Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Return Of The Soldier - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Music by Charles Miller.
Book and Lyrics by Tim Sanders
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Stewart Clarke and Laura Pitt-Pulford

There was a group of students from Mountview Drama School attending on the same night that I reviewed The Return Of The Soldier and they could not have chosen a finer master-class to demonstrate their pursued craft, for this tiny company, five strong, drip with excellence. Charlotte Westenra's production that premieres this troubling WW1 musical, marks another theatrical tribute that respects the centenary of the outbreak of "the war to end all wars".

Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actress whose name on any bill guarantees a classy performance, is Margaret, a barely happily married woman, whose feelings for a past flame of her youth are re-kindled when the dashing former beau inexplicably starts sending her love letters. Stewart Clarke plays Captain Baldry the gloriously moustachioed and patrician officer who captured her heart all those years ago. The tale unfolds and we learn that Baldry has long since married Kitty, a frightfully snobbish debutante, socially way above the common barmaid Margaret and that the Captain has just been sent back from the Front suffering from shell-shock (or PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) The PTSD has erased any memory of his marriage from his conscience, leaving him only to recall and yearn for his long lost love for Margaret. Rebecca West's novel, adapted by Tim Sanders is ripe for the grand sweep of a musical treatment. Pitt-Pulford's layered Margaret is a masterclass and we feel for her character's emotional dilemma, drawn back to the Baldry house (invited actually, by Kitty) to act almost as a "tethered goat" to try and re-kindle the injured officer’s cognisance of the present.

Making her second foray this year into the theatre of The Great War, Zoe Rainey, recently seen in Stratford East's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War! evokes both our contempt for her despicable treatment of Margaret, yet also touches a profound note of sympathy as she grapples with a husband who no longer not only recognises her, but burns with desire for his former love. Alongside Pitt-Pulford, Rainey's work is of the highest standard.

Clarke's Baldry is further evidence that this gifted young actor remains one to watch, whilst doubling up as Margaret's humbling bumbling husband William, as well as the manipulative psychiatrist Dr Anderson, Michael Matus is, as ever, excellent. There is a scene in act one where Margaret kneads dough as she talks to William and casting directors take note: a future Sweeney Todd that pairs Matus with Pitt-Pulford would be sensational.

Whilst the talent that visionary producer Katy Lipson, together with Guy James, has assembled is flawless, the same does not hold true for Miller and Sander’s writing. The melodies often fail to satisfy (notwithstanding several moments of pitch-perfect close harmony) whilst the ironic wit of Dr Anderson’s solo number Head Master lacks the incisive bite of Littlewood's near-perfect collection of war satire. As the story’s endgame plays out we learn of childrens' deaths. To lose one toddler in a plot is forgivable, to learn of two such fatalities is downright careless and notwithstanding the ending’s poignancy, the infant mortalities muddle the emotional thrust of the work, detracting from the raw brutal horrors of trench warfare and PTSD.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Return Of The Soldier is a fine piece of chamber theatre, with the cello and piano work of Simon Lambert’s band proving exquisite. In the tight confines of the Jermyn Street’s cockpit it remains an utter privilege to be able to see and scrutinise such an exceptional cast at work.

Runs to 20th September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Review

New Wimbledon Theatre Studio, London


Written by Alex Loveless
From the novel by Thomas Hardy
Directed by Chris Loveless

Jessica Daley and Nick Hayes

Alex Loveless' Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a wonderfully fresh and dynamic re-telling of a classic English story that brims with rustic reminiscence, charm and ominous drama. In this exciting piece of writing, musicianship shines as instrumental and vocal talents are seamlessly woven into 18th century Wessex village life, giving a folk inspired substance to the tale.

Tess is a young woman used and abused by Alec and over-idealised by Angel, all leading to tragic consequences. Where Hardy's novels frequently have a backdrop of foreboding barren moors, the introduction of musical theatre gives the author's whirlpool of emotions an excitement that only enhances the story.

Jessica Daley draws us in as Tess. Down to earth, honest and truly likeable, we wish for her life to work out, even though we know she is doomed. Alec is deliciously villainously played by Martin Neely. Cold, calculating and remorseless, as he duets with Tess in Forbidden Fruit the audience shivers with disgust. In complete contrast, Nick Hayes' Angel is the handsome and charismatic Angel. The love between his character and Tess is completely believable with their ravishing duet I Deal In Ideals, proving a premonition of the devastation to come. Daley’s voice is full of colour and dynamic as she changes from youthfully wide-eyed innocent, to a desperately wounded and bereft young woman. The show's tragic ending is a masterpiece, not only of musical intensity but also of outstanding stagecraft from both the company and Chris Loveless' top-notch team of creatives.

Alex Loveless has excelled at lush harmonies that are thrillingly and passionately sung by the whole company, a particular highlight being the opening number Children of the Earth. David Shield's simple yet effective set design is well complemented by lighting from Phil Spencer Hunter, both men working to create a clever evocation of time and place.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a beautiful new musical that re-tells a substantial novel with an energising score. It deserves a longer run, a bigger budget and a wider audience. Go see this show.

Runs until 27th September

Guest reviewer - Catherine Francoise

Friday, 22 August 2014

Guys and Dolls - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Sophie Thompson and Clare Foster

Chichester's newly re-launched Festival Theatre hosts its first musical with a sparkling revival of Frank Loesser’s musical fable of Broadway, Guys and Dolls. A show built around New York’s everyman and everywoman, Kenneth Tynan described Guys and Dolls on its 1953 London opening as the Beggar’s Opera of Broadway. 29 years later, at London’s National Theatre, Richard Eyre defined the work in a stellar, seminal production that paved the way for Broadway musicals to occupy a deserved place in the subsidised theatre repertoire. Now, some 30 years on from that revelatory South Bank production, American wunderkind Gordon Greenberg revives this tightest of tales of gamblers, lovers and the sheer confounding beauty of the human condition.

Based on Damon Runyon’s short story The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown, the book charts 24 hours in four of the unlikeliest of New York’s star crossed lovers. Clare Foster is Sarah Brown, a missionary who is to yield (albeit with the assistance of copious quantities of Cuban Dulche De Leche) to the wickedly chiselled refinement of Jamie Parker’s incorrigible gambler Sky Masterson. Elsewhere on Broadway Miss Adelaide, a 40-something night-club singing broad, played with sardonic hilarity by Sophie Thompson bewails her 14 year engagement to the cutest of low-lifes, Nathan Detroit, famed for running the city’s finest floating crap game. Around these four gems, a cast of missionaries, homburged hoodlums and scantily clad Hot Box debutantes, all serve to paint a cosily familiar picture of the post-war USA.  

Jamie Parker and Peter Polycarpou

Peter Polycarpou is Detroit and it is a delight to see this stalwart of British musical theatre at last take on the mantle of a leading man to open a show. Squat and hen-pecked, Polycarpou captures the impossible ironies of Detroit’s his life, with a voice and comic timing that are perfectly poised. His contribution to the three-part harmony The Oldest Established is flawless whilst as a hustler desperately seeking 1,000 bucks so he can rent a venue for his crap game, there are moments that suggest a reprisal of his Ali Hakim, also from the National from some years back.

Foster delights as Sarah, coaxing an intimacy from her post-Cuba duet with Sky, I’ve Never Been In Love Before, that was breathtaking, whilst Parker’s Luck Be A Lady was dreamily suave yet defined the passion behind his love for Sarah.

There is excellence throughout Greenberg’s company. Nick Wilton’s Harry The Horse was built for double-breasted pin stripes, Harry Morrison’s Nicely Nicely Johnson is every inch the water buffalo that his character should be, (even if the showstopping encore for Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat did seem just a tad pre-planned) whilst amongst the Hot Box ensemble, Anabel Kutay leads her dancing generation with a cameo as the Havana Diva that is jaw-dropping.

Peter McKintosh’s simple set design of classic posters of the era, each framed by marquee lights suggested a nod to John Gunter’s 1982 festival of advertising-neon. Alongside, Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright’s choreography opens up the trademark numbers with panache, whilst still allowing a spot of table dancing to be wafted into Take Back Your Mink. My only complaint: For such a shiny stage floor and so many wonderfully be-spatted Guys, where was the tap routine? When this show transfers to London (as it surely must) no doubt the Acosta/Wright team can rectify!

In our troubled world Guys and Dolls, this most frothy of fantasies, is a wonderfully whimsical tonic. It’s a place where, as Adelaide and Sarah dream of changing their men post-wedding and Sky Masterson’s mantra is that no matter how desirable, “no doll can take the place of aces back to back”, the story remains gloriously grounded amongst recognisable characters.

The show is selling out fast – and rightly so. The Festival Theatre audience rose as one to salute the cast (and luxuriously furnished 15-piece band) on press night. Musicals don't get better than this. 

Runs to 21st September 2014
Photos by Johan Person

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