Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Perfect Murder - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna
Directed by Ian Talbot

Jessie Wallace and Shane Ritchie

There really is such a thing as the perfect murder, so the audience is informed by a gleeful Victor Smiley near the beginning of this play: it's the one you've never heard of.

The Perfect Murder is a stage adaption of Peter James’ novella of the same name, itself inspired by a conversation that James had had with a chief constable in which the policeman had suggested that “we all, at some point in our lives, consider killing someone.”

And so begins a tale of premeditated murder. Victor (Shane Ritchie) plans to murder wife Joan (Jessie Wallace), in the perfect solution to a dead marriage now filled with resentment and endless arguing. There's a familiarity to the set up; a childless couple, married for 20 years, with nothing to entertain them but each other. 

James' story moves between a small 1960s house in Saltdean, just outside Brighton and a room at The Kitten Parlour, a brothel in the town. Michael Holt’s set is beautifully crafted, allowing seamless transitions between the various elements.  

The story may be a bold premise but it is tackled with heaps of comic effect predominantly through the script, but also through well-timed physical humour. The play is, after all, dealing with murder – in a very black comedy.

Ritchie and Wallace are outstanding, bringing to the stage elements of the television relationship that they are most well-known for. Throughout, their interactions deliver plenty of laughs. Ritchie is particularly brilliant, switching between monologues – in which he explains his grand ideas – and dialogue with Wallace, delivered with a dry acknowledgement that the audience is aware of the true meaning behind his words. 

Completing the line-up are Simona Armstrong, Stephen Fletcher and Benjamin Wilkin, who plays a young Roy Grace, the star of James’ internationally best-selling crime thriller series. 

The full house attests to the crime genre's perennial appeal. While some in the audience may have been drawn by the leads' star appeal, the strength of this production stands on its own.  

Runs until 13th February, then on tour. 
Reviewed by: Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Honeybunn Photography

Saturday, 6 February 2016

I Loved Lucy - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Written by Lee Tannen
Directed by Anthony Biggs

Sandra Dickinson and Matthew Bunn

Playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, I Loved Lucy is Lee Tannen's “autobiographical” biography of the final chapters of Lucille Ball's life. An age gap of 40 years separated Ball and Tannen, who had been a devoted fan of America's favourite TV comedienne since his very young childhood. So when Ball's second marriage was, by chance, to bring her into a distant branch of Tannen's family, the young Jewish aficionado was gifted the first chance to meet his (TV) screen idol. From then on, through Tannen's early adult life he was to press ahead with cementing a devoted and enchantingly mutual, loving friendship with the star.

What emerges in Tannen's adaptation of his book, is a heartwarming tale of companionship and backgammon. Theirs may have been nothing stronger than the deepest of platonic friendships, but in an industry famed for superficiality and an obsession with image over substance, what nourished both Ball and Tannen was the sincerity of their fondness for each other. Two of the play's more profound moments are revealed in the second half: Firstly where Ball expresses her fears (and remember that this was the 1980's) that the gay Tannen may succumb to the AIDS rampage;  and later, where having presented the Oscars alongside Bob Hope, she returns home to Tannen expressing her disgust at the fawning she'd received, remembering how when starting out in the business, she’d literally had nothing. Sandra Dickinson, in a remarkable take on Ball, pitches the scenes perfectly

Anthony Biggs directs with Matthew Bunn putting in a hardworking and creditable shift as the Ball-besotted New Yorker. But as the TV star herself, Dickinson steals the show. Her long established TV persona in the UK was derived from playing ditzy blondes. Here, as the supremely sassy redhead and in a sensational performance, Dickinson not only captures the publicly broadcast spirit of Ball, but also offers a convincing and sometimes fascinating glimpse into the star's later life.

Dickinson's performance has to rank amongst the best in town right now. Tannen's witty writing and recollections may occasionally let sentiment blur dramatic impact, but nonetheless this compelling two-hander makes for very entertaining theatre.

Runs until 27th February

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The World Goes Round - Review

St James' Theatre, London


Sally Samad, Oliver Tompsett, Debbie Kurup, Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Alexandra Da Silva

Kander & Ebb's repertoire is famously bleak with musicals that have focused on the rise of Nazism, torture and misery in a Latin American jail, racism in the Deep South and celebrity criminals and corruption in Chicago. Their shows are challenging, often making for very uncomfortable entertainment. So it makes for quite a paradox that The World Goes Round offers an evening of delightful musical theatre treats. Conceived some 25 years ago, it was Susan Stroman and David Thompson together with Scott Ellis who put together this eclectic selection that referenced all the composers' musicals to date (though of course omitting The Scottsboro Boys which had yet to be written.)

Now on for one week only at the St James' Studio, there's an understated aura of finesse that surrounds this revival. Debbie Kurup leads an accomplished vocal quintet and with a nod to her Velma Kelly, makes fine work of Chicago's All That Jazz. There’s a measured quality elsewhere from Kurup with a neatly stylish opening take on the revue's title number and a sensational duet in the second half alongside Alexandra Da Silva, the women giving a perfect interpretation of The Grass Is Always Greener from the not so well known Woman Of The Year. 

Da Silva's acting through song proves to be one of the evening's highlights, kicking off the second half with Ring Them Bells. Sally Samad completes the female trio - and proves her credentials in (another) duet with Da Silva, Class from Chicago perfectly capturing the number's wry irony.

Oliver Tompsett and Steffan Lloyd-Evans provide the evening's tenor tones, never bettered than with Tompsett's I Don't Remember You segueing sweetly into Lloyd-Evans' take on Sometimes A Day Goes By - though a nod too for Lloyd-Evans' Mr Cellophane that captures the song's wit and pathos. 

It makes for a novel twist to hear Cabaret actually sung in cabaret - and the five-voice arrangement, accompanied mainly by Rhys Lovell's bass, offers a refreshing interpretation of one of the Songbook's greats. Kris Rawlinson's four piece band are on point throughout, lending a polished turn to the show's arrangements.

In a set that's crammed with the familiar as well as the obscure, The World Goes Round makes for a gig of unadulterated charm.

Runs until 7th February 2016

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Train Driver Baz Joins The Railway Children

Slow down Mr Baz!
We all know that moment in The Railway Children….there’s been a landslide, the track is strewn with rocks and rubble that can only spell disaster for the train we can hear approaching in the distance. In the book it is gripping, whilst in Lionel Jefferies’ acclaimed movie the moment is almost terrifying. And now, thanks to the ingenuity of the National Railway Museum, Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden the spectacle is being brought to life for real in a theatre built on a reclaimed good yard near Kings Cross, as 80 tons of genuine steam train emerges, amid billows of smoke and the screeching of brakes.

So how can such a pivotal event in our nation's culture become even more exciting? Simple. You get a chance to drive the actual train!

I’ve loved trains forever and especially steam trains. So when Ben Hewis of WhatsOnStage.com, late one evening last year tweeted a request for #StageyBucketList suggestions, it only took a moment, sprawled across a sofa at home and helped by the whisky I was sipping, to promptly tweet back that given half a chance I’d love to drive the train in The Railway Children (or @TRCKingsCross as the production is called on Twitter).

Ten minutes later my phone pinged and I almost (but thankfully didn’t) spilt my scotch in surprise. It was @TRCKingsCross, tweeting back a reply and saying that they could make my wish come true!

And so it was that I found myself on the footplate of that marvellous engine, awaiting my cue to steam into the auditorium. The excitement was building, the smoke was built up back stage so that the train emerged through billowing clouds – and then, with a jolt, we were off. Lit by the orange glow of the engine’s roaring fire and with the actors on the track in front, waving desperately for me to stop the train, I desperately strived to bring the 80 tons of this massive, beautiful machine to a brake-screeching halt. Just in time….

Stationmaster Shaun Williamson with his rookie driver
It wasn’t just the excitement of driving the train in the show though. The glimpse behind the scenes at Kings Cross was fascinating. There was Alison and Dominique in the wardrobe department who had miraculously assembled a costume that fitted me perfectly. The warm welcome of the cast who took my awestruck amateur dramatics into their bosom  and made me feel so welcome, especially the show’s regular train drivers who showed this novice just what to do. And in act two, when I was a passenger on the train, thank you Connie Hyde, who guided a terrified first-timer (me) to exactly where I had to sit and walk for the show’s Finale.

Shaun Williamson who currently leads the cast as Mr Perks was a delight and a special thanks to resident director Michael Vivian who patiently took me through a crash course (literally) in train driving, telling me where I needed to be and when.

To be invited backstage of any show is a treat, to take a peek into that world of make believe where a theatre company create their stories. But to cross the line and, for one fabulous night only, to actually become a part of that magical process we call “theatre” was, quite simply a privilege and a night I shall never forget.

A massive thank you to everyone at The Railway Children. I was chuffed!

The company of The Railway Children with their new driver

PS Before you think that letting me loose at the train’s controls was a reckless failure of health and safety by the producers, let me assure you that the technology and safety processes - and just a hint of theatre magic too - in place at the Kings Cross Theatre ensure that at all times the show's audience, cast and crew remain completely safe.

Photography (lower two pictures) by Michael Curtis
Top picture by Johan Persson

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Jeepers Creepers - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


Written by Robert Ross
Directed by Terry Jones

Rebecca Vaughan and David Boyle

Marty Feldman was a unique comedy turn who could have been a giant. His distinctive boggled eye face and wild hair set him apart visually and as a peer of some of the late 20th century comedy greats he wrote for, and performed with, the best. Jeepers Creepers written by Robert Ross looks at Feldman away from the stage and studio, focussing instead on the philanderer and his devoted, even if humiliated, spouse Lauretta.

With Terry Jones at the helm expectations ran high – yes, one knows that Feldman was taken tragically young and that his life was difficult – but we also know that he was a gifted comedian. So somewhere in a play about a comic, directed by the man who with Monty Python’s Life Of Brian gave the world one of its funniest ever movies, there’s a hope that along with the poignancy, there may also be some belly laughs too – and Ross has certainly tried, interjecting Feldman-esque gags along the way. But ultimately and to borrow a line from the play, Jeepers Creepers “does to comedy what the RAF did to Dresden” – and it all makes for a three act offering that’s more endurance than entertainment.

Notwithstanding the confines of the Leicester Square Theatre’s basement Studio, Jones’ direction plods. The two actors, to their credit however, are magnificent. David Boyle captures the essential mania of the man, in a performance that convinces and which must be exhausting. Likewise Rebecca Vaughan as Lauretta, drawn by the deepest of loves to a man whose infidelities continuously break her heart, also puts in a fabulous turn.

But ultimately there are neither tears nor guffaws to be found here. Jeepers Creepers makes for a laboured drama-documentary that shows only Feldman’s dark side and offers nothing of his genius to today’s younger audiences who may know little, if anything, of the man. An opportunity wasted.

Runs until 20th February

Seasons Of Larson - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Directed by Grant Murphy

Jonathan Larson died tragically young, aged just 35. A writer who touched so many lives, it was an inspired idea that saw Katy Lipson and Guy James mark the twentieth anniversary of his passing by staging a concert to remember the man and his work. Seasons Of Larson was a journey back to “the end of the millennium” for an emotional roller coaster of songs, chosen to represent Larson’s best.

The evening had pre-recorded tributes from its performers played out as voicemails throughout the concert – a clever nod to Rent – which despite being cutely anecdotal style stories, in actual fact provided the audience with an opportunity to check back in to reality, shuffle themselves in their seat and prepare for the next (and for the most part self-indulgent) turn. 

Notwithstanding perhaps a little too much eye-closing, air-grabbing and (ahem) lyric-dropping there were some dazzling moments that stunned the audience, none finer than Debbie Kurup’s Come To Your Senses from Tick Tick Boom. Kurup’s performance stole the show, proving utterly believable from beginning to end. 

There was light relief from the endearing Noel Sullivan whose comedy timing and vocals were both on point as he delivered One Of These Days towards the end of the Spring Season, with the sassy Krysten Cummings adding many more laugh out loud moments in Out Tonight and Break Out The Booze.

Subtle and clever staging from Grant Murphy allowed the cast room to breathe, nicely making way for Anton Stephans’ rendition of I'll Cover You to totally bring the house down. 

The predominantly Renthead audience were clearly hungry for anything from that show. Within seconds of hearing the opening bar of any number, excitable murmurs and ear-pricking would ensue, none more so than for Seasons of Love. The song aptly fronted the concert’s second half, as of course it does the show and performed by the whole cast, it proved a very special and unique act two opening.

The evening proved a lovely tribute to the writer, with neat musical direction from Gareth Bretherton. Here's hoping a Larson show may come back to the London theatre scene soon.

Guest reviewer: Heather Lloyd

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Let It Be - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Music and lyrics by The Beatles
Directed by John Maher

The band

Let It Be, kicking off its tour in Bromley this week, serves as a remarkable reminder of The Beatles' story. Tracing the band’s beginnings in The Cavern club in Liverpool, it follows the soon to be named Fab Four on their fast track to greatness, hurtling to London and America and on to packed stadium tours, taking the audience with them on this journey.

The art of writing a truly great pop song requires some genius. Although many attempt it, only a handful manage to get it right – with The Beatles creating an entire catalogue of hits, incredibly over only a decade.

On top of this, to be a great performer is even harder, requiring immense commitment and enthusiasm on stage along with an almost unified consensus from the entire band on the direction of travel. Watching Let It Be, it is difficult to avoid comparing the career of this great band to the artists of today. That The Beatles managed to achieve such success and heights of adulation largely on their own merit – without teams of songwriters and stylists manufacturing hits for them - only adds to the depth of their impact upon popular music.

John (Paul Canning), Paul (Iain Hornal), George (John Brosnan) and Ringo (Luke Roberts) illustrate the life of The Beatles through a series of different performances. As the sets change, so do hairstyles and outfits, remaining true to the essence of the band’s personality at any moment in time.

There are highlights aplenty, including an ambitious recreation of the band’s performance at The Royal Variety Performance, with the original 1960’s footage from that show playing above the live musicians on stage. The company’s attention to detail is astounding with each band member mimicking their character’s mannerisms. We recognise Ringo’s head movements, George’s dancing around the stage and even the singers’ stances behind the microphones.

As the show progresses we see Lennon become slightly more reserved, Harrison more confident and Starr more present – while McCartney, by contrast, remains largely unchanged.

Iain Hornal’s performance of Blackbird is hauntingly beautiful. But the standout performance, that brings the audience to its feet, is of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. John Brosnan recreates Eric Clapton’s guitar solo with such mastery that it fully grips the audience in its magnificence.

Let It Be proves to be a wonderfully unexpected show, guaranteed to thrill not just fans of The Beatles, but anyone with an appreciation of their great music and showmanship. 

Runs until 30th January, then on tour
Reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: David Munn Photography