Friday, 17 February 2017

My Land's Shore - Review

Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Christopher J Orton
Book and lyrics by Robert Gould
Directed by Brendan Matthew

The company

Whisky aficionados will know the name Penderyn as that of a distinguished single malt distilled in south Wales. But in My Lands Shore, Christopher Orton and Robert Gould’s new musical, one learns so much more about the history surrounding Dic Penderyn (aka Richard Lewis), a martyr to the cause of Welsh worker's rights and suffrage.

The time and place is Merthyr Tydfil in the early 19th century, when Welshmen mined the coal and smelted the iron that built Queen Victoria's Industrial Revolution. Trade unions were as nascent as employers were ruthlessly exploitative. Branded as the show's world premiere, its development has in fact seen Orton and Gould themselves labour through workshops and concert presentations for 15+ years to reach this first fully staged production.

And much like a fine whisky can offer nosings of different scents and influences, so too are there echoes here, not unsurprisingly, of Les Miserables and also The Hired Man, although where those two shows spanned nations and decades My Land's Shore, keeps its focus tighter. While Penderyn’s story is ripe for a musical theatre treatment, there are times when Orton and Gould's writing fails to reach emotional depth. The death of a child for example should make an audience weep - here however the writers kill a kiddie so early in the first half that unlike the cared for tragedy of Gavroche's death in Les Mis, we've barely had a chance to get to know this youngster, let alone grieve their untimely passing.

Where My Land's Shore soars however is in its stirring ensemble numbers and an unwavering excellence throughout its company. Aidan Banyard leads convincingly as Richard Lewis, the supremely principled miner. Enjoying an unconventional romance and marriage with Rebecca Gilliland's Angharad, the pair solo impressively. Gilliland defining a magnificent opening with The Way Things Are as Banyard offers a powerful take on the title song. Their duet, Love On The Edge Of Our Tears is likewise, poignantly played.

There's as impressive supporting work from Michael Rees as Lewis' brother (actually named Lewis Lewis) and from Kira Morsley as Rebecca his wife, both beautifully and majestically voiced. Likewise Taite-Elliot Drew as the bad-guy Jenkins makes an impressive career debut, even if, as his character faces an anguished guilt late in the show, it is again hard for the audience to care too much about him.

There are nuggets of Celtic gold to be mined from the show’s ensemble. Hywell Dowsell as the blustering bastard industrialist Josiah Guest is a neatly fleshed out cameo and there is a moment of exquisite vocal magic as Raymond Walsh's Sean, his beautiful Irish voice backed up by Ashley Blasse's guitar work, breaks hearts with Air For A Wise Celtic Fool.

Brendan Matthew uses the compact space well with an excellent creative team. Aaron Clingham's musical direction brings out the lush charms of Orton's melodies, Joanna Dias multi-layered set is an imaginative use of wood that so easily suggests location, be it miners' cottages, chapel, or a riotous town square and there's fine choreography from Charlotte Tooth, especially amidst the raucous routine of Isn't It A Sin.

Unquestionably a flawed masterpiece, My Land’s Shore represents the stunning potential that exists in new British musical theatre writing. Matthew and Clingham have served the text well, delivering a fascinating narrative and stirring songs in an inspirational production that’s deservedly playing to packed Walthamstow houses. There’s still work to be done, but this show deserves to go on to greater things.

Runs until 26th February
Photo credit: David Ovenden

Sunday, 12 February 2017

That's Jewish Entertainment - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Musical Arrangements by Andy Collyer
Directed by Kate Golledge

The Cast

Katy Lipson's Aria Entertainments unveils its latest revue drawn from the world of Jewish melodies at Highgate's Gatehouse Theatre for a month's residency.

Compiled by Chris Burgess, That's Jewish Entertainment, unlike Aria's previous forays into the kosher catalogue, doesn’t just focus on the showbiz greats made famous by Jewish writers or performers, but also takes in snatches of liturgy from the synagogue alongside a sprinkling of Yiddish songs that stem from the vanished world of the shtetl, as well as from New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. It all makes for a lively and entertaining evening, with Burgess having researched some fascinating historical details to link and segue the numbers.

Kate Golledge directs a strong quartet of singers who are all in fine fettle throughout. David McKechnie brings a neat impersonation of Groucho Marx to the gig, while one of Matthew Barrow's solo highlights is a well nuanced take on Al Jolson's Mammy. A novel twist sees the honours shared in the Barbra Streisand, Funny Lady moment. Emma Odell gives Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady an interpretation that can more than match the Barnes/Smith roadshow soon to tour the UK. Just before Odell's turn however, Joanna Lee steps up with a barnstorming Don't Rain On My Parade that was spine-tingling in Lee's power and presence.

Interestingly, Lee is the show's only Jewish cast member and whilst ethnicity may not matter when it comes to singing the Broadway greats, the foreign tongues of both Hebrew and Yiddish (like any language) demand an innate cultural familiarity in order to be fully savoured. Barry Davis is credited with having coached (well) the linguistic pronunciation, but it's hard, nay impossible, to replicate a lifetime's understanding and recognition of a language in a two week rehearsal window. Similarly Burgess's translations, albeit carefully created, tend to blunt the romantic power of the foreign lyrics' original sound. In future shows, maybe stick to the original words with projected surtitles? Just a thought.

The show's music however is flawless. Andy Collyer's arrangements of tunes drawn from across the Western Hemisphere is a joy to listen to and under Charlie Ingles' direction (though on the night of this review the talented Alex Bellamy was in the chair), the four piece band capture the songs' time, location and above all their spirit, perfectly. A nod too to Joe Atkin Reeves' sublime work on the reeds. His snatch of Rhapsody In Blue is spot on and when his clarinet work drifts towards klezmer, a Pied Piper-like entrancement falls across the predominantly grey-haired audience.

It’s a lovely show and as Moses might have said, That's Jewish Entertainment is well worth crossing the Red Sea for (or at least the North Circular Road)!

Runs until 11th March, then at The Radlett Centre on 12th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday, 10 February 2017

Thriller Live Becomes the West End's 15th Longest Runner - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Directed and choregraphed by Gary Lloyd

This week Thriller Live celebrated becoming the 15th longest running show on the West End and its audiences thankfully still can’t get enough. From the first hip thrust, to the still incredibly relevant political numbers and the satisfyingly zombie filled Thriller Finale, the incredibly talented cast embrace each song, each moment and each moonwalk as if each note and step were the highest honour.

Director and choreographer Gary Lloyd presents a show that is unashamedly fantastical. Shooting Flowers have styled flashy versions of almost every costume you can recall the inimitable MJ wearing, that stun alongside Jonathan Park's steel and LED set. With Nigel Catmur’s lighting and one heck of a live band, the show is as seamless as any Michael show, even if on a smaller stage.

Michael Jackson wasn’t one to write songs that are easily forgotten, but the sheer volume of his catalogue means that there are more than a few surprises in this fabulous show. Dirty Diana seduces with some fantastic head pieces, while Remember The Time, complete with Egyptian poses and sass, bring the 90s flooding back. There’s also a rollercoaster ride of emotions, with the somber reflection of She’s Out Of My Life, sung with soul by the sweet Reece Bahia and a gender swapped The Way You Make Feel making everyone in the audience feel young and sexy while reminding them that Cleo Higgins (she of Cleopatra, Comin’ Atcha fame), is still a voice to be reckoned with.

Clich├ęd though it sounds, Thriller Live makes you feel alive - though perhaps not as lively and spritely as the unbelievably talented dancers, who fill the stage with as many backflips, high kicks, cartwheels and grinding as they can muster... which to be fair is the only appropriate reaction when Wanna Be Starting Something comes on. There’s even some comedy as cheeky Leslie Bowman interrupts the narration of the leads and the gorgeous Jamal Crawford is rejected again and again by Cleo. Throw in some baby faced young talent, this time Marcellus Virgo Smith, to portray Jackson's early years and you’ve got yourself one blinder of a show.

Out of the four leads, the closest we get to an MJ tribute is Dajiow, who encompasses Michael Jackson in every step and note, leaving many questioning whether it was really him singing Thriller… and it definitely was. The show isn’t a tribute though, but a celebration of the heart breaking, body shaking, crotch grabbing Man in the Mirror, who is still indisputably the King of Pop.

The West End's 15th longest running musical and yes, we can still feel it.

Now booking through 2017.
Reviewed by Heather Deacon

I Am Not A Serial Killer - Review


Certificate 15

Written by Billy O'Brien & Chris Hyde
Directed by Billy O'Brien

Christopher Lloyd

An impressive tale from Billy O'Brien, filmed on location in the small town Midwest during a bleak midwinter.

Seventeen year old Max Records plays John Wayne Cleaver a diagnosed sociopath who is in therapy and who is struggling with issues around death and mortality. His troubles are only fuelled by the fact that his family's business is as the town's undertakers. At his mother's knee, John Wayne has learnt the intricacies of the cadaver and the chemical complexities of embalming.

A spate of disemboweling murders sparks the young man's morbid curiosity, with his quest to uncover what exactly is happening around him that makes for a finely crafted horror-thriller with just a twist of ironic humour.

There's a supernatural thread here too and it's driven in a stand out turn from veteran Christopher Lloyd as Crowley, an old man with a distinctive if somewhat ghastly secret. Lloyd doesn't so much steal his scenes, as imbue them with an excellence that feeds into his co-performers. His work is as chilling as it is intriguing and as the pieces of the jigsaw slot into place, the denouement (albeit with slightly creaky CGI) is an unexpected delight. 

Robbie Ryan's tight cinematography keeps Minnesota's wintry icy intimacy perfectly claustrophobic, making I Am Not A Serial Killer a bloody treat that is as raw as it is rare.

Available on download, Blu-Ray and DVD from February 20th

Fences - Review


Certificate 12A

Screenplay by August Wilson
Directed by Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington and Viola Davies

A cinematic powerhouse which is as refreshing as it is honest, August Wilson’s work is transformed into an understated masterpiece in its adaptation for the big screen. 

Set in the 1950s, Denzel Washington is Troy, a father battling his inner demons against a backdrop of a nation divided by race issues and a society where change is not only in the air but tantalisingly just around a corner too. A former baseball virtuoso who was born “too early” and who now his son wants to pursue his talents in college sport, brings to the surface in Troy, conflictions and qualms about doing right by his son which set in motion some deeply human narratives  about the challenges faced by African Americans at the time.

Raw and intense but not judgmental, Fences makes clear that Troy is a deeply flawed man. But what is also clear is his unwavering love for the things he holds dear in his life even if, tragically, he may not be able to understand or come to terms with the good inside him. August Wilson’s script is a solid piece of masterful writing and this film showcases the raw talent of the on-screen actors that bring the work to life. Viola Davies’ performance is terrific, providing an emotional core to the story yet remaining the bedrock of strength in the family.

Award nominations are raining down on this picture and where sometimes such such hype and admiration can be exaggerated, in Fences they are all throughly deserved. Every scene evidences that the movie is a labour of love, with the cast displaying an ease and naturalness about their roles that almost suggests that they had been previously acquainted with their characters. Indeed, speaking to me a few weeks ago, Washington emphasised that when the opportunity to translate the play into a movie arose, he was insistent that his fellow actors were cast from the Broadway production, a decision that has clearly paid off.

Denzel Washington’s Fences could well be looked upon in future years as something much more than a mere great adaptation, but as a cinematic classic in its own right.

Fences is now screened at cinemas nationwide

Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: David Lee

Monday, 30 January 2017

Raising Martha - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by David Spicer
Directed by Michael Fentiman

Stephen Boxer

There's a madcap edge to David Spicer’s new comedy that spoofs so much of modern England. 

Stephen Boxer is Gerry Duffy, a middle aged frog farmer who's been supplying amphibians for dissection in schools for years, but who recently has become the target of animal-liberation activists. His brother Roger, (Julian Bleach)  who he’s not seen for years, arrives at the family farm at the suggestion of Inspector Clout a police officer, because as has been set out in the opening scenes, the bones of the brothers' mother Martha have been dug up by the local animal rights mob, to be held hostage until the farmer’s frogs are freed. 

The plot is thickened because not content with just breeding frogs, Gerry has also been cultivating a hydroponic cannabis farm, which now that Clout is inconveniently sniffing around the house, gives rise to some early comic gems in the narrative. Whats more, Gerry has been introducing the secretions of cane toads, famed for their hallucinogenic properties, into his growing crop and as such has acquired a reputation for providing some of the strongest skunk around. In a masterful turn we also discover his predilection for licking the cane toad's skin to get his own particular legal high. The psychedelic nightmares so induced are as hilarious as they are violent. Once stoned, Gerry (along with the audience) sees himself being gorily dissected by vengeful six-foot frogs. Those old enough to recall Lindsay Anderson's seminal movies If and O Lucky Man! will see nods to that gloriously British anarchic humour in Spicer’s writing. 

The plot is madness but to quote Hamlet (as the play occasionally does) there's a method in it, as amidst perfectly timed farce, some witty one liners and even some perfectly judged crudity, Raising Martha makes for one of the funniest new plays in years. Michael Fentiman. whose Titus Andronicus at the RSC a few years ago proved his talent in helming violent comedy, makes fine work of a script that simultaneously plays out over multi-locations and which in less assured hands, could lose its nuance and easily flop. 

The assembled company are a stellar bunch with casting director Anne Vosser's skills plainly evident. Jeff Rawle is Clout - a sometimes hapless moustachioed country copper edging towards retirement who's the very embodiment of Private Eye's Knacker Of The Yard. Rawle makes perfect his ineptitude, in a performance that is as wistful of the rural Plod from days gone by as it is up to date. Joel Fry and Tom Bennett are the bungling grave robbers, Fry channeling Wolfie Smith in his passionate but dishonourably devious campaigning, while Gwyneth Keyworth as Roger’s feisty daughter Cora completes the cast, offering the distraction of infidelity amongst the ranks of the animal-libbers.

In today’s era of vocal liberal protest, Spicer takes no prisoners – and his ability to mock the hypocrisies of the animal liberating social justice warriors, is as evenly matched by his dissection of the English middle class as personified by the Brothers Duffy. 

Certainly not for the squeamish, but for those who like their comedy served bloody (consider perhaps a Carry On movie, but one produced by Hammer Films), Raising Martha is an all too rare treat.

Runs until 11th February

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Dreamgirls - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Henry Krieger
Lyrics and book by Tom Eyen
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Marisha Wallace

Dreamgirls is now well settled into the Savoy Theatre and comfortably booking up until the autumn. So for a reviewer with no real interest whatsoever in the TV series Glee or its much lauded star Amber Riley, what better way to assess the show than on the one night in the week when Ms Riley rests her remarkable larynx, with her Effie White played (as advertised) by Broadway diva Marisha Wallace.

The story of Dreamgirls should be well known by now. A fictitious yarn whose roots stretch back to the days of American segregation when soul and rhythm and blues, essentially “black music” (a description taken from the show’s programme notes) were striving to break into the pop charts. A Michigan trio The Dreamettes are backing vocals to R&B star Jimmy Early. Curtis Taylor Jr, an opportunistic manager recognises their potential and lures them away from Early to headline their own act billed as The Dreams. Along the way there’s love, rivalries and jealousies that play out to a backdrop of a ruthlessly cutthroat music business and some sensationally sung songs.

Strip away the music and Tom Eyen’s book is paper thin – it’s Henry Kreiger’s melodies that make the show. Wallace’s closing of the first half with a jaw dropping take on And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going proves a stunner of a powerhouse, that sends the (predominantly female) audience reeling as they totter to the bar for their half time Proseccos.

The show’s other big number is One Night Only - a song that many of today’s kids will have come to know through its X-Factor regularity, even though its chart history dates back to the 1980s – and the three Dreamgirls, along with the ensemble, give it a powerfully polished outing.

Credit where it’s due – Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack are superb as Deena and Lorrell, Effie’s partners, Joe Aaron Reid’s Curtis is a pantomime baddy but he holds the stage magnificently. Adam J. Bernard’s Jimmy Early is a groin thrusting lithe limbed delight, while Tyrone Huntley as songwriter C.C. White is, yet again, simply magnificent in his West End presence. Huntley is already riding high in the nation's musical theatre pantheon – he can only soar further still.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography oozes imagination, Gregg Barnes costumes are as sexy as they are period-perfect, while in the pit Nick Finlow’s orchestra serve up Kreiger’s score with panache.

Bravo to Sonia Friedman and her co-producers for bringing this Broadway bonanza to London. It’s a great night out!

Booking to 21st October