Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Carmen 1808 - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Georges Bizet
Arranged by Teddy Clements
Book and lyrics by Phil Willmott
Adapted from the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée

The Company
There’s a noble intent behind Phil Willmott’s Carmen 1808 that seeks to meld Bizet’s opera into a narrative inspired by Goya’s painting of Napoleon’s troops brutally firing on defenceless Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War of the early 19th century. 

Tinkering with greatness does, however, demand greatness from the tinkerer - and there is little that is great about this show. Bizet wrote his tunes for classical operatic voices and, aside from the sonorous charms of Alexander Barria (whose Royal Academy of Music training stands out a mile) as Goya sketching out the unfolding narrative, most of the other voices are lost in the Union’s un-mic’d melee. Rachel Lea-Gray in the title role puts in a fine shift but she’s found wanting in the Habanera.

In the right hands (and voices) opera’s classics can work spectacularly on the fringe but all too often in this show one is left with the distinct feeling that Willmott has done to Bizet’s melodies what Napoleon’s riflemen did to the helpless Spanish. There are occasional moments of redemption though as alongside Lea-Gray, Ellie Ann Lowe and Charlotte Haines put in solo turns that evidence their vocal skills.

Elsewhere there’s acting that at times is clichéd beyond belief - and quite why the French soldiers speak with stereotyped accents that are straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo defies comprehension. Just be grateful that Willmott didn't have his Spaniards speak like Manuel, the Fawlty Towers waiter. 

This all plays out on an imaginative set from Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, while Teddy Clements puts in sterling work on the keyboard to accompany the cast. And for those folk seeking a snatch of Bizet’s “hit tunes” (Willmott’s words) there’s a pre-recorded backing track (that’s disgracefully un-credited in the programme) to support the cast in choreographer Adam Haigh's toe-tapping flamenco-esque finale . Now That’s What I Call Carmen.

Runs until 10th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Cirque Berserk - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


Germaine Delbosq
There’s a gritty sense of unpretentious wonder at Cirque Berserk’s touring show, currently playing at the Peacock Theatre in central London. Forget that other show across town with its overpriced seats, in an oversized arena – this sensational circus couldn’t be more traditional if it tried.

2018 marks the 5th year that Zippos have sent their Berserk show on the road and the assembled talent is astonishing. There are neither live animals here, nor human freaks to be gawked at – rather a collection of ridiculously skilled individuals many of whom, literally, have circus in their blood.

Germaine Delbosq (a 12th generation circus performer) juggles fire – with her feet! And when she’s not doing that, alongside husband Gabriel she performs an astonishing routine that combines the pulse of flamenco with the hypnotic swing of Argentinian bolas.

Czech Toni (6th generation circus) throws knives at his 7th generation wife as she spins on a wheel; the Tropicana troupe soar through the air via the simple use of human bodies propelled from see-saws. Using only gravity and skill two men jump, sending a third man up to the height of the Peacock’s lighting gantries and landing him in a chair! In a truly wicked act, defying gravity is re-defined. 

There is loads more to enjoy, as between the acts Tweedy the Clown (1st generation, trained in circus skills after leaving school) delivers a cracking routine of classic physical comedy and slapstick. These gags and acts are centuries old and yet, in the hands (and legs and bodies) of this tremendous troupe, their acts seem timeless and eternal.

A nod to the 21st century comes with the finale to both acts as the Lucius Team's four motorcyclists, engines revving, enter a steel mesh sphere. Accelerating to 60mph the bikers weave a meticulously choreographed routine amongst themselves, with centimetres to spare. Death defying, literally.

The Lucius Team
At Cirque Berserk, with no special effects or illusions, what you see is what you get. Accessibly marketed (the top price at the Peacock will get you a restricted view at the Royal Albert Hall) this is a show that families can afford and all generations will enjoy. Prise your kids away from their screens – entertainment does not come more perfectly performed.

At the Peacock Theatre until 17th February, then on tour. Tour dates here
Photo credits: Piet Hein-Out

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Julius Caesar - Review

Bridge Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

David Calder
An immersive and ever roaming production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar should pique the interest of any Shakespeare sort-of-fan, but throw in a killer cast of some of TV’s most talented stars showing just why they’re reaching such successes and a stunning venue to boot and it becomes unmissable.

Nicholas Hytner’s production has an almost politically apocalyptic setting with its nods to the controversial leaders of today, complete with excessive red flags, branded red baseball caps and mist growing steadily as we stumble with the characters into chaos. This setting is completed by the standing audience staring up at the moving stages, bustled about by urgent stage managers and roaring insults, chants and CAESAR! with the cast members. 

The powerhouse cast includes Ben Whishaw as a complex and sometimes overwrought Brutus who is glorious to see so up close with his twitches and frowns as he contemplates the options and reads his Stalin biographies. Michelle Fairley is Cassius, Brutus’ cunning co-leader of the coup, subtly hysterical in her bid to execute the terrible deed. Fairley has an incredible presence, perfectly encapsulating both the seedy manipulator and the faithful friend, for so often can people be both.

Adjoa Andoh’s bad-ass of a Casca is as quick to wit as to draw a weapon. David Morrissey is Mark Anthony, here portrayed as a rebel rouser, joining the street band who open the play and encouraging the rise of Octavius at its end. Octavius was a pleasure to watch as Kit Young took the role after the majority of the play in the ensemble. He really comes into his own as this cocky nephew of Caesar, primed with balloons aplenty, as the metaphorical curtain falls, to become a similarly lauded leader (because it ended so well for his uncle).

Caesar himself is a perfect casting with David Calder encompassing a man who could be deemed both a strong, brave leader or an arrogant tyrant, depending on whose asides one is more inclined to listen to.

Hytner directs with as much blockbuster flair as he can muster from his incredible cast, as do the stage managers who direct the plebeian audience in the pit. Surrounded by those with seated tickets and lorded over by scene after scene of masterclasses in the craft, the cheap seats are without doubt the best, even if you’re very aware of your knees at the two hour finish.

Bunny Christie - known for her work on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time with Finn Ross - uses the moving block set up of the gorgeous Bridge Theatre to take us from fancy pants villa to a bright and bustling Colosseum utilising the beauty of a big black box to somehow surpass the ornate West End proscenium theatres just up the river.

This epic show is worth every foot shuffle and slightly bad back, even if only to applaud the absolutely knackered stage managers who downplay their delight at the applause from these acting giants. And with day tickets available, the play is accessible to all. It’s just cool, man.

Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Runs until 15th April
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The Grift - Review

The Town Hall Hotel, London


Written and directed by Tom Salomon

Ged Forrest
Much like a street card conman setting out his stall, Tom Salomon’s The Grift describes itself as “a practice in the art of deception”. The gig certainly makes for an unconventional episode of immersive theatre - but in trying to replicate what feels like a hybrid of The Crystal Maze crossed with Glengarry Glen Ross, The Grift falls somewhere between the two leaving the audience conned in a way that they may not have been expecting.

Cons and tricks are explained, but in the 2 hour experience that sees teams of ticket holders scouring Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel solving riddles that ultimately lead to a denouement in the hotel’s (magnificent) former council chamber it all seems just a tad too con-trived.

The cast put in fine shifts as they marshal the various groups through their different tasks, but they never really con-vince. To be fair though Ged Forrest as the evening’s “mark” Eddie Hammersmith does throw in a lovely dash of cockney menace.

Originally acclaimed in the States – and it’s con-ceivable that American audiences may well have lapped this up for the evening is as much theme park as it is drama - in a more cynical London, disbelief is not quite suspended. 

The evening’s a novel giggle though and the hotel’s sassy, immaculate Art Deco chic is worth the ticket alone. The building was opened in 1910 and as the various groups assail its labyrinthine corridors one can easily be reminded of Jack Torrance and his family, marooned in the Overlook Hotel. Now if only Danielle Tarento and The Town Hall Hotel’s owners were to produce an immersive take on Stephen King's The Shining...

Runs until 25th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Rothschild & Sons - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sherman Yellen
Based on The Rothschilds by Frederic Morton
Directed by Jeffrey B. Moss

Robert Cuccioni

Playing at the Park Theatre for one month only, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s Rothschild & Sons marks the European premiere of a show that (as The Rothschilds) first played Broadway in 1970. Several years earlier Fiddler On The Roof had defined the pair’s credentials in setting the travails of Europe’s Jewry to music. But where Fiddler’s fictional action never left the village of Anatevka, Rothschild & Sons spans the continent with its history.

There was clearly a lot going on in the late-18th century that was to inspire future musical theatre creatives. In North America Alexander Hamilton was carving out his career, while in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, the young impoverished Mayer Rothschild showed a canny eye in recognising antiquities and selling them to the city’s wealthy classes. His circumstances slowly improved, Mayer married Gutele and they had five sons. As they in turn matured, so too did Rothschild’s shrewdness, with a combination of circumstances and negotiation placing him in the fortuitous position of broking a loan from Prussia’s royalty to the king of Denmark and from there, the Rothschild fortune grew. The narrative soon shifts focus to son Nathan who, against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, is tasked with investing the family wealth on the trading exchanges of London.

Mayer Rothschild was driven not only by an inspired combination of chutzpah and prudence, but was also a profoundly driven philanthropist, longing for the Jewish people to be freed from the imposed segregation and ghettos confining them in continental Europe. When the German Prince Metternich was to renege on a commitment that he had made to liberate the country’s Jews in exchange for a war loan from Rothschild, Mayer died broken-hearted. It was to be his sons who in a commercially daring and risky move, were to finally force Metternich into giving the Jews their liberty.

As a musical, the show works as an entertaining and informative one-act history. Its structure however feels firmly rooted in the 1970s (although an off-Broadway take on this reworked version had a creditable run in 2015). Where Fidder’s women were a driving force in that musical (itself drawn from a story originally titled Tevye And His Daughters) Gutele is marginalised, her maternal love and anxieties reduced to little more than footnotes.

A nice production touch sees Robert Cuccioni lead as Mayer. Cuccioni, over from America for the show, played Nathan off-Broadway in 1990 before leading the 2015 production and he brings a rich depth to the character that faintly echoes Topol’s Tevye. He portrays a compelling yet compassionate strength within the visionary Rothschild and is also blessed with a majestic voice that drives the show, convincing in his patriarchal stature. Opposite Cuccioni, Glory Crampton, another American import, replicates her 2015 Gutele with fine vocal work in the comparatively modest role.

Of the five sons, Gary Trainor’s Nathan is the most compelling, with that complex chemistry that can exist between father and son cleverly explored between him and Nathan. In his duet with Mayer, What’s To Be Done? both men smart with the humiliation and agony of Jew hatred that permeated Europe, while in This Amazing London Town, Trainor captures not only Rothschild’s ability to profit from commodities, but also his recognition of the thinly veiled prejudice and cultural contempt shown to him by the English.

In a range of cleverly caricatured cameos Tony Timberlake plays the wigged contemptuous nobility of Europe from both sides of the Channel, with a hint of the satire that underlies Hamilton’s King George here too (men in wigs will always look ridiculous). Harnick’s lyrics cleverly expose the vile moral bankruptcy of the elite, as Bock’s melodies offer up a minor-key medley of melancholy and oppression.

The production is another example of London’s off-West End at its finest, seeing a relatively obscure musical dusted down and shipped across the Atlantic (and under the watchful eye too of a 93 year old Sheldon Harnick, in the Park Theatre audience for press night). Ben van Tienen made fine work of the score, as Pam Tait's costumes were meticulous in their suggestions of both time and place.

In our modern era Rothschild & Sons is unlikely to sustain a full blown commercial revival - but at its core it nonetheless remains yet another paean to man’s inhumanity. While Hitler’s 20th century Holocaust was unquestionably the worst display of industrialised slaughter of a people, he was only executing a long held hatred that had burned across Europe for centuries. Rothschild & Sons reminds us that the ultimate institutionalised racism, the state-sponsored ghettos of anti-semitism, had long preceded the Nazis. The show may date from the 1970s - its message however is timeless.

Runs until 17th February
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Heartbreak House - Review

Union Theatre, London


Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Phil Willmott

The Company

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, stylistically inspired by Anton Chekhov, was first performed in 1920. Set on the brink of the First World War, its message about the very real danger of political indifference chimes with today’s audience.

The story plays out across a single evening; Hesione Hushabye the lady of the namesake house has invited Ellie Dunn, her father and her fiancé to dinner, with Hushabye’s sister’s unexpected arrival further complicating the dynamics. Refreshingly, the dinner is not the focal point. Rather, the real draw is the mix of guests plucked from a wide cross-section of society – there is a capitalist, a bohemian, an aristocrat, the poverty-stricken and more – with what should give rise to intriguing interactions. 

The audience is privy to several social commentaries embedded in a narrative that revolves around each character’s own desires and selfish motives. We see a great deal of talk about the role of women – both in the home and wider society. There’s also some dissection of society’s composition and differences between the rich and the poor, bohemians and puritans, politically engaged and politically indifferent. 

However, Shaw’s script takes a while to get going and it’s only towards the end of the second act that the social commentary swells to a crescendo, by which point it’s all feeling a little too contrived. 

Nonetheless Wilmott has a solid cast working with this challenging script. JP Turner’s Boss Mangan is appropriately brash, Ben Porter makes for an endearing Mazzini Dunn and Mat Betteridge’s Hector Hushabye is a commanding presence.  Although James Horne’s portrayal of the simultaneously confused and shrewd Captain Shotover might seem slightly excessive at the outset, his gradual softening heightens the intrigue, making this a performance to watch. But Helen Anker’s standout performance as the effervescent Hesione Hushabye is the one to leave an imprint after the figurative curtain falls. 

The set design (Justin Williams and Johnny Rust) excels. Nestled in an archway beneath train tracks, the Union Theatre makes an ideal home for Heartbreak House. The result is a house façade that mirrors the nautical theme that runs throughout. The set stretches upwards, providing a clever birds nest-esque nook for Captain Shotover, lending further weight to his frequent godlike interjections into the conversations taking place below. Moreover, the overhead rumble of passing trains could pass for crashing waves, nicely complementing Philip Matejschuk’s sound design.

Much is packed into one evening and the heartbreak alluded to in the title is cleverly determined to be both of conventional and unconventional forms. Yet the play is ultimately held back by the playwright’s desire to say something of importance, rather than an actual delivery of a narrative via well-formed characters who interact with authenticity.

Ultimately though, with a message that is as relevant today as it was almost a hundred years ago, Heartbreak House remains a story worth retelling. 

Runs until 3rd February
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017 - My Diamond Dozen

In what has been another full and stimulating year of reviewing countless revivals and some occasionally excellent new writing, below are the twelve productions that have impressed me the most during 2017.

3 are plays, 9 are musicals.

Even more compellingly, only 6 of the 12 originated in London. Of the remaining 6 shows (one of which hails from France) 5 were created in the UK's regions. This speaks volumes for the vast amount of creative and performing talent that sits outside the M25.

In alphabetical order, here is my 2017 Diamond Dozen with links to each show's original reviews:

42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

A Christmas Carol at the Lyceum, London from the London Musical Theatre Orchestra

A Little Night Music at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Follies at the National Theatre, London

King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Pippin at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Singin’ In The Rain at the Grand Palais, Paris

Sunset Boulevard at Curve, Leicester

The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London

The Revlon Girl at the Park Theatre, London

Top Hat at Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London