Friday, 28 August 2015

My Eyes Went Dark – Review

Finborough Theatre, London


*****

Written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson



Thusitha Jayasundera and Cal MacAninch


"...If a country can't protect the rights of its people, what can a man do? A man must stand up... A man must defend himself."
Matthew Wilkinson's My Eyes Went Dark is an extraordinary piece of work. It tells the story of man, Nikolai Koslov, (played by Cal MacAninch) who loses his wife and two young children in a plane crash that occurred when two planes collided mid-air.

Grief stricken and utterly disconnected from the world without his family ("My life. As any family is the life of the individuals within it"), he seeks justice. This search begins immediately; as he is digesting the reality that his family is gone at the beginning of the play, he questions what happened, asking for an update on the flight recorders and attempting to coerce an explanation, of any sort, from the official he is speaking to.

This is a particularly striking characteristic of Koslov who, as a successful architect and family man, is probably used to drawing clear lines between events, ideas and thoughts, drawing out rational conclusions accordingly. He seems to be a rational being and a normal functioning one at that. This is best typified in professional settings, such as when he is giving an interview or operating in a work environment. 

This two-hander also features an outstanding performance from Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays ten different characters to incredible effect. 

Beautifully suited to the intimacy of the Finborough, the staging is simple; it features only two chairs. The sound design (Max Pappenheim) and lighting (Elliot Griggs) are flawless. Props are invisible but acted with such conviction that their physical absence is barely registered. 

The performance lasts approximately ninety minutes and comprises an intense sequence of scenes, cutting back and forth over the span of five years, over three different countries. Throughout its course, a range of themes including commentaries on justice systems, corporate responsibility and politics are investigated and provide much for consideration. 

What is incredibly powerful about My Eyes Went Dark is its ability to explore the complex and permanent effects of plane crashes. It is a tragedy that most of us are familiar with, blessedly, only through news reports that the media thrive on. The play however offers a stark reminder that the effects never leave those who have experienced loss and for whom so many questions are left unanswered.  

Wilkinson, MacAnich and Jayasundera capture this tragedy perfectly and hauntingly.


Runs until 19th September
Guest Reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Thoroughly Modern Millie - Review

Landor Theatre, London


**

Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
Directed by Matthew Iliffe


Sarah-Marie Maxwell and Alex Codd

The twenties don’t so much roar as whimper in SDWC’s new revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor. Matthew Iliffe’s production strips back not only the set and cast, but also the life and soul of the show, leaving us with a raw and undercooked slog of questionable casting and dull direction.

For those unfamiliar, Thoroughly Modern Millie transports the audience back to 1922 New York and follows the travails of a new arrival in the big city; Millie Dillmount. She is desperate to find a more metropolitan lifestyle after her Kansas upbringing and reinvent herself as the epitome of Vogue’s ‘modern woman’. Ostensibly the show is an uproarious farce that barrels through prohibition, celebrity parties and solicitous romance with all the subtlety of a travelling fair. It has the potential to be great fun, but Iliffe’s production never seems to capture the garish excess that cements the show. His pared down cast of 12 reduces the enormity of New York life to a small village community and Andrew Riley’s set is bare to the point of feeling naked. For a show like ‘Millie’, New York is as much a character as anybody on stage and her bustling crowds and grand sense of scale just felt lost in the intimate Landor space.

Sam Spencer-Lane does her best to inject the choreography with some Broadway punch, but again the sequences are at odds with their surroundings. Numbers feel hampered by the limited space, looking to explode into life with no room to grow. That a dancer crashed into some lights on the night I watched was no coincidence.

The cast also seemed to struggle with this tonal imbalance, unsure as to whether to play the show as writ, or try and adapt the uproarious dialogue for the chamber space. For most, it left them in an unflattering middle ground, precariously teetering between mugging for laughs and striving for sincerity. There were also some distracting casting decisions, with young graduate actors being unfairly asked to play far older than they are and jokes about characters’ ages therefore falling flat. More disconcerting than this though, was the decision to cast a Caucasian actor, Alex Codd, as Ching Ho, one of the Chinese henchmen. That Mrs Meers’ offensive Asian caricature is only acceptable at all is because we are supposed to laugh at the absurdity of a Caucasian female trying to pass herself off as another race. With Codd in earnest trying desperately to do the thing we are meant to be laughing at, Steph Parry’s performance as Mrs Meers becomes completely undermined. The entire villainous subplot becomes tremendously uncomfortable, laced as it was with an air of racial insensitivity.

On the positive side, Sarah-Marie Maxwell is the undeniable standout, giving a charming and incredibly watchable performance as Miss Dorothy. She is a joy every time she comes on stage and injects her scenes with just the right amount of detail and energy. Her voice is also beautiful, packing real power even without a microphone and giving a lilting edge to the higher parts of the score. The singing in general is of a high quality and Chris Guard’s small band does well to maintain the score’s brassy 20s roots even with only five members.

Thoroughly Modern Millie inherently seems like a bizarre choice for a fringe revival. It just isn’t that kind of show. Iliffe has done his best to downsize the glitz and glamour, but his endeavours lack the creativity to allow the audience to get lost in Millie’s world. Unfortunately, without stellar performances and an exciting design, these flappers are a bit of a flop.


Runs to 13th September
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson

Mrs Henderson Presents - Review

Theatre Royal, Bath


*****

Music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain
Lyrics by Don Black
Direction and book by Terry Johnson


Tracie Bennett


A musical can only be as good as its underlying book – and in Mrs Henderson Presents, the show’s fable couldn’t be more strong or poetic. Based upon the 2005 movie, the true story tells of Laura Henderson, wealthy widow and owner of London’s Windmill Theatre, who sought to halt the venue’s falling revenues by putting on shows of naked girls. Britain’s censorship laws were fierce at the time, forbidding nude performers, but in a bid to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s disapproval, Henderson, along with close adviser Vivian Van Damm, concoct a revue that will feature naked women but in still life tableaux. The Windmill’s success was assured and as war with Germany broke out in 1939, so did the Windmill never close, always packed with troops enjoying morale boosting visits even through the darkest days of the Blitz and in its own way capturing the essence of British resilience.

The story works on so many levels. Laura Henderson herself is an independently minded woman, ahead of her time. Van Dam is a Dutch Jew, painfully aware of his family’s destiny in continental Europe, the Lord Chamberlain is a deliciously blustering (and compromised) political buffoon (who one can easily imagine lived in Dolphin Square) and then there are the girls. Invited to contemplate performing in the nude, the show picks out their anxieties, aspirations and in the case of Maureen, a Lyons’ nippy who much like Mack and Mabel’s Mabel Normand is discovered by Mrs Henderson and fast becomes the star of the show, a poignant love interest too.

Terry Johnson’s book (and Johnson also directs) in conjunction with Don Black’s lyrics precisely fillets the shows emotions. There’s comedy that includes moments of fabulously rehearsed plank-based slapstick, naked men’s bottoms and a sprinkling of Carry On infused knob gags - a seam of humor which if mined responsibly can always prove eye-watering. But there is also the pathos of Laura Henderson’s love for her theatre and ultimately her girls, set against her own mortality and failing health. There’s the tragedy and passion of the war – and there is the portrayal of the girls’ journey to their nude performances, delivered without pulling any punches, but which is at all times beautiful, tasteful and not once gratuitous.

Making a welcome return to the English stage, Tracie Bennett plays Laura Henderson with her usual perfection in poise, presence and performance. Believable as a wealthy lady bucking the disapproval of her peers, Bennett commands the stage. Vocally magnificent, with Whatever Time I Have, along with a massive finish to If Mountains Were Easy To Climb Bennett reminds us what a star of today’s musical theatre stage she truly is. More of this woman, please.

Ian Bartholomew is Van Dam, bringing a carefully crafted compound of comic bluster with profound pathos to his part. There’s smutty genius in his number Rubens And Renoir, that sees him explaining the concept of nudity to the girls (in a scene that using a hugely oversized picture frame, speaks volumes just in imagery) – whilst Living In A Dream World offers just enough of a carefully weighted glimpse into his agony at what is happening across the North Sea.

Maureen is played by the truly scrumptious Emma Williams – whose voice and movement are exquisite. We see her rise and fall in love and in moments that wrench at heart strings, Williams is always on point, never sentimentalising, just delivering. Her number Ordinary Girl tells of plaintive aspirations, whilst her duet with Matthew Malthouse’s Eddie, What A Waste Of A Moon is a vocal and choreographic treat. Indeed, huge credit to choreographer Andrew Wright who at time brings traditional music hall, gorgeous tap routines and some moments of glorious ballet to the show.

Graham Hoadly’s Lord Cromer, the Lord Chancellor, is yet another turn from this gifted performer that defines comic acting through song, as Mark Hadfield serves up a treat as a stand-up comic, part narrator, part teller of gags that are as old as the hills, yet which still raise a chuckle.

The show’s nudity demands a professional bravura from its actresses and as Williams leads the line, she is ably backed by Katie Bernstein, Lizzy Connolly and Lauren Hood who all bring a respectful, tasteful dignity to their roles – beautifully sung and acted.

George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain have written a score that defines England through the 19th and 20th centuries. There is much of the music-hall in some numbers, whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Song suggests a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Their lampooning of the Germans as the war rolls on and creation of melodies that define a sense of national pride, offer a musical take on history that speaks loud and clear to a modern audience. Theirs’s is beautifully crafted work, alongside Tim Shortall's inspired set design and Richard Mawbey's wonderful wig work.

The orchestra is under Mike Dixon’s baton and it is clear that this gifted music-man has had much to do with the show’s evolution. It was the Dixon and Johnson team (with Bartholomew starring) who last year so wonderfully revived Oh What A Lovely War! At Stratford East and there is just a touch of how that show marked The Great War, in how Mrs Henderson Presents tackles the war with Hitler.

Mrs Henderson Presents is innovative new writing – beautifully staged and so wonderfully British. Only dipping the briefest of toes into Bath’s delightful Theatre Royal, this show demands a transfer to the West End.


Runs until 5th September

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Willemijn Verkaik In Concert - Review

****






The Dutch singing sensation Willemijn Verkaik In Concert at The Ambassadors Theatre was always going to be highly anticipated. Having sung the role of Wicked’s Elphaba in three different languages (an un-precedented feat) and recorded the voice of Elsa in Disney's Frozen in Dutch and German, a one off London concert to let the audience know a bit more about the lady behind the voice was long overdue. 

Joined on stage by musical director and pianist Tom Deering as part of a quartet of musicians, before the show started it did seem questionable if a theatre venue rather than a more intimate concert one would have been more appropriate. This doubt was quashed by the presence of Verkaik entering the stage and beginning her programme with A Piece of Sky from Yentl and something was quite evident, this is a lady that loves to sing. Not just that, but Verkaik offers no pretentiousness. Just the opposite. An endearing humility that is a pleasure to witness – an honesty very evident during her story of auditioning for the role of Aida in her early career and the layers of make-up and tissue paper she put down her bra to look fuller figured, witty and relatable to all the female performers in the audience!

The first act in particular contained some real crowd pleasers in terms of song choices that displayed Verkaik’s higher register impeccably such as You’ll Be In My Heart from Tarzan (in which she currently stars in Stuttgart) and Frozen’s Let It Go which she sang bilingually. Revelatory were middle voice songs that had more contrast in terms of vocal colour such as Adele’s Turning Tables and The Winner Takes it all, the later sung to acoustic guitar so tenderly.

The guest performers of Victoria Hamilton Barritt and James Fox gave strong vocals, in particular during the trio of Aida’s A Step Too Far. 

With a vocal stamina arguably unrivalled in musical theatre, Willemijn Verkaik In Concert cemented this status. Her delight in both singing and in she has achieved, is certainly refreshing. Perhaps a musical programme with more comedic interaction with her guest performers could have just been the icing on this very classy cake, but overall the night was certainly a triumph for Willemijn Verkaik.


Guest reviewer: Francesca Mepham

Carmen - Review

Soho Theatre, London


****


By Georges Bizet
In a new orchestration by Harry Blake
And a new English version and directed by Robin Norton-Hale


Flora McIntosh and Anthony Flaum

There is a simplistic charm to Carmen from Opera Up Close that see's Bizet's classic stripped down to a talented cast of nine and an orchestra reduced to the most elegant of quartets. One of the most popular works in the classical canon, Carmen makes for a great introduction for those just dipping a toe into the opera genre. With a musical score that alone could fill a Now That’s What I Call Classics compilation, the melodies are familiar and the story offers a parable that is, sadly, as timely today as at its 1875 premiere.

Set in Seville the plot tells of Carmen, a free-spirited and beautiful gypsy girl who turns the head of Don Jose, a locally garrisoned soldier. Jose, who has never known a woman's love, becomes smitten with Carmen, who in turn has seen her desires move away from the soldier, falling instead for the dashing matador Escamillio, Unable to control his jealousy, Jose brings the story to a violent, tragic conclusion.

Opera Up Close have split their company into two teams for the length of the run and on the night of this review, Flora McIntosh played Carmen whilst Anthony Flaum was the troubled young dragoon. They were both sensational in their sung roles, with McIntosh capturing Carmen's defiant spirit as well as delivering a deliciously luring Habanera (and to my non opera-savvy readers, if you think you don’t know that famous melody, just google it).

However, whilst McIntosh, who has more operatic talent in her little finger than this reviewer can even aspire to, offers a performance of technical genius, her Carmen is more MILF than irresistible provocateur and her required charm, that should be able to attract alpha-males like flies, doesn’t entirely convince.

Flaum is a perfectly cast delight. At first appropriately stilted and gauche, he evolves into smouldering jealousy. One can believe in his emotional, impressionable innocence and whilst Jose's behaviour abhors, Flaum offers a portrayal that explains his character's desperate flaws, without apologising for them.

Richard Immergluck is Escamillo, who with the opera's famous Toreador Song is gifted one of the most recognisable singing gigs ever. Again, notwithstanding sheer vocal excellence, Immergluck also doesn’t convince. From the outset, Escamillo requires a flamboyance in his appearance, marking him out as a testosterone infused stallion. As it is, Immergluck looks as if he has just stepped off a bus rather than out of the bullring and whilst towards the opera’s finale, where Carmen sports his chic bolero, defining her as the matador's lover, it is too little too late. 

Amongst the supporting company, Louisa Tee as local girl Micaela turns in some exceptional aria work and it has to be said that the entire cast are performers of the highest calibre. It makes such a refreshing change to a reviewer more acclimatised to musical theatre, to attend a musical performance in which not only are the actors un-mic'd, but their vocal work is so powerful and precise that they are crystal clear, even at the back of the auditorium.

On a modest budget, with a set that is more suggestive than detailed and fabulously lit by Joshua Pharo, Robin Norton-Hale's imaginative direction works a treat, even if her new translation occasionally grates. There can often be something awkward when a contemporary English idiom is juxtaposed onto classic melodies.

A final word to musical director Berrak Dyer and her three fellow musicians Alyson Frazier, Alison Holford and Rosemary Hinton. These women are simply the best and their tireless work, is unmissable!


Runs until 19th September

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Lovebirds - CD Review

****

Music, lyrics and book by Robert J. Sherman




Premiering at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Lovebirds marks some gorgeous new musical theatre from Robert J. Sherman. The son and nephew of legendary tunesmiths Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, Robert J.'s show harks back to the era of vaudeville, Scott Fitzgerald and days of schmaltzy, beautifully voiced romance.

Telling a simple fantasy fuelled fable, whilst Sherman has written all of Lovebirds’ music, lyrics and book, the unmistakable influence of his beloved predecessors runs through the melodies like a stick of rock. Lovebirds is a world of singing birds and heartfelt passions, where a barber-shop troupe of singing penguins is signed up to a fading vaudeville show of macaws and parrots. Jealousies and rivalries emerge and an unlikely love blossoms before ultimately all the birds are in harmony expressing a passionate hope for the future. It’s a corny if imaginative premise, but what makes Lovebirds take flight is the beauty of Sherman’s music and the immaculate performances of his gifted cast.

Whilst Lovebirds is undoubtedly a sincere and warm-hearted look back at a more gentle time, it is playing to a 21st century audience – and notwithstanding the performers’ talent (captured beautifully in this immaculately engineered recording) there are a handful of Sherman’s rhymes that are too easily predicted, with other lyrics crying out for a “Tim Rice” touch to sharpen their wit. And whilst the album’s penultimate number Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow offers an outlook on the future that is syrup-like in its optimism, one cannot help but be reminded of 1963’s offering from the senior Shermans, There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow - to the extent that the sixties number almost overshadows Robert J. Sherman’s work.

There are some true gems in this recording – there’s an affectionately wistful, penguin-performed tribute to Mary Poppins that neatly references the birds’ appearance in Disney’s iconic movie, whilst the company number Tinpanorama makes for a sassy treat that sounds like it features some sensational tap work.

Amidst a flock of treats with Sherman’s melodies referencing the charleston as well as a soft-shoe shuffle in there too – and with Greg Castiglioni and Ruth Betteridge leading a flawless 9-strong troupe, there is much in Lovebirds to please the genre’s cognoscenti. An economically sized band of 3 musicians, under Neil Macdonald’s accomplished direction, also deliver excellence.

It is possible that some of the genius of the Sherman brothers came precisely because they were a pair – able to both criticise and hone each other’s contribution. Robert J. Sherman, who has a recognised gift for both composing and storytelling, writes alone. With a snappier lyricist for a wingman, Lovebirds could yet prove sensational.


Physical CDs are available from www.SimGProductions.com

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Gobsmacked! - Review

Udderbelly, Edinburgh


****



Bringing together a cast of 7 talented young vocalists, Gobsmacked! delivers a unique, refreshing hour of contemporary, a capella tunes to a sell out crowd at the Udderbelly.

With a stage backlit by a vast wall of speakers and without a single instrument in sight, each cast member gets a turn in the spotlight to power through a series of catchy, superbly delivered hits from the last 40 years of pop music.

In the early stages the show does take a couple of songs to really get going, but the precision of the harmonies is remarkable at times, fusing elements of dance, R’n’B and hip-hop into a number of modern classics. An eclectic re-imagining of The Killers Mr. Brightside injects the crowd with energy in the first half, while an impeccably delivered falsetto version of Mumford & Sons I Will Wait delivers a welcome, more melancholic tempo to proceedings.

Thematically, almost all the songs focus on the same issues of love, loss and hope - That’s perfectly understandable given the source material that they are working with, but with more varied subjects or an attempt to rework songs from different genres, the group could have taken the audience on more of a journey and better demonstrated the breadth and depth of their talent.

The undoubted highlight of the show is the solo stylings of charismatic human beatboxer ‘Ball-Zee’. His light-hearted ten minute set includes taking the audience through the tuning of a virtual drum-set (complete with a pitch recalibration of each skin) before delivering a mind-melting looping sample that makes you question how one voice-box can produce such a wide variety of different sounds at exactly the same time

The show ends in exuberant fashion with a wide ranging, foot-tapping medley of hits, ranging from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition to Martin Garrix’s Animals, with each cast member entering the crowd and bringing (somewhat reluctant!) audience members onto the stage for a final dance. Shortly to head off on a deserved tour of Asia and Australia, Gobsmacked! makes for a highly entertaining evening that will be packing in the Fringe crowds throughout August.


Runs until 31st August at 4.30pm
Guest reviewer: Richard Fox