Thursday, 28 July 2016

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - Review

New Wimbledon Theatre, London


Written by Ian Fleming
Music & lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Directed by James Brining

Lee Mead and Carrie Hope Fletcher

There's an aura of timeless quality that pervades the touring production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, currently in its second week at Wimbledon. Ian Fleming's wonderfully imaginative tale, so quintessentially English, married to the universal appeal of the Sherman Brothers' songs has made for a 20th century fairy tale that ranks alongside the classics.

Notwithstanding it being a warm July evening, the New Wimbledon theatre was filled by a generation-straddling audience. And in a production that makes intelligent use of projected graphics, there's a wholesome accessibility to the tour that makes it both affordable and reachable across the country - a pleasing contrast to the eye-watering ticket prices of so many West End shows.

The current cast are a delight. Lee Mead is the handsome widowered single dad - getting by with his crackpot inventions and instilling in his kids a decent sense of right and wrong and above all a belief in the power of imagination - and in that way, much like Peter Pan, a good production of Chitty (and this is a very good production) can speak to the child in all of us. Mead has his faithful following, but his take on Caractacus Potts' signature melodies (Hushabye Mountain, poignantly enhanced by the appearance of his late wife) is powerful and assured.

Opposite Mead, Carrie Hope Fletcher is Truly Scrumptious and who in a real life tale of theatrical romance was herself the young Jemima Potts when the stage show first opened at the London Palladium. As ever, Fletcher brings an ethereal charm to the role. Exquisite vocals - and what a delight to see the movie's Lovely Lonely Man, a song dropped from the stage show until now, restored (albeit now set in the Toymaker's workshop) to the libretto. And of course her doll impersonation with immaculate robotics and enchanting lyrics in Doll On A Music Box is as faultless as one might expect.

Stephen Mear's choreography gorgeously enhances the piece, with his work on the larger routines (The Bombie Samba and some fun tap work in Me Ol' Bamboo particularly excellent) being perfectly drilled visual treats. But it was his styling of (Matt Gillett as) the Childcatcher's entrapment of the Potts kids, that so evoked Robert Helpmann's terrifying cameo in the movie and further defines Mear's remarkable calibre.

The supporting cast add just enough pantomime to the mix. Andy Hockley is a convincing Grandpa Potts and there's some well performed comic bungling from Sam Harrison and Scott Paige as Boris and Goran the Vulgarian spies. And it's an Albert Square dream team that currently pairs Shaun Wlliamson opposite Michelle Collins (both comic and talented actors par excellence) as the Baron and Baroness Bombast. And when one recalls that Chitty was written long before Britain joined the EEC (the EU's precursor) - there's almost a hint of wise prescience in Fleming's writing: Bombast for Juncker? Stranger things....

But as a familiar, family escape from some ghastly world affairs there's truly nothing better than this show. Down in the pit Andrew Hilton's orchestra make fine work of the Shermans' ditties, whilst onstage (and to use the vernacular) that iconic, fantasmagorical car - and yes, it really does fly - will have the kids wide-eyed in awe. The spontaneous standing ovation at the curtain call spoke volumes. Just go!

At Wimbledon until 30th July, then continuing on tour

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Superman and me - Review

King's Head Theatre, London


Written by Suzette Coon
Directed by Eloise Lally

Tracey Ann Wood and Paul Giddings

Superman and me is a short, (if not so) sweet, two-handed snapshot of domestic dysfunctionality. Focusing on journalists Lois and Clark (geddit?) who met while working on the same newspaper, the half-hour long play, simply set in the chairs of their marriage-guidance counsellor's therapy room, flits in and out of the time zones of their ultimately unhappy twenty-something years together.

Suzette Coon's writing is a patchwork of barbed dialogue and reflective, sometime wistful monologues. Poignant, painful and occasionally perceptive, we witness her characters pick their way through the recognisable compromises of post-modern couples. Clark struggles with his conventionally macho ego being challenged by his ambitious and intellectual wife, whilst Lois sacrifices her stimulating career advancement on the altar of (mildly) resented motherhood. It ain't Pinter, but rather recognisable themes which Coon, for the most part, addresses avoiding cliché.

That the play dabbles fleetingly with the complexities and consequences of manic depression is a niggle. Mental health issues need to be talked about for sure - but making someone's breakdown the focus of a self described "anti romantic comedy" hints at a flippant treatment of the illness, which one suspects could not be further from Coon's intentions. A little more work is needed, 

Unquestionably written from the female perspective, Tracey Ann Wood (last reviewed here in Big Brother Blitzkrieg) remains outstanding, with every word capturing both the poise and nuance of her frustrations. Paul Giddings’ Clark however is a shallower creation, confined to playing (albeit very well) little more than a fatally stymied geek. One wishes that the text might have offered him explore a broader range of emotions.

But credit to Coon, for her innovative writing is punchy and emphatic and she's maintained a ruthless eye on the clock too. Superman and me deserves its inclusion in The King's Head's admirable Festival 46 and is well worth watching.

Performed again on 28th July

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Truth - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by Florian Zeller
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Alexander Hanson and Frances O'Connor

Florian Zeller is a precocious writing talent. The Truth is his third play to enthral London theatre goers in a year. Zeller's drama The Father reduced some viewers to tears with its' poignant and painful depiction of dementia. The Truth, a modern day farce about lies and adultery, brings tears of laughter.

Laurence (Tanya Franks) is married to Michel (Alexander Hanson) who is having an affair with Alice (Frances O'Connor) who is married to Michel's best friend Paul (Robert Portal). We watch in fascination as the reality of the characters' lives implode. Who is telling the truth? What are the lies? The audience is cleverly manipulated as the story unfolds. Zeller has certainly tapped into the male psyche concerning adultery but what makes this interesting is that the female characters are as complicit (or are they?) as the men. 

Alexander Hanson starts the proceedings, yanking up his underpants and meandering the stage like an impatient John Wayne. Never has the search for a sock been so amusing. Throughout, Hanson moves around the stage, a caged creature, whilst the other characters have a centred quality and often, a stillness. The simple, effective direction by Lindsay Posner keeps the action clean, letting the dialogue shine, lines ricocheting around the auditorium. 

Lizzie Clachan's stylish, minimalist set is highly effective in its simplicity. A pale, streamlined background of rooms that change ever so subtly; no doors are used as associated with our expectation of traditional farce. There is restrained embellishment, beautifully allowing the focus onto the actors.

Frances O'Connor has a regal quality in her sharp stilettos and brings a disarming coldness to Alice. For a play steeped in sex, O'Connor's Alice is calculating & practical, her sensual side kept under-wraps in her skin tight designer dresses. Tanya Franks' Laurence appears stoic, a perfect portrayal of middle class normality. She has a payoff in the final scene which she plays beautifully, the veneer that had been held together throughout, crumbling before our eyes. 

Robert Portal's Paul, has strength and conviction but an under lying sadness. Portal's body language and broad-chested stance belie his internal questioning. His confidence seems contrived and Portal keeps the audience questioning to the very end of Paul's motives. 

Throughout the 90 minutes duration (without an interval, which works perfectly) I found myself constantly drawn to Hanson's Michel. Even as a loathsome narcissist, he never fails to have immense charm and aplomb. His increasingly nervous, nuanced, suppressed manic philanderer is the glue that holds the whole piece together. It is a quite mesmeric performance which deserves as big an audience as possible.

The Truth packs the entertainment punch of a really good old fashioned farce, though Zeller has brought the genre into 2016 with barbed words, stating uncomfortable truths: with lies dressed in the hubris of modern day self belief. At one point, a character asks if they are in a comedy or a tragedy. And there is the truth - the play is both but manages to keep the tragedy of this predicament firmly within the comedy genre. This is darn good theatre, highly recommended. Go see it!

Booking until 3rd September
Reviewed by Andy Bee

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Tyrone Huntley and Declan Bennett

In what is unquestionably a Superstar for the 21st century Timothy Sheader's Jesus is no long haired prophet. In an electrifying performance that captures both Christ’s charisma and his flawed vulnerability, Declan Bennett's Messiah is a powerfully charged hipster. Played out against Tom Scutt's rusted-steel framed set (that interestingly evokes the Angel Of The North in its unpretentious simplicity) and with hand held mics throughout, this production places the emphasis as much upon Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock-driven score, as it does upon its sensational cast.

Bennett brings an energy to the title role that is moving and credible. Vocally he is perfect and as act one sees a momentum gather, it is in the second half with his remarkable Gethsemane (opened beautifully by Bennett himself on acoustic guitar) that the actor soars. His performance is as harrowing to watch as it is probably exhausting to perform. We flinch at the Trial By Pilate / 39 Lashes and during his crucifixion, the extent to which Bennett subtly underplays his agony makes it all the tougher for the audience to watch - and all this alongside Scutt's ingenious interpretation of Calvary, itself a scenic triumph that must surely rank amongst the capital's finest this year.

Next to Bennett, Tyrone Huntley's Judas is sensational. His opening take on Heaven On Their Minds displays an intelligence and energy that has been carefully honed during his already impressive career. Gifted several stunning solos, he closes the first half with Blood Money and a neat theatrical take on the "pieces of silver" that won't be revealed here. Throughout, Huntley offers a clever interpretation of the complex dissolution of his friendship with Jesus. When the Oliviers are being handed out this year, both Bennett and Huntley deserve to be on the list.

There is imaginative excellence across the company. With both Everything's Alright and I Don't Know How To Love Him, Anouska Lucas's Mary is a thing of beauty, the actress highlighting not just Mary's damaged frailty, but also the inexplicably wondrous love that she feels towards Jesus. David Thaxton's Pilate is another treat and as he sings Pilate's Dream, leading on electric guitar, the background acoustic work of Bennett and Joel Harper-Jackson (who plays Simon Zealotes) offers another layer to the song's troubling spirituality. Peter Caulfield's Herod, truly as camp as Christmas, is a blast, (and wonderfully costumed too), whilst Cavin Cornwall's imposing Caiaphas offers a baritone that has to be heard to be believed.

Shearer has surrounded himself with a top-notch creative team. Under Tom Deering's direction Lloyd Webber's score thrills, with the show evolving into a celebration of the guitar in the modern musical, as much as a biblical interpretation. Drew McOnie's choreography makes fine use of the ensemble and the multi-level space with his movement evoking not just a seething biblical crowd but also the febrile tensions of the times. 

Lee Curran's lighting adds dimension too. The rock-concert style of the evening piece lends itself to smoke - and as the park’s daylight finally succumbs to night over the crucifixion, so to like Longinus' spear, do Curran's shafts of light pierce the darkness.

This is beautiful brilliant theatre. Don't miss it.

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit Johan Perssonn

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Die Fledermaus - Review

Opera Holland Park, London


by Johan Strauss II
Libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genee
Libretto translation by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans

John Lofthouse, Peter Davoren and Susanna Hurrell 

There can truly be no finer night to visit Martin Lloyd-Evans' new production of Die Fledermaus than the hottest day of the year. As the sun set over the Opera Holland Park arena, West London's balmy climes proved a perfect ambience for this most barmy of operettas.

And make no mistake - the story of Die Fledermaus requires ones disbelief to be suspended beyond belief. It's a crackpot tale of the ultimate mate's revenge - involving more infidelity, cuckoldry and trousers around ankles than could fill a season of Whitehall farces. Amidst a risible plot of deception and frustrated assignations, the dated (but nonetheless mildly witty) humour of act one evaporates after the break - and the final act's nod to pantomime, with its references to Cameron, Johnson, Farage et al is already found to be woefully out of date by its omission of Theresa May! 

Alistair Beaton's 1994 translation may be a masterpiece of alliteration and assonance - but it really needed the wit of Jimmy Perry and David Croft to take a 19th century comedy classic and update it to something more than an episode of 'Allo 'Allo! and one that lasts for nigh on three hours at that!

That being said......

The artistic values behind this production are really rather glorious. Ben Johnson and Susanna Hurrell are the married Von Eisenstein and Rosalinde, both desperately and futilely craving extra-marital fornication and they are both magnificent. Hurrell in particular with the gorgeous Hungarian Countess' Csárdás in act two. Peter Davoren's irresistibly adulterous tenor Alfred is another performance of vocal excellence - though the true honours of the night must go to the northern-tones of Jennifer France's Adele who makes sensational work of The Laughing Song.

Under John Rigby's baton the orchestra are magnificent - and for those reading this, who are unfamiliar with the piece, seek out the Die Fledermaus Waltz. You'll find that you've known it for years - and hearing it played with such finesse is truly a treat.

As ever, takis designs imaginatively. Set in the 1920's, his imagery is heavy on Art Deco and Mondrian, with some wonderful gowns for the ladies attending Count Orlofsky's ball - not least the feathered number put to good use by Didi Derrière in a brief moment of burlesque cabaret. Howard Hudson's lighting is similarly dreamy - taking on increasing force as the evening's natural light gradually fades. 

Die Fledermaus' libretto may be tedious - but its delivery at Opera Holland Park, in both style and performance is stunning.

In repertory until August 5

Stalking The Bogeyman - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


By Markus Potter and David Holthouse 
with additional writing by Santino Fontana, Shane Zeigler and Shane Stokes
Directed by Markus Potter

Mike Evans and Gerard McCarthy

Stalking The Bogeyman is a brave and challenging play. Co-written with Markus Potter who directs, David Holthouse tells his very personal and true story of having been raped at the age of seven by a neighbour and family friend, and of the impact that the rape was to have upon his life.

Holthouse lived then (and still does to this day) in Alaska where winter, the season in which he was assaulted, is a time of below freezing temperatures and perpetual darkness. The rapist was ten years older than the young Holthouse, an athletic young man who the child idolised.

In a remarkable performance Gerard McCarthy plays David and it is a measure of both well-crafted writing and performance that sensitively portrays the moment of the rape. Before us, the wide-eyed child at play is transformed from a trusting innocent into a violently violated victim. The drama tracks Holthouse until his mid-30s and we witness not so much the appalling physical damage wreaked upon him by the rape, but rather the emotional and psychological aftermath of the attack. As Holthouse comments later in the play, the very rape itself became part of the fabric of his life, a burden that he has to carry with him every single day. When he learns in adult life that his abuser has, by chance, moved into to his town he purchases a gun and plots a murderous revenge.

McCarthy leads a strong company. Opposite him, Mike Evans puts in a carefully weighted performance as The Bogeyman. At no point are either McCarthy or Evans seeking sensationalism in their roles – rather a desperate glimpse into some of humanity’s darkest corners. There’s fine work too from Glynis Barber as Nancy, Holthouses’s mother. Only learning of his abuse years after the event, Nancy’s pain at having been unable to protect her baby from such horror is a finely tuned performance. Likewise, Amy Van Nostrand’s Molly, Holthouse’s drug dealer and a survivor herself is another well-layered turn. Geoffrey Towers and John Moraitis, playing a variety of roles and ages, complete the sextet.

Cleverly staged in the round, Rob Casey’s lighting and Erik T. Lawson’s music subtly enhance the play’s bleakness. Remarkably Stalking The Bogeyman ends on a message of hope, but sat in The Little at Southwark Playhouse, the venue’s walls have been transformed into a scrapbook of references to rape and child exploitation. The message is clear – sexual violence is everywhere.

Runs until 6th August

Sunday, 17 July 2016

American Idiot - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day
Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews

Newton Faulkner
Green Day’s anarchic and rebellious, teen-angst filled musical, American Idiot is back on the London stage with a star-studded cast who battle, and floor, the age old scepticism of putting celebrities into a commercial show. After a well received UK tour Racky Plews’ take on the concept album returns to the Arts Theatre for a tourist-tempting summer residency.

With music and book written by the band’s front man Billie Joe Armstrong, it’s not surprising that the material entirely embodies the initial anger and frustration toward American society that inspired the album back in 2004. The story follows three friends, Johnny, Tunny and Will as they mature, struggling to grow up in a world of right-wing politics and commercial greed that they don’t conform with and we see the three all end up in very different areas of a painful modern life.

Johnny (Newton Faulkner) is the main focus of the story, with a vision to move to the city and separate himself and his friends from the small town mind-set that they’ve been living in and start a new, free life and Faulkner proves a pleasant surprise with a strong performance. There are a few moments when his voice becomes lost in the on stage anarchy, but he suits the character and seems entirely comfortable in the piece. His shining moment is the calm and quiet rendition of Wake Me Up When September Ends, transporting the audience into an intimate, acoustic gig. Learning that he started his music career playing bass guitar in a Green Day cover band comes as no surprise.

The ensemble though is filled with strong seasoned performers who really make the show. Lucas Rush again soars in his role as the heroin-created alter ego of Johnny, St Jimmy. His energy on stage is gripping and each time he appears you are instantly drawn to watch him.

The same can be said for Amelia Lily continuing in the role of Whatsername, with a chemistry across from Faulkner that is enchanting and despite the small role, Lily shines.

Contrasted against current political and social affairs, American Idiot continues to be a very relevant piece of theatre.

Runs until 25th September
Photo credit: Darren Bell