Wednesday, 12 December 2018

A Christmas Carol : The Musical In Concert - Review

Lyceum Theatre, London


Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens
Based on the story by Charles Dickens

Griff Rhys Jones

It’s that time of year where once again Freddie Tapner gleefully conducts A Christmas Carol: The Musical in Concert at the West End's Lyceum Theatre for two nights (and a matinee) only. The classic tale is told with the help of a gorgeous cast including Welsh treasures Griff Rhys Jones, X-Factor finalist Lucie Jones together with the fabulous Cedric Neal who, along with an excellent company, bring Alan Menken’s score to life with plenty of Christmas cheer.

Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his moral comeuppance from three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future is a much beloved yarn. Here it is Rhys Jones who bah-humbugs his way through life much to the disappointment of his orphan nephew whose yearly invite to Christmas Dinner is met with gruff Griff’s lust for solitude (“Nothing to do with me!”). David Hunter is Bob Cratchit, his ever-suffering and ever-faithful employee whose son, Tiny Tim is on his last legs (sorry) not that Scrooge seems to mind nor notice. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s old partner Jacob Marley (a menacing performance by Jeremy Secomb) arrives with a spooky warning (“Link by link”) that Scrooge may be working his way toward an eternity of torment if he doesn’t give up his self-serving ways. Soon after, the three spirits show up to further open his curmudgeonly eyes to the error of his ways.

The score is full of old-school sentiment, arguably perfect for the time of year, though Cratchit’s sickly sweet exchanges with his son (the adorable Tobias Ungleson) are perhaps a little over sweet and hard to swallow. A few dance-along tunes help bring the festive spirit with Abundance and Charity, a company number led by the delightful Neal, a particular joy.

A few technical issues and lines lost in the London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s melody get in the way of a perfect evening but there is something to be said for gloriously unashamed Christmas celebration in this continuously turbulent time. Get a ticket and settle in for a fun night of relentless festive frolics, indulging yourself in the sheer escapism that comes with the season.

Performances on Monday 17th December at 4pm and 7.30pm
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Peter Pan - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by J.M.Barrie
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Alexander Vlahos

In an exciting and ambitious move for one of London’s leading Off-West End venues, the Park Theatre splash the cash on their Christmas production and with flying experts Foy on board, have arranged for Peter Pan and Wendy to soar through the space of the Park 200. And if the look of wonder in the eyes of the kids in the audience on press night is anything to go by, it has been money well spent.

Jonathan O’Boyle directs a cast who (except for a few tiny tweaks) stay true to J.M. Barrie’s original play script, itself a precursor to his famous novel. Nickcolia King-N’Da plays the boy who never grows up in a muscular, yet impish performance that convinces charmingly. Indeed – at the end of the story (spoiler alert for those who don’t know the yarn) as Mrs Darling welcomes her returned children back into the fold, while Peter remains outside, it would take a hard-heart in the audience not to shed a tear, not only at the moment’s classic traditionality but also, tragically, at its timeless relevance.

Alexander Vlahos takes on the traditional double-hander of Mr Darling / Captain Hook and delivers a menacing delight. Barrie clearly had a beef against the patriarchy in his writing, and while this production is most definitely not a pantomime (whilst remaining wonderful family theatre), as Hook receives his deserved “boos” from the audience, one cannot help but grin. Elsewhere, aside from the three Darling children, there is much doubling up amongst the cast. They are all good – but a special shout-out to Alfie Webster who aside from playing a couple of Hook’s pirates, does a sensational job in giving canine life ito the Darlings’ dog Nana.

A mention too for the exceptional sound and set design teams. Adrienne Quartly’s sound design, not only gives a moving (literally) twist to the free spirit of Tinkerbell, but she also conjures up the locations of London, Mermaid Lagoon and Hook’s galleon wondrously. Gregor Donnelly’s set and costume design, likewise, is sensational. Clever backdrops and a beautifully timbered floor create the basics for all sorts of surprises. Nana (created by Matthew Hutchinson) is a gem of a creation – and as for the crocodile, ingenious and snappy!

The Park’s Peter Pan is beautifully festive theatre.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Photo credit: Chris Gardner

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Judy Kuhn and Andy Nyman

One can only wonder if, when Fiddler On The Roof was being scheduled for the Menier over this Christmas season, that the producers were aware that the chill winds of antisemitism that whip through the show’s narrative would again be so prevalent in the UK. For rarely does a show present such a polarised contrast between a glorious celebration of life and the stark reality of man’s inhumanity.

Trevor Nunn helms this latest outing of the Broadway classic and together with a gifted cast and crew alongside the unique intimacy of the Menier’s space, he crafts a charming interpretation of life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Andy Nyman steps up to the role of Tevye, beautifully bearded, he makes fine work of perhaps the world’s most famous milkman. The role is massive – in both its vocal and physical demands, as well as the emotional spectrum that defines Tevye’s journey. If Nyman is not quite there yet with some of the more finely nuanced moments, he is a gifted performed who will surely settle into the songs’ full ranges as the show matures. He does however capture the worldly, weary wisdom of the beloved husband and father he portrays, bringing an authenticity to the role that catches the audience’s feelings at unexpected moments. There is a depth to his Tevye that has, quite possibly, not been witnessed on these shores since Topol.

Judy Kuhn is Golde, bringing her recent previous experience of the role from Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production. Again, and for the first time in decades over here, Kuhn brings an authentic credibility to Tevye’s spouse, offering a clearly defined relief to the complexities and triumphs that have seen her's and Tevye's 25 year old marriage become such a strong family bedrock.

Not just at the top, there is inspirational casting throughout Nunn’s compay. The always excellent Louise Gold delivers a perfect Yente, taking a tiny role and breathing a new life into its significance. Dermot Canavan’s Lazar Wolf captures the wealthy butcher's financial power within Anatevka's tiny community and yet, ultimately, his vulnerability too. As Perchik, Stewart Clarke convinces as a young Jewish firebrand. There is, perhaps, a little more that all three of the adult daughters could bring to their respective roles and challenges – but to say any more would be unnecessarily harsh, for above all this Fiddler is a work of rare beauty.

And that beauty is essentially derived from Nunn’s inspired staging. Robert Jones' design transforms the Menier with aged timbers encompassing the whole space, hinting at the impoverished architecture of the shtetl. And yet, amidst this darkened wood and with the company playing out in the venue’s thrust space, audience raked around them on three sides, there is almost a hint of an Eastern European synagogue settled upon the theatre. So much so that in the first act's wedding scene, as Motel stamps upon the glass to seal his marriage to Tzeitel, this reviewer felt more akin to being a guest at the wedding, rather than just a critical audience member. It was as much as one could do to hold back from joining in with the cast and shouting a hearty “Mazeltov” from the third row!

Nunn delivers inspirational work on Tevye’s Dream too, always a moment of comedy horror when done well. Intriguingly, the performer playing Grandmother Tzeitel is not credited in the programme, but one detects however that perhaps an both an age and gender swap has occurred in the old lady's casting (and actually, it works brilliantly too!)

And there is quality too across the show’s creative team. Matt Cole offers up a worthy working of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, while Jason Carr’s orchestrations and Paul Bogaev’s direction bring a verve to Jerry Bock’s score. 

In short – this production is both an imaginative yet also reassuringly traditional take on a much loved show. In eschewing any trendy political statement to hang around his work, Nunn has made it all the more poignant and powerful. Deservedly sold out for the rest of its Menier run, his Fiddler On The Roof is a must-see musical.

Runs until 9th March 2019
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Aladdin - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written and directed by Susie McKenna

Clive Rowe
There’s something truly magical about panto at the Hackney Empire. Writer/director Susie McKenna delivers her 20th (oh yes it is!) festive production with a show that captures the diversity of her London patch, yet cleverly avoids cultural appropriation and all the while managing to maintain the joyous irreverence that makes pantomime such a glorious British Christmas tradition.

Set on the fictional island of Ha-Ka-Ney, McKenna’s company of Mare Street stalwarts launders the age-old Middle-Eastern cum Chinese fairytale into a 21st century iteration that it is anything but washed out. Obeying the genre’s conventions meticulously, Gemma Sutton is the titular Principal Boy (as McKenna lobs in a bravely scripted swipe at gender-fluidity too!). Sutton of course, as this website has long proclaimed, is up there with the best of her generation in UK’s musical theatre and it shows! She brings poise and precision to the role, capping it off with her wondrous voice. Her leading the company in The Greatest Showman’s This Is Me is spine-tingling.

Making his return to Hackney’s panto after a short sabbatical, Clive Rowe shares the bill-topping honours with his wonderful Widow Twankey. Showmen aside, Rowe is arguably The Greatest Dame of our time. His presence is sublime with razor sharp wit and precision timing making each one of the corniest, smuttiest gags sparkle. Rowe’s gift for pantomime is a rarity and his beautifully frocked, twerking Twankey is worth the ticket price on its own.

In time-honoured tradition, McKenna lampoons the lunacy of our leaders, with Brexit and assorted Tories coming in for some well-deserved flack. But if there is one criticism of the piece, it is the bias. Given the current debacle that is manifest throughout our political class, there is no reason to have let Labour off the hook quite so lightly.

Other top-notch Hackney regulars comprise the classy company. Notables are Tameka Empson, released by the Beeb from her duties on Albert Square to play the Empress, Julie Yammanee’s Princess, Kat B's energetic Genie and Tony Timberlake’s dastardly Abanazar. Heck, they’ve even roped in stage legend (and Mckenna’s missus) Sharon D. Clarke to voice a Goddess!

Whilst the show’s budget may not be as palladian as some, not only are Hackney’s tickets affordable but the show's professionalism and panache are a treat, well earning it the moniker of “London’s No 1 panto”. McKenna continues to create the very essence of pantomime - a show that is firmly rooted in its local community, yet packing a hilarious punch with technical excellence. (And did this review even mention Steven Edis' music, the stunning flying dragon scene or Richard Roe’s super-slick tap-dance routine?)

Meanwhile Clive Rowe's Widow Twankey, masquerading as Cher and serenading Abanazar with ABBA’s Fernando, will stay with me for a long, long time.

Runs until 6th January 2019
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Hot Gay Time Machine - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss

Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow

You enter a dark basement in the heart of the West End. RuPaul is blaring, lights are flashing and there is dancing. Yet this is not a club. Instead it’s Hot Gay Time Machine.

What is that, exactly? It’s hot, and gay and a time machine, so proclaim co-writers Toby Marlow and Zak Ghazi-Torbati (the third member of this creative team is Lucy Moss). A not entirely helpful answer but one that does provide an indication of what’s to follow in the ensuing 75 minutes.

This show tells a version of the performers’ stories, specifically those incidents that bear relation to their identities - such as coming out to their mums, navigating school and finding a gay best friend. It’s a story about their friendship, packaged up in a musical ‘extravaGAYNza' comedy cabaret.

They - the Hot Gays and Lucy - describe this show as a joke that’s gone too far. It was an idea that escalated into an actual commitment at their university and was produced on a £400 budget in a week.

We know that Marlow and Moss can write fantastically sharp songs. They are, after all, the creators of SiX: The Musical - the award-winning hit show - and something that the former pleasingly refers to on stage. With Ghazi-Torbati added into the mix, the result is even sharper and, on occasion, close-to-the-bone humour. Its a trifecta of witty lyrics, pop music structures and strong vocal performances that delivers immense joy.

The beauty of a production like this is that it allows for performers’ personalities to shine through with a full beam, beyond what is intrinsically woven into the script and score. It’s the moments where they break character as a result of ad libs or improvisation that heighten the laughs. This fluidity works well in the Trafalgar's bijou Studio 2, a veritable cockpit where no expression goes unseen.

Standout elements include songs such as ‘Couldn’t Get It Up’, Marlow’s pink hot pants and both performers’ flawless make-up looks. - and all of the sass. Marlow’s character is the more cutting of the two, while Ghazi-Torbati’s is the sweeter foil.

A former Edinburgh hit, it’s now been transplanted to London’s West End, while firmly maintaining its Fringe feel. It’s a tricky challenge to address; how do you maintain a balance between raw creativity and a polished production? But this team manages to strike the right chord.

In a very fitting end, the show ends with a standing ovation, followed by a dance party and, finally, a sashay away.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

True West - Review

Vaudeville Theatre, London


Written by Sam Shepherd
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn

Squeezed into a lean and tightly filled two hours, Sam Shepherd’s True West is an acerbic glimpse of domestic dysfunctionality that plays out in sweltering Southern California, a blasted backfiring of the American Dream.

In this piece of exquisite theatre Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn are brothers Austin and Lee. The Ivy League educated Austinis apparently the slicker of the two, with a promising career beckoning as a Hollywood screenwriter. Lee, who initially suggests echoes of Oklahoma’s Jud, is poorly educated, a drifter as well as  a (potentially violent) criminal.

Yet Shepherd’s genius lies in showing that between these two siblings, once the trappings of academia are discarded, the smarts are equally shared. As layers are stripped away, so is the menace is calculatingly increased - and yet for all the improbability of Lee’s apparently usurping his brother’s gift for storytelling, Shepherd gives this tale of sibling rivalry a ghastly plausibility.

Perfectly cast, Harington is bookish, bespectacled and moustachioed - a wimp against the ripped six pack of his brother’s (bare chested in the second half) frame. Yet both men immerse themselves in compelling performances, ratcheting up the suspense with perfectly delivered dialogue, and immaculately choreographed movement. (Bravo fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) 

The creative talent behind the production is flawless. Director Matthew Dunster painstakingly eliciting every carefully weighted nuance from Shepherd’s already well-honed script, as Jon Bausor’s ingenious trailer-trash set and Joshua Carr’s lighting, perfectly capture the Mojave desert’s oppression.

Dated perhaps, but the play’s dynamism is timeless. Harington and Flynn define scorching drama in what is unmissable theatre.

Runs until 23rd February 2019
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday, 30 November 2018

Ennio Morricone In Concert At The O2 - Review

The O2, London


Maestro Ennio Morricone
(Last year Turkish TV channel TRT World broadcast this 6 minute tribute to Morricone - At 2:12 into the clip, I am interviewed about the Maestro)

Ennio Morricone played London for the last time this week, his farewell visit to the capital heralding the gifted composer’s imminent retirement.

But what a spectacular farewell. In an evening that largely revisited the programme of his 60 Years in Music concert  from early 2016, (my review to that gig below) and again with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with whom the Maestro recorded his Oscar winning score for The Hateful Eight, for the best part of three hours Morricone conducted a heavenly symphony of instrument and voice. Enchantingly sprinkled with l’italianità, the concert was a unique fusion of cinema, music and passion.

And enchantment is no understatement as to witness this musical genius conducting  the music that he has created is to see a summoning up of spiritual wonder. With more than 200 souls breathing life into his work within the sold-out O2, the Maestro wielded his baton as a sorcerer might wave a wand, delivering an evening of sheer magic and displaying an energy that belied his advanced years.

Hearing Morricone conduct his work live offered a chance, not just to re-enter the ethereal cocoon of his music, but also to observe some of the finer details woven into his compositions: the harp melody incorporated into The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; the fusion of baroque, tribal and sacred that make up On Earth As It Is In Heaven from (what should have been an Oscar winning score) The Mission. The detail that underlies his melodies and orchestrations is breathtaking.

The evening’s programming was inspired too, with the staccato Tarantella seamlessly segueing into Susanna Rigacci’s sublime soprano take on Nostromo. Morricone could almost have written for Rigacci’s voice – her delivery of the the vocal line in The Ecstasy Of Gold proving almost literally, an ecstatic, spine-tingling flourish to what is possibly the Maestro’s signature tune. Dulce Pontes offered a second wave of vocal delight – with no number sung more verve-infused than the lesser known, samba-esque Aboliçao from the 1969 movie Burn!.

The choral background to the evening came from the Crouch End Festival Chorus who, when called upon, were magnificent – with none finer than their own exquisite soprano Rosemary Zolynski who more than deserved her handful of solo moments.

Rigacci and Pontes both returned to the stage for powerful, passionate encores but perhaps the sweetest moment of the encore'd movements came from the delicate beauty of the Cinema Paradiso themes - reducing many in the packed arena to tears.

Now in his tenth decade, while there may have been an aura of mortality to the occasion, there was not a jot of frailty in Morricone’s presence. We may never witness the Maestro perform live in London again - but he has gifted to the world a musical legacy that will live forever.

My review of Ennio Morricone's 2016 Concert  at the O2