Monday, 18 August 2014

The Hired Man - Review

St James Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Dominic Harrison and Amara Okereke

The programme notes for this production written by Howard Goodall himself, speak of the poignant significance of The Hired Man being staged in 2014, the centenary of the Great War. Goodall references the youthful age of the soldiers slaughtered in that infernal conflict, bringing a haunting resonance to bear upon this powerful interpretation of the show, produced by NYMT with a predominantly teenage cast.

The tale spans a thirty year stretch of English history, betwixt the 19th and 20th centuries and follows John Tallentire, the titular hired man and his journey through the economic evolution of his beloved Cumbrian fells. We see John shift from being a skilled ploughman, to an oppressed life below ground in a coal mine.  The demands of industry are replacing the more traditional rural lifestyles whilst against this backdrop, wife Emily falls into an adulterous affair with Jackson Pennington the dashing son of the local landowner and the First World War looms, ultimately to devastate the Tallentire family and the wider community.

Goodall and Bragg created an ingenious piece of theatre with The Hired Man. The first act is intimate, focussed upon John, his family and Emily’s extra-marital desires, before the second act widens the musical’s scope exponentially, addressing the march of industry, the rise of the trade union movement and the brutality of the War.

Under Nikolai Foster’s generally perceptive eye Dominic Harrison does well as John, carrying the burden of the narrative through his performance. It’s not easy for any teenage boy to play a cuckold, though Harrison rises to the challenge with a creditable performance as a good, if wronged man. Opposite him Amara Okereke, Maria in NYMT’s 2013 West Side Story is Emily, reprising her exquisite vocal work, combined with immaculate nuance, to create her complex character. A Yorkshire lass, Okereke’s natural northern brogue suits the play’s geography perfectly. The cast of thirty are at their best in Nick Winston’s splendidly choreographed numbers, none better than the multi-part harmonies that close each act, thrilling with the fusion of melody, lyrics and a stage full of young people in perfect synchronicity. 

An actor-muso production, many of the company are all the more remarkable for mastering their instrument on stage as well as acting. Joe Eaton-Kent’s exquisite work on violin/viola more than matches his work as Jackson Pennington, whilst amongst the (many) unsung gems of this cast Gloria Obianyo’s guitar playing adds a folksy contemporary touch to the sound not commonly heard. The credit for this innovative musical impact with musical director Sarah Travis. Re-arranging numbers to accommodate the actor-muso transition it turns out that much like adding mineral water to a fine scotch malt, so has Travis taken Goodall’s score and opened it up, releasing hitherto hidden yet beautiful complexities. These revelations are particularly highlighted in act one’s Fill It To The Top and in the second half’s haunting post-war elegy, Day Follows Day. 

Farewell Song, sung by the entire company immediately before the young men leave to  face the terrors of France, remains one of the most moving songs in the musical theatre canon, its words depicting  the anguish of such painful partings. As Goodall’s exquisite key changes pluck at our heart strings, if ever a song were to merit inclusion in November’s annual Festival of Remembrance it is this one.

Ben Cracknell’s stark lighting work cleverly depicts the shifts in the story’s time and location, whilst Matthew Wright’s flag-stoned stage perfectly anchors the show’s era. Notably absent from the production team is a hair and make-up professional. This is an unfortunate omission as the show’s final scenes, of Emily and John in more senior years, demand a more visible change in appearances to mark the passing of time and would have assisted the young actors in portraying their parents’ generation more convincingly.

But bravo to NYMT and the inspirational vision of producer Jeremy Walker. Yet again, in an incredibly short space of time and coached by some of the industry’s finest creatives, talented young amateurs have gone on to realise theatrical excellence on a commercial stage.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Dogfight - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

*****

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Directed by Matt Ryan

Laura Jane Matthewson and Jamie Muscato

In 1991 the Warner Brothers movie Dogfight, starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, told of a quirky poignant romance between Rose and Eddie, born out of the cruellest of games. Set up by a group of young Marines the night before they deploy to Vietnam, the dogfight demands each Marine competes to bring the ugliest girl they can find to the party. It makes for a harsh dynamic that is uncomfortably recognisable.

In 2012, the young composing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, together with bookwriter Peter Duchan translated the compelling saga into an off-Broadway show that opened to rave reviews. Their cast album followed some months later (reviewed here on its UK release) but it has taken until now, and the inspirational vision of Danielle Tarento arguably the most dynamic of London’s off-West End producers, to carry the show across the pond.

The Southwark Playhouse cast bring a wonderful energy to Pasek & Paul’s vibrant and exciting compositions. Making her professional debut, Laura Jane Matthewson shines as Rose, an unsophisticated, naive country girl with an innocent  purity. Never sentimental, she displays an intelligence and strength clearly demonstrating that innocent doesn't mean stupid. She continually challenges Eddie about his anger and bad language, going on to beat him at his own game in a hilarious second act exchange. Jamie Muscato plays a multi faceted Eddie, as Rose draws his vulnerable softer self out from the on-display tough, angry, bullshitting Marine, deserted by his father as an infant. Both voices singing with technical brilliance and soul-searing intensity.

Eddie is well supported by his buddy marines, notably the bespectacled Bernstein played by Nicholas Corre and Hardman Boland played by Cellen Chugg Jones, all three bonded by Bee tattoos. Amanda Minihan, not long stepped off the Arcola’s wonderful Carousel gives a beautiful depth, warmth and musicality to Rose's mother, whilst Rebecca Trehearn plays hooker Marcy with perceptive humour and fantastic vocals.

Duchan’s book makes judicious use of the movie's simply crafted screenplay. George Dyer conducts a tight, nuanced band enhanced by some beautiful string playing, fully releasing the score as the cast deliver punchy lyrics, lush harmonies, and some beautifully judged pianissimo moments. Impressive choreography by Lucie Pankhurst with some carefully detailed and seamless scene links holds the story. Matt Ryan’s powerfully realised production demonstrating that crass attitudes and behaviour all hide a desperate need for purpose and a sense of belonging. In an increasingly fractured world, Dogfight speaks to us on many many levels. Unquestionably a must-see show, the performances are stunning and the writing sparkles. 


Runs until 13th September 2014

Guest reviewer - Catherine Francoise

Friday, 8 August 2014

My Night With Reg - Review

Donmar Warehouse, London

****

Written by Kevin Elyot
Directed by Robert Hastie




My Night With Reg is a powerfully perceptive observation of being a gay white Englishman in the 1990's. The spectre of AIDS is cutting a swathe through the community, yet the addictive pulses of love, passion and promiscuity beat fiercely. The play focuses on 6 men all connected, be it through shared times at university or simply drinking together at the local pub. All are friends, some are lovers and most have had a passing or lingering sexual relationship with Reg. Kevin Elyot’s drama revolves around a flat warming and two wakes - the first of which is for Reg, who whilst he never appears on stage, befalls an AIDS-related death that marks the play's portentous gravitas.

Robert Hastie directs with vision, but it is casting director Alastair Coomer who has done an immaculate job with a company that gel magnificently. Jonathan Broadbent plays Guy - a camp, cookery-focused, home builder. Desperate for love, but looked on by his peers as simply the very best of a mate - and with revulsion by young Eric (Lewis Reeves) who describes anything intimate with the older corpulent man as akin to "snogging your mum". That Guy's friends confide their desires in him and how they are cheating on each other, only adds to the pathos of his loneliness.

Guy's two friends from student days are John and Daniel, played with the most subtly elegant public school wit by Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfeild. Ovenden's chiselled looks define him as the object of Guy's unspoken desire. Raffishly rampant, he can have who he wants and Ovenden deftly portrays his character's wracking guilt at having only ever found true love in an illicit affair with Reg, whilst the dead man had been Daniel's partner. Elyot’s dramatic incisions into the pain of John’s guilt is merciless. Streatfeild is another treat - flamboyant and larger than life, a man who can gloriously "sniff another's tumesence", yet whose grief at Reg's death allied with his suspicions that his partner was cheating on him, is another gem of a performance.

Completing the sextet are local pals, the effete, timid Bernie (Richard Cant) and his gloriously rough-trade bus-driving partner Benny (Matt Bardock), a man who will shag anything that moves. His is a clever creation, demonstrating that sexualities straddle society.

Against an occasional backdrop of Bowie and musical memories that the men may have shared at different times with Reg, the humour plays out against a knowing and mostly unspoken fear of the epidemic they risk. It is left to Benny to articulate the terror of any "cough or twinge" bringing him out in a cold sweat.

The text of the play is finely crafted, matched only by the exquisite stagecraft that the six men display. Not a "must see" as the nudity, whilst in context, may offend, My Night With Reg remains another example of London's world class theatre.


Runs until 27th September 2014

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Thérèse Racquin - Review

Park Theatre, London

****

By Émile Zola
Adaptation, book and lyrics by Nona Shepphard
Music by Craig Adams
Directed by Nona Shepphard

Greg Barnett and Julie Atherton

Thérèse Racquin, the new musical that wowed the Finborough earlier this year, makes a short journey across West London to be staged at the larger, though still intimate, Park 200 auditorium. French classics clearly prove a rich seam for composers. Where 30 years ago Boublil and Schönberg tackled Hugo's Les Miserables, so now do composer Craig Adams and writer Nona Shepphard take on Émile Zola's classic study on desire, guilt and most importantly the corrosive effect of these two emotions upon the human condition.

The story may be more than a hundred years old but it's a strong morality fable that responds well to Shepphard's "radical" adaptation and Adam's jarring melodies. This is no easy show to watch. The themes of lust, betrayal and hauntings, as well as some distinct nods to Zola's theatrical naturalism and all strung around a murderously macabre ménage á trois, demand an adult audience.

The performers are a treat. Who better than Jeremy Legat to play the cuckolded Camille, Therese's husband, with such sensitivity and marked understatement? Usurping his place in the marital bed, Greg Barnett plays the louche Laurent, Camille's childhood friend. Of swarthy peasant stock, muscular and vital, he is the alpha-male that Thérèse burns and yearns for. Proving a decaying and ultimately suspicious force within the home, Camille's mother Mme. Racquin is a cracking performance from the ever accomplished and occasionally menacing Tara Hugo.

The success of this show however, ultimately rests upon the slender and adulterous (though only in character, of course) shoulders of Julie Atherton as Thérèse. On stage for virtually the entire show, Atherton is silent for the first fourty-five minutes, before releasing her pent up desire for Laurent in the passionate I Breathe You In, sung as the two lovers consummate their lust. It is not so long since Atherton played Emily Tallentire in Leicester Curve's The Hired Man - she evidently plays the cheating wife well. In the final act, her contribution to the duet If I Had Known are spine tingling.

Some of the songs are inspirational. Thursday Night, sung by the company as they enjoy the weekly game of dominoes that old Mme Raquin hosts, suggested just a twinkle of Guys and Dolls' The Oldest Established, whilst Sweet Perfume Of Violets is possibly one of the most beautifully horrific songs in the canon, with Adams penning a truly haunting melody.

One criticism: Sat stage right of the Park's shallow thrust one can miss occasional visual moments. The Park is a very different space to the Finborough and it's not too late for Shepphard to tweak her blocking.

An imaginative use of a female trio as chorus adds to the harmonic delight of the production, whilst James Simpson directs a fine sound from the (mainly) string quintet. With Thérèse Raquin Shepphard and Adams have created invigorating and exciting new musical theatre. The show represents a cutting edge of the genre at its very best and brilliantly performed.


Runs until August 24th 2014

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London

***

Written by Andrew Sherlock
Directed by Jen Heye

Andrew Lancel and Will Finlason

Brian Epstein was the manager who took The Beatles from a group of unknowns to global stardom. A gay music journalist who was to fatally overdose at the age of 34, Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles is a meticulously researched two-hander that charts the impresario's troubled life.

Andrew Lancel reprises the title role he created in Liverpool two years ago. There is a lot of content in Andrew Sherlock's writing and Lancel's performance is a well honed critique of a complex man. Sherlock introduces a nameless foil, This Boy, to debate, flirt with and challenge Epstein, drawing his life story out through the narrative. Will Finlason, another returnee, re-creates Epstein's fictional sparring partner and like Lancel, gives of himself completely, both roles peppered with lengthy monologues.

The downfall of this piece is in its title. Any play introducing itself with a six word mission statement is warning the audience that the 90 minutes or so of ensuing content may well lack analysis. Like a pack of Beatles Top Trumps cards Sherlock's prose is crammed with facts, but it’s all heavy on the narrative with little to power the piece along. Projected images and brief snatches of music suggest the era and keep production costs down, but the drama never really takes flight. That being said, to the production’s credit, the programme is a treasure trove of useful information and a damn good read.

Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles gets too bogged down in the detail of the man’s life including his promiscuous sexuality, without giving enough of a dramatic structure to care about. It lacks the tragic spotlight that Taboo (the Boy George musical) was able, for example, to shine upon Philip Sallon. Maybe the show needs more songs? Maybe it needs a thorough overhaul? Who knows. The play certainly teaches much about the facts of Brian Epstein's life, but offers little comment or understanding of the man. More educational than entertaining, it’s strictly for the historians.


Runs until 6th September 2014

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Dessa Rose - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London

****

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty.
Based upon the book by Sherley Anne Williams 
Directed by Andrew Keates



Cassidy Janson and Cynthia Erivo


The last twenty twenty years or so have seen the troubled racist history of America’s Deep South prove fertile ground for musical theatre with Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and Kander and Ebb’s Scottsboro Boys, both based around actual events, recently playing to London audiences. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Dessa Rose tackles the USA’s grim domestic history with a fictional tale of hope and inspiration set amongst the harshest of times in the Antebellum South when black enslavement was the norm. The story follows two young women, Dessa Rose a rebellious slave and Ruth a white farmer’s wife. Abandoned by her husband, Ruth, extraordinarily for her time, forms a compassionate bond with a group of escaped slaves, who establish a community on her farmland, under her benign acceptance.

In the oppressive confines of the Trafalgar’s Studio 2 andrew Keates has fashioned an impressive representation of these desperately cruel years. Chains hang from the roof, whilst the simplest of props suggest the Hot Box, or cramped miniscule solitary chamber to which slaves would be confined by their owners as punishment for misdemeanours. Clever movement and an inspired use of percussion, suggest both time and culture.

Keates is helped immeasurably by having some of London’s finest performing talent to work with. Cynthia Erivo whose Celie in 2013’s The Color Purple was one of the year’s theatrical highlights, plays Dessa Rose. Erivo’s presence on stage is at all times compelling and often electrifying. She acts with her voice, her body and intriguingly, with her eyes. At once the righteously vengeful slave, the grieving lover and a young mother, one wants to cheer and weep for her Dessa. Erivo closes the first act with Twelve Children a song about her character's siblings who had all met tragic fates and a number that is one of Ahrens and Flaherty’s most poignant. Erivo only understands “exceptional” as a work ethic and she remains one of the most exciting faces to have emerged in recent years.

Cassidy Janson’s Ruth is another display of excellence. Her laconic Southern Belle is a complex character, mastering rejection, desire and maternal care in a carefully crafted work. Elsewhere, Sharon Benson’s White Milk and Red Blood is a moment of spine-tingling tenderness, whilst Edward Baruwa’s Nathan, a slave ultimately to become Ruth’s lover, achieves a perfect mix of wry comedy with melodrama. Mopping up a number of roles, John Addison particularly convinces as a Sheriff and a slave trader, often recalling the gritty ugliness of the time that Quentin Tarantino captured in his movie Django Unchained. Fela Lufadeju also compels with gorgeous voice and movement as Dessa’s doomed lover Kaine.

Whilst many of the songs have pace and a distinct Southern influence on their melodies, as can be the case with Ahrens and Flaherty mediocrity occasionally creeps into their composition and their lyrics can seem blunt when compared to Brown or to Kander and Ebb. It is of course a tall order to tackle any such horrific scenario through the medium of song and dance and credit to Ahrens and Flaherty for such a powerful and imaginative work but nonetheless, their writers’ scalpel needs whetting.

Dessa Rose’s story is moving and under Dean Austin’s baton the music is free flowing. The acting is outstanding and Andrew Keates has again assembled one of the finest companies around. A compelling production, not to be missed.


Runs until 30th August 2014

Friday, 1 August 2014

Marry Me A Little - Review

St James Studio, London

****

Songs by Stephen Sondheim
Conceived and Developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Simon Bailey and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Marry Me A Little is a little known creation strung together from an eclectic mix of Stephen Sondheim compositions. A 17 number song-cycle, compiled by Craig Lucas and Norman René, it draws from a selection of 45 songs hitherto un-performed and which in some cases had simply been chopped from shows that were themselves to become pillars of the musical theatre canon. The song-cycle is a much maligned phrase in modern writing - oft times proving to be little more than a collection of works of dubious merit, strung around a clichéd framework. Marry Me A Little is a lot more than that. It's an ultimately doomed fairy-tale comment upon the hopes and failures in relationships, viewed through the sometimes hopeful but often dyspeptic eyes of a pair of 30-something Manhattanites. 

With Sondheim's writing and the talents of Laura Pitt-Pulford and Simon Bailey on stage, this hour long novelty was only ever going to make for stunning entertainment. Together, the two actors' harmonies and counterpoints are sublime whilst their mastery of humour and pathos is a treat.

A handful of memorable moments: The Cole Porter-like ingenuity of A Moment With You is a treat of razor-sharp wit. Pitt-Pulford’s glorious Can That Boy Foxtrot, in which her acknowledged triple-threat talents are put to good use switching between a bevy of characters, only augmented by canny use of a baseball cap. Bailey’s Bang! (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write) is a song dropped from A Little Night Music that was to have been sung by Count Carl-Magnus recounting his sexual conquests. Bailey’s performance as the Count in Guildford last year was a tour-de-force of pomp and bluster and hearing him now sing Bang! made one reflect that perhaps Sondheim shouldn’t have excised the song from the finished show.

Hannah Chissick's direction, together with Nick Winston’s choreography brings some fine relief to the characters. David Randall’s piano work lends a confident accompaniment throughout, all adding to Marry Me A Little proving a cutely waspish summer treat for the capital.


Runs until 10th August 2014