Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Promises, Promises - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


****

Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David
Book by Neil Simon
Based on the screenplay "The Apartment" by Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond
Directed by Bronagh Lagan


Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood


Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse is a delightful splash of Burt Bacharach, in a musical set in 1960s New York and which hasn't played in London for nigh on fifty years. The show's pedigree is top notch, based on Billy WIlder's (he of Sunset Boulevard fame) Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Apartment, translated thence into a musical theatre book via the satirical wizardry of Neil Simon.

Chuck Baxter is a humble accounts clerk in a huge Manhattan insurance office, young and single and who lives in a modest apartment in the city. When Baxter's married manager asks if he can borrow the apartment for an extra-marital liaison with his mistress Baxter agrees - word spreads amongst the managers who all then ask for the apartment's use, with the news ultimately reaching Sheldrake, the department head, who too wants to use Baxter's flat. There's a complicated love that develops between Baxter and Fran, a waitress in the company's Executive Dining Room and for risk of spoiling, that's all that can be said about the plot.

The strength of this show however lies not only in Bacharach and David's eternally hummable tunes, but as much in Simon's razor sharp wit. The comedy is a wry New York shtick and Lagan has polished her cast into a subtle, perfectly timed delivery.

Gabriel Vick plays Baxter and he carries the show magnificently. For those that remember the movie, he captures that beautifully bemused essence of Jack Lemmon - finely principled and ultimately nobody's fool. Vick is also wonderfully voiced and when he picks up his guitar to sing I'll Never Fall In Love Again, it's a pleasant reminder that this timelessly classic song, along with the show's other great Bacharach treats, was born out of the production itself, a refreshing contrast to the modern trend of juke-box shows created long after songs have become hits. Indeed, Promises, Promises is a far more entertaining gig than the recent Close To You, a juke box show framed around the Bacharach catalogue

Opposite Vick is Daisy Maywood's Fran. Maywood captures Fran's feisty and sometimes exploited vulnerability perfectly - with more than a hint of the movie's Shirley MacLaine in her stance. Vocally she's wonderful too, making fine work of A House Is Not A Home.

The casting throughout is spot on. Paul Robinson's Sheldrake is as chiselled in his looks as his morals are despicable, the quartet of middle managers are a delight and John Guerrasio's Doctor, who lives in the flat next door, masters Simon's comically caustic New York nuance. Perhaps the most stunning supporting work comes from the ever excellent Alex Young who opens the second half hilariously as the drunken Marge, stumbling and fumbling towards a doomed romantic tumble with Baxter.

Gabriel Vick and Alex Young
The set design is imaginative but flawed (sit on the far left or right and some moments will be invisible) and likewise Joe Louis Robinson's 7 piece band, who put in a fine shift throughout the evening, need to fine tune a couple of early numbers, though note that these are very modest criticisms.

Promises Promises is a warm-hearted delight on a cold winter's night. This bittersweet story performed by a fabulous company, makes for another jewel in London's theatre crown. 


Runs until 18th February
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Sunday, 15 January 2017

La La Land - Review


*****

Certificate 12


Written and directed by Damien Chazelle



Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling



Opening in the UK with a haul of Golden Globes, La La Land deserves every one of its awards and possibly one or two more too. Damian Chazelle's movie, all about hopes and dreams in Los Angeles is a delightful look back to the days when movies literally brought the word "fantasy" into "fantastic". It has an extravagance of song and dance in movie musicals that hasn't been seen since the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but which with Chazelle's script, is brought bang up to date.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Sebastian. She’s a frustrated actress working as a barista on the Warner Studios backlot, while he is a jazz pianist reduced to playing cheesy Xmas background tunes as the only way of earning a living. The two meet, fall in love and through the most romantic yet credible of circumstances, inspire each other to go on and achieve their dreams. If the ending isn't exactly the happiest, the film's journey is nothing less than two hours of sheer, delightful cinematic whimsy.

The opening number sets the tone - even before the titles have rolled we have seen a line of Los Angeles traffic, stuck in a jam (remember this is LA, where traffic never moves) where the drivers leap from their cars to sing and dance the most ingeniously choreographed Another Day Of Sun. This is a movie where the mundanity of a traffic jam becomes a thing of dancing beauty - and what a refreshing joy it is to see a musical that’s prepared to see its characters fantastically burst from speech into song and dance and to erupt into numbers that are new and fresh, a world apart from the all too common juke-box regurgitations of a famous bands' or artist's greatest hits.

Justin Gurvitz scores the picture, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The duo’s reputation precedes them with their 5* Dogfight a few years ago and yet again they pitch their lyrics spot-on, adding just the right amount of saccharine-infused schmaltz to bittersweet scenarios. The movie’s written wit is as sharp as it is sensitive, while Gurvitz's tunes prove to be perpetually hummable - City Of Stars and Mia & Sebastian's Theme proving to be gems.

Gosling and Stone's footwork is spectacular. Sure, Stone has a Broadway track record but who knew Gosling could either dance or play piano? Mandy Moore's choreography deserving its own award alongside Linus Sandgren's breathtaking cinematography with its wondrous, never-ending tracking shots. 

La La Land represents new musical writing that all composers and librettists should be aspiring too. Its numbers are a delirious cocktail of balladry, ballroom and brash braggadocio, all framed around a story that’s nothing more than an exploration of the highs and lows of the human condition. An unashamed delight that has to be enjoyed on the big screen. Go!


Now screening at all major cinema chains

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Kite Runner - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


***


Written by Khaled Hosseini
Adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler
Directed by Giles Croft

Andrei Costin

There's a broad canvas painted in Matthew Spangler's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel in a story that traces the troubled recent, tribal history of Afghanistan from its pre-Soviet days to the Taliban nightmare of today. The deepest human drivers of honour, loyalty and guilt are played out through the interwoven family tales of two Afghan boys: Amir (played by Ben Turner) and Hassan (Andrei Costin) his closest friend, who is the son of Amir's family servant.

Kite flying was a national pastime in Afghanistan, with the kite runner chasing after the kites as they fall from the skies. The young Amir and Hassan are a skilled double act in the sport, but Kabul proves to be a dangerous and challenging city and when Amir (unseen) glimpses, in a backstreet, Hassan about to be raped by the local bully, rather than stepping up to defend his friend he shamefully flees.

To reveal any more of the narrative would spoil and the beauty of the production lies in the detail that imbue in their characters. There is finely crafted supporting detail too from Emilio Doorgasingh and Ezra Faroque Khan, as Amir and Hassan's fathers.

The staging is simple yet imaginative, with Barney George's designs suggesting not only Central Asia but also San Francisco as the plot crisscrosses the globe. Though it’s not all perfect - when an actor's fake beard ends up making his Taliban look more Tevye than terrorist, something's gone wrong. 

While the tale may be epic, its adaptation from the original best-seller is troublingly two-dimensional and at times melodramatic. A sharper wordsmith than Spangler would have told less - in fact much less as the play is nigh on 3 hours - but suggested more, through finer prose. 

Music is prevalent throughout - and one cannot help but wonder if a musical treatment, that might have reached out to both the harsh and beautiful aspects of the tale, might have offered a more artistic interpretation and unlocking of the tale's emotional depths. Tragedy and redemption lend themselves well to a grand score, with the play's second act offering more than a nod to hints of Miss Saigon.

Here for 12 weeks only - If you loved the novel, you'll probably love the play.


Runs until 11th March
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Assault On Precinct 13 - Review

****

Certificate 15 - 1976

Written and directed by John Carpenter


Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer 

Released on Blu-Ray this week, John Carpenter's seminal 1976 action thriller is a finely crafted movie that is well worth either re-visiting or catching up with for the first time if it’s escaped you so far.

In a district of Los Angeles rife with organised gun violence, the police station of Precinct 13 is being closed down, with Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) assigned responsibility for the station's last few hours. The movie's narrative has already opened earlier that day with cops killing six gang members, so revenge is in the air. Adding to the tension, there's a prison bus in the area transiting to a city jail, but when a prisoner is taken ill on board the bus has to make an unscheduled stop at the police station.

Completing an incendiary cocktail of plot lines, Lawson (Martin West) who's just a regular guy, has witnessed his young daughter being shot dead in a gangland shooting while buying an ice-cream. Grabbing a gun, Lawson shoots and kills the gang warlord who killed his daughter but when the dead man’s fellow gang members start hunting him down, Lawson too arrives at Precinct 13 seeking sanctuary. Sworn to avenge their dead, the gang lays siege to the soon-to-be-mothballed station house. (Interestingly, Carpenter has since gone on to regret the bloody slaughter of the ice-cream girl, but for most the killing only adds to the yarn’s grim verité.)

It's not just Carpenter's richly-fruited story that makes the movie quite so mouthwatering, it’s also the detail he imbues in his characters. Who'd have expected that convict Wilson (sublime work from Darwin Joston) on-board the prison bus and heading towards death row, would emerge a hero. Or that a finely crafted even if unconsummated love between Wilson and police secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) could add a level of pathos to the bloody violence that surrounds them.

Very much an exploitation movie of its day and with more than a nod to George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, the craft in the director's suspense, photography, script and action offers a fine reminder of those halcyon pre-CGI days when filmmakers like Carpenter, Spielberg and Lucas laboured over the analog perfection of their imagery.

Assault On Precinct 13 is a classic and in this 1080p release which captures the 1970s Technicolor perfectly, it's a glorious trip back in time.


Available to purchase from Amazon and all usual distributors

Friday, 30 December 2016

My Very Best of 2016


In a year that brought seismic political changes, alongside the tragic deaths of a huge number of talented artists, the showbiz talents of the world continued to turn out first class gigs.  

My favourite moments of the shows that I saw in 2016 are below and include performances from across the UK, together with the USA and also Europe. Theatre, cabaret, dance and concert performances are all included and there's no ranking - the list is entirely alphabetical. 

These shows were quite simply my (and with one exception a guest reviewer's too) highlights of the year. The links below each entry will take you to its original review on this site. 

Enjoy this look back on what was another year of stunning performances.


CABARET


The Understudy - Ceili O'Connor


A newcomer to London's cabaret scene, Ceili's one night gig in the West End was as relaxed and chatty as it was perfectly rehearsed. With a set list that included some of the biggest numbers that this talented West End performer has understudied, through to an unexpected Billy Joel megamix...


Review link




CONCERT



Ennio Morricone at the O2


To be one of the few critics invited to review this one-off gig at the packed O2 was a privilege in itself - But in an era when good film scores can be the modern equivalent of symphonies, to see this 87 year old legend conducting orchestra in choir through some of the most evocative and globally recognisable compositions of the last 50 years will stay with me forever. 


Review link



DANCE


The Red Shoes - Sadler's Wells


Matthew Bourne's newest work from his envisioned and inspirational New Adventures Company is a ballet inspired by a classic film that was all about a ballet inspired by a classic fairy tale. And all styled as a loving tribute to a Golden Age of cinema. A selection of Bernard Herrmann's film scores have been carefully stitched together to form Bourne's musical backdrop. Ashley Shaw leads the sold out run at Sadler's Wells before New Adventures tour the show around the country and with Lez Brotherston's mesmerising set, this ballet is unmissable.


Review link




THEATRE - DRAMA



The Father - Duke of York’s Theatre


Florian Zeller's play was an ingeniously agonising examination of the effects of dementia on an elderly man. Kenneth Cranham brought his heartbreakingly perceptive tour de force back to the West End, in a play (rare these days) that educated and informed its audience about the debilitating nature of the illness, as Cranham palpably shared the nightmare of dementia.


Review link



No Man’s Land - Wyndhams Theatre


Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart made Pinter's deliciously absurdist take on Hampstead and Camden life a theatrical treat. No one can claim to understanding the definitive meaning of the play, but who cared?  In a production as unflinchingly 1970s as The Sweeney or Derek and Clive, these two starriest of knights shone brilliantly.


Review link



King Lear - The RSC at Stratford upon Avon and London's Barbican


Another play and quite possibly the first in the canon about the effects of ageing,  Greg Doran's time hopping take on the ageing pagan monarch was world class theatre from the RSC. Antony Sher revealed new layers of howling grief in what is perhaps the most timeless of Shakespeare's tragedies. 


Review link




The Railway Children - Kings Cross Theatre


I know its frowned upon for a critic to review his own efforts, but the opportunity to ACTUALLY DRIVE THE STEAM TRAIN (!!) in a performance of this enchanting production will stay with me forever. Appearing alongside a talented cast, and meeting the show's fabulous crew, my crash course (literally!) in becoming an engine driver might have been a Health and Safety nightmare, but to this big kid it was a five-star dream come true.


Review link




THEATRE - MUSICAL



42nd Street - Theatre du Chatelet, Paris


The UK's Stephen Mear has shipped New York to Paris with his stunningly, lavishly, choreographed take on this most American of musicals. In a cast built around talents that Mear trusts implicitly Ria Jones, Dan Burton and Jennie Dale were magnificent alongside newcomer Monique Young. Big Broadway shows don’t come more lavishly staged than this.


42nd Street is still on for a few more days and well worth the Eurostar fare!

Review link




Burnt Part Boys - Park Theatre

Modestly staged with minimal design, director Matthew Iliffe and his MD Nick Barstow brought this off-Broadway gem to London. Moving and exciting, the production was one of the tightest pieces of ensemble acting.


Review link




Fiddler On The Roof - Broadway Theatre, New York


Lyricist Sheldon Harnick told me recently that he considered this production of his classic musical as the best revival since its 1964 Broadway opening. Hofesh Shechter's re-imagined choreography made for a glorious whirl of Chagall and Klezmer inspired magic, while Alexandra Silber and Adam Kantor's Tzeitel and Motel gave a youthful integrity to the young lovers that was as relevant to 21st century New York as it was to Tsarist Russia.


Review link



The Fix - Union Theatre


The Union Theatre moved across the road, and to mark its reopening Michael Strassen reprised his take on Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey's musical swipe at the all-American political scene, with a pre Presidential Election run of The Fix. The cast was as excellent as the show's timing, with Lucy Williamson and Ken Christiansen being masterfully Machiavellian - and beautifully voiced too.


Review link



Funny Girl - Natasha J Barnes on for Sheridan Smith


Funny Girl was recognised last year as one of my best shows - But this year, when Natasha J Barnes came on to play Fanny Brice whilst Sheridan Smith was indisposed, she became another of this year's jaw-dropping sensations.


Review link



Grey Gardens - Southwark Playhouse


With a fabulous cast headed by Jenna Russell and the inimitable Sheila Hancock, this quirky Tony-winner made its European premier. Thom Southerland worked his genius over the piece and the queues stretched down to Elephant and Castle - proving yet again that London's fringe can provide a brave and quality platform for the widest range of shows.


Review link



Jesus Christ Superstar - Open Air Theatre

Timothy Sheader in conjunction with Drew McOnie's excruciatingly brilliant choreography gave London an unforgettable take on this early Rice and Lloyd Webber collaboration. Declan Bennett may well have been outstanding in the title role, but it was Tyrone Huntley's Judas, hands dripping silver blood, that lives on. The show returns to Regents Park this year. Don't miss it! 


Review link



Oliver - Curve Leicester


I caught up late to the Curve's Oliver, deliberately, to see Laura Pitt-Pulford take over the role of Nancy and of course she was marvellous. Played out against takis' glorious designs that were as dark as they were colourful, Laura's Nancy was amongst the best I've seen and proved a great way to start the year!


Review link



Parade - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester


Parade is one of the best modern musicals written. A tough and ultimately devastating story - but one in which Jason Robert Brown has painted a picture of the Southern USA at the turn of the 20th century using a flamboyance of musical styles. Parade is a tough show to do well and up in Manchester James Baker did just that. Spines were tingling from the opening chords of The Old Red Hills Of Home and it was gratifying to see that top notch fringe theatre can exist outside of both London and August in Edinburgh.


Review link


It was also a privilege to be invited to write the programme notes for Parade, a musical that I love. You can read them here: Review link


Sunset Boulevard - Coliseum


Life imitated art at the Coliseum as a real mega movie star (Glenn Close) trod the boards as Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Close's stunning solos, a top notch supporting cast including Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon and Stephen Mear's clever choreography made for a phenomenal concert staging.


The show heads to Broadway next year for a limited run and New Yorkers are in for a treat!

Review link



Sunset Boulevard - Ria Jones on for Glenn Close


I didn’t see Ria Jones step up to this most magnificent of plates myself - but luckily that most versatile of theatre PRs Kevin Wilson was there, who reviewed the performance for me.


Review link



Waitress - Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York


Jessie Mueller leads a top notch cast in this intelligent and stylish screen to stage translation. Sara Bareilles has offered a veritable dessert buffet of delectable tunes. A modern tale that's as all-American as apple pie, the cliche-free story is an uplifting tale of discovery and strong women.


Review link


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Million Dollar Quartet - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


*****


Co-authored by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by  Ian Talbot


The cast of Million Dollar Quartet

At the Royal Festival Hall over the Christmas season and then on tour, Million Dollar Quartet offers up some of the finest cuts of vintage rockabilly and rock n roll procured from some of the most legendary names in the history of music.

Inspired by the true story of the famed 1956 recording session where Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, brought together icons Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, the show peels back the pages of the calendar. This was a time when the airwaves went from strictly black and white to Technicolor in a musical fusion ignited by some white guys playing black music in a way that had never been heard before. And it set the world in motion.

Phillips is played by Martin Kemp (of the 1980’s Spandau Ballet fame) who heads a remarkably talented cast. Martin Kaye’s reprisal of Jerry Lee Lewis is brilliant in both performance and music, oozing a charming yet hilarious southern charisma that brings a comedic element to the show alongside an electrifying piano ability.

Matthew Wycliffe embodies guitar virtuoso Carl Perkins both in performance and an uncanny visual resemblance, delivering tenfold with his solo riffs on the guitar.

Robbie Durham does a great job as the Man in Black, bringing some sweet signature guitar mannerisms and playing styles, as Ross William Wild takes on the hefty task of playing the King. Making all the right moves, Wild also takes time to offer a touch of vulnerability, showing a side to Elvis that is not often portrayed.  

The show includes more than 20 legendary rock ‘n’ roll hits, including Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, I Walk The Line and Great Balls of Fire. Whilst celebrating the talents of the on stage characters Million Dollar Quartet also respectfully tips its hat to their fellow southern musicians and African American contemporaries including Little Walter and Chuck Berry who were recording north of the Mason Dixon line at Chicago’s Chess Records. 

A juke box musical maybe – but Million Dollar Quartet is quite simply a stunningly performed tribute to a pivotal episode in the history of rock n roll.

See it before Elvis leaves the building!


Runs until 2nd January 2017, then tours. Tour dates here.
Reviewed by Josh Kemp (no relation...)

Anything Goes - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse - London


*****


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by John Plews


The cast of Anything Goes

In quite possibly the finest musical to have been staged at The Gatehouse in recent years, John Plews and his cracking company deliver musical theatre magic in their ambitious staging of Cole Porter's most famous show.

Emily Bestow's design is imaginative. Ocean-liner themed throughout, including railings around the two traverse banks of seats with the neat touch of cruise-ship views and movies discreetly projected above the compact performance space that only enhances the illusion.

Of course the show is adorned with toe-tapping classic numbers and Plews has cast his company magnificently - with each song done to a turn. Making her UK debut (though with an impressive southern hemisphere CV) Taryn Erickson sizzles as Reno Sweeney. Capturing the essence of Sweeney's ballsy chanteuse Erickson makes the timeless solos her own. Jack McCann’s Billy Crocker captures the madcap requirements of his character with a perfect voice and presence.

Samantha Dorsey’s Hope Harcourt truly is de-lightful. Her character is one of the few roles that is to be played consistently straight and humour-free. Dorsey brings flawless acting and vocals to capture Hopes complex, lapsed chastity.

Where this production really shines however is in the performing detail that Plews has coaxed from the entire cast. Cole Porter’s wit is acerbic and finely honed, ranging from bawdiness and sarcasm, through to the driest of droll put-downs and his words demand to be spoken or sung with carefully weighted wit. This Highgate company deliver them to perfection, notably Jack Keane’s Sir Evelyn Oakleigh who captures the idiotic buffoonery of an aristocratic English twit (his garters, a fantastic touch) with pinpoint perfection. A good comedy performance is one of the toughest challenges on stage and Keane plays his man to a tee. My only regret in Plews’ show is that he has chosen the 1962 off-Broadway revival which omits Sir Evelyn singing The Gypsy In Me – perhaps one of the funniest songs in the canon. Alongside Keane, David Pendlebury’s Moonface Martin is another comic treat.

Dan Glover’s 6 piece band are polished, while Chris Whittaker’s imaginative and energetic choreography again squeezes breathtaking routines (including some awesome tap) into the venue’s traverse space.

This is unquestionably the best off West End musical around this Christmas – and at around £18 a pop when it comes to value for money, Anything Goes is the best show in town!


Runs to 29th January 2017
Photo credit: Darren Bell