Thursday, 8 September 2022

Rehab The Musical - Review

Playground Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young
Book by Elliot Davis
Directed & choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Keith Allen

Rehab is one of those rare finds in the world of new musical theatre writing. A strong story, supporting stunning songs, brilliantly performed and all expertly directed.

In a story that’s drawn from writers Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young’s personal mental health journeys, Jonny Labey plays Kid Pop, a rock star at the height of fame who gets papped doing a line of coke and is promptly sentenced to 60 days rehab at The Glade. Pop’s journey from denial to recovery is subtly yet brilliantly defined, alongside 3 other patients, with songs defining their respective addictions and flaws that capture a wryness of wit, honesty and humour and which show sensitive perception from both writers and performers.

The Glade of course is a supposedly safe and therapeutic place. Outside the clinic’s confines blows the cruel winds of the paparazzi and the media, with the villain of the piece, PR guru Malcolm Stone wonderfully defined by Keith Allen, delivering what has to be the greatest tribute act to Max Clifford ever. Pop is Stone’s client, with the PR man concocting vile and corrupt manipulations (no spoilers here) to keep his client in the headlines. As part of Stone’s deviousness he recruits Lucy Blake, a young mum who’s down on her luck (played wonderfully by Gloria Onitiri), as a honey-trap, paying her to check herself into The Glade. Onitiri has a magnificent presence and she takes the roof of the Playground with her second act number Museum of Loss

There are moments of musical theatre magic - and literal cheesiness - in the story that evolves, but such is the talent on display that the pathos evoked by the story is both credible and at times, deeply moving.

Supporting the story’s three principals are a cast that seamlessly segue in and out of various roles. John Barr as patient Barry Bronze, a man addicted to tanning is, as always, outstanding.  Phil Sealey as obsessive eater Phil Newman is equally compelling, while slightly more thinly-sketched is Annabel Giles’ Jane Killy. All of these three deliver top-notch musical theatre work, not least in their introductory number At The Glade. There is also a fine turn from Dawn Buckland in two modest cameos, firstly as Phil’s wife, singing the haunting Still Here and later with a comic masterpiece as an oligarch’s wife.

Jodie Steele is another of the evening’s treats as Stone’s assistant Beth. With her number Die At Twenty Seven And You’ll Live Forever, Steele steals the show (almost) with her breathtaking power and passion.

Above all, Rehab displays a bold, brave verve and vigour. With songs that range from first-class duetted balladry in Two Broken People through to the stadium-powered Everyone’s Taking Cocaine, slick lyrics are melded with Gary Lloyd’s pinpoint choreography and precise direction. This is a show that has invested as much in its production values as in its libretto (take a bow designers for set, light and sound Andrew Exeter and Chris Whybrow respectively) with Simon Lee’s 4-piece band, hidden atop the stage, making gorgeous work of the exciting score.

Rehab is destined for a larger future. With its brave narrative, exciting score and a company that define musical theatre excellence, catch it in The Playground for an outstanding night out.

Runs until 17th September
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Friday, 2 September 2022

I, Joan - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London


Written by Charlie Josephine
Directed by Ilinca Radulian

Reviewed by Isla Beckett

Isobel Thom and company

What would Shakespeare think? He wouldn’t, for that is the level of detail afforded by this play. Fancy that. Shakespeare stunned into silence in his very own theatre. O brave new world that has such mockery in it.

I, Joan is based on Joan of Arc’s life, one of the earliest documented feminists. Born in 1412 into poverty, she grew up possessed by a belief that she was channelling God. Convinced of her singularity, she requested a meeting with Charles VII of France, and the rest is history. Joan of Arc helped lead France to triumph against England, motivating a demoralised army and providing strategic input. She was later caught by the enemy and burned at the stake for heresy. Why? Joan reportedly had visions and experienced didactic voices in her head. The same as those that elevated her to the highest ranks of politics. In today’s world, she may have been classed as schizophrenic. In her era, she was deemed a witch. Adding fuel to the fire, she also wore men’s clothes in a defiant act of blasphemy. 

For all intents and purposes, Joan was unusual. Her history is rich and colourful, providing a wealth of material for an adaptation of her life. What a thrilling woman to explore. A walking contradiction. A fighter. A rebel. The skin of a lady with the heart of a man. Her vulnerabilities must’ve been fascinating. What a shame, then, that I, Joan deems it more appropriate to use this woman’s voice as a crass political megaphone. The fourth wall is frequently broken by Isobel Thom's Joan, with what follows being almost always a diatribe against pronouns and patriarchy. After a certain point this becomes tiresome, repetitive and pointless. In the unspoken background, Joan of Arc’s story is screaming to be told. We could learn more from her about gender equality than we ever could by being preached to here.

I, Joan crowbars the present into the past, forcing Joan’s narrative to be what it is not. Her tale is not one of complaint but of courage. Not one of bombastic opinion, but devotion to a cause. Joan did not proclaim herself a feminist, she lived the reality and died for it. So focused is the play on the narrator’s own personal beef with society that it falls flat in its depiction of a hero. For just under three hours, the play literally and metaphorically limps along. One has to admire the writer’s audacity for the constant gender-identity outbursts, couched in a plot that spends much of its time focused on a bunch of actors jiggling around the stage to simulate a 15th century war. A messy and uneven work, I, Joan suffers beneath the weight of two competing points of view. Ultimately, it is rendered characterless. Joan is a vessel for protest, but protest is not Joan. Protest does not stir the mind or the emotions. It does not have the capacity to haunt. As in life, in Charlie Josephine's play Joan does not get the justice she deserves.

Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Monday, 29 August 2022

Tomorrow Morning - Review


Music, lyrics and screenplay by Laurence Mark Wythe
Directed by Nick Winston

Certificate -   12

104 minutes, 2022

Samantha Barks 

Last seen on a London stage some 12 years ago and having amassed a number of productions off-Broadway and elsewhere around the globe Tomorrow Morning, Laurence Mark Wythe’s musical about a couple’s falling into love, marriage, parenthood and subsequent break-up makes it onto the big screen.

Charting the doomed relationship's ten-year lifespan, Wythe’s tale is in many respects a fusion of The Last Five Years melded with Kramer vs Kramer, albeit based in London rather than New York City. But it is not just the Atlantic Ocean that separates these anti-love stories. Both of the American plotlines offered far greater emotional heft in their narratives together with wittier and more perceptive writing in screenplay and lyrics. Wythe’s songs are heavy on exposition, demanding little intellectual connection from the viewer and too often revert to cliché.

The film’s production values however are gorgeous. Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks are Will and Cat, the ill-fated lovers and both make fabulous vocal work of Wythe’s compositions. There is also a strong debut from Oliver Clayton as the couple’s young son Zachary who gets caught in his parents’ crossfire.

Nick Winston has helmed a beautifully filmed love letter to London, and to Wapping in particular. There are even cameos from Omid Djalili (in the bath) as Will's dad and the incorrigibly scene-stealing Joan Collins (in full The Bitch mode) as Cat’s protective grandmother Anna.

Crack open the prosecco and chocolates and you’ll be in for an evening of finely sung entertainment.

In UK cinemas from 9th September and on DVD from 17th October

Friday, 26 August 2022

Ragtime - Review

Alleyn's School, London


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Zaya Tserenbat and company

In a bold production that encompasses moments of musical theatre genius, the National Youth Music Theatre is staging Ragtime for three days only at London’s Alleyn's School. Flaherty and Ahrens' canvas of the United States at the turn of the 20th century is a cleverly constructed fusion of social icons (that includes the likes of Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T Washington and Henry Ford) blended in with nameless or fictional protagonists, all of whose various stories depict the turbulence of the times of America’s famed melting pot.

Simply staged before a shredded American flag and with only suitcases for scenery to emphasise the immigrant make-up of the country’s population, Hannah Chissick allows her cast to expand the narrative based solely on their ability to sing, dance and act through song. The themes of the show are complex and its arc is broad and it is a testament to this young company that they tackle the ugliness of the tale’s racism alongside the beauty of some of its characters’ tenderness with perceptive and measured depth.

At 23, Lucy Carter who plays Mother is an NYMT veteran and her years of experience are clearly evident. Carter’s stage presence is electrifying, not just in her moments of profound compassion, but also in the steel she shows in challenging her husband’s innate racism. Carter is also gifted the show’s solo high-spot with the second act’s Back To Before, smashing it out of the park and bringing power, passion and profound emotion to the song. 

Zolani Dube plays Coalhouse Walker Jr, an African American ragtime musician whose journey drives the show’s narrative. Dube brings commitment to the role, together with masses of potential. Opposite Dube is Sarah, the woman he loves, played by Katlo Masole. In a role that is largely understated, Masole offers up a turn of assured excellence and vocal beauty as she plays her tragic character.

There are other diamonds in this cast. 12yo Laurie Jones as the Little Boy is confident and compelling, with pinpoint timing too – a rare craft to have mastered so young. Equally Sam Sayan’s Tateh and Zaya Tserenbat’s Evelyn Nesbit are very strong in their supporting roles. Tserenbat in particular, whose take on The Crime Of The Century is a joy to behold.

David Randall conducts his 22 piece orchestra with aplomb, ensuring that Stephen Flaherty’s score, itself a blend of so many different musical genres is delivered delightfully.

The NYMT has a knack of unearthing future West End stars as the list of its illustrious alumni proves. But more than just that teaching young people how to star, above all the NYMT allows its companies to discover the sheer beauty of acting together, through song. Ragtime’s first act closes with Till We Reach That Day, an absolute banger of a number that is written for a show's entire cast to perform. To see and hear this fabulous company singing as one, with power, pathos and passion is spine-tingling and stunning.

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

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Monday, 8 August 2022

Hamlet : After-Show Cabaret - Review

St Stephens, Edinburgh


Richard Lewis

After the cast of Hamlet take their bow and for those in the audience with post-show tickets, there’s a cabaret in the Lower Hall at St Stephens.

Each evening, accompanied by various members of the Hamlet cast, Richard Lewis hosts an eclectic soirée with song selections that range from the cheesy (albeit cheese that makes a pleasant accompaniment to a glass of Malbec) to the downright inspired. Not only is Lewis’ patter quick-fire and knowledgable, but his piano playing is sublime with selections that range from The Lion King (Disney’s Hamlet) and Pulp, through to Kander & Ebb and Beethoven. His Shakespearean links and connections can be corny, but the lyrics are genius and the singing is gorgeous with slick and well rehearsed backing vocals. On the night of this review cast members Rebekah Grace Summerhill and Katie Ayton were performing alongside Lewis, delivering delicious vocals.

It’s a high-brow to low-brow transition as one descends the St Stephens staircase, but this cabaret is a immaculately rehearsed glimpse of the fringe’s diverse entertainment. If you’re not rushing off to another show, it’s well worth checking out.

South Pacific - Review

Sadler's Wells, London


Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Directed by Daniel Evans

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck

Transferring from its acclaimed revival at Chichester last year and returning to the London stage a decade after the Barbican last staged it in 2011, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has opened for a month’s glorious residency at Sadler’s Wells. 

Daniel Evans has retained his lead performers from a year ago, with the chemistry between Julian Ovenden’s Emil de Becque and Gina Beck’s Ensign Nellie Forbush still vibrant and vocally stunning. Likewise, the love that grows between Lt Joe Cable (Rob Houchen) and the Polynesian Liat (Sera Maehara) is equally well defined. Of course, what sets this show apart is the United States’ racist culture that Rodgers and Hammerstein sought to challenge in their musical adaptation of James A. Michener’s original story.

75 years on from when the show premiered on Broadway many will find its handling of the racism of America’s Southerners and WASPS, problematic. Equally, the comparative youthfulness of Liat’s character does not stand up to close scrutiny in the post-MeToo era of the 21st century. It is however important that from a cultural perspective, the show should be recognised as a wonderfully curated museum piece. It was written for its time and should be enjoyed in that context.

Musically this production of the show is as wonderful as it was by the seaside last year! The songs are classics and to hear them sung, in a venue as acoustically fine as Sadler’s Wells and by voices such as these is a delight. The surprisingly powerful and unexpected melancholy that Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings to Happy Talk is one of the production’s more haunting highlights.  Another notable performance comes from Douggie McMeekin as the loveable Luther Billis, providing excellently timed comic relief.

Peter McKintosh’s set, paired with Howard Harrison’s lighting, are incredibly imaginative and make you feel as though you are right there on a sunny Pacific island. This alone is worth the visit to Sadler’s Wells as well as to regale in the show’s beautiful music and dance. It really will be some enchanted evening.

Runs until August 28th
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Hamlet - Review

St Stephens, Edinburgh


Written by William Shakespeare
Performance conceived by Peter Schaufuss and Ian McKellen
Directed and choreographed by Peter Schaufuss

Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen

If a picture can speak a thousand words, then Peter Schaufuss’ balletic take on Hamlet is the dance equivalent. Boldy stripping out 95% of Shakespeare’s prose and replacing it with ballet, Schaufuss offers up a fresh take on the essence of the Hamlet story that is both captivating and at times surprisingly moving. Where Shakespeare used the beauty of language to describe tableaux for the audience to imagine – think for example of Hamlet’s act one description of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding celebrations – Schaufuss choreographs that wedding as his opening scene. It is an effective prologue but as with all ballet, it helps to have a good understanding or at least to have read a synopsis of the underlying story.

A typically staged Hamlet will take between 3 and 4 hours to perform. Schaufuss’ interpretation lasts a mere 75 minutes with ruthless excisions. No character speaks other than Hamlet (apart from Claudius’ guilt-ridden demand for “light” after the Players’ performance) and even then, Hamlet’s words are edited to extracts of only the most profound, recognisable soliloquies or conversations. For the most part, the editing works – and it makes a pleasant change to have no gauche contemporary political spin is applied to the story. This Hamlet is all about revenge with the ballet's music, a charming composition from Ethan Lewis Maltby, complementing the story perfectly.

The title role is dual-cast, with Johan Christensen dancing  as Ian McKellen voices those snippets of the text that have survived Schaufuss’ scalpel. When he is not speaking, McKellen's presence suggests an almost spiritual realisation of Hamlet’s soul or conscience as he moves and interacts. This is an intriguing combination of performances that merge almost seamlessly. McKellen’s Shakespearean speech of course is sublime and when he speaks of the “undiscovered country” there is a moving melancholy underscored by his 83 years. The dance is clever and suggestive, effectively delivering the narrative's basics. Katie Rose as Ophelia is a standout performer with her mime and movement delivering a disturbing insight into Ophelia's struggles and descent into madness. The endgame, here a wrestling match rather than the traditional swordplay, is thrilling. 

The production however is flawed. For the Player's performance, Schaufuss seats Claudius and Gertrude amongst the audience to watch. An upstage location would have served the show better, allowing the audience to not only watch the Players’ dumbshow, but also to observe Claudius’ reaction to the unfolding drama. Equally, the cutting of the gravediggers’ scene not only robs the story of a delightful interlude of comic relief, it also leaves Hamlet delivering the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech with no dramatic context whatsoever to explain why he his holding the court jester's skull.

While it will no doubt peeve the purists, this Hamlet remains one of the finest re-inventions of the classic yarn of recent years. For those who love the story, ballet, or who simply wish to see up close one of the greatest actors of our time it is a must-see production.

Runs until 28th August
Photo credit: Devin de Vil