Sunday, 4 October 2015

Farinelli and the King - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Claire van Kampen
Directed by John Dove

Mark Rylance

At the age of 32, at the very height of a superstardom today reserved for the Hollywood A-list, the great 18th Century castrato Farinelli turned his back on the stage, never to return, to sing for only one man – Philippe V, the King of Spain. The King, suffering from a madness brought on by depression, could only find solace and sanity in Farinelli’s heavenly tones.

This apparently true historical titbit is the basis of Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, recently transferred from the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to the Duke of York’s Theatre. At the play’s heart is an attempt to imagine the relationship between these two men, both ‘Kings’ in their own spheres and explain their friendship. And it is in exploring the dichotomy of these private, ordinary men and the public roles that they were forced to play that the piece is most interesting. After telling Farinelli how he became King, Philippe asks ‘When were you robbed of your normality?’

That dichotomy is given literal form in the case of Farinelli since the character is played by two men on any given night – Sam Crane taking a speaking role and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies joining him on stage to portray the singing superstar. This device, no doubt born out of necessity (countertenors of Davies’ quality are rare enough without expecting them to also be capable of acting the lead in a West End play), works well. Crane’s diffident ordinariness is a fine contrast to Davies’ strutting, golden-voiced megastar and it is Davies who provides many of the show’s highlights, aided by Robert Howarth's fine band. 

Of course, most of the audience had come not so see Farinelli but the King. Few actors are capable of playing bewildered, childlike madness as magnetically as Mark Rylance. At turns broadly comic, at others brooding and sinister, it is a predictably fine performance by one of the finest stage actors of his generation. And yet, there is perhaps a suspicion that a part so obviously written for him (van Kampen is his wife) has resulted in a one that he could do with his eyes closed without ever really needing to be at his glorious best – essentially a watered down version of his Richard II. 

Whilst the sometimes thin script provides fine moments of both humour and pathos, it at times straying dangerously close to Blackadder territory. Melody Grove in particular, has a rather thankless ‘one note’ task as Philippe’s long-suffering wife Isabella and neither she nor Crane convince in a predictable and possibly unnecessary love triangle.

Thank goodness, then, for the glorious music and the sublime voice of Davies, whose interjections bolster the piece. The scintillatingly beautiful “Lascia ch’io pianga” that closes the play is as memorable a moment as you will see on stage all year.

Runs until 5th December 2015

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Henry V - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Alex Hassell

In a time of celebrity cast Shakespeare productions, it is a pleasure to observe Greg Doran’s take on Henry V and see not so much a band of brothers, but rather a company of craftsmen offering one of the most intelligent interpretations of this complex play in recent years.

Famously seized upon by directors as a platform for political comment, Henry V has often been rolled out as a platform (bandwagon) to voice an opinion upon contemporary conflict. On screen Olivier’s Harry sought to rally the nation as the 1944 Normandy landings loomed, whilst in 2003 as war raged in Iraq, Adrian Lester’s dusty jeep sped onto the Olivier stage to draw Nick Hytner’s line in the sand as he became the National’s director. 

But in this show, today’s politics are sidelined in place of comment on the universal compromises that war imposes upon humanity. Doran eschews all sense of contemporary tub-thumping in place of well honed drama and lets the Bard’s verse speak to its own strengths. Broadly staged in period garb, apart from Oliver Ford Davies’ marvellous Chorus, clad in modern dress, setting out Stratford’s cockpit whilst the House lights stay on, this is an un-pretentious Henry V.

Marking a natural progression from his Prince Hal in both parts of Doran’s Henry IV, Alex Hassell accedes to the throne and his performance is a thing of beauty. Having observed his development in the preceding plays, his Henry matures before our eyes as the responsibilities of inspirational monarchy weigh upon him. Hassell brings a heroic handsome humility to the role that sheaths a steely spine. His Henry’s pragmatic ruthlessness is as credible in dealing with the traitors at Southampton, as it is in the famously troubling (and often excised) command that his troops should kill their French prisoners. 

Hassell’s handling of the St Crispin’s Day speech is majestic yet free of pomposity and condescension, whilst his  entreaties to his troops to treat the defeated French with decency ring with an envious integrity.

Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin needs work – it’s a complex role to carry off and he’s not quite there yet in suspending our disbelief. Elsewhere there is a fine company work to support Hassell’s Harry. Joshua Richards’ Bardolph/Fluellen offers impressive soldiers’ perspectives both on conflict and upon dutiful service. In a minor role, Sam Marks’ (who only recently played Happy opposite Hassell's Biff in the RSC's Death Of A Salesman) French Constable shone out as a beacon of credibility, whilst Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel, in the briefest of speeches, defines with dignity France’s pain in defeat and her nation’s hopes for the future.

As ever, the RSC's stagecraft is world class with Stephen Brimson Lewis’ use of projections and eerily effective understage lighting in his set designs proving particularly effective.

Shortly to move to London’s Barbican Theatre, one suspects that like a fine wine, this already impressive production play will only improve with time. 

Setting politics aside, this Henry V offers up a perspective on war that speaks to us all.

Runs until 20th October

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pure Imagination - Review

St James Theatre


Devised by Leslie Bricusse, Chrisopher Renshaw and Danielle Tarento
Directed by Christopher Renshaw

Giles Terera

Who can take a set list? Sprinkle it with class……

… as through two hours a delicious cast of 5 chart a course through nigh on 60 of the songs of lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Unashamedly a ‘juke-box musical’, the show marks producer Danielle Tarento’s first foray into that genre, with a combination of both song snatches and entire numbers as Bricusse’s remarkable body of work is referenced and respected.

There is however something distinctive to Pure Imagination that sets it apart from most of the other shows that have been fashioned out of back catalogue cash-cows and which currently clog London’s theatres. First and foremost, Bricusse is a wordsmith whose career has seen him partner a diverse range of composing collaborators.

Sure the man has penned a few melodies himself, but that the show includes tunes from those Atlantic-straddling greats including John Barry, John Williams, Henry Mancini and of course Anthony Newley, leads to a collection that is close to a chocolate box of surprises. Who knew that (under a pseudonym) Bricusse had lobbed in the lyrics to Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle delight, My Old Man’s A Dustman, which with honky tonk piano brought on centre-stage, gives rise to a rather wonderful almost knees-up in the first half!

True to form, Tarento draws a talented company to stage the show. Veteran Dave Willis is The Man, oozing panache and flair with every number and in an exciting Who Can I Turn To? proving that he still is, very much, the man. Opposite Willetts, Siobhan McCarthy is The Woman, bringing a measured maturity to her share of the numbers, her act two opener a sizzling, Fosse-infused, Le Jazz Hot a delight.

Other special moments include Willett’s laconic Bond-fuelled take on Goldfinger (even if he channels more Moore than Connery) with perhaps the cheesiest/wittiest segue ever as The Man smoothly segues into Talk To The Animals from Giles Terera’s feline Pink Panther (yes, there were lyrics to that iconic signature tune)

Terera’s Joker offers talent elsewhere too, making spines almost tingle in his What Kind Of Fool Am I and giving a stylishly sassy take to If I Ruled The World.

As The Boy, Niall Sheehy brings a younger perspective to some numbers, with Jekyll & Hyde’s This Is The Moment proving particularly special. Completing the cast, Julie Atherton brings her hallmark polished poise to the production

That the band’s sextet outnumber the actors speaks volumes for the creatives’ vision and much of the evening’s credit is due to Michael England’s immaculate arrangements and pinpoint musical direction. Mention too for Richard Coughlan, whose finely fingered bass work enhances the production’s jazz.

Chris Renshawe directs with a wise touch. Old enough to understand Bricusse’s legacy, Renshawe keeps his finger firmly on a contemporary pulse, ensuring a style that works for today (even if the numerous selfie gags are a touch laboured)

The pure imagination of Bricusse, Tarento and Renshawe has created a confection of a show that blends nostalgia and wit with a generous splash of excellence. It all makes for a charming night out.

Runs until 17th October 2015

Friday, 25 September 2015

Kiss Me, Kate - Review

Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Directed by Jo Davies

Quirjin De Lang, Jeni Bern and Company

Opera North, a leading UK arts organisation whose key focus and goal is to 'actively challenge conventional perceptions of opera' (as stated in the programme), return to Leeds Grand this Autumn to present their latest season of work, with this new production of Kiss Me, Kate being the first in a diverse line-up.

Kiss Me, Kate tells the story of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, two actors whose tempestuous love lives take centre stage as they perform in a new musical version of The Taming of the Shrew in 1940s Baltimore. Almost fabricated as a play within a play, Kiss Me, Kate takes a different tack to the musical theatre norm and allows the audience to see both the on stage and off stage dramatics and hysteria of the story's main arc.

Quirijn De Lang and Jeni Bern, the key protagonists, shine in their roles offering the audience a true abundance of wit, charm and delight as they work with an overly complex plot that takes an hour and a half to actually get to the point. Whilst there are some great comedic interludes from Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as Gunman 1 and Gunman 2, Kiss Me, Kate struggles to sell itself as a piece of high class musical theatre.

With a running time of almost 3 hours, Kiss Me, Kate fails to pack the punch required for such a long piece of theatre, with scenes drawn out for much longer than required. At least half an hour could be trimmed and still allow a piece that could be easily grasped without becoming boring due to a lack of tension, suspense or characters one can truly care for.

Tiffany Graves and Ashley Day feel a tad miscast as the secondary characters Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun - there's a surprising lack of chemistry between the two and apart from a wonderful, albeit small, comedic moment in Tom, Dick or Harry. Katie Kerr as Hattie seems underused with an absolutely divine voice that opens up the first act in Another Op'nin, Another Show, whilst Claire Pascoe as the Stage Manager is another ensemble member who stands out, grabbing our attention as soon as she walks on stage.

The main saving grace of this production is its music. Superbly conducted by David Charles Abell, Kiss Me, Kate harks back to Musical Theatre's golden era. The best moments are the ensemble numbers particularly Too Darn Hot the second act opener.

The lighting and set designs for this production are ambitious considering the size of the theatre but Ben Cracknell and Colin Richmond do a remarkable job, providing stunning backdrops that draw the audience in and help sell a flawed story.

Kiss Me, Kate’s lack of purpose and confusing storyline will possibly leave many feeling a little cold and put out. For those Shakespeare aficionados however who fancy seeing something a bit different and unconventional, then it may well prove the perfect night out.

Runs until 31 October and then tours
Guest reviewer: Megan Kinsey

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Casa Valentina - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Gareth Snook and Ashley Robinson

Harvey Fierstein’s second London opening this week after Kinky Boots is Casa Valentina, which makes its European premier at the Southwark Playhouse and proves a remarkable piece of theatre.

Set in the remote Chevalier D’Eon inn, tucked away in New York’s Catskill Mountains the drama revolves around a group of transvestites, all ostensibly heterosexual married men who visit the resort for weekend retreats where they can live out their feminine personae. The time is the early 60’s and as Fierstein’s brilliantly layered narrative unfolds, the complexities of denial and deceit and repressed sexualities plays out against a McCarthy-esque backdrop of prejudice, where even in the liberal Northern USA, homosexuality is still a crime.

The opening act paints a rich and credible tableau. George (aka Valentina and played by Edward Wolstenholme – keep up) runs the Inn with wife Rita (Tamsin Carroll) – and who as business is flagging, has enlisted the support of Charlotte (or Isadore – Gareth Snook) a Californian transvestite (TV) whose Sorority Magazine promotes the TV cause across the country and whose endorsement of the resort could boost visitors. But Charlotte has her own agenda and as Matthew Rixon’s brilliant Bessie (aka Albert) a man who, for these weekends, becomes a “decorated war hero in housecoat and turban” sagely comments: “politics and prosthetics don’t mix”.

The humour, poignancy and pathos of the piece is perfectly crafted by Fierstein, with Ben Deery’s nervous Jonathan/Miranda proving a finely nuanced definition of gauche as a relatively recently married man, nervously experimenting for the first time amongst fellow TVs. Ashley Robinson’s Michael/Gloria offers another finely sketched portrayal of a handsome young man who having famously deflowered most of the girls in his college year, still found himself yearning for their dresses the morning after. Veteran Bruce Montague as Theodore/Terry is a gem, whose brief appearance smoking a pipe whilst in full female is comedy gold, whilst Robert Morgan’s Judge (or Amy) hairy armed and on the verge of retirement takes the story to tragic depths.

Luke Sheppard has coaxed flawless work from his entire company – and in a production where again, budgetary constraints are tight, the genius of this show can only flow from the human talent on stage. Not only the acting, but also technical wizardry of some of the “girls’”makeovers is remarkable, both in make-up and mannerism.

Snook’s handbagged creation is every inch a woman whose shrewd and ruthless politics channel Margaret Thatcher crossed with Machiavelli. Perfectly poised and sensational without sensationalising, his is a convincingly terrifying performance. Yet it is Tamsin Carroll who breaks us. Her loving wife, desperately clinging to the vestiges of the man she thought she loved – but who ultimately loves Valentina over all else – offers a picture of grief and despair as profound as it is understated. This remarkable cast define Casa Valentina as unmissable theatre. It deserves a West End transfer – but until then, rush to catch it in Southwark.

Runs until 10th October 2015

Kinky Boots - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell

The Company

Two years after its Broadway debut, Kinky Boots strides into London’s Adelphi Theatre, helmed again by Jerry Mitchell who is evidently looking to repeat the show’s award-winning success over here.

Based on the BBC film of a decade ago – in turn inspired by true events - Kinky Boots tells of a Northampton based shoe factory facing closure, that stumbles across the idea of making women’s fashion thigh-length boots but built for a man’s body. As their kinky boots go down a storm amongst the transvestite and drag community, the company is saved.

It’s a neat conceit and the story hinges around two men. Lola - really Simon from Clacton – an acclaimed drag act, who underneath the costumed façade is desperate to be accepted by the world around him, particularly his ageing father. Charlie is a straight guy who has inherited the shoe factory and who comes to learn to love and respect Lola (who has provided the inspiration along with the creative input and design for the factory’s kinky boots), for who he is.

But whilst there’s a decent integrity to the show’s pulse of self belief and determination, Fierstein’s book is too predictable. If Matt Henry’s Lola, in all his splendour, had burst into singing I Am What I Am from La Cage Aux Folles when he visits the Clacton old folk’s home, in place of the maudlin Hold Me In Your Heart it would not have been out of place. That being said, Henry is a stunning turn and his duet with Killian Donnelly’s equally impressive Charlie in Not My Father’s Son, makes for spine tingling musical theatre. 

In amongst all the fabulously choreographed dick-heavy chicks there’s a straight love story too. Amy Lennox’s Lauren offers way too much talent to a role that’s often not much more than cliché, rivalling Amy Ross’ deliciously cynical Nicola, Charlie’s frustrated fiancee who’s harshly not even offered one song credit. The view of a gritty Northampton through Fierstein and Lauper’s glitzy Broadway prism doesn’t quite convince and if only there was as much meat in the show’s story as there is in its well packed dancers' lunchboxes, then this could have been quite the perfect musical.

But no matter, because for the whooping girlies and twirlies in the audience, Kinky Boots undoubtedly hits the spot. Mitchell also choreographs and his vision creates some sensational routines. With numbers staged on fashion-show runways, workshop staircases and ridiculously (but with jaw-dropping brilliance) even on a moving factory conveyor belt, the song and dance of Kinky Boots bear the hallmarks of cutting edge West End originality.

Booking until 6th February

The White Feather - Review

Union Theatre,  London


Written by Ross Clarke
Directed by Andrew Keates

Abigail Matthews

New British musical The White Feather tells the story of Georgina Briggs whose brother Harry was one of hundreds of allied soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War and who consequently spent her life fighting for justice & a posthumous pardon. It is a show that offers us the young idealistic soldiers marching off to fight with bravado and returning, in the words of one character, 'broken'.

There are some pretty tunes in the score by Ross Clark & Matthew Strachan, with some stand out songs namely Set Them In Stone sung beautifully by Abigail Matthews as Georgina and I'll Tell You What I'm Fighting For performed with passion by Kate Brennan as Edith. Strangely, it felt as if there may be too many songs in this show, particularly in the first half. Some numbers feel prematurely cut short and a little fragmented, not helping the act’s cohesion. A notable exception is "In No Man's Land", where Lee Dillon-Stuart engages totally. The second act seems better crafted, perhaps due to fewer songs.

As Harry, Adam Pettigrew conveys the naivety of a 16 year old wanting adventure. Sadly, we don’t get to fully see his transformation from innocence to acute suffering since he is staged with his back to the audience. We need and want to see his eyes and witness Harry's fear, due to him being affected by what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, Harry evolves into a secondary character, talked to and about, rather than the audience observing for ourselves, through Pettigrew's acting, the horror of his plight. 

There's an intriguing homosexual storyline between Edward Brown, who escapes active service due to a faked medical documents procured by the upper class Adam Davey. David Flynn plays Davey with well placed self importance, thinly veiling his insecurities. Zac Hamilton's stand out performance as Edward is perfectly placed, his solo at the end of the show a heartbreaking outpouring of grief that is genuinely touching.

A simple, striking set of a multipurpose stone wall by Tim McQuillen-Wright beautifully captures rural East Anglia in the early 1900s, transforming the space in the Union Theatre, lit with subtle skill by Neill Brickworth. 

The musical arrangements by Dustin Conrad and Martin Coslett were delightful, the trio of piano, cello and violin creating an atmosphere, almost eerie in places. 

Director Andrew Keates has developed the piece and co-written the book with Ross Clarke, for a cast of nine. The White Feather has some lovely moments within a story that spans a generation and it also marks another welcome burst of new English writing for musical theatre, but it’s not quite there yet. With some modest work, this could yet be a fine musical. 

Runs until 17th October 2015
Guest reviewer: Andy Bee