Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Journey Home - Mark Evans - CD Review


The Journey Home is Mark Evans’ debut English album and features songs that are of importance and significance to this already established star of the West End.

The album is beautifully arranged and produced, and the underlying message of the songs selected suggest a young man, who whilst clearly at ease with his name being up in lights in major London shows, is also grounded and humble enough to respect his native Welsh origins and culture.

The album’s title is drawn from the Bombay Dreams number that Evans performs. A R Rahman’s melody, that starts off hauntingly before evolving into an explosion of harmonies is the one song that comes closest to displaying the extent of the range, versatility, and above all power of Evan’s voice. The lyrics, whilst not perhaps Don Black’s best, do nonetheless translate well across the globe. Where they were once originally written to reflect the colourful complexities of the Sub-Continent, with Evans modern delivery they just as effectively suggest a young Welshman returning to his birthplace.

Evans includes two versions of the song Brand New You from Jason Robert Brown’s 13. One of the recordings is fully backed with singers and full jazz funk band sound, the other is simply Evans solo with acoustic backing. The comparison and contrast is delightful, and with the composer shortly to direct the show’s West End debut, the inclusion of this song is also a delightful coincidence. It is also a brave choice of song, given that whilst Brown penned it for a young-teen voice, Evans performs it with credibility and passion.

Two of the recordings see Evans duet with accomplished friends . With Ashleigh Gray he delivers an upbeat rendering of Alive, and touchingly, with Siobhan Dillon, with whom he currently co-stars in Ghost, a delicate performance of Unchained Melody that evokes in its tenderness the professional closeness and respect that these two individuals have clearly developed for each other.

The album above all is a delightful selection of songs that are important to Evans, and confirms him as a leading talent of his generation. Predominantly the choice of songs is a reflective selection and if there is one observation, it is the album could perhaps have been made a little more exciting with an inclusion of one or two songs that would have allowed the singer to vocally swoop and soar. The album’s geographical heritage suggests a nod to John Owen Jones who is some years Evans’s senior and represents possibly a pinnacle of musical theatre achievement. The voice of Mark Evans however suggests that he too is already a fine tenor, and that the Welsh contribution to leading West End performances is in safe hands.


This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Educating Rita - Review

Richmond Theatre, London


Written by: Willy Russell
Director: Tamara Harvey

June 25 2012

Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney

Educating Rita, produced by the Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath, is a delightful re-working of Willy Russell’s clever study of character and emotion, liberally sprinkled with humour and delicious irony.

Claire Sweeney plays the title role of the married hairdresser who at 31 and already familiar with the poetry of Roger McGough, is hungry to broaden her cultural horizons via the Open University.  Matthew Kelly plays Frank, a one time poet and now a local university tutor, assigned to supervise Rita’s studies.  

Like fine wine, this play has improved with age. When first produced in 1980, the Thatcher era was established and the gap between rich and poor, acknowledged as a backdrop in much of Russell’s writing, was distinct. It is a sad reflection that many of today’s newspaper headlines echo similar themes, and that the play’s social comment is as relevant now as when it premiered .  The original production and subsequent film, drew attention to the hitherto broadly unknown Julie Walters who had cut her acting teeth at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and who brimming with scouse grit, gave a performance as Rita that set the bar very high.

Claire Sweeney approaches the role from a distinctly different career path. Having already achieved numerous starring roles on television and stage Sweeney’s Rita, is an outstanding performance defining her as an actress with a depth of talent that reaches beyond musical theatre. Her broad Liverpool accent, not only authentic but deliciously emphasized, allows her to take Russell’s creation of the 80’s and subtly re-imagine the hairdresser to reflect our current early years of the 21st century. Rita’s arc sees her character grow not only in literary criticism, but also in self confidence. Sweeney’s performance ( amidst numerous immaculately timed costume changes ) charts this development in Rita with sensitivity and pinpoint perception.

Matthew Kelly provides a worthy foil to Sweeney’s comparatively youthful impetuousness.  In his tutorial sessions with Rita he discovers that the protective layers of his alcoholic character’s crusty and cantankerous protective shell are first penetrated and then, almost onion-like,  stripped away by this mature student’s directness of purpose and irresistibly innocent charm to reveal a vulnerable and lonely man. Without meaning to, Rita steals his heart, and when, in Act 2, we see his jealousy of her newly acquired freedom, Kelly’s performance tugs at the heartstrings without being mawkish. In a similar vein, his portrayal of Frank’s sometime drunkenness is also delivered free of cliché.  It is interesting to note that Kelly and Sweeney briefly performed together earlier this year, albeit not as a duet, in the tour of Legally Blonde. The pair have an onstage chemistry that clearly works, and it will be intriguing to see if this professional pairing is exploited in productions of the future.

The creative team has excelled throughout in this touring production. Tim Shortall’s set, with numerous bookcases, many of which conceal bottles of scotch is delightfully detailed, whilst Davy Ogilvy’s sound design, ensured that clarity of speech was maintained, even in the rear stalls.

This show is a delightful two hours long, spent watching an actor and actress who are both clearly at the top of their game.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Borges and I - Review

New Diorama Theatre, London


Devised and presented by : Idle Motion Theatre Company
Artistic director: Paul Slater

Borges and I is an intriguing piece of visual and physical theatre, conceived by the Idle Motion troupe.

During this hour long show, the cast of 6 take us on a journey of the life of Jose Luis Borges, an Argentinian who early in the 20th century created that country’s National Library even as his vision was being cruelly taken from him through his adult life due to degenerative blindness.  This South American history story is played out in parallel with the young members of a present day Oxford book club, meeting to discuss works of contemporary literature. One member of the book club discovers first, love and then that she is going blind – and the moving skill of this play is its perceptive description of the cruelty of this disability, portrayed across two separate cultures, and separated by nearly a century

Throughout the performance the cast shift effortlessly between continents and eras. In a nice touch, the opening scene depicts a Powerpoint presentation breaking down – a sweet implication that the printed tactile text has so much more impact than the electronic media globally peddled by Apple and Microsoft.

The company’s physical movement has been meticulously planned. Using the most simple of props, and several hundred books, they evoke rain, a jet plane, a lovers’ bedroom, and hauntingly, the experience of struggling with an optician’s sight test, from the point of view of the visually impaired person.  It works, and it is poignantly painful to experience.

It is a fault of Idle Motion that no programme or even cast list was available to the audience. If this can be remedied for future performances, it will give the cast and creative team the credit they truly deserve. Whilst the ensemble as a whole are all outstanding, memorable is Sophie Cullen who portrays the modern girl succumbing to blindness. A tough act for a young performer, and she delivers it with pain and tenderness.

Only on for a week, before touring in October, this is a piece of theatre that demands to be seen.

Touring in October


Gap Year - Review

Tristan Bates Theatre, London


June 18 2012

Writer : Chloe Ward

Gap Year is Chloe Ward's first solo show. Combining video recordings with a smattering of live music, her repartee takes us through a gap year she is keen to forget. A year that had been spent un-glamorously on these shores, in contrast to the world-beating backpacking trips typically undertaken by her peers.

Her material is based upon her experiences and encounters during that year and Ward’s skills as a performer and mimic allow her not only to adopt the persona of her younger self, but frequently also to play "the other half" of a conversation , with an instant switch of voice or headgear signalling a swap of character as a dialog is played out.

Her stage talent is evident. Confident and poised , her presence commanded the attention of her audience . The content however lacked such quality. Whilst nearly all of her observations of the world around her were accurate, some showed a distinct lack of originality - the recollections of the Sea Life Centre employee strongly echoed an emulation of Ricky Gervais, and her portrayal, early on in her act, of a chef with impaired hearing, came across as exploitative and insulting. Whilst Ward may well argue that those lines were written and performed with sensitivity, it nonetheless crossed a line of acceptability, and she would do well to edit that part of her routine going forward. Disabilities are never to be laughed at cheaply.

Late in the act Ward plays several instruments in turn, each of which as she plays it, is then taken up by a pre-recording of the actress in a multi media video presentation, culminating in a short four-piece number, all played by her alone. It would however have enhanced the professionalism of her act if the projections had been beamed onto a proper screen, rather than a large white sheet, the creased state of which lent an undeserved air of amateurism to her act.

Ward shows promise, and it may well be with more attention paid to the originality and humour of her content rather than her overly-gimmicked delivery, that she can go on to be an excellent comedienne of the future.

Runs from August 23 – 26 at Camden Fringe Festival


Saturday 16 June 2012

Frankenstein - Review

Olivier Theatre, London - screened via NT Live


Writer: Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Director : Danny Boyle
Director for screen : Tim Van Someren

Benedict Cumberbact as The Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein

It is a glorious crossover of digital technology and live performance, that is allowing National Theatre productions to be broadcast into remote cinemas. Whilst the projector can never recreate the intimacy and physicality of the shared experience of sitting in a theatre, when a production is either sold out, or impossible to get to, then NTLive is the next best thing. So it is with Frankenstein, a production that has by now garnered many deserved awards.
As has been widely reported, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played the roles of the Creature  and Victor Frankenstein, alternating the parts between them throughout the run.  I was fortunate enough to see the staged production in the Olivier Theatre last year, with Cumberbatch as the Creature. More recently I saw the NTLive broadcast, recorded last year, with the roles reversed. Both Boyle and Dear had encouraged audiences if possible to see both casts , a luxurious ambition in itself as just getting hold of a ticket to one of the performances last year was nigh on impossible.
The Best Actor awards that the production has won have been rightly shared by both men. Whilst the role of Victor required acting perhaps of a more traditional style, the delivery of the Creature demanded the actor to convince the audience that he was truly an animal learning the most basic bodily movements, with guttural speech abilities that evolved over the show's two hour length. It is a testimony to writer, director, and above all both performers, that this learning process and development was presented on stage with no trickery or special effect but rather simply by acting , movement and facial and vocal expression of the highest standard. That the Creature is also able to share his emotional and intellectual development with the audience is further evidence of the tour de force that the performances were.

Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature and Naomie Harris as Elizabeth
 Having seen both castings, it is possible to compare  - and my preference erred towards Lee Miller as the Creature with Cumberbatch as his creator.  Cumberbatch provides a deliciously patrician performance, which added to the crazed creative arrogance of the scientist. I found myself moved to hate the wickedness of his  Victor Frankenstein more, which in turn suggests that Lee Miller perhaps evoked stronger empathy as the Creature. A hideous monster, borne trusting into a hateful and suspicious world as an innocent and who discovers first desire and subsequently betrayal .
Naomie Harris was a delight as Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée. She showed honesty, love and compassion to both Victor and the Creature and earned the audience’s sympathy convincingly. Also noteworthy was Karl Johnson, as the blind and hence non-judgmental Delacey, who teaches the Creature to read and to reason.
The supporting cast was predominantly excellent. In two minor roles , Ella Smith provided a very effective setting of the scene. First as a buxom prostitute, horrified by the Creature, and later as Clarice, re-assuring maid to Elizabeth nervous on her wedding night, Smith added a touch of horrific authenticity, redolent of Hammer horror films, suggesting with her warm naiveté, that terror was never far away.
The NTLive broadcast camerawork was skilful and well directed. We had sat in Row A of the circle last year, but even there, had not been able to observe the meticulous detail put into the Creature's stitches and make-up. That the horrific scarring of the Creature’s body stood up to the HD scrutiny of  a large screen digital projection, is further testimony to the brilliance of the National Theatre’s creative team.
Lighting and design were excellent, and the music by Underworld set the tone perfectly.
The National Theatre have a theatrical masterpiece with this production. See it if you can.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The Thing About Men - Review

Landor Theatre, London


June 9 2012

Book and Lyrics: Jo Dipietro
Music : Jimmy Roberts
Director : Andrew Keates 

As Andrew Keates writes in his programme notes, men are hopeless and imperfect. He is probably not wrong. Fortunately his production of The Thing About Men is the antithesis of hopelessness and imperfection. Luckily I caught the last night of the run.
The storyline of this musical confection is both slight, and at the same time intriguing. The wife of a cheating husband strikes up her own extra-marital affair, and the show then follows her husband as he realises the depth of his love for his wife, and the endeavours he makes to win her back. To say more would be to spoil, and whilst at some times the book stretches credibility, the strength of the shows musical numbers and performances make it a delight to watch.
Peter Gerald and Kate Graham play Tom and Lucy Ambrose , whose failing marriage provides the backdrop to the musical. Gerald is superb, portraying the greying advertising executive with perception. Onstage for most of the show, his is a most demanding role, including a gym workout session that is exhausting to watch, let alone perform! His vocal delivery has an authentic lilt of the eastern seaboard, and his singing is strong.  As Lucy, Graham has perhaps a more difficult task. In a show that is at times very funny, her character is played for comparatively few laughs, and amongst a stage of comedians, she sensitively evokes both her having been betrayed and her hesitance before yielding to the passionate desire she feels towards her lover, Sebastian.
As Sebastian, John Addison powerfully portrays an attractive man, who in athleticism and vigour, is everything Tom is not.   If I have one minor criticism of the production, it is that the story suggests that Sebastian is of a similar age to Tom , whereas Addison’s character is considerably younger than Gerald’s hapless cuckold.  Addison delivers energy to his numbers, and whilst his character is in many ways but a foil to Tom’s journey, he is nonetheless a joy to watch and to listen to.
The libretto demands two further cast members – Man and Woman – who between them play an incredible 26 roles.  Steven Webb and Lucyelle Cliffe, represent the best of young musical theatrical talent. Their characters frequently set the tone or background to a scene – far easier on this shows modest budget to arrange a costume change ( one of many, performed with eye-watering speed throughout ) rather than build a complex or laborious set – and their comic voicework combined with excellent singing, impeccable timing, grotesquely stereotyped characters, and physical agility is hilariously delivered. Steven Webb memorably contorts his body to suggest a waiter first descending then climbing, a set of stairs ( where the Landor’s floor remains flat and solid throughout )
And as is so often the way at this delightful little theatre, the production values that Keates espouses ring true throughout the performance.  The scenery is simply and cleverly evoked by Martin Thomas. Howard Hudson’s lighting similarly gives an added dimension to the simple confines of the venue. Joanna Cichonska cleverly directs the three piece band, to provide an accompaniment of perfect pitch . Even the programme makes for an excellent read!
To return to the programme notes, Keates suggests that The Thing About Men seeks to understand the way men work. In part he is not wrong. The show is a delightful study of one man's weaknesses, and how, amongst much hilarity, he actually finds a path to some ( OK , cheesy) redemption. Should this production return to Clapham or elsewhere, don’t miss it.

Twitter @jaybeegee63

Monday 4 June 2012

Beast - Review

White Bear Theatre, London


Writer: Elena Bolster
Director : Natasha Pryce

May 30 2012

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Beast is a finely crafted piece of theatre. The hour long, one act play tells the story of the relationship that grows between an ageing artist, Egon, and a young prostitute Valie. Their romance starts from a night of paid for passion and evolves into an artist and his muse discovering a love that is deep and pure.

Bolster has crafted a stylish text. Her fictional story inspired by a painting, she has fleshed out a beautiful yet painfully tragic tableau. At times written in a lilting verse, her mastery of the language is a joy to listen to.

As Egon, Keiron Jecchinis deploys the maturity of his years and talent into an acting tour de force. Every aspect of his vocal delivery combined with his poise and movement, is meticulously crafted, and he transforms as a lover from rampancy to tenderness with a breath-taking elegance.
Mel Oskar is a young Icelandic actress, and her performance as Valie suggests a woman with a profound depth of talent for her age. Hers is an educated and literate character, and her awareness of her deepening love for the older man is a journey that she cleverly performs. At times a coquette, yet always wise beyond her years, she is a joy to watch. And at times of passion within the play both Jecchinis and Oskar come close to re-creating Charles Spencer’s famous quote of “pure theatrical Viagra”, such is the electricity of their (fully clothed) love making

This show is more than just two stunning performances though. It is a convergence of excellence, throughout the creative team. Pryce, together with Jennifer Malarkey who was responsible for Movement, has directed the duo with wit and perception. Alistair Turner’s clever and evocative set uses the tight confines of the White Bear’s auditorium effectively, and Matt O’Leary’s lighting also expands the constraints of the small performing area.

The play represents all that is excellent in London’s fringe and Helen Edwards is to be congratulated on delivering a show that clearly demonstrates a commitment to outstanding production values.

Runs until Jun 17

Twitter @jaybeegee63