Thursday, 30 October 2014

Laura Jane Matthewson - A Star Is Born



This week the newest sensation to hit London's musical theatre scene, Laura Jane Matthewson was crowned champion of the Talent 2014 competition by Michael Ball. After winning all her heats Laura was thrilled to receive some top notch goodies plus a thousand pounds too. Not a bad haul - but for this young actress, the true spoils of her entering Talent 2014 had been gained some months ago, when heat-judge Danielle Tarento laid eyes on her for the first time and signed her up as leading lady for her London premier production of the off Broadway hit Dogfight.

Dogfight was always going to be a "marmite" musical. Tackling a troubling subject: the mysogynist, sexist and abusive antics of a group of US marines pre their Vietnam deployment, a small handful of critics hated it. But they were just a few. The morning after press night the reaction to the show was "rave" - and in the first time that I can recall for a fringe production, Matthewson  was repeatedly singled out for buckets of praise. Libby Purves formerly of The Times and now perhaps the most respected independent critic on the circuit devoted half of her review to Mathewson whilst other notable pundits such as Baz Bamigboye of the Mail and The Stage's Mark Shenton also waxed lyrical. As the ripples of amazement crossed the Atlantic, even The New York Times added their penn'orth in praise of Laura.

So - as Matthewson was only last week preparing for her competition final and as Sunderland FC had just been thrashed 8-0 by Southampton, (though albeit a proud Wearsider, she did confess, in a shrimp-like state of embarrassment, a total ignorance of that humiliating score-line,  explaining that "football's not her thing") I grabbed the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

The reviews of Dogfight predominantly described you as a newly-graduated (from the Royal Academy of Music) arrival on the professional scene. Was that an accurate description?

Actually it's a bit far from the truth! Whilst I was certainly new to the London stage, for the last five years (in fact ever since winning The Panto Factor) I have had regular professional roles. My first part was in a Sevenoaks pantomime, opposite former EastEnders star Leslie Grantham (who was an absolute delight to work with) and since then I have done panto every year along with numerous TIE gigs and other out of town productions.

"Dog" is a vile description of a woman. At the core of Dogfight is how a group of young men get their kicks out of debasing women and labelling them as ugly. Putting the show's politics aside, how humanly challenging was it for you to play such a role?

It's never written anywhere that Rose (my character) or that any of the women in the show are ugly. Within the parameters of 1960's America they are required to to be perceived as unconventionally attractive. For Rose, the breakdown said that the role needed somebody a bit overweight and as I have never been a stick-thin leading lady anyway, that's fine. She is somebody "quite plain and reserved but with heart", a phrase that I loved.

Rose almost has a light from within. The more that you get to know and like her, the more that she becomes attractive, which is sort of what happens with everybody in real life. You know when you meet somebody that looks beautiful and then they turn out to be a horrible person and immediately become less attractive? I don't think that the Rose is an ugly girl, she is just not "stick-thin Miss America" and neither am I.

The show stirred up a hornets nest of reactions amongst some critics. Tell me about that.

I completely agree with one of the cast members, Ciaran Joyce who played a marine, one of the marines who said he didn't  understand why people were coming to see the show and complaining about the misogyny, suggesting it was like going to see Les Mis and then complaining that it's set in France.

I feel that Rose comes out as triumphant. The show doesn't condone the dogfights - it simply acknowledges that they exist amongst some of the armed forces, and continue today. A serving US serviceman saw Dogfight and commented on its authenticity.

What was it like to read the reviews of Dogfight and find some of the harshest critics in the land raving about your performance.

Before the show I didn't really care that much what people were going to say. I was already in love with the entire project and what Matt Ryan (the director of Dogfight) was doing with the show and I think that even if the reviews had been less favorable, it would have just gone over my head.

To have that praise though was like the cherry on the cake. I was feeling  like I'd won the lottery and I'd think that this is just hilarious that they think I'm this good! I would never be naïve enough, because of the five years that I have spent leading up to this,  to think "This is going to last forever" or "This is my big break. I have made it now" or "This is", because above all, I know that these moments come but that they can also disappear overnight. When the New York Times mentioned me in an article I thought"This is perfect. Thank you!", but really, as the notices came in I was like, "That's so lovely... I'll share that on my Facebook... My Dad will be dead proud."

And what for the future?

Dogfight has really opened doors for me and in addition to musical theatre parts I am now being considered for film and television work.

This sounds cheesy, and so often what I say sounds like a cliché, but I was thinking this the other day, about the appreciation I have for this job.  I was remembering some of the TIE I did, in particular a show about the history of Olympia. We were going around schools, doing three shows a day and setting up the set ourselves and taking it back down. There was one day, when I was with a cast of four people, where we all had to get changed in a Maths cupboard behind the stage. The central heating was on full blast and we were sweating and disgusting, and I was having the biggest laugh ever and I was like, "Guys, how lucky are we that we are being paid to do something that we love? This is just amazing."


I just think that just sums it up. If you can be happy doing that, then everything else is a bonus. Those reviews were like winning the lottery.

Laura Pitt-Pulford: Keeping Ahead Of The Curve

as Lucille Frank in Parade

There is much anticipation for Leicester Curve's Christmas 2014 offering. The Sound Of Music will be Paul Kerryson, the Curve's much lauded Artistic Director's swan song show. Even more than Kerryson's expected impact upon this classic musical, is his choice of leading lady to play Maria. Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actor who is amongst the cream of her generation is to play the lapsed nun/impetuous governess and her casting is an inspired decision. This Mountview graduate (the class of 2005) has consistently delivered acclaimed excellence in every part she has played and whether it be working in the fringe or in the highest echelons of the subsidised sector, her commitment to her craft is inspirational. As the news was announced of her being cast as Maria, I caught up with Laura to find out a little more about this gifted performer.

Growing up away from the London bubble (her family hail from Rugby) it was to be some months after leaving Mountview before she got her first break in commercial theatre as Young Heidi in Sondheim's Follies at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. It says much for Pitt-Pulford that her debut professional gig was a Sondheim - the man famously (and ingeniously) creates demanding roles, a challenge that she more than matched.

Enviably, the last few years have rarely seen Pitt-Pulford out of work, with the Southwark Playhouse, one of London's leading fringe venues, proving to be a springboard for her career. Producer Danielle Tarento spotted her to play Lucille Frank, the leading lady in Jason Robert Brown's scorching musical set around a travesty of justice that occurred in the Southern state of Georgia shortly after the American Civil War. It had been barely five years since Parade had played at London's Donmar (achieving the deserved recognition that had eluded it on Broadway), yet under Thom Southerland's direction the Tarento production was to receive its own critical acclaim, in no small measure due to the Pitt-Pulford's heroic Southern belle (alongside her leading man Al Brookshaw). She had arrived in London.

Fast forwarding a year saw the Tarento-Southerland partnership stage Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel, another difficult even if beautifully scored show. Pitt-Pulford was Tarento's only choice to play Mabel Normand - but there was a hiccough. Already playing the lead in Sweet Charity at Belfast's MAC, Pitt-Pulford was only to be allowed a two week rehearsal slot for the role and had to parachute in to the company when they were already half way through their rehearsals. Suffice to say, her preparation for the role had been meticulous with the show going on to be one of London's sell out successes in the summer of 2012.

as Mabel Normand in Mack & Mabel
But Pitt-Pulford is no stranger to flying (sometimes literally) by the seat of her pants. A colleague and good friend tells of how at the Curve on the press night of Paul Kerryson's wonderfully staged Piaf, Pitt-Pulford, playing working girl Toine, was required to have draped herself, spread-eagled over a chaise-longue, clad in little more than her character’s working clothes of, suspenders and underwear. As Beginners were being called, a last minute costume check by the actress made her realise she was knicker-less, with the dressing rooms an Olympic sprint away through numerous security doors.. Ever the consummate professional Pitt-Pulford made it on stage, just in time, ensuring Toine's opening appeared exactly as planned.

(In a lovely moment, as Laura was talking about Piaf, the coffee shop in which we were sat played La Vie En Rose in the background. Beautiful) 

Kerryson has previous with Pitt-Pulford. Before Piaf, she was his Irene Molloy alongside an award winning Janie Dee in Hello, Dolly! and last year Marianne Elliott cast Pitt-Pulford in the National Theatre's The Light Princess, where aside from sporting some stunning footwear, she added puppetry to her skills and still speaks in admiration of Elliott's visionary approach to Tori Amos' ground-breaking musical. A performer who is never afraid to tackle new work, Pitt-Pulford has recently thrown herself into two of up-coming producer Katy Lipson's shows. A cracking UK premier of the Sondheim pot-pourri Marry Me A Little saw some glorious Manhattan-ite interaction with Simon Bailey, whilst her Margaret in Charles Miller's The Return Of The Soldier saw her give a sensitive exploration of the layers of a very complex woman caught up in the aftermath of PTSD in the First World War.

But it is her Maria that right now is so eagerly awaited. Laura tells me that she "just can't wait to put my stamp on it. I grew up on the film, love it, love everything about it. Such a fabulous story and she is such an interesting character." 

The re-union of Kerryson with choreographer Drew McOnie, who together wowed Leicester and the wider the theatre world with a sensational Chicago last Christmas, only adds to the anticipation surrounding the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. But it is the inspired casting of Laura Pitt-Pulford as the intriguing nun come governess that is likely to underscore what is sure to be a sell out festive treat.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

My Lifelong Love – An Evening with Georgia Stitt and Friends - Review

Garrick Theatre, London

*****

Georgia Stitt

Take one gifted composer, six sensational solo artists and five fine musicians. Place them on a practically empty stage and let the music do the rest. This was exactly what happened at the Garrick this week when America songwriter Georgia Stitt, for one night only, made her West End debut. 

In a cleverly arranged evening, act one comprised eleven solo numbers, with the second half a selection of songs for multiple voices. Impressive amongst the men were Jamie Muscato whose The Light Of The World was both powerful and moving. Norman Bowman joined Muscato to perform She, possibly one of the most stunning contemporary male duets written, with Bowman’s rendition of Sonnet XXIX making an excellent close to Act 1. A credit to both him and Stitt for taking some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful prose and so delicately fitting the words to music. Stitt’s confession that, having grown up in Memphis her style has been significantly influenced by the Blues, was more than evident in Simon Bailey’s incredibly cool performance of At This Turn In The Road Again, a song (along with many others) in which AJ Brinkman’s work on bass was a treat to listen to. 

Notwithstanding the testosterone-fuelled talent on stage, it was the vocal acrobatics from Stitt’s three (leading) ladies that carried the evening’s killer punch. Their talents were never bettered than when Eva Noblezada, Caroline Sheen and Cynthia Erivo combined in an electric three-part harmony for Before I Lose My Mind. Sheen is a masterclass in herself in her, notably in her powerful The Baby Song, ingeniously fooling the audience with a comedic opening, only to end in tragedy. Erivo’s velvet voice quickly evolved into the trademark musical theatre power house, especially in Stitt’s hauntingly complex number The Wanting Of You. Finally, London newcomer and Miss Saigon star Noblezada displayed innocence and vulnerability combined with her faultless vocals in Almost Everything I Need. 

Such a strong company needed no more set than the stark frame of The Garrick’s current production The Scottsboro Boys and it’s only a shame that gigs and material as good as this aren’t heard live more frequently. Let’s hope that Georgia Stitt won’t keep us waiting too long for her UK return.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Made In Dagenham - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London

****

Music by David Arnold
Lyrics by Richard Thomas
Book by Richard Bean
Directed by Rupert Goold


Gemma Arterton and company

Made in Dagenham, the musical based on the hit film of the same name, takes this true story to a new level. A bluntly comedic book by Richard Bean is the backbone of this hearty British extravaganza, with the stage version packing a punch, far mightier and steeped in laughs than the movie. Rupert Goold’s direction is tight and full of energy throughout with the production being as bold as brass, unapologetically crude and yet wonderfully uplifting.

Bunnie Christie’s stunning set and costume design is adorned with huge over sized letters from the title that hang as a reminder to the roots of the play in Dagenham. Metallic walls of car-parts divide the stage, whilst a ring of oily gearboxes mechanically and monotonously revolve with a gentle drone above the opening scene.

Gemma Arterton stars as the Ford factory worker Rita O’Grady, who fights for equal pay for women when the factory girls learn that their jobs are being downgraded to ‘unskilled’. Arterton shines as an authentically British turn, notably in Everybody Out, a brilliantly upbeat number. 

Elsewhere a top-notch cast bring the nuances of their relatable characters into glorious relief. Sophie Stanton’s Beryl in particular, a loveably burly potty mouth brings the house down consistently from start to finish, though Richard Thomas’ sentimental lyrics in Letters fall short of the emotional plea that is needed from Rita’s husband Eddie O’Grady (Adrian der Gregorian) as he takes their children and leaves his wife, who has been overtaken by her political charge. The obvious "Dad cooked us chips on toast" line wears a bit thin.

In taking on Westminster as well as east London’s Dagenham, the show delivers cracking characterisations of Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle. Mark Hadfield is a superb bloated comic sleeze, constantly suggestively sucking on his pipe and delivering some superb one liners to punctuate the action. Cabinet minister Castle is played by the coiffured and charismatic Sophie Louise-Dann. Poised and sparky, the ever excellent Dann belts as required with a beautiful delivery.

Made In Dagenham is a fabulous show about history politics and passion that takes an inspiring tale of human endeavour and sets it to glorious songs and performances. The show is also wonderful proof, amidst a flurry of Broadway imports into the West End, that quality musicals continue to be made in Britain.


Now booking until 2015 - Tickets available from www.officialtheatre.com

Guest reviewer - Lauren Gauge

Memphis - Review

Shaftesbury Theatre, London

****

Book and lyrics by Jo DiPietro
Music and lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly

The history of the United States’ black population gaining civil rights is fertile ground for musical theatre. As The Scottsboro Boys opens in the West End dealing with an horrific injustice, so now the Tony-winning Memphis arrives from Broadway. Set in 1950’s Tennessee a deeply segregated Southern state, the redneck white folk don’t tolerate “race music”. No melting pot, Memphis seethes with racist oppression and it is against this backdrop of hatred and lynching that DiPietro and the Bon Jovi keyboards player Bryan have created their tale.

Beverly Knight proves why she’s one of the UK’s greatest soul singers. As Felicia, a girl with a gift of a voice and a quietly acknowledged sensation amongst those who’ve heard her sing, Knight owns every song with her hallmark power. Her opening number Underground defines both the passion of her performance as well as setting the scene for the illicit network of clubs in the city that provide discrete stages for Black music. Her act one solo Coloured Woman is an inspired performance of on-stage soul, rarely witnessed and unforgettable.

Loosely based on the real life radio broadcaster Dewey Phillips, Killian Donnelly is Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey with a passion for African-American music and who, in a tale woven around fantastic whimsy and some brutally ugly realities, champions Felicia’s singing, breaking down some of society’s segregating barriers and getting her heard on mainstream “center of the dial” music stations. Donnelly has taken leading roles in some of London’s biggest leading shows, but unlike Knight’s pop star fame, outside of the showbiz bubble and hardcore West end fans he is barely known. His casting as Huey however proves to be not only brave, but also inspired. He has a gorgeous blues sound, displayed early on in The Music Of My Soul along with the confidence and poise to lead all his numbers. His character demands an almost geeky appearance, but it’s a veneer that cloaks a Tarantino-esque excellence.

A lot of money has been invested in Memphis and it shows. The sets are clever and the musical numbers that range in style from ranging from rock to spiritual are brilliantly arranged with Sergio Trujillo repeating his Broadway choreography. The first half of the show is stunning, leading to a pre-interval denouement that devastates in its emotional power and musical brilliance. Rarely has one staggered out for a half time G&T quite so moved. Act two however lacks dramatic substance and as the story unwinds there is little to stir the soul other than Clare Machin’s standout performance in Change Don’t Come Easy where, as Huey’s hitherto racist mother, she sings of her shift towards tolerance and acceptance.

Memphis is unquestionably a fine West End treat of a show. With a sensational cast and first rate production values it makes for a grand and moving night at the theatre.


Now booking until 2015

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Rivals

Arcola Theatre, London

***

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Selina Cadell



Nicholas Le Prevost and Gemma Jones

Selina Cadell's take on The Rivals offers a traditionally costumed interpretation of Sheridan's Restoration Comedy that at three and a quarter hours in length demands commitment from its audience. That the programme's synopsis runs to two pages of closely printed text suggests a concern amongst the creative team that the audience may not be able to clearly follow the action on stage. 

Their anxiety is well founded. Good commedia demands more than affected shouting and for far too much of this play the dialog is foppishly bellowed. Meanwhile, for the sizeable constituent of the audience seated to the left and right of the Arcola's intimate thrust, nearly all of the scenic decoration along with much of the action is obscured from view. It makes for a long evening.

Amidst the tedium however there are nuggets of pure genius. The excellent Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Anthony Absolute defines his credentials as a master of his craft. His comic timing is impeccable, whilst his vocal work as the sputtering blustering knight is perfectly weighted. Opposite him, the far too rarely seen Gemma Jones glides gloriously through the gift of a role that is Mrs Malaprop. Perhaps the greatest female comic part in the classic English canon, Jones' powdered heaving décolletage provides visual enhancement that only cements her inspired characterisation. Imagine the late great comedy gem Mollie Sugden fused with Margaret Thatcher and you can start to comprehend the brilliant hilarity that Jones creates.

Elsewhere amidst the supporting players, Adrian McLoughlin as Sir Lucius O'Trigger is charmingly entertaining, whilst Carl Prekopp as both Fag and David is also fun to watch.

Elegantly performed chamber music supplements the scene changes, but it's not enough to suppress the boredom. Outstanding in parts for sure, but this production of The Rivals is strictly for enthusiasts and students.


Runs until November 15th 2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys - Review

Garrick Theatre,  London

*****

Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman



l-r  Colman Domingo, Julian Glover and Forrest McClendon

A year after it wowed the critics in its London debut at the Young Vic, (see my 2013 review below) The Scottsboro Boys returns to cross the Thames. With many of the 2013 cast reprising their roles at the Garrick, the show's West End opening offers a rare privilege to re-review this 5-star treat, last year's Critics' Circle choice as Best Musical.

The Scottsboro Boys is written around a true 1930's travesty of justice that defined the hateful ugliness of America's Deep South. Eight black men and a boy, all of African American heritage, were falsely accused of raping two white women as their train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. Their subsequent conviction and death sentences polarised the USA. As the South was still licking its wounds barely 70 years after the Civil War, the North mounted a defence campaign that was to see 8 of the nine boys paroled. Parole, by its very nature, demands an admission of guilt and amidst a bevy of standout performances, it is Brandon Victor Dixon's Haywood Patterson, a man whose conscience couldn't permit him to utter a lie and who, defiantly, was to spend his life wrongly incarcerated, upon whom the story's spotlight falls.

Dixon is a long-established Broadway talent and having spent the last year listening to his voice on my iPhone in the NY cast recording, it is a privilege to witness him live. Patterson's journey carries the show and he bears his principled stand with passion, poignancy and perfect performance. The brilliant jazz-hands irony of his softly sung Nothing as he pleads his innocence, echoes the sardonic lyric of Kander and Ebb's Mr Cellophane from Chicago. The observations are as sharp, but this time there's no comedy.

The company are excellent throughout, with fellow Broadway imports Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon defining the harshest of satires as minstrel jesters Messrs Bones and Tambo, their gags making a pastiche of Vaudevilke. Deliberately corny, the clown-like versatility of these men and Domingo's comedy-horror rictus grin seal the brilliance of the genre.

The jarring perversity of Kander & Ebb telling this history story via a minstrel show, only serves to underline the perversion of justice to which Alabama subjugated itself as its rednecks bayed for the Boys' blood. The minstrel show's Interlocutor, 79yo veteran Brit Julian Glover, gives a performance that subtly combines majesty with a brilliantly understated bumbling ineptness. A man who believes passionately in what he perceives to be justice, yet who has also learned his racist views from childhood, carrying a sincerely held belief that black people are worth less than white. Glover's is an acting masterclass.

Elsewhere, excellence drips from this show. Broadway talent James T Lane, resplendent in frock and hat as Ruby Bates, one of the perjurious white women, dances across the stage with a movement that has to be believed. Susan Stroman, who has remained with the show since it's emergence off-Broadway back in 2010 has envisioned the ghastly tale magnificently, never bettered than in the slickly-sickly tap routine Electric Chair. A mention too for the brilliantly delivered tour of Fred Ebb's take on the South's music, played under Phil Cornwell's baton.

First time around, this review failed to pay sufficient respect to the character of The Woman, played by Dawn Hope, onstage almost throughout and saying nothing until the final scene. Consider (or google) Rosa Parks in history and it becomes abundantly clear how much of a cornerstone in the USA's Civil Rights movement The Scottsboro Boys became.

The Scottsboro Boys is unmatched on any London stage. As both a history lesson as well as a display of world-class stagecraft it stands apart. More than unmissable, if you care for humanity and appreciate some of the finest song and dance around, this show has to be seen.


Runs at until Saturday 21st February 2015


Later this month I shall be touring Scottsboro, Alabama and visiting The Scottsboro Boys Museum.

Follow me on Twitter @MrJonathanBaz for my upcoming writing about this visit.