Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack And The Beanstalk - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written and directed by Susie McKenna

Debbie Kurup and Clive Rowe

Who is the nation’s greatest Dame? Maggie Smith, Judi Dench or Helen Mirren? Well think again, for as pantomime season descends upon us, Clive Rowe yet again claims that illustrious honour with a barn-storming performance as Dame Daisy Trott in Hackney Empire’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Who else commands such a usual flair that their entrance, in a cart/chariot drawn by a pantomime cow as they sing Winter Wonderland, other than the lovably rotund and risqué Rowe? There’s a perennially strong community feel to this panto, where TV soap star top billings are ignored in favour of Rowe (the programme suggests that Trott is his 6th Hackney damehood) supported by theatrical excellence.

Aside from Rowe’s pinpoint timing, stunning costumes (brava Lotte Collett) and THAT voice – he offers a great take on Harry Nilsson’s Without You whilst his Climb Every Mountain, sung as he follows Jack to the top of the beanstalk, will stay with me for a long time - Rowe is in great company. Debbie Kurup’s Jack is wholesome and lovable, deftly performed and of course Kurup’s voice and presence is a knockout!

A neat post-modern twist sees local hero Kat B in white-slap as a Jamaican snowman (don’t ask). His hilarious patois along with an excruciatingly funny take on Uptown Funk make for another of the evening’s delights.

There’s no need to summarise the well-worn plot though if there is one criticism it is that writer director Susie McKenna, who has written every Hackney panto for nigh on 20 years, is possibly starting to run out of steam. At close to three hours long, the multi-racial Hackney audience that ranges from toddler through hipster to grandparent, deserve more than the occasional thrown away gag about Jeremy Corbyn or Greece’s debt. 

Even if they’re all top-notch, there’s a tad too much pre-recorded celebrity voiceover – McKenna should have stopped at the genius opening projections of local newsmen Jon Snow and Robert Peston – and a glaring omission from the programme means that we never learn who are the talented duo inside what is a sensationally choreographed pantomime cow.

Mark Dickman's 5 piece band puts in fine work, Jocelyn Jee Esien and Tony Timberlake entertain and earn our boos as the Giant’s henchmen, whilst dear Julia Sutton enchants us all as Mother Nature, out to save the planet. But its Dame Clive Rowe who steals this show!

Runs until 3rd January

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Elf - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed and choreographed by Morgan Young

Ben Forster and Kimberley Walsh

Twelve years after the movie scored itself into the global psyche as a modern day Christmas classic, the musical version of Elf makes its London premiere at the Dominion Theatre.

Elf's cute story would melt even the most glacial of hearts as it tells of apparently orphaned Buddy, who is inadvertently swept into Santa's sack and flown back to the North Pole. The movie's success proved the tale's potential for comedy along with much seasonal schmaltz as it follows Buddy's growing up with Santa and his quest to return to New York City to discover his true family.

Ben Forster as Buddy steals the show with an un-relenting charm and wide eyed enthusiasm. Forster's performance may well be inspired by the movie's Will Ferrell, a tough act to follow for sure, but the young Brit brings something new to the character and does a smashing job of maintaining an upbeat energy throughout the show.

TV and popstar Kimberly Walsh looks and sounds fabulous as Buddy's love interest Jovie, interjecting a perfectly measured counter-balance of humour to Buddy's Christmas enthusiasm.

Amongst the cast Joe McGann as Buddy's natural father Walter, who has to learn to love his newly-discovered son, offers up an ultimately touching turn. The elfin Jessica Martin as his wife Emily similarly convinces and there is a standout performance from Jennie Dale as Walter’s secretary Deb. Delivering one of the show's funniest performances, Dale earns rapturous applause from the crowd.

The producers have adopted a pricey ticketing approach to this show, with top premium tickets going for an eye watering £250+! Not unreasonably, expectations are stratospheric and they are not met. For that price one might well have expected the movie's famously hilarious shower scene to have been played out on stage in a fully plumbed in set (it isn't). And where Hollywood sprinkled the film with a generous helping of classic Christmas songs, Sklar and Beguelin's numbers (which to be fair are imaginatively staged by Morgan Young, including some lovely tap routines) written for the show are, for the most part, quickly forgotten. And, thinking of the little ones, bear in mind that even for £250, the show is at least 30 minutes too long. 

But hey, it’s Christmas - and whilst Elf may be little more than typically festive theatre fayre, it makes for a fun night out in the West End. The scenery and projections are smart and they even make it snow inside the Dominion!

Runs until 2nd January 2016
Guest reviewer: Josh Kemp

Friday, 20 November 2015

Les Miserables - Review

Queens Theatre, London 


It has been a while since I'd last seen Les Miserables in the West End, but every now and then a show’s casting proves so irresistible that it cries out to be seen again. 
Firstly, there is the wonderful Carrie Hope-Fletcher's take on Eponine. Having seen Carrie perform at a couple of concert events I had long hankered after catching her acclaimed interpretation first hand. And then there’s Rachelle Ann Go’s Fantine. I’d adored her Movie In My Mind in Miss Saigon, but on hearing Rachelle sing I Dreamed A Dream at Hugh Maynard’s Hippodrome gig a few months ago, she simply set spines tingling.  
However, both of those yearnings were eclipsed by the announcement, earlier this year, that Phil Daniels was to play musical theatre’s ultimate scum-meister, taking over as M. Thenardier. 
Virtually a national treasure, Daniels etched himself into the nation’s psyche in the 70s and 80s. Along with a youthful Ray Winstone he offered a brutal perspective on British borstal life in Alan Clarke’s controversial movie, Scum – if you haven’t seen that picture, download it and find out why Winstone has been known forever since as The Daddy. And from then on, including The Who's iconic Quadrophenia and later film and stage performances, Daniels’ work has been nothing sort of exceptional. 
And so it was, that with this cast, Les Mis moved back on to my “unmissable” list…


Author/Dramatist ALAIN BOUBLIL
Adaptation & Direction TREVOR NUNN
Adaptation & Direction JOHN CAIRD

Les Miserables has long impressed me, not just for having such a stirring libretto, but also for the cheekily economic creativity of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg that was able to hang quite so many different songs on just a handful of (oft repeated) melodies! Herbert Kretzmer deserves handsome credit for the lyrics. Kretzmer has compressed Victor Hugo's panoramic vision of 19th century France into 3 hours of sung-through genius, with a wit and nuance perfectly tailored to the modern idiom.

On the night of this review Adam Bayjou was standing in for Peter Lockyer as the eponymous ex-con Jean Valjean. Youthful but nonetheless assured, Bayjou mastered the gravitas of driving the show, stirring and inspirational as needed and touching souls with an exquisite Bring Him Home.

Hunting him across the years is Jeremy Secomb's Javert. Secomb, with the full built frame of a cop, pound for pound probably outweighs the more diminutive Bayjou whose lifting of both cart and carcass through the show as required defies probability. Secomb though brings just the right amount of dour, booted, gravitas to the lugubrious lawman including a thrilling delivery of Stars. And as Javert grapples with Valjean's divine mercy that he simply cannot comprehend, this talented actor displays a truly tortured soul. 

There can never be a great deal to write about Fantine, perhaps one of theatre's most underwritten leading ladies, but Rachelle Ann Go carries the pride of the Philippines with her as she re-defines the role, making I Dreamed A Dream truly her own.

Carrie Hope-Fletcher's Eponine must surely have proved an inspired casting over the last couple of years. She embodies her character's sincerity with beauty, coquettish charm and a voice of amazingly youthful power. And as her coat falls open to reveal that bloodstained blouse, even seeing the show for the umpteenth time one can't hold back the tears. For Hope-Fletcher her Les Mis time is running out and one looks forward to see how her talents will next be deployed.

Perhaps the toughest roles in the show are those of Cosette and Marius - their love is sincere, but where Eponine is endowed with a tragically romantic death, these youngsters see their finale wedding overshadowed first by the Thenardiers' thievery and then Valjean's demise. Tough gigs indeed, but Zoe Doano, as ever, defines enchanting as she falls for her handsome student, filling the role with a passionate credibility and a celestial voice. And if Rob Houchen's Marius is a slightly understated gem, at least it’s well polished.

And then there's Katie Secombe and Phil Daniels as the ghastly Thenardiers. The pair's timing, acting and song are a masterclass in bitter-sweet grotesque. Blessed with comedy in her genes Secombe's Mme T is every inch a Lady Macbeth of her time, keeping her performance just the right side of pantomime. Daniels simply lives up to expectations. With his park life voice that’s been dredged from somewhere east of Tilbury, Daniels defines the red-nosed brigand perfectly. It will take some double act to match this monstrous couple.

Above all, the credit for Les Mis' continued excellence has to lie with its producer. Cameron Mackintosh may have elevated this particular show to the level of a global franchise - but he's never sacrificed a moment of its quality, Amidst John Napier’s ever revolving designs, the show’s details remain finely honed. And whether it is (simply by way of example) Adam Pearce's immaculate multi-role ensemble work, or Alex Parker's pinpoint musical direction, Les Miserables remains an example of world class excellence.

Now booking into 2016

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Nutcracker – The Motion Picture (1986) – Review


Directed by Carroll Ballard

It is Christmas Eve and festivities are underway. Clara (Vanessa Sharp) eagerly awaits the arrival of her godfather (Hugh Bigney) who always brings with him the most exciting gifts and toys. She is captivated by a beautiful castle, complete with dancing dolls inside. But what most intrigues her is a wooden nutcracker prince, which she returns to inspect after the party has ended and which sends her into a dream world. 

This 1986 production by the Pacific Northwest Ballet and staged amidst a wonderful Maurice Sendak designed set, comes to DVD for the first time this Christmas, making Tchaikovsky’s classic accessible to fans across the world. 

Narration by the older Clara, who is recounting the dream that she had, provides an insightful analysis into the rationale behind the dream and its characters – a clever technique used by Ballard. 

The dream sequence moves at pace and builds with a dizzying flurry of performances, each with their own distinct identity. The costuming deserves special mention in supporting this, with a broad range of colours and textures used to complement the narrative. The set design is also wonderful; a particular highlight is when the waves of the sea are brought to life with moving set pieces and a boat, carrying Clara and the Nutcracker, crosses the water. 

What makes the Nutcracker particularly memorable is that the dark undertones of the story – such as the nature of the relationship between Clara and her godfather, Clara and her brother, and Clara’s parents – are explored in this production. They are also nicely introduced at the very beginning of the film, when a sense of foreboding is made clear to the audience from the outset. 

Dance highlights include the Peacock’s Dance (Maia Rosal), the Waltz of the Flowers (including a stellar performance by Lucinda Hughey) and the Dance of the Snowflakes, complete with snow. Performances by Patricia Barker – playing the dream Clara and the ballerina doll – and the Nutcracker Prince (Wade Walthall) are also excellent. The production certainly utilises some of the best film techniques that were available at the time, but given technology’s advance, today’s wired young viewers may possibly expect a little more. 

This Nutcracker certainly offers an opportunity to view the skill and discipline required by each dancer. And whilst the awe-inspiring effect of seeing such a production live on stage is arguably lost in a recording, who knows… it may inspire a visit to the ballet 

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture is now available on DVD

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Julie Madly Deeply - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


Sarah-Louise Young

Julie Madly Deeply is a technically brilliant performance from Sarah-Louise Young that charts the life of possibly the queen of our national treasures, Julie Andrews.

A self-confessed fan and devotee, with a knowledge of both Andrews' life and repertoire that is arguably unsurpassed, Young's whirlwind performance has criss-crossed the Atlantic, with this three day residency at The Crazy Coqs marking the show's return to the capital.

Accompanied by Michael Roulston on piano, the act, even down to the patter, is meticulously rehearsed and delivered - and as a modestly-sized stage show Julie Madly Deeply deserves its acclaim. But as a cabaret act it misses the mark. Good cabaret should work around the fourth wall but here, and almost throughout, a bewigged Young hides behind that blasted wall giving us little more than a virtuoso acting performance, even if she does occasionally lapse into a hybrid of Princess Diana crossed with Norman Bates.

Notwithstanding that Young's flawless singing and mimicry is spot on (her Liza Minelli is a treat) there is virtually no spontaneity to be found here, nor much sincere interaction with her audience. And over those late night cocktails and g&t's, does one really need, for an eleven o'clock number and with a heartbreaking accuracy, an impersonation of Andrews' latter day voice, ravaged following her vocal-chord surgery, singing a plaintively muted Edleweiss? I'm not so sure

On twitter, Young sports the disarmingly self-deprecating title of Cabaret Whore. Actually, with her direction of the sensational Miss-Leading Ladies barely three months ago, she has proved she's a cabaret genius. Julie Madly Deeply is a finely honed work of musical and theatrical excellence that would be best served the other side of Piccadilly Circus amidst the bijou intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre. But as cabaret, it’s whored.

Runs until 14th November

Henry V - Review

Barbican Theatre, London

As The RSC open their Henry V at London's Barbican Theatre, here is my 4* review of that production from its opening at Stratford upon Avon in September 2015.

And this link is to my interview with the company's rising star, Alex Hassell.


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Alex Hassell

In a time of celebrity cast Shakespeare productions, it is a pleasure to observe Greg Doran’s take on Henry V and see not so much a band of brothers, but rather a company of craftsmen offering one of the most intelligent interpretations of this complex play in recent years.

Famously seized upon by directors as a platform for political comment, Henry V has often been rolled out as a platform (sorry, make that a bandwagon) to voice opinion upon contemporary conflict. On screen Olivier’s Harry sought to rally the nation as the 1944 Normandy landings loomed, whilst in 2003 as war raged in Iraq, Adrian Lester’s dusty jeep sped onto the Olivier stage, drawing Nick Hytner’s line in the sand as he acceded to the National’s directorship. 

But in this show, today’s politics are sidelined in place of comment on the universal compromises that war imposes upon humanity. Doran eschews all sense of contemporary tub-thumping in place of well honed drama and lets the Bard’s verse speak to its own strengths. Broadly staged in period garb, apart from Oliver Ford Davies’ marvellous Chorus, clad in modern dress, setting out Stratford’s cockpit whilst the House lights stay on, this is an un-pretentious Henry V.

Marking a natural progression from his Prince Hal in both parts of Doran’s Henry IV, Alex Hassell accedes to the throne and his performance is a thing of beauty. Having observed his development in the preceding plays, his Henry matures before our eyes as the responsibilities of inspirational monarchy weigh upon him. Hassell brings a heroic handsome humility to the role that sheaths a steely spine. His Henry’s pragmatic ruthlessness is as credible in dealing with the traitors at Southampton, as it is in the famously troubling (and often excised) command that his troops should kill their French prisoners. 

Hassell’s handling of the St Crispin’s Day speech is majestic yet free of pomposity and condescension, whilst his  entreaties to his troops to treat the defeated French with decency ring with an envious integrity.

Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin needs work – it’s a complex role to carry off and he’s not quite there yet in suspending our disbelief. Elsewhere there is a fine company work to support Hassell’s Harry. Joshua Richards’ Bardolph/Fluellen offers impressive soldiers’ perspectives both on conflict and upon dutiful service. In a minor role, Sam Marks’ (who only recently played Happy opposite Hassell's Biff in the RSC's Death Of A Salesman) French Constable shone out as a beacon of credibility, whilst Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel, in the briefest of speeches, defines with dignity France’s pain in defeat and her nation’s hopes for the future.

As ever, the RSC's stagecraft is world class with Stephen Brimson Lewis’ use of projections and eerily effective understage lighting in his set designs proving particularly effective.

Shortly to move to London’s Barbican Theatre, one suspects that like a fine wine, this already impressive production play will only improve with time. 

Setting politics aside, this Henry V offers up a perspective on war that speaks to us all.

Runs until 30 November 2015

Then runs during January 2016 as part of The RSC's Great Cycle of Kings

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Alex Hassell In Conversation

As the RSC cycle of Shakespeare's Histories arrives at London’s Barbican Theatre, Alex Hassell appears first as Hal in Henry IV Pts 1 & 2, before maturing into the series' Henry V.  

35 years old and with enviably chiselled features, whilst not yet a household name, Hassell is commanding increasing respect. It was only last month that he achieved a podium finish as a Best Supporting Performance nominee in the 2015 UK Theatre awards for his portrayal of Biff in the RSC's acclaimed revival of Death Of A Salesman.

Shortly before Henry V opened, I interviewed Alex at the RSC’s London rehearsal rooms, to learn a little more about this impressive young performer and to talk about his Hal, Henry and Biff.

Alex Hassell as Hal in Henry IV Pt ii

Jonathan: Tell me about the career journey that has brought you to the RSC

Alex: I grew up in Essex. When I was 12, I went to see a musical called The Rock Nativity and just instantly knew that I wanted to be an actor. 

Near where I lived there was just musicals. There weren't many straight plays, so I grew up just spending every spare moment dancing lessons and singing lessons and all of that. Dozens of musicals and then went to the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Saturdays and started to get into Shakespeare and was Hamlet at school when I was about seventeen and where I had a brilliant English teacher, Mrs Stroud, who really inspired the whole class.

From there I went to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama and after a while I was lucky enough to end up at the Globe where I played in Mark Rylance’s last season. That was a massive, massive deal for me. It led to Tim Carroll and myself setting up The Factory Theatre Company in 2006 which presents an alternative take on Shakespeare. Our work was well received with a strong following – and that was where I was ultimately noticed by The RSC.

Jonathan: The transition from Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, to King Henry V is rarely performed by the same actor these days. What are your observations on accomplishing this development?

Alex: Of course it has been done before – though when we get to the Barbican and you can see Richard II, Henry IV i & ii and Henry V in like three or four days. I don't know if they’ve necessarily done that. 

To be honest I would find it really strange, the notion of just playing Henry V because there's so much that is to do with it being the guy that was just Hal in Henry IV i & ii becoming Henry V. That to me seems massively what the play is about, or what his journey is about anyway.

It's very, fascinating, because the idea, I believe, that Hal was a wayward youth is Shakespeare's invention. Also, the speech at the beginning of Henry IV pt i about, "I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyoked humour of your idleness ... " About the idea that he's biding his time or whatever, or he's undercover, or something like that and that he's then going to amaze everyone at a later date when he turns it all around. That where that is paying off in the course of the three plays and where that becomes true, if it wasn't true in the first place, I think is very interesting. 

I think if you don't do both parts of Henry IV then Hal's relationship to God is different, Hal's relationship with going to France would be is different, because there are different motives suggested for going to France and for me it seems very useful to remember that as Henry V, my father's dying wishes were that I go to France and that I galvanize the kingdom behind me through that action.

Having Hal be the same person shows his change. He develops and grows as a person, but it's not like it's a different person. It's the same person, so his vulnerability and frailty and self-doubt and at times, I think, self-loathing, fear and dissatisfaction and not wanting to be there, not wanting to be in that role is all still in there somewhere, but he cannot allow it to overwhelm him.

Hassell as Henry V

Jonathan: How do you see that Henry V speaks to Britain today from the perspectives of royalty, monarchy and conflict?

Alex: I think that we've discovered looking through it that it's a play about the cost of war. I don't think it's pro-war. I think in some areas the characters are pro-war and in some areas the characters are anti-war and the same characters can be both.

I don't think the play comes down either way, but I think it's exploring the complexities of war and that what it takes to lead people to war. What it costs you and costs them and why people might go to war. The differing reasons that people might go to war and how maybe God and things like that can be appropriated into those missions. I think it asks more questions than it answers, so I don't think it speaks to us these days in terms of saying, "This is what we are saying. This is what the play is saying about war."

Or take the Governor of Harfleur, for example and what would you do if a king was saying this to you and was threatening to kill and rape your women? What would you do? Would you give up or not? I think that's what the play is asking of us and I think that is an incredibly universal and a timeless set of questions really. I'm really pleased that we're not setting it in a particular time really, or not applying it to a certain war. In fact, we're unusual as a production of Henry V that there's not a war that we are currently fighting that this would be a mirror to, which I think is good. 

Jonathan: You've performed with Sir Antony Sher a great deal now. Can you describe working with him? 

Alex: He's an amazing actor, obviously. Incredibly detailed and his work, his dedication and the sort of hours he puts in and the focus he has on every tiny little detail is really very impressive. He sort of carves out a kind of astonishing statue. He essentially starts with a big block and carves out these tiny, tiny little details so by the end you see this full picture. I think he wants to breathe life into that picture every time, but not deviate too much from it because it's a full, fully realized and extremely well put together and well crafted portrait of a person, whereas I am much more chaotic! It was very exciting for me to be riffing with someone of Tony's ability and quality obviously, but I think it was exciting for him too, to every now and then go, "Oh, I'm out of my comfort zone. I don't know what happens if we do this. I don't know where we end up." It's exciting to throw one another at each other's mercy, especially in Death of a Salesman, which is immensely emotionally fraught and connected.

Antony Sher as Willy Loman (l) w Hassell as Biff

Jonathan: And a complete change of tack for you with your portrayal of Biff in Death of a Salesman, again opposite Sher as Willy Loman. Tell me about taking that 1940’s character into 2015 and what do you think he’s saying? 

Alex: I guess, I don't know about my take on Biff, but I guess the play's take on Biff is, which for an actor is a very useful thing to think about, is to just attempt to be okay with who you are. To do the old AA thing, or whatever. “Change what you think you can change and be okay with the things that you can't change.” If only Willie had learned to do that. Biff I think is trying to do that. I think that is Biff's desire in the play, really, is to find out who he is and try and be okay with who he is. It becomes so moving. It is truly one of the best plays ever written.

Why I want to be an actor is to be given the privilege to get up in front of people and attempt to express and embody the things that they are embarrassed about themselves to have known to other people.

There were a number of times when I would come out of the stage door and young people would want me to hold them because they had felt Biff had represented them and would be crying and would ask me to talk to them about it, which was astonishing really.

Some young people feel and I completely understand, feel lost and feel that they can't live up to the pressure that the world, or their parents, or themselves are putting onto them. I feel that myself as an actor. I put myself under an enormous pressure as an actor and I can fail my own idea of what I think I should be very frequently. It was interesting. I can understand what they're saying.

And then there would be times when we would come out and there would be older men that might have wanted to say something but couldn’t speak because they were so moved. Sometimes they might just say something like, "He was just like someone I know." That was all they'd say.

Lots of people have lots of ways into that play. If you are someone struggling to live up to an idea of yourself. If you are a maligned younger sibling, or an older sibling, or whatever. If you're a partner who's trying to keep the family together despite it spiraling out of control.If you're a next door neighbor or a friend who knows people you don't know how to help, but you can see that something ... If you began to unpick them they would crumble, so what do you do? You just stand by in horror and see it happen. Yes, I feel very moved by being given the opportunity to attempt to live up to that play and embody that play for audiences because it has such power.

I feel very profoundly proud to have been part of something seemed to have the capacity to move people in the way that it did.

Jonathan: And the future. ?

Alex: Ah… of course I would love to play Hamlet in a production with stuff!

It's interesting. I'm a lot older now, and actually my dad has died since I last did it at The Factory, and not that I have a desire to use that or anything like that, but it would be very interesting to have that in my life experience now if that were ever to come up again.

I can be in the bath and suddenly realize that I'm going over the lines of, just sort of exploring them. Hamlet is a play that constantly comes back. You can't ever get it all. You can't ever work it out and pin it all down, and that's what's so amazing about it.

Jonathan: What was your take as someone who today is leading an RSC company in one of Shakespeare's major plays, on the recent publicity that surrounded the Cumberbatch Hamlet?

Alex: I think any hype about theatre is probably a good thing though I do think the critics shouldn't have gone in before they were supposed to.

I would love to be in Benedict Cumberbatch's position and I hope to be one day, and I'm still striving to do so, but there's something I find pleasurable in no one knowing who I am…

Jonathan: Not exactly no one….

Alex: What it feels like at the moment is that I'll go and play Henry V and I know that there are a certain number of the audience that will have seen the other things that I’ve done and are there, hopefully, because they're excited of the notion of me playing Henry V, and that's great. But I know that I've got to this position because Greg Doran thinks I'm good enough to be there.

And that’s good enough for me.