Friday, 3 August 2018

Grindr The Opera - Review

Above The Stag Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Erik Ransom
Directed by Andrew Beckett

The company of Grindr

In an ingenious conceit, Erik Ransom’s show embodies the Grindr app into a Mephistophelian being who wields a strange, yet credible power over all who engage with the software. It transpires that Ransom’s vision translates perfectly to musical theatre with this sung through “opera” proving to be one of the most refreshing examples of new writing to grace London’s stages in quite some time.

Four men interact with Grindr and strike up liaisons. Throughout, Grindr’s magnetic attraction (ultimately, addiction?) is never far from the surface, with Christian Lunn putting in a strong and perfectly sung performance as the human face of the infernally addictive app. 

The tale’s four Grindr users straddle the ages - ranging from 20-somethings through to mid-fifties - with a sprinkling of bisexuality in amongst the gay. The scenarios that play out appear credible and convincing and even if the play’s denouement is a belief-defying hokum it nonetheless ties the story into a very tight narrative.

The casting of the four (take a bow casting director Harry Blumenau) is immaculate. In decreasing order of age Dereck Walker, David Malcolm, Matthew Grove and William Spencer are, in equal measure, all on top form, with their respective arcs taking them through lust, passion, love, deceit and hypocrisy. The show’s comedy is perfectly delivered, while its pathos is painful. The libretto’s political digs against the Tory-right may be a bit cliched (even as this review is typed, a senior Labour politician cum washing machine salesman is still in the news over his drug-fuelled rent-boy antics) but the songs work, the rhymes are clever, the musical sources are many and the whole thing cracks along under the experienced baton of Aaron Clingham and his three piece band.

There are echoes here of Jerry Springer The Opera. Grand human designs played out to lyrics of utter filth and sometimes scorching wit. Running through most of August in Above The Stag’s new railway arch home (air conditioned and brilliantly laid out it must be said), Grindr - The Opera is great theatre!

Runs until 26th August
Photo credit: Gaz at PBG Studios

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Sweet Charity - Review

Watermill Theatre, Newbury


Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Book by Neil Simon
Directed by Paul Hart

Gemma Sutton

Cy Coleman’s score for Sweet Charity, much like his compositions for The Life, define his ability to create a musical around humanity’s grittier perspectives. Inspired by a Fellini screenplay, Neil Simon’s book carries a timeless ring of abuse.  Charity is a good trusting woman who is ultimately used by both the men we see her become involved with; the humble Oscar and the powerful Vittorio Vidal. The message is clear - irrespective of their place in society, men are manipulative misogynists. And yet although the narrative may be harsh, the genius of the show’s writers lies in having framed their tale within a structure of some of the 1960’s finest musical theatre writing.

The powerhouse driving this production is Gemma Sutton’s Charity. Sutton is a performer who only knows the meaning of excellence in her work, capturing Charity’s kooky complex vulnerability and delivering a performance that by turn breaks our hearts and then makes them soar in the show’s biggest numbers. Her voice and presence are majestic in songs such as If My Friends Could See Me Now and I’m A Brass Band and yet, throughout, she captures Charity’s precious fragility, so painfully recognisable in her exquisite interpretation.

Sutton is well supported by a perfectly cast company. Tomi Ogbaro as Daddy revives and inspires the audience as he leads Rhythm Of Life. Elliot Harper’s Vidal is convincing in his suave arrogance, while the show’s girls (Nicola Bryan, Vivien Carter, Stacey Ghent Emma Jane Morton and Laura Sillett) make magnificent work of Big Spender, returning it to its pre-Bassey beauty.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of the evening is Alex Cardall’s Oscar. Straight out of the Arts Educational School, and yet another NYMT alumnus to make a leading debut this summer, Cardall masters Oscar’s manipulative maturity with a confidence that belies his years. With perfectly weighted nuance and pinpoint delivery on the gags, his is classy work indeed.

Behind the scenes Diego Pitarch’s designs sees two pairs of bi-folding mirrors whirled around the stage ingeniously, while the translations of Coleman’s score to an actor-muso company is, yet again, flawless musical supervision from Sarah Travis. Charlie Ingles has directed Travis’ work with the instrumentalists, but on the night and on stage it is an assured Tom Self that oversees the delivery of these bold, brassy melodies.

Bob Fosse directed the show (originally on Broadway and later, its Hollywood iteration too) and while Tom Jackson Greaves has choreographed with imaginative flair within the Watermill’s cockpit space, Fosse’s fingerprints (footprints?) are everywhere. But for all the talent within this show, it is hampered by the Watermill’s challenging (and sometimes non-existent) sightlines that can render too much of Jackson Greaves’ (no doubt brilliant) dance work, invisible.

Yet again, the people of Newbury find themselves spoiled with this display of some of the finest talent in the land putting on a show that alongside being a rollercoaster of emotions, is a festival of sensational song and dance.

Runs until 15th September
Photo credit: Philip Tull

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Iolanthe - Review

Greenwich Theatre, London


Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Sasha Regan

The all male company of Iolanthe

Greenwich Theatre may have seen its first night of Sasha Regan’s All Male Iolanthe this week, but this wonderful production is now entering the final leg of its UK tour. As such, the cast – who, reviews have suggested, were excellent to begin with judging by earlier reviews - have now matured into a perfect company, enchanting in both voice and movement.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta has that everyday backstory of Lord meets Fairy and they have a child (half sprite / half mortal). 25 years pass and we join the story as it offers up a string of romances and dalliances, peers mingling with fairies, mortality taken to its very limits and everything being wrapped up into a deliriously happy ending.

The genius of taking yet another of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic scores and playing it men-only, lies in exploiting the wit of Gilbert’s libretto. The verve and cheek of his rhymes lend themselves to camp-ness at the best of times. Here however, a company of men taking to the stage as a chorus of perfectly drilled fairies creates sets a new altitude record for high-camp. If it wasn’t so damn good it would be downright ridiculous.

But Regan (in this, the third revival of her interpretation) directs acutely. She teases out the timeless genius of the songs, while Mark Smith choreographs with a meticulous imaginative detail that is as witty as it is inspired. The company of 16 are all, to a man, excellent – memorable moments of sharpened satire coming from Duncan Sandilands and Alastair Hill. In a show that will have lent itself well to a road trip (Kingsley Hall’s design work being minimal in extremis), Musical Director Richard Baker, provides the sole musical support on piano, puts in a heroic and faultless shift leading his cast and entertaining the audience through the classic melodies.

It’s not all dancing around fairy rings though. Gilbert and Sullivan’s verses poked merciless fun at parliament and the judiciary and remember too that the show was written way back in the pre-EU days of the last century. A time when parliament, then still sovereign as opposed to its shambolic present, merited affectionate mockery.

As London swelters gloriously, its hard to justify an evening in a hazy and (for the second half at least) hot auditorium. But Iolanthe is simply marvellous theatre, and well worth a trip to Greenwich.

Runs until 28th July
Photo credit: Harriet Buckingham

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Quincy Jones Live In Concert - Review

O2 Arena, London


For one night only Quincy Jones packed out London’s O2 Arena in a gig that offered a glimpse into the man who is one of those few giants who truly shaped the sound  of the 20th century. In a career that has spanned six decades, Jones has either produced or written tunes that have been scored into the global psyche.

Growing up in Chicago, Jones spoke of being surrounded by the mafia, hoodlums and with tommy-guns and dead bodies a regular feature of his childhood. All the more credit to the man who had the vision to shaped his career away from a gangster heritage and break into the music world – a task made all the more challenging by the prejudices that existed against African-Americans. But as Jones, in conversation with Nic Harcourt, reeled off his connections with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr, one could have listened to his stories all night.

But the concert was all about a tribute to Jones’ achievements – and the guest list matched the man. For the mums and dads in the audience there was Paul Weller, Mick Hucknall and Beverley Knight, and for the kids, Mark Ronson.

From movie scores and Oscar nominations (to say nothing of countless Grammy wins and nominations) through to Michael Jackson, Jones’ work has been legendary, with his fingerprints on so much of the soundtrack to our lives. Stomp, Ai No Corrida, Soul Bossa Nova were all aired. You Don't Own Me sung by Corinne Bailey Rae reminded us of the sensational success Jones achieved with Lesley Gore. Paul Weller (with the sensational Leo Green on sax) offered up a marvellous On Days Like These from The Italian Job a great movie to have acknowledged – particularly with its star Michael Caine sat in the O2 audience. 

Jones' later career work with Jackson defined his genius – an association that was to see him produce the artist’s Bad and Off The Wall collections together with Thriller, the biggest selling album of all time. The second half of the set bore a strong Jackson twist, with Jonah Nilsson putting on a fantastic tribute to the King Of Pop.

Throughout, Jules Buckley conduced the Senbla Orchstra magnificently. Truly a sensational evening of legendary music.

The Music of John Williams - Review

Kenwood House, London

Kenwood House and stage

Tucked away on the rarefied borders of Hampstead and Highgate, on a far corner of the Heath, Kenwood House and its grounds have a history of hosting open air concerts that, until a recent hiatus, stretched back for decades. Orchestras would once sit across an ornamental lake, their music bouncing off the water to reach an audience filling a hillside on the other side of the lake.

It’s a pleasure to see the music return to this beautiful park - and even if the idyllic performance space has been shifted from lakeside to a far more commonplace festival arena complete with massive amplification speakers and queue-laden food concessions dotted around the site, there remains no finer way of spending a balmy evening in the capital.

The VIP grandstand may have lain empty, but on a warm Saturday evening, many thousands of ticket-holders had filled the grass in front of the stage to enjoy the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform an evening of John Williams’ film score classics. Williams is a prolific composer whose work stretches across 6 decades. The remarkable breadth of his compositions ensured that throughout the two hour gig there were melodies that touched all generations.

Before the main act was underway, Alexis Ffrench entertained the throng with some soulful piano work. But as the sun began to set, and under Benjamin Pope’s baton, the orchestra swung into action with the rousing theme to Superman. If this tune might have been more for the parents on the lawns than their children, a swift segue into Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter franchise had everyone smiling wistfully to Williams’ enchanting tune.

The connection between Williams and Steven Spielberg was evident, with no fewer than seven of the director’s movies featuring in the evening’s programme - and it says much for the composer’s genius that the same man who composed the Raiders Of The Lost Ark theme, a tune that offers bombast and derring-do with almost every bar, could also compose the haunting melody that defined the tragedy of Schindler’s List - with Patrick Savage on violin exquisitely delivering that piece’s solo movements.

Spielberg’s most illustrious peer has to be George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, and in a nod to the endearing success of that particular franchise, Pope offered up four pieces - not just the classic theme and Stormtroopers March (which was the evening’s encore number) but also, in a tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia’s theme too.

The programme also included the Suite from Fiddler On The Roof, with Pope reminding the crowd that the composer had won his first Oscar (of five) for his work on translating Jerry Bock’s score from Broadway to Hollywood - a piece also beautifully supported by virtuoso work from Savage.

Movies - especially those that are global successes with worldwide popularity, have the power to reach us all, with their accompanying scores often evolving into their own standalone cultural reference points, sometimes of iconic status. Williams is one such musical icon, with this warm glorious night at Kenwood serving as a reminder that his music has touched us all.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

King The Musical - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Music and lyrics by Martin Smith
Directed by Susie McKenna

Cedric Neal and Debbie Kurup

30 years after its premiere, Martin Smith’s affecting musical biography of legendary civil rights movement leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr was revived for just two performances, in a co-production between the Hackney Empire and London Musical Theatre Orchestra directed by Susie McKenna and which marked 50 years since Dr King’s assassination.

Opening with a brief, shocking re-enactment of the assassination, the scene was accompanied by the hauntingly mournful vocals of the full cast, shrouded in shadows on stage. Slowly, Debbie Kurup’s Coretta, Dr King’s widow, stepped out of the darkness to sing a few painful lines in memory of her late husband, a moment that was totally engrossing, but extremely brief.  Quickly, the story flashes to the younger Kings as a courting couple, a change of pace that immediately humanised Dr King’s almost mythical figure, inviting the audience to step his life and his journey.

Cedric Neal was mightily impressive in the title role. Wearing a look of perpetual apprehension which slowly melted into defiance as his story progressed, he had the audience in the palm of his hand from his very first introduction all the way through to his sudden and tragic demise. Particularly powerful was his interpretation of the iconic I Have A dream speech, which closed Act 1. 

Accompanied by the orchestra’s slow build to a powerful crescendo alongside the full cast with additional vocal support from Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Gospel Essence Choir. Neal wisely chose not to impersonate King’s intonations, bringing his own heart and charisma to the scene. The staging of the speech was a testament to the intelligent direction of Susie McKenna, and the impassioned performances of the entire cast and orchestra. 

Under Freddie Tapner’s baton the 22-piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra were perfection throughout. The particularly impressive brass section emphasised the triumphant power of Simon Nathan’s new orchestrations, whilst the strings brought a sense of dreamlike nostalgia to the story that only foreshadowed the painful finale. 

But for all of King’s heart wrenching musical moments, the story occasionally lacked depth, opting to cover the most significant and well-known moments in broad strokes, rather than drill down into the psyche of its characters and their relationships. As such, Debbie Kurup as Doctor King’s dignified and supportive wife Coretta, and Sharon D Clarke as his loving mother Alberta, were sadly side-lined as the story progressed. 

As a reminder of Martin Luther King's immutable legacy Smith’s compelling musical, forgotten for 30 years, deserves a full staging soon, especially off the back of such a striking production.

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney

End Of The Pier - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Danny Robins
Directed by Hannah Price

Les Dennis

Casting Les Dennis in End Of The Pier gives Danny Robins’ new play a slice of incisive credibility. In a play that is all about stand-up comics, comedy and, ultimately, racism, Dennis - whose career as a nationally beloved entertainer stretches back decades - offers up a performance that is believable and complex, especially at those points in the evening when Robins’ play strikes comedy gold.

Dennis is Bobby a has-been celebrity comedian who once drew TV audiences of 20 million with his double act Chalk and Cheese (think Cannon and Ball and you’re close). Mike is his (almost) estranged son, a celebrity comedian in his own right - albeit in the modern world, where a broadcast audience of 4 million is an achievement. 

To say much more about the plot would be to spoil, as its twists and sucker-punches hit the audience from early on in the drama. Better perhaps to focus on the play’s finest moments which emerge as Dennis reflects upon the changing nature of British comedy over the years and his contemplation of the toll that his dated, racist and sexist routines took upon his close family.

Dennis’ work is first class as he truly inhabits the character of a man who has been broken by life and ultimately changed his ways. There is fine work too from Tala Gouveia as Mike’s mixed-race wife Jenna, a woman ultimately unable to forgive Bobby for the pain she suffered as a child from his racist gags, irrespective of his own personal redemption. And then there’s Nitin Ganatra’s Mohammad - who only appears towards the end of the second half but steals the show with a sensational monologue. 

But for all this play’s many strengths, it is profoundly flawed, muddled and ultimately untidy and unbelievable, with the pressure falling on Blake Harrison’s Michael to deliver most if not all of the belief-defying moments. The pressure upon Harrison to make these implausible twists work on stage is a massive ask, if not a poisoned chalice and perhaps, through no fault of his own, he ends up delivering a performance that falls short of the mark. 

But whilst End Of The Pier may have its imperfections, it is far from a comedy of errors. Offering two hours of compelling and arguably unmissable drama combining humor and cliche together with many unpalatable home truths, it is one of the most stimulating new plays this year. And as the nation’s theatre audiences remain predominantly white, Robins makes it clear: the joke’s on them.

Runs until 11th August
Photo credit: Hannah Price