Sunday, 11 August 2019

Evita - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre, albeit staged in its intended 1940s style, proves to be a masterclass of contemporary political theatre. In a production that is as much rally as world class musical, Lloyd transforms the piece into a commentary on recent times as well as a showcase of some of the finest performing talent to be found on both sides of the pond.

Lloyd, with his regular design partner Soutra Gilmour and choreographer Fabian Aloise, takes the story of Eva Duarte (subsequently, Peron) and charts her rise and fall in a stark brutal staging that is unashamedly sexual and politically brutal. The stage is bare and tiered – save for a rusting and distressed “EVITA”, fashioned in stark iron letters, that hangs over the space. The costumes are evocative of time and place, but it is the lithe writhing movement of the ensemble that define Argentina’s betrayed poor, from whose ranks Eva was to rise to become the wife of President Juan Peron. The occasional use of hand-held cabled mics adds a touch of campaigning urgency to the piece

But it is not just Lloyd’s visualisation of the piece that defines its political punch – although show’s smoking flares and confetti cannon do add to the impact. Rather, the political wit of Tim Rice’s lyrics proves as timeless today as when they were first sung in 1976. There is a veritably cruel incisiveness to Rice’s words that resonate as metaphors for the 21st century. Lloyd offers us hints of Farage and Trump in his contexting, while Rice’s merciless exposition of socialism in And The Money Kept Rolling In makes Jeremy Corbyn’s contemporary canards promising free-stuff to the impressionable seem ruthlessly resonant.

The production values of this show are close to flawless. In the title role, Samantha Pauly is the first of the show’s three trans-Atlantic imports. Pauly perfectly captures Evita’s curious fusion of strength and vulnerability, with a grace in movement and a vocal presence that are spine-tingling. Amidst the darkening trees of Regents Park, Pauly’s big number Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is imbued with a rare beauty.

Another Yank in the show is Trent Saunders as Che. Lloyd has fun with Che, defining him very much as the voice of the Argentinian people as well as the role of questioning chorus to which he had originally been created. Saunders provides the usual amount of deprecating irony towards Evita – but splashed with paint in the final act, he very much represents the spent and abused populace. 

The final American on stage is Ektor Rivera’s Peron. Aside from bringing the production a Latin authenticity, Rivera captures Peron’s sexual irresistibility as well as a convincing, uncaring, fascist governance to his leadership.

There is excellence in the key supporting roles too, with the wonderfully voiced Adam Pearce giving a thuggish sleaze to Augustin Magaldi, while Frances Mayli McCann enchants with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. Placed to the rear of the action and slightly above the stage Alan Williams' orchestra handle Lloyd Webber's South American melodies immaculately - with a particular mention to Ollie Hannifan's exquisite guitar playing. 

Tickets are still on sale, but at the time of this review availability is limited. Rush to see this show – it makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.

Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Parade - Review

The Other Palace, London


Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter

This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.

Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.

Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.

Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.

There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.

Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.

It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever. 

The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.

Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.

Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!

Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Equus - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai

Equus remains a fascinating, if dated, piece of writing from Peter Schaffer. Exploring the psycho-sexual complexities of the adolescent Alan Strang, a boy who has just, horrifically, blinded six horses, Shaffer contexts the young man’s mental turmoil against the emotional and sexual failings of his psychiatrist Richard Dysart.

Done well, the play should offer a well crafted glimpse into teenage angst, parental frailties together with the numbing realities of mid-life disappointment. In Ned Bennett's production however, that arrives at the Trafalgar Studios from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a strange fusion of magnificence and mediocrity permeates the evening.

Ethan Kai plays the troubled Strang and while he may appear perhaps a little too old to portray his teenage character, his performance nonetheless convinces. Kai captures Strang’s awkward dysfunctionality - a boy who is more at ease with horses than with people - delivering a performance of intensity and energy.

Opposite Kai is Zubin Varla’s Dysart in a turn that fails to deliver the gravitas that the role demands. Varla is unable to carry us along with his revelations of the demons that surround his infertility and failing marriage. On stage virtually throughout, in what is unquestionably a demanding role Varla’s work is of a standard that is little more than “average” and for Shaffer’s prose that’s just not good enough. 

The supporting roles are likewise workmanlike in their execution. With the exception of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Jill, Strang’s peer who befriends him, all the other characters prove too tedious as they flesh out Strang’s back story, making the 2hr 40min piece seem even longer.

To their credit however, and with the exception of Varla and Kai, all the cast double up in their portrayal of the horses that Strang is to ultimately mutilate and under Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction, their equine interpretations are sensational. The immaculately sculpted Ira Mandela Siobhan plays Nugget, the “lead” horse in the stables in a masterclass of physical theatre. Maxwell delivers genius in her suggestions of the horses’ movement, that her company deliver immaculately.

Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: The Other Richard

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Rodgers & Hammerstein (& Me Too)

Bread & Roses Theatre, London


Directed by Edward Goggin

Molly Lynch in rehearsal
For this week only, the capital can again savour the vocal excellence of Molly Lynch in her one-woman show Rodgers and Hammerstein & Me Too. The titular pun is deliberate as the accomplished Lynch takes her audience through a dozen or so R&H classics, interspersed with verbatim references to a selected choice of recent years' headline stories.

Lynch is a magnificent performer with the tightly packed hour long show demonstrating not only her ability to sing - but also a perfectly nuanced knack to act through song too. And for some of the evening the emotional punch of the stories she relates are painful and poignant. The interweaving of Kyle Stephens’ testimonies - a woman who as a young child was horrendously abused by America’s notorious paedophile Larry Nassar - with the lyrics of My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music proves powerful and heartbreaking. But there are moments when the counterpoint is clumsy. Contexting Rose McGowan’s description of Harvey Weinstein’s vile behaviour to a backdrop of the comparatively sugary sweetness of That’s The Way It Happens from Me And Juliet is an intended irony that misses the mark

Save for a brief reference to Jimmy Savile, Lynch's politicking is aimed squarely (and disappointingly, politically correctly) at the USA. This being the "woke" 2019, her failure to reference either the numerous misogynist regimes around the world that see women treated appallingly or, closer to home, the thousands of young girls in the UK that are and have been preyed upon by grooming gangs, are glaring omissions. 

Most fine musical theatre songs are best left unadulterated and, above all, uninterrupted. Good songwriting should tell its story and pack its punch through melody and lyric and it takes a fine and subtle hand to meddle with a masterpiece effectively. If Lynch returns to the intimacy of a cabaret venue - and one sincerely hope she does - the politics could perhaps be parked in favour of an evening that breaks the fourth wall and shines some light on the genius that underlies this young woman who is surely one of Ireland’s most talented exports.

When Katherine Jenkins played Julie Jordan in the Coliseum's Carousel a couple of years ago, Lynch was her acclaimed understudy and it remains a source of regret to many (Jonathan Baz included) that they missed those rare occasions that saw her step up to the leading role. This concert however offered some solace, with Lynch including What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’ in her set list. Her take on the song is exquisite, showcasing one of the finest voices to be found in London.

Runs until 3rd August

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Night Of The Iguana - Review

Noël Coward Theatre, London


Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald

The play's company
Set in a rundown hotel in 1940, atop the cliffs of Mexico’s Pacific coast ,  Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana offers up a glimpse of troubled lives in a dramatic cocktail that proves as intoxicating as a well mixed rum coco. The play was inspired by Williams’ own 1940 Mexican travels and his evident love for both time and place – and all set in a period before America had been sucked into the maelstrom of World War 2 – are evident. 

Clive Owen plays the Rev Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister now banished from the USA and reduced to leading guided tours around the world’s less glamorous regions. Shannon has led a reluctant party of Texan schoolgirls and their teacher (Finty Williams as a wonderfully Southern Baptist Judith Fellowes) to the hotel - a stop not included on the published itinerary - and their apparent entrapment at the remote location only heightens aspects of the story’s tension. We learn that Shannon has committed statutory rape (sex with minors) and as the evening unfolds we witness this priapic priest barely able to control his lust. Owen (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson) is on stage throughout most of the play, and his delivery of this strangely, vilely, complex role is a tour de force.

Playing Maxine Faulk, the wise and recently widowed hotelier, is Anna Gunn. There is evidently a complex history to Faulk and Shannon. She knows him inside out, replete with all his failings and yet is passionately drawn to the deeply damaged man. Gunn’s work is masterful – sassy yet vulnerable, and hinting at an absolutely fascinating back story.

And then arriving at the hotel are the penniless Hannah Jelkes played by Lia Williams, a middle-aged (con) artist accompanied by her nonagenarian poet grandfather, delightfully fleshed out by Julian Glover. Williams lays down yet further sadness as Jelkes outlines her back story of a woman who has seen love pass her by, save for two seedy encounters over many decades - and a childhood that she hints at as having been traumatised by profound emotional and sexual abuse. 

This being 1940, (and the play having been written in 1961) Williams also cheekily lobs in a family of raucous Germans to his “Mexican Berchtesgaden”, Nazis fleeing Europe and using Mexico either as a gateway to South America or a back-door to the States. 

The play’s themes are as complex as they are ultimately simple - but what stands out from this three hour opus is that it was written at a time when literary craftsmanship was at its finest. Williams touches upon some of the most painful and intimate aspects of humanity - sex, love, loneliness and abuse – but does so throughout with a beautiful and carefully worded prose that displays a complete absence of profanity. The strength of The Night Of The Iguana rests upon a sensational cast bringing the most sensitive of images into relief, via their spoken word. As they perform, the most moving and painful vignettes play out in our minds’ eyes - and it makes for a truly rare event to see theatre that is so richly created and performed.

James Macdonald has assembled a masterful team of creatives. Rae Smith’s mountainous Latin mountaintop convinces on its own – but accompanied by Max Pappenheim’s exquisite soundscape, the suspension of our disbelief is complete. The Night Of The Iguana is world class theatre.

Runs until 28th September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Oklahoma! - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Directed by Jeremy Sams

Emmanuel Kojo and members of the company

With Jeremy Sams’ production of Oklahoma! Chichester Festival Theatre are back producing some of the country’s most exciting musical theatre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, set amongst the prairies and cattle ranches of what was known at the turn of the 20th Century as Indian Territory (the state of Oklahoma only being formed in 1907), takes a story of love, action and passion set to some of the finest tunes in the canon. But for all the genius in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s writing, Oklahoma! is a desperately dated piece. It was a time when unmarried daughters were seen as very much their fathers’ property, while the biased frontier justice that is meted out in the show’s final act makes one realise just quite how sugar-coated the Broadway audiences of 1943 needed their stories to be.

But amidst this dated glimpse of a post-Civil War America, Sams and his creative team have delivered theatrical magic. In a bold casting move the two leading roles are given to relative industry newcomers. Hyoie O’Grady plays the cowboy Curly, smitten with a (mutual) love for Amara Okereke’s Laurey. O’Grady is a vocal delight, his opening bars of Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ stirring the Chichester audience into a foot-tapping frenzy. He needs to find a touch more gravitas to truly weight the role – but this will likely emerge during the run. As for Okereke, this blog has long followed her youthful genius and she makes a fabulous Laurey, capturing the fierce independence of the orphaned farmer alongside the fears and vulnerabilities of a young woman. Her singing is a delight – and her dance, especially in the Dream Ballet routine, sensational.

It is in the supporting roles that Sams lays on the heavyweight talent. Josie Lawrence as the matriarchal Aunt Eller brings a wryness and compassion to the role, with a raucous wit and perfect timing that captures the older woman’s wisdom, as well as some moments of cracking comedy. The biggest plaudits of the night though rest with Emmanuel Kojo’s Jud Fry, perhaps one of the most complex characters ever penned during Broadway’s Golden Age. Fry is a damaged lonely man, cruelly mocked by Curly in their duet Pore Jud Is Daid. That number however serves as but a warm up to Fry’s Lonely Room, a song in which Kojo delivers a bass baritone performance that is as moving as it is thrilling and ultimately terrifying. Daniel Evans (Chichester’s Artistic Director) unlocked Kojo’s craft in his 2015 Showboat at Sheffield (the actor’s Ol’ Man River still resonates) and it is hard to think of any other UK actor that could have delivered such a perfect interpretation of this challenging part.

Comic support was well delivered by Scott Karim as pedlar Ali Hakim. Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie can sure sing 'purdy' but her acting through song needs a little more time – her character's lines drip with carefully crafted gags, too many of which are wasted on the night. Neat work too from Isaac Gryn whose dance routine in Kansas City was flawless.

Indeed – the dance work throughout was magnificent and ingenious. Matt Cole has drilled his company immaculately with the previously mentioned big dance numbers being breathtaking in their ambition – and Cole produces further fine work in The Farmer And The Cowman.

Robert Jones’s set design makes fine work of the Festival Theatre’s deep jaws as Mark Henderson’s lighting segues seamlessly between the dustbowl of the farmlands and the vividness of Laurey’s nightmare.

This production delivers a Broadway treat that is rarely seen over here. While the show’s politics and nuances may be from a different era, its songs and commentary upon love and the human condition are timeless - and high above the stage Nigel Lilley's 15-piece band makes splendid work of Richard Rodgers' glorious melodies. Well worth a trip to the South Coast, Oklahoma! is one of the finest musicals around.

Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Bitter Wheat - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Written and directed by David Mamet

John Malkovich

Bitter Wheat introduces us to Barney Fein, an obesely mysogynist movie mogul who, drunk on money and power, views women as little more than his playthings. It is no coincidence that post autumn 2017 and in the #MeToo era, the assonance of the name and the description of the man sound troublingly familiar. 

Fein is an ugly man - inside and out, with an ugliness that is matched only by Mamet’s writing. For this is a play of two halves - a first act that builds towards an explosive exploitation of sexual violation, and a second half that rapidly disintegrates into implausibility. And yet - for all of Mamet’s madness, the chaos of his writing still holds a withering mirror to Hollywood’s vile, vacuous and timelessly rapacious culture. While recent scandals may have rightly pushed Tinseltown’s casting couch into the spotlight - that toxic masculinity and mindset has riven the movie industry for as long as cameras have been turning. 

John Malkovich is a fine Fein. Padded up he is as massive the role that sees him onstage throughout the two hour piece. There is satire here but without the slapstick - Malkovich marvels in a role that, like Pravda's Lambert Le Roux in Pravda or The Producers' Max Bialystock, takes recognisable caricatures, magnifying them into a driving force. Mamet takes no prisoners in his writing, with Fein’s Jewish ancestry proving an uncomfortable butt for some of the venom he receives. However, Mamet is to be applauded in recognising the close and long-established ties between his anti-hero and America’s Democrat Party - a recognition that will not sit easily amongst the liberal literati on either side of the Atlantic.

Malkovich is well served by his fellow ensemble who, to differing degrees, are there merely as foils to his monstrous nature. Doon Mackichan is his much put-upon assistant Sondra, a woman of questionable ethics and evident complicity and who, rat-like, flees Fein's sinking ship. Making her West End debut, Ioanna Kimbook plays the South Korean movie star Yung Kim Li who finds herself the subject of Fein's abusive lust. The writer has allowed little room for nuance in the part, but Kimbook turns in a neatly measured performance.

There may be a whiff of sensationalised cliché to this world premiere, but no matter. Mamet's subject is timely and relevant and Malkovich's performance is electrifying.

Booking until 21st September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan