Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Jew Of Malta - Review

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


****

Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Justin Audibert


Jasper Britton

Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta play takes a tale of cunning and avarice, love and hypocrisy and strips it down to the basest of humanities at its core. Barabas  the Jew is a man for whom it is possible to feel both compassion and disgust.  He hadn’t chosen his calling, having first been a physician, then an engineer and finally a usurer.  Yet it is in that money-lending role that he is singled out by Ferneze, Malta’s Christian governor, to fill the island’s war chest or face conversion to Christianity. And as the Muslim Turks threaten Malta, so do we find Marlowe sketching out a contemporary, if troubling resonance, as the three Abrahamic faiths challenge each other

Justin Audibert’s intelligent production sees Jasper Britton give a warmth and joie de vivre to Barabas that one might not have expected from a man destined to ultimately wreak hideous revenge. Britton’s wiles and connivances serve only to endear him to the audience, whom he plays beautifully, with a string of raised eyebrows and intimately glanced asides. An unexpected counterpoint to the Jew is Ithamore, his Moorish slave. Lanre Malaolu bounces and clowns across the stage as we witness the slave perversely worming his way deeper into the affections of his master.

The threatening Turkish armada is led by Calymath, ably played by Marcus Griffith in true swashbuckling form. As the intrigues of the plot, riddled with treachery and deceit lead to an inevitably tragic conclusion, we witness the duplicity of inter-faith conflict alongside an even more painful intra-familial despair as Barabas and daughter Abigail, (sensitively and spiritedly played by Catrin Stewart) both come to despise the other, with fatal consequences.

Steven Pacey’s Ferneze displays a recognisable statesman-like duplicity, as he schemes both with and against Barabas to defend his nation, whilst we catch but a glimpse of Marlowe endorsing his own personal inclinations when Simon Hedger’s Merchant says ‘I count religion but a childish toy’.

In a production that thrills, Jonathan Girling’s music enhances proceedings. His introduction however of a 19th century klezmer sound, whose history derives from the European Ashkenazi Jewish community whereas Malta’s Jews hailed from a distinctly Mediterranean Sephardi heritage, does seem a little incongruous.

But elsewhere the detail invested in The Jew Of Malta is meticulous, manifest in the clarity, diction and playing of the company for whom neither a syllable nor glance is wasted. Bringing their world class style to this Elizabethan classic, with Lily Arnold’s plainest of sets proving a foil to magnificent costumes, The RSC again deliver magnificent theatre.


In repertory until 29th August 2015

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Hugh Maynard - Something Inside So Strong - Concert Review

London Hippodrome

*****

Hugh Maynard - inset Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong

Every now and then a gig comes along that not only marks a performer's talent, but also evidences their status in the industry and even more rarely, a remarkable generosity of spirit. So it is with Hugh Maynard, currently playing John in the West End’s revived Miss Saigon, who on the night he launched his debut solo album Something Inside So Strong not only sang sensationally but also chose to share his stage with a talented corps of Miss Saigon colleagues. It all made for a memorable night at the Hippodrome.

In front of his 5-piece band (MD Liam Holms) and on his own Maynard sparkled, covering Seal’s Kiss From A Rose in a distinctly fresh interpretation that still retained a hint of the writer’s hallmark edgy tenderness. When A Man Loves A Woman offered a further glimpse of the controlled power of Maynard’s belt, whilst in a disarmingly brave choice for a fella, his take on Brenda Russell’s Get Here (a smash hit for Oleta Adams) showed the full range of his tenor magnificence.

Maynard’s big number in the Boublil and Schoenberg epic is Bui Doi, an impassioned plea on behalf of Vietnam’s “dust of life” kids, the mixed-race progeny fathered by long absent GIs. A neat twist saw a 7-strong ensemble of Miss Saigon’s finest give a stunning, cheeky twist on the number, referring to the "spice of life" and sung a-capella no less, conducted by Maynard and gloriously led by the show’s Carolyn Maitland.

Making the short trip from the Prince Edward Theatre to guest for Maynard, his featured colleagues Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong both sung solos from Les Miserables. Each famous in SE Asia, both guests offered proof, if any was needed, of Cameron Mackintosh’s ability to source talent from across the globe. Hong’s Bring Him Home along with Go’s I Dreamed A Dream set spines-tingling. Their song  choices may have been well worn favourites yet each electrified the Hippodrome crowd before going on to duet with their host. 

One night was not enough and Hugh Maynard needs to return to the cabaret stage soon. Until then he remains a living reminder of the excellence to be found in London’s musical theatre today.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bad Jews - Review

Arts Theatre, London

**

Written by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Michael Longhurst  


Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen

Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London's St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews' "mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.

The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be "a good title for a play". Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.

Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot's action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.

Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire.  It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.

To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna's piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and "marrying out" upon Judaism's cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it's all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.

Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn't accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews - and that's both before and after Hitler - and Harmon's failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.

And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical.  However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews' audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family's struggles to cope with the Holocaust's devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.

Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman's Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It's a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen's Daphna, almost a year into the play's run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.

Completing the quartet, Joe Coen's Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.

In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain't it.


Runs to 30th May 2015

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Saturday Night Fever - Review

Richmond Theatre, London

***

Music and lyrics by The Bee Gees
Book adapted by Robert Stigwood and Bill Oakes
Directed by Ryan McBryde

The Company

When 'Saturday Night Fever' hit the screen in the UK in 1978 it had the country eating out of the palm of its hand. John Travolta's Tony Manero, powered by the Bee Gee's inimitable disco pulse had girls wanting him and guys wanting to be him. Robert Stigwood’s dance fuelled vision dripped with the illusory seduction of the 2001 Odyssey nightclub’s neon that offered a weekly escape from urban mundanity to Manero and his buddies. On the Richmond Theatre's stage however, Ryan McBryde's version of the show is perhaps a touch too dark and raw for a story that craves light and glamour.


In his programme notes McBryde describes Saturday Night Fever as "gritty, complex and uncompromising". With a plot that includes heartbreak, financial struggle and suicide all set to such a popular and uplifting score, its inevitable that a credible staging will prove challenging. That said, McBryde has assembled a strong company of actor-musician performers. The economy of the actor-muso format serves the show well, offering a strong sense of energy and vibrancy in the more up tempo numbers, while equally giving the darker songs a real raw and honest edge, notably in Tragedy sung by Alex Lodge as Bobby C.  

Saturday Night Fever demands a fine leading man and Danny Bayne's Manero provides the show's driving energy. Bayne's performance as the arrogant yet sensitive Manero, complete with flawless dancing is worth the ticket price alone and he handles his solo numbers with flair. Elsewhere, Bethany Linsdell as the love struck Annette whose early rendition of If I Can't Have You offers just a glimpse of the singer’s talent as she makes fine work of the Yvonne Elliman classic. 

Throughout, Andrew Wright’s well engineered choreography excites, suggesting both the glitzy pizzazz and the emotional turmoil of growing up in New York city in the last century.

Above all the show makes for an entertaining night out. Many of us remember the movie (it was my first ever sneaked-into "x certificate") when the Bee Gees’ sound defined an era. The middle aged will love the nostalgia – whilst a younger audience can absorb the sounds of a generation, performed magnificently by their peers.


Runs until 28th March 2015, then plays in Cardiff

Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe - Review

Crazy Coqs, London

*****

Joe Stilgoe and Claire Martin

The syncopated excellence of Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, defines insouciance as she controls her perfect timbre, her voice swooping like a seabird from the most glorious moment of an occasional mezzo trills, down to a luxuriously resonant contralto. Her pitch is perfect and her timing pinpoint - there is truly nothing more a cabaret singer could offer.

And then there's Stilgoe. With a reverential impertinence that reminds one of Peter Shaffer’s young Amadeus, eschewing sheet music and much like a Transformer straight out of the recent movie franchise, he becomes one with his piano. Stilgoe really is that good. The pair's set list, loosely themed around Springtime takes in the Great Songbooks from both sides of the pond and a segue that seamlessly joins Gershwin’s S’Wonderful, to Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and which in less confident hands would appear cheesy, here just seems so natural. Not just a pianist, the young musician’s guitar playing is divine too and he also delivers a neat mimic of a muted trumpet. But it was only when sat at his piano that Stilgoe junior whistled at me, that I truly realised how proud of son Joe, dad Richard should truly be.

For an evening packed with gems, the rest is detail. The pair (whose harmonies were always perfectly aligned) gave a cracking treatment to Sinatra’s That’s Life and also enchanted in Legrand’s Watch What Happens. Martin soloed sublimely with April In Paris, whilst her treatment of the Garland classic Get Happy! referenced the Hollywood star in style, yet bore a fresh interpretation that was nothing short of sensational. 

No matter their patter occasionally drifted. On this night the singing was all that counted and rarely are two performers so marvellously melded. They’re only here for a week, don’t miss ‘em!


In residence until 28th March

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Harvey - Review

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

****

Written by Mary Chase
Directed by Lindsay Posner


Maureen Lipman and James Dreyfus

There are few shows in town more charming than Lindsay Posner's re-working of this 1940's all-American fable. Widowed Veta Simmons lodges with her daughter in the home of her wealthy brother Elwood P Dowd. Yet much is amiss, for as Simmons strives to keep up a genteel facade of normality, Dowd's closest confidante is Harvey, an invisible giant rabbit and much of the play hinges upon the anguish that his behaviour causes to his loved ones. 

This parable of the savant, who in today's jargon would be classified as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and yet who sees his world with a clarity denied his fellows, has already been explored in Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winner preceded those modern classics by some decades and as her Harvey lifts the curtain on a petty-minded small town, so we see Dowd's noble and chivalrous pursuit of all that is good in life, shine out as a beacon amongst his morally flawed peers, all signed up to the rat-race.

James Dreyfus is Dowd bringing a comic pathos to a beautifully created character. We laugh at the witty excellence of his performance though with a compassionate chuckle rather than the poking of cruel fun at a Bedlam lunatic. Dreyfus convinces us of his belief in Harvey and at the same time plays the straightest of bats as his (and the company's) pinpoint timing sees the plot's farcical elements unfold delightfully.

Opposite Dreyfus is Maureen Lipman's Veta. Amongst the best actors of her generation, Lipman commands our sympathy as she strives to find a suitor for Myrtle Mae her grown daughter, whilst supporting her brother's mental frailty. We feel her frustration at the difficulties she has to manage, yet at the finale we almost weep at the loving compassion she shows her sibling. Powerful stuff indeed, although glossing over the physical abuse Veta inadvertently suffers in the local sanitarium, as comedy rather than the ghastly brutality that it truly represents, is perhaps the script's only flaw. It was to be another thirty years before Jack Nicholson's Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was to define how the cruelty of mental institutions should truly be portrayed.

Dreyfus and Lipman lead a marvellous troupe. Ingrid Oliver's Myrtle Mae nails the awkward self-centredness of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, whilst Sally Scott's psychiatric Nurse Kelly is a clever portrayal of cutely cognisant compassion. David Bamber is psychiatrist Dr Chumley, a medic who undergoes a Damascene conversion of his own with Bamber giving the complex role the comic mania it deserves. The play's endgame sees Linal Haft, in a tiny role, play a cab driver whose revelatory monologue moves both hearts and minds. (And those eagle-eyed and over 40 may recall Haft’s Melvyn, the much put-upon son to Lipman's Beattie in the BT 1980s ad campaign.) 

Peter McKintosh's set displays an ingenious elegance as interlocking revolves shift the action between home and clinic, whilst meticulous design in both costume and wigs set the time and tone perfectly.

Old fashioned for sure and with American accents that occasionally grate, the show is a curiosity of a production, but nonetheless bravo to the Birmingham Rep and its co-producers for having taken it on the road. When late into the second act, as Dowd reveals that during his lifetime he has known what it is to be “smart” as well as what it is to be profoundly pleasant, it is with a moving wisdom that he reports (and we feel chastened), that "being pleasant" is nicer. An allegory with the feel-good warmth of an adult fairy tale, Harvey makes for excellent theatre performed by a fabulous cast.


Runs until 2nd May 2015

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Father - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London

****

Written by August Strindberg
In a new version by Laurie Slade
Directed by Abbey Wright



Alex Ferns


Few go to a Strindberg play looking for an harmonious depiction of the sexes and this co-production between Emily Dobbs' Jagged Fence and Making Productions, while sharp in its execution, won’t do much to radicalise expectations. 

Written in 1887 by the deeply embittered Swedish playwright, on the brink of marital separation and in a fashion that has triggered many autobiographical interpretations, The Father pitches husband and wife into a dark custody battle that predates paternity tests and equal rights. Laurie Slade’s modern adaptation – requested by his friend, theatre director Joe Harmston for a 2012 production – is driven more by collaborative forces than real-life drama, but it retains the original’s antagonistic bite.

Director Abbey Wright takes the reins for this intimate production with great success. While the Captain’s last-minute attempt to break the fourth wall doesn’t sit well with the play’s largely naturalistic style, Wright’s depiction of conflict – whether that be between husband and wife, mother and daughter, or father and child – is as stylish as it is evocative. As the warring characters face each other in mirror image, Wright clouds the dialogue’s clear oppositions with vivid visual similarities.

Thomas Coombes is a treat as Nöjd, the playful trooper who, if rumour is to believed, has impregnated a member of the Captain’s staff. While Nöjd is unable to deny a certain degree of intimacy, it is beyond his power to prove whether or not the baby is his. Coombes excels at lacing Nöjd’s crude, pastoral expression - “no guarantee that a night in the hay means a bun in the oven” - with a cheeky, modern charm, furnishing Slade’s notion that this is “a modern play, which happens to be set in the C.19th”.

What seems like idle gossip transforms into psychologically taut obsession as the play pulls towards its inevitable conclusion. Just as Nöjd doubts his lover’s fidelity, Alex Ferns’s dazzling Captain ploughs his own memories, as he questions whether young Bertha, who calls him ‘Papa', is actually his issue or was in fact conceived by wife Laura (excellent on-stage work from Dobbs) during a lovers' tryst. Ferns is vibrantly volatile and while other characters are equally paired in their disputes, he retains a chilling control over the tempo of the piece. 

While the relationship between the Captain and his wife provides the thrust of this narrative, and the Captain and his Doctor (Barnaby Sax) are splendidly matched as rivals, it is the tender and trusting affinity between Captain and Nurse (June Watson) that brings the strongest emotional clout: “rest your breast on my chin”, the Captain commands his attendant, as a redundant Laura looks on jealously. This gentle, strikingly maternal relationship is complemented by James Turner's set and Gary Bowman lighting, all stripped-back, monochrome as a Gothic aesthetic gradually melts into warmer reds.

Husband and wife may be “black and white...different species” but there’s a faith in relationships and the power of one gender to sooth and complement another. While this production doesn’t fall far from Strindberg’s tree, it’s a well-designed and interrogative take on an unfashionable play.


Runs until 11th April 2015

Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook