Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Next Fall - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written by Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Mitchell Mullen and Nancy Crane

Set in Manhattan, Next Fall is a carefully written exposition of faith, sexuality and denial, played out across the cultural chasm of the Mason-Dixon Line that even today, still fractures the United States.

Martin Delaney is Luke, a gay Southerner, committed to his Christian faith and who has been unable to come out to his long-divorced parents.  The play opens with his having sustained life-threatening injuries in a car crash, and as he lies offstage on a ventilator the drama plays out through flashbacks and real-time, as the jigsaw pieces of his life slowly fall into place.

Luke's lover Adam is an atheist New Yorker, stymied by Luke's shielding of his sexuality from his parents and desperate to be able to express his love for Luke as the younger man’s life hangs by a thread. Charlie Condou plays Adam, on stage for almost the entire play and injecting a passion into his performance that never once slips from excruciating credibility.

All the performances in this meticulously researched piece are top notch, with Mitchell Mullen's Butch, Luke's redneck father, a brilliantly crafted study of a man who has lived his life believing that gays and blacks should be lynched, now having to cope with the consequences of having denied to himself his son's sexuality. In a performance that ranges from rage to heartbreak, Mullen is masterful.

The Judaeo-Christian fusion of the North Eastern metropolis is in stark contrast to the bible-bashing prejudice of the South and Naufft's carefully constructs his drama around the painful paradoxes of faith. There are moments in the second half when the characters' back stories tend to drag, yet the drama is never more intense than when Adam grapples with wanting to tell Butch all, whilst at the same time the old man is having to contemplate the agony of agreeing to organ donation, should Luke succumb to.his devastating injuries It makes for brilliant theatre.

There is good work all round, Sirine Saba's Jewish Holly proving to be the glue struggling to sustain the damaged people around her and who all love Luke for different reasons. Nancy Crane is Luke's manic yet fragile mother Arlene, in a performance that perceptively combines a mother's agony for her wounded child, with a desperate lurch into the welcoming arms of anti-depressants.

David Woodhead's design with Howard Hudson's lighting makes clever work of The Little's compact space, efficiently suggesting changes in both time and location, and Luke Sheppard has done well on capturing the nuances from his talented troupe.

Next Fall is one of the more impressive productions of gay theatre in recent years. The performances are perfect and the play makes for a troubling and thought provoking night.

Runs until 25th October 2014

West End Heroes - Review

Dominion Theatre, London

Flt Lt Matthew Little and Tiffany Graves

One of the treats of reviewing shows is to be thrilled by on-stage excellence in theatres around the country. It is however a rare privilege to be humbled too. But to sit in a packed Dominion Theatre and witness the cream of the nation's performing talent and armed forces, joining forces for Help For Heroes was to see a night where our top-flight troopers and troupers became indistinguishable.

Michael Ball, he of National Treasure status and the reigning daddy of Britain's musical theatre world hosted the gig bringing just the right combination of gravitas and levity - and that was before he sang. Ball’s act one closer of Andersson and Ulvaeus' Anthem made spines tingle, leading to the first standing ovation of the night. And at a show supporting the sacrifices our servicemen make, his Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (and remember that Ball was Les Miserables' original Marius) carried a rare poignancy, marking those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Notable at the gala were the dozens of West End performers who had given up nights off to hoof some of their shows' biggest numbers. The Evita cast re-staged a marvellous Buenos Aires, whilst in the second half the boys from Miss Saigon gave a tear-inducing Bui Doi with Hugh Maynard, who has clearly grown into the role of John since the show opened a few months ago, owning both stage and song with an inspirational passion.

Tiffany Graves together with the RAF's secret (singing) weapon of Flt Lt Matthew Little gave a brilliant Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better capturing the wit of the song's rivalry, with the airman's tenor tones more than a match for Graves' poise and polished professional perfection. That they weaved in and out of dancers and military bandsmen during the number only added to the immaculate comedy timing of the performance. 

Matt Flint's choreography was a treat throughout, never bettered than in the Sherman Brothers' Step In Time, complete with the number's hallmark aerial tap routine that saw Freddie Huddlestone dance himself around the full 360 degrees of the Dominion's gaping proscenium arch. A special note to those masters of aerial theatre Flying By Foy, who had managed to rig the spectacular stunt in record time.

Oliver Tompsett with Jo Gibb led some beautiful wartime songs in a preview of Songs for Victory, Woman The Band gave a novel take on A Hard Day’s Night and backing for many of the evening’s soloists came from the West End Choir, made up for the night from technical and front of house folk from across the capital's theatre scene.

The night was a sparkling collection of gems. Louise Dearman blazed her way through possibly Ahrens and Flaherty's finest song, Back To Before, whilst in a pre-Xmas show promotion Wendi Peters' White Christmas created a singalong mood that was as cheesy as it was lovely. To a backdrop video of serving soldiers, Daniel Boys and Lauren Samuels gave Michael Buble's Home a distinct and moving resonance.

Les Mis offered the evening's rousing close with Do You Hear The People Sing, but not before Carrie Hope Fletcher, a woman who is simply all beautiful voice, hair and stunning presence gave what must have been her 9th (?) performance of On My Own that week. Ball introduced Fletcher, commenting that 12 years ago the much younger actress had played Jemima to his Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - hers is truly a career to watch.

But enough of the performers - what of the music? Under Stuart Morley's arrangement and direction and Wing Cmdr Duncan Stubbs’ expert baton, The Central Band Of The Royal Air Force, the big band sound of The Royal Air Force Squadronnaires, The Band of HM Royal Marines, The Band Of The Queen’s Division and The Queen’s Colour Squadron Air Force Regiment gave an accompaniment that was, as one would expect, immaculately rehearsed and drilled, proving to be a spectacular tribute to London's pit orchestras whose work they replicated superbly. 

And in referring to the military contribution to the night, here is where one must pause and reflect.

Our fine actors (or rather of course, those fortunate enough to be in employment) give of their brilliant all 6 days a week. But for Our Boys and Our Girls in uniform, service under the military covenant is 24/7. In a world that is increasingly terrifying, these personnel represent the very best of our nation, literally putting their lives on the line to defend our democratic freedoms. Theirs' is truly a 5* performance, all year round.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Sweeney Todd - Review

Twickenham Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Derek Anderson

David Bedella and Sarah Ingram

Twickenham is the newest of fringe theatres to open in the capital. Perched above a pub, little more than a stone’s throw from the train station it’s a pleasantly accessible suburban venue and with Derek Anderson’s entertaining production of Sondheim’s bloodiest work, Twickenham has laid down its marker for quality.

There’s a steampunk feel to the piece. Amidst dripping pipes and a smoke filled gloom creating the infernal grime of Mrs Lovett’s bakehouse, David Bedella and Sarah Ingram breathe life into the doomed couple. Bedella’s Todd is callow, drawn and hungry for vengeance. Controlled understatement defines his crafted performance though vocally, on press night at least, it felt that he could be giving more. In two of Sweeney’s biggest numbers, My Friends and Epiphany, Bedella is magnificent, though he and the cast are not helped by clumsy sound design throwing voices in and out of amplification depending upon proximity to static mikes.

The treat of the show however is Ingram whose buxomly decolletaged Mrs Lovett is at once a fusion of Carry On’s Hattie Jaques, Oliver’s Nancy and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Ingram nuances the menace of her character perfectly, The Worst Pies In London being a comic treat whilst By The Sea blends her romantic desperation with Sondheim’s remarkable understanding of English banter. Ingram could slow down just a tad in A Little Priest, some of the gags are garbled.

Elsewhere there is excellence from Genevieve Kingsford making her debut in the desperately challenging soprano role of Johanna. She sings exquisitely in Kiss Me and Green Finch And Linnet Bird. Mikaela Newton’s Tobias is touchningly convincing whilst Mark McKerracher is appropriately old enough to make his misogynistic lust for his young ward as disgusting as it should be, though his moment of self-flagellation is distractingly feeble.

The staging is simple with Rachel Stone’s design generally working well. Sweeney’s chair is an ingeniously low-budget affair but it serves its purpose, shuttling the slaughtered carcasses off the stage. The fake blood flows in torrents, turning most of the show’s murders into moments of comedy-horror, though too often the blood squirting nozzle is visible on the “victim”. If the mechanics behind an effect are visible, it is no longer “special” and an audience’s suspended disbelief can lurch dangerously south.

Benjamin Holder’s four piece band tackle Sondheim with aplomb. The two keyboards in particular maintain an almost orchestral backing to the show and are a constant reminder of the outstanding performance values to be found in London’s Off West End. I won’t be the only critic to say this, but make the trip to Twickenham’s Sweeney Todd. It’s a bloody good musical.

Runs until 4th October 2014

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Return Of The Soldier - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Music by Charles Miller.
Book and Lyrics by Tim Sanders
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Stewart Clarke and Laura Pitt-Pulford

There was a group of students from Mountview Drama School attending on the same night that I reviewed The Return Of The Soldier and they could not have chosen a finer master-class to demonstrate their pursued craft, for this tiny company, five strong, drip with excellence. Charlotte Westenra's production that premieres this troubling WW1 musical, marks another theatrical tribute that respects the centenary of the outbreak of "the war to end all wars".

Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actress whose name on any bill guarantees a classy performance, is Margaret, a barely happily married woman, whose feelings for a past flame of her youth are re-kindled when the dashing former beau inexplicably starts sending her love letters. Stewart Clarke plays Captain Baldry the gloriously moustachioed and patrician officer who captured her heart all those years ago. The tale unfolds and we learn that Baldry has long since married Kitty, a frightfully snobbish debutante, socially way above the common barmaid Margaret and that the Captain has just been sent back from the Front suffering from shell-shock (or PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) The PTSD has erased any memory of his marriage from his conscience, leaving him only to recall and yearn for his long lost love for Margaret. Rebecca West's novel, adapted by Tim Sanders is ripe for the grand sweep of a musical treatment. Pitt-Pulford's layered Margaret is a masterclass and we feel for her character's emotional dilemma, drawn back to the Baldry house (invited actually, by Kitty) to act almost as a "tethered goat" to try and re-kindle the injured officer’s cognisance of the present.

Making her second foray this year into the theatre of The Great War, Zoe Rainey, recently seen in Stratford East's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War! evokes both our contempt for her despicable treatment of Margaret, yet also touches a profound note of sympathy as she grapples with a husband who no longer not only recognises her, but burns with desire for his former love. Alongside Pitt-Pulford, Rainey's work is of the highest standard.

Clarke's Baldry is further evidence that this gifted young actor remains one to watch, whilst doubling up as Margaret's humbling bumbling husband William, as well as the manipulative psychiatrist Dr Anderson, Michael Matus is, as ever, excellent. There is a scene in act one where Margaret kneads dough as she talks to William and casting directors take note: a future Sweeney Todd that pairs Matus with Pitt-Pulford would be sensational.

Whilst the talent that visionary producer Katy Lipson, together with Guy James, has assembled is flawless, the same does not hold true for Miller and Sander’s writing. The melodies often fail to satisfy (notwithstanding several moments of pitch-perfect close harmony) whilst the ironic wit of Dr Anderson’s solo number Head Master lacks the incisive bite of Littlewood's near-perfect collection of war satire. As the story’s endgame plays out we learn of childrens' deaths. To lose one toddler in a plot is forgivable, to learn of two such fatalities is downright careless and notwithstanding the ending’s poignancy, the infant mortalities muddle the emotional thrust of the work, detracting from the raw brutal horrors of trench warfare and PTSD.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Return Of The Soldier is a fine piece of chamber theatre, with the cello and piano work of Simon Lambert’s band proving exquisite. In the tight confines of the Jermyn Street’s cockpit it remains an utter privilege to be able to see and scrutinise such an exceptional cast at work.

Runs to 20th September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Review

New Wimbledon Theatre Studio, London


Written by Alex Loveless
From the novel by Thomas Hardy
Directed by Chris Loveless

Jessica Daley and Nick Hayes

Alex Loveless' Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a wonderfully fresh and dynamic re-telling of a classic English story that brims with rustic reminiscence, charm and ominous drama. In this exciting piece of writing, musicianship shines as instrumental and vocal talents are seamlessly woven into 18th century Wessex village life, giving a folk inspired substance to the tale.

Tess is a young woman used and abused by Alec and over-idealised by Angel, all leading to tragic consequences. Where Hardy's novels frequently have a backdrop of foreboding barren moors, the introduction of musical theatre gives the author's whirlpool of emotions an excitement that only enhances the story.

Jessica Daley draws us in as Tess. Down to earth, honest and truly likeable, we wish for her life to work out, even though we know she is doomed. Alec is deliciously villainously played by Martin Neely. Cold, calculating and remorseless, as he duets with Tess in Forbidden Fruit the audience shivers with disgust. In complete contrast, Nick Hayes' Angel is the handsome and charismatic Angel. The love between his character and Tess is completely believable with their ravishing duet I Deal In Ideals, proving a premonition of the devastation to come. Daley’s voice is full of colour and dynamic as she changes from youthfully wide-eyed innocent, to a desperately wounded and bereft young woman. The show's tragic ending is a masterpiece, not only of musical intensity but also of outstanding stagecraft from both the company and Chris Loveless' top-notch team of creatives.

Alex Loveless has excelled at lush harmonies that are thrillingly and passionately sung by the whole company, a particular highlight being the opening number Children of the Earth. David Shield's simple yet effective set design is well complemented by lighting from Phil Spencer Hunter, both men working to create a clever evocation of time and place.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a beautiful new musical that re-tells a substantial novel with an energising score. It deserves a longer run, a bigger budget and a wider audience. Go see this show.

Runs until 27th September

Guest reviewer - Catherine Francoise

Friday, 22 August 2014

Guys and Dolls - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Sophie Thompson and Clare Foster

Chichester's newly re-launched Festival Theatre hosts its first musical with a sparkling revival of Frank Loesser’s musical fable of Broadway, Guys and Dolls. A show built around New York’s everyman and everywoman, Kenneth Tynan described Guys and Dolls on its 1953 London opening as the Beggar’s Opera of Broadway. 29 years later, at London’s National Theatre, Richard Eyre defined the work in a stellar, seminal production that paved the way for Broadway musicals to occupy a deserved place in the subsidised theatre repertoire. Now, some 30 years on from that revelatory South Bank production, American wunderkind Gordon Greenberg revives this tightest of tales of gamblers, lovers and the sheer confounding beauty of the human condition.

Based on Damon Runyon’s short story The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown, the book charts 24 hours in four of the unlikeliest of New York’s star crossed lovers. Clare Foster is Sarah Brown, a missionary who is to yield (albeit with the assistance of copious quantities of Cuban Dulche De Leche) to the wickedly chiselled refinement of Jamie Parker’s incorrigible gambler Sky Masterson. Elsewhere on Broadway Miss Adelaide, a 40-something night-club singing broad, played with sardonic hilarity by Sophie Thompson bewails her 14 year engagement to the cutest of low-lifes, Nathan Detroit, famed for running the city’s finest floating crap game. Around these four gems, a cast of missionaries, homburged hoodlums and scantily clad Hot Box debutantes, all serve to paint a cosily familiar picture of the post-war USA.  

Jamie Parker and Peter Polycarpou

Peter Polycarpou is Detroit and it is a delight to see this stalwart of British musical theatre at last take on the mantle of a leading man to open a show. Squat and hen-pecked, Polycarpou captures the impossible ironies of Detroit’s his life, with a voice and comic timing that are perfectly poised. His contribution to the three-part harmony The Oldest Established is flawless whilst as a hustler desperately seeking 1,000 bucks so he can rent a venue for his crap game, there are moments that suggest a reprisal of his Ali Hakim, also from the National from some years back.

Foster delights as Sarah, coaxing an intimacy from her post-Cuba duet with Sky, I’ve Never Been In Love Before, that was breathtaking, whilst Parker’s Luck Be A Lady was dreamily suave yet defined the passion behind his love for Sarah.

There is excellence throughout Greenberg’s company. Nick Wilton’s Harry The Horse was built for double-breasted pin stripes, Harry Morrison’s Nicely Nicely Johnson is every inch the water buffalo that his character should be, (even if the showstopping encore for Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat did seem just a tad pre-planned) whilst amongst the Hot Box ensemble, Anabel Kutay leads her dancing generation with a cameo as the Havana Diva that is jaw-dropping.

Peter McKintosh’s simple set design of classic posters of the era, each framed by marquee lights suggested a nod to John Gunter’s 1982 festival of advertising-neon. Alongside, Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright’s choreography opens up the trademark numbers with panache, whilst still allowing a spot of table dancing to be wafted into Take Back Your Mink. My only complaint: For such a shiny stage floor and so many wonderfully be-spatted Guys, where was the tap routine? When this show transfers to London (as it surely must) no doubt the Acosta/Wright team can rectify!

In our troubled world Guys and Dolls, this most frothy of fantasies, is a wonderfully whimsical tonic. It’s a place where, as Adelaide and Sarah dream of changing their men post-wedding and Sky Masterson’s mantra is that no matter how desirable, “no doll can take the place of aces back to back”, the story remains gloriously grounded amongst recognisable characters.

The show is selling out fast – and rightly so. The Festival Theatre audience rose as one to salute the cast (and luxuriously furnished 15-piece band) on press night. Musicals don't get better than this. 

Runs to 21st September 2014
Photos by Johan Person

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Hired Man - Review

St James Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Dominic Harrison and Amara Okereke

The programme notes for this production written by Howard Goodall himself, speak of the poignant significance of The Hired Man being staged in 2014, the centenary of the Great War. Goodall references the youthful age of the soldiers slaughtered in that infernal conflict, bringing a haunting resonance to bear upon this powerful interpretation of the show, produced by NYMT with a predominantly teenage cast.

The tale spans a thirty year stretch of English history, betwixt the 19th and 20th centuries and follows John Tallentire, the titular hired man and his journey through the economic evolution of his beloved Cumbrian fells. We see John shift from being a skilled ploughman, to an oppressed life below ground in a coal mine.  The demands of industry are replacing the more traditional rural lifestyles whilst against this backdrop, wife Emily falls into an adulterous affair with Jackson Pennington the dashing son of the local landowner and the First World War looms, ultimately to devastate the Tallentire family and the wider community.

Goodall and Bragg created an ingenious piece of theatre with The Hired Man. The first act is intimate, focussed upon John, his family and Emily’s extra-marital desires, before the second act widens the musical’s scope exponentially, addressing the march of industry, the rise of the trade union movement and the brutality of the War.

Under Nikolai Foster’s generally perceptive eye Dominic Harrison does well as John, carrying the burden of the narrative through his performance. It’s not easy for any teenage boy to play a cuckold, though Harrison rises to the challenge with a creditable performance as a good, if wronged man. Opposite him Amara Okereke, Maria in NYMT’s 2013 West Side Story is Emily, reprising her exquisite vocal work, combined with immaculate nuance, to create her complex character. A Yorkshire lass, Okereke’s natural northern brogue suits the play’s geography perfectly. The cast of thirty are at their best in Nick Winston’s splendidly choreographed numbers, none better than the multi-part harmonies that close each act, thrilling with the fusion of melody, lyrics and a stage full of young people in perfect synchronicity. 

An actor-muso production, many of the company are all the more remarkable for mastering their instrument on stage as well as acting. Joe Eaton-Kent’s exquisite work on violin/viola more than matches his work as Jackson Pennington, whilst amongst the (many) unsung gems of this cast Gloria Obianyo’s guitar playing adds a folksy contemporary touch to the sound not commonly heard. The credit for this innovative musical impact with musical director Sarah Travis. Re-arranging numbers to accommodate the actor-muso transition it turns out that much like adding mineral water to a fine scotch malt, so has Travis taken Goodall’s score and opened it up, releasing hitherto hidden yet beautiful complexities. These revelations are particularly highlighted in act one’s Fill It To The Top and in the second half’s haunting post-war elegy, Day Follows Day. 

Farewell Song, sung by the entire company immediately before the young men leave to  face the terrors of France, remains one of the most moving songs in the musical theatre canon, its words depicting  the anguish of such painful partings. As Goodall’s exquisite key changes pluck at our heart strings, if ever a song were to merit inclusion in November’s annual Festival of Remembrance it is this one.

Ben Cracknell’s stark lighting work cleverly depicts the shifts in the story’s time and location, whilst Matthew Wright’s flag-stoned stage perfectly anchors the show’s era. Notably absent from the production team is a hair and make-up professional. This is an unfortunate omission as the show’s final scenes, of Emily and John in more senior years, demand a more visible change in appearances to mark the passing of time and would have assisted the young actors in portraying their parents’ generation more convincingly.

But bravo to NYMT and the inspirational vision of producer Jeremy Walker. Yet again, in an incredibly short space of time and coached by some of the industry’s finest creatives, talented young amateurs have gone on to realise theatrical excellence on a commercial stage.