Monday, 31 October 2016

Review: Fool For Love, Found111

"You do nothing but repeat yourself"

And so the Found111 experiment comes to an end with this final production in the upper reaches of the former Central St Martins space. Emily Dobbs Productions has put together quite the programme of plays over the last year or so (The Dazzle, Bug, Unfaithful) with some astute casting decisions (Andrew Scott, James Norton, Matthew Lewis) bringing the buzz to the venue from the off. It's not been unproblematic - its lack of access for one - but one of its issues has now been addressed with the introduction of allocated seating for the final play of this season.

That play is Sam Shepard's Fool For Love and once again the casting has a hook to it, this time reuniting Ripper Street Series 3 couple Adam Rothenberg (making his London stage debut) and Lydia Wilson as ill-fated lovers Eddie and May. He's tracked her down to the motel room in the Mojave desert to where she's escaped and he's determined to whisk her back to life in Wyoming. But as they squabble and fight, we see that this is a dance that's been played out before, their's is the kind of love you can't live with or without, they just keep on coming back for more.

Happy Hallowe'en 2016

I'm on the right...

In all honesty, I've never been the biggest Hallowe'en fan, dressing up is a bit of a faff (spray-painting that lampshade was a job and a half...), scary movies rarely do it for me, and as a rule, horror in theatre never gets me where it should. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm far more creeped out by the arrival of a puppet child than blood and gore.

But as I did a few years back, I thought I'd delve into the world of 'horror' films (at least those on Netflix) once more to see if I was missing out on anything. In the cases of Dracula 2000 and Victor Frankenstein I certainly wasn't, Dracula Untold was more enjoyable than I should probably admit, and the Ruth Wilson vehicle I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House was something of a revelation.

Hallowe'en Film Review: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

"The first night in a place always weirds me out"

Released by Netflix just in time for Hallowe'en, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House naturally popped up on my register as it features the ever-luminous Ruth Wilson in the starring role of Lily. Indeed, Oz Perkins' film rests mainly on her shoulders, as a live-in hospice nurse who becomes increasingly convinced that her elderly employee's Massachusetts house is haunted. her fears rooted in her boss Iris Blum's former career as a horror author.

It's a remarkably restrained affair from writer and director Perkins, astutely aware of the power of showing as little as possible whilst ratcheting up the tension through a rumbling sound design and a gorgeously gloomy colour palette from cinematographer Julie Kirkwood. It's unrelentingly creepy rather than outright shocking (for the most part at least...) and this mood that it cultivates is properly scary (and that's coming from someone who's really not that much of a fan of the genre).

Hallowe'en DVD Review: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

"This is not life"

Released last year, Victor Frankenstein has the ignominy of being something of a flop, a little surprising when you consider it is loaded with Brit talent like James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe and was directed by Sherlock alum Paul McGuigan. But as many have learned, not least Dr Frankenstein himself, reanimating old things doesn't always go smoothly. 

Writer Max Landis' new spin on Mary Shelley's classic is that the story is told from (the non-canonical) Igor's perspective, reframing the 'hunchback assistant' as something much more nuanced and offering a fresh set of eyes on their scientific endeavours. Here, McAvoy's Victor is a manic medical student who rescues Radcliffe's Igor from an undignified life as a circus freak and quite literally gives him a new lease of life as his collaborator. 

Hallowe'en DVD Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

"Drink...and let the games begin"

You gotta love an origin story, even for the dark lord himself, as everyone's misunderstood, no-one's that bad really. Or so Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless would have us believe in Dracula Untold, a 2014 Gary Shore film that ultimately did fairly good business. Here, Luke Evans' Vlad is a good lad who only got the nickname 'The Impaler' because he was kidnapped by the Ottoman Empire as a boy and trained into their most deadly assassin. 

But he's escaped now and has a wife and kid so all is good. Or is it? When a Turkish helmet (not a euphemism) is found in a river, Vlad realises that his childhood friend Mehmet, now Mehmet II, played by Dominic Cooper in a huge amount of fake tan (because you know, Hollywood couldn't possibly try and turn a Turkish actor into a star) is up to no good. So he follows the stream to a cave where Charles Dance is hiding.

Hallowe'en DVD Review: Dracula 2000 (2000)

"You know not the depths of my vengeance"

Oh my days, this is not good. This is not good at all. The only thing that makes Dracula 2000 halfway watchable is looking at Gerard Butler before he discovered fake tan and protein powder as he wafts through the film like an art student version of the titular villain. But even that pleasure soon wears off with this horrendously dated (even in the last 16 years, yes) re-imagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

To a heavily nu-rock soundtrack (where are the likes of Papa Roach and Linkin Park these days?!), director Patrick Lussier aims for (I think) B-movie schlock but just ends up with drivel, which somehow managed to get Christopher Plummer to appear in it as Van Helsing, yes the original one who has prolonged his existence by using leeches to siphon Dracula's life-enhancing blood. Because he's kept Dracula's coffin in a vault, to look after it, forgot to mention that didn't I.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

TV Review: Humans Series 2 Episode 1

"I don't deem your remark pertinent"

I came late to Series 1 of Channel 4 drama Humans but I'm making no such mistake this time round. And perhaps conscious of the show's enormous critical and commercial success, creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have considerably upped the ante on this second series, spreading the reach of the story from the UK to the US, Berlin to Bolivia. And though its scale may be becoming increasingly epic, the writing has thankfully maintained its startling intimacy in its explorations of what it means to be human.

To catch you up, the show centres on the invention, and subsequent evolution, of anthropomorphic robots called synths, designed to serve humans but a certain number of whom have become 'conscious'. This second series sees that group on the run from the authorities, dealing with the ramifications of Niska's decision - made early on here - to grant that same life to other synths, uploading code that is gradually deactivating their conditioning worldwide.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Review: Side Show, Southwark Playhouse

"If you don’t say yes I’ll have a heart attack that will kill us both"

In what I thought was a serendipitous move, I just finished watching American Horror Story: Freak Show before going to see Side Show, but it turned out to be most unhelpful. For not only the connection (seemingly by dress) of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton with the twin heads of Sarah Paulson's Bette and Dot pales by comparison, but the darkness of representing a 'freak' show is far more suited to the horror genre than this rather anaemic musical.

With book and lyrics written by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger (whose Dreamgirls finally arrives in London next month), Side Show has managed two abortive runs on Broadway since premiering in 1997, so it makes sense for Southwark Playhouse to take it on with their sterling record for reinvigorating musical theatre of varying reputations. But despite director Hannah Chissick and producer Paul Taylor-Mills' best efforts, I'm not sure it is rehabilitated.

Cast of Sideshow continued

Review: This Little Life Of Mine, Park

"Come on don't you keep me waiting
Today's the day I'm ovulating"

The clunkiness of the above rhyming couplet is a little symptomatic of This Little Life Of Mine, a well-meaning but mis-intentioned new musical receiving its premiere here at the Park. Written and directed by Michael Yale and scored by Charlie Round-Turner, it follows the regular lives of regular London couple Izzy and Jonesy and that really is just about it. Self-described as a "musical drama", there's a singular lack of the latter here which means that the show just ends up dull.

Finding the magic in the mundane is the stock in trade of many an insightful piece of writing but ultimately, all This Little Life... manages to do is extract the ordinary out of the extraordinary. Yes, there's chuckles to be had in recognising some of the more exasperating aspects of modern life in the capital, extortionate house prices and needlessly expansive coffee menus to name just a couple, but a show that aims to show just how regular life can be needs to aim higher than replicating said regularness (regularity doesn't seem right there...).

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4

"Edmund Reid did this"

As I might have predicted after the soaring heights of Series 3, the fourth season of Ripper Street didn't quite live up to its forerunner. Then again, how could it after the epic sweep of the storytelling had so much of the finale about it in terms of where it left its key characters - Matthew Macfadyen's Reid, Jerome Flynn's Drake, Adam Rothenberg's Jackson and MyAnna Buring's Susan - picking up the pieces to carry on was always going to be difficult.

To recap, Reid had given up the police force after being reunited with his previously-thought-dead daughter Mathilda, and Susan's momentous struggle against the patriarchal strictures of society (and also the nefarious entanglements of her actual father) saw her and Jackson end up behind bars, having also drawn Reid and the promoted Drake into the exacting of an individual kind of justice. 

Cast of Ripper Street Series 4 continued

Friday, 28 October 2016

Review: Sweeney Todd, Mercury

"Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. 
For the rest of us death will be a relief."

A handful of cancelled performances due to production design problems meant I missed Sweeney Todd in Derby but fortunately, it being a co-production with Colchester's Mercury meant that I was able to fit it in to what has been a most hectic schedule this October. And I'm glad I did, for Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical proves once again to be an evergreen classic and Daniel Buckroyd's production here makes that case, whilst still establishing its own spin.

Most notably, it comes in the casting of Hugh Maynard as the titular Demon Barber of Fleet Street, for much as I'd love us to be in a place where it doesn't matter, it still feels important to note that he is the first black man to play the role professionally in the UK. And from his very first utterance, you're left in no doubt whatsoever that he's more than up to the task, giving us a viscerally angry Sweeney, his fury his defining characteristic right up until the finale.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Review: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Hampstead

"The best thing I ever did was the worst thing I ever did. And it all came to nothing. It makes no sense to anyone, what we did, it’s written in a language no one reads anymore, it’s… incredible"

Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures has been given the moniker #iHo for short, though quite why that impulse has kicked in now is not clear, for the play is a hard-going three and a half hours full of wordily complex pontifications. The mechanics of social media aside, to suggest that it can be encapsulated in a three letter hashtag feels crudely reductive.

The play centres on the Marcantonio family, a brood of Italian-Americans summoned back to their Brooklyn brownstone by patriarch Gus who has decided to commit suicide. He says it is because of encroaching Alzheimer's but it is his ideals that this former Communist has lost rather than his marbles, and it is this crisis that sparks off lengthy debate after lengthy debate about faith and politics, socialism and America with his three adult children and their motley collection of partners.

Review: Harrogate, Royal Court

"We grow out of the things we love"

Only a short run upstairs at the Royal Court for this Al Smith play, which premiered at HighTide last year and heads out on a whistlestop UK tour in November. Which is a bit of a shame as Richard Twyman's production of Harrogate proves to be rather unsettlingly brilliant, anchored by two expertly slippery performance from Sarah Ridgeway and Nigel Lindsay, the latter a geniously counter-intuitive move considering how much I like him.

For as we meet the father and daughter combo enigmatically named Him and Her, it becomes increasingly clear that all is not what it seems. She's 15 so he's been letting her have a 'drink' drink but he's also been stalking her and her boyfriend. And she needs prompting on some of the details of her life, like her GCSE subjects... With the ground ever unsteady, this relationship between man and woman, or should that be girl, is replayed twice more to really twist things up.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Review: Amadeus, National

"It would make angels mourn"

Perhaps fittingly, on an evening when beautiful tribute was paid to the late Howard Davies, whose invaluable contribution to the National Theatre (36 productions over 28 years) will sorely be missed, there's a sense of the passing of the guard with director Michael Longhurst making his main stage debut in the South Bank venue. Longhurst has been establishing himself quite the reputation (Constellations and Linda at the Royal Court, Carmen Disruption at the Almeida, A Number at the Nuffield, an extraordinary Winter's Tale earlier this year, and the brilliant The Blackest Black at the Hampstead, to name just a few) and his graduation here feels entirely earned.

He makes his bow with Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a play that premiered at this very theatre in 1979 (another sad loss, as Shaffer passed away this summer) and with the enviable resources to hand here, mounts an excellent production. The play depicts a largely fictionalised version of the intertwined lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri and their rival careers, and the Southbank Sinfonia are on hand to provide live orchestral accompaniment. So that when The Marriage of Figaro is premiered, we get an excerpt; when people read the sheet music, we don't have to imagine the notes of the page, we hear them out loud.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Review: Apocalypse Cruise Ship Love Affair, Above the Arts

"We're all fucked, so just enjoy the sea air"

 Comet have clearly found their niche in creating spoof B-movie musicals and so Apocalypse Cruise Ship Love Affair now tracks the same path that its older sibling Vampire Hospital Waiting Room did last year, in following up a successful Edinburgh run with a short London residency at the Above the Arts Theatre. And just like its forerunner, it is hugely daft and hugely enjoyable - the perfect tonic as the nights close in and the clocks roll back. 

The plot - insofar as such mundane things are relevant - involves the deranged Captain Bleufonde's determination to resurrect his dead lover by steering his cruise ship into the eye of a devastating storm, plus cruise rep Hanks Leeroys' struggles to abide by his rule to never fall in love with a passenger upon meeting nun Evie. But what makes Apocalypse Cruise Ship... really fly (or sail, whatever) is the sharpness of its comedy.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Review: The Glenda J Collective, Soho

"Who needs men?"

advance of the return of the real Glenda J (Miss Jackson if you're nasty...) in Deborah Warner's King Lear for the Old Vic, The Glenda J Collective proved to be most entertaining. There's no real connection (indeed I'm not entirely sure where the name comes from) but more importantly, The Glenda J Collective can call itself an improv supergroup and not be anywhere near overstating its case, featuring as it does the luminary talents of Josie Lawrence, Pippa Evans, Ruth Bratt and Cariad Lloyd.

And as with any improv show, it takes a far better writer than I to capture the ephemeral nature of the quickfire comedy which comes in the form of non-stop sketches and songs (the group is accompanied on keys by the fabulous Duncan Walsh-Atkins) that flow uninterrupted for a good hour. Suffice to say that it was consistently funny, frequently hilarious and often sidesplittingly genius. From a talking CD player (hello Toshiba...) to the 2 Wisconsin radio DJs coming up with songs for the other 2 performers to make up on the spot, Lawrence's tie to Cariad Lloyd's pregnancy bump, it was a cracking hour and one I hope to revisit as soon as new dates are announced. 

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Further dates hopefully to be announced...soon?

Review: The Million Pound Heist, Enigma Quests

"Fill the briefcase"

As the hunger for escape-the-room games increases, so too does the ingenuity of those who come up with these activities, tweaking the format a little every time so that we keep on coming back for more. One of the more ambitious of these companies are Enigma Quests, proprietors of the Harry Potter-inspired School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and newly opened game The Million Pound Heist

And as the name suggests, The Million Pound Heist sees your group take on the role of thieves and rather than escaping the room per se, your job is to break into the vaults of an international art crime syndicate. This you do by solving a series of increasingly fiendish challenges, testing your ingenuity, resourcefulness and downright lateral thinking techniques to make your way through a series of rooms towards the loot.

Top 10 West End Shows To See This Christmas

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas"

The festive season is nearly upon us and if you are making a shopping trip to the bright lights or you just love the feel of Christmas in London, you have to take in a West End show. 
2016 has been yet another vintage year in theatreland and we’ve teamed up with to bring you the top ten shows we recommend you check out for that Christmas treat.
  1. Dreamgirls – Glee star Amber Riley plays the lead role in this brilliant musical telling the story of the rise of a Chicago R&B act in the 1960s. Running at the Savoy Theatre until March 2017.
  2. Aladdin – The latest Disney classic to get the West End treatment is this classic story of the street urchin from Agrabah at the Prince Edward Theatre until April 2017.
  3. The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston classics such as ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ feature heavily in this adaptation of the hit movie, with Beverley Knight playing the leading role at the Dominion Theatre until January 2017.
  4. School of Rock – Jack Black’s 2003 comedy about turning students into rock legends comes to the New London theatre until February 2017, with some new Andrew Lloyd-Webber-penned numbers.
  5. Cinderella – The classic family fairytale is the perfect pantomime performance to take in over Christmas, and you have until January 2017 to ensure you go to the ball at the London Palladium.
  6. Matilda the Musical – Roald Dahl’s Matilda comes to life in this brilliant new musical at the Cambridge Theatre until October 2017 via a successful Broadway stint, with music by comedian Tim Minchin.
  7. The Book of Mormon – From the creators of South Park and strictly for adults only, this much-talked-about mix of laughter and songs runs at the Prince of Wales theatre until January 2017.
  8. The Lion King – Another Disney smash featuring dancing, singing and plenty of African inspiration at the Lyceum Theatre until April 2017.
  9. Thriller Live – Visually spectacular and featuring amazing choreography, the career of Michael Jackson is celebrated at the Lyric Theatre until October 2017, featuring early songs like ABC and classics like Billie Jean.
  10. Wicked – The popular prequel to the Wizard of Oz telling the story of Dorothy, the Good Witch and the Bad Witch is celebrating ten years at the Apollo Victoria and runs until November 2017.   

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Review: The HIV Monologues, Ace Hotel

"I'm not the sort of person to get AIDS"

Following on the success of The Chemsex Monologues, Dragonflies Theatre now turn to the world of HIV in gay men with The HIV Monologues: From AIDS to PrEP: Love, Sex & HIV. Intertwining the stories of four people, Patrick Cash's writing draws the line from the 1980s to the modern day, from those diagnosed with the disease to those who love and care for them, from the condition as a death sentence to the comparative liberation that PrEP now brings. 

So we meet the blithely unaware Alex who tries to escape through the bathroom when a hot date reveals his status, Irish nurse Irene who tackles the stigma of working with AIDS patients in the 1980s with a near-unimaginable compassion, Nick who is a recently diagnosed HIV positive man struggling to come to terms with what that means and Barney, whose life is reinvigorated by the arrival of ARV medication in the 1990s.

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

On 6th November 2016, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ever popular State Fair will be performed for the first time on the London stage as a symphonic concert by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra under award winning director and Evening Standard Awards nominee Thom Southerland (currently doing amazing work with Ragtime) at Cadogan Hall.

In a double first for the LMTO, this is also the first full scale public performance by the company which debuted its inaugural gala, in June of this year, to a packed house at Bishopsgate Institute where the orchestra is in residence.

CD Review: Favourite Sins

"No need to fake it, or make it complicated"

Released earlier this month, Favourite Sins is 4-track EP of musical theatre tracks written by actor/singer/songwriter Alex James Ellison with lyricists Robert Gould (whose work I have previously reviewed here and here) and Jimmy Granstrom. Ellison and Gould are in the midst of developing a new musical tentatively called Texting and Tweeting - the Musical and it is the fruitfulness of this collaboration that has inspired this collection. 

It's an interesting, if mixed, collection that is performed here by some strong musical theatre talent. Kane Oliver Parry and Jodie Steele imbue the chirpy 'Vanity is your Favourite Sin' is a real sense of character and Cameron Sharp's 'Just Let Me Love You' is a solid pop-rock tune. My favourite track is short but extremely sweet piano-based balled 'Sun', given a gorgeously warm vocal by Emily Tierney, the clear melodic gifts of the composer shining through. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Review: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Citizens

"It begins, I suppose, with 1746 – Culloden and all that. The Highlands were in a bit of a mess.'"

As is so often the way these days. accepting an invitation to an engagement party in Glasgow went hand in hand with looking to see what was on at the theatre. And I was rather pleased to see that I would catch the end of the tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Dundee Rep revived the Scottish classic to great acclaim last year and consequently remounted it for this Scottish tour, of which Glasgow is the final stop. 

Written by Liverpudlian playwright John McGrath in the early 1970s and staged then by 7:84 (Scotland), the show shook up the theatrical establishment by playing venues outside of traditional theatres and telling the story of the Scottish highlands in a way that (presumably) hadn't been done before. So from the population clearances to make way for sheep, to the stag introduced to encourage the super-rich to hunt, to the oil boom, this is a story of economic exploitation and its effects on those exploited.

Re-review: Plastic Figurines, New Diorama

"Mum told me that there was something in his brain that was different"

Not got a huge amount more to say about the heart-breakingly beautiful Plastic Figurines that I didn't say in my review from 2015 when I ranked it in my top ten plays of the years. Ella Carmen Greenhill's play, produced by Box of Tricks, returned for another run at the New Diorama, retaining Jamie Samuel as autistic Mikey but switching in Vanessa Schofield as his older sister Rose who is forced to leave university to become his carer after a family tragedy. I loved it all over again and I'd recommend you go along but it's closed now!

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Richard Davenport
Booking until 22nd October

Friday, 21 October 2016

Review: The House of Usher, Hope

"I didn't like to mention that I had imagined his sister singing to me in my sleep"

Ever ambitious, the Hope Theatre have launched a Gothic Season which will run right up until Christmas, taking in play The Worst Was This, lesbian bonkbuster Her Aching Heart and opening with this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The House of Usher. Created by Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley and directed by Adamson with Phil Croft, it takes an actor-musician approach to the material and is very much its own version of the short story, pulling in influences from elsewhere in Poe's oeuvre and also the depths of the writers' own imaginations.

The House of Usher is told to us by the nameless figure of The Narrator, who unexpectedly finds himself invited to visit his old childhood friend Roderick Usher in their stately home. This he does, but he's shocked to find him in the throes of an illness that has heightened his sensitivities to unbearable levels. And he's not alone, Roderick's twin sister Madeline appears similarly afflicted but has a different take on the matter from her overly protective sibling, forcing the Narrator into a series of difficult decisions, something made more challenging by the eeriness of the house itself.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Review: The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

“In you, I found all the pleasure and pain I could ever hope to feel"

All the best birthday celebrations go on for a while and Bristol Old Vic's 250th Anniversary programme has been no exception, featuring productions from each of the four centuries of the theatre's life. I took in the Lesley Manville opus Long Day's Journey Into Night earlier in the year and returned to the South West with great anticipation for the 21st century strand of work, which is the macabre, and excellent, new musical The Grinning Man

Based on the Victor Hugo novel L'Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs), the show tells the dark tale of Grinpayne, a young man mutilated as a child who scrapes a living as part of a carnival troupe with his adopted family. Grinpayne keeps the lower part of his face covered but the highlight of the fair comes when he reveals his scarred 'smile', a sight that moves people in unpredictable ways, not least the royal family in whose intrigues Grinpayne finds himself increasingly embroiled.

Cast of The Grinning Man continued

Review: A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer, National

"Fingers crossed
Make a wish
What gruesome game of chance is this?
Cross your chest
Count 1 in 3
And pray it doesn't grow in me"

A musical about cancer? As unlikely as it might seem, A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer isn't even the first one that I've seen. That dubious honour goes to Happy Ending, one of the most misjudged shows I saw last year, but fortunately this Complicite and National Theatre co-production in association with HOME Manchester rejoices in a much stronger pedigree, a collaboration between performance artist Bryony Kimmings (book and lyrics), Brian Lobel (book) and Tom Parkinson (music).

A Pacifist's Guide... posits itself as "an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of ordinary life and death" and this it does by collating varying stories of people diagnosed with cancer into a single hospital waiting room, watched over by Emma, a single mother waiting for some tests or suspected bone cancer to be conducted on her baby son. And over the course of a long night, we hear their tales of living with the disease, the trials of having to deal with other people's reactions to it, the wells of emotion it taps into.

Cast of A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer continued

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Review: Moby Dick, Union

"The critics won't like it"

Sometimes, returning to shows that might not have lived up to original expectations can reveal real treasures and several of London's fringe theatres have built up a reputation in doing just that, notably the Finborough and the Union. And it is the latter who have opted to tackle notorious 90s flop musical Moby Dick, a frankly batshit meta-adaptation of the Herman Melville novel by Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden.

Moby Dick's conceit is that it is a show-within-in-a-show, the students and staff of St Godley's Academy for Girls putting on a performance in order to save their school, and what a frantically high-energy performance it is. So much so that it's frightfully difficult to work out exactly what the hell is going on - a tongue-in-cheek synopsis of Moby Dick (the novel) is helpfully provided but there's no guide to navigating the whirlpool of this production. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review: The Wind in the Willows, Theatre Royal Plymouth

“Messing about in a boat"

Messrs Stiles, Drewe and Fellowes clearly have an affinity for working with each other as hot on the heels of Half A Sixpence, about to open in West End after a successful run in Chichester, comes another collaboration on a musical version of The Wind in the Willows. Destined for an as yet unconfirmed West End residency, it is currently touring from Plymouth to Salford and then on to Southampton, spreading its gentle, pastoral charms across the UK.

And its charms are gentle, befitting any iteration of the beloved children's novel by Kenneth Grahame. Julian Fellowes' adaptation is faithful to that story and though the scale of Rachel Kavanaugh's production is suitably large, it is also refreshingly simple. Peter McKintosh's design is atmospheric but uncomplicated, playful rather than epic in its idyllic evocation of the British countryside, ably assisted by Aletta Collins' languid choreography.

Cast of The Wind in the Willows continued

Review: The Red Barn, National

"It's as if I have lived my whole life with the handbrake on"

On booking for The Red Barn, you're advised that "due to the tense nature of the play, there will be no re-admittance". The play - written by David Hare from the 1968 novel La Main by Georges Simenon - is also described as a psychological thriller on the website. It all adds up to a certain degree of expectation about what kind of show it is one is going to see and even though this isn't my first time at the rodeo, I've seen a few shows and know the danger of anticipation, it is often hard not to carry the weight of those expectations with you as you take your seat.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Robert Icke's production of The Red Barn was not the play I thought it would be. And that my initial slightly cool reaction was as much a response to that as it was to the material itself. Set in the depths of a Connecticut winter, two couples make their way home from a party and when one of the men doesn't make it back, it is the consequences of that that makes up the meat of the play. Specifically, it's how the other man of the group reacts, both right then and from then on, that Simenon and Hare and Icke probe into.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Ragtime, Charing Cross

"And say to those who blame us for the way we chose to fight
That sometimes there are battles that are more than black or white."

It’s impossible to watch Ragtime right now without marvelling at its relevance to the current US presidential election campaign and the lessons that were right there for Donald Trump and his team to learn. For in many ways, the show – written by Ahrens and Flaherty with book by Terrence McNally from EL Doctorow’s novel – is about the development of the modern American nation and identifies three key groups instrumental in that societal change in women, African-Americans and immigrant communities, the very people Trump has done his damnedest to alienate.

Politics aside, what’s more significant is the magical touch that director Thom Southerland seems to have when it comes to reconceiving musicals, as his actor-musician production here at the Charing Cross Theatre is an extraordinary success. Keeping most of his 24-strong company onstage throughout amplifies the overarching humanity of its storytelling, reminding us that these are all of our stories regardless of whichever group we ‘belong’. Combined with the expert musicality onstage and an ingenious design from Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, it’s an irresistible adaptation that shouldn’t be missed.

Cast of Ragtime continued

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Review: 27, Cockpit

"The public will like whatever I tell them to like"

If only the public were so gullible... New rock musical 27 has nearly completed a substantial run at the Cockpit Theatre so I took my time to see it, knowing that many a show that has described itself as a rock musical has proven not to be my cup of tea. And thus it turned out with Sam Cassidy and Matt Wills' 27, a mishmash of classical and modern myths that ends up something of an unholy mess.

At the forefront, just about, is the story of Orpheus, reinterpreted here for the modern world as wannabe rocker Jason (with a band called the Argonauts...) who does a Faustian deal with the devil for instant fame (see what I mean about those influences...) but ends up chasing through the underworld to rescue his girlfriend who has succumbed to a drug overdose. 

Cast of 27 continued

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Barbican Plymouth

“Capital P

Too soon for panto? Oh no it isn’t. Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was actually the 2014 Christmas show for Plymouth’s Barbican Theatre and proved so popular that it returned for another run at Easter this year and once more for a final 3 performances. Conceived by Devon-based troupe Le Navet Bete, it’s a rip-roaring, cross-dressing, roller-skating, Irish-dancing, popcorn-tossing gem of a show and thus it’s easy to see why it has engendered such popularity.

Whether by accident or design, it’s a canny choice of festive show – it’s a bit tougher to put on Dick Whittington in the middle of the year – but key to its success has surely been around the decisions to aim for a timelessness with the writing. Pantos often make their mark with up-to-the-minute jokes and musical numbers which is all fine and dandy, as they’re generally not looking far beyond the middle of the following January.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Review: Musical of the Year, LOST

"I yearn as I burn"

Stephen Lanigan-O’Keeffe and Owain Rose's Musical of the Year pops up as something of a surprise, a genuinely funny musical theatre extravaganza in the mould of something like Forbidden Broadway as it parodies any number of big musicals from the last 60 years. The conceit is a simple one - the year is 1955 and college sweethearts Rudy Brown and Lizzie Conlon are looking for ways to update a musical they wrote together. They decide to ape the style of the big award-winning musical of the year and when that fails, Rudy tries time and time again.

Their show is based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so we're instantly given a helping hand in terms of the story being told. But even then, there's a clever advancement of the travails of Quasimodo, Esmeralda et al that brings real interest to the songs, in addition to the pastiches that they engender. There's an occasional urge to overegg the pudding in terms of making sure we 'get' it (the shows referenced are all in the programme) but if you can resist, there's real joy in working out what's coming next and its plot will be intertwined with the events of the show.

Cast of Musical of the Year continued

Review: Imogen, Shakespeare's Globe

"Is there no way for men to be, but women must be half-workers?"

Whichever way you cut it, I still find that Cymbeline is a tough play to love and it's not for a lack of trying on my part. I struggled with it at the Sam Wanamaker earlier this year and I'll be trying out the RSC's version once it hits the Barbican later this month. As for now, it's Matthew Dunster's turn to have a go at the play, this time outside at the Globe and in keeping with the new regime, the play has been "renamed and reclaimed" as Imogen, as befits the part of Cymbeline's daughter who has in fact twice as many lines.

Even with Maddy Hill (an unexpectedly moving Titania, among others, in Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream) in the title role and a wonderfully diverse ensemble incorporating a signing deaf actor among others, Imogen remained difficult. For all the contemporary gangland setting (Jonathan McGuinness' king is now a drug lord), Imogen's o'er-hasty marriage to the feckless Posthumus (a good Ira Mandela Siobhan) and subsequent devotion to him even as he proves himself to be a righteous cock doesn't quite fly. That said, the energy in the show is one that proves largely irresistible as sexy shenanigans, modern sounds, and kick-ass choreo combine to memorable effect,