Friday, 5 October 2018

People Like Us - Review

Union Theatre, London


Written by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins
Directed by Ben De Wynter

Sarah Toogood and Gemma-Germaine

Like a long overdue gust of fresh air blown into the stale politicised bubble that has become London’s arts scene, People Like Us, a debut play from the writing partnership of Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, upends the politically correct canards that have stifled decent debate in the capital for years.

Set around an Islington book group of five friends, most of whose relationships date back to their Oxford years, the fault lines are very quickly exposed between the trio who with varying degrees of passion support Remain and their two Leave believing buddies.

Ralph, with a house in Provence and a younger (second) French wife Clemence are, unsurprisingly, Remainers and upping the ante even further, Clemence is employed by an EU agency. And then there’s Will, a nice enough novelist who, while he canvases for Remain, espousing the intellectual virtues of a London liberal, is still socially, if not politically, impaled on his very personal fence post. 

Leading the charge of democracy are Stacey and Frances whose belief in the Brexit cause appalls Clemence and Ralph. Where Robins has constructed the play’s skeleton, it is Burchill who has fleshed out most of the dialogue and lashing out at London's litterati and chatterati, she takes no prisoners. Ralph’s liberal tolerance is mocked by Frances, while Clemence argues tellingly and, on reflection chillingly, that it is “morally better to silence dissent”. There’s an interesting nod from Frances to Islamic complexities too, an angle that may have the more sensitive critics throwing their hands up in horror, but her sentiments, when viewed through the prism of Rochdale and Rotherham carry more of a resonance than many would be comfortable admitting.

Kamaal Hussain captures Ralph’s privileged entitlement as Marine Andre makes her impassioned UK debut as Clemence. The intensity behind Andre’s performance is sincere and credible - but there are moments when her strong and natural accent renders some of the text inaudible. Gemma-Germaine and Sarah Toogood capture the indignity of their position, ostracised by Ralph and Clemence - and while, for the sake of artistic licence all the character’s arguments are slightly lampooned and exaggerated by the writers, the two Leavers make a powerfully cogent case. Paul Giddings’ Will is a cracking turn that could easily have been inspired by Chicago’s Mr Cellophane.

The silencing and politically dehumanising of Leavers in London has been a recognisable trait of the last three years - and whilst the play is unquestionably a rough diamond that still needs work on both script and aspects of the staging too - for the most part the writers and producers are to be commended for taking their argument to the capital, the ideological heartland of the nation’s Remain constituency.

This is unquestionably a courageous, partisan show for the Union to stage - and there is as much thought put into the production as there is heart, with the programme alone containing more than six pages of essay and comment on Brexit. And if ever there was an example of fortune favouring the brave then this is it: the show has sold out for its entire run and deservedly so.

While People Like Us may be unusual fodder for a West End transfer, there is already talk of a run being staged in the nation’s North East. It would sit well in a TV treatment too.

Runs until 20th October - SOLD OUT
Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Friday, 28 September 2018

Midnight - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Laurence Mark Whythe
Book & lyrics by Timothy Knapman
Based on the play Citizens Of Hell by Elchin

Leon Scott

Set in Azerbaijan in 1937 and based upon Elchin’s play, Midnight tackles life under Stalin’s terrifying rule where a midnight knock on the door could be followed by trumped up charges of counter-revolutionary activity, torture and in all probability, death. For musical theatre this is an ambitious subject to grapple with and a show seeking to compress Stalin’s grip on the Soviet Union into one small Baku flat on a New Year’s Eve some eighty years ago, needs some sensational songs and narrative if it’s going to pack a punch.

Unfortunately, it’s punches-pulled here, although Midnight does prove to be an evening of two halves. A bunch of (for the most part, talented) actor musos lead a first half that either needs a massive trim or a re-write, before the show comes alive in act two with twists and revelations that mingle Faust with Kafka. The tale is one of those that to even hint at would spoil, suffice to say that combining horror and the supernatural with totalitarian politics makes for an excellent second half cocktail.

Whilst some of the melodies are magical, (Let Yourself Go and The Colonel in particular) there is too much mawkish balladry sprinkled throughout with the first act’s closing number, The Great Machine, feeling contrived and lacking the devastation that should send the audience reeling into the theatre bar for half-time revival.

But within this curious piece, there are some gems. Leon Scott as the Visitor/Officer has a captivating presence that demands our attention in every scene. Perfect in voice and poise, it is Scott’s energy at the heart of this machine. And in a tiny role amongst the musical ensemble Melania Maggiore (who based upon her bio in the programme appears to be making her first UK performance in this show) delivers an absolutely exquisite soprano performance singing Let Me Sleep, matched only by her enchanting work on the violin.

Kate Golledge uses the space imaginatively, with Chris Cuming’s choreography being worthy of its Offies nomination and a rare shout out for a show’s fight director, Jonathan Holby, who with minimal use of props and make up, convinces us of appalling violence.  

The People vs an all-powerful and unfair State has long been the source of good musical theatre (Les Mis anyone?) but this show’s emotional reach rarely ventures out of the shallow waters other than perhaps reminding us of the perils of far-left socialism.

There’s something special around Midnight, but it needs more work.

Runs until September 29th
Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Antony and Cleopatra - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin

Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes

It’s all very well for director Simon Godwin to project his Antony and Cleopatra into the modern era but for one gaping hole in the logic. Whilst the costumes and the weaponry (Kalashnikovs, really?) may be 21st Century, neither the Italy nor the Egypt of today, save for their respective antiquities, resemble anything like their illustrious glories from millennia past. This play skips over the inconvenient modernities that Italy is broken and Egypt impoverished, but misquoting Mark Twain, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

And truly, this is a ripping yarn. As “a pair so famous”, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo are the titular magnificents. Perfectly cast, Fiennes the grizzled, patrician warrior Antony bears a love for Cleopatra that is almost tangible in its devotion. As much as Fiennes brings an impasssioned wisdom to his role, so too does Okonedo command the stage with a powerful petulance, their mutual, eternal devotion well elicited by Godwin.

There is fine supporting work too. Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus is a work of art in itself, his description of Cleopatra’s Royal Barge and of her beauty, delivered with a rarely encountered richness. In a neat gender-twist, Katy Stephens takes on Agrippa, creating a brief but plausible chemistry with Enobarbus as she outlines her plans for Antony’s wedding to Octavia, while in Cleopatra’s court, Gloria Obianyo is a touching Charmian.

The technical values of the production offer up our National Theatre at its very best. Michael Bruce’s music (delivered beautifully by the side-staged 5 piece band) draws from a variety of themes, with just a delicious hint of Ron Goodwin too during a military moment. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s set design proves to be a veritable chocolate box of surprises. Making fine use of the Olivier’s drum revolve (even if some of the below level scene-shifting could be quieter) Bechtler effortlessly shifts the action to and fro across the Mediterranean, even creating an ornate pond in Cleopatra’s palace. Elsewhere, in place of his originally scripted galley,  Pompey (Sargon Yelda) is given a submarine from which to command his fleet. And a nod to the heart-warmingly cute (and non-venomous) milk snake, called upon to double as an asp, which comes close to stealing the final scene!

At three and a half hours all in Antony and Cleopatra is a long haul, but with Fiennes and Okonedo making Shakespeare’s verse sing, there are moments here to be savoured.

Runs until 19th January 2019 in repertory
To be screened via NTLive on 6th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Jane Robins talks about People Like Us

Jane Robins
As Brexit remains headline news across the country People Like Us, a new comedy from writers Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, examines how this polarisation of political opinion has cut a swathe through friendships and families. Opening next week at London's Union Theatre, the play is about the impact of Brexit upon the members of a suburban book group. 
I caught up with Jane Robins in the closing days of rehearsals for a brief conversation.

JB:    Jane, how much of the script is drawn from personal experience?

JR:    Some of it has happened to me – I was very publicly shamed on Facebook for instance when I posted some links to articles that were saying actually it wasn't really so bad, referencing job gains that were being reported in the City of London since the referendum.

I quickly found myself unfriended very publicly, there was a moralistic tone in the air and I learned (from other friends) that some people had formed the view: "we thought she was a nice person and now she turns out to be really bad".

In the view of some of my friends it was almost immoral to vote Leave and I've certainly experienced people wanting to keep me at arm’s length because of it.

Feeling a little sore, I was drawn to the first meeting of Leavers of London. I had seen on Twitter that a young woman, Lucy Harris, had posted something along the lines of: "Did you vote Leave and now feel a bit isolated? Come and meet up for a drink."

So I went along (it turned out I was the first to arrive that evening and I've since become great friends with Lucy) and lots of people turned up. Really bright, interesting people from all backgrounds, and on both the Left and the Right politically. A lot of them were (are) working in creative industries or in fields like teaching or in public services and commented how they just were unable to say at work that they voted Leave.

There were lots of stories, individual stories, that people told about how difficult it was for them -  and that's how the idea for the play began. I'd lived in London most of my life and had never thought that something like this could happen. I thought we took it for granted that we trusted our friends and that we didn't cut them off because of the way they had voted on something.

JB:    How did you and Julie Burchill find each other?

JR:    We first met on Facebook through a mutual friend and a posted article that both Julie and I had “liked”. From there, we became Facebook friends. When the idea came to me to write this play. I thought I could do it but that it would take me at least a couple of years and I just don't have the time for that with my day job as a novelist. I've always admired Julie's writing and her exuberance, the way that she provokes and challenges amaze me.

So I said to her “I'm thinking of writing a play, can I come down to Brighton and talk to you about it?” She then invited me along to a lunch she was having with friends and as I walked into the bar of the Hotel Du Vin I think within 30 seconds I had asked her to be my co-author! She called for the champagne menu and it was the start, as they say, of a beautiful friendship.

I live in London, she lives in Brighton and over about 18 months we have worked very professionally – we didn't see each other at all during the whole writing of the play. I'd already got everything mapped out in terms of the characters and the structure of the play and how I saw it. That's the sort of stuff, especially structure, that Julie doesn't enjoy. What she loves to do is dialogue.

And so I would write each scene in a rough way, doing some of the dialogue and basic mapping and then send it off to Julie and she would just wave her magic wand all over it, bring it to life and send it back to me for editing.

JB:    What do you expect the reaction to the play to be when it opens in London next month?

JR:    I genuinely have no idea at all. I think that Remainers could come to the play and really like it and think it's very funny. Or there might be completely the opposite reaction because a lot of the jokes are about “people who go to the theatre”. We could've dug our own grave with that, I just don't know.

Many scripts make fun of the chattering classes. We've done it because everything's so deeply personal at the minute and I don't know whether people are going to take it benignly and enjoy it, or get bristly.

Part of me thinks that the hard core “Remain community” are very touchy but it’s not that way and, to be fair, it's not most people either. My sister voted Remain, as did my brother-in-law and half my family and they’ve enjoyed the play. I think it's only a sliver of society who have become sort of hysterical, but it's very hard now to know.

Above all, the play is about friendship. We’ve not gone into all those sort of, pros and cons of Brexit at great lengths. We could have done, but I think the pacing is all about democracy. And I believe that's what a lot of Leavers think and a lot of Remainers just can't see. There's a blindness there and they don't see why leaving the EU is important to so many people.

JB:    Do you feel there's a timeliness to the play with all that's going on right now, as the Chequers furore leads into the parties' conference season?

JR:    Definitely! All the time in the process of writing the play and getting it put on, it felt enormously timely and you might think that you could have written something about Brexit and a year and two year after the boat it would no longer be that relevant but I think it's more relevant than ever. Things haven't died down at all, they're still raging.

JB:    Has it been a challenge to stage the play in London?

JB:    Sasha Regan at the Union Theatre has been great, as has Ben de Wynter who is also directing. And the cast and creatives too, irrespective of their own personal views, are really putting their hearts into the production. It's extraordinarily exciting!

JB:    What do you hope the play will achieve?

JR:    A good night out. I think the number one duty is for people to come and have a great time and to laugh.

People Like Us runs at the Union Theatre from October 2nd to the 20th. For tickets, book here.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Heathers The Musical - Review

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London


Book, Music and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe 
Directed by Andy Fickman

Carrie Hope Fletcher and Jamie Muscato

Following a sold-out run at The Other Palace earlier this year, there’s been a lot of hype surrounding Heathers the Musical, with a strong fandom out in force and social media buzzing with (mostly) glowing comments. Based on the cult 1988 film written by Daniel Waters and starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers is a dark and entertaining tale of teenage angst, love and quest for popularity and arrives at its new home at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with high expectations all round.

For many teenagers high school is a time of angst and self-doubt and that’s certainly no different for Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher), a teenage nobody who desperately dreams of ditching the bullies and fitting in at Westerberg High. Thanks to her knack of forging hall passes she’s soon taken in by three of the most popular (and cruellest) girls in school, The Heathers, although she finds out that popularity is not all it’s cracked up to be. She meets new boy in town, Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean, unaware that her relationship with the outcast will have grave consequences for everyone. 

Directed by Andy Fickman, Heathers is a dark musical packed full of humour and memorable numbers, with impressive choreography by Gary Lloyd, a versatile set (designed by David Shields) and enviable costumes to whisk you straight back to the 80s. 

While there is a realism in the show’s portrayal of teenage desperation for popularity, there are moments when it all feels deeply unsettling. The narrative brushes with sensitive topics including teenage suicide, sexual assault and high school killings that sit awkwardly when contrasted with the real-life tragedy of such events.

Fletcher lives up to expectations, delivering a misguided Veronica who is endearing yet flawed. Her performance is strong throughout in both acting and song, especially when she belts out Dead Girl Walking. Equally impressive is Jamie Muscato as the dry-humoured, troubled psychopath J.D, and the pair have great chemistry, as evidenced during their duet Seventeen. They’re both supported by a strong cast including Jodie Steele, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs as Heathers Chandler, Duke and McNamara respectively. Despite the cruelness of their characters, the trio are given one of the show’s catchiest songs, Candy Store. There is memorable work too from Jenny O’Leary as Martha, Veronica’s kind-hearted childhood best friend, with her sweetly sung number Kindergarten Boyfriend sure to tug at heart strings.

Despite its flaws, this is a technically well delivered show that is likely to be popular amongst die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

Runs until 24th November
Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Friday, 14 September 2018

Wasted - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Christopher Ash
Book & lyrics by Carl Miller
Directed by Adam Lenson

Natasha Barnes

Any musical can only be as good as its underlying book and Wasted, based upon the lives of the four Brontë siblings (3 girls and a boy) is written around a very strong core. Bursting into the Southwark Playhouse this is a brave show that celebrates the famed achievements of Charlotte, Emily and Anne and, in a marked contrast to a number of the capital's recent openings, audaciously dares to presume that its audience has a basic knowledge of classical English Literature. Wasted is a defiant and intelligent display of strong womanhood, set in era of rampant chauvinism. Not only that, but its score comes close to matching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with its diverse range of incorporated musical styles and sources. 

The show’s title stems from the Brontës never having lived to know the the impact that their writings were to have upon the English canon and that their lives had been little more than wasted. Carl Miller’s book sets out a clear historical arc that tracks the family’s lives in and around Haworth and their occasional ventures beyond the village. Whilst their curate father provided for the children’s every intellectual desire, remote Yorkshire left them emotionally impoverished with Anne’s heartfelt lament, No-One To Marry For Miles, defining the isolation. By way of marked contrast, when they make a first visit to the coast at Bridlington, Charlotte’s number Infinite Eternity soars with the passion of her discovering the beauty of the sea. Christopher Ash’s compositions are, for the most part, ingenious and time spanning. Tiny Magazines, sung by the Brontës when young, is a delicious a capella 4-part harmony. Elsewhere there is blues, electro and even some moments of beat-boxing, interspersed with beautiful balladry and some sometimes-wonderful rock. 

The show’s women are knockout, with Natasha Barnes storming it as Charlotte. Barnes bears an electrifying power that can conquer the biggest songs and with both (Extra)Ordinary Woman and the show’s closing title number, she takes Southwark's roof off.  Siobhan Athwal (and the show’s construct) offers an intriguing glimpse into Emily Brontë, a desperately private woman, clinging to the fringes of sanity. Yet underneath the mania we also glimpse the wild genius that created Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff. Molly Lynch is, as ever, vocally enchanting as Anne Brontë. The lesser known of the three sisters, every song Lynch delivers is a gem as she imparts a youthful wisdom to the complex role.

Molly Lynch, Siobhan Athwal, Matthew Jacobs Morgan, Natasha Barnes

Making up the quartet is Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s Branwell Brontë. While Morgan's work is flawless, the show in its current iteration is too long and were Branwell's character to be cut from a future revision, the whole piece could well become tighter.

While director Adam Lenson draws strong work from his foursome, his direction at times becomes as tangled as the mic cables that clutter the stage posing both a distraction to the audience as well as a health & safety risk to the actors. The mics are merited given the quasi-rock staging of the piece, but wireless will work better. Likewise, the overall balance of the Southwark sound mix needs a lot more work,

On a virtually bare stage. Matt Daw and Sam Waddington’s clever lighting adds both location and nuance to the show, as Joe Bunker’s band (that includes some lovely country melodies from Isabel Torres on ukulele) puts in a fine shift throughout.

Wasted doesn’t pretend to be an easy show to watch – but within it there is excellence. It is one of the finest and most carefully crafted pieces of new musical theatre writing to hit London this year.

Runs until 6th October
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Natasha J Barnes plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer

Natasha J Barnes

Circumstances have thrust Natasha J Barnes into playing the leading role of Fanny Brice in Michael Mayer’s production of Funny Girl, recently transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Savoy Theatre.  The show has already been reviewed by in both those venues – so this review is all about Barnes.

Quite simply, she is a stunning, revelatory astonishment. The role is huge, with the actress onstage almost throughout as she charts Brice’s rise from a self-confident Brooklyn kid to Broadway star.  And it is in tracing Brice’s soaring arc, that Barnes herself soars. When we first meet her as the young Fanny, all knickerbockered and hopeful, Barnes to most of the audience, is an unknown performer – but as she sings I’m The Greatest Star, we catch a tiny glimpse of life imitating art as Barnes’ talent is revealed.

It’s not just her stunning voice that rises magnificently through the show’s two signature numbers People and Don’t Rain On My Parade – it is her ability to grasp the complexities of Brice’s life and play them convincingly. We believe in her childhood, we believe in her chutzpah and eventually, as Brice evolves into an older and ultimately wiser woman, we believe Barnes’ portrayal of Brice’s deepest love for the errant Nicky Arnstein and her formidable strength as she moves forward from a failed marriage.

Barnes captures the nuance, the poise, the comedy and the raw gutsy energy that epitomised Fanny Brice – and she brings back to the role the passion that was first (and last?) seen when Sheridan Smith opened this show at the Menier 6 months ago.  Since then, Smith’s personal life has been desperately painful - and all too publicly too - and no-one would wish her a return to this most demanding of roles until she is fully fit.

But until Smith is ready to play Funny Girl again, she can at least be assured that the show is in safe hands. In a display of pure theatrical magic, Natasha J Barnes stuns us with her acting, touches our hearts with People and in closing both halves of the show with Don’t Rain On My Parade, makes spines tingle and hairs stand on end.  Barbra Streisand may have created Fanny Brice, but Barnes’ take on the role reminds one of that other classic Streisand performance, A Star Is Born.

Funny Girl is booking until 8th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan