Thursday, 30 June 2016

Eugenius! - Review

London Palladium, London



Music, book and lyrics by Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins
Directed by Ian Talbot and Michael Jibson




For one night only Eugenius! played at the London Palladium in a concert premiere production of this new musical. As the (lavishly workshopped) show is now entering its final phase of development there is no star rating here, rather an assessment of the performance.

Eugenius! makes for a curious tale. Tracking an implausible yarn of two brothers separated at birth, this ain't no Blood Brothers, nor, with its focus upon geeky adolescents is it much of a Loserville either. Dipping in and out of a fictional world dreamed up by Eugene, there's a bizarre science fiction twist that sees (co-producer) Warwick Davis also play the Evil Lord Hector, who has now evolved into an extra-terrestrial bad guy out to wreak revenge on his earthling brother.

There's a love interest too, but overall, much like Lord Hector's return from across the galaxies, it's all a bit far-fetched, with the show lacking the ribald pantomime humour of I Can’t Sing!, (another show endowed with an exclamation mark in the title...) the last new British musical to play the Palladium. Is Eugenius! aiming at the 30/40-something audience for whom the 80s references maybe spot-on but who might expect much more meat in the narrative? Or is it aiming at a much younger audience, in which case some of the adult nuance is at best inappropriate, and at times mildly offensive? Either way, Eugenius! is a very lightweight offering with a story that needs some serious treatment and a running time crying out to be trimmed by at least 30 minutes.

Aside from a ghastly ticketing glitch that led to a 30 minute delay, the production values on the night were impressive. A stellar cast led well drilled ensembles from Laine Theatre Arts and Arts Ed, with Aaron Renfree choreographing some slick routines.

David Bedella as a cynical TV producer was his usual infernally wonderful self, with Amy Lennox and Summer Strallen sharing the honours as leading ladies in the show's real and fictional worlds. Fine work too from Norman Bowman, Daniel Buckley and Samuel Holmes in support, with Louis Maskell (in strong voice) leading as the eponymous Eugene.

Ian Talbot and Mike Jibson directing made decent use of the modest staging constraints imposed upon the production and credit to Andrew Ellis whose lightning designs throughout were consistently stunning.

Last night Eugenius! was well endowed with one of the finest companies in town, both acting and creative, but as it stands it has simply been rolled in glitter. This is a show that needs careful polishing.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Bugsy Malone - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London


*****

Play by Alan Parker
Words and music by Paul Williams
Directed by Sean Holmes


Ensemble

Seeing Bugsy Malone not long after having re-visited The Untouchables (Brian de Palma’s Al Capone gangster movie) and the West End’s revival of Guys and Dolls makes one realise just how classy Sean Holmes’ production of this spoof gangland caper really is.

Forty years ago visionary British film director Alan Parker took the adult mobster world of hoodlums, molls and tommy-guns and scaled it down to kids at soda fountains shooting custard pies at each other and all sungalong to an infectiously cheerful score. It was to be another twenty years or so before the movie made it on to the stage in a book adapted by Parker himself.

Failthful to the film, the plot is so corny as to defy too much explanation, but it really doesn't matter. Set in a 1930s Chicago type city, rival gang bosses Fat Sam and Dandy Dan fight it out for a consignment of dastardly splurge guns. Amidst a cast of talented kids (with an adult ensemble in support who look even younger!) and scenes that almost incongruously leap from nightclub to a boxing ring Bugsy Malone, offers two hours of finely crafted froth. 


Vincent Finch and Ensemble

The cast on the night (there are three teams of child actors for the run) ranged between very good and sensational. Vincent Finch puts in a fine turn carrying much of the narrative as club owner Fat Sam, whilst in the title role Mark Charles has all the potential of a future Sky Masterson, as Oliver Emery captures the bad-guy nastiness of Dandy Dan.


Georgia Pemberton

It is the show’s leading ladies (or rather, girls) however, that are out of this world. Olivia Shaye Masterson’s Tallulah brings a confidence and poise that completely belies her age, giving a stunning take on My Name Is Tallulah. She is only matched by Georgia Pemberton’s Blousey Brown whose two big numbers I’m Feeling Fine and Ordinary Fool offer clear evidence of this young performer’s remarkable and accomplished pedigree. A mention too for Leah Levman’s Lena/Babyface, a pint-sized performance packing a punch that oozes cheeky chutzpah!


Olivia Shaye Masterson

Holmes has assembled a classy team of creatives to support him and Drew McOnie’s choreogoraphy, for the most part performed by the adult ensemble is imaginative and exciting. The hoodlum’s routine in Bad Guys is a blast, whilst the boxing/dancing arrangement  (and a shout out here for fight arranger Kate Waters and her captain Lucy Thomas) in So You Wanna Be A Boxer is poetry in motion. McOnie’s penultimate number, as hoodlums reprise Fat Slam’s Grand Slam all toting splurge guns, carries more than a hint of Bob Fosse. Also top notch is Jon Bausor’s design work – the costumes in particular make the girls look fabulous, and it is rare to see so many perfectly scaled down double-breasted suits.

The music is wonderfully arranged and Phil Bateman has done a wonderful job with Paul William’s score. In a world right now that is at best troubled, to leave a theatre humming You Give A Little Love (and it all comes back to you) is priceless.

First seen here at the Lyric last year, Bugsy Malone went on to garner a well-earned Olivier nomination and now it's back for the summer. Take the kids, hell, take anyone, it's fabulous musical theatre!


Runs until 4th September
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Monday, 27 June 2016

Hotel Black Cat - Review

London Wonderground, Southbank Centre

****

Directed by Laura Corcoran




After a dramatic Friday of tears and fears, agony and ecstasy and the resignation of a prime minister, a late-night cabaret of debauched unreality at the Hotel Black Cat proved to be quite the perfect antidote.

From the mesmerising burlesque artistry of Venus Butterfly and the almost balletic athleticism of sublime acrobats Nathan and Isis to the decadent gluttony of pig-faced fire-eater Chrisalys, this was 75 minutes of unexpected delights, all camply presided over by compere Dusty Limits.

Indeed, the bitchy Mr Limits turns out to be an Aussie of limitless talents - a singer-songwriter with a three-and-a-half octave voice that's capable of doing full justice to Sondheim and Porter when not being the manager of the once-elegant but now rapidly fading Black Cat.

The show presents the hotel as having become a haven for artistes many of whom have seen better days, notably the chambermaid and dogsbody Katharine Arnold, whose career has been wrecked by drugs and drink. It is badly in need of financial assistance and Dusty sets to work on two rich clients, played by Nathan and Isis.

It's a flimsy enough storyline but under Laura Corcoran's direction it's just strong enough to bind together a fine array of speciality acts. On they come in turn, from juggler Florian Brooks to ladders clown Dimitri Hatton to ballet whores Cabaret Rouge and into what was one of the three highlights of the evening, Mr and Mrs Butterfly's lovely daughter with her neon-lit, gracefully swirling Night Flowers dance.

Other golden moments came via the stylish acrobats and a clever musical comedy routine from the appropriately-named Bowjangles, a quartet playing various strings, dancing up a storm, singing lustily and making us laugh all at the same time, quite a feat.

There's a second helping of Nathan and Isis in a ménage a trois story involving Katherine Arnold, now transformed from skivvy to star acrobat on a giant hoop, the show ending with the Eagles’ pulsating 'Hotel California'.

Two songs by the multi-gifted compere stood out - '20th Century Blues' and 'Time' - in a rich fruitcake of all that's best in this particular form of cabaret. The show almost offers a soupçon of a throwback to 1880s Montmartre and Le Chat Noir, where artistes would perform in front of Paris’ great and good in return for free drinks and the chance to get noticed.

It would have been an even better evening if Dimitri had not tried TOO hard to be funny (some loved his clowning; I was not amused) and the audience had been supplied with a list of performers and their backgrounds. Another niggle was having to form a long queue beforehand, for a show that was to begin 15 minutes late, quite a worry for those catching a last train home. 

That said, this Cat is out of the bag for the next nine Fridays at the Spiegeltent on a buzzy and vibrant South Bank and well worth a visit. Yes, it's a bit rude at times and there's the odd four-letter word but nothing I couldn't take my maiden aunt to if I still had one. It's surprising what maiden aunts have got up to in their time!


Runs on Friday nights only until 26th August
Reviewed by Jeremy Chapman
Photo Credit: Jason Moon

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - Review

Union Theatre, London


*****


Written by Jim Cartwright
Directed by Alastair Knights


The company


The final production at the Union Theatre's old residence has been an absolute cracker. Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a brilliantly observed study of life in a northern town through the multi-faceted prism of Mari Hoff and her gifted daughter Little Voice (abbreviated to LV). Hoff's husband (and LV's father) is long dead and as this monstrously merry widow cavorts desperately in search of love and affection, so does LV retreat into a world in which her only solace comes from her dad's record collection of the 20th century's greatest singers. But more than just hiding behind the songs, LV has learned to mimic them perfectly, bringing life to the background drab routine like a shaft of sunlight. Cartwright's text may be merciless as it exposes both Mari's and LV's excoriating loneliness - but it is the detail imbued in his supporting characters that make the play so compelling.

The play has closed now, so this review must stand solely as a record to one of the most moving productions that the Union has mounted in recent years, with Alastair Knights coaxing perfectly nuanced performances from his entire cast.

Charlotte Gorton was Mari. Mutton masquerading as lamb maybe, hers was a cleverly constructed and complex character. Tottering across the stage on heels and clad in either leopard print leggings or tattily torn stockings, Mari is craving to be wanted by a man, yet at the same time fiercely protective and loving of her virtually catatonic daughter. After talent spotter Ray Say drives her home for a drunken fumble on the sofa, Gorton’s gradual realisation that Say is more interested in Mari’s vocally gifted daughter rather than her, is a masterclass in performance. Credit too to Christiansen’s ruthlessly cynical Say. The man is an utter bastard as Christiansen delivered a withering yet sadly recognizable performance.

Carly Thoms’ Little Voice was wondrous. She captured LV’s damaged fragility with a painful piquancy and when the script required her to sing, often without a musical accompaniment. Thoms duly delivered spine-tingling excellence.

Likewise the supporting vignettes were all a treat. Mandy Dassa’s corpulent Sadie, Mari’s obedient yet loving friend is a fine example of a minor character perfectly complementing and completing a scene’s ambience. At the town’s local night club James Peake played compere and impresario Mr Boo again, perfectly. As the fourth wall is brought down to make the theatre audience evolve into the club’s crowd, the applause for LV is as sincere as it is pastiche. Peake’s Brylcreemed delivery of corny gags and patter was just another of the night’s gems, while Glenn Adamson’s softly spoken Billy, a quietly withdrawn telephone engineer offered a perfectly weighted performance as a mutual affection between him and LV emerged.

Yet again, Jack Weir’s lighting was sensational, using the Union’s exposed ironworks to mount marquee nightclub lights and ingeniously creating different locations with his carefully considered plots.

There’s a moment in act two when Ray Say, drunk and in despair, takes to the microphone on Boo’s nightclub stage after realizing that LV is unable to perform. Christiansen was sensational as the destroyed exploiter, and as he powerfully slurred his way through a Roy Orbison classic, in one of the final performances ever to be mounted at the Union’s old premises, there was an added poignancy to the song. A gleaming new building may await the Union just across the road, but for this quaint, damp building, all brickwork and iron girders, itself an archaic tribute to both London’s history and the brilliant ingenuity of fringe theatre, It’s Over.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Through the Mill - The Three Faces Of A One Man Woman




As Ray Rackham's Through the Mill prepares to open at  the Southwark Playhouse, Paul Vale takes a look at this play based around Judy Garland and the men she loved.

There can be no doubt that entertainer Judy Garland continues to be a source of fascination for people working in show business. The body of work she left as her legacy encompasses major motion pictures, television, recordings and historic live performances, but it is Garland's chequered private life that captures the imagination of actors, playwrights and directors more than 40 years after her death.

Garland's movies are regularly shown on networked channels; Peter Quilter's play End Of The Rainbow is currently wowing audiences on tour; Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft continue to reference their mother in sell-out shows and now writer/director Ray Rackham has created his tribute to Garland's incredibly theatrical and turbulent life in Through the Mill. For those among you confused by the title, it's a line in Garland's signature number 'The Man That Got Away'. Appropriate as Through the Mill is a musical play that concentrates of the men in Garland's life.

While three actors play Garland in this non-linear play with songs - Lucy Penrose, Belinda Wollaston and Helen Sheals - there are seven actors who make up the men in Garland’s life include newcomers Perry Meadowcroft, Chris McGuigan and Tom Reade; Shakespearean actor Harry Anton; fringe theatre regular Joe Shefer; stand-up comedian Rob Carter; and West-End veteran Don Cotter. They bring with them a collection of musical instruments, for in this new take on the traditional icon biopic, the actors who play Judy’s supporting men are also her supporting band.

Lucy Penrose as Young Judy

Author Rackham explains, “When I was writing the piece, I always thought it would be a neat conceit to have the men who played a significant part in Garland’s story also provide that incredible orchestral sound that is so typically Judy. We’ve found an extremely talented bunch of actor-musos, who not only portray the male characters with such sensitivity, but can also pick up an alto sax and play a ‘Get Happy’ solo in the entracte.”

“The opportunity to play a real character with history is what drew me to Through the Mill” says Tom Reade, who plays Roger Edens in the play, “particularly as my character is one of the few truly good men in her life. I believe her chaotic love life was a product of an insecure and loveless childhood. The moments we see with Edens in the play are often the few pockets of happiness and excitement in an otherwise complex and stressful world”.

“It is this incredibly theatrical and turbulent life that Through the Mill explores” says Chris McGuigan, who plays acclaimed film and theatre director Norman Jewison in the play. “Judy is an icon, a legend with surprising volatility and fragile vulnerability. The play beautifully demonstrates Judy’s resilience through the adversity in her life, rather than relishing her low points and shortcomings of later life, which I think is much more worthy of celebration”

Often referred to as the ‘least worst’ man in Garland’s life, Sidney Luft was very much the man who didn’t get away, for a while at least. From their first meeting in 1950 to their marriage in 1952 and eventual divorce in 1965. To many, Luft was an opportunist to clung onto Garland’s star for as long as he could. Playing Luft however, Harry Anton has a somewhat different take on his relationship with Garland.

“I think it says a lot about Judy that her longest relationship was with this tough New Yorker,” Anton explains, “in that she wasn’t at all like the Judy Garland that the public had imagined. She was tough. She carried a lot of pain”.

Anton is the only character in Through the Mill who gets to work with more than one of the three actresses playing the legendary singer. “I’m very lucky in that I get to act with two ‘Judies’, who both bring out something different in me through the differences in their own performances. Belinda Wollaston brings so much passion and fire as the 1951 Judy, but also brings a massive vulnerability. Highs and lows. That’s how it feels playing the part. Always on the edge, almost like stepping into a ring. 

But, like any relationship, there has to be love present, so it helps having someone like Belinda who I can trust, and we’re both comfortable finding all these different levels and vulnerable places that the characters get to.

When I am playing opposite Helen Sheals as 1963 Judy, it’s a much steelier, wiser version of Judy, who holds all of the power. Helen’s Judy is the driving force of the scene, and in a way Helen is that as well, so I just kind of hold on and let her do her thing.”

Supporting Company

Garland was painfully conscious that she had no formal training before joining the movie making factory that was MGM; and it was that lack of stage-education that led to an inferiority complex that she never truly lost. Always incredibly perceptive, it was Garland who suggested that this complex resulted in a deep rooted anxiety that worsened as she aged. This came to a head significantly in 1963, in scenes depicted by Sheals’ Judy, where during the filming of her ill-fated television show, the CBS executive Hunt Stromberg Jr, played by Rob Carter in the play, was never far from her wrath.

Says Carter, “Theirs was a fractious relationship, two strong characters trying to suss each other out, relishing the upper hand when they had it, and doing everything to get it back when they lost it. By the end of Through the Mill, I think they’re both tired of the games they’ve been playing and we get to see the people behind the masks.”

Carter has nothing but praise for his co-star Sheals, “Helen is an absolute pleasure to work with.Always present, always enjoying herself, she really breathes life into the scenes and makes it very easy to bounce off her.”

Ray Rackham has the last word. “It’s no doubt that Garland’s relationships with the various men in her life were not always pleasant and in many cases were hugely destructive” Rackham comments, “but I didn’t want my play to reflect only that. I wanted us to celebrate her triumphant nature as much as witness how cruel life can be”.

Through The Mill opens on 6th July and runs until 30th July, at the Southwark Playhouse, London.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Go Between - Review

Apollo Theatre, London


***

Music & lyrics by  Richard Taylor
Book & lyrics David Wood 
Based on the novel by L.P. Hartley 
Directed by Roger Haines


Michael Crawford, Gemma Sutton and William Thompson

One can wait for ages for new musical theatre writing to get a commercial outing and then, much like buses,  two come at once. So it is for composer Richard Taylor who is enjoying a remarkable spring with The Go Between, a collaboration with David Woods, opening at the Apollo as his other new show Flowers For Mrs Harris ends its short run in Sheffield. 

L P Hartley’s novel, first published in 1953, became a modern English classic. Leo Colston, now in his twilight years looks back on a summer at the turn of the century when he found himself the young messenger boy between Marian and Ted, two young adult lovers whose illicit and ultimately doomed relationship straddled England’s ruthlessly upheld class divide. While Joseph Losey’s 1971 film of the story achieved recognition at both the Oscars and Cannes, this marks the first time that the tale has been worked into a musical – and a nod to the innovative Perfect Pitch production house for having seen the show through its development. 

Where Taylor’s recent Sheffield outing flooded the stage with talent, albeit with no big star on board, the casting feature of The Go Between is of course England’s grand-daddy of musical theatre and the creator of Lloyd-Webber's Phantom Of The Opera, Michael Crawford. No celebrity “stunt casting” here, the quality of Crawford's performance brings real smiles. One would be pushed to find a better man for a role that requires not only emotional but vocal versatility and while this national treasure may not be hitting Phantom-like notes, his performance is still certainly on the money.

The piece excels musically but the plot is slow. One can't help but feel that Act One takes a huge amount of time simply setting up their events that follow in the second half. And while the nostalgia is endearing and played beautifully between Crawford and his younger Leo played by William Thompson, the narrative can drag. 

Gemma Sutton and Stuart Wards are the tragically destined lovers. Sutton remains one of the finest performers of her generation, bringing a deviously contagious charm to Marian. Likewise, Ward’s Ted is an equally strong, passionate performance. Both Thompson and the other young lad on the night Archie Stevens are extremely talented, the latter’s comic timing and cheeky smile bringing a grin to every audience member. 

The brave decision to have the onstage band consisting of nothing more than a sole grand piano works well, complementing the era with fine work from musical director Nigel Lilley. A neat design touch is an attic like storage box from which both Leos change costume throughout, giving the clothes changes a similar feel to a child's dressing up box. 

If The Go Between lacks punch, it's undoubtedly sound stylistically and offers the chance to see an incredibly strong cast deliver innovative new writing.


Runs until 15th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Titanic - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


****

Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Thom Southerland


The company of Titanic

Unlike its ill-fated namesake, Thom Southerland’s Titanic has now made a triumphant trans-Atlantic return crossing, tying up at London’s Charing Cross Theatre for a 10 week season. Acclaimed at the Southwark Playhouse three years ago and later in Toronto, this riverside reprise marks Southerland’s debut as Artistic Director at Charing Cross, with his long time muse Danielle Tarento also on board as co-producer.

Adapted for the stage by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston, the musical tells of the 1912 tragedy when the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage, sinking mid-Atlantic with the loss of more than 2,000 lives. Yeston was drawn to the project by the positive aspects of what the ship represented: Humankind’s striving after great artistic works – with his show following the very different arcs of the ship’s owners, builders, passengers and crew.

The casting for this production is, for the most part, magnificent. A fair few members of the original production have returned to reprise their roles and with Yeston’s score so beautifully conducted by Jo Cichonska, it’s not surprising. The strength of the onstage pairings such as Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the wealthy Strauss couple or Victoria Serra and Shane McDaid’s loveable Irish runaways, Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell, make a couple of tiny casting flaws elsewhere very easy to overlook.

Serra (magnificent in the original Titanic as well as last year in Southerland’s Grand Hotel) shines as McGowan. Energetic and youthful, her larger than life personality makes her character unforgettable. Even amidst the ensemble where she plays a modest role as one of the first class passengers, Serra stands out.

There is marvellous work too from James Gant as Etches, a steward in first class. Gant plays his character with warmth, a fatherly figure to the ship’s younger crew members. Making strong choices in his acting, there isn’t a point where the audience doubts him. As the ship is sinking he attempts to gather passengers calmly, although with a fear that is physically visible, not only in his face but in his whole body. One can see that behind his calm and cool demeanour the man is truly terrified. It is a performance that is almost troubling to watch.

The accomplished Claire Machin is unsurprisingly hilarious in her role of socialite “wannabe” Alice Bean. Her timing and characterful wit on stage provides moments of light relief in the otherwise harrowing tale, partnered with Peter Prentice, who plays her husband Edgar Bean, the two have a wonderful back and forth yet amidst the bickering, their moments of tender romance are joyously believable. 

And one to watch is Luke George playing a fresh-faced and innocent 14 year old bellboy. Beautiful acting, with every choice he makes looking like that of a young child and with a vulnerability in his performance that makes you believe his age.

David Woodhead’s design is minimalistic but effective, using the basic framing of bars to create the appearance of the ocean liner's deck, with the theatre itself repainted to match the colour of the set. Looking up from the stalls, the circle resembles the Titanic’s upper deck. Throughout, Howard Hudson’s wonderful lighting only seals the nautical illusion, as Cressida Carre's choreography remains as sensitively powerful as it was three years ago.

What has been produced at Charing Cross is a gripping and beautiful production that makes for a deeply moving night at the theatre. Bravo to Tarento and Southerland for sailing Titanic back to London.


Runs until 6th August
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Scott Rylander