Monday, 14 October 2019

Up Pompeii; A 50th Anniversary Audio Revival - Review


Adapted from the stage play by Miles Tredinnick that was based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell
Audio adaptation written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin
Directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones

David Benson (in toga) with the cast of Up Pompeii

Titter ye not, and especially not amongst today’s woke folk, but a 1960s comedy classic centred around a captive slave has just been revived for the 21st century with a double CD due for release next month, just in time for Christmas.

Up Pompeii was a popular BBC TV comedy that went on to spawn two feature films in the mid Seventies, and which featured the comedy genius of Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, a slave in  Ancient Rome. The series revolved around Lurcio who would guide the show's viewers through the salacious activities going on within the household of his patrician owner Ludicrus Sextus. Much of the success of the original was down to Howerd, his camp, saucy, and titillatingly sexist gags, puns and irreverent comments that were often delivered straight to camera gave the show its energy, with his surrounding characters inevitably falling to be the butt of his seaside-postcard humour, laden with risque puns and double-entendres.

Working from the original scripts and more recent play adaptation, Barnaby Eaton-Jones has done well to capture the essence of the brilliant original, but the strength of this recording is provided by David Benson’s Lurcio. Benson’s mimicry of Howerd is uncanny and as one closes one’s eyes to listen, the transformation could be complete.

While the style of this politically incorrect curiosity has been maintained by Eaton-Jones, the recording's plotline is as creaky as a dilapidated Roman handcart. The (good) gags come aplenty early on in the piece, but as the story plays out - a yarn to do with runaway slaves and love potions, all mixed in with the day to day lechery of Ludicrus’ villa - the narrative wears dangerously thin. And while some aspects of the script have been updated to reflect 2019 - Ludicrus’ daughter Erotica “slates” (rather than “texts”) to her friend in a nod to modern day social media, complete with aubergine emojis - there is a disappointing hint of pulled-punch hypocrisy in the writing: Up Pompeii's comedy ultimately rests upon Rome’s barbaric slavery. That Eaton-Jones' script displays a complete absence of any comment whatsoever upon the various and august institutions that today are hand-wringingly addressing their guilt at having been built on slave trade wealth, seems to suggests that the slavery imposed by the Romans BCE is more acceptable than that imposed by the English speaking nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, many centuries later. 

Benson is well supported by a talented company whose highlights include a blustering Fraser Hines as Ludicrus alongside the always delightful Madeleine Smith - whose career saw her appear in the original movie alongside Howerd - who sparkles as his wife Ammonia. Cleo Rocos plays Suspenda, the nymphomaniac object of Ludicrus’ lust, while Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up as the evil slave trader Captain Treacherus.

For sure, much of the corny humour of Up Pompeii demands to be as dated as it has been written - this was the Carry On era of the 1960s/70s after all - but this script really needed to have been sharper to have truly stood the test of time. Nonetheless this CD of David Benson and his brilliant cast will offer a nostalgic stocking-filler of a gift for most of the nation’s over-50s.

To order the 2-CD recording, visit this link:

Friday, 11 October 2019

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Leo Robin
Book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields

Abigayle Honeywill and company

Sasha Regan’s revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the finest musical theatre productions in town. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell gave the 1953 movie its diamond-encrusted panache, but it was the 1949 Broadway show that came first - and with songs penned by the genius of  Jule Styne and Leo Robin, its credentials are impeccable. The story is a confection of romantic whimsy and caricature, set in an era when sexual politics were a world apart from today’s identity driven issues, a contrast that makes Regan’s decision to stage the piece all the more bold and brave.

The strengths of the evening lie in the excellent song, dance and acting that are on display. Stepping into Monroe’s shoes is Abigayle Honeywill as Lorelei Lee, the titular blonde. Whip smart, Lorelei is a woman well aware of the siren-like power of her charms, with Honeywill channelling her remarkable talent and experience into the role. Her songs are riddled with a wry ironic comedy and she makes fine work of classics including Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and I’m Just  A Little Girl From Little Rock.

As Lorelei’s chaperone Eleanor Lakin who plays Dorothy Shaw is every match for her charge. Lakin also possesses the voice of an angel that is at all times powerful, controlled and a wonderful medium for her acting. Opening the solo singing with It’s High Time, Lakin sets an equally high bar that is never bettered than in Keeping Cool With Coolidge in which her vocal work is simply sensational.

Styne and Robin’s libretto’s liberally sprinkled with Songbook gems and it says much for Regan’s cast that they all step up to the plate magnificently – capturing each number's rhythm and cadence, but also and this is critically important, unlocking the comedy in the lyrics and delivering the gags with pinpoint timing. Tom Murphy as the womanising Sir Francis Beekman plays a character who modern writers would baulk at creating. Murphy's turn however is a hilarious delight, with his take on It's Delightful Down In Chile proving a cracker. Similarly Virge Gilchrist as the alcoholic American aristocrat Ella Spofford is another delightful vignette.

Choreographer Zak Nemorin has drilled his cast with flair and precision, the dance numbers being ambitiously conceived and thrillingly delivered in the Union's compact space. Sat at a baby grand, Henry Brennan musically directs with his small band making fine work of some of the 20th century's most entertaining melodies.

This is a carefully crafted musical. Classy, sassy and perfectly performed.

Runs until 26th October
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Mamma Mia! The Party - Review

The O2, London


Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (some songs with Stig Anderson)
Story by Calle Norlén, Roine Söderlundh and Björn Ulvaeus
Adapted for the UK by Sandi Toksvig
Directed and choreographed by Roine Söderlundh

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and the cast of Mamma Mia! The Party

Forget a 4 hour flight, airport transfers and the like because now Mamma Mia! The Party is whisking audiences straight into the heart of the Greek island of Skopelos – and all within London’s O2 Arena. Despite a lengthy (Schengen-esque?) queue for punters on arrival, from the moment one steps foot into the venue the transformation and indeed the transportation into the traditional Greek taverna is immediate and this extraordinary evening begins.

The story is set in Nikos’ Taverna on Skopelos, the island that was indeed the location for the exterior shots of the first Mamma Mia movie franchise. Since the island is now so famous, Nikos (played by Fed Zanni) explains how business has been booming and that tonight we ‘the audience’ are his diners and his punters!

While the plot line is nothing complex Sandi Toksvig has written a script that keeps the mood light hearted, funny and sharp, providing a perfect framework for the songs that everyone knows and loves, as wonderfully corny dialogue that seamlessly segues the numbers. The accompanying four-course meal proves to be as stunning as the ABBA songs – with food that is well prepared, served and tastes fantastic. Design from Bengt Fröderberg is a wonder in itself not to mention the vision of Björn Ulvaeus and Ingrid Sutej in creating such a perfect transformation.

The cast are also an equally perfect fit to each of their respective roles. Special mention must go to Zanni, the perfect master of this Greek public house. His powerhouse vocals are sensational particularly in Money, Money, Money which even sees the centre-piece water fountain dancing along throughout. Julia Imbach gives a performance that is fun and fitting as Nikos’ daughter Konstantina, delivering an epic take on The Winner Takes It All. There is similarly wonderful comedy and vocals from Linda John-Pierre, the deliciously delightful Deborah, the Taverna’s Head Chef. The entertainment is non-stop throughout with the waiting staff occasionally bursting into fully choreographed numbers and there is even the unexpected treat of some aerial circus from Elin König Andersson.

As with any ABBA themed production, it’s all about the songs. In this case the classics combined with some new additions by Benny Anderson & Björn Ulvaeus together in part with Stig Andersson are delivered by the ingenious John Donovan whose band not only constantly move around the Taverna but provide backing vocals throughout, adding a flawless and powerful musical soundtrack to the evening. And as The Party turns into an after-dinner 1970s disco, Donovan's band just gets better and better. 

There really is nothing quite like Mamma Mia! The Party. The fourth wall between audience and artist doesn't exist for a moment and the combination of theatre, dining and entertainment is of the highest order. Smash a plate, sing a song, but above all grab a ticket, because after a night in Nikos' Taverna you truly will be yelling from the rooftops, Thank You For The Music!

Booking until 16th February 2020
Photo credit: Dave Benett
Reviewed by: Davide Davidsson

Friday, 6 September 2019

Falsettos - Review

The Other Palace, London


Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson

Daniel Boys

When the patriarchal Marvin leaves his wife and young son for another man his family life is thrown into disarray. Trina, his frazzled spouse hooks up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, Marvin’s lover Whizzer is reluctantly inducted into the family’s day-to-day activities for the sake of maintaining some sense of normalcy as 10 year old Jason find himself caught in the middle of the pandemonium. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, originally envisioned as a pair of one act chamber musicals, really is a show of two halves. Act one, while slightly disjointed, is a fairly breezy affair, filled with pithy recitatives interspersed with zippy ensemble numbers. It’s all good fun, but while the show is funny, cutting and witty, as the interval arrives it also seems a little bit directionless. 

Not so in the second half. Picking up two years later and introducing Marvin’s delightful next door neighbours, caterer Cordelia and doctor Charlotte (‘the lesbians next door’), Falsettos delves into the confusion and chaos of the AIDS crisis. It’s a gut-wrenching decent – the darkening tone jarring uncomfortably with production designer PJ McEvoy’s kitschy set, with its cartoonish colour palette washed over with blinding bright primary coloured lighting. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson directs the turn from mayhem to tragedy perfectly, seamlessly balancing the laughs and the tears.

And, of course, the production is elevated by an outrageously good ensemble cast. Daniel Boys gives a masterfully complex performance as Marvin, a man who is constantly in the middle of a precarious balancing act with Oliver Savile charming as Marvin’s sardonic and seemingly self-absorbed boyfriend. Meanwhile Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Trina is as brilliant as ever, the jilted wife putting on a happy face for the sake of her family. 

Having picked up a cult following amongst UK musical theatre lovers after its well-received 2016 Broadway revival, the UK premiere of Falsettos was massively anticipated, and this production goes a long way to showing just why. It’s a shame though that it has been marred by controversy, with some in the UK’s Jewish community  calling out the lack of Jewish representation within the production’s cast and creative team. As the story centres closely upon the Jewish experience, including a touching subplot that centres on young Jason’s looming Bar Mitzvah, it remains essential that the show never dips into distasteful parody. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here for future iterations of this show and indeed, others. 

Judging the production at face-value though, Falsettos is well sung, ultra-smart and ultimately gutting. Those who buy a ticket will have plenty to look forward to.

Runs until 23rd November
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: The Standout Company

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Anything Goes - Review

The Other Palace, London


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by Alex Sutton

Olivia Hallett and the company of Anything Goes

Continuing the National Youth Music Theatre’s summer residence at The Other Palace sees this formidable company stage Cole Porter’s satirical musical Anything Goes. Comedy is a tough gig for even the most experienced of performers and it is a credit to NYMT that they deliver a show that, for the most part, hits the mark and captures Porter’s piercing wit.

Packed with songbook classics, any production of Anything Goes will always stir great expectations from its audience that are more than exceeded here, the enormous cast proving spectacular in their ensemble numbers.

Throughout, the song and dance work is performed to such a high standard that it is almost invidious to single out specific performers. However Olivia Hallett as Reno Sweeney leads the line with some sensational solo numbers and she is equally supported by Lulu-Mae Pears, Milo Hallett, Daniel Gray, Spike Maxwell, Toby Turpin, Miguel Rivilla and Sarah Dare in the show’s other key and featured roles. Vocal work is spot on throughout with Porter’s moments of comedy and irony - that are at times ridiculously silly - all being delivered with aplomb, confidence and above all, perfect timing.

The young company are supported by an outstanding creative team drawn from industry professionals. Jordan Li-Smith is, as ever, a masterful musical director. Lee Proud and Adam Haigh’s choreography, drawn from the 1987 Broadway revival is breathtaking - the full company tap numbers are a particular delight - while Diego Pitarch’s designs neatly suggest the SS American and all cleverly helmed by Alex Sutton.

Anything Goes doesn’t come around that often and this one’s a treat. Only on for three more dates, it makes for a great evening in the theatre.

Runs until 24th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Evita - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre, albeit staged in its intended 1940s style, proves to be a masterclass of contemporary political theatre. In a production that is as much rally as world class musical, Lloyd transforms the piece into a commentary on recent times as well as a showcase of some of the finest performing talent to be found on both sides of the pond.

Lloyd, with his regular design partner Soutra Gilmour and choreographer Fabian Aloise, takes the story of Eva Duarte (subsequently, Peron) and charts her rise and fall in a stark brutal staging that is unashamedly sexual and politically brutal. The stage is bare and tiered – save for a rusting and distressed “EVITA”, fashioned in stark iron letters, that hangs over the space. The costumes are evocative of time and place, but it is the lithe writhing movement of the ensemble that define Argentina’s betrayed poor, from whose ranks Eva was to rise to become the wife of President Juan Peron. The occasional use of hand-held cabled mics adds a touch of campaigning urgency to the piece

But it is not just Lloyd’s visualisation of the piece that defines its political punch – although show’s smoking flares and confetti cannon do add to the impact. Rather, the political wit of Tim Rice’s lyrics proves as timeless today as when they were first sung in 1976. There is a veritably cruel incisiveness to Rice’s words that resonate as metaphors for the 21st century. Lloyd offers us hints of Farage and Trump in his contexting, while Rice’s merciless exposition of socialism in And The Money Kept Rolling In makes Jeremy Corbyn’s contemporary canards promising free-stuff to the impressionable seem ruthlessly resonant.

The production values of this show are close to flawless. In the title role, Samantha Pauly is the first of the show’s three trans-Atlantic imports. Pauly perfectly captures Evita’s curious fusion of strength and vulnerability, with a grace in movement and a vocal presence that are spine-tingling. Amidst the darkening trees of Regents Park, Pauly’s big number Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is imbued with a rare beauty.

Another Yank in the show is Trent Saunders as Che. Lloyd has fun with Che, defining him very much as the voice of the Argentinian people as well as the role of questioning chorus to which he had originally been created. Saunders provides the usual amount of deprecating irony towards Evita – but splashed with paint in the final act, he very much represents the spent and abused populace. 

The final American on stage is Ektor Rivera’s Peron. Aside from bringing the production a Latin authenticity, Rivera captures Peron’s sexual irresistibility as well as a convincing, uncaring, fascist governance to his leadership.

There is excellence in the key supporting roles too, with the wonderfully voiced Adam Pearce giving a thuggish sleaze to Augustin Magaldi, while Frances Mayli McCann enchants with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. Placed to the rear of the action and slightly above the stage Alan Williams' orchestra handle Lloyd Webber's South American melodies immaculately - with a particular mention to Ollie Hannifan's exquisite guitar playing. 

Tickets are still on sale, but at the time of this review availability is limited. Rush to see this show – it makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.

Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Parade - Review

The Other Palace, London


Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter

This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.

Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.

Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.

Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.

There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.

Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.

It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever. 

The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.

Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.

Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!

Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski