Monday, 31 December 2012

Crazy For You

 Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London

*****
Book by Ken Ludwig
Music & lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Directed by John Plews



James Doughty and Jay Rincon
 
The London Fringe premiere of Crazy For You is another stunning example of the excellence that can be discovered in the capital’s Off West End. A cast of 14 sing and spectacularly dance an impressive tribute to some of the Gershwin brothers’ most recognisable numbers. Arguably the first of the juke-box musical genre, Ken Ludwig’s book, penned in the early 1990’s, was created solely as a vehicle to link these timeless songs from the early 20th century.

The story is of course pure Broadway froth. A young banker whose actual true passion is to sing and dance, is sent to Nevada to foreclose on a remote theatre in a one horse town that has long since seen better days. There he encounters the feisty young girl who runs the theatre (now post office) and a relationship that starts off bristling, inevitably leads to love. Throw in a Broadway director and his dancing girls, the banker’s overbearing mother and domineering New York fiancee together with some singing and dancing cowboys and you start to get the full measure of how outlandish the plot is. With his Lend Me A Tenor, written some years earlier, Ludwig established himself as a talented farceur and this book is as skilfully a crafted comedy.
Jay Rincon leads the cast as Bobby the reluctant banker. His is a tough role, having to depict both comedy and pathos and Rincon rises to the challenge magnificently. His vocal work is pitch perfect, his footwork and tap is breath-taking and if the love aspect may at times be corny, his comedy timing is sublime. What Causes That, a hilarious duet sung by Bobby and Broadway producer Bela Zangler ( a modest role, performed with relish by James Doughty) has echoes of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr, such is the authenticity of this salute to the American Songbook.
Ceili O’Connor plays Polly the Nevada postmistress. Amongst many songs, her character is entrusted with two of the Gershwin brothers’ most poignant numbers, Someone To Watch Over Me and But Not For Me. Perhaps it was the production’s tempo, but these massive songs have a distinct and fragile beauty of their own and a huge degree of expectation surrounds them that in this performance, was not quite reached. Whilst Miss O’Connor is undoubtedly a stunning actress and dancer, these numbers require a level of subtlety and maturity that are amongst the toughest to deliver and the show’s run may well see her growing to take these songs to their full potential.
The locations of New York and Nevada are defined by the two respective ensembles of high-kicking dancing girls and spitting cussing cowboys. Sara Morley, Becky Bassett and Georgie Burdett quite simply ARE New York, with their tottering heels, immaculate coifs and accents as broad as the Hudson River, whilst Ricky Morrell, Simon Ouldred and Tom Pepper perfectly brawl and bluster their way through the desert town and its saloon. The company dance work of these performers is jaw-dropping, their close harmonies divine and under Grant Murphy's precise choreography, what they achieve with dance and acrobatic movement within the confines of the Gatehouse’s compact traverse is exhilarating to watch.

James Wolstenholme entertains as the "almost bad" guy Lank in the desert town, out to woo Polly for himself, whilst as Irene, Bobby’s spurned NY girlfriend, Natalie Lipin is a delight and Tamsin Dowsett as Lottie, the banker’s mother provides another talented comic cameo.
This production reflects the combined skills of a talented creative team. The show’s staging designed by Suzi Lombardelli is economic yet ingenious whilst Oliver-John Ruthven’s six piece band conveys the brassy jazzy sound that was the Gershwins’ Manhattan.
The programme notes that Plews, together with producer wife Katie encountered initial reluctance from the Gershwin Estate to grant a licence for this production. That reluctance is happily proved to be unfounded as the show is an evening of excellence in performance delivered by a talented predominantly young company at the very top of their game. For a ticket price of less than £20, who could ask for anything more?
Runs until 27 January 2013

Photographer - Minyahil Giorgis 

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Code Name: Geronimo - Review

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray , certificate 15

***

Directed by John Stockwell



Some 19 months after the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, one of the first feature films on the events that led up to the assault in Abbottabad is released. Hollywood moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein executive produce this picture and with their ability to recognise and tell a good on-screen story, it’s a safe assumption that the movie will be good popcorn fare.
The Weinsteins do not disappoint. Movie production is delegated to Nicolas Chartier, already a proven storyteller of complex modern military matters with The Hurt Locker to his credit, Code Name: Geronimo is refreshingly non-sensational in its construction. Starring Cam Gigandet, most recently known for the 2011 movie Priest, Chartier and his director John Stockwell have shot a tale that appears to have considerable historical authenticity leading up to those events of May 2011, as well as having one of the most anticipated shoot-em-up finales of recent years.
Filmed on location in the USA, with some scenes shot in India for Asian authenticity, the movie has frequent (telephonic) dialog with Defense Secretary Pannetta and numerous references to President Obama, but wisely opts not to show such recognisable political faces on screen, where the (probably ridiculous) lookalike factor would detract from the impact of the story. The CIA agents, politicos and the SEALS unit themselves are of course unknown faces to the audience and all these performances are solid and plausible, even if at times the cheese factor creeps up with the “goodbye mom” phone calls that the agents make before setting off on their mission to Abbottabad.
Of course this is a story that everyone knows before they even switch on their TV. Recognising this, Chartier nonetheless delivers a film that makes for solid viewing, with aspects of the production evoking the Homeland series. Made on a decent budget and with credible and sometimes graphic action sequences, particularly Bin Laden’s final moments, this is a watchable movie, well worth a rent or a download.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Alien director Ridley Scott answers my questions

Alien - 1979, certificate 18

*****

Directed by Ridley Scott







In 2001, Ridley Scott answered my questions regarding one of the most famous cinema scenes ever, when the alien erupts from John Hurt's stomach, during breakfast on the Nostromo


Jonathan, London, UK: When the Alien erupted from John Hurt is it true that the other actors had not been warned and that their looks of horror were genuine or is this a movie myth?


Ridley Scott:

No it is true. I figured that once you had seen it - it is a bit like telling a joke, once you have heard it, it is only half as funny when you hear it again. I thought there was absolutely no future in showing them the baby and therefore he came in literally under wraps - under Roger Dickins' wrapped wrist and was covered in a cloth. John Hurt hadn't seen it either - who was about to give birth to it. He was bent double under the table with his head back with a false chest. The chest was screwed to the table with a hole in the middle where we had to weaken the threads of his tee-shirt because I figured that when the head came through it wouldn't burst the tee-shirt.

We had all the actors around playing and we ended the scene at the moment when it would appear and they were all starting to look a bit concerned about the fact he was now thrashing on the table as if he had swallowed something.


Newshost:

And they didn't know what was happening at all?

Ridley Scott:

No. Well they knew something ghastly was about to happen and then there it was. I had several lines under high pressure of blood - which was actually raspberry juice - that was rigged all around the table and I had about seven cameras. I figured it would make such a mess and I only wanted to do one take so I could look at it the next day - because it would take 12 hours to clean the set up. The line broke loose and Veronica Cartwright was sprayed with this blood - she went over the back of the sofa that she was sitting on and I used the shot - I used it all. Some were in disbelief - well you saw the reaction. I said fine let's look at the rushes and that was it - I only did it once.

Full interview can be found here

Friday, 21 December 2012

Jack & The Beanstalk - Review

Theatre Royal, Stratford East


***

Book and lyrics by Paul Sirett
Music and lyrics by Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius
Directed by Dawn Reid


Oliver Taheri and Jack Shalloo
The Theatre Royal in London’s Stratford has a reputation for excellence in its Christmas offering each year. Jack & The Beanstalk, this season’s pantomime is a big visual extravaganza that will keep the kids well entertained for a couple of hours, but it may leave the parents wishing for a bit more of a meal than Jack’s magic beans.

Paul Sirett takes the classic fairy tale, introducing us to Jack as the traditional good for nothing, albeit with a talent for body-popping. Jorell Coiffic-Kamall plays Jack and his movement and expression together with his wide eyed innocence, make him a hero that children can believe in, identify with and cheer along as well when the going gets surprisingly scary. Michael Bertenshaw a veteran of Stratford East who plays Jack's mum, is a talented and well experienced dame, deliciously grotesque on the eye and with a voice that’s wonderfully tuneless. Whilst Sirett has made only minor tweaks to the traditional narrative, he seems to have forgotten that there will be a significant adult constituent to his show’s audience, particularly when the school groups cease over the holiday period. Disappointingly, very few of Bertenshaw’s gags are aimed at the grown-ups and a local panto in particular should be able to be cheeky, mocking and satirical, as well as being top notch entertainment for the young ‘uns.
The supporting cast are a talented bunch. Jack Shalloo and Oliver Taheri provide the comic relief as a pair of bungling burglars. They ham it up appropriately, Shalloo’s singing voice also providing some brief moments of quality harmony. Outstanding vocals are also delivered by Allyson Ava-Brown as Harpo, a woman with a harp joined to her head by the ogre (yes, that possibly is a tad grotesque for a panto). Brown is an accomplished chanteuse and her voice and presence would make for an excellent, home-grown, Rachel Marron one day.
The ogre’s lair and the giant-sized ogre himself, a cleverly designed and animated puppet, have a slightly distasteful air of the Saw movies horror franchise, a suggestion further enhanced by the oversize tools that hang in the ogre's kitchen and the nasty little radio-controlled cars that scoot across the stage adorned with severed limbs. If any stage blood had been added the show would have garnered a 16+ recommendation.  And at the risk of sounding like a “don’t try this at home” preacher, why in what is clearly aimed at being a children’s show, were characters allowed to climb into an oven, of all things, to hide?
The show’s music has some clever moments with minor interludes of blues and soul, but again comes over as a touch too anodyne. A nod to one or two popular and familiar songs would not have gone amiss.
This is Sirett’s first effort at panto writing and it shows. Many fine writers before him have run aground on the treacherous rocks of comedy creation. Pantomime, like commedia dell ‘arte needs perceptive pencraft, married to excellent performance and whilst in this production, the talent on stage is first rate, their material seems to be focussed too much on diversity and political correctness at the expense of humour. If the writers did not wish to offend, they have also largely failed to amuse. Where were the snappy or even visual gags and where was that well drilled slapstick? One should not expect a mega-bucks production at Stratford East, that is not what the theatre is famous for. It is however renowned for being a home of sharp comment, pointed and well-rehearsed comedy as well as cheeky pantomime excellence. Young kids will love this Jack and those accompanying them will delight in their glee, but this production is really just a seasonal children's show rather than a pantomime that is fun for all the the family. As an honoured festive tradition, this platter is in need of a little more sauce.

Runs until January 19

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Aladdin - A WIsh Come True - Review

The Theatre at The O2, London

*****




Lily Savage and Jon Lee

With Paul O’Grady as Dame Widow Twankey, the O2 presents Aladdin as their foray into London's pantomime season.


A large venue demands a similarly proportioned budget and this show does not disappoint. The cast list drips with talent as Jon Lee temporarily vacates his Jersey Boys Frankie Valli persona to play the street-urchin of the title whilst O Grady slips back into his now rarely seen Lily Savage, playing Aladdin's much put upon washer-woman mother and as the producers intend, stealing every scene.


Where most pantomimes have a local flavour, the O2 is London’s largest stage and what colloquial references there are in the script, need to be on a grand scale. Other than passing references to Boris Johnson and West Ham United, there are actually few nods to the capital at all but this lack of parochial sarcasm is more than made up for by O’ Grady's savage alter ego. Gags that suggest it is is quicker to get a council flat than be served at the O2 bar and his repeated line suggesting that the theatre (made from a tent) is a tougher gig than entertaining the troops in Afghanistan give just the right amount of anarchic self-deprecation that get the audience on his side. Combine that with his frequent off-piste ad libs that corpse those fellow cast members sharing the stage with him and there is enough in the show to make the audience believe they have truly witnessed a performance unique to that night – part of the pantomime magic.


As a piece of musical theatre, the production values are consistently high. Bright costumes, lavish sets, tight choreography and a ten piece band all add to the feel of quality that surrounds the production. The tech side of the show is big budget brilliance. Aladdin’s flying carpet is a stunning piece of theatrical wizardry that will captivate children and astound adults. The sound, whilst being perfectly balanced is almost too good. The superbly mixed audio suggesting at times the pre-recorded backing track that one may be subjected to at a Disney Theme Park show, such is its fidelity.


The cast all shine. Darren Bennett offers a wicked Abanazar whose jazz hands routine in No More Mr  Nice Guy suggests a delicious pastiche of the Wicked number, Wonderful. Delroy Atkinson explodes from the lamp as a grinning muscular Genie whilst Nigel Garton, Matthew Rixon and Andy Spiegel provide immaculately timed verbal slapstick that offers traditional pantomime hilarity. Perhaps though,  the greatest moment of the show is not so much Aladdin’s carpet ride, but rather Lily Savage as Mama Morton, drilling the traditional corps of pantomime local children with When You’re Good To Mama from Chicago. The delicious irony of the song’s lyrics is possibly wasted on the kids and tourists in the audience, but this reviewer cried with laughter. O’Grady truly is one of the top UK entertainers.


Aladdin at the O2 is top quality pantomime fun. There is plenty to boo and cheer in a production that looks and sounds a million dollars. With its London location, and O’Grady’s proud Scouse heritage, it is family entertainment that will appeal not only across the ages but across the nation too. If you are seeking festive fun then this is a perfect reason to pay a visit to Greenwich. 


Runs to January 5th



Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Old Money - Review

Hampstead Theatre, London

****
Written by Sarah Wooley
Directed by Terry Johnson

Maureen Lipman in rehearsal for Old Money
Old Money is a new play by Sarah Wooley. Encompassing three (with an unseen fourth) generations of a south London family, it considers growing old (dis)/gracefully and throws several family relationships under the microscope, in a play that is very good (in parts) and is skilfully directed by Terry Johnson
Central to the piece is Maureen Lipman’s Joyce who we meet, together with her mother, daughter and son in law, at the funeral of her just deceased husband of 40 odd years. Joyce is proud to be the same age as Paul McCartney, Jean Shrimpton et al and as the story unfolds, it is clear that she has been the subject of repression and enforced emotional denial throughout her adult life. She talks wistfully of an affair she had whilst a teenager with a married neighbour, as being the happiest years of her life and when we learn in act 2 of her resentment of the fact that her late husband actually selected her wedding dress, we get a glimpse of the extent to which he had been a controlling individual and how those around her had continually sought to smother her spark of character. Condemned to suburbia but yearning for the city, upon achieving widowhood Joyce forays occasionally into London, where stopping at a pub for some refreshment, she stumbles across Candy, a young stripper and single mother, with whom she strikes up the most inspiring of friendships. Played by Nadia Clifford, Candy positively fizzes with a Facebook fuelled energy of modern youth in a performance that is a charming foil to the older woman’s quirky discovery of independence. Miss Lipman’s performance however is nothing short of remarkable and in Joyce, Wooley has created a heroine that inspires and commands our sympathy. Such is Lipman’s expert craft that this gently ageing woman becomes a character whom we find ourselves passionately caring for and cheering on her journey.
Timothy Watson is Graham, the workshy musician married to Joyce’s careerist daughter Fiona, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman. In a familiar scenario, Fiona likes to spend whilst Graham cannot earn and their dependence upon Joyce’s cash, whilst being ever so recognisable, is a plot line too thinly fleshed out by Wooley. Similarly, their eagerness to move into Joyce’s home as theirs is repossessed is again a clich├ęd mechanism. Whilst Oberman’s performance and the challenges she encounters are real, the dialog afforded her frequently lacks credibility and depth.
In his poem This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin wrote the now much quoted line, “They f**k you up, your mum and dad, They may not mean to, but they do”.  Few people however are familiar with the second verse, that opens, “But they were f**ked up in their turn, By old style fools in hats and coats” nor with the third and final verse that commences “Man hands on misery to man….” Larkin's famous words are a bitter reflection on the failures of parenting, and suggest that the cycle repeats itself through the generations. With Old Money, Wooley seeks to argue that the premise of Larkin’s first two stanzas is correct, but by providing Lipman's character with an ultimate escape to a life of freedom and expression, Joyce's own treadmill of misery is ended (who cares about the callous, albeit pregnant, Fiona?) in a climax that maybe unbelievably cheesy but is still rather uplifting.
Runs to January 12th

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Horror movies - a comment

Below is my short response to an article in todays Daily Mail


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie that :

1. exploited schizophrenia:
2. showed a man enjoying spying on a naked woman showering,
3. showed the same man knifing the woman to death, whilst dressed in the clothes of his elderly dead mother


The film cut away from moments of explicit nudity, but the murder ( and subsequent murder of the investigating detective ) were graphically portrayed. The movie, Psycho, together with  its score by Bernard Herrmann, was acclaimed. The set remains a popular attraction at Universal Studios California.

The horror genre evolves. It  has always been designed to shock & frighten adults who choose to purchase a ticket. Yet we sow the seeds for an appetite for fantastic horror when we tell our children bedtime stories of evil step-mothers, poisoned apples, pricked fingers, child cruelty, wolves masquerading as granny and of solitary incarceration in remote towers.

Good  horror simply requires a contemporary  amorality that must be challenged.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hello, Dolly! - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester

*****
Book by Michael Stewart
Music & lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Paul Kerryson

Janie Dee is Dolly Levi
In a grand show, whose qualities are built entirely upon a stunning company performance, the Curve’s production of Hello, Dolly! is a faultless piece of musical theatre.
Jerry Herman’s Broadway hit, later starring Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie, tells of the preposterous antics of penniless widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi and her schemes to ultimately net the wealthy Yonkers grain merchant, Horace Vandergelder for herself. Levi can produce business cards that proclaim her an expert in just about everything and Michael Stewart’s book, itself based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, has Dolly weave what can only be described as a Ponzi scheme of romantic trickery and duplicity. Integral to the story’s delightfully ridiculous twists and turns are Levi’s client, the also widowed milliner Irene Molloy and Vandergelder’s much put upon impoverished clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, excited to be making a trip to New York City with the sole aim of kissing a girl.
Janie Dee’s Dolly is a woman “who likes to know everything that’s going on” and her performance brims with as much talent as her character has chutzpah. Popping up from the middle of the stalls, her opening number I Put My Hand In sets the tone for both performance and show. Her eyes twinkle throughout and her lead of the company in the spectacular act one closer, Before The Parade Passes By, has such vitality that the song almost deserves several further verses and it is a disappointment when that number draws to a close. Act two sees her famous arrival at the Hermonia Gardens restaurant to the show’s title number and Dee, together with the ensemble’s waiters does not disappoint. She takes a Broadway classic that everybody knows and makes it her own.
Dale Rapley’s Vandergelder is a delightfully maturing curmudgeon, his song It Takes A Woman, a glorious celebration of male chauvinism. Rapley’s presence adds a delicious credibility to his bluster as through the show and much as he resists, Levi slowly reels him in.
West End star Michael Xavier is the hapless Hackl. Michael Crawford set the bar for this role in the movie and Xavier, with his movement and vocals vaults it effortlessly. Jason Denton’s Tucker provides the perfect foil to Hackl’s mania.
As Irene Molloy, Laura Pitt-Pulford shines. Already an accomplished off-West End leading actress, her Molloy has an infectious charm and her talent adds further glitter to the show’s Broadway sparkle. Ribbons Down My Back, sung as she yearns for a suitor, is arguably one of the most heartfelt yet emotionally lightly-touched numbers ever written for the stage and Pitt-Pulford catches its fragile complexity perfectly.
Paul Kerryson directs with perception and flourish using the massive Curve proscenium to its full. The shows images are grand and he enhances the red white and blue tickertape climax to act one with the inspired addition of local marching bands to the 14th Street parade, The Scout and Guide Bands of Leicestershire on stage for this review.
David Needham’s choreography is breathtaking. The act two Waiter’s Gallop, clearly drilled into the cast with pinpoint precision, sees dancers cartwheel through mid-air.  On stage throughout, Ben Atkinson’s eight piece band provides a big-band sound that, from the opening refrain, transports the production from England’s East Midlands to America’s East Coast.  The set design by Sara Perks ingeniously employs projections and simple mechanisms (including an inspired revolving staircase) to portray the various New York city and railroad locations, whilst her costume work is meticulous.
With regional revivals currently achieving commercial success in the West End, Curve should plan to send this show south as soon as opportunities permit. It’s a confirmed Christmas cracker!

My profile of Janie Dee can be found here


Runs until 19 January 2012

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dick! - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


***

Written and directed by Stuart Saint




Miss Dusty O and Nathaniel Tapley

There was a spectacular opening on Leicester Square last night. No, it wasn’t the premiere of the Les Miserables movie, rather the intensely gothic made up mouth of Queen Runt, performed by Lucyelle Cliffe, firing off crude but witty obscenities at the audience of Dick!, this season's adult panto offering from the Leicester Square Theatre.
Stuart Saint has written and directed the show that is more inspired by young Whittington’s dick, than by his ultimate path to City Hall and the show’s plot, such as it is, has more holes in it than Dick’s ship the Leaky Vessel, upon which much of the action is set. Loaded with seasonally awful puns, saucy double entendres, as well as a generous helping of cheesy corn and some immaturely offensive filthy gags, there is something for everyone in this six handed romp.
The cast is a combination of seasoned performers and youthful talent. Leading the line is the wonderful drag queen Miss Dusty O, as Sofonda Cox, with a roving eye  for Dick’s manly charms. Cliffe’s evil Runt is a delightfully over the top baddy, out to thwart Dick’s ambitions. Nathaniel Tapley plays our hero’s cool sophisticated cat, with some of the evenings funniest lines enhanced by his sardonic delivery. Of the younger cast members, Rae Brogan stands out with a coquettish (cockettish?) performance as the delightfully named Alice Fitz-Nicely, a London streetwise gangsta kid who is the subject of Dick’s desire, whilst she herself is in pursuit of the key to unlock her chastity belt.
The show is bawdy, filthy and fun. Some of the jokes are hilarious (particularly when Runt, whilst pretending to be a tree, is used as a toilet)  some will offend and much of the plot is too shallow to float a canoe on, let alone the Leaky Vessel. Nonetheless, have a few drinks to loosen up the inhibitions, be prepared to be mercilessly picked on if you are in the first two rows, and enjoy one of the dirtiest Christmas nights in the West End.

Runs until 20 January

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

American Idiot - Review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

*****
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day
Directed by Michael Mayer


Jenna Rubaii and Thomas Hettrick

The logo for Green Day’s American Idiot is a clenched fist clutching a hand grenade that has in turn been fashioned from a bleeding heart. No orphaned waifs or green faced witches to depict this show. In what is possibly the most refreshingly intelligent new musical to open in London for some years, Michael Mayer (who also directs) has, in collaboration with Green Day’s creative talent Billie Joe Armstrong, taken the threads from the songs of the American Idiot album and woven a harsh but nonetheless credible and relevant story of America post 9/11.
The show is a refreshing blast of rock opera, painting a grand canvas that charts three disaffected young men, disillusioned with the modern USA.  Johnny falls into a drug-fuelled trajectory that almost destroys him, Tunny enlists and goes to fight in the Gulf whilst Will who also succumbs to a dope and drink fuelled life is forced to confront the responsibilities of accidentally becoming a father, a challenge that he ultimately fails to live up to.
Where musical theatre can typically be a land of charmingly talented whimsy, albeit one in which the most challenging of human circumstances may arise, American Idiot is born, not from the pen of a worldy-wise theatrical composer, nor from the saccharine stack of juke-box musicals that flood the commercial stages, but rather from the urgency of one of the most striking rock albums of this time. The music has a pulsing integrity and the book that is portrayed on stage is often harrowing but occasionally uplifting
The performers are all from the the States, which is where this touring company rehearsed the production under the direction of the original Broadway creatives. A six piece band spread across the largely open, but subtly designed stage, provides an authentic sound that replicates Green Day, but be warned: The acoustics of the cavernous Apollo are unforgiving and some of Billy Joe’s finely crafted poetry is at times lost against the wall of sound. If one can attend with some pre knowledge of the songs, it is to be recommended.
The drugs’ effects are performed harrowingly if not graphically and set against the horrors of war, the show hits deep levels of pathos. Tunny loses a leg fighting and in the field hospital prior to surgery he visualises an Extraordinary Girl. What follows is a sensational aerial ballet performed by the two characters (Thomas Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii) in which a passionate swirling dance and embrace of two talented performers fills the entire breadth, depth and height of the stage in a routine that is breathtaking to observe.  In one of Green Day’s most recognised hits, Wake Me Up When September Ends, Hettrick, with Alex Nee and Casey O’Farrell, Johnny and Will respectively, all play acoustic guitar to open the sensitive number before the band and ensemble fade in to support them.
Mark Shenton of the Sunday Express and The Stage drew some parallels between American Idiot and Movin Out, the show based on the songs of Billy Joel. This blog saw the Joel production both in New York City and in the West End and Shenton is right to comment. On Broadway, Movin Out was punchy and literally moving, taking Joel’s songs to create a believable story of the struggle of America’s post Vietnam veterans. The audience wept. In London though, the show bombed and whilst in the USA it touched a nation’s psyche, at the Victoria Apollo it was just another ( albeit good ) show that lacked  a domestic spark. Green Day have a larger and more youthful audience than Joel, so this production may achieve greater UK success in the future, but where expensive West End tickets require a wealthy  and typically older (and therefore possibly, not so connected to Green Day’s music) audience base, for American Idiot to achieve long or even medium term commercial recognition on this side of the pond will require immense hurdles of culture and attitude to be overcome.
Whilst success for the show "over here" cannot be easily predicted, it is unquestionably  deserved. American Idiot is brilliant, perceptive and whilst not telling an easy tale, is arguably the best new musical theatre in town.


Runs to December 16th

Fascinating Aida - Review

Richmond Theatre, London

***

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
With 30 years performing and touring behind them, Dillie Keane’s Fascinating Aida troupe delivered an accomplished one night only performance to a packed house in Richmond as their current UK tour winds to an end. The current line up of the trio comprises fellow veteran performer Adele Anderson who co–writes with Keane, together with younger soprano Liza Pulman.

Keane and Anderson have brilliant minds, and their lyrics are frequently incisive. With a routine that mocks youth, gays, paedophiles, men, women and Dignitas, the act contains something to offend everyone. That their rhymes can nonetheless be frequently anticipated is a modest disappointment, though a spoof rap that includes “ I may not be hip…but I got my own hips” was one of the evening’s moments of genuine humour. Whilst politicians come in for an expected battering it is a sad reflection that notwithstanding the intellectual firepower of these women, the biggest laughs of the night were for a filthy song about tax avoidance, Companies Using Nifty Tax Schemes ( the initials, geddit?) and for another number entitled and about, Dogging ( google it). Clearly, however talented the performer, knob-gags and smug-smut are what the fans crave. Is this a reflection of these “all-licensed fools” or of the British audience? The answer is probably both. Their by now well-known routine, Cheap Flights, a Riverdance inspired criticism of the likes of Ryanair, was witty in both lyric and dance, though a later piece with cod Bob Fosse Cabaret-inspired choreography that made fun of the Germans, was shallow. In a moment of serious reflection, towards the end of act 2, Lay One Less Place At The Table was a wistful observation on the loss of dear ones as the years pass. Included amongst such ribaldry however, the song comes across as more mawkish than the performers would have intended. A penultimate number suggesting a move to New Zealand to avoid world destruction and global terror was quite simply awful and seemed an odd choice to be part of a closing routine.

The three women excel as performers. Word perfect and with excellent sound and lighting, they are exemplary in their commitment to touring with outstanding technical standards. Their routines are skilfully planned and executed, wittily directed and aside from a momentary crotch revealing wardrobe malfunction by Miss Anderson, fun to watch. Evidently adored by their fans and notwithstanding their imperfections, Fascinating Aida remain a pillar of Britain’s comic establishment.

see www.fascinatingaida.co.uk for future tour dates


Lemony Snicket's Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming

Roundhouse, London

****
Music & lyrics: Lemez & Fridel
Co – directors: Olivia Jacobs and Tim Hibberd
 

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Lemony Snicket sees his work brought to the British stage for the first time with this seasonal tale of cultural diversity.

Latkes are traditional potato pancakes served during the Jewish winter celebrations of Chanukah, but the one that Snicket focuses on, upon realising that his ultimate purpose in life is to be plunged into hot oil and fried, not unreasonably chooses to escape the frying pan. As he runs through his snow covered village, he encounters gentile and Christian seasonal traditions that make for some well observed contrasts.

Tall Stories who were commissioned to create the work, have succeeded in presenting a one act piece that deploys the considerable talents of their five person cast in stimulating and exercising the imaginations of their young audience. Their depiction of twinkling Christmas lights on a nearby house, using simply different coloured bobble hats and the actors’ nodding head movements is brilliant, whilst their portrayal of the heroic battle that underlies the story of Chanukah, using different vegetables to tell the saga, is inspired. The audience at the press performance comprised very young school children who laughed and clapped through most of the show.

The story however carries some flaws. The ultimate change of heart of the latke, to willingly accept being deep-fried (and hence die) is not explained and similarly in the battle, from amongst a wealth of available fruit and veg, the writers elect to portray the Jews using potatoes, vegetables that within this show’s structure at least, have a sole destiny that is to be grated, fried and ultimately consumed. Whilst children may not make such a dark connection, this is a clumsy mechanism that inappropriately addresses a classic piece of history. The Chanukah dreydl, or spinning top, is introduced but not satisfactorily explained, nor is the closing Hebrew song of Moaz Tsur, which whilst being familiar to a Jewish audience, will leave other faiths bewildered. Perhaps the producers could provide a more detailed programme, rather than the current meagre sheet of A4 paper.

Amongst the cast , Michael Lambourne is a delightful lead, whose movement and facial expression had the kids in fits of giggles. Stuart Barter’s guitar, with other actors on clarinet provides an authentic klezmer background, whilst Heather Saunders as a sultry Miss Candy Cane is sweetly seductive.

The show is a fun fifty minutes that will broaden your mind and leave you craving a hot fresh fragrant latke.

Runs until 30 December



Monday, 3 December 2012

Merrily We Roll Along - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London
****
Book by George Furth
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Maria Friedman

Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley
Merrily We Roll Along is regarded by many as one of Stephen Sondheim’s finest pieces of musical theatre. It presents a challenging scenario to any director, not least to first-timer Maria Friedman, who deploys her considerable understanding of the composer’s work in bringing this piece to the compact but imaginatively structured stage of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.
The story opens at a 1976 party at the home of Hollywood producer Frank Shepard and which  is a snapshot of all that is corrosively corrupt about Tinseltown. Shepard's second marriage is on the rocks, his long-standing songwriting partnership with pal Charlie Kringas is over and Mary Flynn, old college friend of both Frank and Charlie has become a bitter alcoholic. From this shattered patchwork of lives we watch as the years are rolled back and the broken pieces of these three friendships slowly and magically move back into the beautiful whole that they once were when the trio met at college some twenty years previously.
Sondheim is a master of portraying the human condition and few composers can better or more accurately depict the ropes that bind human relationships and the stresses that they impose on the individuals they lash together. Friedman, whilst a novice director, is no stranger to Sondheim's complexities. She coaxes a masterful performance from Mark Umbers as Shepard, a man ultimately led by his zipper, and whose sincere creativity breaks down to reveal a ruthless pursuit of success. His character's moral decline is subtle, and Umbers suggests his descent with understated nuance, occasional anger and above all beautiful voice. Humbley reprises his north american Jewish schlemiel ( last deployed as Max in Lend Me A Tenor) only here he bares teeth as well as the expected comforting ineptitude. In Franklin Shepard, Inc a song set in 1973, he savages the composer on live TV, definitively ending their relationship, for his outrageous egoism in a performance that is as charged with pathos as it is with brilliant wit.
Of the three leads Jenna Russell’s Mary is perhaps the least satisfying. If there is one flaw in the story’s structure it is that her unrequited and unwittingly spurned, love for Frank is not explored deeper though in Old Friends and above all in Our Time, she contributes to haunting harmonies. Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle play Frank’s first and second wives respectively. Sondheim introduces us to Beth, Foster’s Southern belle by way of her devastation and betrayal, leading to the ultimate revelation of her youthful charms of trusted talented sensitivity being all the more poignant. Gabrielle’s maneater showgirl Gussie is a treat of performance. She commands the stage as well as the men and of all the characters who reverse-age through the show, her journey back in time is the most convincing. Credit also to Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan who play Beth's ignorant redneck parents with some wonderful one-liners. 
Tim Jackson’s choreography impresses throughout, most especially during The Blob, in which his routine cleverly suggests that the star chasing vacuity of media hangers-on was as shallow in 1962 as during the cocaine fuelled party era that set the opening tone of the show, some fourteen years later.
The production is unquestionably, fine musical theatre with intelligent production values bestowed upon this most intelligent of writers.  It should not be missed.

Runs to 23 February 2013