Friday, 27 May 2016

Flowers For Mrs Harris - Review

Crucible Theatre, Sheffield


Based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Directed by Daniel Evans

Clare Burt

Flowers For Mrs Harris marks Daniel Evans’ farewell production at Sheffield’s Crucible and he bows out premiering a musical that is elegant, charming and beautifully crafted.

Paul Gallico’s novel, set just after the Second World War tells of Ada Harris, a charlady widowed during the Great War and who, upon setting eyes on a Christian Dior dress in a client’s house, falls in love with the frock and sets about earning enough cash to buy one of her own. The strength of Gallico’s tale hangs upon Harris’ steely humble resolve in a world that has shown her few favours. Radiating an enchanted kindness to all those she encounters and inspired at first by the spirit of her dead husband with whom she shares private conversations, act one is about Ada raising the near-fortune of £500 to purchase the dress, with the second half centred around her antics upon reaching Dior’s salon in Paris.

And at risk of spoiling, that's it for the plot - save to say that this hardened critic, who was expecting to be entertained if not necessarily moved by a show about a woman and a dress, was in tears at the denouement.

Gallico’s work is a minute examination of post-war England. A time of rationed austerity, where class was prevalent and everyone knew their place. His world also demonstrates the timeless virtues of grace and kindness, demonstrating that whilst some people of power and wealth can behave like pigs, so too and on both sides of the Channel, can privileged folk act with love and compassion.

At the centre of this journey is Clare Burt’s astonishing performance as Ada Harris. A glorious everywoman, Burt makes us believe in the utmost modesty of her lifestyle and its contrast with her dazzling Dior dream. We root for her endeavours and we (literally and audibly) gasp in anguish at her setbacks and stoicism. Imagine a female Jean Valjean, only this time from Battersea, and you start to get close to the genius that lies at the heart of Burt’s creation. 

Like Valjean’s encounters in Les Miserables, it is the individuals who Mrs Harris meets on her journey that make this tale. In assembling his cast Evans has plundered the A-List of Britain's musical theatre performers, with a neat conceit seeing all the cast (Burt excluded) double up from playing one role in Battersea to another in Paris – a touch that only makes the show’s charm sparkle more.

There is much for Anna Jane Casey to do in London as Ada’s fellow widowed charlady, Violet Butterfield. Casey nails not only nails the female camaraderie of south London working class, but after the break returning as a fag hag of a Parisian femme de ménage, she is a hilarious delight. Rebecca Caine’s opera trained voice thrills, first as a wealthy Londoner and then as the manageress of the Dior salon who learns to overcome her own prejudiced snobbery.

Laura Pitt-Pulford plays a well observed, petulant, wannabe movie actress in London, who cares little for her cleaner, Mrs Harris. But act two sees this gifted actress metamorphose into Natasha, Dior’s star model and in sporting the scarlet Rose ballgown, the highlight of the season’s collection on the Paris runway, Pitt-Pulford takes our breath away.

There's a measured dignity to Mark Meadows’ supporting work, firstly as the ghost of Mr Harris and later on as a kindly French patrician, while Louis Maskell offers some beautifully sung romance as the young André, out to woo Natasha.

Lez Brotherston’s set design suggests a bombed out Battersea, all power station and gasworks. But as the interval strikes his grim London is flown away to reveal a skyline of Paris highlights – only enhancing the magic of Mrs Harris’ arrival in the French capital. Brotherston's imagery is embellished with the imaginative use of a revolve - a further nod to Les Mis?

The costumes are magnificent with act two’s fashion show proving a jaw-dropper. But badged as a musical – and to be fair Tom Brady’s 10piece band make fine work of the score – the tunes are hard to recall and frustratingly the show’s programme does not include a list of musical numbers. One’s memory can almost almost hint at having attended a play with songs.

Either way, the show is pure class and let's hope that London producers will have travelled to Sheffield for make no mistake, the underlying production values of Flowers For Mrs Harris are exquisite. If the right West End venue were to be found then this new musical, Clare Burt, and her stellar company would surely deserve Olivier-nomination.

Runs until 4th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

King Lear - Review

Birmingham Repertory Theatre


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington and Miltos Yerolemou

It’s a mark of a good Shakespeare production that, even when one knows the play well, the show reveals new depths and nuances to the text. So it is with Don Warrington whose Lear, now playing at the Birmingham Rep (for a ridiculously short 3 further days!) is up there with the best.

Director Michael Buffong chooses not to play fast and loose with the context. This is a pre-mediaeval setting, all animal skin drapes for royalty and heavy swordplay, mounted against Signe Beckmann’s simply effective staging and it works. No gimmickry here, the power of this production rests solely in the verse and its delivery.

At 65 Warrington is the perfect age to be a monarch who is planning his retirement and wanting to bestow his kingdom upon his three adult daughters. Warrington descends convincingly into the red mist of his rage at what he mistaken sees in Cordelia as a loveless insouciance – and then takes us on the most harrowing of journeys as we watch him realising his foolishness as age slowly saps his mental faculties.

Warrington’s handling of Lear’s big moments is masterful. His curse of sterility upon Rakie Ayola's Goneril is appropriately splenetic, yet where one can occasionally sympathise with his daughter at this point, here Warrington bestows his evil words with a justifiable credibility that is rarely, if ever witnessed.

The man gets better – His impotent rage, howling at Kent being placed in the stocks and subsequent, classic, plea to his daughters to “reason not the need” is heartbreaking. As Lear’s detachment from reason becomes more pronounced, Warrington’s cri de coeur at recognising his decline, “oh let me not be mad” touches us, in our modern ageing society increasingly challenged by dementia, with a touchingly relevant poignancy.

Warrington is surrounded by a fine company – In a revelatory performance Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool bestows a perceptive wisdom on this most intriguing of Shakespeare’s characters. The love between the monarch and his all-licensed fool is tangible (only heightened by the pathos of Lear’s penultimate words “and my poor fool is hanged” on Cordelia’s death) and the white slap that Buffong paints his Fool in, which miserably washes off in the storm scene, offers yet a further glimpse into the stripping back of human facades that had so easily convinced the King.

Of Lear’s daughters Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia offers the most rounded performance, however all three women are at times occasionally inaudible. This may be down to the staging/venue, however if there is an opportunity to fine tune this, it would make a very good play even better. Philip Whitchurch’s Gloucester however makes for a touching turn. The sub-plot of his deception by Fraser Ayre’s bastard of an Edmund is effective – with Whitchurch’s “I stumbled when I saw” offering powerful pathos.

Deceptively wicked, Norman Bowman brings a chilling menace to his all-too caledonian Cornwall. A truly malignant thug, his terrifying manner towards Gloucester is frightening even before he lays hands on his host. And credit too to Buffong for laying on a truly gruesome blinding, complete with tendril-strewn eyeballs bouncing off into the stalls. Shakespeare intended the scene as a horror show and, to mash up the reference points, Bowman duly delivers some Tarantino for the groundlings.

Above all, there is a heartbreaking majesty to this production and in this anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, and with more Lears on the way, Warrington sets the bar very high. His Lear is every inch a King.

Runs until 28th May
Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Natasha J Barnes plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer

Natasha J Barnes

Circumstances have thrust Natasha J Barnes into playing the leading role of Fanny Brice in Michael Mayer’s production of Funny Girl, recently transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Savoy Theatre.  The show has already been reviewed by in both those venues – so this review is all about Barnes.

Quite simply, she is a stunning, revelatory astonishment. The role is huge, with the actress onstage almost throughout as she charts Brice’s rise from a self-confident Brooklyn kid to Broadway star.  And it is in tracing Brice’s soaring arc, that Barnes herself soars. When we first meet her as the young Fanny, all knickerbockered and hopeful, Barnes to most of the audience, is an unknown performer – but as she sings I’m The Greatest Star, we catch a tiny glimpse of life imitating art as Barnes’ talent is revealed.

It’s not just her stunning voice that rises magnificently through the show’s two signature numbers People and Don’t Rain On My Parade – it is her ability to grasp the complexities of Brice’s life and play them convincingly. We believe in her childhood, we believe in her chutzpah and eventually, as Brice evolves into an older and ultimately wiser woman, we believe Barnes’ portrayal of Brice’s deepest love for the errant Nicky Arnstein and her formidable strength as she moves forward from a failed marriage.

Barnes captures the nuance, the poise, the comedy and the raw gutsy energy that epitomised Fanny Brice – and she brings back to the role the passion that was first (and last?) seen when Sheridan Smith opened this show at the Menier 6 months ago.  Since then, Smith’s personal life has been desperately painful - and all too publicly too - and no-one would wish her a return to this most demanding of roles until she is fully fit.

But until Smith is ready to play Funny Girl again, she can at least be assured that the show is in safe hands. In a display of pure theatrical magic, Natasha J Barnes stuns us with her acting, touches our hearts with People and in closing both halves of the show with Don’t Rain On My Parade, makes spines tingle and hairs stand on end.  Barbra Streisand may have created Fanny Brice, but Barnes’ take on the role reminds one of that other classic Streisand performance, A Star Is Born.

Funny Girl is booking until 8th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Recognising The Value Of Britain's Fringe Theatre

My letter below was published in The Stage today

Dear Sir

I read with interest the very detailed British Theatre Repertoire Report 2014 (May 12) and the trends that it highlights.
It is disappointing to note, however, that the only theatres surveyed for the report were the members of the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre.
In London alone there are approximately 80 Off-West End venues, the great majority of which are not affiliated to SOLT, and which have therefore been excluded from the report.
Off-West End venues not only offer theatre at ticket prices that are typically far below SOLT-staged productions, they also provide an organic base from which, occasionally, shows can springboard up to a more commercial SOLT venue.
Additionally, Off-West End productions offer outlets in which emerging artists are often discovered, and established artists can hone their skills.
The quality of many Off-West End productions is not in question. By way of example only, the Arcola and the Southwark Playhouse theatres frequently mount shows that garner four-star and five-star ratings in Britain’s mainstream national press, and which can play to packed houses with queues around the block.
As and when the next report on the British Theatre Repertoire is published, it needs to be more inclusive.
Jonathan Baz

Parade - Review

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester


Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by James Baker

The company of Parade

As musicals go, Jason Robert Brown's Parade is a tough gig. His Tony-winning score is an immense fusion of the sounds of America’s South, tackling a monstrous story of love in adversity and the utter depths of man's capacity to hate. The Leo Frank trial in the early 20th century split America, laying bare the racist core of the Confederacy. 80 years later, Brown's show was to become a troubling piece that held a mirror to its country’s soul - a mirror that to this day a large part of that nation still resolutely refuses to look in.

One of the first productions to be mounted in this newest of Manchester's venues, the old mill building lends itself well to Parade's disquieting storyline. Tough shows however require a strong cast and in this ensemble James Baker has assembled a company of standout performers. The show opens with the uncomfortably stirring The Old Red Hills Of Home and playing the Young Soldier, Aidan Banyard sets spines tingling within the first 30 seconds. As the show unfolds Banyard's vocal magnificence is found to be replicated throughout the entire cast.

Any production of Parade has to rest on strength in its leads of Leo and Lucille Frank. Tom Lloyd shines as the unfortunate Jewish accountant who finds himself framed and racially persecuted for a crime he did not commit, the rape and murder of a 13yo. Lloyd captures Frank's stubborn indignity perfectly, his slight frame metamorphosing into a performance of utter litheness in Come Up To My Office, before slumping back into quiet and purposeful, pleading, principle within It's Hard To Speak My Heart.

More than a match for Lloyd, Laura Harrison's Lucille brings a stunningly voiced maturity to the Southern belle that is Frank's troubled wife. Her initial uncertainty as to his innocence, that slowly forges itself into a righteous defence of her innocent husband is one of the finest female turns seen this year. Brown has written Lucille some spectacular numbers and Harrison brings an especially beautiful resonance to You Don't Know This Man, alongside the heartbreaking irony of her powerful duet with Leo, All The Wasted Time.

There is not a weak link in this cast. Memorable for their multi-role excellence are Matt Mills and James Wolstenhome. The sole black man in the cast, Mills has to pick up all of the parts that demand an African American male - and in playing wily convict Jim Conley, Mills displays a sublime mastery of the blues. There is an unsettling insouciance to his manner that only adds to the show's momentum. Mention too, here, for Shekinah McFarlane's Angela with a performance that more than suggests Cynthia Erivo's style and presence in its pedigree.

Wolstenhome however is simply a chameleon of performing excellence. It is hard to believe his Governor Slaton is played by the same man who also plays the (sometimes gutter) journalist Britt Craig, with his take on Craig's big number, Real Big News proving flawless, shocking and exhilarating.

Andrew Gallo's manipulative prosecutor (and Governor in waiting) Hugh Dorsey brings just the right amount of deviant corruption to the politics of his game, likewise Nathan Summer's portrayal of the evil Tom Watson. Spewing racist bile through the medium of hymn, Summer chills as he taps into the South's collective frustration at their racial purity being defiled,

The show's staging is inspired, with Baker using the mill's full space alongside William Whelton's clever choreography, to jar our attention. If one or two of his directions have wandered slightly off-piste it's no big deal - the strength of this show lies in the stripped-down excellence that Baker coaxes from his actors.

Musically, Tom Chester directs a 9 piece band that pays magnificent service to Brown's musical maelstrom. And in a nod to the trio of Chester, Baker and producer (and local girl) Katy Lipson, Manchester is unlikely to have seen many fringe performances assembled to such a high standard of production value. If you're coming from afar, the show is well worth the train fare. If you live in the North West, Parade is unmissable.

Runs until 5th June
Photo credit: Anthony Robling

Click here to read my foreword to Parade.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

La Poule Plombee - Review

St James' Studio, London


Sarah-Louise Young

Appearing as part of the (now ended) London Festival of Cabaret, Sarah-Louise Young's latest cabaret manifestation is a set entitled La Poule Plombée. Literally translated it means the "leaded hen", which offers a sardonic contrast to Edith Piaf's "little sparrow" (and of course sounds appetizingly like flambé too). However, Google a little deeper and one finds that Poule can also refer to a floozy or tart (human rather than pastry). And then remember that Young famously describes herself on Twitter as Cabaret Whore...

In this show however, Young is the very essence of pastiche as she dons the persona of an angst-filled chanteuse. Affectionately and perceptively mocking the chic French-diva genre, hers is no Piaf tribute gig.

A consummate professional, Young’s mask does not slip throughout. There may not be any personally revealing anecdotes here, but the 4th wall is cunningly and repeatedly breached as she rips up the entente cordiale with some deliciously credible swipes at British culture.

Young also brings an entertaining even if depressing mania to her act. Arriving on stage brandishing a large butcher's knife, the melodrama is played to hilarious effect - the knife gag leading into a song about a traumatised butcher's daughter, whose pet pig is slaughtered by her father. Nice.

Other numbers touch upon the Little Black Dress as well as an affectionate play on the word Encore that closes the set, keep the wit razor sharp while occasional moments of audience participation are managed perfectly by Young who never once lets good-humoured embarrassment slip into rank humiliation.  

With musical director Michael Roulston as deeply immersed in playing a supporting role as Young, the pair's banter may lack spontaneity, but it is polished to perfection. Young's mastery of the genre is up there with the best and it is a real treat to be offered a show that is so distinctly original.

A Song Goes Round The World - Review

St James' Studio, London


For one night only, Daniel Donskoy with Inga Davis-Rutter created an evocative evening of cabaret, which if not quite as global as the title suggests, offered a bouillabaisse (or should that be tzimmes?) of Continental songs from the 1930s that spoke of humour, love and culture as well as Europe’s more troubled times.

Only in his mid-20s Donskoy truly is a child of Europe. He’s grown up in several countries and boasts a multi-lingual magnetism that is as attractive as his voice is smooth. The first half sees him commanding the stage and whirling the audience through some of the bitter-sweet gems of the German and Yiddish songbooks. If a number of the songs will not have been familiar to the audience - it didn't really matter. Donskoy offered a warm and informative patter that seamlessly linked the numbers. His take on A Yiddishe Mame hit the sweetest of spots with his audience, while Bei Mir Bistu Shein that was to prove a multi-million dollar smash hit for the Andrews Sisters, was here stripped back to its origins. Donskoy’s Papirossen however, a lament from the Polish ghettos, marked a brief yet appropriate reference to the hellish devastation that the last century wreaked upon European Jewry.

As the silver tongued Donskoy danced through the linguistics, I was reminded of Joel Grey's chameleon-esque Emcee in Bob Fosse's movie Cabaret, singing Wilkommen in its three different languages. No sinister undertones here mind, nor of course the sleaze of pre-war Berlin in the dapper St James’, but rather an outstanding mastery of multi-lingual nuance that is not often heard.

The show dropped a gear after the break. Jackie Marks came on to sing La Vie En Rose. Sung well, Piaf’s songs can reduce grown men to tears. Notwithstanding Marks' all powerful belt and presence, her take on the number's English translation (which itself lacks so much of the French original's je ne sais quoi) made it all seem just a tad more Dorien than Diva. Donskoy then sang Piaf's Hymne À L'amour, a tall order for even an accomplished male singer and didn't quite hit the mark. As the gig evolves, its French Quarter needs work.

But this was an evening of musical diadems and fascinating facts. Who knew that Mary Hopkins' Those Were The Days had stolen its melody from the Russian folk song Dorogoi Dlinnoyu?

Davis-Rutter was a delight on the keys. Accompanied by bass and drums (perhaps a clarinet too, next time?) she partnered Donskoy and Marks perfectly, giving a spectacularly Spanish infused piano solo just before the interval.

With the intimate Studio packed for the gig, Donskoy and Davis-Rutter make a fabulous team. A Song Goes Round The World is an imaginative addition to London's cabaret scene and is well worth catching on its return.