Sunday, 29 December 2013

Meet Me In St Louis

Landor Theatre, London

****

Songs by Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Robert McWhir



Robert McWhir directs a polished tribute to Vincente Minnelli’s classic movie with his Landor company staging the UK premiere of the 1944 movie’s more recent Broadway spin-off. Meet Me In St Louis starred Judy Garland (who was to meet Minnelli on set, marry him in ’45 and give birth to Liza one year later) and was to prove MGM’s biggest hit to date, eclipsed only by Gone With The Wind. Its tales of youthful love and petty family squabbles may be as whimsical as a World Fair candy-floss, but the film’s lavish budget and frivolous spectacle clearly proved a welcome distraction to a nation embroiled in WWII.

Based around the loves and passions of the Smith family daughters at the turn of the century, Emily Jeffreys plays Rose, the eldest of the girls, chasing a beau from New York, with angst, romance and sisterly giggling in a performance that is perfectly weighted for the era. Driving the narrative though is second daughter Esther, (Garland’s role in the movie), literally in love with The Boy Next Door. The movie was conceived as a Garland showcase and hence her character was also given the show’s two signature tunes, The Trolley Song and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Georgia Permutt’s Esther is a charming professional debut with a presence that commands our focus, gels the company and sounds delightful. The lyrics of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas carry significant history written whilst so many US troops were away fighting. The song's message resonates with Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again and with conflict even today in Afghanistan Permutt’s elegant rendition, amidst falling snowflakes, is poignant. 

Also notable in the cast are Carolyn Allen’s delightful Irish maid Katie and Rebecca Barry’s petulant infant sister Tootie, whilst Bryan Kennedy’s Alonso Smith, the head of the family, affectionately demonstrates that the challenges of fatherhood are timeless. 

Robbie O Reilly choreographs with verve. The cakewalk number Under The Bamboo Tree proves a well drilled hoot, whilst The Trolley Song, Christmas Waltz and The Banjo are ingeniously spectacular routines given the Landor’s intimacy. Michael Webborn's direction of the four piece band maintains his usual high standard of musical accompaniment. Credit too to Francisco Rodriguez-Weil whose sliding screens and immaculately painted backdrop make for clever scene transitions.

Meet Me In St Louis will appeal to those who want to relish a contemporary tribute to a Hollywood classic. It’s a beautifully crafted production and whilst the trolleys may no longer run to Clapham North, audiences should. It’s a shining star of a show.


Runs to 18th January 2014

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting *

* But were afraid to ask, dear

*****
Written by West End Producer




The most elusive character in London’s theatre world has recently released his indispensable handbook to those involved in the business of board-treading. Always immaculately clad in the most chic of prosthetics and with a media profile that would have made Howard Hughes look like a publicity hungry maniac, West End Producer, who clearly has industry knowledge aplenty (and at the highest reaches too), lends this work a calm and reassuring voice of authority.

Recent years have seen modern, politically correct, management classics become must have books in business-land. Who Moved My Cheese? along with The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People have long been airport best-sellers amongst the Patrick Batemans of this world, eager to get ahead through exploiting their strengths over other’s weaknesses. West End Producer’s classic (for it is indeed such) is no different. Whilst being a handy ready-reference to members of the acting fraternity, he pulls no punches. His Actors’ Dictionary is a summary of such on-point perception that it could easily be applied to frankly, any occupation whatsoever.

Telling it as it is, with of course specific relevance to performers, amongst many gems of priceless import are a caution to impoverished actors against an easily affordable vegan diet whilst on tour. (Pungent farts are a guaranteed consequence.) He also sounds a warning to hungry performers not to eat too many biscuits in rehearsal. With a beady eye on his shows’ bottom lines, West End Producer’s production managers are instructed to keep a close eye on biscuit consumption and hence profitability. Dismiss these priceless candid pearls at your peril, for on such little stepping stones of knowledge are glittering careers established.

West End Producer's world is gritty, real and his knowledge is broad and deep. When he refers to the likes of Trevor Nunn, Cameron Mackintosh et al, the clang of his name-dropping has a reassuring resonance of authenticity. The rubber-faced guru writes of an industry where nothing less than the hardest work and effort may heartbreakingly still not yield success, for his is an environment (much like any other) where “who you know” is oft-times more important that “what you know”. Sexual predators abound and eyes need to be kept wide open whilst other body parts should remain tightly closed (I refer you to his definition of the FAST rule, page 125 for specifics)

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting should be required reading included in the syllabus of every Drama School in the land. And who knows? With just some minor tweaks and a name change perhaps to Who Moved My Dom?, West End Producer could yet have written the next big airport bestseller.

Bring on the movie, #dear.


The book is available here via publishers' Nick Hern Books website


Friday, 27 December 2013

My Diamond Dozen - The Best of 2013




The Baz's Diamond Dozen 

My 12 most memorable theatrical moments of 2013, in alphabetical order:



A Class Act starring John Barr
Landor Theatre, London
Dir. Robert McWhir

John Barr broke hearts in this glorious, gut-wrenching snapshot of the life of Ed Kleban, lyricist of A Chorus Line
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/03/a-class-act.html


Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter In Conversation: NT at 50
National Theatre, London

Two legends of Richard Eyre's iconic Guys and Dolls production from 1982, talked about their time at the NT
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/10/national-histories-imelda-staunton-and.html


Little Shop of Horrors
Kings Arms, Manchester
Dir. James Baker

A rare example of cracking fringe theatre to be found outside the usual stamping grounds of London and Edinburgh


Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh
Manchester International Festival
Dir. Kenneth Branagh & Rob Ashford

Possibly the best Shakespeare staged in recent years. Sublime performances in the most innovative of settings imaginable.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/07/macbeth.html


Piaf starring Frances Ruffelle
Curve, Leicester
Dir. Paul Kerryson

8 times a week, Frances Ruffelle literally became Edith Piaf, telling the singer's story from the gutter to world fame, to broken-ness and death.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/02/piaf.html


Pippin
Music Box Theatre, New York
Dir. Diane Paulus

A jaw-dropping spectacle of stagecraft. Visuals and vocals with no gimmickry, just excellence throughout.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/10/pippin.html


Richard II starring David Tennant
RSC Stratford upon Avon
Dir. Greg Doran

Tennant and Doran grasp this most political of tales, giving a classic chapter of English history a sparkling contemporary relevance.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/10/richard-ii.html


Scott Alan in Concert
O2, London

An evening of revelatory and powerful musical theatre, performed by a stellar gathering, that included Cynthia Erivo......
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/08/scott-alan.html


The Color Purple starring Cynthia Erivo
Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Dir. John Doyle

Bringing this Broadway hit to London, Doyle extracted performances from his cast, Erivo in particular, that breathed life into this harrowing yet ultimately uplifting story.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/09/the-color-purple.html


The Scottsboro Boys
Young Vic Theatre, London
Dir. Susan Stroman

Another acclaimed Broadway work, Stroman gave London yet more harrowing theatre in Kander & Ebb's final collaboration, based upon a tragic miscarriage of justice in the American South.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/12/the-scottsboro-boys.html


Titus Andronicus
RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Dir. Michael Fentiman

With a decent budget, fabulous creatives and a talented company, Fentiman skilfully extracted the politics, irony and dark humour of this most violent of Shakespeare's plays.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/06/titus-andronicus.html


West Side Story
NYMT at the Victoria Warehouse, Manchester
Dir. Nikolai Foster

With choreographer Drew McOnie and MD Tom Deering, Foster breathed life into the Bernstein/Sondheim classic using only an empty warehouse, steel containers and a company of astonishingly talented young people.
http://www.jonathanbaz.com/2013/08/west-side-story.html

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Henry V

Noel Coward Theatre

***

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage



Jude Law

Jude Law is an inspirational Henry V. Michael Grandage knows the actor’s potential well and in this closing production of the director’s innovative West End season, Law represents a glimpse of what can be the finest of British stagecraft. 

Shakespeare’s Chorus (a youthfully rucksacked Ashley Zhangazha) famously asks in his prologue “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” and in truth, the answer is “No”. Christopher Oram’s design seeks to replicate a timbered arena, but whilst his endeavours are noble, to modern audiences accustomed to savouring their Shakespeare on the vast and visually accessible expanses of the subsidised Olivier and Royal Shakespeare stages, the confines of the Noel Coward and its antiquated Edwardian sightlines, present a hurdle from the outset. Law is unquestionably fabulous and his performance hints at greatness, but this Henry V is a Rolls Royce engine performing inside a far less glamorous arena. 

The play of course is a clever study in leadership, both political and on the battlefield. Henry is a brilliant reader of men and when in Act Two Cambridge, Masham and Northumberland's treachery is found out and they are challenged by the king, it is thrilling theatre. Law's monarch displays righteous menace through a combination of cool understatement and steely determination and we sense the traitors' terror. Law's St Crispin Day speech too is another humbling and inspiring treatment of some of the Bard’s most beautiful verse. When he speaks to his band of brothers, the sincerity is unquestionable. Ever the consummate actor, Law saves the best until last. The courtship scene with Jessie Buckley's Katherine is simply a masterclass in Shakespearean cool. An actor who not so long ago was the country’s alpha-male (and to many, still is), Law woos the M'lle with wit, charm and passion. It is rare for a Shakespearean role to lend itself to a swooning audience, but one senses that there will be swoons aplenty throughout this run.

The company work could be tighter. Seen some days after the first press night and whilst Norman Bowman and Ron Cook as Nym and Pistol respectively provide a wonderfully authentic grit to their more humble but critical characters, veteran kiwi James Laurenson should know better than to race through Exeter's text. Grandage would do well to keep a regular eye on maintaining the original tightness of his work. 

Law’s name alone will ensure that the production sells well and he justifies the face value ticket price (though no more). Amidst a production that occasionally falters, he shines and gives a very modern Henry to a classic history.


Runs until 15th February 2014

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Scottsboro Boys

Young Vic Theatre,  London

*****

Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon look down on Kyle Scatliffe

The legendary Broadway partnership of John Kander and Fred Ebb achieved their final collaboration with The Scottsboro Boys, a glorious treatment of an infamous chapter in the history of the American South. Kander and Ebb don’t do easy. Their view of the world is always through a sharply skewed prism, they strip away facades and revel in exposing the frailties that lie beneath. So it was that around the end of the 20th century, when these two wily writers scanned the history books for inspiration, their gaze settled upon the travesty of an injustice that befell nine innocent black men.

Riding the rails from Georgia in 1931, the train these nine had hopped stopped suddenly in Scottsboro, Alabama following a fight on board (that had not involved them). Two white women then falsely accused the nine of rape and they were summarily arrested, convicted and were to spend many years and endure countless appeals and retrials as death sentences were repeatedly pronounced and adjourned. For a time, the Scottsboro Boys were a cause celebre, polarising the USA across very old divisions. The South wanted them executed whilst the liberal North sought their liberty. That those Boys who were eventually paroled, were only freed after having had to falsely “admit” their guilt, only added to the cruel irony of the shameful saga. One man Haywood Patterson (a tour de force performance from American actor Kyle Scatliffe) could not bring himself to confess to a crime he hadn't committed and some twenty years later, was to die in jail.

Its grim material for a show, but that’s where Kander and Ebb are at their finest. Where their Chicago was scenes from Death Row staged as a series of Vaudeville numbers and Cabaret played out in a sleazy Berlin bar, so The Scottsboro Boys is told through the vehicle of a traditional minstrel show. Nine men play the Boys, whilst two other actors play the traditional minstrel roles of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones. Overseeing the whole on stage performance is the white-man authority figure of the minstrel show’s Interlocutor. 

Ebb died in 2004, some 6 years before Susan Stroman was to bring the show firstly to Broadway and now to London. Stroman extracts theatrical gold from her UK company, who include (amongst other Broadway performers, over on an Equity swap) Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo reprising the extreme satirists Tambo and Bones that they created in New York. In white suit and top hat, veteran brit Julian Glover is the evening’s Interlocutor, presenting a chillingly benign face of the all too acceptable racism that built the South. Drawing on ragtime, blues and spirituals for inspiration, the songs are all pointed. Go Back Home in particular, being a mournfully despairing blues number sung by Patterson and the youngest boy, Eugene. (And made all the more special on the Broadway cast recording by being sung by John Kander himself, solo, as an album extra. Buy it!)

The tale makes much of the importance of truth. The Alabama women lie whilst the Scottsboro Boys who are freed, only obtain liberty through a false confession. The song Make Friends With The Truth is possibly one of Kander and Ebb's best, telling the tale of a fictional black boy Billy, who after being lynched confesses his crimes to St Peter. Whilst Billy's honest confession gains him entry to Heaven, the last laugh is on him as he finds the pearly gates barred and discovers that even the afterlife is segregated, where a black man has to enter via the back door. 

Other memorable numbers are the false accusations made by the Alabama Ladies in the song of that title. Forrest McClendon’s That’s Not The Way We Do Things, sees him play a New York defence lawyer in a goggle eyed performance that suggests the mania of Cabaret’s Emcee, whilst Haywood’s beautifully defiant final number You Can’t Do Me, echoes the soft yet sinister, harsh staccato sound that Kander and Ebb deployed so masterfully in Cabaret’s Finale.

Stroman’s vision eschews fancy sets, relying instead on simple chairs, planks and the outstanding singing, dancing and acting of her troupe. In a year that has seen this show together with The Amen Corner and The Color Purple all staged within the creative powerhouse that is London's SE1 postal district, the capital has witnessed some truly astonishing theatre based around stories of the 20th century African American heritage. The Scottsboro Boys is an ugly story, beautifully told. As with Chicago and Cabaret, it could also, one day, make for a wonderful movie.


The Broadway original cast recording of The Scottsboro Boys is available to download from iTunes.

Duncan Sheik - Live

Bush Hall, London

****

Duncan Sheik

In London to premiere his latest musical American Psycho, Duncan Sheik headed across a wet wintry capital to front a gig at (Shepherds) Bush Hall, his first appearance in town since playing Dingwall’s in 1997.

With Spring Awakening already to his Broadway credit and notwithstanding its predominantly rapturous but certainly eclectic critical reception, American Psycho likely to follow suit (a West End transfer must surely be on the cards) it would be easy to assume Sheik is little more than an occasional writer of hit shows. Actually he’s a whole lot more and there is not just depth but breadth to his work too, with his singer/songwriter role borne out in an ever increasing number of album releases.

Under Simon Hale’s musical direction and backed by a string quartet, two keyboards and drums, Sheik was the sole and occasionally solo guitarist on the night. Starting on acoustic, The Love From Hell an acerbic album number, suggested a hint of Tom Waits amongst its angsty guilt. Lucie Jones, who impressively took time out from the gruelling demands of opening American Psycho at the Almeida, was to give a scorching Mama Who Bore Me from Spring Awakening, with Sheik’s accompaniment giving an edge of authentic nuance that sometimes only a song’s composer can truly achieve.

Sheik’s respect for the sound of the 80’s is well documented and in 2011 he released his album Duncan Sheik Covers 80s, featuring his own take on a dozen or so hits of the synth-pop era. On the night, his interpretation of Depeche Mode’s Stripped was another fine work and along with much of Sheik’s performance, continued to define him as a fine musician and performer.

With electric guitar replacing acoustic, Sheik treated the packed-out hall to This Is Not An Exit, as a snatch from American Psycho. The show is an 80’s satire and it says much for Sheik’s work that with hits from the era sprinkled throughout the work, his new compositions preserve the sound and the mood of so much that was vacuous in that decade. Matt Smith acts the song sublimely eight times a week, but in Sheik’s hands the number evolves from a musical theatre moment into a piercing comment upon the time. The show's original London cast need to release a recording soon for Sheik’s work demands nothing less than a considered listening.

Nearly twenty years has been too long to wait to hear this man on stage. He spoke of finding this west London audience and venue much more welcoming than his 1990’s Camden gig. With a new album due out in 2014, here’s hoping he returns here soon.


American Psycho plays at London's Almeida Theatre. My review can be found here.

Wendy & Peter Pan

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

*****
Written by Ella Hickson
Adapted from the novel by JM Barrie
Directed by Jonathan Munby


Fiona Button and Guy Henry

Yet again the RSC surpass themselves with their festive offering of Ella Hickson’s new adaptation of the JM Barrie classic. The ingredients are all there for a fabulous family theare trip. Lavish flocks of flying actors, scenery that swirls from the Darling children’s bedroom in Edwardian London, to the lagoons and secret hideaways of Neverland. A thoroughly dastardly Captain Hook (for once not doubled up by the actor playing Mr Darling) and possibly the most stylish Crocodile ever to grace the stage. Oh and the pirate ship is impressively scary too.

So, with the kids sorted, what have the RSC laid on for the grown-ups? Quite simply a tale that will make one think, laugh and leave tear ducts positively drained by the final curtain. Introduced to the Darling children, all played by adults and thus lending an enhanced air of make-believe/pretend to the whole tale, we meet Wendy, Michael and John along with their fourth sibling, Tom. Early on, Tom takes ill and dies. (His death is not at all visually harrowing for little ones, but lays down an emotional sub-text of such simple power that it renders many adults sobbing in the first 15 minutes). And this is where Hickson strikes pure gold. Wendy, the most caring of the children, is concerned for the grief of her family and from her desire to just “bring Tom back” to assuage their pain, so does Peter Pan become conjured up as the play takes us to Neverland to look for Tom amongst the Lost Boys.

In her debut RSC season Fiona Button is Wendy. Wanting to play with the boys, but weighed down by the expected sexist burdens of expected household and family responsibilities, hers is a cracking performance of a young woman on the verge of a much longed for emancipation. The depth of Wendy’s character and how Button makes her soar (in all senses of the word!) will stay with me for a long time. Sam Swann is Peter, playfully pushing at Wendy’s naivete yet craving the maternal nurturing for so long denied him in a performance of clever complexity. Guy Henry’s Hook is truly boo-deserving, capturing a neediness to Hook that hints at a desire for Wendy. As the tick-tocking crocodile (a classy green-eyed Arthur Kyeyune) swims past his ship, Hook’s sad reflection on the passing of time is another wonderfully perceptive comment from Hickson. 

Amongst a company of perfect performances, a sparkling gem of this Neverland is Charlotte Mills’ Tink. No size-zero diminutive waif, this fairy is an amply proportioned Estuary-English voiced chav who rips up our “fairy-tale” expectations of Barrie’s famous sprite and makes her a spirit for the modern common era. Bravo to the RSC for making a bold statement that rips up at least one of today’s ghastly role-models, so easily foisted on young girls.

Andrew Woodall and Rebecca Johnson’s Darling parents are subtle portrayals of devastating grief and also some touching humour. As he occasionally hits the bottle whilst she, in a nod to the Suffragette times, explores a world of employment outside the home, so does the RSC subtly educate and inform.

A (truncated) roll call of the show’s creatives salutes fightmeister Terry King who has packed the show full of swashbuckling sword fights, Colin Richmond’s gorgeous designs that use the full height and drop of the world class Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Matt Costain’s breathtaking aerial work. All under the wise and clever helm of Jonathan Munby.

This is a classic tale, re-imagined and brought bang up to date whilst staying true to its heritage. Flawless perfect theatre that is unquestionably unmissable. Fun for all the family – and don’t forget your tissues!


Runs until 2nd March 2014

Thursday, 12 December 2013

American Psycho

Almeida Theatre, London

*****

Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik
Based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis
Directed by Rupert Goold


Matt Smith

Trading sonic screwdriver for shotgun, Matt Smith sheds his Dr Who persona to emerge as Patrick Bateman the damaged anti-hero of American Psycho. A bestselling and sometimes darkly comic comment upon the vacuity of the 1980's, Brett Easton Ellis’ novel was famously realised as a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale. Since then a musical version has been talked of, but it has taken until now for Rupert Goold to helm the first ever translation of an Ellis novel from page to stage.

A young and talented investment banker, Bateman is devoted to style and success, finding failure nauseating. His psyche however is complex and being surrounded by chatteringly beautiful Vogue-devoted peers, (the women in particular have a clever early ensemble number You Are What You Wear) whose pursuit of fashion or the next major deal leaves him cold, only deepens his frustrations as his actions become increasingly barbaric.

Smith represents perhaps the most inspired casting of recent years. Where the eponymous Doctor is at best semi-detached from society, Bateman’s mind is truly a world apart from his surroundings and when it comes to detachment, nobody does it better than Smith. His antic disposition early on sets him apart from his banker buddies and as his reason ebbs away, Smith perfectly captures Bateman's mental decline, never once losing focus nor resorting to cliche. His signature number Clean is a clinically chilling performance from an actor not usually associated with melody.

The company work is classy and consistent. Susannah Fielding is Evelyn, Bateman's fiancĂ©e, more focused on the carat count of her engagement ring than the slowly crumbling cognisance of her betrothed. Goold has given her a persona more often associated with a Roy Lichtenstein pop art painting. Fielding's characterisation is one of the most fleshed out depictions of a shallow two dimensional woman to be found. Cassandra Compton’s Jean, whose love for Bateman touches the very heart of the beast, has us fearing for her safety whilst gasping at her performance as during her assured solo of A Girl Before, Bateman seductively undresses her, all the time his nail gun close at hand. Amongst the men Hugh Skinner’s closeted gay Luis who mistakes a murderous grip from the homophobic Bateman as a sign of affection, delivers a recurring vulnerability that is never offered cheaply. Seasoned trouper Gillian Kirkpatrick, playing Bateman’s mother, suggests just a whiff of Hitchcock’s Mrs Bates as we seek to comprehend the complex motivation of her son.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s book takes a scalpel to Ellis' original, fashioning a carefully crafted arc that is original yet also true to source. Aguirre-Sacasa's background is in comic book creativity (his is the Vegas-bound Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark) and his eye for the graphic makes for a seamless interpretation. With music and lyrics by Spring Awakening's Duncan Sheik, the 1980’s pedigree of the show is assured. Sheik's songs are consistently concise and on point. No trite lyrics here, Bateman himself would be proud.

Es Devlin uses the compact Almeida space effectively, enhancing the minimalist set with two inspired revolves on stage left and right that stylishly shift the action from Manhattan’s high society to a Hamptons beachfront with Finn Ross’ video projections completing the illusions. The story’s violence, mostly suggested and only once depicted with extreme gore, is tastefully portrayed with Lynne Page’s choreography brilliantly depicting the (blood-free) shotgun blastings of a deranged nightclub massacre.

Whilst the story may not be timeless, some thirty years on and amidst London’s multi-million pound properties, chic eateries and an ever widening gulf between rich and poor, much of the ethos that Ellis despised lives on today. But much as Bateman takes an axe to his victims, so too will this show split critics and opinions. Not for children, nor the easily offended, American Psycho is shocking and uncomfortable theatre. Brutally inspired, brilliantly realised and stunningly performed.



Ticket details:

In one of those episodes of life imitating art, with the run already sold out and until this show transfers to the West End (which it surely must), you are more likely to score a table at New York’s fictional Dorsia restaurant than at the Almeida.

Day tickets are available until the show closes February 1, details below. Queue early and wrap up warm.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Little Silkworm

****

Written by Christy Hall and Jenney Rabbit




Any story that starts off at a rainbow’s end and winds up in a mother’s cradling arms must have sweetness stamped through it like a stick of seaside rock (or candy cane for the Americans) and so it is with this first book from Christy Hall and Jenney Rabbit.

Set amongst a friendly natural environment and in a story lavishly illustrated by Heekyong Hur, our silkworm hero discovers his (yes, this silkworm is a boy) silk-producing purpose in life and learns how his silk can be woven into a soft and nurturing blanket. On his short journey among the surrounding plants he meets challenges that are mostly scare free, though encounters with an ant and a woodpecker do test his resolve and there’s always a niggling doubt, right up until the final page, that he may yet get gobbled up by a hungry bird. Spoiler alert: There’s a happy ending!

At approximately a dozen pages of text, the yarn will stretch nicely over 2-3 days’ bedtime storytelling and whilst the publisher’s website suggests the tale is for to kids aged 4-8, it will probably be best appreciated by the younger ones. A cynical 8 year old may not perhaps respect the story’s careful crafting.

As the festive season approaches, The Little Silkworm is a gift sure to make any story loving infant wide-eyed in wonder.


Available to download from Amazon

Friday, 6 December 2013

Season's Greetings

Union Theatre, London

***

Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Michael Strassen


Abigail Rosser

The Union Theatre's festive offering is Alan Ayckbourn's Seasons Greetings, a black comedy that bears occasional aspirations to farce. The world has moved on greatly since the play's 1980 premiere and what may once have passed for pointed hilarity is now awkwardly dated.

With men that are predominantly shallow stereotypes, it is down to Ayckbourn's women and Michael Strassen's actresses to provide some dramatic meat for the audience to chew over. Abigail Rosser's vivaciously beautiful Belinda, sexually and emotionally ignored by her husband, fizzes with bitterness and lustful desire. That she will passionately devour her plainer sister Rachel's boyfriend Clive is clear and the sibling angst that unfolds between these two women is one of the play's better explored themes. Pandora McCormick's Rachel, who has lived a sexless life spent in her more glamorous sister's shadow is a performance of assured sensitivity from a talented actress. Clumsy in the kitchen and also lusting for Clive is Phyllis, maritally inadequate, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but nonetheless very well acted by Marianne Adams. In contrast Gavin Kerr's Clive is a lacklustre cliché, whilst the other male characters of assorted husbands and dotty ageing uncle make a moderate fist of their poorly fleshed out parts. Matthew Carter's manically and tragically inept Bernard is perhaps the best of the boys.

Seasons Greetings is a period piece harking back to an embarrassing era of cringe-worthy offence. The play hails from a time when references to suggested domestic violence or the grief of childlessness could be quickly glossed over by an audience eagerly awaiting their next laugh at either the farcical misunderstandings of a blundering old duffer or the puppet-show antics of a bumbling fool. Strassen directs well and the Union’s compact space has been cleverly moulded into a suburban downstairs. But whilst many of the family tensions shown are still relevant and recognisable, Ayckbourn’s crass construction is thankfully a ghost of Christmas past.


Runs until 4th January 2014

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Chicago

Curve Theatre, Leicester

****

Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Paul Kerryson

Sandra Marvin and Verity Rushworth


Bob Fosse co wrote the book of Chicago. He also famously inspired the show’s choreography, which could be found on tour in the UK even up until last year. But not any more. That famously coquettish and provocative sexuality has been laid to rest and there’s a new dance style in the Windy City. Like an impetuous child, young British choreographer Drew McOnie has taken some of Broadway’s biggest numbers and re-imagined their steamy suggestiveness into a style that is entirely 21st century.

Paul Kerryson directs on the sleek modern vastness of the Curve’s main auditorium. It’s a big (and possibly expensive) space to fill, sometimes too big and if occasionally the intimacy of a bedroom scene or a lawyer's office seems dwarfed, one does not have to wait long until McOnie’s routines fill the stage. The show is such that one’s eyes are often drawn to the fascinating and complex company dance work rather than the singing lead.

The murderous partners in crime, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, are played by the accomplished Verity Rushworth and Gemma Sutton respectively. Both women are vocally stunning, with Rushworth flashing occasional glimpses of breathaking acrobatic talent. Not quite the finished article yet, their poor synchronisation in the eleven o’clock number Nowadays is a distraction. Nothing though that can't be mended with a spot of drilled rehearsal and a few days settling into the run.

Kerryson is at his best when exploiting the bleak humanity of Kander and Ebb’s caustic wit. The comic pathos of Amos Hart’s Mister Cellophane is a brilliant turn from Matthew Barrow, whilst the sardonic irony of Sandra Marvin’s Mama Morton singing Class with Rushworth is another gem. Credit too to Marvin’s When Your’re Good To Mama. Her Curve-filling curves deliver a thrilling sound and to quote her signature song, she sure deserves a lot of tat for what she’s got to give.

David Leonard is Billy Flynn. He does everything just fine, but somehow there’s a touch of star quality pizazz that’s lacking. Hopefully that too will develop into the run. Notably brilliant amongst the company are Adam Bailey’s Mary Sunshine and Zizi Strallen’s Mona along with her other ensemble responsibilities. One suspects that her understudy Velma will be very watchable too.

The star of the show however is undoubtedly McOnie’s dance work, enhanced by takis’ androgynously metro-sexual costumes. In Razzle Dazzle, when Flynn sings of the court room being a three-ring circus, McOnie sculpts his company, using their limbs together with ropes and harnesses to create a writhing mass of syncopated beauty. Moulding bodies into art forms, in time to the brassy rhythms of Ben Atkinson’s immaculately performing seven piece band, his images are breathtaking. See this show if for no other reason than to glimpse the future of showtune choreography.

Curve’s Chicago is a stylish Xmas offering to a city that has become accustomed to festive excellence from Kerryson and his company. Its a thrilling show and if you have a passion for innovative musical theatre, then its simply unmissable!


Chicago runs to 18th January 2014. To book tickets, click here

To read my interview with director Paul Kerryson, click here

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Suessical

Arts Theatre, London

***

Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Co conceived by Eric Idle
Based on the works of Dr. Seuss


Elliot Fitzpatrick is The Cat In The Hat


Seussical returns to London as the Arts Theatre's festive family offering. Based around the 1950s Seuss classics that featured Horton the elephant, the show takes a handful of the good Doctor's characters, combines his verse with music and fashions a tale of selflessness and morality that touches all in the audience with its universal familiarity.

The strength of this production in particular is in the talent on stage and Sell A Door productions have cast their show extraordinarily well. The predominantly young company have excellent poise, presence and voice, with Racky Plews again proving to be one of the more inspired choreographers in the business. The movement is slick and immaculately drilled. Notable amongst the cast are Elliot Fitzpatrick who truly becomes the The Cat In The Hat and Jessica Parker's Mayzie La Bird, a gorgeously flamboyant peacock with scant attention to parental responsibilities.

Whilst the show is billed as the "theatre for young audiences version", be cautious if bringing very young kids. When the dialog is one to one, with minimal background distraction, then the magic of Seuss' assonance shines through. Turn up the pre-recorded music however and with it, inevitably, the speed of the singing and the glorious detail of the poetry is squandered. If some of the lyrics were lost on this "fully-facultied" reviewer, then I suspect there will have been several boring stretches for the kids. Too many of Seuss' creatures are only suggested in design rather than fleshed out in more detail (The monkeys appear to be elegantly suited Mods. I loved ‘em, but would an infant think “monkey”? I’m not too sure). Whilst savvy adults and stylish teenagers appreciate clever suggestions and provocative costumes, young kids need it a bit less slick and a tad more obvious. Kirstie Marie Ayers puts in a sweet turn as Gertrude McFuzz, a bird who upon eschewing feathered vanity discovers that she can fly, but where was the flying harness that could have made her soar across the stage, Sell A Door? This is Christmas after all and surely the kids in the audience deserved at least one "wow" scene, given all the eye-candy laid on for the grown-ups. Towards the show’s end there is one moment of audience participation, but it comes as too little, too late for the tots.

Beautifully performed nonetheless and lasting a little over the hour, Seussical is a family show that will probably best appeal, not to the very youngest, but definitely to those kids (and grown ups) who love Suess’ brilliance and can appreciate a classy interpretation of the writer’s wit.


Runs until 5th January 2014

Dickens Abridged

Arts Theatre, London

****

Written and directed by Adam Long

Damian Humbley

Charles Dickens is as much a fixture of our Christmas culture as a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. So cue Adam Long, a man with impeccable form in abbreviating classic English texts and a co-founder/creator of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Having given us the Bard's complete works (abridged), Long has now moved forward a couple of centuries and fixed his canon upon the works of the great Victorian with Dickens Abridged being a hilarious 90minute zip through some of the writer's classic treasures.

Five guys play all the parts (including some female roles),with Damian Humbley mostly playing Dickens. Opening with Oliver Twist and with some lovely nods to the Oscar winning movie the humour is sharp throughout and the songs (with music all played by the talented band of actor-musicians) having a folksy acoustic guitar sound. Un-mic’d, the occasion has the air of a top-notch Edinburgh Fringe performance.

Humbley is, as always, West End gold. An Australian actor, playing an English writer who for some inexplicable reason along with the rest of the cast, is speaking with a Californian accent. (Maybe so American tourists will understand?). His waist-coated and bearded writer is a joy throughout, never more so then when as an aged and demented Dickens, he is visited by some of his fictional characters seeking revenge for the misfortune he has heaped upon them. The show does not demand an intimate knowledge of the novels, although a passing familiarity with some of the more famous books such as A Tale Of Two Cities and David Copperfield will only add to the evening’s enjoyment.

The irreverence is gorgeously affectionate. Jon Robyns, fresh out of Spamalot and playing amongst others Mr Bumble and Dickens’ wife is a scream, whilst Gerard Carey’s Tiny Tim (with electric guitar for a crutch) is another comedy gem. The guillotine moment from A Tale Of Two Cities is bloodily re-enacted (fear not though, the emphasis is on the humour rather than the horror) with an inspired moment of a decapitated Robyns on mouth organ that will stay with me for a long time.

Kit Orton and Matthew Hendrickson complete the talented company and for a clever Christmas offering, you won’t find funnier. The best of times? Undoubtedly. Dickens Abridged certainly left me wanting more!


Runs until 5th January 2014

Monday, 2 December 2013

London Gay Mens Chorus at West London Synagogue

West London Synagogue, London

****
Musical Director: Simon Sharp

The ornate Sanctuary at West London Synagogue

In a grand Victorian setting and amongst a community famous for challenging conventional orthodoxy, so did the West London Synagogue's Sanctuary play host to a seasonal cracker of a concert from The London Gay Mens Chorus. Coinciding with both the festival of Chanuka and World Aids Day, the evening’s programme ranged from showtunes to Jewish liturgy, all centered around a theme of remembrance and hope.

Opening with Mah Tovu, a prayer drawn from the Old Testament that speaks of inclusivity and blessing, the choir was impressive. Under Simon Sharp’s baton they had mastered both the Hebrew language and the traditionally inspired melody and gave a rare ethereal beauty to words that are a standard component of nearly every synagogue service.

Broadway featured significantly amongst the numbers and notwithstanding the widely reported Jewish legacy that underlies so many famous shows, surely not even the (kosher) duo of Lerner and Loewe could have dreamed that one day their Get Me To The Church On Time would be beautifully performed and with no loss of irony: firstly, in a synagogue; secondly, by a choir of gay men; and thirdly, as a tacit celebration of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. As a nod to their hosts, the Chorus gave the song a cheeky rewrite, changing the final verse to get me to the Shul on time!

Community soloist and sole female singer Maya Levy was then to give a sweet soprano lead to You’ll Never Walk Alone and as the West London Synagogue lit up their glitterball to accompany the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, (another synagogue first?), the predominantly Jewish/gay audience could be forgiven a brief shmaltzy indulgence. Closing the Broadway tribute, a small ensemble gave a fine performance of What I Did For Love from A Chorus Line, one of many songs that on this particular night suggested a far deeper poignancy.

Throughout the programme Sharp shared the conducting with Chris Pethers and when the Chorus sung the traditional Israeli number Hava Nagila, not only did it beg the question as to why no musical has yet included this absolute roof-raiser of a song, but the massed singers’ verve and energy suggested that both men were but a hair’s breadth away from being borne aloft and paraded around the hall in a traditional Israeli dance.

Not just a celebration of diversity and inclusion, the music and singing on the night was fantastic. The event deserves a reprise and when it happens, don’t miss it.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Paul Kerryson razzle dazzles in Leicester



The women of Paul Kerryson's Cook County Jail, Chicago

As the latest prodcution of Kander and Ebb's Chicago previews in Leicester, I caught up with Paul Kerryson, Artistic Director of the city's Curve Theatre to learn more about what he has planned for this festive offering and to talk about some of the theatre's recent successes that he has helmed.

JB: Are you Leicester born and bred and how long has your association been with Curve? 

PK: Originally from Southern Ireland, I’ve lived in Leicester for nigh on 23 years and have been intimately involved with the birth and growth of Curve. For the eight years prior to its opening I worked closely on its development and have been Artistic Director since it's opening five years ago.

JB: Touching on historical productions, tell me about Harvey Weinstein selecting Curve to trial his musical, Finding Neverland.

PK: I was tremendously proud that we were chosen to be the UK testing ground for the show. Not only did it demonstrate that we could host a modern large show that was technically demanding and state of the art, Finding Neverland established Curve even more firmly upon the country's theatrical map. Whilst the show remains very much a work in progress, it gave us a wonderfully high profile, a star studded cast and many of the industry's leading producers and creatives visiting us, many for the first time. And of course it earned us a fabulous amount of much needed revenue too!

JB:  In the recent UK Theatre Awards, of the three nominees from across the regions for “Best Performance In A Musical”,  two were leading ladies from Curve productions that you had directed: Janie Dee for Hello Dolly, who went on to win the award and Frances Ruffelle for Piaf.  Tell me a little about those shows.

PK: I'd worked with Janie before, when she had played the lead in The King And I, so I knew just what I was getting. She was a wonderfully astute Dolly Levi and the part came to her at just the right time too as it had only been in the week before we first discussed it, that her dad had told her how much he'd love to see her play Dolly.

Janie Dee as Dolly Levi

Piaf provided a wonderfully challenging show. I'd worked with the late Pam Gems personally too and not many people know that she had actually written three versions of the play. For my production, I went through all three selecting the texts from each that I thought best to use.

The critical part of presenting Piaf is to select the songs that you think will work with the show and then of course, to get them in the right order that will best fit the production. We ran the show in the Curve's more intimate Studio venue and when that sold out, we hastily arranged a one week reprise in the main house, where we solely used the forestage in a bid to retain the intimacy. Frances Ruffelle emphatically made the role her own and if we can find a backer, the show may yet have a life on tour. Other theatres are interested in it for sure.

Frances Ruffelle's Edith Piaf

JB: And so to Chicago. Why that show and why now?

PK: Sometimes you just have to grab a show when it comes around, it's that simple. For years the rights were not available and the UK tour only finished about a year ago so I guess I called them at the right time. 

It's a glorious piece of writing. Starting off as a Broadway concert piece, for years it was viewed as a poor relation to Cabaret. But the prism through which Kander and Ebb view life deserves a distinctive treatment and I am looking forward to giving my interpretation to the work. I want to avoid the minimalist style  of recent productions, bringing back more scene changes and a larger-scale feel to the show, whilst still keeping it sleek, sexy and funny.

And of course I have Drew McOnie as my choreographer. He is one of the most innovative dance professionals in musical theatre today, a protege of Matthew Bourne, whose work is thrilling to see. Where David Needham brought a beautifully traditional interpretation to Hello Dolly’s dance and movement (JB : Agreed. The Waiter's Gallop was breathtaking) Drew brings an altogether modern vibrancy. I went to see his West Side Story this summer, staged in a Manchester warehouse,and even though he was only working with a youth company, his interpretation was astonishing.

JB: Ben Atkinson will be musically directing for you and he has now become quite a fixture at Curve. Tell me more about him.

PK: Ben is simply a very talented young man. I first really noticed him when as the Assistant MD, he occasionally took the baton during The King And I, faultlessly. He has a confident connection between the stage and the orchestra and really understands a show's arrangements. In their recent London cabaret sets, both Janie and Frances have used him as their MD.

Paul Kerryson during rehearsals

JB: And then to Hairspray followed by the Water Babies premiere. 2014 is full of promise...

PK: Yes, 2014 is looking very exciting indeed with the established fun of Shaiman and Wittman's Hairspray followed by the thrill of unveiling Water Babies. I am very proud of the excellence, especially in musical theatre, that Curve is becoming famous for.


Chicago plays at Curve Theatre, Leicester until 18th January 2014
To book tickets, click here