Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Rivals - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Selina Cadell

Nicholas Le Prevost and Gemma Jones

Selina Cadell's take on The Rivals offers a traditionally costumed interpretation of Sheridan's Restoration Comedy that at three and a quarter hours in length demands commitment from its audience. That the programme's synopsis runs to two pages of closely printed text suggests a concern amongst the creative team that the audience may not be able to clearly follow the action on stage. 

Their anxiety is well founded. Good commedia demands more than affected shouting and for far too much of this play the dialog is foppishly bellowed. Meanwhile, for the sizeable constituent of the audience seated to the left and right of the Arcola's intimate thrust, nearly all of the scenic decoration along with much of the action is obscured from view. It makes for a long evening.

Amidst the tedium however there are nuggets of pure genius. The excellent Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Anthony Absolute defines his credentials as a master of his craft. His comic timing is impeccable, whilst his vocal work as the sputtering blustering knight is perfectly weighted. Opposite him, the far too rarely seen Gemma Jones glides gloriously through the gift of a role that is Mrs Malaprop. Perhaps the greatest female comic part in the classic English canon, Jones' powdered heaving d├ęcolletage provides visual enhancement that only cements her inspired characterisation. Imagine the late great comedy gem Mollie Sugden fused with Margaret Thatcher and you can start to comprehend the brilliant hilarity that Jones creates.

Elsewhere amidst the supporting players, Adrian McLoughlin as Sir Lucius O'Trigger is charmingly entertaining, whilst Carl Prekopp as both Fag and David is also fun to watch.

Elegantly performed chamber music supplements the scene changes, but it's not enough to suppress the boredom. Outstanding in parts for sure, but this production of The Rivals is strictly for enthusiasts and students.

Runs until November 15th 2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys - Review

Garrick Theatre,  London


Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman

l-r  Colman Domingo, Julian Glover and Forrest McClendon

A year after it wowed the critics in its London debut at the Young Vic, (see my 2013 review below) The Scottsboro Boys returns to cross the Thames. With many of the 2013 cast reprising their roles at the Garrick, the show's West End opening offers a rare privilege to re-review this 5-star treat, last year's Critics' Circle choice as Best Musical.

The Scottsboro Boys is written around a true 1930's travesty of justice that defined the hateful ugliness of America's Deep South. Eight black men and a boy, all of African American heritage, were falsely accused of raping two white women as their train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. Their subsequent conviction and death sentences polarised the USA. As the South was still licking its wounds barely 70 years after the Civil War, the North mounted a defence campaign that was to see 8 of the nine boys paroled. Parole, by its very nature, demands an admission of guilt and amidst a bevy of standout performances, it is Brandon Victor Dixon's Haywood Patterson, a man whose conscience couldn't permit him to utter a lie and who, defiantly, was to spend his life wrongly incarcerated, upon whom the story's spotlight falls.

Dixon is a long-established Broadway talent and having spent the last year listening to his voice on my iPhone in the NY cast recording, it is a privilege to witness him live. Patterson's journey carries the show and he bears his principled stand with passion, poignancy and perfect performance. The brilliant jazz-hands irony of his softly sung Nothing as he pleads his innocence, echoes the sardonic lyric of Kander and Ebb's Mr Cellophane from Chicago. The observations are as sharp, but this time there's no comedy.

The company are excellent throughout, with fellow Broadway imports Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon defining the harshest of satires as minstrel jesters Messrs Bones and Tambo, their gags making a pastiche of Vaudevilke. Deliberately corny, the clown-like versatility of these men and Domingo's comedy-horror rictus grin seal the brilliance of the genre.

The jarring perversity of Kander & Ebb telling this history story via a minstrel show, only serves to underline the perversion of justice to which Alabama subjugated itself as its rednecks bayed for the Boys' blood. The minstrel show's Interlocutor, 79yo veteran Brit Julian Glover, gives a performance that subtly combines majesty with a brilliantly understated bumbling ineptness. A man who believes passionately in what he perceives to be justice, yet who has also learned his racist views from childhood, carrying a sincerely held belief that black people are worth less than white. Glover's is an acting masterclass.

Elsewhere, excellence drips from this show. Broadway talent James T Lane, resplendent in frock and hat as Ruby Bates, one of the perjurious white women, dances across the stage with a movement that has to be believed. Susan Stroman, who has remained with the show since it's emergence off-Broadway back in 2010 has envisioned the ghastly tale magnificently, never bettered than in the slickly-sickly tap routine Electric Chair. A mention too for the brilliantly delivered tour of Fred Ebb's take on the South's music, played under Phil Cornwell's baton.

First time around, this review failed to pay sufficient respect to the character of The Woman, played by Dawn Hope, onstage almost throughout and saying nothing until the final scene. Consider (or google) Rosa Parks in history and it becomes abundantly clear how much of a cornerstone in the USA's Civil Rights movement The Scottsboro Boys became.

The Scottsboro Boys is unmatched on any London stage. As both a history lesson as well as a display of world-class stagecraft it stands apart. More than unmissable, if you care for humanity and appreciate some of the finest song and dance around, this show has to be seen.

Runs at until Saturday 21st February 2015

Later this month I shall be touring Scottsboro, Alabama and visiting The Scottsboro Boys Museum.

Follow me on Twitter @MrJonathanBaz for my upcoming writing about this visit.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music and original lyrics by Jacques Brel
Concept and English translations by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Directed by Andrew Keates

David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck and Daniel Boys

After the success of Andrew Keates' recent chamber adaptation of Dessa Rose at the Trafalgar Studios, he returns to direct this curiously titled show that treats its audience to a feast of haunting theatrical delight, executed with some sophistication. Brel was an acclaimed Belgian composer of theatrical songs. An acclaimed actor too and although destined to die tragically young at 49, his work was to influence a diverse selection of singers including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Marc Almond.

Daniel Boys and Gina Beck, both established names on London's West End, fare well in the simplicity and intimacy of this revue. Beck gives a sound performance accommodating the varied stylings of Brel’s work. One number, My Death, markig the stand out moment of her contribution. Boys’ vocal style affords him a secure performance, with his support distinctly noticeable in the larger numbers.

Eve Polycarpou, an increasingly familiar character on London’s stages, brings great depth of character to several of her songs, her Ne Me Quitte Pas, finely accompanied on guitar, being quite the standout of her set. David Burt’s approach to some of the more comic numbers within the piece is welcomed, with his Funeral Tango proving much the crowd pleaser.

Keates’ direction provides a cohesive narrative and flow to this varied revue of song and style, but there are times when Sam Spencer Lane’s choreography, although often imaginative, can fail to enhance both plot and staging. Chris de Wilde's design provides a sparse yet characterful set, boasting flavours of forgotten drama, whilst Dean Austin’s delightful 5 piece onstage band supports well, providing a dutifully decadent Parisian atmosphere.

This eclectic show, from a writer not broadly known in the mainstream, proves to be a bijou gem that is, in parts, quite charming. Performed and executed by a talented cast and creative team, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris offers a genuinely intriguing look into Brel's work. It is well worth a visit.

Runs until 22nd November

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Gypsy - Review

Chichester, Festival Theatre


Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Imelda Staunton

Vaudeville is dying in 1920’s America. Against that backdrop and to Arthur Laurents’ book, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim have penned one of the bleakest yet most beautiful musicals ever. Gypsy, set in the Great Depression, charts Momma Rose’s manic depression, who as the pushiest of parents sets out to channel her own fading dream of showbiz stardom, through the lives of her daughters.

Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose defines the role. She and Jonathan Kent have previous of course, with her Mrs Lovett in his Sweeney Todd proving Chichester's 2011 sensation, going on to win her an Olivier the next year on its West End transfer. This remarkable actress offers a totality of commitment, in movement, voice and emotion that proves a truly rare trinity. As well as the most complex of paths to pathos, Staunton also finds the humour that Sondheim subtly weaves into his prose, with Small World in particular proving a delight. It is of course in the delivery of those massive numbers Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn, that Staunton proves herself beyond compare amongst her generation.

The impact of the abusive emotional neglect that Momma Rose heaps on her daughters is brought into painful relief by Lara Pulver as the over-shadowed Louise and by Gemma Sutton (a name increasingly associated with exquisite performances) as her spotlight-addicted sister June. Pulver’s portrayal of Louise, continually being overlooked in favour of her sibling, is never once overplayed by the actress. As vaudeville dies and Momma Roses pushes the shy Louise into the spotlight as a small town burlesque stripper, Pulver gives one of the most poignant segues ever, as the brutatlity of her mother’s pushing evolves into the tender, initially damaged response of the daughter. Oh and her voice in the glorious penultimate number Let Me Entertain You, is heavenly. Alongside and as a hangdog Herbie, a complex man desperately out to win Rose’s love, Kevin Whateley, a name not often associated with musical theatre convinces us of his commitment to Rose’s dream.

Other notable gems in this jewel box of a cast are Dan Burton’s Tulsa whose grace in both voice and dance wows in All I Need Is The Girl, whilst (the almost) veteran Louise Gold as Mazeppa plays the most world-weary of strippers who’s seen it all and proves as much, leading a gloriously sleazy line in You Gotta Get A Gimmick. And a salute too for young Georgia Pemberton, whose presence, dance and baton twirling brilliance as the Young June is an absolute treat.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is incisive and beautifully conceived. His company work is a joy throughout, with the meticulously managed “mediocrity” of Broadway, as Rose’s vaudevillian hoofers bungle their way through a routine, proving to be a classy confection.

The design by Anthony Ward neatly combines marquee lights with the drabness of assorted downtowns, whilst directly beneath the stage the most gloriously proportioned pit, being used here for the first time in the newly rebuilt venue, accommodates Nicholas Skilbeck’s fifteen piece (predominantly brass) band. Styne’s score is given a truly thrilling treatment, with the Overture alone setting spines tingling.

The good people of Chichester are spoiled with the flawless perfection of this show. As Gypsy demands all from Imelda Staunton, so too does theatre demand that this production reaches a wider audience. Go see Gypsy – Its haunting perfection will stay with you for a long time.

Runs until 8th November 2014 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Damn Yankees - Review

Landor Theatre, London


Words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallopp
Directed by Robert McWhir

Poppy Tierney
There is genius at work in Clapham North as the Landor Theatre’s creative powerhouse of Robert McWhir alongside choreographer Robbie O’Reilly, again combine to make theatrical magic from a once charming tale of Faustian compromise, set in 1950’s Washington DC.

In a time when the New York Yankees dominated US baseball, Damn Yankees explores the frivalous scenario of Joe Boyd, a middle-aged overweight fan of rivals, the Washington Senators, striking a pact with the Devil to be transformed into a youthful athlete, get signed by the Senators and lead his team to victory over the (damn) Yankees. This slight story, often ridiculous, fails to pass muster in the modern era however, but as can be so often the case, the devil really is in the delicious detail of this show.

Satanically stealing every scene is Jonathan D Ellis' devilish Mr Appleyard, For a fringe production, Ellis' immaculately tailored shiny suit is worth the ticket price alone. His presence, voice and charisma are just a delight, whilst in his solo, Those Were The Good Old Days he single-handedly re-defines the eleven o'clock number. Partnering Appleyard is his infernal accomplice Lola played by Poppy Tierney, herself only recently seen on this side of the Styx in Newbury’s The Witches of Eastwick. Tierney, whose lipstick and outfits are as red as her name, looks as good as she acts, as good as she sings. Appealing to every red-blooded male in the house, she drapes herself around Boyd, desperately trying to lead him into temptation as her big solo, a tango-themed Whatever Lola Wants is not far short of meriting the great Charles Spencer's description of "pure theatrical Viagra".

For those whose preference is to gaze upon the well formed male physique, there is talented eye-candy in abundance. The act one reprise of Heart, set in the Senators’ locker room and sung by the team clad scantily only in towels, is delivered with such polished provocative gusto that one wonders if it had been rehearsed in a Chariots sauna.

The company work is a delight throughout. Nova Skipp is tenderly and plausibly menopausal as Joe's deserted wife Meg, whilst veteran newcomer Gary Bland gives a solid performance as Joe, coming to realise he ultimately loves his devoted wife more than his beloved baseball team. Amongst the newly graduated cast members Alex Lodge as the transformed "younger" Joe makes the best of a sugary-sweet role, whilst Elizabeth Futter puts in a fine turn as a journalist who suspects that there is more to young Joe than meets the eye.

But away from the stage and aside from Ellis and Tierney, the real stars of this strangely enchanting piece are McWhir and O‘Reilly. With more than a nod to Fosse and confidently underpinned by Michael Webborn’s three piece band this production's dance work, already Offie nominated, is a breathtaking delight. The plot of Damn Yankees may be unremarkable, but these performances are unmissable.

Runs until 8th November 2014

Friday, 10 October 2014

Urinetown - Review

Apollo Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book & lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Jonathan Slinger

After a successful three year run on Broadway a decade ago and a recent stint at London’s St James’ Theatre, Urinetown finally makes it to the West End. Set in a dystopian, drought-ridden future where corporations control the only toilets and the down at heel population must pay for the ‘privilege to pee’, Urinetown’s producers must be wondering what will put audiences off first – its title or its subject matter. It would be a great shame if either did because this is a seriously funny, subversively witty show. (And actually, Greg Kotis’ knowing script gets that joke in long before any reviewer has thought of it. Breaking the fourth wall at will, Jonathan Slinger’s deliciously degenerate narrator, Police Officer Lockstock, tells us that nothing kills a show like ‘too much exposition’. ‘How about a terrible title?’ asks local urchin Little Sally).

Weaving the broadest slapstick humour into a grim, highly relevant and perhaps portentous Malthusian tale, Urinetown is a musical that never stops poking fun at its own genre and unlike so many of that ilk, resists the temptation to eventually embrace its clich├ęs in the final act. Driving it all along is Mark Hollmann’s excellent score – ranging from gospel pastiche, to rousing ‘Les Mis’ chorus – and witty lyrics. Some of the songs may be a little forgettable, but they’re still perfectly pitched within the show.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction, aided by Soutra Gilmour’s wonderfully dingy design, is razor sharp and Ann Yee’s choreography is at times a comic masterclass all of its own. Musical director Alan Williams deliverers not just an excellent band, but also, in the big second act showstopper ‘Run, Freedom, Run’, quite simply some of the tightest and most polished chorus singing to be found on a West End stage.

The cast is of the very highest quality – Jenna Russell is predictably wonderful as the fearsome gatekeeper of the urinal Miss Pennywise, while Slinger's Lockstock relishes many of the best lines. Karis Jack’s Little Sally and Mark Meadows’ sleazy senator deserve special mentions, as does an exceptionally strong ensemble.

Urinetown is modern musical theatre at its very best.

Booking to 24th January 2015 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Urinetown - Charity Gala Feature

Jenna Russell in Urinetown

It’s on Monday October 20th supporting, for where Urinetown is a hilarious and satirical musical set in a futuristic, dystopian society where the Earth's water supply has been depleted, therefore making private toilets unthinkable and against the law, THERE IS A REAL GLOBAL WATER CRISIS, that we, in rainy, temperate, Northern Europe, are spared. 

Urinetown may be a dark comedy but the Water Crisis facts are the grimmest, bleakest of realities:

780 million people in the world lack access to safe water. 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation.

1 in 9 people don’t have safe water to drink. 1 in 4 doesn’t have a toilet.

Every minute at least one child dies due to a water-related illness.

More people in the world have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.

This special gala performance celebrates the beginning of a long-term fundraising collaboration between Urinetown and Urinetown will be donating proceeds from the gala to the nonprofit organization, as well as providing ongoing support in conjunction with its West End run. 

“ welcomes Urinetown’s support to share our vision of a world where everyone has access to safe drinking water and can experience the dignity of a toilet,” says co-founder Gary White…

…whilst Jamie Lloyd, the show’s acclaimed director adds “The best sort of theatre engages directly with the world.  It may be great fun, but it should also be vital and apposite, and perhaps, instigate a broader discussion.  Urinetown’s dystopian future does not have to be a prediction unless we make it so.  We are delighted that the production can assist the mission of whilst keeping its audience laughing along the way.” 

Tickets for the Gala range from a very reasonable £29.50, through to a £125 premium splash, that gets you into the afterparty too. If it wasn’t such a bargain, you’d think they were taking the piss!!

You can buy the tickets here: