularly believable partnership, but the most fun is had by Maureen Lipman as the redoubtable Clara and Sam Kelly’s hen-pecked Herbert who have great fun playing out the role reversal when he is freed from the shackles of her imperious gaze and withering put-downs. Michele Dotrice does well as the long-suffering Annie who revels in her freedom from her dour councillor husband as played by Simon Rouse with some delicious comic timing, but is then slightly compromised by the need for a neat happy ending to the play.

Review: Palace of the End, Arcola

“I’m beginning to think that it’s the greatest sin of our time. Knowing and pretending that we don’t know... I knew... Oh, the things I knew... And I did nothing”

Timing is everything and whether by coincidence or design, this production of Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End arrives at the smaller Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre, right at the moment when 2 of its 3 strands about Iraq and the conflict there have resurfaced at the top of the headlines with Wikileaks uncovering the shocking scale of prisoner abuse and civilian deaths and the recent publication of the post-mortem report into David Kelly’s death. Thompson’s play pulls together three monologues, fictional in terms of the actual words but thoroughly based in reality as they are all based on real-life people: Lynndie England, the young US soldier whose grinning face whilst abusing Iraqi prisoners became an enduring image of the US intervention; David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who broke cover to reveal that the position on Weapons of Mass Destruction had been hugely overstated, the pressure of which caused him to take his own life and Nehrjas Al-Saffrah, the wife of an Iraqi Communist politician who lived in Baghdad as Saddam Hussein’s regime took hold. 

In the first section, Jade Williams portrays the trailer park girl turned soldier elevated into a position of huge responsibility at the Abu Ghraib prison and patently ill-equipped to deal with it. We see her back in West Virginia, heavily pregnant, awaiting trial and seething with rage at the internet commentary on her, although she’s more offended by being considered ugly than the reaction to her conduct. Williams does well at suggesting the indoctrination of military personnel in order to allow them to devalue human life in such a way but also how suggestible they would have to be to carry out such deeds: it is a complex piece and it is testament to Williams’ performance that s one really does have to begin to question whether or not sympathy might be due to this girl. 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review: Contractions, Theatre Delicatessen

“How was your day at the office?”

Mike Bartlett’s play Contractions is presented here by Fly Theatre in a new production which takes place in a real office at Theatre Delicatessen, currently housed in a venue tucked away just off Oxford Street . The show is made up of a series of meetings between employee Emma and her line manager starting off an appraisal process but swiftly becoming something darker as this is a company that takes a very keen interest in the personal lives of its workforce and will go to seemingly any length to ensure productivity isn’t affected. As it turns out, the period it covers is quite substantial as we follow the burgeoning relationship between Emma and a male colleague Darren as it develops into something more despite company policy.

It is all about the ownership of employees in a tough corporate world, the level of intrusion into their private lives that is acceptable and how far people are willing to go for job security, money or indeed love, and it is captured brilliantly in the interplay between the two characters. Bartlett has such an amazing ear for the verbal games that people play, for the brutal power that words can have when applied with the surgical precision that they are here in this world of corporate legalese and double-speak, and indeed the way in which one's own words can be used against oneself, which is by turns comic and horrific, yet always utterly believable.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Review: Blasted, Lyric Hammersmith

“It all has to mean something; otherwise there’s no point”

Running with the tagline “Reviled. Respected. Revived.” Sarah Kane’s Blasted is the latest play to open at the Lyric Hammersmith under Sean Holmes’ artistic direction. I was aware of some of the controversy around this play, the flyer proudly quotes the Daily Mail’s original review “this disgusting feast of filth”, but had avoided reading too much about it as this was my first experience of Sarah Kane’s work and wanted to approach it with fresh eyes. Thus this review (of a preview FYI) is mostly reactive to this production and accompanied by the few nuggets of biographical information procured from my companion over a pre-show slice of cake.

Set in a nondescript hotel room, well designed by Paul Wills in a letterbox format, we meet Ian, a sleazy unreconstructed tabloid journalist who has invited Cate up for the evening to seduce her. We soon ascertain that Cate is a naïve young woman, given to epileptic seizures and not a fully compliant partner in what Ian has planned. After a traumatic night, Cate eventually escapes but Ian is left to pay the consequences and then some as an armed soldier storms the room and events take a mightily explosive turn. Hereafter lies spoilers, so be warned.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Review: Broken Glass, Tricycle

“If you’re alive, you’re afraid…but how you deal with fear, that’s what counts”

Broken Glass is one of Arthur Miller’s later works and so has often suffered by association from the weaker tail-end of Miller’s output, but this production at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, cast to the hilt, certainly makes the case for this play. Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Sylvia has lost the use of her legs after being traumatised by images in the newspaper from Kristallnacht and the news filtering through about the ever-growing extent of anti-Semitic activity in Europe under the Nazis. Her doctor diagnoses a hysterical paralysis but as he begins to investigate her life, he discovers that the problems may lie closer to home, in the truth behind her relationship with her fastidious husband, Phillip.

The Holocaust connections are actually secondary to the real storytelling here which is entirely about the Gellburgs’ marriage. And it is this point which has informed director Iqbal Khan’s interpretation: although ostensibly set in a specific time and place, the emotion involved is timeless and so rather than being a period piece, this production takes a metaphysical, ruminative approach. To ensure the contemplative mood, the interludes between the scenes are filled with Laura Moody’s expressive cello-playing, beautifully composed short solos from Grant Olding which are explosive with emotion and counterpoint the repression evident on stage.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Review: Red Bud, Royal Court

“Red Bud makes the pressure better: it’s the excitement” 

Slotting in upstairs at the Royal Court, Red Bud is a play by upcoming American writer Brett Neveu. Five friends make their annual trip to a motorcycle championship in southern Michigan but more than twenty years down the line, the attraction is beginning to wear thin, middle-aged concerns are taking over from high school dreams and not even copious quantities of alcohol and dope can paper over the cracks that have developed in their friendship. This is a review of a preview performance. 

Initially full of the forced bonhomie, banalities and those easy recollections of the past that are the fallback of people who have drifted apart, the paper-thin veneer of this camaraderie is severely challenged by the introduction of a raft of drinking games from their youth which quickly darkens the mood as tensions rise to the fore, brutal truths are revealed and frustrations worked out as the evening degenerates into bitterness and violence. It is very well done starting off with an amusingly effective stunt and playing out the fast-unravelling scenario resulting in some convincing fight sequences and great use of fake blood given how exposed the actors are in this set-up.

Review: Me & Juliet, Finborough

“The theatre is dying. No, the theatre is living”

One of the most annoying things about the transport network in this country is the fact that so much of the repair work and resulting closures take place at the weekend so that normal folk are vastly inconvenienced whilst the suits have their week-day travel protected. Whether it is national train services being replaced with coaches or TfL’s ever-ongoing programme of line closures and restricted services on both the underground and overground trains, it makes it extremely hard to make a reliable travel schedule. Which is a long-winded way for me getting round to saying that despite my best efforts, I only made it to the second half of Me & Juliet at the Finborough.

Consequently this is going to be more a collection of comments rather than a full-blown review, you should head over to Webcowgirl’s site to read the view of someone who arrived on time. This is actually the European premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show, continuing the Finborough’s exploration of the lesser known works from their canon, State Fair received its UK debut here last year subsequently transferring to the Trafalgar Studios 2 this summer.

Re-Review: Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, Palladium

“I had a revelation when I skipped my medication”

One of the cardinal rules of theatre booking is that you should never book to see a show just to see a particular performer as that road can only lead to disappointment. And so it came to be when I booked a return visit to Sister Act The Musical when it was announced that Whoopi Goldberg would be covering the role of Mother Superior for most of August for the sole reason of seeing her rather than any desire to see the show again. With the sad news of her mother taking very ill, Whoopi was forced to cut her run short and return to the US and so I ended up giving my tickets to a friend.

But the world works in mysterious ways and I clearly had some good karma stored up so when I booked the shows on my Groupon deal (including this one as I had decided to give it a whirl again since it had announced it was closing in advance of a move to Broadway and also to make way for The Wizard of Oz) and was randomly allocated a date, it just so happened to coincide with Goldberg’s return to the show for just 5 performances.

Cast of Sister Act continued

Cast of Sister Act continued

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review: Men Should Weep, National Theatre

“It’s only rich folk can keep theirselves tae theirselves. Folk like us huv tae depend on their neighbours when they’re needin help”

Men Should Weep is a play by Ena Lamont Stewart, voted as one of the top 100 English language plays of the twentieth century but has been very rarely performed. A programme note suggests that it was O H Mavor’s dismissal of her talent that prevented her from developing further as a playwright and stifling her reputation and it was crushingly sad to find out that the real appreciation of her work as a classic and its placing in said poll came too late for her as her memory had gone by then and she passed away in 2006. So this is an important revival in that sense, spearheaded by Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre Josie Rourke’s directorial debut at the National, but in its look at the everyday life of people in poverty, it rings with an ominous political resonance given the news in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the effect it will have on the poorest in our society. This was the third preview, so all the usual caveats apply.

Set in the 1930s, the impoverished years of the Great Depression, in the crowded working-class slums of the Gorbals in the East End of Glasgow, it follows one family’s struggle for survival in a tough world. Working mother of seven Maggie is the lynchpin of this family but has to deal with an unemployed husband who won’t demean himself to do any domestic work, the return of a troublesome son and his wife to an already over-crowded home, one child with TB, another longing to fly to family coop and a gaggle of over-bearing friends and neighbours.

Cast of Men Should Weep continued

Monday, 18 October 2010

Review: Tribes, Royal Court

“How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it”

Tribes is the new play by Nina Raine, directed by Roger Michell, that is opening in the main auditorium at the Royal Court following on from the huge hit that was Clybourne Park, soon to transfer to the West End. Set in the present day, it centres on a rich bohemian family with all of its three children now returned to the fold as young adults searching for their place in life and straining to make their voices heard in the organised anarchy that is their family life. The action as such, focuses in on the one who struggles the most, Billy who is deaf as he meets a girl, Sylvia, who offers a potentially more understanding alternative in the deaf community, allowing him to assert himself and his identity for the first time, in opposition to his family’s creed.

In Billy and his interactions with his hearing family, Raine perfectly captures so many of the issues that deaf people face: the choice about how much to let the disability define your identity, in integrating with the deaf community and indeed the insularity of much of the activity of said group, the careful balancing act between intuition and guesswork when it comes to lip-reading and the trouble it can cause and crucially, the feeling of never wanting to be treated differently but constantly needing awareness of the situation to just get by. Raine also shows the diversity of experience that exists, in things like dealing with deafness from birth versus going deaf in later life, the bringing up of a deaf child in a hearing household and vice versa, 

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Review: Cabaret in the House with Rosalie Craig, Lauderdale House

“But now it’s just another show, you leave ‘em laughing when they go”

Cabaret in the House is a series of Sunday afternoon cabaret shows held at Lauderdale House, a historic building tucked away in Waterlow Park in Highgate and the room used for the cabaret is actually one where Nell Gwynne stayed 400 years ago, providing a nice link. Each show is introduced by Valerie Cutko, who also gives a number at the beginning of each act accompanied by Stephen Hose. Her fabulously over-dressed appearances were full of great personality and bon mots and she made a most engaging host.

As the highlight of the afternoon, Rosalie Craig gave a highly eclectic programme, mixing in pop songs with musical theatre standards and also taking the opportunity to showcase some of her compositions as a budding singer-songwriter, and excelling at all of them. One of the best things about the cabaret format is that performers can choose the material that they want to, that they have an emotional connection with, and so it didn’t matter that this playlist came from disparate sources, Rosalie pulled it all together with her bubbly personality, her clear rapport with her band (including Hadley Fraser on guitar) and a genuine love of performing. Highlights for me were a lovely rendition of Kander and Ebb’s Sometimes a Day Goes By, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now accompanied by herself on piano and a tender So Many People from Sondheim’s Saturday Night.

Review: Tomorrow Morning, Landor Theatre

“Sometimes you’ve got to take hold of your life”

First shown at the New End Theatre in 2006, Tomorrow Morning is a new contemporary musical from British writer Laurence Mark Wythe which is now playing at the Landor Theatre in Clapham. It had a successful run in Chicago in 2008 which saw quite a few changes being introduced so this is a welcome opportunity to see this charming show in its new incarnation with a superb cast. I took advantage of the half-price preview offer so this is a review of a preview performance from 16th October.

Wythe wrote the music, lyrics and book to this four-hander which follows two couples on the eve of life-changing events. One, Kat and John, are bundles of nerves, stressing out about their impending marriage and their life ahead; the other, John and Catherine, are older, more world-weary as they prepare to sign their divorce papers. Contrasting the headiness of young love and new beginnings with the realities of maintaining a marriage, the show offers a thoughtful, universal look into relationships with some genuinely appealing characters and some moving revelations.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Review: T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., Barbican

“Przybycie jutro”

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. sees the return of Polish theatre company TR Warszawa to the Barbican after their highly acclaimed 4.35 Psychosis earlier this year. I was meant to go and see that show, but after having had an awful day with some bad news thrown in for good measure a friend took my ticket instead for that emotionally bruising experience, but having seen this show, I kind of wish I had taken the risk: they are clearly a company firing at the top of their game.

Based on a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Theorem, the show follows a rich businessman and his family as their lives are thrown into upheaval with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, who proceeds to seduce each and every one of them including the maid, who then departs just as suddenly, leaving everyone to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and discover what has been revealed to them. It is performed in Polish with English surtitles, but is more akin to a silent movie with its series of near-wordless scenes played out in beautiful tableaux.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Review: Billy Elliot The Musical, Victoria Palace

“What the hell’s wrong with expressing yourself”

Trip number three of my musicals extravaganza to Billy Elliot The Musical, a show that for whatever reason, I had no interest in going to and would never have booked for myself had it not been for this deal. I have never actually seen the film and so it was a brand new experience for me in every sense of the word, but it was strangely apt that I saw it on the day after the miners in Chile were rescued which also happened to be Margaret Thatcher’s birthday.

The other way in which this show pleased me was with its plot. As it turned out, this is another entry into the traditional dance film/show format of which I am much enamoured and which Flashdance reminded me of recently. With music by Elton John and lyrics and book by Lee Hall, the backdrop this time is the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s up in Country Durham where young Billy makes a journey of personal discovery as he trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes and attempts to follow his dream of getting into the Royal Ballet School in the face of huge strife in his family and the community around him.

Review: Songs from a Hotel Bedroom, Watford Palace Theatre

“If I’m in town, I want to be the toast of it”

Songs from a Hotel Bedroom is a new dance/musical hybrid written by Kate Flatt and Peter Rowe which uses the music of Kurt Weill and tango dancing to illuminate the journey of a tragic love affair. Produced by SEGUE, a company known for their cross-artform work and co-produced with Watford Palace Theatre, The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and co-comissioners ROH2 at the Royal Opera House, it will perform short runs at each venue over the coming weeks. Starting in a hotel room in New York in 1949, we meet Angélique, a singer who is picking her way through a suitcase of memories as she looks back on a rollercoaster journey of a short but heady romance with songwriter Dan, interspersed with traditional musical numbers, performances by Angélique in character and two dancers who appear periodically, adding their own commentary on the relationship.

It is quite a mix of elements and occasionally they all come together perfectly, but at times things are a bit disjointed, particularly in the way that the dancers are used. Too often they come on after a musical number has finished but to the sound of something musically different, thereby meaning that the evening doesn’t flow as well as it should. But there are also times when everything comes together gloriously, like during a raucous aftershow party in a hotel with Angélique singing ‘One Life To Live’ with the band partying and playing with her and the dancers in there too.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review: Onassis, Novello Theatre

“I knew he was a pirate, I didn't know he was a gangster"

Onassis is a play by Martin Sherman based on material from the book Nemesis by Peter Evans, which was originally produced under the title Aristo at Chichester two years ago. It covers the last 12 years of the life of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis as he wooed and married Jackie Kennedy, flirted with Maria Callas, sailed on his yacht, made shady deals with the likes of the Palestinians which may or may not have been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Bobby Kennedy. 

Robert Lindsay plays the central role who dominates everything whether in his personal life or his business affairs and consequently commands the stage almost entirely through the evening with his a foul-mouthed, twinkle-toed massively-larger-than-life performance that at times rises above the limitations of the material. As unfortunately Sherman has made little attempt to tell a story here, what we end up with is a torrent of information and an unchanging presentation of a rich man, even the most tragic of events have little emotional impact since there’s no extra dimension or depth to proceedings aside from an overused continuing reference to the Greek gods. Gawn Grainger is saddled with the unenviable task of a massively long-winded piece of description of the tangled relationships in Onassis’ life, which is then perked up with an amusing projection of a flow chart suggesting a level of self-awareness which is soon sadly disabused as this exposition continues humourlessly throughout with a difficult narration device. 

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Re-Review: Legally Blonde - The Musical, Savoy Theatre

“Some girls fight hard; some face the trial”

I have tickets for Legally Blonde - The Musical later this month after the cast change as the final part of my trip round the musicals, but when a friend offered me a last second ticket on a cold dark night, I thought why not and decided to give this show another whirl. A more detailed review of the show can be found here, this will focus more on the performances this time round. The cast is largely the same, Richard Fleeshman being the only major change having taken over from Duncan James, but I saw Andy Mace as Professor Callaghan, on for an indisposed Peter Davison.

This really is Sheridan Smith’s show: her energy and vivacity drive proceedings on so effortlessly and naturally and she really is a gifted comic performer, getting the laughs in throughout, but also finding real emotional depth too. There was some unfortunate unscripted drama as she injured her shoulder (apparently nothing serious and not a dislocation as someone reported on Twitter) midway through the first half and the lights came back up as we anxiously waited to find out what would happen. She eventually resurfaced and continued bravely though in some discomfort, perversely lending the finale of Act I a real gritty, tear-jerking quality. An extended interval led us to suspect an understudy would appear, but to her credit, Smith finished the show and her second half performance showed no sign of the injury. I applaud her for continuing on and not wanting to disappoint her audience (who reciprocated with a raucous standing ovation) but I do worry about the physical toll this role is taking on her body, especially as she has now extended to January: it really is a demanding part, Elle is rarely off the stage and sings in the vast majority of the songs. 

Cast of Legally Blonde continued

Cast of Legally Blonde continued

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review: Enlightenment, Hampstead Theatre

“Something happened…the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong choice…”

Taking over the reins of Artistic Director at the Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall has launched his first season with a new Shelagh Stephenson play, Enlightenment, directed by himself. The set-up is based around Adam, a 20 year old backpacker who has gone missing on a round the world trip, and the attempts by his mother Lia, step-father Nick and grandfather Gordon to find out what has happened to him through increasingly desperate means, including a psychic and a television documentary. When someone called Adam then turns up at the airport having been tracked down to a Thai hospital, their world is rocked as some serious questions are posed.

Stephenson has a huge amount to say but making Lia the mouthpiece of all of it means that by the time she has espoused on issues like chaos theory, the lack of spirituality in the Western world, her liberal upper-middle-class guilt and global interconnectedness, it is extremely difficult to remember that we are meant to be empathising with a mother who has lost her son. The first half is particularly guilty of this pontificating but things begin to look up somewhat after the interval as we move into thriller territory and a better integrated use of some of the themes.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Review: Flashdance - The Musical, Shaftesbury

“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night”

I was originally meant to see Flashdance -The Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre a couple of weeks ago but that first preview was cancelled due to technical difficulties, so when I finally made it to one of the last previews, my heart sank as we waited for the curtain to rise and the announcement came that the start of the afternoon’s show was being delayed due to, you’ve guessed it, technical difficulties! Having been outraged at the merchandising in the foyer (£60 for a special Barbie! £15 for a pair of legwarmers!) I was thus prepared with sharpened knives for what was coming my way. Perhaps my lowered expectations had something to do with then, but I ended up having quite a good time!

Based on the Paramount Pictures film, Flashdance – The Musical has a book by Tom Hedley & Robert Cary, music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary, but also features choreography from Arlene Phillips (who really does belong back on our screens at the weekend). Set in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, we meet Alex, apprentice steel welder by day, club dancer by night (who isn’t!) who dreams of love and life in dance school. Watching this reminded me of just how many times I have seen variations of this story played out in countless films, of someone fighting against the odds to, delete as appropriate, date a black guy/rise above working class roots/honour a dead relative/not be a stripper and get to the audition in time to wipe the smile off that smug auditioner’s face in order to secure a place at an amazing dance school for which they are eminently unsuitable. But I love each and every one of them, there’s nothing like a cheesy teen dance film to raise the spirits! And as Flashdance got in there at the beginning, it can consider itself mistress of the genre.

Cast of Flashdance continued

Review: Faust, English National Opera at the Coliseum

“Hell is pursuing you”

In a rather odd coincidence, my visit to the ENO’s production of Gounod’s Faust came just a couple of days after my slightly unwilling trip to Jersey Boys and unlikely as it may seem, these two shows actually share a director in Des McAnuff. You can currently see the Faust story being rocked Reykjavik-style at the Young Vic but this interpretation of the classic tale focuses on Faust’s obsession with Marguerite but has been relocated to a nuclear research laboratory in 1945 with the scientist suffering from post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki guilt and dreaming of an earlier time, and a girl, which for him is in the time of the First World War.

In the lead roles, none of Iain Paterson, Toby Spence and Melody Moore disappointed as they were all vocally strong (apart from Paterson’s lower notes) but I found it hard to really engage with them as characters. Paterson’s Mephistopheles was nicely avuncular rather than devilish; Spence’ Faust was handsome but largely wooden and Moore’s Marguerite was unconvincing at playing the lighter notes of a girl distracted by jewels or swept off her feet, only really connecting in the final scene.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Review: The Country, Arcola

“People don’t stand for anything; they just exist”

The Country, by Martin Crimp is another collaboration between the Arcola Theatre and Iceni Productions (last year saw them do Mamet’s The Shawl) but actually marks the first time I have seen a Crimp play. I have seen plays that he has translated but never one of his original works so I was intrigued to see how I would react to this rather polarising playwright in his own words. But there was another reason I wanted to go, as the building is being converted (into luxury flats, what else) and so the Arcola is on the move. Although not too far, to the Colourworks building (which is next door to the Printhouse where I used to work) right by the new Dalston Junction station, but change is most definitely afoot and I wanted to make sure I make the most of its current set-up as it has been one of my favourite venues to visit in the last couple of years.

The play follows a middle class family as they relocate from an urban lifestyle to one in the countryside. Richard is a doctor and Corinne a housewife but their domestic quiet is shattered when he brings home an unconscious young woman late at night. For Rebecca, as we find out her name to be, is much much more than just a stranger and her arrival provokes an unravelling of secrets from the past and uncertainties in the present as her presence forces a reassessment of the turmoil that we now see in beneath the paper-thin façade of this marriage.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Review: Jersey Boys, Prince Edward

“If I were you, I’d take a permanent vacation”

So part two of my West End Groupon deal and an interesting one for me as it was a long-running show that I can honestly say I would never have gotten round to going to see on my own behalf: Jersey Boys. The story of four guys, Frankie Castelluchio, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio who rose from their humble New Jersey beginnings to rise to the top of the charts as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Things did not get off to a good start with a rap version of Oh! What A Night and being exhorted to clap along: it is just too early in the night to start with that business and it is not like it is the type of show where there is lots of audience participation so I found it an odd way to start. We then slid into the regular run of things with the story of how the group came together and then found success, being narrated in four quarters, or seasons (see it’s clever!) by each of the band members. The music, much of which was unfamiliar to me I have to admit, as by the band in their various performances and tours which I really liked, but then oddly, random songs became story devices. So, Oh! What A Night became a tale of the group visiting a brothel and ?? having his innocence plucked from him though with a premature ending (‘As I recall it ended much too soon’...!). It was a bizarre moment and one that didn’t work for me and I was glad to see the majority of the rest of the music being performance-based.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Review: Hamlet, Crucible

For some must watch, while some must sleep”

So part two of the Hamlet week saw me making my first ever visit to Sheffield to the Crucible Theatre where director Paul Miller has reunited with frequent collaborator John Simm in tackling Shakespeare’s epic. I have resisted making any comparisons with the two productions in this review and tried my best to approach the writing of this review as if I had not seen the other.

This Hamlet is very much back to basics, very few props and frippery onstage, so that quite often what we are seeing is simply just a group of actors acting. And whilst on the one hand that was nice to see, on the other, it did mean that there was a whole lot of just standing around and the limited emotional palette with which they had to work meant that too often the connections just weren’t there between the characters, Ophelia and Laertes might as well have been strangers for example. Nor was there the real sense of where we were in terms of what is happening in and around this Elsinore: Tom Scutt’s effective split-level set with its changing facades was nicely done if palatial rather than castle-like (and the falling snow harked back a bit much to Law’s Hamlet for me) but elsewhere there was no real concession to the state of war apart from a cannon shot or two towards the end and the programme note that we were actually in 19th century Eastern Europe seemed to bear no relation to anything on the stage.

Cast of Hamlet continued

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Re-Review: Oliver!, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“Shut up and drink your gin”

When I first heard about this offer of tickets for 5 West End shows for £70 from the Groupon website, I thought it was too good to be true but after a twitter buddy convinced me to take the plunge, I can honestly say it is a great deal. I now have front centre stall tickets for 5 shows that I would not perhaps have ever gotten round to seeing for the princely sum of £14 each. So keep your eyes peeled for a similar offer if it comes up again. The first of my shows was a revisit to Oliver! as there’d been a substantial cast change since I last saw it and it has announced that it is closing, in order to make way for Shrek in the spring of next year.

The story of Oliver Twist, a workhouse orphan who ends up on the streets of Victorian London but soon finds a new life with Fagin and his group of pickpockets. When it turns out Oliver is pretty rubbish at crime and he gets caught, a wealthy man takes pity on him but his new compatriots including the vicious Bill Sikes, the chirpy Artful Dodger and the mothering Nancy set out to get him back with tragic consequences.

Review: The Irish Curse, Above the Stag

”I am not my penis, I only think I am”

The Irish Curse, a play by Martin Casella just about to open at the Above the Stag theatre in Victoria, refers to a stereotype (hitherto unknown by me) that many Irish men have small genitalia. As such, it is, I imagine, similar to concept of The Vagina Monologues (although I’ve never seen it) in its frank and open discussion about sensitive issues of a genital nature.

In a Catholic church basement somewhere in New York, four Irish-Americans, jockstrap-stuffing sports science student Rick, neurotic lawyer and single father Joseph and sex-obsessed gay undercover cop Stephen, meet together regularly in a group set up by wannabe actor Father Kevin to discuss the one big issue that connects them all: their hang-ups about their hungness. When a fourth member Kieran, joins them fresh off the boat from Ireland, he acts as a catalyst for all of them to really examine why they are there and for some painful revelations.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Review: A Number, Menier Chocolate Factory

“You think I wouldn't know if I was your father?"

This production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a revival of the 2006 production in Sheffield which starred real-life father and son, Timothy West and Samuel West who reappear here with the same director in Jonathan Munby. In order to retain the integrity of the show, the Menier has been reconfigured into the round for the first time ever, something which works so well here, I hope they think about doing it again.

Coming in at 50 minutes without a break, it rips through its central debate of nature versus nurture with a side order of the ethics of cloning as it poses questions about the nature of identity. Salter is a man who, for initially unknown reasons, had his four year old son Bernard cloned. Years later, Bernard discovers that he has a cloned brother and confronts his father, but in doing so discovers that there’s ‘a number’ of the clones and thus the debate begins.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Review: Departure Lounge, Waterloo East Theatre

“We’d like to shag your daughter; that’s what your daughter’s for”

Departure Lounge is a new musical by Dougal Irvine at the Waterloo East Theatre, a new theatre in the already hugely crowded Waterloo area, but it feels like a nice new space. A converted railway arch, the auditorium is a long, relatively narrow room and has the feel of the Old Vic Tunnels working space but with less damp and cold and slightly more comfortable seats. It is a show that has been long in gestation: Perfect Pitch Showcase winner in 2006, it has been workshopped under the name Unzipped!, it has had runs at the Edinburgh Festival and also in New York before arriving here at Waterloo East.

Four eighteen-year-old boys are stuck in Malaga airport after a post-A-levels but pre-results blowout holiday on the Costa del Sol, and whilst killing time they reminisce about the drink-fuelled antics of their week or at least they try to as it seems that they can’t agree on everything. Most of the confusions centres around the character of Sophie, with whom they have all had some kind of contact and through a flashback from each boy, they start to piece together what really happened and secrets start to tumble out in the airport.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Review: Lower Ninth, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

“Can you actually name a livin’, breathin’ hermaphrodite?”

Lower Ninth is the first play in a new season of plays that Michael Grandage, the recently announced now outgoing head honcho at the Donmar Warehouse, has put together to showcase the work of its Resident Assistant Directors in a 12 week residency of three plays at the 100-seater Trafalgar Studios 2 basement theatre. Grandage has done wonders in working with the Donmar brand: before this, we had the West End season at the Wyndhams with Ivanov, Twelfth Night, Madame de Sade and Hamlet allowing for much bigger audiences to witness Donmar productions and various in-house shows have been exported to other countries meaning that whoever takes over has quite the act to follow.

The first play in this season though is Charlotte Westenra’s take on Lower Ninth by American Beau Willimon, a tale of two men trapped on a rooftop with the body of a friend and waiting for rescue after some catastrophic unspecified event. But as the title refers to a less-than-salubrious neighbourhood of New Orleans, I think it is safe to infer the play is set just after Hurricane Katrina wound its destructive way through that part of the world in 2005. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Continuation of the cast of Hamlet

Continuation of the cast of Hamlet

Review: Hamlet, National Theatre

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

It is apparently a truth universally acknowledged that any actor aiming for greatness needs to tackle Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most revered epic, and it is now the turn of Rory Kinnear, under the directorial baton of Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre to make his entry into the canon (this was the second preview). Recently we’ve had David Tennant and Jude Law, John Simm is currently performing it in Sheffield (I’ll be there on Wednesday) and Michael Sheen will be making his mark at the Young Vic next year. I don’t have a problem with this so much as just wish that there was a similar epic role for women which was restaged and revived as often to allow a comparable ticket to magnitude.

This is very much a modern-day Elsinore. Suited security guards with earpieces are ever-present, state of the art bugging technology is used, a briefcase of tools of torture is brandished and high-definition television cameras record political and battlefield broadcasts. Thus the familial quarrel at the heart of this play is firmly located in the wider political sphere of this dangerous Denmark and it is a mostly highly effective updating.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Top 10 plays for September

26 shows in September! Possibly a bit too much as I did get a bit of ennui towards the end there, but there was much to enjoy so here's my top ten shows for September.

Review: Jill Halfpenny Celebrates the Great British Songbook, Wilton’s Music Hall

“This odd diversity of misery and joy”

The Great British Songbook series of concerts, devised by Neil Marcus, have previously featured Maria Friedman and Kerry Ellis in the past and now it is Jill Halfpenny’s turn to present her interpretations of British songwriting, both old and new, at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of their cabaret programming, Live at Wilton’s. Halfpenny has taken a few days leave from her regular gig in Legally Blonde and also nabbed her co-star Chris Ellis-Stanton for moral and vocal support.

Things got off to a shaky start: her version of Pure Imagination was not the strongest and awkwardly stretched across her range (also not helped by my memory of a recent superb version by Anton Stephans) but when she did the whole cheesy welcome bit in the middle of the song and then continued singing, my heart sank as it felt like this was going to be a glossy, overly polished cabaret act, completely ill-suited to the venue. Fortunately, the end of the second song saw her revert to a pleasant normal personality whilst chatting to the audience but for whatever reason, this resulted in me ending up being hypercritical for most of the show and my notes were almost all negative.