Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Hired Man - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Brendan Matthew

The Hired Man Company

Taken from Melvyn Bragg’s acclaimed description of England’s Lake District as the 19th century passed into the 20th, The Hired Man is a richly fruited glimpse of a way of life long since passed. Howard Goodall’s melodies encompass a range of traditional English sources, as the musical’s narrative charts a transition in the nation’s working men (and women), from open-skied agriculture to coal-consuming heavy industry against a backdrop of The Great War.

Brendan Matthew makes a decent job of the libretto’s vast landscape. From the opening Song of the Hired Men, both the time and the place of the show are firmly anchored as we chart the titular John Tallentire’s arc through a challenging life and love.

Playing Tallentire is Ifan Gwilym-Jones who convinces as the muscular man of the land, far happier behind a plough than a coal pick, but ultimately forced to work the pits when the money for labourers dries up above ground. Gwilym-Jones possesses a fine voice, never stronger than in the first half denouement of What A Fool I’ve Been which is spine-tingling in its intensity. Elsewhere though (and along with many other members of the company) his voice is hard to hear - and this from a reviewer sat in the front row! Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre is truly a beautiful off-West End performing space, but (and this has been said before) producers need to mic their casts if many of these well trained voices are even to be heard, let alone appreciated. 

Opposite Gwilym-Jones, Rebecca Gilliland plays Emily his wife, bringing a focussed energy to a role that draws on complex emotions. Gilliland has a presence (and vocal power) that commands the stage and she makes fine enthusiastic work of Now For The First Time, along with the far more challenging If I Could. She also cleverly enlivens the complex passions that burn inside one of Goodall’s most intriguing leading ladies, not least in a heartfelt I Wouldn't be the First.

Notable amongst the company is Jack McNeill who captures the pre-teen and teenage youthfulness of the Tallentire’s son Harry, while at the opposite end of the age spectrum Christopher Lyne turns in all manner of magnificently voiced cameos, playing the story’s older men.

Jonathan Carlton puts in a fabulous shift as Seth, John Tallentire’s brother who becomes a committed Trade Unionist, fighting for miners’ workplace safety. As a history lesson The Union Song does well to remind us of the honourable, proud and decent principles that were once at the core of the Labour movement. There’s yet more history on offer with the show’s reference to the First World War. Goodall’s heartfelt chords (and that sublime key change) in Farewell Song will always make a loving tribute to those who never returned, even more so this year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the horrific Battle of Passchendaele.

Matthew’s direction is at its best in the ensemble numbers where Charlotte Tooth’s imaginative choreography supported by her lithe and graceful dance captain Rebecca Withers offer up some of the finest movement currently to be found on London’s fringe. The Union space is compact and in the show’s large routines that take place in the market square, the tavern and especially The Work Song, Tooth’s work is a visual treat.

At the keyboard Richard Bates works hard directing his two strings players. Goodall’s northern English tunes typically work best with a spot of brass, but notwithstanding this gap the musical accompaniment was polished and perfectly delivered.

The Hired Man makes for a pleasing evening’s entertainment and if some dodgy sound and lighting cues can be ironed out, this show may well yet mature into a truly fine production.

Runs until 12th August 2017
Photo credit: PND Photography

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Fiddler on the Roof - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joseph Stein
Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories
Directed by Daniel Evans

Emma Kingston and Louis Maskell

Any large scale production of Fiddler on the Roof is always worth a visit. In 1972 the show capped Broadway’s Golden Era by becoming New York’s (then) longest running musical and it has continually retained a global affection for its charming yet honest depiction of Jewish life in the small Russian village of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century. 

So with Daniel Evans settling in as Chichester’s Artistic Director and building upon the acclaim of recent years for his Sheffield revivals of Show Boat and Anything Goes (both 5* raves on this site), has he achieved the same glory with his shtetl shtick? The answer is, not quite.

Omid Djalili steps up to the pivotal role of Tevye the milkman. Married to Golde and with 5 daughters (3 of marriageable age) Djalili captures a hen-pecked, hardworking weariness of the poor pious family man who dreams of maybe, just a small fortune. Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics deserved their 1965 Tony. His perceptive writing captured not only Tevye’s grappling with the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, they also masterfully caught his humour, his despair, his pride and above all his love for his wife and daughters. 

Djalili is first and foremost a comedian and as a lookalike for Zero Mostel (who created the role on Broadway) he’s unmatched. If you’ve seen those classic images over the years of Tevye, prayer-shawl whirling, dancing in ecstasy to If I Were A Rich Man, or To Life, then Djalili more than delivers.

But whilst he does serve up most of what makes a strong Tevye, Djalili fails to grasp the essential self-deprecating irony that underscores much of Jewish humour and also mangles moments that should be of the deepest pathos. As his younger daughter Hodel leaves him to journey to fiancé Perchik, banished to Siberia, she says to her father that “God alone knows when we will meet again”. The moment should be a heartbreaker, but amidst overplayed steam train sound effects and a rushed speech, Djalili mutes the tragedy.

Opposite Djalili, Tracy-Ann Oberman makes her musical theatre debut as Golde and it shows. Whilst she convinces as a deeply loving mother, Oberman’s singing is lacklustre. And what on earth was Evans thinking when he instructed her to speak with a cod-Russian accent?

Elsewhere though  there is theatrical magnificence. Emma Kingston and Louis Maskell as Hodel and Perchik are quite simply a committed and passionate delight. Their growing love is tangible and one only wishes that the libretto could have offered Hodel more of a solo platform to enjoy Kingston’s perfectly weighted voice.  

There is solid work too from Jos Slovick’s Motel, with Gareth Snook turning in a decidedly creepy Lazar Wolf, the widowed old butcher with an eye for Simbi Akande’s Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest, as his next wife.

Tevye’s Dream is a delight. Amidst a whirl of trap doors and cranes, Mia Soteriou’s Grandma Tzeitel makes us chuckle affectionately, while Laura Tebbutt’s brilliantly camped up cameo as Fruma Sarah will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous stuff as high above the stage, Tom Brady's 14 piece orchestra make fine work of Jerry Bock's luscious score.

So while Chichester’s flawed Fiddler may not be one for the purists, it’s still a finely executed piece of musical theatre. And for those who've never seen this Broadway classic, Daniel Evans’ production is a must-see.

Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday, 16 July 2017

X & Y - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London


Written and directed by Melina Namar and Jessica Manu

In 2011 Beyoncé Knowles proclaimed in a mightily catchy hook that girls run the world, a far cry of course from James Brown's 1966 declaration that "This is a man’s world”. Whatever the truth of the matter, fast forward to 2017 and everyone seems to be a little bit lost. The topic of gender seems to continually be at the forefront of our cultural narrative, with the ever-shifting paradigm of what it truly means to be a man or a woman or indeed neither, in the modern era.

So it was that under the Lyric Hammersmith’s Open Mic banner and for one night only, Melina Namdar and Jessica Manu offered a fascinating glimpse into bringing these complex issues to the surface. Featuring a series of short, modern scenarios facing both men and women, the evening ranged from such first-world tribulations as swiping through Tinder, to the harder hitting and more volatile issues of abortion and rape. There was much here to fuel provocative thought and debate.

Overall, the show was a mixed bag. Some moments were harrowingly true and effective, hitting the right notes in terms of both gravitas and comedic astuteness. Elsewhere however, aspects seemed slightly contrived though this may well derive from the piece’s structure, compressing enormous issues into tantalisingly brief performance windows. X&Y clearly has a powerful message but it needs to expand its characters’ story lines and give more context to their plight as individuals.

What was undeniable however was the young performing talent that gives the play its authenticity and energy.  Michael Ajih’s honest portrayal of a young man who suffers a traumatic event and is subsequently confronted by a therapist to talk about his experience, has an incredible impact.  The hesitation and build up as he overcame his reluctance to talk, was both moving and credible.

Another stand out performance was Thea Mayeux as a woman confronted with a manipulative and ultimately bad apple of a partner, whose true colours are revealed when she informs him that she’s pregnant. Mayeux’s ability to convey emotional distress with a simple yet effective glazed look in her eyes as she realised her dire situation was immense. A captivating performance that left a considerable impression.

Melina Namar and Jessica Manu have put together a stellar group of young actors and created a piece of theatre that asks questions and explores issues, rarely depicted on stage. If X&Y is any indicator to go by, look out for their future productions.

Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Brexodus! - Review

The Other Palace, London


Composed by Frederick Appleby and Russell Sarre
Libretto by David Shirreff
Directed by Lucy Appleby

Airlie Scott as Theresa May

The performances in Brexodus! are, for the most part, top notch – it’s only a shame that the written material doesn’t quite match up to the acting talent on stage. Over a lengthy two hours the talented cast of 5 offer up a whirlwind tour of the political issues that have gripped the nation since early last year.

The show’s lampooning takes no prisoners, placing all our current political figures squarely in its sights. However, whilst Brexodus! takes aim at politicos of all sides, David Shirreff’s sentiments are resolutely Remain. By all means mock political life (and heaven knows post June 8th, it merits mockery even further) but when the balance tips towards bias, the evening ultimately evolves into little more than an immaculate and polished professional performance of a schoolboy script.

The performances are memorable. Paul Croft turns in an excellent Nigel Farage, Recip Erdogan and Lord Heseltine (amongst many others) with their identifiable traits honed to perfection. Croft’s rock-star/communist interpretation of Jeremy Corbyn is cutely chuckle worthy – but the text’s lack of reference to Corbyn’s long avowed contempt for the EU was perhaps an overly convenient omission by Shirreff?

Airlie Scott as the only woman on stage offers up a wonderful Theresa May, as well as a strikingly believable Sarah Vine (aka Mrs Michael Gove). James Sanderson’s blustering take on a buffoon-like Boris is instantly recognisable – but by the second act the novelty of his cycle helmeted garb has worn off. Also Sanderson’s take on Trump needs to shake off its orange-faced clumsiness.

Technically Frederick Appleby’s piano work is crisp and the cast have clearly been rehearsed into a polished performance of pinpoint timing – brava Lucy Appleby.

The words may be as clichéd as the caricatures are good, but while you’re unlikely to cry with laughter, there’s much in the show to chuckle at.

Paul Croft as Jeremy Corbyn

Runs until 15th July

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Tempest - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by  Gregory Doran

Simon Russell Beale and Jenny Rainsford

In just seven days it has been possible to catch the RSC doing what they do best - offering an insight into Shakespeare’s profound understanding of the breadth of the human condition. At Stratford last week Titus Andronicus evidenced man’s capacity to wreak bloody revenge. This week with The Tempest, we observe the power of forgiveness.

In a literally magical production, the London transfer of Stratford upon Avon's 2016 hit sees Simon Russell Beale as Prospero shipwrecked on an enchanted island in the Med, with only his daughter Miranda to accompany him and a library of books and spells. 

Also resident on the island are Caliban, a hulkingly ugly witch’s son and Ariel, a spirit, both of whom are under Prospero’s spell - and as the (literally fantastic) story unfolds we learn of Dukedoms usurped, resentments nurtured, smouldering love and passionate jealousies.

What makes Greg Doran’s production soar is a virtually seamless marriage of some of the finest acting to be found, alongside breathtaking 21st century technology. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stage design is magnificent - the entire play taking place within the massive gaping ribs of a shipwreck’s hull. Onto these perished timbers, The Imaginarium Studios and Finn Ross project digital creations which through a combination of both ingenious imagery and the screens onto which their work is projected, breathe a supernatural life into the island.

Russell Beale’s Prospero is wise and measured, with the actor’s hallmark twang of wry exasperation giving a lilting cadence to some of Shakespeare's most beautiful verse. Jenny Rainsford as Miranda is a young woman brimming with desire. Her joy on first encountering the subsequently shipwrecked Ferdinand, the King’s son played by Daniel Easton is almost palpable and the love that evolves between the couple, albeit within the confines of a tale based on magical whimsy, is entirely plausible.

As the grotesquely piscatorial Caliban, replete with flapping fish, Joe Dixon’s spinally exo-skeletal costume could almost have been designed by H.R.Giger. Dixon captures Caliban’s slow-witted complexities perfectly, while as Ariel, the bodysuited, lithe Mark Quartley turns in a performance that is as acrobatic as it is stunningly empathetic. Excelling throughout, in a performance that blends bewilderingly believably into the digital domain Quartley’s understated elation as Ariel receives his liberty in the final act, is a celebration of sensitivity.

While all of the performances are spot on, there’s a niggle in the casting of Jonathan Broadbent as Antonio. He may well be Prospero’s brother, but the significant age gap between the performers makes that particular conceit hard to grasp. There must however be a mention for the outstanding soprano work from Elly Condron, Jennifer Witton and Samantha Hay as Iris, Juno and Ceres respectively, who only add a further degree of enchantment to the consecration of Miranda and Ferdinand’s union.

Paul Englishby’s music and Lucy Cullingford’s movement alongside the production’s stunning sound and lighting only add to what is yet another work of excellence from the RSC.

Runs until 18th August 2017
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Friday, 7 July 2017

King Kong A Comedy - Review

The Vaults, London


A comedy by Daniel Clarkson
Directed by Owen Lewis

Brendan Murphy and Sam Donnelly

Ridiculous, slightly bizarre, but also just a little bit brilliant - this is Owen Lewis and Daniel Clarkson’s delightfully comic spin on Hollywood’s classic tale of adventure, love, wonder and, of course, bananas.

Set beneath Waterloo in The Vaults, the venue’s underground ambience feeds into the play, allowing the audience to get lost in the silliness. The character of the movie’s Carl Denham is deliciously played for wonderful parody, with Rob Crouch giving Jack Black more than a run for his money. Also bound for the ominous Skull Island are Jack Driscoll, played here by Ben Chamberlain who’s a considerably less smooth operator and hero than Adrien Brody. Chamberlain’s Driscoll is more like Eugene from Grease, only this time with a fear of everything under the sun! Sam Donnelly plays the skipper, while Brendan Murphy puts in a manic turn as Token Guy, a vital crew member and component to the plot who will most certainly not wind up dead.

The love interest has always fuelled the complex passions of King Kong and at The Vaults it's Alix Dunmore who takes on the tragic responsibilities of Anne. Dunmore does a delightful job in poking fun at the misogynistic overtones of the time, steering the hapless crew in the right direction on their doomed quest.

The show broadly follows the famed plot with just some slight tweaks that only add to the overall hilarity. It’s a short and sweet piece of comedic joy with some bananas and some clueless primates thrown in for good measure. The show even manages to tug the heartstrings, with the King Kong’s fabled climax, proving to be a surprisingly effective ending, even when staged on a micro-budget.

Be it beauty, planes or the concrete of 5th Avenue, whatever it was that killed the beast, this King Kong will leave you roaring with laughter. 

Runs until 27th August
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Titus Andronicus - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blanche McIntyre

David Troughton

Blanche McIntyre strives to give an aura of political correctness to her take on the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays - but she misses the point. Titus Andronicus is always going to be more about its final act’s Imperial Bake-Off than it will ever be about the failings of society. 

A lengthy mise-en-scene featuring masked social justice warriors protesting about “Austerity” drags the Roman setting to 21st century Britain. As an amuse-bouche it’s certainly well choreographed, (suggesting at times the Crapshooters’ Ballet from Guys and Dolls) but McIntyre protests too much, methinks. However hard a director’s moral compass may point her to dress up Titus Andronicus with a worthy polemic, one must remember that it remains little more than a 16th Century Carry On caper. Misogyny, mutilation, rape and murder drive the narrative, with a degree of violence that by today’s standards would be both offensive and gratuitous.

That’s not to say Titus Andronicus  shouldn't be performed. It merits its place in the canon, but for all McIntyre’s worthy endeavours she’s still delivered a play that treats women abominably and other than, perhaps, Aaron’s scheming lies being labelled as “Fake News”, has little real comment to offer upon today’s events, however broken our world may be perceived to be.

David Troughton is a strong and forceful Titus. His love for Rome is unquestioning as he carries the role of weathered warrior magnificently.  We share his grief and he wins our sympathy as he pursues his own path in this most vengefully vicious circle. Likewise Martin Hutson’s Saturninus is appropriately oleaginous - there’s shades of any politician you may care to think of in his performance, but understand that any such resemblance is fleeting and barely more than superficial. 

Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is a curious casting. Gwynne captures the complex essence of Tamora’s maternal vengeance, and in the final act her portrayal of Revenge is truly ethereal - but she lacks the sex-fuelled stature of a Tamora who’s as capable of seducing Saturninus as she is to wantonly surrendering to Aaron.

Stefan Adegbola and Nia Gwynne

McIntyre is on record as having been kept “awake at night” (and rightly so) that the play’s violence against women is portrayed responsibly, but only in some very small part she has succeeded. Tamora’s wincing (was this an aspect of sisterly concern for Lavinia?) as her sons violently ravished the helpless young woman seemed contrived, as if to suit McIntyre’s agenda rather than define Tamora’s credibility. And again, in the play’s endgame, one might have hoped that McIntyre, as a modern woman, may have offered some tiny moral slant on Titus’ slaying of his daughter as worthy of some critique for the despicable “honour killing” that it truly is, rather than let it flash by in the melee of mealtime madness.

Where McIntyre has offered some new insight is in her use of the supernatural. The spirits of Titus’ dead sons Quintus and Marcius appear often, not least in the scene where Titus overpowers and captures Chiron and Demetrius, assisted by the two dead brothers’ bloodied but muscular ghosts. In a scene that is often hard to explain technically (just how does the old Titus come to overpower two fit and strapping young lads?) McIntyre makes it work. The ghost of Alarbus also appears in a final moment that offers a jolt reminiscent of the closing shock of Stephen King’s Carrie, hinting at the never ending cycle of Rome’s revenging curse.

Hannah Morrish’s Lavinia is a charming if emotionally muted interpretation. Bereft of tongue and hands, the role will always be challenging and whilst Morrish garners our sympathy, were she to dig just a little deeper she’d make us weep. Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart (respectively Chiron and Demetrius) are recognisably modern day thugs. Both actors possess a lithe muscularity that supports their personae and they equally impress, suspended by their ankles, as Titus wreaks his vengeance upon their throats. There’s a hint of TV’s Nick Hewer (or maybe Theresa May’s husband Philip) to Patrick Drury’s Marcus where again, a little more depth might really show an avuncular love for the violated Lavinia.

Arguably the star turn of the night is Stefan Adegbola’s Aaron. His vocal work is perfection and with sparkling eyes and an amazing physicality, Adegbola truly suggests the diabolical, at the same time displaying a love for his bastard child that is as passionate as his contempt for those he ruthlessly despatches.

The lighting, music and design are fun and if there’s a minor niggle, its that the hardworking RSC techies still need to sort out the effectiveness some of the hidden blood bags (especially Bassianus’), where a clumsy special effect can easily shatter the hard won suspension of our disbelief 

The political treatment may be naive, but the merciless misogyny of Titus Andronicus is probably and sadly timeless in too many of today’s multi-cultured communities - it’s only a shame the programme notes don't highlight that particular observation.

Nonetheless, lavishly budgeted productions of Titus Andronicus don’t come along that often and so for that reason if no other, the show is worth a pie-packed trip to Stratford. Or why not book now to see it at the Barbican over Christmas, for a very alternative festive feast!

Runs until 2nd September

Broadcast live to cinemas on 9th August

Plays at the Barbican Theatre, London from 7th December 2017 until 19th January 2018

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks