Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Product - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


***

Written by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Robert Shaw


Olivia Poulet

Ten years is a long time in the theatre and as geo-political influences and events have shifted, so too has Mark Ravenhill’s Product that was written in 2005 for a world post 9/11, come to look a little dated.

The one-hander focusses around movie producer Leah who is attempting to sell the role of Amy to Julia, a wannabe starlet. The emptiness of Amy’s life and by analogy Leah’s, is highlighted in the sharp contrast between what motivates her and what motivates the tall, dusky ‘hero’.

Ravenhill’s perspectives would have been timely and relevant in their day, with Amy having been wounded by the events of 9/11 and the loss of her lover in the Twin Towers’ destruction. The writer’s aim of confronting our own prejudices, stereotypes and interestingly, our fantasies too, not so much of Islam, but of Islamic men, would also have made for an interesting conceit, giving us a flavour of the appeal to loveless faithless Western women of the tall, dusky men whose lives are dominated by ‘the knife’ and ‘the prayer mat’, subservient to the mullah and a guaranteed path to paradise.

But the shadow of recent years’ atrocities, both in the UK and abroad, have cast a sobering shadow over Ravenhill’s “romanticized” perspective and writing a decade ago, he could never have conceived the notion of young women fleeing this country in the hope of finding love amongst terrorist fighters abroad. 

Olivia Poulet’s Leah is a powerful performance with the cliché rich text that Leah enthusiastically thumbs throughout the 50 minute monologue quite possibly serving as a metaphor for her own cliché ridden life. The passion with which she enthuses the storyline’s references to its heroine’s huge loft style apartment in a converted East London abattoir, albeit lacking a loving relationship, suggest her own lifestyle might be somewhat similar.

Whilst its relevance may have waned, Product remains a powerfully performed and sharp observation of the humiliating process of pitching, written with a generous measure of humour that draws an empathetic laugh from the audience. Poulet’s creation of the parallel characters of Leah and Amy, bringing the starlet Julia to life through her one-way exchanges with the audience, is masterful and her performance alone justifies the ticket.


Runs until 23rd May 2015

Scott Alan & Cynthia Erivo: Home Again - Review

St James Studio, London

*****



Coming in the midst of the London Festival of Cabaret, Scott Alan leaves a very distinctive handprint on the genre. Typically contemplative, his songs touch emotions that are common to us all - love and loss, rejection and reflection. It is however in Alan's sharing of his life with his audience, (where his pre-song spiel can often last longer than the song itself) that he re-engineers cabaret. Where earlier in the week this pied-piper of songwriting had assembled a phone-book sized guest list of artists to sing his work, tonight was one of a three-night residency simply featuring Cynthia Erivo alongside the songwriter. 

I have written before of Erivo's handling of some of Alan's most sensitive work and as Broadway beckons, it is plain to see that she is not only one of Alan’s most cherished friends, she is also fast becoming a muse to his creativity.

With one of the strongest yet most perfectly controlled voices of her generation, Erivo brings a polished fragility to Alan’s soulful verse, her take on And There It Is displaying an almost ethereal impishness as her lightly smiling face belied a lyric of complex emotions.

When the pair occasionally duetted, their sensitive counterpoint added a depth. Always, which ended the first half was exquisitely rendered and later it was to be Alan who (surprisingly) delivered the opening lines of Anything Worth Holding Onto before Erivo joined him in a song of remarkable profundity that she has long laid claimed to. 

The act one closer was preceded by a confessional to the microphone of the painful loss Alan still feels for Kyle, an ex-boyfriend now deceased. As Alan sobbed at the microphone, there was a sense of witnessing a man on a high wire, as this gifted composer continues to challenge his demons, though any hint of audience prurience or of performer-sensationalism should be swept aside. Alan continually battles his depression and chooses to do so, at times in public and at a piano. His message to those who criticise his on-stage confessionals was blunt. Knowing that his words have inspired other depressives to choose life, he values that contribution over a critic’s carping. It is impossible to fault the man’s integrity, nor to be inspired by his message.

It wasn’t entirely Alan and Erivo. Oliver Tompsett returned to the St James’ stage with a gorgeously nuanced Kiss The Air, Alan’s paean to his mother left bereft after his father’s abrupt marriage walk-out. Tompsett was also to earn an ovation when he was thrust (by Erivo) into joining her in Never Neverland, a song that was not only out of his range but one that he was also completely unfamiliar with. Tompsett rose to the challenge – and where Alan can often be a Lord of Misrule, subjecting his singers to impromptu set-list changes and additions, it was a treat to see him for once hoist with his own petard, Erivo delightfully calling the shots.

Their sold-out run ends tonight – and if Alan needs anything to hold onto at all it is knowing that whilst Erivo is in New York with The Color Purple, the two of them could pack out 54 Below every Sunday night for a year. Get ready to book your tickets, you read it here first!



Jerry's Girls - Review

St James Studio, London

****

Created by Jerry Herman and Larry Alford
Directed by Kate Golledge


Sarah-Louise Young, Anna-Jane Casey and Ria Jones

After the relative failure of Mack & Mabel on Broadway, Jerry Herman took a break from composition and embraced interior design. It might seem an unusual departure for the writer of mega-hits such as Mame and Hello Dolly! but Herman was pragmatic about the highs and lows of the industry. In 1981 however, he teamed up with Larry Alford to create a small cabaret of his greatest hits called Jerry's Girls. The production was a modest success and when La Cage Aux Folles opened two years later, Herman was hot again and with a little tweaking Jerry's Girls was given a full-blown production, first in Florida and then on Broadway.

Perhaps embracing the original concept, Aria Productions puts the emphasis on the songs rather than spectacle and feature three diversely talented performers - Ria Jones, Anna-Jane Casey and Sarah-Louise Young -  each of whom bring something very special to the table. Director Kate Golledge recognises the lightness of touch required for this style of cabaret and allows this triple-threat trio a relatively free hand to engage properly with their audience.

Musically, the highlights come thick and fast, from the clinking glasses that herald Tap Your Troubles Away to the edifying anthem I Am What I Am, delivered with steely determination by an exceptional Jones. Casey proves once again a truly versatile performer, clambering across the grand piano trilling the hilarious Nelson and yet bringing such poignancy to If He Walked Into My Life. Young's comic timing is very much in evidence throughout, no doubt honed through years on the cabaret circuit and lending an easy familiarity to the nature of La Cage Aux Folles.

In the intimacy of the St James Studio Matthew Cole's choreography only really comes to the fore with the Tap Your Troubles Away routine. What this number actually highlights is the versatility of Edward Court on piano and Sophie Byrne on woodwind, who gamely join in the routine and establish themselves irrefutably as part of the ensemble.

Jerry's Girls is however something of a misnomer. The book lists a few token references to the great performers Herman wrote for including Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters and of course, there are his creations such as Dolly Levi, Mame Dennis, Mabel Normand, Countess Aurelia from Dear World and -  somewhat ambiguously - Zaza from La Cage. Thankfully Jerry's Boys make a few appearances and it wouldn't really be a Herman retrospective without the lyrical signature tune from Mack and Mabel, I Won't Send Roses.

Whichever way you look at it, one thing Jerry's Girls will remind you of is Herman's mastery of the musical theatre idiom. A genius of lyric as well as music, you will leave Jerry's Girls anxious for a revival of Mame or at least a desire to check out Hello Dolly! on Netflix. Of course, dedicated Herman fans will have already caught the wonderful recent production of The Grand Tour at the Finborough and have probably already booked for Mack and Mabel at Chichester.


Runs until March 15th 2015

Guest Reviewer : Paul Vale

Monday, 4 May 2015

Scott Alan :Everything Worth Holding Onto - Review

St James Theatre, London

*****


There was a deliciously different diversity that Scott Alan brought to his one-off gig at the St James Theatre. Entertaining a packed house for an eye-watering (almost) four hours, his guest list ranged from West End stars and TV Reality Show finalists through to audience wannabes.

The New York based singer/songwriter has strong friendships with many of musical theatre’s leading ladies and recent years has seen Cynthia Erivo evolve into a performer who truly gets under the skin of Alan’s writing. With a 3 night Alan & Erivo residency (sold out) about to start at the venue’s smaller Studio room, her inclusion on the bill was an unexpected treat. Erivo set the tone for the evening with her signature Rolls-Royce vocal performance – immense power couched in a silky, elegant style.

An Alan gig is never less than a ballad-fest and Oliver Tompsett, guesting with Darlin’ (Without You), sealed the atmosphere of soulful reflection. It was however to be Madalena Alberto’s take on Blessing, with its verses documenting the pain of Alan coming out to his mother, that brought many to tears. 

In another moment of exquisite soprano serenity, The Phantom Of The Opera's Christine and her cover, Harriet Jones and Emmi Christensson respectively, gave an enchanting interpretation of Always On Your Side. They proved a breathtakingly beautiful pairing, with later on in the evening and also from Phantom, Oliver Savile impressing too.

Anna Jane Casey offered an accomplished excellence to And There It Is, in yet another performance that spoiled the audience with the riches of talent that Alan is able to invite and it was a precious moment that then saw Sophie Evans, previously one of Lloyd Webber’s Dorothys and a finalist from the BBC’s Over The Rainbow, give a fresh nuance to Look, A Rainbow.  

Newcomer David Albury performed one of the writer’s most popular numbers Never Neverland with an invigorating up-tempo beat – though in a delightful twist Alan was later to invite any audience member who wanted to sing the number, to join him on stage. Reminiscent of kids called up to a pantomime stage, this impromptu people’s chorus made for a moment that was free of all pretension, with some stunning yet to be discovered voices in the routine!

Elsewhere and away from established star names, Alan had unearthed via YouTube Nicola Henderson and Dublin’s Niall O’Halloran, two performers who shone in their brief moment of West End limelight. The Irishman’s Kiss The Air proving particularly powerful.

And there was just so much more to the gig – It speaks volumes for the professional devotion of Eva Noblezada, currently performing Miss Saigon’s Kim 8 times a week, that she could find the honed energy to sing Alan’s Home with a perfectly poised passion. Lucie Jones was shown somewhat less respect in a cheekily foof-fuelled intro from Alan, but her sensational Watch Me Soar more than answered her host’s irreverence.

Teamed with Craig Colton, Zoe Birkett’s The Journey was immense. Carley Stenson wowed with her usual aplomb and in a revelatory performance Danny-Boy Hatchard, aka EastEnders’ Lee Carter took Alan’s Now, a song written amidst the still bleeding wounds of a ripped-apart relationship and stunned the room again.

Alan famously wears his heart on his sleeve, speaking to the audience of his battle with depression and doing much to trample on the stigma associated with mental health. Above all his overarching message and one that many are likely to have found inspirational, is that life is worth holding on to. (Though the frequent references to his evening’s diet comprising white wine and Xanax could have been toned down.) 

Supported on the night by a six-piece band that was all strings and percussion, Musical Director and drummer Ryan Martin delivered a perfectly rehearsed and weighted accompaniment.

As the gig came to a close Erivo returned. Broadway-bound this year as she takes her sensational Celie in The Color Purple to star in New York, when news broke of her casting Alan wrote her a song. At All captured Erivo’s excitement at the achievement of having landed the show’s transfer, yet crossed that emotion with her pain at having to leave her loved ones behind in the UK. Honest lyrics that reduced the singer to tears.

It was left to Sam Bailey to wrap a fine and moving evening with Alan’s cri de coeur, Anything Worth Holding Onto.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Backtrack - Review

**

Written by Mick Sands
Directed by Tom Sands

Julian Glover prepares to hit some unwittingyoung campers for six

Backtrack is an ambitiously self-proclaimed "psychological horror" whose far-fetched story rests upon 4 unfortunate young people who regress (either deliberately or without realising) into their "past-lives". Unfortunately ley lines get tangled and it turns out that the past-lives in question coincide with the very much present life of a now-doddery Nazi parachutist who had been sent into Britain to cause mayhem during World War Two. His mission failed when his plane crashed on Sussex's South Downs and now the old and gruesomely scarred German ekes out his days as a devil-worshipping recluse in a Sussex barn, quietly awaiting the opportunity to avenge the deaths of his wife and kids who didn't survive the war. 

Julian Glover, veteran of the RSC and almost a national treasure, plays the old man and that this movie even scores two stars is due to Glover's outstanding contribution, making the often execrable dialog sound threatening. Elsewhere Haydn West’s sumptuous Downs photography and Richard Morson's score also impress.

But that's it. Opening with a WW2 battle sequence that seems inspired by the Call Of Duty video game, with references elsewhere to horror classics The Shining and An American Werewolf In London, director Sands' ambitions are high. His achievement however is a movie that resembles a cross between a shoddier version of Carry On Camping, crossed with a DIY instruction video as Glover gets medieval with a blowtorch on the unfortunate youngsters. 

Good horror along with well executed gory effects is all part of the magic of the movies. But Backtrack just isn’t good. Glover apart, the acting disappoints, with much of the film proving unintentionally comical (the scene in which a tractor drags an occupied tent across a field could be straight out of Top Gear). Further, too much of the graphic violence is gratuitously laboured, with shoddy visual effects to boot. In their recent film Big Bad Wolves, directors Keshales and Papushado showed how horrific a blowtorch can be, when photographed by a skilled and subtle director. Unfortunately Backtrack's racks of sizzling human flesh amount to little more than cheap “torture porn” 

Nonetheless the movie does represent a new filmmaker practising his craft and when I spoke with Glover about the shoot, the actor, who to his credit has a recognised history of supporting emerging creative talent, spoke highly of the professionalism of Sands and his cast and crew. 

Accompanied by a good drink and maybe a takeaway, Backtrack could make for an evening's entertainment. Just go easy on ordering anything flame-grilled.


UK RELEASE: Backtrack is now available in the UK on DVD and LoveFilm through Mandala Films and on Amazon Prime and Blinkbox through Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment under the alternate title ‘Nazi Vengeance.’

Then and Now - Review

***

Written by Matt Hookings and Bashford Twins
Directed by Bashford Twins


Julian Glover

Then and Now is a short film from Kyle and Liam Bashford, (the Bashford Twins) that sees Julian Glover as an elderly Englishman struggling to cope with bereavement some years after the 9/11 attacks on New York's Twin Towers.

Carefully photographed, the movie offers a touching and sensitive comment upon both age and grief. With the exception of Matt Hookings who (as well as having co-written and produced) briefly appears as a young relative of the old man, the short is very much a one-hander with Glover deploying his trademark depth and perception in the role. If the script has occasional irritations, the seasoned actor does a fine job in imbuing credibility to his character's pain

Worth catching to see one of our finest performers in action and lending his talent in support of a team of young filmmakers who display an attractive potential.

Bugsy Malone - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London

****

Play by Alan Parker
Words and Music by Paul Williams
Directed by Sean Holmes


Zoe Brough

The list of gangster movies inspired by 1920’s prohibition-era Chicago is lengthy, but it was not to be until 1976 that British director Alan Parker was to redefine the genre with Bugsy Malone. His award-winning feature film was an inspired musical romp for children, with the classic themes of love and crime all scaled down to a kids-eye view of morality and with sub-machine guns converted to spray custard-pie “splurge” rather than murderous lead. 

Bugsy Malone is rarely seen on stage and the Lyric Hammersmith, re-opening now after a multi-million pound redevelopment, could not have chosen a more suitable show. With new facilities aimed at engaging young people and connecting with the community, Artistic Director Sean Holmes describes the show as “witty and ironic, heartfelt yet never sentimental” and as director, he delivers on his promise. 

From the opening sequence of ‘Splurge Gun’ shootings the world in which these junior mobsters thrive is teed up perfectly. Splurge aside, Holmes and his choreographer Drew McOnie do a fine job in ensuring the 7 youngsters playing lead roles alongside the 12 older ensemble members seamlessly deliver the show’s style and energy.  

The show has a history of being a launch pad for the stars of tomorrow with a young Jodie Foster having played gangster’s moll Tallulah in the movie, whilst in 1996 a youthful Sheridan Smith graced the National Youth Music Theatre’s production, in the same role. Impressing this time round (or at least on the night that the Baz was in) Zoe Brough as Blousy Blouse sang Ordinary Fool with an innocence and honesty that ran throughout her performance. In the title role, Sasha Gray's performance is a charmer. 

While the young cast shine as individuals, the ensemble are electric together. Once again McOnie devises stunning dance and his company make it look easy. From car chase to boxing match there seems no limit to his creativity, which also manages to maintain a tongue in cheek playfulness, notably in Fat Sam’s gang’s group number Bad Guys.

Jon Bausor’s set design sees slick transitions from speakeasy to sidewalk, whilst Phil Bateman’s band makes perfect work of Williams’ gorgeously hummable tunes.

Staging the show meticulously, Holmes ensures that as all the splurge stays on stage, with audience faces only ending up spattered with smiles. Mounting a show so dependent on young shoulders is a risk for any creative team, yet the Lyric have found themselves with a sure-fire hit on their hands.


Runs until 1st August 2015