Friday, 24 November 2017

Scrooge The Musical - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music, lyrics and book by Leslie Bricusse
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Jasper Britton

Made At Curve is a brand name that is growing in traction. Producers Michael Harrison and David Ian have a canny eye for what will make a successful show and Scrooge The Musical is their latest partnership with Leicester’s Curve that sees the theatre’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster helm a thoughtfully crafted take on the Leslie Bricusse show.

It all makes for classic festive fayre with Bricusse’s original work, last seen some 15 years ago, being subtly re-engineered for this revival. Jasper Britton (and Curve Board Member) heads the cast in the title role, convincing us throughout of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. As he is visited by the spirit of his dead business partner Jacob Marley and then the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, we believe in Britton’s Scrooge learning to sip the milk of human kindness and to redeem himself.

Around Britton there are no co-leading roles, rather an ensemble of wonderful quality. Notable in the company are an enchanting Lauren Stroud who doubles up as both the fiancée of the young Ebenezer in times past and as the current wife his nephew Harry. Anton Stephans turns in a crackingly fizzing take as the Ghost Of Christmas Present, while Danny-Boy Hatchard as local lad Tom Jenkins is also particularly striking.

The show has been put together with a view to taking the spirit of future Christmases on the road (Harrison and Ian are no fools) – and Michael Taylor’s ingenious designs, brilliantly  lit by Ben Cracknell, capture the gritty flamboyance of London’s Cheapside, the towering misery of Scrooge’s office and the impoverished warmth of the Cratchit household. No expense has been spared on the creative talent throughout the production – Sarah Travis has (as ever) done a wondrous job arranging Bricusse’s score, which on the evening is delivered by Neil MacDonald’s eight piece band. Local legend Stephen Mear returns to his home town to choreograph, bringing a magic to those numbers that allow a spectacle in movement – the Toy Ballet and The Milk of Human Kindness being two particularly ingenious routines (pantomime aficionados should look out for the two dames in the latter).

The musical makes no bones about the darkness of Dickens’ tale and Scrooge’s journey of redemption. The ghosts are scary (Karen Mann’s Marley is particularly ghoulish), with Britton fleshing out Scrooge’s journey of redemption in a way that highlights the character’s own childhood of emotional abuse and neglect.

There is perceptive stuff here, from both the leading man and Nikolai Foster, and by rights the show should be garnering 5 stars. But it is Britton’s singing that is perhaps the show’s only flaw. The actor’s eminent background has been hard won on stage and deservedly so, but his expertise stems primarily from the spoken word. While this Scrooge is undoubtedly believable, commanding our empathy, one cannot help but speculate how a different actor, who perhaps has a Valjean or the Phantom under his belt, might take Bricusse’s songs to their fullest potential. But… these are early days for the production and Foster is a shrewd director – it may well be that come mid-December Britton will inhabit the musical numbers with a more majestic vocal confidence and presence.

The story here is classic and heart-warming and it says much for the city of Leicester that a multi-racial cast, evidently drawn from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, can so lovingly tell a story that celebrates an English heritage. Scrooge The Musical is another Christmas cracker at the Curve.

Runs until 7th January
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Importance of Being Earnest - Review

Jack Studio Theatre, London


Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Sarah Redmond

Daniel Hall

As one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous plays, one wonders if its aged humour and possibly outdated social values will stand the test of time. Thankfully in Sarah Redmond’s capable hands the story thrives.

The production is driven by the leading performances of Daniel Hall and Riley Jones as Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing respectively, with the pair bringing an infectious cheek and charming energy to the piece, portraying the mischievous socialites with ease.

Hall’s Algernon is instantly warmed to, his strong melodic voice giving elegance to the writing and an electricity to his onstage energy. Similarly Jones’ John charms, as the actor shows an intelligence and understanding of the material and its cadence that perfectly emulates an 1800’s gentleman.

As Lady Bracknell, Harriet Earle occasionally struggled, perhaps, early on in her career, lacking the Dowager gravitas that Bracknell demands. Earle must however be commended for her decision not to concede to the norm and overplay the “Handbag” line, delivering the iconic words with a gloriously dry incredulity.

Redmond directs the piece in a somewhat abstract form, with set and scenery made up of cartoon-esque black and white set pieces, giant calling cards and cut out animals. There’s a hint of the absurd to her interpretation, but nonetheless this innovative take on a classic play makes for a thoroughly enjoyable two hours.

Runs until 2nd December
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Daniel Everitt-Lock

The Secondary Victim - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Matthew Campling
Directed by Matthew Gould

Susannah Doyle and Gary Webster

Matthew Campling who’s written The Secondary Victim has been a practising psychotherapist for twenty years and there is clearly a volume of professional experience that underscores his play. Sadly however, in its premiere at the Park Theatre we find that his work, while brilliantly performed, comprises a script that’s possibly more dysfunctional than many of the clients Campling may have counselled over the decades.

The titular secondary victim here (with the play’s title being almost a spoiler in itself) is Ali, a middle-aged psychotherapist who finds herself the subject of a complaint alleging sexual misconduct. Susannah Doyle puts in a fine shift as Ali, struggling with her own personal emotional challenges. An equally strong performance comes from Michael Hanratty as the complainant Hugo. We learn that he is Ali’s former client and, by many years, her junior.

In what seems a lengthy two and a half hours, Campling takes us through not only Ali’s own marital strains with husband Victor (Gary Webster), but also her counselling of another client who’s a paedophile, along with glimpses into the professional relationship she maintains with her supervisor Marilyn. Not only that, we also meet Jonny, Hugo’s subsequent therapist, who in an implausible coincidence strikes up an affair with Marilyn whilst the pair are away at a psychotherapy conference.

The human condition is complex and Campling might, in a more carefully crafted work, have been correct to reference so many of society’s challenges in his text. Unfortunately, the sum total of his writing amounts to an unconvincing sequence of events that appear to have been clumsily thrown together solely to advance his dramatic narrative and which place Ali in a perfect storm of domestic and professional catastrophe that defies credibility.

Not only does Campling’s writing lack subtlety he does his profession a grave disservice with the ethical standards of his psychotherapists seeming too often to be lacking. Professional boundaries are continually blurred, with all three therapists showing scant regard for client confidentiality.

There is a lot more dramaturgy that's needed here. As it stands, if Ali is the secondary victim then the audience, quite possibly, is the third.

Runs until 9th December

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Coriolanus - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Angus Jackson

Haydn Gwynne and Sope Dirisu

Set in a time of modern day civil/class  warfare, Angus Jackson’s take on Coriolanus offers up glimpses of masterful performance. With design and costume by Robert Innes Hopkins, the production sets out to contrast the similarities between ancient, strife-torn Rome and today’s United Kingdom, polarised over Brexit. As the plebeian citizens revolt, clad in hoodies and torn denim and brandishing barbed wire donned bats, the patrician elite surrounded by glowing marble and cascading canopies have discarded their weapons in favour of carefully nursed champagne flutes.

It’s an intelligent concept, and there is some real beauty on stage, but the piece (much like Blanche McIntyre’s Titus Andronicus in this current RSC Rome season) lacks a weight in its argument. The cast are fairly young (too young?) and in the title role Sope Dirisu who while clearly a strong and intelligent actor, does not yet possess the gravitas or age to make his Coriolanus credible. Granted, his agility lends itself brilliantly to Terry King’s fight scenes; bloody, exciting and believable as they are, but the depiction of a boy playing at war does not stir the audience.

The saving grace of this piece lies with the women. As the more socially present of the two tribunes, the voices of the poor among the socialites, Jackie Morrison’s Sicinius Veletus is a feisty and undeterred figure. Her performance is almost Nicola Sturgeon-esque in her political battle to banish Coriolanus from Rome, with again a relevance to Britain’s current political standing being cleverly played. Not from this play, but referencing Morrison, Shakespeare’s words “Though she be but little, she is fierce”, are apt.

The evening’s star performance comes from Haydn Gwynne who brings a strength and elegance to Volumnia. Playing the ever loving yet overbearing mother of Coriolanus, she dreams of success and glory for her son, successfully moulding him into the figure of state that she longs to be but is just out of her grasp. Gwynne’s presence is magnetic, owning every inch of the stage from the moment she arrives. Her second-half speech, begging her son for peace toward Rome after his banishment and unity with their enemy is an unmissable masterclass in Shakespeare.

Runs until 18th November
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Friday, 10 November 2017

Glengarry Glen Ross - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Written by David Mamet
Directed by Sam Yates

Christian Slater

Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s concise study into the snake-pit of commission fueled property sales, is as relevant today as it when it opened 33 years ago. In a Chicago real estate office, men plead and hustle as they focus only on closing deals, no matter the human price.

Sam Yates’ production is built around a tight, stellar cast. Camel coated Christian Slater (who bears more than a hint of Tony Blair in his appearance) is Ricky Roma, the alpha-male of the pack. Canny and mercenary, Roma’s senses and reflexes are razor sharp. Not only can he sniff out a potential sale across the banquettes of a Chinese restaurant (with a convincing turn from Daniel Ryan as James Lingk, the hapless john) he’s two steps ahead of the aggrieved Lingk the next day when he appears at the office to exercise his cooling-off option. Throughout, the playwright’s genius shines through as much as in what is not said, as what has been scripted. Mamet only hints at the characters’ outside lives with his play cruelly entertaining us in our ringside seats as we watch men crumble in the pressure cooker of the deal.

At the aged end of the spectrum are Stanley Townsend’s Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levene and Don Warrington’s grey haired, wizened Aaronov. Glengarry Glen Ross will always draw comparisons with Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman and here it is Levene who is the realtors’ Willy Loman, a man so desperate for a lead that his once canny judgement leads him into catastrophe. Aaronov by contrast is almost a spent-force. Perhaps once upon a time he might have closed deals, but in Warrington’s artful interpretation we see a pathos-infused ineptitude.

Robert Glenister is Dave Moss, who brings an angry fire to his picture of a man who would happily contemplate incriminating his colleagues in pursuit of lining his own pockets, while as the youthful company-man, Kris Marshall is John Williamson, overseeing the leads and the deals and with a disquietingly accurate knack for sniffing out the poor performers in the team. Williamson shares Roma’s instincts, but combines them with a dispassionate, clinical ruthlessness. He may be the most principled employee of the firm, but he’s unquestionably the least empathetic.

Yates’ direction of his ensemble is tight, amidst a fast-paced script that allows little room for interpretation. Chiara Stephenson’s set comprising the Chinese eatery in act one and the men’s trashed office in the second half supports the narrative with an authentic detail.

The tragic essence of the play is that Mamet’s men are everymen, defining an ugliness of the human condition that is probably timeless. In an evening that is more of an American Nightmare rather than dream, Glengarry Glen Ross is an ugly story, beautifully told.

Runs until 3rd February 2018
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Mother Courage and her Children - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written by Bertolt Brecht in a translation by Tony Kushner
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Josie Lawrence

Mother Courage and her Children is often dubbed one of the best anti-war plays of all time and it isn’t difficult to see why as this ambitious revival at the Southwark Playhouse sees Josie Lawrence storm her way through Tony Kushner’s translation with a vigour.

Hannah Chissick, inspired by the recent war debate, directs with the simplicity and audacity that Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre demands. The talented singers are utilised well to emphasise the play’s themes (war is never ending, brings women to ruin, is never profitable, and is generally no good) with Lawrence’s soulful tones bringing a tear to many an eye. Lawrence, of Who’s Line Is It Anyway fame, is an absolute triumph, embracing the audience on her journey from cocky tradeswoman to a woman that Mother Courage would be ashamed of, so downtrodden is her outlook and situation. 

Mother Courage's trade comes with war as she follows armies across Europe with her simple wagon, selling simple goods alongside her even simpler children, all with different fathers and different difficulties. Along the way, new challenges are faced as battles are won and Generals enjoy the little food available. Her children are Eilif, played by the strapping Jake Phillips Head; Swiss Cheese, charmingly portrayed by the wide eyed Julian Moore-Cook; and Katrin, played by Phoebe Vigor, who blew everyone away with a sensitive portrayal of the metaphorically lost and mute young woman who somehow ends up being the hero of the piece. 

Love interests come in the form of David Shelley’s Chaplain who however dusty is as articulate and as good an orator as his character claims to be, even if his preaching often falls on deaf ears. Rival to The Chaplain is The Cook (Ben Fox), scrappy and cheeky, hinting at his hidden past. Their passion for Mother Courage is matched only by the whore Yvette, whose passion for her trade, red high heels and all, is played Laura Checkley relishing the brass and pantomime of her tragic opportunist. The strong cast is supported by the musical ensemble that includes Rosalind Ford who warms the cockles and Shiv Jalota who embraces this quite possibly unique opportunity to exhibit his beat boxing skills in a Brechtian context. 

It’s quite the experience to follow Mother Courage and her Children. Not an evening of light entertainment, producer Danielle Tarento has created an incredibly thought provoking and intriguing powerhouse of a show.

Runs until 9th December
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Clare Louise Connolly talks about playing Regan on stage in The Exorcist

Tonight, Halloween 2017, the stage play of William Peter Blatty’s apocryphal horror story The Exorcist opens in the West End at the Phoenix Theatre.
Directed by Sean Mathias, the story is all about 12 year old Regan MacNeil, a girl from Georgetown in Washington DC, whose becomes possessed by Devil. The play stars Jenny Seagrove as Regan’s mother Chrissy, and Peter Bowles as Father Merrin, the Jesuit priest whose mission is to exorcise the young girl of her demon.
I saw The Exorcist when it first played at Birmingham Rep (who alongside Bill Kenwright are co-producing this London transfer) last year. It was a great night at the theatre, but what struck me then, aside from the starry lead performers, was the fabulous work from Clare Louise Connolly who plays Regan.
The Exorcist play may well be dripping in world class special effects and illusions – but at the heart of this gruesome horror story is quite simply a breathtaking performance from one of the country’s finest young actresses. 
As rehearsals were ending, I caught up with Clare to talk about the show.

JB:    Tell me about the build up last year to your being cast as Regan. 

Clare:   I had, probably, about four auditions, and I did a lot of work to get the part. The story shows a really good character arc the story has such a cult following, that I wanted to make sure that I gave the part justice in the auditions.

We worked a few scenes during the audition run, including the iconic movie moment where Regan spins her head around. I made sure I told our director Sean Mathias that my neck was extremely flexible!

JB:    “Iconic” is a word that’s over-used today but it’s entirely appropriate in describing the impact that The Exorcist has made on movies and the horror genre in particular over the last 40 years. Did you use William Friedkin’s movie to prepare for the audition process?

Clare:    Good question. Not very much at all. I knew I'd watched the film years and years ago, but I didn't actually watch it again before I auditioned because I wanted to make the character my own.

When I read the scripts, I was really excited because it's written so well that I just wanted to bring my own truth to it, rather than be an imitation of Linda Blair who played Regan on screen.

JB:    Filming the movie famously took its toll on Linda Blair, with Friedkin demanding countess retakes of some of the most harrowing scenes. You, of course, are telling, the same story, but in a very different, live medium where, like all theatre professionals, you have to get it right, first time, every time. Having seen the show last year in Birmingham I can confirm that your performance is magnificent and convincing.

Do you enjoy horror as a genre?

Clare:    I do. I didn't used to but then I watched The Orphanage that I just thought was so beautifully done. I'm not a massive horror fan per se, I don't seek them out so much, but if there is a horror film that I think, "Oh, that looks interesting " then I’ll watch it.

The Ring is when I think horror movies turned and really started to get back in the public eye again. But, in preparation for The Exorcist I have watched more horror.

JB:    The biggest challenge of telling a horror story is to get the audience to suspend our disbelief....

Clare:    Yes, but it also needs truth. It has to make it real and I think that's the success of The Exorcist. It is such a domestic story, and you can really imagine how these events could potentially happen. 

There is also a strong focus on mental health in the narrative. Chris struggles with guilt and worries that her daughter feels abandoned. Father Damien(Adam Garcia) also struggles with guilt over abandoning his mother before she died. Uncle Burke (Tristram Wymark) is dealing with addiction, so there's a lot of themes that are relevant to today. 

JB:    Some people say that violent horror, when portrayed as entertainment, “sets a bad example”. Do you have a view on that?

Clare:    Yes - I do feel quite a responsibility to a story well and to take the audience on a journey. 

One thing The Exorcist does talk about is that where there's evil, there's also good. I think people like to have their dark side challenged and I know that the response of the audiences has been amazing.

Clare with Adam Garcia (l) & Peter Bowles (r)

JB:    Tell me about the audience responses - without giving too much away of course. 

Clare:    Well there are a couple of jump moments of course but it's not really about that. There is a moment where the audience get quite loud, and shocked that we can actually pull a particular effect off on stage - Ben Hart’s illusions are amazing. 

The audiences have been incredible and I think people are very excited that, actually, we go there on stage! They don't expect to see my head turn. They don't expect to see things fly across the room. They don't expect these things. And, although they know it all  happened in the movie with Hollywood’s special effects,  they don't expect that many things to happen in front of their eyes, so I think they are very excited that those things happen.

JB:    Do you enjoy hearing their screams?

Clare:    Actually, no! I have to really concentrate to not absorb that energy and that’s a big thing for me. As a person I'm quite empathic, so, if I hear somebody screaming, my feelings are that I want to protect them!

JB:    The show has opened on Halloween, which is very much nowadays a season that treats horror with a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek frivolity. But even though The Exorcist may well be "popcorn-theatre", it is not in any way a pantomime, or a show that can allow its cast to interact with the audience. 

Clare:    "Popcorn theatre" is a great description. We've actually had women come along to see the show dressed as Regan! So who knows - we might have the beginning of a cult show here.

What I do know though is the genius of John Pielmeier's adaptation that allows a lot of comedy in there too. There is the time for the audience to laugh, and it might be right before they’re meant to feel scared, so it really throws them back and forth. The Exorcist audiences have been the loudest I've ever experienced doing a play, in fact they probably are on a level with pantomime audiences. It’s a real experience for them and so far they all seem to be loving it, lapping it up and coming out afterwards really exuberant, bright eyed and with lots to say. 

Another key part of the show’s magic for me is the sound. When I landed the part, the first thing I wanted to find out was who was designing the sound, because, for me personally, it is the sound affects that complete the illusion. When I learned that it was Adam Cork - who I've worked with before on something else that was also very distressing and horrific -  I was like, "Brilliant. We're okay. He's fantastic." And, when you enter the theatre and you've got that haunting chanting sound, it just puts you on edge to begin with!

JB:    The possessed Regan literally looks horrific. How long does it take you in make up to get that face just right? 

Clare:    Make up is actually an amazing challenge, because it’s a gradual process throughout the show. I start clear faced, no make up, just as Regan starts off as a normal happy girl, who has a great relationship with her mother. So it’s a gradual build-up.

On the brief moments when I'm not on stage, there's a brilliant lady called Billie Sanger, who is adding make up to me, slowly, and that's how it happens.

JB:    And you are not off-stage for very long at all. 

Clare:    I know. Most of my changes are about 35 seconds. I think I might have one that's about a minute and a half. And they're very quick. And I do change my nightie a few times as well. Very quick changes.

JB:    Let’s talk about Ian McKellen and THAT voice. Last year in Birmingham it wasn’t announced that he was voicing the devil and in fact he didn't even get a programme credit. Now, with the London opening, his part in the show is well publicised.

 What’s it like to lip synch to Ian McKellen?

Clare:    Fantastic. An absolutely dream.There  are certain people you really want to work with in your career and he’s at the top of that list. Even though his voice is recorded, we did rehearse together so as to make sure that the cadence of what I was saying and rehearsing matched his cadence, rhythm and speed. 

I didn't actually know it was to be him voicing the Devil until the read through!  I met him about 10 minutes before we commenced and then started acting with him and it was just brilliant. He's such a legend and yet I immediately felt calm working with him.

What’s great about Ian's voice is that people recognise it. This in turn makes it all the more believable as to why Regan takes him on as a friend. If he’d been voiced as a gruff, mean sounding villain, she wouldn't have given him the time of day. Ian’s Devil however is smooth and he just entices her in.

And of course the rest of the cast are amazing to work with too. It's been such an ensemble piece with everybody throwing in ideas. Sean really likes to take a collaborative approach. 

JB:    Clare, thank you finding the time to talk. To you  and to the whole Exorcist company, break a leg with the run.

Clare:    Or break a neck!

The Exorcist is booking at the Phoenix Theatre until 10th March 2018