Saturday, 13 December 2014

It's a Wonderful Life - A Radio Play - Review

Bridge House Theatre, London

*****

Written by Tony Palermo
Directed by Guy Retallack

The company of It's a Wonderful Life - A Radio Play

‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings’…

To take a much loved iconic movie and condense the magic of its story onto the immediate intimacy of the stage is one of the hardest dramatic challenges. Yet with the Bridge House Theatre's It's A Wonderful Life, writer Tony Palermo under Guy Retallack's assured direction achieves just that.

A latter day fable from the '40s, Palermo reduces the classic yarn to a radio play with a company of just six playing all the roles. In the small town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey is despairing of his life and about to end it all. Meanwhile in heaven angel Clarence, who has still not earned his celestial wings after 200 years of trying, is despatched to Earth on a mission to rescue George from his despondency. An emotional roller-coaster with both cast-members and audience in tears at times, without spoiling too much it's safe to say that there is an uplifting climax of redemption and the happiest of endings.

Opening the show Daniel Hill chats with the audience as himself and radio host as we wait for Radio IBC to go live ‘On Air’, before transforming into the story’s bad guy Mr Potter. Gerard McCarthy makes for a stupendous George, lifted convincingly from the depths of despair, whilst alongside him, Kenneth Jay's Clarence captures an almost cherubic desparation as he strives to make his mission a success. Sophie Scott is charming and commanding as George's wife Mary, whilst the wonderful and ever-versatile Gillian Kirkpatrick resplendent in red, is resourceful and imposing in a range of roles and accents. This is truly a special piece of theatre with Retallack lavishing an attention to detail, from sound effects and lighting to accents, props and musical underscore, all delivered by a company at the top of their game.

It is impossible not to be moved by this modern morality tale of decency triumphing over nastiness and the show's powerful message of how we all affects other people’s lives in ways we will never be aware of and cannot imagine. George Bailey represents everyman and woman and he touches us all for the better. It’s A Wonderful Life truly puts everyone young and old, in the Christmas spirit.


Runs until 4th January 2015

Guest reviewer Catherine Francoise

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Christmas Truce - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

****

Written by Phil Porter
Directed by Erica Whyman

The soldiers of The Christmas Truce
The poignancy of Christmas 2014, marking the centenary of that famous truce in the First World War, a conflict in which soldiers on both sides believed that they’d be “home by Christmas” has a compelling resonance. Whilst a leading supermarket chain has already themed its seasonal TV ad campaign around the event, it was some 18 months ago in Stratford that the RSC engaged Phil Porter to write a truthful, even if not entirely accurate story, intended to reflect both the tragedy and the humanity of the “war to end all wars” that defined the Christmas truce.

There is much beauty in Porter’s writing. The Christmas Truce opens to a typically English summer mise en scene, before the war’s outbreak. A village cricket match, complete with Vicar’s tea-time speech is played (the first of many sporting allegories that run through the play) before the action seamlessly segues into the mists and murk of the conflict in northern France. Porter’s research is impressive and reflecting the local roots of the RSC his tale focuses upon a platoon of troops from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the battles, along with the truce, that they waged with their Saxon enemy.

Much of the show’s stagecraft is beautifully simple. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a world class auditorium and whilst the simplicity of denuded trees and upturned benches and barricades successfully evokes the trenches, the technology that enables mists to rise from the floor, or a fog to roll down from the backstage are moving enhancements to the production’s physical charm.

As a family show the gruesome details of conflict have had to have been airbrushed out. It is therefore a tribute not only to Porter's writing, but also to designer Tom Piper, creator of the recently acclaimed commemorative poppies display at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, that both the gallows-humour camaraderie, along with the horrors of war “in theatre,” are so effectively played out, in theatre.

There are plenty of crashes and bangs to depict the battles that the men fight, but there is also much focus upon the work of the Queen Alexandra’s nursing service (the QAs), founded in 1902 upon principles established by Florence Nightingale. The role of the QAs in the show provide a platform on which to tell of the lesser known contribution made by women during this terrible conflict, whilst the actual historic details of the Christmas truce reveal that not only were of course the eponymous football match(es) played (complete with a gag about Germans and penalties), but also, movingly, that much of the Christmas Day was spent by troops of both sides recovering the bodies of their fallen from no mans land for dignified burial.

In a solid cast throughout, Gerald Horan’s Old Bill, a leathery tommy who has seen it all brings a credible gravitas to the inter-national meeting between the trenches, whilst Leah Whitaker’s Matron conveys caring dignity and discipline that at last lays to rest the clichéd Matron that (our beloved) Hattie Jacques imprinted upon a nation. If there is but one flaw in Porter’s story it is the likening of a (fictional) truce between committed nurse Phoebe (elegantly played by Frances McNamee), a firebrand of female emancipation and the hardened Matron with whom she crosses swords and the actual truce that occurred at the Front. The two do not compare.


Leah Whitaker
With an authentic musical accompaniment from an on-stage octet, Erica Whyman directs assuredly and it is a credit to both her and the entire company that in particular, the bleakness of no mans land is so effectively portrayed mainly via the performance skills of her actors.

There is much to be learned from this seasonal offering. Aside from the history, the play’s closing scene contrasts the blessed sanctity of the Christmas spirit (irrespective of one’s individual faith) with the infernal inhumanity of conflict. The Christmas Truce is woven around an underlying sense of decency and compassion of man towards his fellow man. If only that same spirit prevailed in so much of the global strife we witness around us today.


Runs until 31st January 2015

During a special Christmas Eve performance, the show's band will include the Wilfred Owen Violin amongst their instuments, which has been made from sycamore wood taken from a tree within the grounds of Edinburgh's Craiglockhart hospital. Owen, one of the most respected poets of the First World War, was a patient at Craiglockhart when he was recovering from shell-shock (PTSD)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Stephen Mear - An Extraordinary Year For An Extraordinary Choreographer

Mear rehearses Lara Pulver in Gypsy (photo Roy Tan)

The virtually sold out City of Angels is currently previewing in the intimacy of London’s Donmar Warehouse. As rehearsals were drawing to a close last week, I spent a delightful evening at Joe Allens with acclaimed choreographer Stephen Mear, to learn a little more about this man’s remarkable career and achievements.

As 2014 draws to a close, Mear is likely to have had the rare distinction of having choreographed two of the year’s most highly acclaimed musicals this side of the Atlantic and both away from the mainstream thrust of the commercial West End. As well as the buzz surrounding City Of Angels, he has only recently returned from a brace of theatrical excellence at Chichester. His work on the movement in Rupert Everett’s Amadeus that opened the re-built Festival Theatre was a gorgeous treat of rococo splendor, whilst his choreography of Jonathan Kent’s production of the Sondheim & Styne Gypsy, a giant of a show with a cast led by Imelda Staunton with Lara Pulver, has contributed to the production being hailed as a “once in a lifetime” event. 

A lean and incredibly athletic 50 year old, Mear speaks of his influences, with his career stretching back to performing in the early years of the original productions of both Cats and Evita. He has both worked alongside and assisted many of the dance greats having known Fosse, worked with Gillian Lynne and counts Broadway’s (and lately the West End too) Susan Stroman as a close friend. And it is probably that rich breadth and depth of Mear’s experience that makes the quality of his work so distinctive. We both recall Richard Eyre’s seminal and groundbreaking Guys And Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982, where Mear was to find the late David Toguri’s choreography an inspiration.

That introduction to Eyre's musical theatre style was to plant the idea in Mear's mind of working with the director in later years. Alongside Matthew Bourne, Mear choreographed Eyre’s multi-million Disney-dollar Mary Poppins. That dance pairing was to prove sensational, with Mary Poppins winning the 2005 Olivier for choreography before going on under the same creative talent to garner a Tony nomination two years later in New York. The vision behind that show was unique - Who can forget Gavin Lee, upside down, tap dancing his way across the top span of the Prince Edward Theatre's massive proscenium? At this point Mear confesses: he is afraid of heights. In rehearsals a swing had been constructed especially for him, to allow the dance maestro to be suspended from the stage upside down alongside Lee. The height proved too much for Mear and he was swiftly returned to terra firma, but it says much for his perseverance and commitment that he even permitted himself to be hoisted aloft at all.

Gavin Lee and ensemble in the famous Mary Poppins Step In Time routine

The Eyre association continues to this day with Mear having worked alongside Sir Richard on Betty Blue Eyes as well as the short-lived Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Don Black offering, Stephen Ward. Mear looks back appreciatively on that show, especially upon being able to have worked again with the likes of Jo Riding and for the first time having the opportunity to have worked with Lloyd-Webber. Eyre was to hire Mear again last year for Chichester's charming revival of The Pajama Game, a show that was to see a 2014 transfer to the West End - and as Gypsy prepares to land at the Savoy Theatre next March, allowing Mear's glorious work to be shared with the wider audience it deserves, the theatre world is abuzz with what is likely to be the 2015 musical theatre revelation… It's Chichester again, this time producing the Jerry Herman stunner Mack & Mabel, with Michael Ball lined up to play Mack Sennett, the genius director of two-reeler silent movies. Again Mear will be responsible for the dance and in a show that offers a famously perceptive and sometimes dark commentary upon the early years of Hollywood, personally I cannot wait to see Mear's take on the slapstick comedy that underlies the brilliantly maverick number Hit Em On The Head!

But right now, amidst the season of tinsel and glitter, the talk of the town is of a show that focusses upon Tinseltown's darkest side, the noir of the 1940s styled City Of Angels. Billed as a musical comedy, the show reflects two parallel plots - a writer desperate for his screenplay to be produced woven together with the fictional story that he is creating. It's a world of gumshoes, hazy cigarette smoke and sleazy intrigue and its been a good 20 years or so since the Prince of Wales theatre last gave the show a West End outing.

City of Angels marks Mear's first time working at the venue as well as alongside director and the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke. Another first is that City of Angels is Rourke’s entrée into musical theatre and Mear speaks glowingly of her approach. "She's amazing and hasn't missed a trick" he says, adding that the acclaimed director, some years his junior, believes in a constructively collaborative approach to planning the show. Mear adds that City of Angels is a show not famed for its dance routines - yet without giving too much away, talks excitedly about his staging of the Prologue and refers to how the casting of the show will complement some of the plot's darker racist undertones.

Mear is also fortunate in having been gifted a platinum-plated cast to work with. Hadley Fraser who numbers amongst the cream of his generation is playing the writer Stine, whilst his on-stage wife Gabby is played by real life (and newly wed) missus Rosalie Craig, another British musical theatre A-Lister. That the cast also includes Peter Polycarpou as movie mogul Buddy Fidler only appeals further to Mear - he worked with both Polycarpou and Fraser on The Pajama Game, gleaning a thorough understanding of these performers’ potential. With Katherine Kelly, Samantha Barks and Tam Mutu also on the bill, Mear truly feels spoilt with the talent that he has been blessed to work with.

Peter Polycarpou in rehearsal for City of Angels
photo by Johan Persson

Mear’s talent know no bounds and this piece has not even mentioned his New York achievements with Disney’s The Little Mermaid on Broadway, nor his acclaimed Die Fledermaus last year at the New York Met. The list is endless. For now though, its all about shoehorning the immense craft of this lord of the dance into the bijou confines of the Donmar. City of Angels will be a sassy show performed by the cream of the industry’s talent and in a production sculpted by the finest creatives. What a fabulous way to see in the new year!



City of Angels plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 7th February 2015. The production is sold out, however a number of Barclays Front Row seats are released for sale each Monday and a limited number of seats can be purchased each day at the box office. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Cinderella and the Beanstalk – Review

Theatre 503, London

****

Written by Sleeping Trees (aka James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith, and John Woodburn)
Music by Mark Newnham
Directed by Tom Attenborough


The Sleeping Trees company

Those in the mood for some electric, creative and surprisingly original Christmas pantomime should run, not walk, to Sleeping Trees’ Cinderella and the Beanstalk at Theatre 503.

The premise is simple and sets the evening up for lots of laughs. We join the Sleeping Trees trio (who also wrote the show) as they are ready to open the pantomime that they have prepared, only to discover to their horror that they have forgotten to hire actors, remembering only to have booked a musician. (The talented and also genuinely amusing Mark Newnham.) In order to not disappoint the audience, the three decide to play all the parts of their panto themselves, bringing to life a veritable smorgasbord of fairy tale characters and Disney stories whilst telling the ‘familiar’ tale of Cinderella and The Beanstalk.

The result is comic genius, with the talented trio creating a show that is hilarious for the entire audience, irrespective of age. It’s fast-paced and physical, with the actors bringing a tremendous amount of infectious energy to their craft. The secret of good comedy is timing and these guys are spot on!

Of course there's song and dance, including a love song about a Wickes brochure (no really), which is terribly funny and also, rather well written. Throughout, the choreography, like the comedy, is well rehearsed and drilled.

Amongst a sea of festive pantos, Cinderella and the Beanstalk makes for a refreshing, clever and truly enjoyable star of a production.


Runs until 10 January 2015

Guest reviewer Emily Pulham

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Sound Of Music - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester

****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Paul Kerryson


Laura Pitt-Pulford and Michael French

The vespers bell sounds at Nonnberg Abbey and the Curve stage seems to fill with black habits. The vastness of Leicester’s huge performing space is filled well by designer Al Parkinson, as he convincingly evokes the echoing majesty of the Abbey alongside the splendour of the Von Trapp mansion and of course, a neatly created suggestion of those musically alive hills that surround the town.

We all know The Sound Of Music’s touching if corny story, but it is the show’s songs that are iconic. The challenge of this musical, more than most others, is to take armchair favourites and breathe new life into them.

In his swansong season Paul Kerryson has, for the most part, cast shrewdly. In the modest role of Max Detweiler, Mark Inscoe is a clipped and avuncular delight. Alongside him, Emma Clifford nails the frigid frustations of Elsa Schraeder perfectly, whilst Jimmy Johnston's nastily Nazi-sympathizing butler Franz is another modest gem. Moving up through the cast, Lucy Schaufer’s Mother Abbess is a revelation. Her act one closing number Climb Ev'ry Mountain being so inspirationally spine-tingling that one could almost be reaching for the crampons as she sings. Michael French is the erstwhile Captain Von Trapp. As his seven stage offspring serenade him French sheds a convincing tear, but his naval uniform sits a tad awkwardly on him and he has yet to hit his best in the role. No matter though – when Albert Square’s David Wicks sings Edelweiss, every mum in the audience will have moist cheeks.

As ever, Ben Atkinson’s musical direction of his ten piece orchestra is spot on, but The Sound Of Music will always be all about Maria...

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s portrayal of the errant postulant snatches Julie Andrew’s hallowed crown (or dirndl) and makes it her own. Pitt-Pulford gives the most relaxed yet polished interpretation of this legendary role with her pitch-perfect performance entrancing the audience from one song to the next. From her delivery of the title song sprawled across a hillside, through to her gorgeously convincing interaction with the Von Trapp brats (cutely played mind, well done kids) in Do Re Mi, every song is a treat. As an actress she is convincingly youthful yet wise, at all times displaying that most intriguing of emotions, a spunky humility. This leading role is so very well deserved by one of the most talented actresses of her generation that surely it cannot be long now before Pitt-Pulford leads a West End show. 

Notwithstanding a lack of racial diversity both on stage and in the audience (which surprises for a venue in the heart of as diverse a community as Leicester) Kerryson has again delivered some top-notch talent to the town that he’s called home for some time. There is excellence afoot here – and if you want a glimpse of a woman destined for musical theatre greatness, you won't see it more clearly than in the wondrous Laura Pitt-Pulford.

READ MY INTERVIEW WITH LAURA (CLICK HERE) THAT SHE GAVE JUST AS REHEARSALS FOR THE SOUND OF MUSIC WERE COMMENCING 


Runs until 17th January 2015

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Mikado - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London

***

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Thom Southerland


Leigh Coggins

It may not be a Christmas show, but there is still a seasonally comforting familiarity to the Gilbert and Sullivan gems that make up The Mikado. The comic opera's timeless wit alongside melodies hard wired into every educated English-person, make for a show that one cannot help but smile throughout. Thom Southerland has set the 19th century work firmly in the roaring 20's, with flappers and jazz-hands making it a Thoroughly Modern Mikado. Whilst the costumes may bizarrely range from spats and bowlers through to kimonos and a Juan Peron lookalike Mikado, everyone looks sumptuous.

Aside from costumes however there is an all-pervading air of budgetary restraint. This most clever of scores has been economically re-arranged for two pianos and notwithstanding the excellent ivory tinkling of Dean Austin and Noam Galperin, there is a timbre and a texture to Sullivan's tunes that is lost in the reduction. Vocally too and with no-one mic'd, there is an apparent gulf in ability between the actors who have an operatic background and those more usually reliant upon amplification. That Matthew Crowe's delightfully foppish Nanki-Poo is occasionally inaudible (and this from a front row seat) is unforgivable. Likewise Hugh Osborne's Ko-Ko is a treat of a characterisation, but far too often his tuneful voice lacks projection. Mark Heenehan however brings just the right amount of blustering buffoonery to the title role.

The performing excellence of this production lies with its women. Rebecca Caine's Katisha is a masterclass. Her vampish, vulnerable and (sometimes) baddy is a flawless display of perfection in her craft, her voice filling the auditorium and her presence, alongside hilarious poise and facial expression, stealing every scene. Credit too to Leigh Coggins whose Yum-Yum also belies a career history in opera and whose voice often soars (delightfully) above those of her singing partners.

There are moments of sweet genius in this Mikado. Make sure to sit near the front and revel in some wonderful songs you've known since childhood.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Half Time And Down - Review

**

Written and directed by Mark-John Ford

Harley Sylvester and cast on set

Half Time and Down is the debut offering from writer director Mark-John Ford. Running to around thirty minutes, this football focused fantasy takes a look inside the dressing room of Stanley Beavers FC. It's half time and the team are trailing 6-0.

As manager Bob (Tom Davis) unleashes his "motivational" team-talk, his profanity amuses - but it soon becomes repetitive. There is some wit in Ford's characters, but there's a tad too much clichéd stereotype too: the overweight player; Bob's sycophantic assistant; they're all stock comedy targets, although there are the occasional brilliantly recognisable Sunday League moments too - Bob's combo of tracksuit bottoms with a shirt and tie is inspired!

Aside from the script, Ford has assembled some acting gems. Harley Sylvester (who the kids will know as half of Rizzle Kicks) puts in a decent turn as one of the Beavers, whilst legendary ex-hooligan and now respected author Cass Pennant gives a no-nonsense cameo as the referee.

The film has a sound premise, but whilst the f-word's comic potential has been known for decades, (Derek and Clive used it brilliantly) abuse needs to be handled with care. Too much filth is boring. Ford clearly has imagination, but his scriptwriting needs attention.

It's far from the best, but if you're in the mood for a curry and a few beers, then Half Time And Down could well provide a perfect evening's entertainment.


Available to download from 1st December 2014

Guest reviewer - Jed Samuel