Monday, 18 June 2018

Accidental Feminist - Review

Above The Arts, London


Kira Morsley

At London’s Above the Arts Theatre and for one night only, Kira Morsley was on top form during her solo cabaret show, telling a packed audience of how she accidentally became a feminist.

The Offie-nominated vocal powerhouse took to the stage for over an hour, delighting with anecdotes from her childhood growing up in Australia, of being bullied, working in an industry where image is important, and her experiences of being a woman. Now she’s a feminist who takes pride in her appearance, who loved both My Little Pony and Transformers as a child and didn’t realise there were differences between men and women (besides the obvious) until she was in her teens.

Accompanied by musical director Rhiannon Drake on keyboard, Morsley’s song choices neatly accompanied her tales and featured a number of showtunes including There Are Worse Things I Could Do from Grease; Little Known Facts from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (used to describe “mansplaining”) and amusingly The Internet Is For Porn from Avenue Q, to reinforce how the media defines what is considered sexy. She also took inspiration from Sara Bareilles, performing King Of Anything and the inspiring Brave.

A highlight of the evening was Waving Through a Window from Dear Evan Hansen, performed so beautifully and emotively that the audience were in need of the interval that followed to compose themselves. Morsley was pitch perfect throughout the show and it is clear to see that she belongs on stage.

“Women are speaking out and we’re actually getting heard,” Morsley said towards the end of her performance. And while the show was for the most part very well directed by Geri Allen, it might perhaps have benefited from a few more anecdotes from Morsley's life and her actual experiences with feminism. 

The evening was inspirational, seeing a successful production from a woman who is clearly comfortable in her own skin.Having once wanted to be a surgeon, Morsley admitted that that choice would have led her into a predominantly male profession. Thankfully, what might have been the world of medicine’s loss has been musical theatre’s gain.

Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington

Sunday, 17 June 2018

It's Only Life - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by John Bucchino
Conceived by Daisy Prince and John Bucchino
Directed by Tania Azevedo

The cast of It's Only Life

What happens if you throw together 23 songs, five musical theatre performers, a pianist, and tons of colour? The answer is It’s Only Life, a musical review based on several ‘orphan songs’ (John Bucchino’s own description) interwoven to create a fun production about love and life. With the American songwriter’s work having been performed by numerous stars of stage and screen, including Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli and Art Garfunkel, It’s Only Life was assembled in 2004 to tie this collection of music and lyrics together within a framework that provides context and a semblance of narrative.

The result is a firmly entertaining showcase put on through excellent casting and an outstanding ensemble. The cast of five have a genuine chemistry that shines through a polished veneer. Tight choreography and blended vocals are coupled well with complementary set and lighting design. As the cast weave in and out of different characters and dynamics, emotions and energy levels, with each number bringing a distinct identify to the stage, the Union Theatre’s compact railway arch location amplifies the sense of intimacy created by the score.

Under Nick Barstow’s direction, the music is beautifully delivered, but more impressive is his ability to deliver on the piano throughout the performance with increasing fervour and bite. The score is challenging, and the influence of Sondheim (cited on several occasions throughout) is more than evident. Bucchino’s compositions are demanding, fast paced and smart, holding the performers to a high level of accountability, which they achieve admirably. 

Yet it takes a while to get going. While the first half is enjoyable, the quality and energy of deliver is noticeably supercharged after the interval, bringing the production to a roaring crescendo. The most memorable numbers either have heart or humour - or in some cases both - such as On My Bedside Table (Will Carey), This Moment (Sammy Graham) and I’ve Learned To Let Things Go (Jennifer Harding).

It’s all very sweet, if not just a tad too sickly towards the end, when the message about simply enjoying life gets laid on a bit too enthusiastically, free of any subtleties. There’s also a bit of audience participation which, despite its best intentions, feels slightly disjointed and overall unnecessary.

Nonetheless, this remains a delightfully poignant evening that imbues a buoyancy and zest for life.

Runs until 7th July
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday, 11 June 2018

Julie - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Polly Stenham after Strindberg
Directed by Carrie Cracknell

Eric Kofi Abrefa and Vanessa Kirby

Polly Stenham’s Strindberg straddles the centuries as she translates Miss Julie from 1800s Scandinavia to a modern-day mansion on the fringes of Hampstead Heath. Retaining the original's core themes, this iteration finds the eponymous Julie as the privileged, entitled daughter of an ever-absent millionaire father and a mother who committed suicide during her childhood. The show opened in London last week, not long after the tragic news had been reported of two millionaire celebrities apparently taking their own lives - Strindberg’s commentary on the depressive loneliness that can reach into the elite’s gilded cages is resonant and timely. 

Vanessa Kirby is Julie. Deemed as irresponsible - her personal fortune locked away in trust funds – she is a woman in her 30s who has never been allowed to mature. She glitters on the surface but there is a gaping hole in her deserted soul and like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, her parties are attended by nameless people whose connections are devoid of care or compassion for their hostess.

Jean is Julie’s father’s chauffeur who’s also on duty as the hired muscle to keep the house free from being trashed during Julie's birthday celebrations. Eric Kofi Abrefa's Jean drives the play’s tragic arc as he smoulders with a credible, irresistible  attractiveness.

Completing the triangle of devastation is Thalissa Teixeira’s Kristina, Jean’s fiancee. Her finely nuanced grief, upon discovering her betrayal by her betrothed, is truly heartbreaking. 

The one act play runs just short of ninety minutes, brevity, as it transpires, that is much appreciated. As director Carrie Cracknell opts for style over substance, her production could well set the august Strindberg spinning in his grave. In an almost mirror image of the amorality of Julie’s casual affluence, the play drips with theatrical opulence that smaller theatre companies will only look at and marvel. The National Theatre have cast 20 (20!)  non-speaking partygoers in addition to the trio of protagonists, actors who spend nearly all of the show offstage. Likewise designer Tom Scutt’s trompe-l’oeil in the final scene is so lavish as to detract from Strindberg’s originally conceived harrowing denouement.

There is a very gory moment late on involving a food processor. Such is the extent of that violent incident (clearly and evidently a special effect) that many of the audience are moved to laugh out loud at its gratuitous excess - and in an instant the tragic drama of the moment is lost. If ever there was a production that proves “less is more” then this is it, such is the opportunity squandered amidst such budgetary extravagance.

But the tenets of the tale remain, as Stenham assuredly illustrates the complexities of power, wealth, race and gender. Julie may well be far from a definitive interpretation of Strindberg's classic, but nonetheless makes for an evening of thought-provoking theatre.

Runs until 8th September
Photo credit: Richard H Smith

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Return To The Forbidden Planet - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Music and lyrics by various artists
Book by Bob Carlton
Directed by John Plews

Simon Oskarsson and company

In what is the first staging of Return To The Forbidden Planet since the death of its creator Bob Carlton, John Plews has put together a production that captures the show’s irreverent spirit. It was Carlton who on watching the 1950s B-Movie Forbidden Planet, first spied the potential to create a trinity of cultural fusion – blending cliched Hollywood not only with Shakespeare, but with rock and roll too. 

In a story that is (very, very) loosely connected to The Tempest, Carlton threw into the pot every hackneyed Shakespearean quote, and then some more, together with some of the strongest songs from 50 and 60 years ago, resulting in an evening of unpretentious fun delivered by a company of actor-musicians.

With the Gatehouse configured in its compact traverse arrangement, simple scenic constructions suggest the spaceship Albatross upon which the action plays out. The plot is beyond credible description, though in all honesty no-one really cares as the corny links serve only as filler between each eagerly awaited number.

Plews’ cast is, for the most part, youthful - and it shows. For Return To The Forbidden Planet to really work, every vocal soloist needs to step out of their musical theatre training and immerse themselves in the persona of a guitar-smashing rock star. These songs were written for rock gigs, not seated sedentary sexagenarians – so when health and safety (and quite possibly a few doctors’ orders too) keep the Highgate audience firmly seated, it becomes beholden upon the cast to make the songs soar. To be fair, there are some glimpses of excellence amongst Plews’ company: Edward Hole’s Cookie gives a blistering take on She’s Not There complete with awesome guitar riff; Ellie Ann Lowe’s entrance and vocals as Gloria (and wow, those boots too!) are a cracker, while third year Arts Ed student Simon Oskarsson offers up a robotic Ariel that has to be seen to be believed, such is this young man’s impressive talent. (Has Arts Ed lecturer Mark Shenton been teaching him the moves?) A nod too for David Persiva's powerful percussion delivered from a lofty drum kit, that drives the show's tempo.

Its grins and tapping feet throughout, as Return To The Forbidden Planet’s return to the Gatehouse makes for a grand night out.

Runs until 17th June
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Killer Joe - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Simon Evans

Orlando Bloom

Arguably, the revival of a 25 year-old script is done for one of two reasons; either its excellent writing simply entertains, or it is pertinent to today’s societal trends. With Killer Joe, the rationale is unclear. Billed as a blackly comic thriller, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing at times, before switching into an almost farce that can surely not be the intended effect.

The titular Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom) is a detective by day and contract killer by night. Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) and his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) hatch a scheme to hire Joe to shoot Adele (Chris’ mother and Ansel’s ex-wife) and then cash in on her life insurance. Texan to his core and complete with cowboy hat, Joe wreaks havoc within the Smith family before even stepping inside their home.

Although it is Joe who sets the course for the tale, the story’s real focus is Chris’ sister Dottie (Sophie Cookson), an innocent twenty year old taken by the hitman as a retainer pending the life insurance payout. Ownership, agency and inequality are the dominant themes in the play, with the three intersecting most powerfully in the pawn-like Dottie. Cookson is found to be consistently captivating as she captures a young woman transitioning into adulthood.

Bloom unquestionably brings star power to the stage but it appears to takes him some time to get comfortable as Joe. During the second half however he comes more into his own, unleashing the dreadful power that has been quietly simmering below the surface. Elsewhere, Rhodri quietly shines, oscillating seamlessly between disinterest, flippancy and pain.

The other star of the show is its formidable creative trinity as sound, lighting and set designers conjoin to great effect. As a trailer park is neatly transposed on to the stage, the focal point of Grace Smart’s spectacular set is the Smith family home with an impressive depth and attention to detail that suggests authenticity throughout. Edward Lewis’ score and sound design complements the other elements of this production, despite its very occasional tendency to veer towards melodrama. Richard Howell’s lighting design is flashy (often quite literally) and precise.

Yet for all of this production's technical excellence Tracy Letts’ message remains unclear, with the onstage abuse of power proving to be as discomforting as it sounds. Even more jarring is the audience's laughter at such abuse. As today's headlines focus on morality and exploitation, it is hard to reconcile a truly menacing threat (even in dramatic fiction) being viewed as humour - and it is equally difficult to couch Killer Joe as either entertainment or art.

Runs until 18th August
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Translations - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ian Rickson

Colin Morgan

The National Theatre presents a gorgeous revival of Brian Friel’s Translations, a sweet play set in the wee parish of Baile Beag, Ireland, in 1830, just before the infamous potato famine and during the Anglicisation on the country. The plentiful foresight and the vibrant exploration of the beauty and challenges of language make it a play to catch this summer. Ian Rickson directs, with language quite rightly at the forefront, as Irish and English characters come to wordy blows with Colin Morgan’s Owen translating between the tongues. With most of the spoken Irish translated, it is left to the performers to make it abundantly clear just who has understood what, and to drive the play’s plentiful humour home. 

Owen, a worldly character for the time having lived six years in Dublin, returns home to a village that quite simply has not changed at all.  (Itself a sensation shared, quite possibly,  by every Londoner in the audience who heads “home” to rural parts every few months). He brings with him two British military cartographers, the uptight Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) and the more fanciful Lieutenant George Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Yolland is the typical Englishman abroad - incapable of handling his drink and immediately setting his sights on the local female talent, going on to create an unlikely corner of a love triangle with Owen’s lame brother Manus (a gentle portrayal from Seamus O’Hara) and the impressively ambitious Maire, played by Judith Roddy. With eyes on a boat across the Atlantic, Maire's wish is to escape calloused hands at the next harvest.

The two officers have come to survey the land for the six-inch-to-the-mile map being drawn up, and in so doing to Anglicise the renaming of local landmarks and disrupting the blissful peace of the locale. The brothers’ father is the drunken scholar and teacher Hugh, portrayed gruffly by CiarĂ¡n Hinds, who spends most of the play trading Greek poetry and myths with Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack Cassie who steals the show with a tearful confession towards the end of the second act.

Translations’ designs are by Rae Smith, herself theatre’s go-to rural scenescape guru of the moment, having only just created the shattered idyll for the Bridge Theatre’s Nightfall a mile or so down the Thames. Smith's designs clearly evoke the countryside's delightful chaos, suggesting  world that is akin to intruding upon a remote local pub in the middle of nowhere. A place where there are in-jokes and relationships only born out of  those who’ve known each other throughout their lives. Uplit lighting by National regular Neil Austin and violin filled morose sound by Ian Dickinson complete the eerie, mist-filled staging. 

It is rare to find a show so good-natured and yet ominous and academic, all at the same time. Come for the raucous humour by the comedy pairings of Aoife Duffin’s Bridget and Laurence Kinlan’s Doalty. Stay for the dramatic, dirty colonialism and the lesson in the pros and cons of multilingualism. Beautiful and daring, go see it.

Runs until 11th August
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

The Rink - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Adam Lenson

Gemma Sutton and Caroline O'Connor

To read my fascinating interview with Caroline O'Connor, in which she talks about leaving Broadway to return to The Rink after 30 years, click here

The Rink, now on at the Southwark Playhouse for a month, is one of those shows that defines the beautiful potential of London’s off-West End theatre scene. A little known musical from giants Kander and Ebb, its first outing in the capital some thirty years ago was to be sadly short-lived. Here however, amidst Southwark’s humble thrust and away from the multi-million pound expectations of the mainstream commercial sector, there is an opportunity for this glitter-ball of a show to spin and sparkle.

With faint echoes of Sondheim’s Follies and just a hint of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel too, the action plays out in a dilapidated roller coaster rink somewhere on America’s eastern seaboard. Anna Antonelli is selling the place that has been a family heirloom for generations and as the removals team arrive to clear away the decades of detritus amassed over the years, so too does daughter Angel, estranged from her mother for the past 7 years. Kander and Ebb are masters of applying perceptive wit to life’s humdrum highs and lows that define the human condition, and over the course of just one day The Rink’s narrative explores, through a series of flashbacked vignettes, these two women’s stories.

Skating across the decades, Caroline O’Connor and Gemma Sutton are mother and daughter respectively. Both performers at the top of their game, the pair bring vocal magnificence combined with an acting ability in both word and song, that can convey the subtlest of messages, with the finely nuanced denouement of the final act proving a masterclass from both. O’Connor’s casting adds a further sparkle to the show. Thirty years ago she was one of London’s earliest Angels and this return across the Atlantic, from Broadway’s Anastasia to the modesty of London’s fringe, is an artistic commitment not often seen in today’s hardened money-driven world. O’Connor has a personal heritage that draws on Ireland, England and Australia - but witness her Anna Antonelli and one could swear she’s got Italian DNA too, such is her mastery of the passion and quick one-liners that define her character’s robust resilience.

Six men make up a supporting ensemble - dipping in and out of roles as needed. They are all magnificent and convincing. Stewart Clarke shines as Anna’s long lost husband Dino and there are equally gorgeous turns from a patriarchal Ross Dawes and Ben Redfern as Lenny, a kindly nebbish who’s held a candle for Anna since they were both kids.

Producers Jack Maple and Brian Zeilinger have imbued the highest standards in The Rink. Adam Lenson’s direction is carefully observed, in what is unquestionably his finest work to date while the choreography from Fabian Aloise is breathtakingly audacious. What Aloise achieves in a tiny space, with six guys on skates has to be seen to believed, with the audience’s grins dissolving into whoops of delight. Likewise Bec Chippendale’s set design - complete with panelled floor is another marvel. Rarely is decrepitude so perfectly portrayed with Matt Daw’s ingenious lighting, Tardis-like, transporting this boardwalk fun palace back and forth through the years.

Jason Winter, Michael Lin & Ross Dawes

Sat hidden above the action, Joe Bunker’s band make fine work of this all too rarely heard score. Indeed, from this critic’s personal perspective, it has been a long, long while since seeing a show for the very first time has led to its tunes still being compulsively hummed the next morning!

Yet again, Southwark Playhouse are delivering an outstanding musical for a fraction of the price of a West End ticket. If you love the genre, it's unmissable.

Runs until 23rd June 2018
Photo credit: Darren Bell

To read my fascinating interview with Caroline O'Connor, in which she talks about leaving Broadway to return to The Rink after 30 years, click here