Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Hired Man In Concert - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book and narration by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Samuel Hopkins

It is all too rare that an established musical is performed as a stand-alone concert. Taking the rich beauty of Howard Goodall's score and having it sung by some of the industry's biggest names, it was no wonder that The Hired Man in Concert, for one night only, was a hot ticket. Not just that the leads were joined by an onstage ensemble and accompanied by a stunning 14 piece orchestra, conducted beautifully by Andrew Linnie, narration was also delivered at various points, by none other than the book's author, Melvyn Bragg. 

Set in England around the turn of the 20th century, The Hired Man focuses on the day to day life of those who lived on and worked the Cumbrian farms out on the fells and who were inevitably to go off and fight in the Great War. From the outset Goodall's score richly defines atmosphere and emotion, going hand in hand with events as they unfold. For audience members the piece is a roller coaster of emotions and the celebratory highs and tragic lows were not lost within this concert version. 

Amongst the cast there wasn't a weak link to be found, particularly amongst the vocal power houses of the leading voices. However while all seven leads delivered excellence, it was a shame that all referred frequently to script and score in front of them, detracting from the power of both spoken and sung performances. Hiccups aside, the cast delivered sterling performances.

Jenna Russell's Emily Tallentire bubbled with detail and nuance in all the moments of her character's uncertainty, while John Owen-Jones made Goodall's music sound easy, adding just the right amount of passion and struggle. Both performers are so well known for so much, but tonight it was just a treat to hear them get their vocal teeth stuck into Goodall's mellifluous melodies.

And for the aficionados in the crowd, there was the neatest of touches. On stage and in a marvellous performance singing the role of Seth Tallentire (John’s brother) was Stewart Clarke. It had been Clarke’s parents Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills who’d played John and Emily in 1984 when the show premiered in the West End. 

Director Samuel Hopkins ensured that the minimal staging complimented rather than confused proceedings. Simple costuming gave a sense of each of the characters' backgrounds, while stunning projections filled the immense white back drop of the Cadogan Hall's rear wall. Those images, alongside Bragg's narration, were welcome sign posts guiding the audience through the show's key settings and contextual changes. 

Notwithstanding a few teething issues (be easily forgiven in a one night only gig) the show still captivated its audience, the concert format bringing a magnifying glass to Goodall's stunning score. This is without doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of British Musical Theatre and after this concert treatment, one cannot help but feel that The Hired Man needs another outing in London's West End.

Reviewed by: Andrew Milton

Friday, 23 September 2016

No Man's Land - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Sean Mathias

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Every once in a while the theatrical planets align to create a pairing of such fine actors that it may well be unmatched for a generation. So it is with Harold Pinter's absurdist gem No Man's Land, a work that’s always best played by starry knights. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud first created Pinter’s curious curmudgeons during the National Theatre's residency at the Old Vic in 1975. Today the honours fall to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart who again re-unite to lead an evening of theatre that remains as perplexing as it is entertaining.

In their twilight years Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen) chance upon each other in a pub on Hampstead Heath before retiring to Hirst's nearby mansion. We learn that both men have literary achievements of varying pedigree, but while the wealthy and patrician Hirst still exudes an air of the virile masculinity that that made him an accomplished ladies’ man in years past, Spooner, the shabbier by far, is a down on his luck gay poet who spends his time earning a few bob collecting glasses in another local pub and spying on clandestine homosexual liaisons on the Heath. As the alcohol flows, the bleakness of their respective no man's lands of old age gradually emerges.

It wouldn’t be Pinter without a sinister undertone, injected here by two younger men, Foster and Briggs (Damien Molony and Owen Teale respectively) who also reside with Hirst. Quite what or who they are isn’t defined, though the suggestion that they are poised to prey upon the old man's wealth is never far away.

Amidst this cocktail of comedy and conspiracy, Pinter's prose is a delight. Hirst hates the "solitary shittery" of his decline, whilst Spooner is threateningly taunted as a "minge juice bottler". The bravura of the text is as timely as Stephen Brimson Lewis' exquisite costuming, with the 1970s so perfectly defined that the play could almost be a fusion of Derek and Clive mixed with The Sweeney.

Acclaimed on Broadway (though one wonders how American audiences have ever managed a text so steeped in London's geography and vernacular) Sean Mathias extracts power as much as pathos and frailty from his leading men. There's a hint of Shakespeare in the play's nosings too. Consider in act two how a vulnerable Lear or Gloucester could be being channelled - with the younger men's brutality (think here of Regan’s Cornwall) merely being hinted at. 

For lovers of theatre, drama does not get better than this, especially with both McKellen and Stewart having evolved into latter day screen giants. Freed from the close-up confines of film and TV work the pair are unmissable, with an electrifying chemistry in their interaction

No Man's Land may ultimately remain as unfathomable as Pinter intended, but no matter. Much like a generous measure of one of Hirst's malts (and a 40 year one at that), this production offers performance and dialog and oh, those glorious pauses that merit being swirled around in a heavy glass, savoured and carefully contemplated.

Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Pianist of Willesden Lane - Review

St James Theatre, London


Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder
Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by  Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

In a non-stop performance of virtuoso theatre, The Pianist of Willesden Lane sees Mona Golabek, an accomplished American concert pianist, pay the most remarkable of tributes to her late mother Lisa Jura.

An accomplished pianist herself and who in fact taught her daughter Mona to play, the Jewish Jura was born in Vienna in the 1920s and as the tentacles of Nazism spread into Austria, by a quirk of fortune was to be spared the unfolding Holocaust. Following the Kristallnacht in 1938 her family, heartbreakingly, placed her on a Kindertransport train to London, where she ultimately found herself billeted at a hostel in Willesden Lane. Here friendships were formed, her Jewish heritage was preserved and her love for the piano was encouraged.

Jura told her life history to Golabek who then published her mother's story as a book. Subsequently and working with director Hershey Felder, Jura’s journey has been translated into this 90 minute solo show that combines a heartfelt narrative interspersed with exquisitely performed extracts of some of the greatest classical piano compositions - and there is even a sprinkling of American songbook gems too. It makes for an evening of moving powerful drama as we follow Jura's heroic personal endeavours and learn of her family’s fate as European Jewry burned. 

Simply staged, Golabek sits at a Steinway itself framed by a handful of gilt picture frames upon which images of loved ones or historical scenes are projected. It's slick yet painstaking, with the unfolding of a story that is as inspirational as it is educational - telling ultimately of how British kindness offered sanctuary to the forever grateful refugee child.

Lisa Jura's story is one of beauty, goodness and perseverance that was born out of a time of evil, slaughter and destruction, but what makes The Pianist of Willesden Lane truly remarkable is the woman who has made it possible. Golabek tells her mother's remarkable story, one of so many that must never be forgotten, in a performance of elegance, dignity and breathtaking musical excellence.

Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Alchemist - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by Ben Jonson
Directed by Polly Findlay

Mark Lockyer

First performed in 1610, Ben Jonson's powerful and timeless satire of city life is presented here at its best, thanks to a flamboyant and utterly enjoyable RSC production.

The Alchemist has always been a vibrant tale about human miseries and weaknesses, with its promenade of highly iconic and recognisable characters. Polly Findlay's beautiful direction however adds something more to the story: an up-to-date twist and a sparkling syncopated rhythm.  The new prologue and script revisions by Stephen Jeffreys are fundamental in achieving that. The original version's sometimes wordy text, cut by one fifth here, is lighter and clearer. What is left is a magnificent play that, at its very core, proves capable of engaging a contemporary audience too.

The cut and thrust dialogue between the on and off sides of the stage starts from the very beginning with the sparkling use of the musical prologue: a complex twine of classical and cinematographic melodies cleverly arranged by composer Corin Buckeridge and sound designer Gregory Clarke.

The plot is well-known: during the plague of 1610 a mischievous trio formed by Face, Subtle and Dol Common take advantage of the temporary absence of the master of the house – the wealthy Lovewit – and use it as the headquarters of their dubious trade.

Subtle, playing the part of the Alchemist, arranges a series of swindles to the detriment of various greedy and foolish human beings: taking advantage of their vanities and very worldly desires he manages to help relieve them of their money. But in mad times it is all too easy for the trickster to become the tricked

The sharp, witty script is delivered impeccably by the three leads and this production's real strength lies in the energetic chemistry between them: like three separate elements they are the human embodiment of the perfect alchemic process. Mark Lockyer’s superb Subtle is all power and rush, like a rascally version of a grumpy Prospero, a masculine presence that reigns over the stage; Ken Nwosu’s Face is utterly convincing in its humanity, he is the “Servitore di due padroni” – the unfaithful servant who in the end proves his faith, while Siobhan McSweeny’s depiction of Dol Common is truly surprising – there is so much unsaid in her character, but nonetheless she is able to turn each silent look into an entire speech.

A saucy farce, slightly reminiscent of Blackadder, The RSC's Alchemist is pure gold and shouldn't be missed. Go and discover it for yourself!

Runs until 1st October
Reviewed by Simona Negretto
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

27 - Review

Cockpit Theatre, London


Music, book and lyrics by Sam Cassidy
Music by Matt Wills
Co-directed by Arlene Phillips and Sam Cassidy

Cassie Compton

The premise behind 27 is both noble and tragic. Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin all died at that age and Sam Cassidy's musical seeks to explore some possible greater satanic force that robs the world of gifted talent at such a tender age.

It's a brave and ambitious venture from Cassidy and his co-tunesmith Matt Wills and of course the sheer hard work in writing a new musical is to be saluted. But whilst their show is glitzy, containing some stunning performance, dance and movement, the narrative for the most part is execrable and arguably, exploitative. When even the show's own programme spells Joplin's first name as Janice, the fates don't augur well.

The plot follows a fictitious rock star, stage named Orpheus who is the lead singer of his band The Argonauts. Notwithstanding some insultingly unsubtle hints that connect the story to Greek and other mythologies (act one could almost be re-named Orpheus On The Underground), we are invited to follow a Faustian pact that Orpheus signs with the Devil. He is granted world fame but it comes at the cost of uncontrollable substance abuse. 

A show that could potentially have been a beautifully heartbreaking study into untimely death, in fact becomes a hybrid of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus and Disney's Hercules but with less memorable songs. Oh, and there's just a twist of The Exorcist sprinkled over act two for good measure.

To be fair there's a moving epilogue that tantalisingly hints at the emotional depths that could have been plumbed - but for the most part 27 doesn't so much mark the loss of 4 rock legends as dance upon their graves in which they are quite possibly spinning.

There are some good bits. Greg Oliver battles with his ridiculously clich├ęd role, turning in a convincing and harrowing performance as the drug-addicted Orpheus. Ryan Molloy steals every scene as the Hades/Devil character, with an unbridled energy and that sensational voice. Cassie Compton who also only knows excellence shines as Amy, Orpheus' true love, whilst understudy on the night Erin Bell was fabulous in the Mephistophelean role of infernal temptress Ms. M. There's also eye-candy for all, with an ensemble clad for the most part in lashings of lingerie or spray-on leather. Brava Lucy Alexander for the stylish costume design.

The dance work choreographed by Ryan-Lee Seager and Lucy Martin is sensational and imaginative, perhaps to be expected with Arlene Phillips co-directing alongside Cassidy. Notwithstanding the story's flaws, the routines complement its outrageousness perfectly being cleverly conceived and meticulously rehearsed as Matt Nalton’s band produce a rock infused beat throughout. 

The gifted Jodie Jacobs plays one of The Fates and that at times her voice was inaudible does not speak well of the show's sound design. Likewise the lavish lighting and set design (someone has invested a fortune in 27) failed to pick out the three Fates high above the action. Smoke and fancy spotlights, (hell, this Hell even has hydraulics) are all well and good, but when key characters can neither be seen nor heard, money's been wasted.

27 doesn't need work, so much as a total re-write. There may well be a beautiful show crying out to be written here, but this ain't it.

Runs to 22nd October
Photo credit: Nick Ross

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Vanities: The Musical - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum
Book by Jack Heifner
Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews

Lizzy Connolly, Ashleigh Gray and Lauren Samuels

With Racky Plews' production, and some 40 years after Jack Heifner's play premiered in New York, Vanities in its musical iteration finally crosses the Atlantic to make its London debut.

A three-handler, Kathy, Mary and Joanne are Texan women who we meet as teenage high school cheerleaders on the day of what was to be Kennedy's assassination. Over four acts the musical charts the trio through their college years, adulthood and divergent paths.

In part it's an everywoman story – about dreams that are aspired to, many of which remain unfulfilled as lives play out and compromises are made. And while male fallibility proves a consistent theme, David Kirshenbaum's lyrics explore and test the bonds of female friendship to the best that a man’s perspective can probably offer. Entertaining throughout, even if the story is heavy on the cheese it is the outstanding production values of this modestly staged piece that make it fizz. 

Ashleigh Gray, Lauren Samuels and Lizzy Connolly play the friends, each bringing a perfectly nuanced weight to their very different characters. As one might expect from such a talented line up the performances are flawless, with vocals and close harmonies that are delightful.

Some of the lines are caustically clever. As one of the friends remarks in her older years, she may be a woman who "doesn't know the joy of motherhood" but "does know the relief of abortion". Some of the wit is razor sharp, reminding one perhaps of Stephen Schwartz's song Popular, from Wicked, expanded into an entire show.

The design is classy too with Andrew Riley making clever use of the Studio's compact space. Richard Mawbey's wig work is similarly sensational and the footwear is fabulous. Not just killer dialogue, the killer heels are stunning! Hidden away offstage, Tamara Saringer's 5 piece band are equally sassy. 

Notwithstanding that the show was written by men, this production has a fabulously female feel to it throughout. With Plews’ pinpoint direction and choreography proving sensitive and perceptive throughout. Focussing on the detail, it is the minutest facial expressions that she coaxes from her actors that carry as much of the narrative as their enchanting vocals.

Only on for another couple of weeks, the story may be as tight as its slight, but an exquisite cast makes for an evening of rather gorgeous theatre.

Runs until 1st October
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Billy Joel at Wembley Stadium - Review


Billy Joel at Wembley Stadium 

Billy Joel opened his Wembley Stadium concert at the weekend, announcing to what was indeed a pretty good crowd for a Saturday, that "there's no new stuff here, it's just the old shit". And of course the crowd that had shuffled in wanted no more than just that – for Joel, the ultimate Piano Man, to play them a memory. 

In what his now his fifth decade on the road, Joel ever the consummate entertainer, duly delivered dipping into his remarkable catalogue for a non-stop set that lasted two and a half hours. He may be a white-haired 67 but that voice is timeless. Close your eyes and he could oh so easily have been wearing a younger man's clothes.

The last two years have seen Joel take up the first residency at New York's legendary Madison Square Garden and this brief trip across the Atlantic (he was in London for one night only) is an extension of that season. And there is something so incredibly appropriate about a man so infused with the spirit of New York, making “The Garden” his performing home. Joel hasn't sold out long term with a ticket to the West Coast or Vegas - what you see (and hear!) with him is what you get. 

A singer songwriter and as much musician as vocalist, Joel's keyboard skills are unsurpassed in the rock world. Opening the set with Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) the crowd were fired up for Prelude / Angry Young Man which remains breathtaking in its audacious piano intro. Video montages of upright piano keyboards offered an alternative interpretation of a skyscraper skyline.

Billy Joel at Wembley Stadium 

The classics were (mostly) all there, Joel occasionally offering the crowd a Fielder's Choice of two songs, allowing them to roar their desire for the song they wanted to hear the most. All the choices were gems, though greedy fans could not help but feel wistful for treats such as Summer, Highland Falls that failed to make the cut - though in that particular instance Vienna, the chosen song, was of course exquisite. 

Inevitably, the evening was more than just a whirl through Joel's hits. A passing gravelly voiced snatch of A Little Help From My Friends made for a brief tribute to Joe Cocker, whilst with the gig falling on the same evening as the Last Night Of The Proms, Joel couldn't resist a little post-Brexit fun, leading the audience into a rousing Rule Britannia - though staying neutral, he next rattled off the EU anthem aka Beethoven's Ode To Joy.

Joel's hallmark is commenting on the human condition, be it global or individual, consistently setting his perceptive wit to sensational melodies. The lyrical vista that is the anti-love song canvas of Scenes From An Italian Restaurant (accompanied by an exquisite video projection of hand sketched views of Manhattan's Empire State Building as seen from the island's Little Italy) offered, as always, the most honestly painful dissection of a relationship. Elsewhere, We Didn't Start The Fire (again, with sensational graphics referencing each of the song's lyric) nailed post War global history: political, social and musical, in under five minutes

And when, as a Fielder's Choice, Joel sang Leningrad (a comparatively much more recent song, so not often heard on tour), the personal nuance that he gave to its live performance made the number surely one of the most movingly eloquent commentaries upon the Cold War. Likewise Joel's Allentown, again with a clever video montage, has to rank as a noble elegy to America's Rust Belt, penned with as much love as profound perception, touching on the Pennsylvanian city’s industrial decline, set against the Vietnam War.

Joel took two brief pauses through the evening that not only offered him moments of deserved vocal respite, they also showed the breadth of love for music espoused by his band and crew. First up was Ricky "Chainsaw" Lapointe one of Joel's backstage guitar technicians who simply stormed his way through a sensational take on AC/DC's Highway to Hell. Later on and at the other end of the musical spectrum, Mike DelGuidice who up until then had supplied backing vocals and guitar, stepped up to the mike and with Joel accompanying on piano, offered an unexpectedly spine-tingling Nessun Dorma.

Mike DelGuidice at Wembley Stadium
To be fair, all of Joel's band were at the top of their game with memorable soloists including the multi-talented Crystal Taliefero, who with Mark Rivera wowed on saxophone. Carl Fischer blazed on brass alongside Tommy Byrnes and Andy Cichon on guitar and bass, while Chuck Burgi was a powerhouse on drums and all under Dave Rosenthal's assured musical direction. 

As the show built towards its climax, Joel donned his headset harmonica, signaling Piano Man’s intro, with the audience duly invited to sing along to one of the greatest ballads penned. After the first of his goodbyes, Joel’s return to the stage saw Uptown Girl kicking off an upbeat 4-number encore set of rock n roll “old shit” that had the crowd on their feet throughout. 

As ever – a first class, flawless gig hallmarked by Joel’s unpretentious excellence. 

Come back to London soon Billy and to kinda quote from Only The Good Die Young - Don’t make us wait!

Billy Joel at Wembley Stadium 

All images reproduced with the kind permission of Billy Joel