Friday, 22 May 2015

Jerry's Girls - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Concepts by Larry Alford, Wayne Cilento and Jerry Herman
Directed by Kate Golledge


(l-r) Sarah-Louise Young, Emma Barton and Ria Jones

Drawn from the shows of Jerry Herman, Jerry’s Girls is a delightful cabaret that in the hands of three talented ladies, offers a whirl of show tunes that thoroughly deserves its hastily arranged return visit to Jermyn Street
  
Emma Barton, Ria Jones and Sarah-Louise Young are magnificent throughout, working their way through a set list that was originally put together for a Broadway revue back in the 1980’s. The compilation is rarely seen over here and credit to producers Katy Lipson and Guy James for having the ingenuity to have mounted it so successfully.

With perhaps the exception of Milk and Honey, the numbers are all familiar to musical theatre lovers and the combination of gloriously powerful belts intermingled with moments of the purest poignancy make for an evening that would be an emotional rollercoaster were it not all so ridiculously enjoyable. All of Herman’s big shows get a look in, with Barton’s Mabel in Wherever He Ain’t channelling an exquisite vocal presence that also suggests just a hint of Albert Square! From the same show, Young and Jones give a gorgeous and perfectly weighted nuance to I Won’t Send Roses. 

Herman’s humour sparkles, never wittier than in a song he wrote for the revue, Take It All Off, that wonderfully spoofs burlesque stripping. Again there is fabulous work from Young with Jones being disarmingly (and hilariously) self-deprecating as a stripper whose best years are behind her. 

There are nods to Hello Dolly throughout, with the show ending on a powerful tribute to all that La Cage Aux Folles stood for. Grins along with lumps-in-throats all round.

Kate Golledge directs assuredly, with an entertaining eye for detail. Matthew Cole choreographs cleverly too given the venue's intimacy and that Tap Your Troubles Away evolved into all three women tap-dancing, accompanied by pianist and MD Edward Court and his reed and mandolin playing partner Sophie Byrne on their feet too, (both fabulous musicians to boot) only added to the wondrous sparkle of the occasion. My one regret was not having discovered this gem of a show sooner so I could have had the opportunity to have returned to see it again.

Jerry’s Girls is only playing until May 31st. Barely lasting two hours, it offers West End entertainment at a fraction of a typical West End price. If you love what Broadway, Streisand, Merman & co were/are all about, then you’ll come out grinning. Go see this show!


Runs until 31st May

Thursday, 21 May 2015

McQueen - Review

St James Theatre, London

***

Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird


Tracy-Ann Oberman and Steven Wight

James Phillips’ new play McQueen offers a lavish tribute to one of Britain’s most acclaimed fashion designers. That Alexander McQueen was to tragically take his own life at 40 only (ghoulishly?) adds to his iconic mystique – though as the play opens with McQueen contemplating his own mortality and then proceeds to take us through what is suggested to be his last night alive, the narrative’s structure at times suggests a re-branded Arthur Miller. In place of Salesman, think Death Of A Designer.

In the title role Stephen Wight is a marvel. The accomplished performer literally becomes McQueen in a relentless performance that never sees him off stage. Wight masters the cocky, cockney genius that so defined McQueen – and when the dialog offers his character profound moments of reflection, Wight’s delivery is scorching. During a dialogue with journalist Arabella (a perfectly weighted performance from Laura Rees), McQueen offers his explanation of what makes a woman feel valued and there is an analysis in his words that is both relevant and recognisable, as Wight speaks with a touching and convincing resonance. 

But if McQueen was haute-couture, Phillips choice of dramatic vehicle to portray the man is last seasons Primark. Dahlia, a fan and stranger has let herself into his home, providing the designer to re-tell his flashback tableaux.

Dianna Agron, star of the US TV series Glee plays Dahlia and one has to conclude that she has been “stunt-cast” based upon a Twitter following of two million, rather than ability. Her biography offers no hint of stage experience and it shows. Performing in close up to camera and with the safety net of re-takes is one thing but live theatre is a cruel master, demanding that an actor communicates at all times with voice and presence in a way that makes the audience suspend their disbelief. Agron tries valiantly, but her performance never gets above mediocre. John Caird is one of our leading directors and he should know better than this. His performer needs to be coached into filling the auditorium with her persona and one hopes that Agron will find her feet as the run matures.

David Shaw-Parker is a flawless delight as John Hitchcock, the master tailor under whose tutelage McQueen mastered the art of cutting fabrics. When Shaw-Parker speaks, it is though he has walked in from Savile Row. Tracy-Ann Oberman plays the complex role of Isabella Blow a style icon/muse to the designer, whose own suicide three years before his, hit him hard. Oberman delivers a trademark classy turn, though in a show that’s all about style, if her costume is to hint at d√©colletage, then it needs to be tightened up to conceal the actor’s underwear. McQueen would spin in his grave…

An imaginative twist sees a soundtrack of music selected by McQueen that accompanied a number of his collection launches, with tracks ranging from Handel to Bjork and Marilyn Manson. Set to the music, Christopher Marney’s choreography is electric, with a company of androgynous mannequins drilled into a perfect graceful poise. Particularly striking are Carrie Willis and Eloise Hymas’ shock-headed twins, en-pointe in unison throughout. A chic, bravura touch.

Timothy Bird’s ingenious video projections and Linda McKnight’s stunning wig design go a long way to suggesting the ascetic √©lan that McQueen became a part of, though Phillips stops short of offering too close an explanation of why McQueen chose to kill himself.

In what is largely a celebration of style over substance, McQueen offers a highly charged look at a very contemporary era in British fashion. Flawed for sure, but there is content here that makes for stimulating and sometimes exhilarating theatre.


Runs until 27th June 2015

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


****

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Jonathan Butterell


Clarke Peters (l) and Jonathan Groff in rehearsal

There must be something in the Thames as it flows around the bend of Waterloo Bridge that enchants the work of Frank Loesser. Back in the 1980s the National Theatre gave the capital a groundbreaking Guys and Dolls and yesterday, for one night only, Jonathan Butterell directed a sensational production of Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (almost) next door at the Royal Festival Hall.

It’s been fifty years since How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying last popped up in the West End and Butterell was blessed with a star-studded cast to perform this concert staging. In a story that is occasionally heavy on a complex narrative, the show set in the offices of the World Wide Wicket company takes us on a whirlwind tour of ladder-climbing both literal and metaphorical, as we watch “the rise” of window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch and his studious devotion to a self-help book on business success. In today’s parlance the show would represent a mash-up of The Office with The Apprentice and all set to show-tunes of a deliciously cheesy improbability. 

Crossing the Atlantic to play Finch, Jonathan Groff is probably best known here for his time on the US TV series Glee. Make no mistake though, Groff has serious stage credentials, with spurs earned both on and off-Broadway and stellar vocals that make Finch the true hero of the piece. It should also be noted that given the very  limited rehearsal time available, his performance oozed a charming confidence that forgave his occasional glances at the script.

Cynthia Erivo and Hannah Waddingham made for Finch’s vibrantly intriguing colleagues. As love interest Rosemary, Erivo brought a warmth and sincerity to her vocals that truly allowed us to understand her desires beyond the office walls whilst Waddingham’s Hedy La Rue brought another aspect of sexual desire to the tale in a role as perfect to listen to as to gaze upon. 

Making a rare and welcome return to a London stage, Clarke Peters’company President J.B Biggley provided a strong backbone to the office set up. Elsewhere Clive Rowe as Trimble was as ever delightful in his fleeting appearances, with Rowe’s soaring vocals lending a massive contribution, not least to the glorious ensemble numbers Company Way and Brotherhood Of Man. In another neat touch, London's Loesser cognoscenti will have noted that both Peters and Rowe include the National’s Guys and Dolls in their biographies

A nod too to Amy Ellen Richardson as Smitty and Anna Jane Casey’s Miss Jones, who both brought quirk and charm to the office table on top of their stunning stage presence. 

Loesser’s luscious and vibrant score, boasting many forgotten and understated classics, was expertly executed under Mike Dixon conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. It is a treat to hear a classic score so excitingly pitched and performed at that by a full size orchestra too.

The company’s excellence left one longing for a fully staged return of this charming old show and with such a remarkable array of talent and so finely polished too, Butterell certainly showed how to succeed in musical theatre!


Picture credit: Poppy Carter Portraits at www.poppycarterportraits.com

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London

*****

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Greg Doran


Antony Sher and Alex Hassell

Plaudits have already been heaped on Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman in Greg Doran’s scorching production of Death Of A Salesman for the RSC.  Arthur Miller’s keynote play, long held up as a searching critique of the 20th century American psyche, pitches Sher into a role that sees him suicidally depressed, hurled onto the scrap heap and casually catapulted between imaginary decades at the playwright's whim. Often referred to as the Hamlet of American literature, Sher's immersion in the role is total as he nails Loman’s doomed fragility.

And yet the Hamlet “handle” serves the play well, for as with Shakespeare's classic, so too does the (last) day in this salesman's life encapsulate so much of the human condition, as Willy's mind disintegrates and we witness snapshots of years gone by.

Central to Loman's life is his family and as I have written here, Harriet Walter's interpretation of loyal, even if wise and wrung-out wife Linda, is heartbreaking in its intensity.

In one of the most challenging supporting roles in the canon, Alex Hassell's Biff, their eldest son undertakes a complex journey. Hassell convinces magnificently, be it as a gorgeously chiselled footballing jock, or as a devastated young man confronted with the gut-wrenching evidence of his father's failings.

Less enigmatic, but still troubled is Sam Marks’ Happy, Biff’s younger brother. Whilst at times little more than a skirt-chasing wastrel, Happy shows not only the expected selfish traits, but also a deep and recognisable filial love for his parents.

Harriet Walter, Sam Marks and Alex Hassell

And then there are the other oh-so brilliantly familiar vignettes, epic yet everyman. Emotional hand grenades that Miller tosses into Loman's path. Struggling to meet the final payment on the family refrigerator, Willy asks to meet with Howard Wagner (fine work from Tobias Beer), his young and ruthless boss and a man who thinks nothing of blowing $100 dollars on the latest new-fangled tape recorder, unthinkingly boasting about it to Loman who is can't even meet thr finance payments on his refrigerator.

As the old man begs for a salary, an office based job and his dignity, he is up against Wagner who cares only for his business’ bottom line. As Wagner summarily fires him on the spot, with no regard for the salesman's lifetime of service to the company, Loman reminds him: "You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit". Rarely is the brutality of corporate USA thrown into such sharp relief.

Meanwhile (and consider yet another Hamlet association) Guy Paul's ghostly Uncle Ben appears to Loman's enviously fractured mind. A self-made millionaire, Ben should epitomise the American Dream. It is a stroke of genius that Miller makes him a nightmarish phantom.

But the Land Of The Free is not all bad. Willy's long-time friend and neighbour is Charley. As Joshua Richards plays this goodly, decent man, who as son Bernard (another perfectly weighted performance from Brodie Ross) grows up to be a Supreme Court lawyer, we are reminded that success, built on merit with compassion, is also a part of what made America great.

Completing the landscape of post-war New York / New England Sarah Parks’ Woman, and Ross Green’s wry Waiter, both of whom “have seen it all before” add further lustre to Miller’s palette.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set, constructed according to Miller’s notes and with signature tenement fire escapes, is nicely zoomed in from its Stratford origins which only enhances the cramped confines of the Loman home. Paul Englishby’s quartet of musicians seals both time and place.

It bodes well for this brief West End run that as the curtain fell, the packed house saluted Sher and his company with rapturous applause. Garnering a slew of five star reviews at its Stratford opening last month, the acclaim is still deserved. London is unlikely to see a better ensemble drama this year.


To read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here

To read my review of this production at Stratford, click here

Now booking until 18th July 2015

Monday, 11 May 2015

Harriet Walter : In Conversation about Linda in Death Of A Salesman

Harriet Walter
For my review of the current West End production of Death Of A Salesman, click here 

Rarely has a show moved to the West End at the lightning speed with which the RSC have transferred Death Of A Salesman. Opening in Stratford upon Avon only last month, to rave reviews across the board, Greg Doran's interpretation of the Arthur Miller classic features Antony Sher as Willy Loman, the titular doomed salesman.

It is Harriet Walter however, one of our finest performers and arguably the RSC's leading lady of her generation, who plays opposite Sher as Linda, Loman's long suffering spouse.

Having reviewed the Stratford production, I can confirm that both actors deliver virtuoso performances - with Walter in particular giving a finely tuned display of loving loyalty, made all the more excruciating as she witnesses her family disintegrate before her eyes. Few playwrights have offered such a devastating analysis of the complexities of marriage and maternity as Arthur Miller does with Linda.

The RSC company were completing their rehearsals last week, prior to opening at London's Noel Coward Theatre, when I caught up over lunch with Harriet to learn more about her remarkable interpretation of Linda.  


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Paul Baker : A Bakers Dozen - Review

St James Studio, London

*****



Making a rare appearance in front of the microphone, Paul Baker's show A Baker's Dozen was a polished one-nighter that packed out the St James Studio.

In a set lasting little more than an hour, Baker's magnificent tenor danced over numbers familiar and new in a set-list that was to prove pleasingly heavy on Newley numbers - reminding us that this fabulous British songwriter deserves greater exposure.

Quick to flex his magnificent belt with Streisand's Being Good Isn't Good Enough, Baker was soon into the first of his Taboo tributes with Stranger In This World – preceded by a touching if painful recollection of being bullied as a kid – and that his next number was a Quentin Crisp tribute, blending Sting’s An Englishman In New York, with Taboo’s Freak / Ode To Attention Seekers stayed on message in an inspired combo.  

Fondly reflecting on Philip Henderson’s The Far Pavilions, the composer was in the audience to see Baker deliver a soaring take on Brighter By Far that had been re-arranged for the St James occasion.

As his selection went on to include Makin’ Whoopee, one wished for Baker to make an album of the American Songbook. The man displays a polished understanding of both lyric and presence, par excellence.

Performing solo throughout, there was one exception when director Frances Ruffelle (who had only recently been directed herself by Baker) joined him on stage for Nice from Lucky Stiff,  a duet that reprised their 1997 pairing from the Ahrens and Flaherty show.

Maintaining a standard of nothing short of excellent, a medley of Newley greats treated the crowd to Once In A Lifetime, The Candy Man and What Kind of Fool Am I, with Baker also un-earthing Newley’s Pagliacci-esque The Man Who Makes You Laugh. As the singer sat at an onstage make-up table, donning the pierrot’s white slap and garishly rouged lips, the song’s irony was chilling.

Accompanied throughout by Alex Parker’s quintet, the music was perfectly weighted. Parker’s understanding of the subtleties of musical direction is unmatched for one so young – and under his command the evening's musical ambience effortlessly ranged from cocktail lounge intimacy to big band bravado.

Wrapping his set with Taboo’s Petrified, a song that Baker has made his own, a few muffled sobs from the St James crowd evidenced the sensitivity of the moment.  

This show is off to New York’s 54 Below later this month and Manhattan is in for a treat. The gig offers moments that are at times reflective, spectacular but most of all and for various reasons, simply spine-tingling. When he returns from the USA, A Bakers Dozen demands a longer London run.


Missed Paul in London? You can catch him at New York's 54 Below on 19th May.



Thursday, 7 May 2015

Carrie - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London 

****

A musical based on the novel by Stephen King
Music by Michael Gore
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Book by Lawrence D. Cohen

Kim Criswell and Evelyn Hoskins

Carrie makes its London debut at the Southwark Playhouse. Stephen King's classic horror mixes the recognisably human tale of Carrie White, a schoolgirl teased and shunned by her peers but who discovers, with her late onset of puberty, that she is gifted/cursed with tele-kinetic powers that allow her to make things happen just by willing them. We all know that in life there are few environments more cruel and terrifying than the bully and his gang at school and King's genius was in gifting a young girl with the ability to wreak a murderous revenge upon her wicked tormentors.

The story's horror is gothically graphic and as in any scary tale, our disbelief can only be truly suspended if the trinity of a fine script, excellent stagecraft and perfect acting is achieved. But where Brian de Palma's Oscar nominated 1976 movie succeeded in scaring us witless, the musical treatment falls far short. No one would dare add song and dance to Hitchcock's Psycho or Kubrick's The Shining, so quite what prompted the creative trio (and remember that Lawrence D Cohen wrote the movie's screenplay too) to spawn this show is a mystery in itself. Whilst the songs are immaculately delivered, King's horror has been mercilessly diluted, Pitchford’s lyrics are trite and Gore's tunes quite frankly forgettable.

But...This is a Gary Lloyd show - and with Thriller Live, Lloyd has defined himself as without equal in staging visually stunning (and occasionally spooky) numbers to a rock tempo. It is only a pity that the score does not include more ensemble numbers, for when the Southwark Playhouse floor is packed with his performers the show’s pulse soars, fed by Mark Crossland's powerful 7 piece band.

In the title role, Evelyn Hoskins is simply sensational. Her elfin physique melded with a perfect poise and a haunted demeanour convince us of a girl truly horrified by reaching her menarche at 17. Hoskins convinces us, not only of her pain but also of her supernatural endowments and her voice, especially in the numbers Carrie and Why Not Me is just heavenly (or should that be hellish?).

There is excellence elsewhere too – and were it not for Imelda Staunton’s Momma Rose currently wowing them across the river, then Kim Criswell would steal the award for Most Domineering Mother in a show. Her flame-haired bible bashing creation is a masterpiece of on-stage menace, her acting presence honed to perfection. And oh, what magnificent vocals. Criswell's take on And Eve Was Weak will truly make an audience pray for their salvation, whilst her hymn-like When There’s No-One treated the audience to a voice of cathedral-like magnificence, a quality rarely heard on the Newington Causeway.

Jodie Jacobs puts in a lovely and sympathetic turn as Miss Gardner, the teacher who cares for Carrie, whilst elsewhere quality performers make the best they can of thinly sketched 2-D characters. As the baddy of the piece Gabriella William's blonde and bitchy Chris is all hot pants and hatred, whilst Dex Lee (a newcomer who only recently stunned in The Scottsboro Boys) also sparkles as her schoolboy henchman Billy. Likewise, Sarah McNicholas makes a very decent fist of Sue, the musical's narrator and a role savagely slashed from its movie origins.

Tim McQuillen-Wright's design, all ripped up concrete and Jeremy Chernick's special effects are fun with gimmicks galore, but the company deserve better flying from Foy than was evident on press night. The stage blood flows and if you're sat front row prepare for a light spattering.

The show famously, expensively (and arguably, deservedly) flopped on Broadway nearly 30 years ago and whilst this version is slightly refined, it's still a bleeding piece of meat - albeit one that Paul Taylor-Mills has produced superbly. 

Carrie won't come around very often - and for that reason if you love musicals it's a must see along with being quite possibly the best date-night in town. Unquestionably a period piece, it is perfectly performed and bloody good fun.


Runs until 30th May