Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Half A Sixpence - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


****


New Music & Songs by George Stiles & Anthony Drew
Original Songs by David Heneker
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh



Charlie Stemp (on banjo) + Company 
This website has already reviewed Half A Sixpence in both its Chichester and West End iterations, however an invitation to meet some of the show’s talented cast and take a peek backstage proved irresistible.
Josh Adams who’d not yet seen the show went along.... 

It's rare to watch a West End musical that is so wonderfully British - and Half a Sixpence really is just that, in so many ways.

The direction, choreography and music of the piece frame the energy wonderfully. Amongst the songs, Look Alive captures the boyish behaviour contrasted with the strict discipline of the workplace, while the title song is sung with such innocence and young love by lead characters Arthur Kipps and Ann Pornick, that you can almost feel the warmth in the auditorium.

Meeting Charlie Stemp who plays Arthur Kipps before the show, together with other cast members was a joy. And even more so, to discover that Stemp has the same laddish, comical yet sincere energy in person as he portrays on stage. Not only is his singing and acting fantastic but Stemp makes the choreography look like spur of the moment celebratory leaps of joy as he makes discovery after discovery throughout Act 1.

Other exceptional work comes from Bethany Huckle as the naughty playful Flo, Sam O'Rourke in the ensemble and of course the stunning Emma Williams as Helen Walsingham, Kipp’s alternative love interest. Williams is slowly becoming a legend of our time, consistently glorious to both watch and listen to.

While the above mentioned are particularly impressive, Half A Sixpence is undoubtedly one of those shows with the ensemble at its very heart. From the hustle and bustle of frolics at work through to bat and ball on the lawn, Andrew Wright’s choreography looks completely at home, at times going right to the edge of the Noel Coward Theatre’s tight playing space.

On as Ann Pornick for the night was Rebecca Jayne Davies, who like Stemp delivers a wonderful balance of youth, innocence and sincerity as her relationship with Arthur develops from childhood sweethearts. Davies yet again proves that the quality of London’s understudies remains utterly perfect

The show oozes charm from start to finish and leaves its audience beaming from ear to ear. In dance routines of breathtaking complexity glasses, curtains, bouquets and more are thrown across the stage and not a single one is dropped.

Stiles and Drewe’s musical additions to the 1960s original keep the charm and energy flowing throughout, all excellently executed by musical director Graham Hurman. The seamless transition from pier to parlour, that never sees the show lack pace, reflects slick direction from Rachel Kavanaugh.

The show builds to a flash, bang wallop of a finale. Long may it continue!


Booking until 2nd September
Reviewed by Josh Adams

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Carousel - Review

Coliseum, London


****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer
Directed by Lonny Price


Alfie Boe, Katherine Jenkins Gavin Spokes, Alex Young and Brenda Edwards

Rodgers and Hammerstein considered Carousel to be their finest work. The show is this year's semi-staged Coliseum offering from Michaels Grade and Linnit and they have laid on a sumptuously sized cast and orchestra that bring a rarely encountered richness to the famed musical.

The story based on the Molnar's original Hungarian fable is a latter-day fairytale, suggesting that true love can conquer all and that within even the darkest most damaged souls, there is the capacity to love and to be loved in return. It's a sound and wholesome precept for sure, but this ain’t Beauty And The Beast. The argument at the core of Carousel suggests that domestic violence whilst frowned upon is not only acceptable, but can also be bearable so long as the woman truly loves her abusive partner. It is truly a dated yarn, from an era of ghastly sexual politics.

Putting issues aside, the songs are magnificent - though the show's casting, even if commercially platinum-plated, is artistically curious. The star-crossed leading characters of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow are played by uber-diva Katherine Jenkins and the megastar of musical theatre that is Alfie Boe. The pair's vocal excellence is beyond comparison – but the chemistry between them lacks sparkle. Jenkins too often seems to forget that this Coliseum gig is live musical theatre rather than an opera or a recording studio. Her flawless voice is not matched by an ability to act through song and she fails to make us truly believe in her journey.

Thankfully, the show’s supporting roles are marvellous. Alex Young - who must surely rank alongside the most gifted performers of her generation - gives a perfectly pitched Carrie Pipperidge, with immaculate timing, voice and presence. Her take on Mister Snow is a treat, while alongside her, as the eponymous hard-working Enoch Snow, Gavin Spokes is another comic gem. Geraniums In The Winder has rarely sounded so deliciously, puritanically hypocritical as it does here.

Derek Hagen's Jigger Craigin is a seedy menace - again performed with wit and conviction, Brenda Edwards breaks the Coliseum's hearts with a stirring You'll Never Walk Alone and even the modest character of Mrs Mullin, the carousel owner who offers a sensitively nuanced shading to Billy's complexities, is wonderfully played by Susan Kyd.

A mention too for Amy Everett as the teenaged Louise Bigelow, whose second act Ballet is beautifully delivered.

As if Boe and Jenkins wasn't enough for the coach parties, Nicholas Lyndhurst has been hauled back to the West End for a turn as the heavenly Starkeeper. Of course his performance is divine, he'll get a few more bums on seats and thankfully Lyndhurst is not really required to sing.

However – what truly sets this production of Carousel apart is the visual (and aural) prominence afforded to the full ENO Orchestra, sat in their raised pit. The melodies are the finest in the canon and under David Charles Abell's baton, as the timeless Carousel Waltz plays out it is entirely possible to consider that this may be the classic score's most glorious realisation on this side of the Atlantic, if not ever.

Lonny Price assembles a strong creative team to enhance the show's imagery. Mark Henderson's lighting serves well amidst the economically designed set - with James Noone's projections effectively creating the New England coastline as Josh Rhodes' dance routines also serve to drive the narrative.

A pricey ticket maybe, but there's much to enjoy in riding this Carousel.


Runs to 13th May
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Plague - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


***


based on La Peste by Albert Camus
Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett


Sara Powell

The Plague by Albert Camus is adapted here by Neil Bartlett into an even more curious, almost dystopian play, showing at the Arcola Theatre until 6th May. In the unnamed town that the five characters inhabit, any hope or joy is promptly quashed and left in a pool of despair on the floor, just like the mysteriously dying rats that plague the streets. It’s not a fun evening, but nonetheless makes for a formidable and incredibly disquieting piece of theatre. 
Camus’ original was written and set in the 1940s and was known for the way it resonated with the millions struggling to understand the fascism that had overwhelmed their lives and families for many years. The time and city of this adaptation are unspecified, but considering that the five witnesses have sheets of notepaper and newspaper cuttings to aid their retelling of the plague that caused their town to be walled off, we can assume it’s not recent.

From the doctor’s office, the apartment buildings and the gutters through to the temporary hospital in a school, the audience is left to imagine where and when the play takes place. It is noted that the plague is always lurking, a metaphor if ever there was one, so the where and when is deemed unimportant and rather it is the journey and decisions of the inhabitants that take prominence.

This vagueness stretches to every character. Sara Powell’s Dr Rieux who’s trapped in the quarantined city delivers a central performance full of authority and sensibility, promising no emotion but delivering a heap of it. Then there is the ambitious journalist, Rambert, from out of town and pining for his new love beyond the gate. Billy Postlethwaite brings a naivety and thoughtlessness of youth to Rambert, who is to do much growing up in the course of the play. Burt Caesar’s Grand has the most gorgeous baritone that makes his sentimental and guileless inability to write a letter to his lost love the most charming thing in a play that is quite unforgiving in its bid to tell this harrowing tale.

The Plague never lets up on its intensity, which after 80 minutes is a little full on. The few attempts at a little light relief, mainly from the rather compelling Martin Turner, fall flat as the dark quickly creeps back in with another death, another statistic, another philosophical quote spoken in unison. Not recommended for a sunny evening of theatre, but thoroughly recommended to sit through during a storm. 


Runs until 6th May
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Audra McDonald in Cabaret - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


*****

Audra McDonald

At Leicester Square theatre until April 15th, you have the unique opportunity to see multi Tony award winning actress Audra McDonald performing in an intimate, phenomenal cabaret with host, Seth Rudetsky and her talented husband, Will Swenson.

One wonders if McDonald, being such an idolised performer in the wolrd of  musical theatre can live up to the sheer gravitas behind her name and will deliver? But what’s the use of wondering, because from the start she delivers a performance that is full of unabashed charm, wit and flawless talent.

Each song is performed with a different and captivating energy and the ease with which McDonald conveys the narrative of each piece pulls at your heartstrings and proves she’s deserved all of her Tony awards. 

Rudestky is a highly skilled pianist whose accompaniment and interjecting harmonies (and the occasional comical jab), compliment McDonald’s power house voice beautifully.

The evening, while predominantly a musical-filled event, is also dotted with anecdotes from McDonald about her family life and career, as well as a fair few jokes that make the evening fly by. As well as talking about her career and achievements on stage and screen, she’s also clearly a caring and devoted mother and wife. The visible passion and adoration with which she speaks about the love for her daughters (who were backstage at the time) is beautiful to witness 

The evening's highlights were a beautiful rendition of Moments In The Woods from Into the Woods a show McDonald is eager to one day play and a jaw-dropping take on Kander and Ebb's Maybe This Time from Cabaret, which had the entire house in awe. 

Audra will be doing an array of different material throughout her next three performances so no one evening will be quite the same and them of course she will be back over the summer at the Wyndhams theatre performing as Billie Holiday in Lady's Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. 

Book to see her, there’s no finer voice around.


In residence until April 15th
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Autumn de Wilde

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Story of Bart - Review

Mirth, Marvel and Maud, London


****

Written and directed by Simon Hanning




On the hottest weekend of the year so far, it says much for the combined talents of John Barr and the much missed Lionel Bart, that Walthamstow’s quirky Mirth, Marvel and Maud venue was sold out to hear Barr’s take on the man who was to become one of England’s most successful composers of the last century.

Simon Hanning’s debut play is a meticulously researched biopic with Barr assuming the role of the songwriter throughout. The evening’s first half charts Bart’s rise from writing songs for Tommy Steele (Little White Bull anyone?) and Cliff Richard (Living Doll) through to the acclaim of the West End, Broadway and Hollywood that was to come from Oliver!

The script is sprinkled with as many songs as anecdotes – who knew for example that Bart could not write music? He would hum out a tune on his kazoo, while his good friend Eric Roberts (who was to score most of the Carry On movies) transcribed the melodies to written manuscript.

Bart’s compositions were (for the most part) inspired and in Barr, whose stage debut aged 12 had been in Cameron Mackintosh’s 1977 revival of Oliver! and who was himself to meet Bart on several occasions, the casting is as inspired too. Barr’s love for Bart’s work is almost tangible and when he dons one of the evening’s many hats, he truly inhabits the man’s persona.

It’s not just a one-man show however. While Barr is virtually onstage from start to finish relating all the narrative, there is sung support from Oli Reynolds as an impressive Cliff Richard, from Sophie Isaacs whose vocal beauty in copying Barbara Windsor was breathtaking and finally from the always excellent Jodie Jacobs who from time to time pops up either covering Judy Garland’s Maggie May or else as a show-stopping Nancy. 

It’s worth noting here that Barbara Windsor who knew Bart well has worked closely with both Barr and Hanning in the show’s development. There is also a further remarkable coincidence - Jodie Jacobs is a cousin of Georgia Brown who in 1960 had created the role of Nancy on the London stage. 

The show’s second half profiles Bart’s decline. The fortune that he’d earned from his 60’s success having been squandered on drugs and partying – with perhaps the most heartbreaking revelation being that, in dire straits, Bart sold the rights to his catalogue royalties to Max Bygraves for a paltry £1,000 with Bygraves soon to sell them on for more than a million. Underlining the tragedy, Barr sings a plaintive Who Will Buy? that strips back the Oliver! classic to reveal a previously hidden pathos and reduces the audience to tears. Barr went on to relate that when Cameron Mackintosh re-staged Oliver! at the London Palladium in 1994, he generously cut Bart in for a share of the show's profits, as an act of sheer kindness. 

Bart also composed the title song for the Bond movie From Russia With Love. Famously recorded by Matt Monroe, there was a truly magical moment in the evening as Barr played the Monroe recording allowing it to seamlessly fade and segue into Barr himself taking over the number with musical director Noam Galperin picking up the melody.

The production wrapped up with a rousing Oliver! sung-along tribute from the full cast with Galperin’s band, who had been on immaculate form throughout, sending the audience on their way with toes tapping.

There is talk of the show taking a limited tour of the UK. Putting it simply - this has to happen. The gig may still be a little rough at the edges but nothing that can’t be sorted.

In the hands of John Barr, The Story of Bart is nothing short of sensational musical theatre.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Golden Days - Review

****




Released this week, Golden Days marks another delicious collaboration of queen and Queen as Kerry Ellis, arguably the finest musical theatre performer of her generation, combines with Brian May (he, famously, of the eponymous rock band) to release their latest collection latter-day classics covered, as ever, with a startling originality.

Ellis' voice has an ethereal timbre that for some years now has been found to sit oh so smoothly alongside May's virtuoso work on the guitar. This album only seals the quality of this inspired partnership. In a range of songs that spans decades, Ellis and May's selection is unconventional. Opening with Amazing Grace, Ellis imbues the hymn with with an unexpected divinity thats deftly picked out by May's fine fingerwork. 

The title track references a cover of Golden Days first recorded by the late Minako Honda. May has some history with the number and together with Ellis, offers up an enchanting take on this unfamiliar song steeped, in a tribute to Honda, in a richly Japanese style. 

The pair have a fine recent history working with Don Black compositions, giving Black's numbers a typically inspiring re-interpretation. For this album they've chosen his Oscar-winning title song from the 1966 movie Born Free and again Ellis offers up a take on the tune that is as reflective of the African landscape as could possibly have been imagined. John Barry may not have imagined the symphonic vista of his melody being given such a mellow-rock treatment - but such is the finesse of Ellis and May's craft that the song sounds as if it had been originally penned with them in mind.

There's an ambitious leap in tackling Gary Moore's Parisienne Walkways. Connoisseurs of fine guitar work (both of the electric and, ahem, the air varieties) rank the number high in the Pantheon of hits, and to hear May magnificently maraud through Moore's masterpiece is nothing short of wonderful. Ellis' take on the lyrics is of course flawless, though it remains a matter of taste as to whether Moore's gritty original is enhanced by Ellis' filigree (albeit one of understated power) treatment.

In an enchanting nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein, one discovers Carousel's  If I Loved You. The song is one of Broadway's most carefully created crafted, coming close to defining the human condition as it moves, relentlessly, through subtly piquant key changes. Ellis and May treat the song with the respect of the gifted craftspeople that they are - and the result is like stumbling across a newly cut diamond that has been fashioned and re-worked from a beautiful original.

From Queen to The King - there's some Elvis here too, as the pair take on Cant Help Falling In Love, May offering up a gorgeous acoustic treatment.

Comprising 13 tracks in all, with Golden Days Kerry Ellis and Brian May have, yet again, created beautiful music. Add it to your collectio.


Available to download from Amazon, iTunes and available from usual retailers

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Posh - Review

Pleasance Theatre, London


****


Written by Laura Wade
Directed by Cressida Carre


The cast of Posh

If you need convincing that women can be just as derogatory, obtuse and vulgar as certain men can sometimes be, get your bottom down to the Pleasance Theatre in Islington and check out Posh, the phenomenal play by Laura Wade, now with an all female cast who display such misogyny like it’s the most natural thing in our messed up world.

Guy (the eloquent Amani Zardoe) and Jeremy (Sarah Thom on fine aristocratic form) set the pompous scene as Godson and Godfather respectively, chatting away in the House of Lords about a dinner party that needs a little more oomph (complete with hip thrust) to propel Guy to presidential status of their university dining club known as The Riot Club. .

Current Riot Club president is James (Gabby Wong), the moral compass of the group even if he can down a bottle of wine. Then there is Verity Kirk’s quirky Ed, perhaps the most endearing of this group of twits. Kirk has the most incredible comic timing and displays an innocence that belies Ed’s drinking aptitude. It was a wonder that the rest of the group didn’t laugh at his inability to not say the first thing that pops into his wee head. Molly Hanson plays Toby, perhaps the only chap to give Ed the time of day outside the Riot Club dinner and who can not only not hold his liquor but does so in spectacular (and spooky) fashion.

The show is full of commanding performances from the ten leads, though sometimes one needs to spend more time with a character, if only to make their later outbursts more transparent.

All ten men think it right that they can act in this ridiculous and ridiculing manner, displaying the arrogance of that thought right upon the surface. Like the great politicians of… a while ago now, their personalities are only ever what’s expected, right down to Alistair’s incredible outburst concerning hating the poor and decrying the system which is perfect for his spiteful companions. His is the most heightened caricature here, played with relish by Serena Jennings, who Sarah Mills dresses in red chinos, no socks, and a blazer for the final scene back in Jeremy’s chamber.

Daring director Cressida Carre  takes her cast and gives them all the prominence their characters sorely desire, making excellent use of Sara Perks’ rotating stage and endless bottles of wine, quite a feat to orchestrate.

Posh is a fabulous show full of characters you’ll love to hate and a chance to laugh at Oxford’s (ahem) finest before they take over the country. For this, so Wade illustrates, is the way of it.


Runs until 22nd April
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Darren Bell