Thursday, 27 September 2012

Barb Jungr - Live at the Hippodrome - Review

The Hippodrome Casino, London

This review was first published on The Public Reviews

Barb Jungr opened her residency at The Hippodrome in a show promoting her album due out in October, Stockport To Memphis. Her voice has a beautiful clarity and married to her well-rehearsed four piece accompaniment, The Stockport to Memphis Rhythm and Blues Band, who incredibly were playing live as an ensemble for the first time, the sound was perfectly matched and very easy on the ear. In particular Neville Malcolm on bass and pianist Simon Wallace are sublime in their relaxed contribution to the evening’s sound.

Jungr performed most of the tracks on the upcoming album, which is a collection of her own compositions combined with covers. Demonstrably proud of her Stockport roots, her writings are often autobiographical and when Jungr sings New Life, her pride in her émigré father who settled in this country against tough odds is evident. However, whilst Jungr may have the most perfect of pitches, as a lyricist her sentiments often have the potential to be too saccharine and shallow.

Urban Fox, a blues number inspired by a late night encounter with just such a creature was heartfelt in intent, but a little naive in delivery. An accomplished children’s writer, this song seemed to find Jungr almost caught in the headlights of an unfortunate crossover betwixt child-focused analogy and adult soulful intensity. In her cover numbers, Jungr’s soft sound anaesthetises the painful intensity of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and similarly smoothes over the coarseness of Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay, rendering both songs into more of an elevator music rendition than is probably the singer’s intention.

Perhaps the timing of the show is wrong. 7.30 in the evening may well just be too early for a gig which, like a long mellow whisky, is probably best appreciated around midnight. When Jungr eventually sang her new album’s title song as the penultimate number she did truly give of herself into a passionate performance of R&B, but by then it was too little too late. As it stands, her set is crying out for more spine-tingling moments.

The Matcham Room is one of London’s newer cabaret venues and the fair sized audience in this stylish and spacy, yet still intimate theatre, clearly contained many of her admirers. As this performance is definitely one for the fans, they will not have been disappointed.

Runs until September 29

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Catch 22 - My comments for the BBC

Catch 22 - A Novel


Written by : Joseph Heller

This is NOT a review, however Google has reminded me that some 10 years ago, I submitted an online comment to the BBC. Here it is ( you need to scroll down the page to find it) .

Short and sweet and my opinions have not changed.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Confessions of a Butterfly - Review

The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London


Written by Jonathan Salt
Directed by Sam Conway

Programme cover from
Confessions of a Butterfly
In a modest flurry of London plays about Dr Janusz Korczak, Confessions of a Butterfly arrives as a one act, one man tribute to this Polish-Jewish hero of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Korczak was a renowned paediatric doctor, ahead of his time, who devoted his career to studying and caring for children and to documenting The Rights of The Child, a doctrine later to be enshrined by the United Nations. In Warsaw between the wars, he established a Jewish orphanage where much of his research and observations were undertaken. When the Nazis occupied Poland and amongst their plans for the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews, they established the ghetto in Warsaw into which the orphanage was transferred. Throughout this period of deprivation, degradation and horrific suffering, Korczak heroically remained with his charges until he and they were transported to the Treblinka concentration camp and murdered.
The play is set in Korczak’s bedroom/study in the orphanage, the night before transportation. Amidst modest sips of vodka and aware of the fate that awaits him and the children in the morning, he describes his work and philosophy through flashback and direct explanation to the audience. Jonathan Salt, who plays Korczak, has researched his subject thoroughly. Salt is very learned and committed to teaching others of man’s inhumanity against man.
Against such a devoted background of study, scriptwriting and performance it seems churlish to criticise, however the play fails to reach the heights, nor plough the harrowing depths, to which its creators aspire. Like his subject, Salt’s performance is stoic, but stoicism by its nature barely scratches the surface of a person’s emotional core. We do see the Doctor moved when he has to care for a baby dying of typhus, but through much of the play, the man is more narrator than impassioned and above all troubled, protector. We rarely get a chance to see the brave face that of course he would have put on for the children, drop and we need to. For this work to have  dramatic impact, Salt needs to be less understated in portraying the Doctor and instead explore the emotional anguish that his hero would be suffering, so cognisant of the destruction of his community and his children. Towards the end of the play Korczak suffers a nightmare as he fitfully sleeps during that awful final slumber. This may be Salt’s nod towards Korczak’s inner turmoil, but it is a confused moment in the play, and as a recognition of the man’s emotional upheaval, it is too late on in this well intentioned, but nonetheless flawed, tribute.

Runs until 29 September 2012

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Sweeney Todd - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball

Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre is a rare production these days. Having received critical acclaim in Chichester in 2011, the producers brought it to the West End for 6 months only, and when its residence on The Strand ends this week, that’s it. The show’s over.  No formulaic production here, complete with instantly recognisable logo or slogan, that can be replicated around the world, and re-cast every 12 months as necessary. Neither are there any gimmicks apart from a rather gruesome barber’s chair and pints of stage blood. This Sweeney is most definitely cast-specific, and it shows.
Jonathan Kent has set Sondheim’s work in an unspecified era with Anthony Ward’s design being darkly evocative, bleak and stark. This deliberate blurring of the time boundaries  (The Judge and Beadle predate Robert Peel’s police force,  yet Pirelli drives a petrol powered trike) adding to the production's sensation of disquiet and enhancing the slightly supernatural aspect of Todd’s persona. The feel of the production is almost as cold as steel itself. It is harsh, industrial, and gritty. A steam sirens blasts, heavy doors clang shut and even the massive set piece that bears Todd’s barber shop, is stored behind a noisy steel roller shutter door when not in use. The one item striking item of garish colour on the set is the neon sign ( again, a time-warping design feature ) promoting Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop. The neon is of course ghoulishly ironic, beckoning customers to enter and unwittingly feast on their fellow man.
Michael Ball plays the barber with calculating vengefulness. His smiles are always insincere, his purpose always focussed as he uses any means he can to avenge his wife’s supposed death, his daughter’s abduction and his false imprisonment. Rarely is a murderer so convincingly sympathetic and Ball explores the full depths and complexities of the troubled man as we follow his journey. Sondheim’s lyrics and melodies are not easy, nor is the show easy-listening. The words are fast and harsh, and the harmonics frequently in complex minor keys, yet 6 months into the show’s London residency, Ball remains both fresh and comfortable in the role, without in any way slipping into lazy over-confidence. His comic moments are few, often being a straight man to Mrs Lovett’s effusiveness, yet they shine. In A Little Priest, his understated irony is perfect, whilst his armchair sardonic attitude towards the clearly besotted Mrs Lovett, in a parlour scene leading up to By The Sea, has distinct echoes of Michael Robbins’ Arthur, from 1970s TV’s On The Buses.
Without question, Michael Ball is one of the country’s musical theatre stars. Since creating the role of Marius in Les Miserables, his performances have nearly all involved lyrics as well as prose. By contrast, Imelda Staunton who plays Mrs Lovett, herself one of the country’s top actresses, does not have such a popularly recognised reputation in musical theatre. Yet, when the Chichester casting was announced in 2011, the decision to pair Staunton with Ball, was deservedly greeted with universal acclaim. Lovett is a down trodden, poor, woman of the people, as well as being arguably the (second) most evil character in the show and Staunton plays her definitively. Her character is complex: cunning, compassionate, caring, comic but above all, lonely. Staunton’s performance portrays all these aspects and then some more and does so with a breathtaking clarity of speech and melody of voice.  Maybe one day Sondheim will write the story of what happened to Mr Lovett. As and when he does Imelda Staunton should reprise her remarkable creation. Both Staunton and Ball are professionals who are at the pinnacle of their careers and whose ability to act through song cannot be surpassed. They quite simply provide a masterclass in musical theatre. 
Adding a further comment with regard to Staunton, this reviewer witnessed her as a Hot Box Girl in Richard Eyre’s Guys and Dolls some 30 years ago and devotedly followed her progress within that show over time, until she was rewarded with the lead role of Miss Adelaide. It is interesting to note that with both Miss Adelaide, and now Mrs Lovett, Staunton has taken iconic women from two seminally New York and London inspired shows, both of whom, coincidentally, had been memorably and famously performed by Julia McKenzie, and given each her own unique and powerful interpretation.
The supporting cast are typically outstanding to a man. John Bowe is a nauseatingly perverted Judge, whose lust, first for Todd’s wife and then for the barber's young daughter is flesh-creeping. And it speaks volumes for the pedigree of this show, that an actor of the calibre of Peter Polycarpou was lured to take the modest role of Beadle Bamford. As the young lovers, Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady play their parts in the story with passion and conviction.
All these outstanding performances however are hung on the framework of creative excellence that is Sondheim's talent with words and music. A New Yorker, his eye for the pulse of a city is cleverly worked into his rhythm and words and coming from across the pond, his is a rare talent that can compose lyrics and dialogue that have an authentic London feel. His cockney writing has more to do with Lionel Bart's Oliver, than Disney's "Mockney" that the Sherman brothers foisted on Mary Poppins' Dick van Dyke.
It is both sad but also absolutely correct , that Sweeney Todd should bring the curtain down this weekend. The inspired brilliance of the pairing of Ball and Staunton is not likely to be replicated soon on a London stage, and it would be a travesty to deliberately re-cast this union with fresh actors. If you have not seen the show yet, you have five more days and seven more performances to catch it. Not to be missed!

Runs until September 22 2012

Monday, 17 September 2012

King Lear - Review

Almeida Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Attenborough

The Almeida's image of Jonathan Pryce as King Lear
King Lear at the Almeida is a raw production, designed and costumed with a pre Christian simpleness of stone, flax and linen that serves the story well. Lear's pagan kingdom, rife with base human motives of bastardy, lechery, jealousy and greed, as well as deep love and loyalty is clearly depicted in this interpretation by Michael Attenborough.

At 65, Jonathan Pryce is realistically aged for the title role. At times majestic, his wild ( not entirely grey ) hair and luxurious beard combined with a partially exposed chest, suggest a man still in possession of many physical faculties. His is a rare Lear that still has the potential to make members of the audience swoon. The performance is pitiful too as we witness the fraying of the king's powers of reason with his age. "Oh let me not be mad " has rarely conveyed such power, coming from a man who whilst at that juncture of old age where his mind is becoming increasingly muddled and  impaired, is young enough to still be painfully aware of his own decline.

Clive Woods Gloucester is as good as any. He easily suggests a man who enjoys life and who enjoyed begetting Edmund out of wedlock, yet is sufficiently naïve to be hoodwinked by his bastard son into believing Edgar's plot against him. Even more than Lear perhaps, this Gloucester is a man more sinned against than sinning. As Edmund, Kieran Bew possesses power, presence and evil will. He exudes the sexual attraction that sees both Goneril and Regan lust for him and up until his final swordfight he remains a plausible villain. Richard Goulding provides a thoughtful Edgar and in an interestingly creative touch, Attenborough has us introduced to the young man whilst he is whoring. A credible concept given his fathers track record and with a further degree of inventiveness provided by Edmund paying off the whore. This small detail by the director provides a slightly refreshing perspective on the two brothers, clearly demonstrating Edmunds perceptive and manipulative skills. Gouldings Edgar goes on to be a moving performance, particularly after he encounters his blinded father, but he has more in the tank that can be given to this production and he needs to find it to truly win the sympathy and pathos that an exceptional Edgar can garner. 

Attenborough has also had some creative fun with Regan and Goneril. During the opening scene in which the kingdom is divided, as Lear awards each sister their portion, he kisses these two older siblings fully and inappropriately on the mouth, clearly suggesting an abusive sexual relationship. This sexual connotation almost justifies the sisters subsequent cruel stance towards their father and provides another refreshing perspective on a critical aspect of the tale. Zoe Waites is a worthy Goneril, but no more than that. The moment when Lear curses her with sterility, is a point in the play that has the power to bring an audience to tears. Where a well acted king requires an "as strong" actress as his daughter, to flinch at her father's venomous words, Waite's response to this pivotal speech lacked emotional power. Jenny Jules Regan also needs greater depth. Attenborough could have and should have extracted more from both these women, they deserved it.

Chook Sibtains Cornwall was nasty throughout. He oozed contempt with word and action, blinding Gloucester in a scene that owed as much to Eli Roths torture porn as to classic writing. When he throws the ripped out eyeballs at his bleeding helpless victim, the audience flinch and rarely has Gloucesters Tenant needed to have been as kindly as Alix Wilton Regans, her warmth almost soothing the crowd before they rush out for much needed interval G&Ts.

The Almeida stage is sparsely adorned for the production. Laid with heavy flagstones, a pre mediaeval time is clearly suggested. The production is generally lit well too, though there is an occasional incongruity with electric bulkhead lights flickering on external castle walls that sit at odds with the setting of the play, particluarly true with traditional flaming torches burning in the production. 

Without doubt this is a King Lear that demands to be seen. Whilst Attenborough could have made the company more exciting around their star, Pryce remains one of the leading actors of his era. His performance as the ageing raging king is memorable, moving and will stay with one for a long time.

Runs until November 3 2012 


Much anticipation surrounds each new production of both Hamlet and King Lear. Within an actor's professional life cycle, to play the Dane marks an accession to Shakespeare's great roles, whilst Lear is a role typically tackled in the twilight of a career. At 65, Jonathan Pryce plays the ageing king at perhaps the commencement of a twilight chapter with his performance presenting a more "youthful" take on the ageing monarch when compared to some of the other relatively recent Lears of Jacobi and McKellen. As a footnote and albeit long before blogging was invented, Hecuba was fortunate enough to see Pryce's astounding 1980 Hamlet at the Royal Court and it is pleasing to witness part of the revolve of this actor's Shakespearean career.

Taboo - Review

Brixton Club House, London
This review was first published in The Public Reviews


Book: Mark Davies Markham
Music & lyrics : Boy George
Director: Christopher Renshaw

Matthew Rowland as Boy George
Picture by Roy Tan
Taboo is an updated and re-imaged take on a show that first arrived in London a decade ago.  Staged upon an intriguing catwalk that seductively threads its way through the audience exploiting every facet of this unusual venue’s intimacy, one senses that director Renshaw, who created the original concept of the show with Boy George in the last millennium, is delivering authentic excellence. 

Paul Baker reprises the role of Phillip Sallon that he created in 2002. Act one opens with his Ode to Attention Seekers and his command of the audience is startling. His make up is vivid with his perfect poise and movement setting the tone for the production’s descent into the sexually ambivalent world of London’s club scene.

The show’s story follows rookie photographer Billy who we meet living with his parents. As the programme notes comment, it’s Billy’s lens that captures the world of the 1980s that surrounds him. One of the BBC’s Josephs, Alistair Brammer plays Billy with just the right combination of strength, naivete and curiosity. His mum and dad are the West End stalwarts Sarah Ingram and Michael Matus. Ingram’s performance as a mother who initially struggles to accept her son’s sexuality is touchingly crafted, whilst Matus portrays the misogynist and intolerant father with a chilling degree of slobbish ordinariness. Matus plays two other small but critical roles in the show with breathtakingly slick costume and make-up changes.

Sallon introduces Billy to the hedonistic world of Boy George and his assistant Kim where love soon blossoms between the photographer and the girl. Whilst Kim is attracted to Billy, so too is Boy George. Billy becomes an emotional pinball ricocheting between his desire for Kim and finding the sexual attentions of the singer irresistible. As he deflowers Kim, so in turn is he deflowered by Boy George. Playing Kim, Niamh Perry a BBC Nancy and now a young and accomplished West End star, is a convincingly vulnerable young adult. She sings Pretty Lies, in which she confronts Billy’s betrayal of her, with a vocal performance that is as powerful as it is pained.

Matthew Rowland quite simply IS Boy George. Making his professional debut, Rowland evokes the singer’s immediately recognisable look, style and affectation. He charts George’s rise to fame and drug fuelled collapse in a tour de force performance. For those old enough to remember the 80s, to look at Rowland is to step back in time. Leigh Bowery is a slightly lesser known character from that era who ran the Taboo Club. Obese, flamboyant and literally larger than life, Sam Buttery ( a finalist on BBC’s The Voice ) is yet another professional debutante who dominates his scenes with confidence and clarity. His remarkable make up changes, designed by Christine Bateman, expertly applied by backstage assistants from Greasepaint school.  Owain Williams as Steve Strange and Adam Bailey as Marilyn complete the set of instantly recognisable faces of the age, each captured in performances that combine both character and caricature. Anne Vosser’s casting has been exceptional. 

Together with Bronia Buchanan, Danielle Tarento has again produced a theatrical masterpiece, supported by talented creatives. Mike Nicholls’ costumes evoke both Punk and New Romanticism.  Howard Hudson lights the confined spaces of the club ingeniously and Graham Simpson’s sound design ensures that the cast are clearly heard against the sound of Matt Smith’s three piece band, whilst choreographer Frank Thompson’s dance exploits every aspect of the performance space.

Blending fable with fact and new talent with established troupers, this flawless production is quite possibly one of the best shows to open in London this year.

Runs until December 23

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Rent - Review

Greenwich Theatre, London

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills

Edward Handoll as Roger
Rent at Greenwich Theatre is an energetic production of the Broadway hit. Inspired by the opera La Boheme of more than a century earlier, the musical is set around a Manhattan tenement block colonised by young bohemians who span all sexualities and with the plague that ravaged Puccini's characters replaced here by the modern nightmare of HIV/Aids.

Mark Stratton plays Benjamin Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker whose camerawork provides the medium by which the show's narrative can be played out. His roommate , musician Roger,  played by Edward Handoll is HIV+ and his number One Song Glory , in which he tells of his desire to write a powerful song before he dies is a moving moment. He falls for Mimi, a strong performance from Stephanie Fearon. A junkie, she too is positive and the point when both characters learn that they each carry the virus I Should Tell You, is powerful number to close act one.

The show offers several main characters. Zoe Birkett plays Maureen Johnson, a bisexual performance artist, in a portrayal that drips with provocative sensuality. Her vocal strength matches her physicality, and her on stage presence dominates her scenes. Noteworthy too was Mikel Sylvanus, who as Tom Collins, is befriended by Angel, the one character who succumbs to Aids. Sylvanus voice is a beautifully rich baritone and he is an actor to watch for the future. Jamie Birkett, as Joanne, Maureens lesbian partner also delivers a performance that is a delight to both observe and listen to. Birkett has previously impressed in ensemble roles in last years Ragtime and The Hired Man and it is particularly pleasing to see her confident portrayal of such a significant character. As Steve, Richie Goodings delivery of Will I?, a brutally honest description of a man being forced to confront his mortality at a far too early age also touched a chord of raw tenderness and Thomas Lloyd as the dealer peddling death through drugs set a convincing tone of evil sleaze with each appearance.

Rents story weaves vivacity with tragedy and whilst this production certainly has some stunning performances from it's impressively sized troupe of 28, as a whole it fails to reach the heights of passion or the chasms of poignant loss that are within its grasp. Paul Taylor-Mills direction lacks a degree of depth and maturity that it is not unreasonable to expect. When Angel dies, his falling into his friends open arms could have been conceived by a sixth form drama class, rather than the seasoned eye of an accomplished professional. The sound design was also poor. Sat in prime centre stalls seats, it was frustrating that too many voices were inaudible over the music, particularly in the ensemble numbers and this is a matter for urgent attention.

This popular show remains a production that deserves to be seen. On press night it was well received, the theatre was full and at least half the audience rose to a standing ovation, suggesting that its return to a London stage has been long overdue.  And of course Rent's signature tune Seasons of Love remains one of the most beautiful songs of modern musical theatre.

Runs until September 16

Monday, 3 September 2012

Top Hat - Original London Cast Recording - CD Review


Music and Lyrics : Irving Berlin

Producer : Chris Walker

This review was first published on The Public Reviews.

The Original London Cast recording of Top Hat Is a delightful recording of a show that has brought a slice of 1930s Hollywood to the West End. Irving Berlin’s words and music proved to be the bedrock of one of the most successful films of that era, and the movie gave the world several musical numbers that have since been immortalised.

As well as songs, the film is famed for its stunning Busby Berkeley choreography and dance routines, with the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers being a massive act for Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen to follow. Chambers is of course one of the leading dancers of his generation and his casting in the stage show has been an inspired choice. However, on the strength of this CD, with the imagery of the show’s opulence and his own stunning footwork and tap dance stripped away, his voice needs more impact. Tuneful and clear throughout, though with an accent that is at times a little too forced, his numbers lack an “American Smooth”-ness that should be a strength of classics such as Cheek to Cheek along with Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and Putting On The Ritz.

Summer Strallen’s performance transfers effortlessly to the recording, in particular the sublime delivery of her number You’re Easy To Dance With. In a smaller but equally polished performance, the duo of Vivien Parry and Martin Ball sing Outside of That, I Love You with a deliciously sarcastic comic turn.

This 2012 recording is well produced and very easy on the ear. For those that have seen the show, you will love the CD for its aural recreation of the Aldwych Theatre’s magic. If you have not seen the production then the recording , replete with the authentic sound of much of Chamber’s tap work, is a lovingly crafted re-working of a Hollywood classic.

Released by First Night Records