Thursday, 28 February 2013

Piaf

Curve Theatre, Leicester


*****

Written by Pam Gems
Directed by Paul Kerryson


STOP PRESS!

PIAF RUN EXTENDED IN THE MAIN THEATRE AT THE CURVE 3 - 6 APRIL 2013

SEE THE TRAILER FOR THE SHOW HERE




Frances Ruffelle

Leicester Curve’s Piaf, Pam Gems' distinctive play about the beautiful but self-destructive arc of Edith Piaf, has new life breathed into the title role by Frances Ruffelle whose immersive performance as the celebrated French chanteuse is quite simply breathtaking.

Gems pulls no punches with her writing and this play with songs is not for fans of the singer looking for a sentimental juke-box musical. Her Piaf is at times a tragic junkie, an alcoholic and a foul mouthed whore in a production that is so much more than simply a collection of some of “The Little Sparrow’s” songs.  Ruffelle’s portrayal of this brightly burning star that crashed to her death at the age of 47 is as harrowing as it is stunning.

The play moves at a pace from Piaf’s troubled early years. The supporting cast context the passage of time skilfully, as key people in the singer’s life are introduced. Whilst many of the cast play several roles, Laura Pitt-Pulford plays Toine, Piaf’s best friend and fellow prostitute from the early years, throughout. Pitt-Pulford has a track record that defines a commitment to excellence and this performance is no exception as she portrays the hard-edged cynicism of a street girl through the years.  Tiffany Graves’ Marlene sings Falling in Love Again with a deliciously authentic sound.

The six men in the company cover a multitude of parts. The versatile Russell Morton, as her young Greek husband she married shortly before her death, beautifully duets with Ruffelle. Oliver Boot delivers an emphatic masculinity throughout, from hard edged cop to the champion boxer who wins Piaf’s love before being tragically killed in a plane crash and Dale Rapley shifts through several key characters in Piaf’s life effortlessly most notably as the gay promoter who chances upon her street singing and transforms her to professional performer.

But it is Ruffelle who defines this show. Shifting from gamine minx, to a morphine abusing broken-bodied frailty, injured from car crashes and addiction, her performance is almost Hamlet-like such is the totality of effort that is demanded from her. Crippled and dying, she switches from shooting–up to commanding the spotlight in the fantasy recalls of Piaf’s numbers, with ease. When she sings in French her voice is a sublime tribute to Piaf, whilst when she sings in English the distinctive timbre and twang that defined her creation of Eponine some 27 years ago, is still there. Ruffelles’s acting is first class throughout with Andrew Whiteoak’s effective wigs provide the finishing touches to her embodiment of the French legend. 

The staging is simple, with effective use of brickwork, cobbles (a nice Parisian touch from designer Simon Scullion ) and excellent lighting from Arnim Friess. Musically, the three piece band are a delight. Piaf demands an authentic French sound and Zivorad Nikolic’s accordion playing, under the talented Ben Atkinson’s direction and orchestration, creates a Parisian atmosphere that only needs for a whiff of Gauloise to be complete.

Paul Kerryson has delivered another well-crafted piece of theatre to this remarkable regional powerhouse. Hopefully the production will tour and maybe arrive in London too. Yet again, the people of Leicester are spoilt with such a gem on their doorstep.


Runs to 16th March

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Tailor Made Man

Arts Theatre, London


****



Book by Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor
Music by Duncan Walsh Atkins and Adam Megiddo
Lyrics by Adam Megiddo
Directed by Claudio Macor



Faye Tozer with members of the company

The Tailor Made Man, a musical adapted from Claudio Macor’s 1995 play of the same name, is a beautifully performed tale of an ugly side to Hollywood. The show explores the little known relationship between talent-spotted movie star William Haines and his lover Jimmy Shields.  Set in early 20th century Tinseltown, an era that has already proved to be such a rich seam of human interest material for dramatists, with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel to name but two, Macor instead chooses to focus on how Haines was airbrushed from movie history following his arrest for casual gay sex with a sailor. It’s a left-of-field approach to a West End musical, that is well suited to the almost chamber-style intimacy that London’s compact Arts Theatre lends to the staging of this, the show’s inaugural production.

This little known but true story of love set against a backdrop of prejudice and injustice marks an endeavour of labour and dedication from Macor. In an era where West End shows are often inspired by jukebox and film/TV spinoffs, the raw creative energy behind this show is inspirational. Atkins and Meggido's songs are sound and sometimes excellent, with a particularly hauting reprising melody, We Got Time, that is a sensitive composition in words and music sung by the two male leads, Dylan Turner as Haines and Bradley Clarkson as Shields.  As studio boss Louis B. Mayer, the Canadian colossus of a stage presence that is Mike McShane simply steals every scene he has. McShane is also given an almost Vaudevillian number, Family, in which his character's love for apple-pie family values sets him up nicely to be later exposed as a hypocrite. Michael Cotton’s Victor Darro, a friend of both lovers, performs a powerful and moving number, This Love Of Yours, in which his unspoken love for one (and possibly both) of the men is revealed. And in a casting choice that may have been made with ticket sales in mind, Faye Tozer as Marion Davies a Hollywood starlet of the time and confidante of both men, "steps" away from her pop music aura to deliver a stunning performance. From her dazzling blonde wig to her Swanson-esque gowns, Tozer is every inch the Hollywood screen goddess.

The book is a collaboration between Macor and Amy Rosenthal and as a story it carries some uncomfortable flaws. Haines and Shields suffer a horrific homophobic beating following an afternoon on the beach, but when the show’s narrative, in a modern day interview with an elderly Shields, explores whether or not that beating was prompted by Shields’ molestation of a young boy (an alleged crime for which the charges were actually dropped), the writers choose to leave a question mark hanging over Shields’ descriptions of his actions that day. And in a pivotal exchange between Haines and Mayer, where Shields is sacked for what was then judged to be his scandalous homosexual promiscuity and he then retorts by accusing Mayer of groping and abusing young actresses, one is left pondering, did Mayer sack Haines due to prejudiced homophobia, or was he sacked because he had exposed his boss’ perverted philanderings? Neither a beating nor an unfair dismissal can ever be justified, but over both these events, the writers leave an ambivalence that does not help the story’s narrative. And without question, the show’s second act is a far more gripping piece of theatre than the first.

Macor’s direction is intelligent and simple, on a stage that is cleverly lit and tellingly adorned with the reverse side carpentry of  film-studio façade panels from movie sets, suggesting how much of Hollywood is simply shallow appearance lacking substance. Nathan M Wright’s choreography is imaginative but requires polish and this accomplished creative needs to drill his company harder in the ensemble numbers.

The Tailor Made Man is bold and brave, tackling Hollywood's outwardly homophobic attitudes of the time. Only here for a few weeks, the ugly face of the movie business that the show depicts may not surprise. This story though, of two people in love, is carefully crafted, beautifully and sensitively told and is well worth catching.

Runs to April 6 2013

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Great Gatsby

Wilton's Music Hall , London

****


Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Adapted for the stage and directed by Peter Joucla


Eleanor Howell and Kyle Redmond-Jones
The Great Gatsby returns to Wilton’s Music Hall, marking the hall’s recently completed restoration with a revival of the 2012 production, last staged just before the venue closed for repair. Whilst the  impressive auditorium has been mended and plastered, Wilton's remains a work in progress and this underlying sense of chic dilapidation adds a curious sense of credibility to the decaying world in which F. Scott Fitzgerald set his adulterous tale of repressed love in 1920s  New York state.

The staging is simple but inspired. Minimal use of props and effective lighting denote the locations that shift from Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s mansion, to Gatsby’s palatial home across the bay, to the Wilson’s grubby garage. In an inspired move, the parties at Gatsby’s home, attended in the novel by hoardes of vacuous freeloaders, are represented at Wilton’s by the house lights coming up and the cast walking amongst the rows of seats, suggesting that the audience of several hundred are Gatsby’s nameless guests. Music and vocals, either background or period songs are, with the exception of an occasional harmonica, all un-mic’d a-cappella. The cast are vocally excellent, providing an effective occasional musical backcloth that impressively includes even a snatch of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lead chaacters drop in and out of the ensemble as needed, donning owl-like black rimmed specs, a neat nod to the novel’s description of oculist Dr Eckleburg’s advertising hoarding spectacles, when assuming singing responsibilitites

The cast are grand throughout. As Gatsby, Kyle Redmond-Jones maintains the affected air of the mysterious millionaire perfectly. Looking like a refined Matt Damon, he surveys the crowds at his parties with appropriate aloofness whilst his “old sport” mannerisms are delivered with such clipped yet gentle precision that it easy to understand how Eleanor Howell’s fragile Daisy could be in love with the enigmatic recluse, especially when he is compared to her boorish philandering husband Tom. Howell portrays Daisy’s misery with profound perception and when she speaks of knowing, even on her wedding day, that her marriage to Tom was a loveless void, the sadness is excruciating. Christopher Brandon plays Tom skilfully, without hamming up the bad-guy role, getting the tone of his character’s contemptible racist hypocrisy, just right.

Nick Chambers and Vicki Campbell are respectively Nick, the novel’s narrator and Jordan, Daisy’s long time friend. The role of Nick is particularly challenging, effectively being the lens through which these unhappy vignettes are played out. Chambers though does a good job, adding just enough colour to the part to earn his character some modest sympathy. Campbell is a talented actress who fleshes out her supporting role with a harsh perspective on reality.

The use of the auditorium is clever with action spilling into both gallery and stalls, although a pivotal moment of the storyline, in which an imprisoned Myrtle Wilson spies Tom driving Gatsby's car, is blurred over in the dramatic action of this piece. As is often the case with seeing The Great Gatsby on stage, a familiarity with the story whilst not essential, is encouraged.

Peter Joucla’s direction impresses and the Charleston era is reinforced by Zahra Mansouri’s intelligent costume design that elegantly depict flappers and mobsters whilst avoiding overstatement. This site-specific production is well crafted with a pre-show that kicks off an hour before curtain up in Wilton’s speakeasy bar skilfully setting both time and mood. With period dress encouraged to be worn by the audience, an early arrival is recommended for a show that is yet another example of London’s off-West End excellence.


Runs to 23 March 2013

Friday, 22 February 2013

Stop Kiss

Leicester Square Theatre, London


***

Written by Diana Son

Directed by Noah James


Olivia Hunter  and Rae Brogan
Stop Kiss is a grim piece of theatre, charting the impact of a brutal hate crime committed against young New Yorker Sara, by a homophobe who spied her kissing girlfriend Callie on a Central Park bench. Written by Diana Son in 1998 and rarely performed in the UK, the play interweaves flashbacks of the burgeoning love between the two women with present day scenes addressing the aftermath of Sara’s beating.
Rae Brogan as infant school teacher Sara proves herself as a convincing and very versatile young actress. Her accent and her attitude are well maintained throughout and there is an electric tenderness of attractiveness around her that explains Callie’s growing love for her. Brogan manages the frequent switches from recovering coma victim to a vivacious pre-attack lover skilfully and is perhaps the main reason for seeing this production.
Olivia Hunter’s distraught Callie, on stage for nearly all of the play’s length, tackles a huge role, but never really breaks out of seeming to try too hard. Whilst her enthusiasm in the flashback scenes of petulant playful argument and flirting with Sara works well, her grief in the scenes that are set after the attack, lack gravitas. To be fair, such distress is a tall order for any performer to deliver well, however under the merciless scrutiny of a (very up-close) audience, anything less than a five-star portrayal of such agony, delivered by an actor at the top of their game, runs the risk of appearing flawed. Georgia Buchanan plays a stolid investigating cop and veteran Victoria Kempton puts in a sympathetic performance as an elderly witness to the beating. The two men in the cast, Jamael Westman and Seb Blunt whose characters have enjoyed relationships with Callie and Sara respectively, both put in performances that are frankly too wet behind the ears and almost detract from the professionalism of the production, though in their defence, both roles are poorly fleshed out by Son.
Noah James makes a competent directorial debut in Libertine Productions' first show,  but whilst the play’s message is still relevant and also strong, its writing and structure lack a similar strength. It becomes just too predictable, as the audience becomes accustomed to realising that the next emotive  flashback, or beep of the hospital cardiac monitor, is only likely to be a few minutes away. Stonewall have lent their support to this piece and if its argument moves you, then buy a ticket and cheer it on.

Runs to March 9th 2013 

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Chess

Union Theatre, London


***


Music by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Co directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris


Sarah Galbraith
The Union Theatre production of  Chess marks a welcome return to London for this 1980s hallmarked show,  dreamed up and written by Tim Rice (who endorses this revival) with musical life breathed into it by the ABBA men, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.  Set against a frosty Cold War backdrop, the politics of the piece now seem as dated as the 1956 Hungarian collapse was to the show's creators, yet as well as proving to be a complicated history lesson with a plot line that holds more twists than a Le Carre novel, Chess was always an exciting piece of theatre with some hauntingly passionate melodies.

 
If all had gone to plan for this show  it would be garnering five stars, simply because when it's good, it's bloody brilliant. The ensemble voice work in particular is inspiring and beautifully co-ordinated. When the evening is not at its five star best though, it smacks of mediocrity. Craig Rhys Barlow's Arbiter could act but barely sustain a note, whilst Nadim Naaman as the Soviet champion Anatoly Sergievsky, disappointed too. Granted, his is a tough role to play requiring a combination of majestic presence and cold Russian inscrutability, but Naaman fails to get the mix right. Anthem, arguably one of the best act one closers ever, should leave one rushing for the bar desperate for a drink to calm the nerves that ought to have been reduced to quivers of emotion. Not so in this version, but with a month or so left on the run it should still be possible for the actor to step up through the gears in this song, as its a number that demands to be one of the musical’s high spots.  As the American player Frederick Trumper, Tim Oxbrow also has a torrid first half. Notwithstanding his electric acting, his voice initially just doesn’t match the role. To Oxbrow’s credit he redeems himself after the break, warming up with a fun One Night In Bangkok and giving a truly blistering rendition of Pity The Child.

So, what was outstanding about this show? Two words - Sarah Galbraith. This talented Jersey Girl has settled in London and our gain is the Garden State's loss. As Florence Vassy, a Hungarian child émigré from 1956, her character is complex and through the course of the show she is destined to love both of the opposing chess masters. Galbraith never falters, going on to perfectly capture the emotional fragility of her character’s torment in the final act at the uncertainty that surrounds the fate of her father. The actress' poise is perfect and her voice has the most measured yet proportionate strength to be found off West End. The cast are not mic’d for this show, yet Galbraith’s power combined with her impeccable diction (is she really an American?) seemed to have an amplification of her own.  Her Heaven Help My Heart was magnificent whilst her Nobody’s Side bore an exquisite delicacy. Natasha J Barnes who plays Svetlana Sergievskaya, Anatoly’s betrayed wife, is also blessed with a wonderful tone, most notable in Someone Else’s Story, but in what was actually a beautifully sung duet with Galbraith, the signature melody I Know Him So Well, the American actress’ vocal perfection and power proved almost unfair competition for the Briton and it is Galbraith’s reclamation of Anthem at the show’s conclusion that restores that number’s power and ensures one leaves the theatre with spine still re-assuringly tingling.

Gillian Kirkpatrick is Alexandra Molokova, a nasty KGB stooge that interestingly is usually a man's role. Kirkpatrick’s performance was a masterclass in playing a key supporting character that draws from her recent terrific Beggarwoman in the Chichester Festival Sweeney Todd. Her manipulative malevolence never falters throughout, rising superbly to have the audience in the palm of her hand for her big number, The Soviet Machine. Also consistently excellent is Natalie McQueen’s preening US TV presenter Angela St Angelo, with accent, poise and gleaming teeth perfectly honed for the part. Neil Stewart’s Walter de Courcey, Molokova’s opposite number from the USA is another fine example of a supporting role wonderfully delivered, whilst the brief tap dancing comic interlude of Wayne Rogers and Katie Bradley provides a witty take on the stereotyped British civil servant.

Ben Roger’s lighting, notwithstanding its clever ( if rather noisy) technology could have been better plotted. During act one’s Merano, Natalie McQueen is given to singing some solo lines, centre stage, in virtual darkness and this requires urgent attention.  Sioned Jones does some sterling work with the company’s accents and Simon Lambert directs his 8 piece band with panache, effectively bringing out the richness of the music from a score that was written for a much larger orchestra. Some of the melodies, in particular Chess Game #1, have an ethereal quality that Lambert cleverly extracts from the Swedes’ compositions.

Sasha Regan has produced an entertaining and at times thrilling night out. Whilst any show can be no more than the sum of its components, this production’s strengths dazzle and do outweigh its flaws. See it, to understand the flavour of an era past and the excellence of some wonderful performances and some fabulous tunes.

Runs to March 16th

Medea – ENO at the Coliseum

Coliseum, London

*****

Composer: Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Libretto: Thomas Corneille
Director: David McVicar



This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Sarah Connolly
The English National Opera’s production of Charpentier’s Medea has been eagerly awaited and David McVicar’s heavily stylised interpretation played to a packed Coliseum. This mythical Greek tragedy, with its horrific climax so well known in the canon, proving to be a fable that when told by such talented performers, can still shock.

The plot is undoubtedly complex: Medea, married to Jason, he of Argonaut fame and the mother of his two sons, finds her husband’s desire waning for her as he falls for the beautiful Creusa. Set against a tangled but essential backdrop of conflict, jealousy, warring Ionian nations and including the other critical characters: Orontes a valiant ardent suitor of Creusa and Creon her father, the tale is in essence the story of Medea’s fury at her betrayal by Jason and the revenge that she wreaks upon him and Creusa.

Although written in the seventeenth century for Louis XIV, McVicar sets his tale against a backdrop of 1940s war torn Europe with key men all having distinct military backgrounds. Jason is a naval commander, Creon an army general, whilst Orontes is a flying ace from the US air force, underlined by Aoife O’Sullivan’s ominously black-winged Cupid making her entry in a P51 Mustang from that era. Christian Curnyn’s orchestra are magnificent with Nicholas Andsell-Evans’ masterful harpsichord providing a continual aural reference to the baroque era of this opera’s genesis.

Without exception, the delivery of each character is flawless. Sarah Connolly is Medea, Princess of Colchis, with godlike powers. Connolly, one of our leading mezzo-sopranos has a gruelling role as her life unravels from doting wife to vengeful murderess. This diva has presence and projection, with arias that are spine-tingling. Modestly clad throughout, mostly barefoot in a humble slip, she commands our sympathy as she is humiliated and rejected. It is troubling to acknowledge in the brilliance of her performance, that whilst her last act of infanticide horrifies, her enaction of a mother drawn to such revengeful slaughter provides a terrifying glimpse into what Congreve was to describe in the 1700’s as “hell having no fury as a woman scorned”.

Jeffrey Francis, a notable tenor from Missouri makes his ENO debut as Jason. His tone and presence are majestic, though if there is a criticism, it is that he seems to old an actor to be capable of winning Creusa’s love over and above the youthful warrior Orontes and the young princess’ desire for this heroic seaman, apparently old enough to be her father, lacks credibility.

The elderly Creon from Brindley Sherratt is a richly voiced portrayal of initial imperiousness crumbling to inadequate frailty when challenged by Medea’s dark supernatural powers. His desperate chasing of young beauty, trousers round his ankles, was as impressive as it was pitiful. Katherine Manley, an exquisite soprano plays his daughter, giving a performance of youthful talent to be savoured.

Choreographed by Lynne Page, the movement has flair and imagination. The leaping sailors and beautifully infernal female demons that torment Creon to madness, ensuring that there is eye as well as ear candy for all. At times though the synchronicity of the company’s dance seemed disjointed and one could wish for the ballet to be more tightly drilled.

Sung in a new English translation by Christopher Cowell and with surtitles, the libretto provides an accessible interpretation of the complex tale. In London for 9 performances only, this co-production with Geneva’s Grand Theatre thrills with a gruesome tale, superbly told.

Runs in repertory until 16th March




Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Dear World

Charing Cross Theatre, London


***


Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed and choreographed by Gillian Lynne




Betty Buckley and Paul Nicholas
Dear World is a whimsical piece of musical theatre from Jerry Herman. Inspired by the novel The Madwoman Of Chaillot and set in post WW2 Paris, it speaks of a wish to heal a world that is literally held “dear”. Much has been made of the show's chequered Broadway life and even in her programme notes director/choreographer Gillian Lynne apologises for its troubled history. In part, Lynne suggests, this is due to the show having come up against Hair when it premiered in the 1960's. Lynne's protestations are a little misplaced, as the work is far from being the composer’s finest.

Revolving around a wonderfully frivolous old lady, the Countess Aurelia, the story tells how she, in league with an as whimsically wise Sewerman,  hoodwink a trio of evil financiers, keen to lay waste to Paris in pursuit of oilfields that they have been duped into believing lie beneath the city's boulevards. Of course, good triumphs over bad in a tale that bears more than a passing nod to P L Travers’ Mary Poppins. For a magical nanny, read the Countess, the cheerful grimy sweep replaced by the filthy Sewerman and the bankers of course playing themselves. While the parallels between the two stories may be clear that is where any similarity ends, for in a songwriting contest between Herman and Shermans, Disney’s lyrical brothers win hands down.

This slight production however is redeemed by its performances. Betty Buckley is a wonderfully contrived Countess, a lady who refuses to look into the mirror in her hall, because she doesn’t like to see the old lady who lives behind the glass.  Buckley is a talented treat to watch throughout and her act two number And I Was Beautiful still marks her as a true diva. Paul Nicholas imbues the Sewerman with an ironic wisdom akin to Hamlet’s gravediggers. No airs and graces, just wry observations from a man who having seen all of the city’s garbage, knows the true realities behind the grand and the not-so-grand Parisian lives.

Notable in support are Rebecca Lock and Annabel Leveton, playing respectively a young virginal girl and an elderly but still libidinous lady, both delightfully dotty consorts of the Countess, who when the plot becomes almost too thin to discern, allow their caricatures to provide gently humoured relief. Stuart Matthew Price and Katy Treharne bring youthful vocal excellence to the show in a love interest between their two minor characters, of little relevance to the plot other than suggesting the world's promising future.

Whilst the show’s structure is dated, its heart still speaks loudly. One only has to read today of corporate fraud tainting our food chain with horsemeat, to know that some aspects of big business remain exploitative and ugly. The scenario that this fable presents of a humble Sewerman, one who deals with daily detritus, being wiser than the bankers’ besuited buffoons whom the Countess ultimately invites to descend to their grisly doom, speaks to us much as a fairy tale of wishes. Dear World is a cri de coeur to mend this fractured planet and whilst its arguments may be simplistic and a little far fetched, if one can suspend cynicism as well as disbelief then the performances on stage will capture the simple light-hearted and frothy elegance of a show not often seen.

Runs until March 30th 2013

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Equally Divided

Watford Palace Theatre, Watford


***

Written by Ronald Harwood

Directed by Brigid Lamour


This review was first published in The Public Reviews

Beverley Klein (l) & Katharine Rogers

Equally Divided returns to the Watford stage, some 15 years after Ronald Harwood’s work first opened. It’s a curious literary concoction, part comic, part tragic and in part questioning important social and moral dilemmas that include loneliness, envy, rejection and the experience of second generation immigrants. The scope of Harwood’s writing is however so vast, that rather than studying any one of these difficult areas in depth, the author addresses far too many questions with a scatter-gun approach that too often resorts to shallow caricature. And so for a writer of such wisdom and talent, the play is ultimately a disappointing journey.


Notwithstanding, the cast of four are all engaging and as Edith Taylor, the protagonist, Beverley Klein delivers a virtuoso performance. Her character is the elder of two sisters, in her fifties, whose own sense of purpose in life has been drained from her by a manipulative mother recently deceased. We learn how in her final years, Edith provided round-the-clock personal care to her mother, whilst her sister Renata (played by Katharine Rogers) barely visited. Rogers too gives a noble performance. Her character has been married twice and wealthily, and is a woman who is sexually and financially fulfilled, albeit in therapy. Harwood however could not have made Renata more of a cliché, particularly when contrasted with the empty and drab sexless vessel that is Edith’s life. Albert Camus’ Cross Purpose, recently at the Kings Head in London, drew a similar picture of dourness far more succinctly.  To this production’s credit however, Klein – who is rarely off stage and with a script that gives her almost as much monologue and soliloquy as it does dialogue – rises to the challenge. The talented actress coaxes subtle (and sometimes blatant) nuance and pathos from almost every word, with a performance that is possibly reason enough alone to see the show.


The two men in the play are local solicitor Charles and antiques dealer Fabian. Walter van Dyk as the widowed lawyer plays a hapless twit of a provincial professional, besotted with Renata and blind to the initially desperate desire that Edith has for him and makes the best of a poorly developed cardboard cut-out of a character. Gregory Gudgeon as the lovable rogue antiquarian is sketched out by Harwood with such ambivalence , that one is ultimately not sure if he cares for Edith, or is ripping her off. This may well be the writer’s clumsy intention, but towards the end of the play, one is possibly beyond caring.


The text has several poetic references that Brigid Lamour has highlighted in the programme. The literary connotations are clear, but one cannot help but feel that if Edith had been given to recite Larkin’s famous This Be The Verse, we could all have been heading for the bar an hour earlier. Harwood writes of dispersal and of the desire of the immigrant to fit in. At times his analysis has pinpoint precision and is a true baring of his soul and of his experience. But whilst he clearly understands displacement and transience, this piece of theatre fails to move.


Runs to February 23rd

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

Arts Educational School, London


*****

Book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel of the same name by Manuel Puig

Music by John Kander

Lyrics by Fred Ebb



Genesis Lynae and company members

Kander and Ebb’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a show rarely seen in London. A troubling piece, exploring life within a repressive prison environment of a nondescript South American country and focussing upon the two inmates of one cell. Molina, a homosexual, is imprisoned on a trumped up charge of a sexual offence, whilst Valentin, a committed Marxist, is incarcerated and tortured for his beliefs. The show’s action is set almost entirely in the confines of the prison and in the vividly imagined fantasies of movie-obsessed Molina’s mind and from there stems the power of Puig’s novel, cleverly captured in Terrence McNally’s book.

The  Arts Educational School BA Musical Theatre 3rd Year students are a talented troupe and one could have been forgiven for mistaking this company for professionally experienced alumni rather than undergraduates, such was the talent on display. This review, perhaps invidiously, will comment on but a handful of characters. However, whilst these players may have had key roles, the overall performance of the entire company was astounding. There was not a weak link amongst them and all the actors must shoulder equally the praise that this production has garnered.

The intriguingly named Genesis Lynea headed the cast,  both as Aurora, a film starlet type character of Molina’s fantasies and also as the Spider Woman. Veiled and impeccably made up with jet black lipstick and implausibly long eyelashes Lynea bore a stage presence rarely if at all seen in one so early on in their career. The actress’ poise, presence, movement and above all, her voice was astounding. Shaven headed, costumed throughout in splendid gowns that at times could plunge to display her provocative decolletage, a suggestion of the siren-like fatality of her kiss, Lynea is without question an actress to look out for.

Greg Miller Burns as Molina displayed a combination of strength and fragility. Two of his solo numbers in particular She’s A Woman and Mama, It’s Me showed vocal precision that matched his movement whilst his acting skill gave a credible portrayal of his growing love for his cellmate. Valentin realised by Danny-Boy Hatchard was another display of gritty acting, convincingly evoking a  man at times starved, at times beaten and ultimately in love. Vocally, Hatchard has perhaps a little more to offer than was heard in this show, however his leading of the ensemble in The Day After That was a powerful and moving anthem. Olive Robinson and Shane McDaid were effective supporting players, as Molina’s Mother and Prison Warder respectively, providing sufficient depth in each of their portrayals to add colour to a very starkly portrayed world.

Nikolai Foster’s direction and interpretation of the show has been a blessing to these fortunate students. With minimal props and no scenery save for minimal use of projection and a combination of smoke and well plotted lighting, the power of this production came solely from human endeavour and excellence. The fantasy scenes, in which a dozen actors could, from nowhere, gallop through the shared cell were inspired creations whilst the oft repeated refrain of the prisoners, Over The Wall, was in each of its four reprises, menacingly played out.

Kander’s music is of course denuded without choreography and Drew McOnie’s vision that drew upon the tango amongst other Latin styles, together with some nods in the direction of Bob Fosse, was nothing if not provocative. The big numbers of the Morphine Tango, Let’s Make Love and Only In The Movies, exploited both the talent and the size of the cast and were as drilled and rehearsed as they were imaginative whilst Tom Deering’s musical direction produced a large and compelling South American sound from a band of barely three. The creative trinity of Foster, McOnie and Deering is a symbiotic powerhouse that clearly generates outstanding musical theatre.

This production deserves more than its brief academic-length run of ten days. If the gods of theatre can bestow this show for a month or so, at somewhere like the Riverside perhaps, London will be the richer for it.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Jerry Springer The Opera

Electric Theatre, Guildford


***



Music and lyrics by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee


Directed by Charlotte Conquest

Chris Keily and Kim Strommen
( photo Mark Dean)
Jerry Springer The Opera is this term’s offering from the Year Three students of the BA Musical Theatre course at Guildford School of Acting. It being 10 years since Hecuba last saw the show, in preview at London’s National Theatre, its return to Guildford’s Electric Theatre proved an irresistible temptation to slip off down the M25 to re-discover some guilty secrets.


The structure of the musical may be well known but to recap, act one is a typical day in the life of the Jerry Springer show, with freaks and misfits bearing all under Springer’s provocative probing. There is a denouement to the act (that shall not be spoiled here) leading to a second half in which Jerry is called upon to settle divine/diabolic (take your own point of view) disagreement between a trinity of God, Satan and Jesus.

In some ways the show is ideal for a large troupe, requiring a chorus of “audience” in act one, and of "celestial or infernal beings" in act two, so that in addition to the principal roles this is a show that offers much for an ensemble to get their teeth into.

Some of the casting was spot on, some not so. It will probably always be difficult for a young cast to convincingly play such a collection of adult perverts, but in a show that was broadly fun to watch, there were nonetheless a number of exceptional performances where an individual’s acting/singing/dancing was confident and convincing. The chrous/ensemble also threw up some cracking cameos during the evening, that leads one to wonder whether, for some characters (typically those not mentioned in this review,) the right casting decision from amongst this 29 strong cohort had been made. Anyway, this being a student production, the opinions of this review will be restricted to praise only. For these hard working undergrads it’s a tough enough gig starting out on the boards without drawing subjective and opinionated “flack from a hack”  before even graduating.

Chris Kiely played Springer, a man thrice his age and a global media phenomenon, so for any young actor to portray such an icon is a huge challenge. Act one saw Kielty gaining in credibility, even if some of his opening interviewing approaches were a little cautious. Post interval however, in conducting debate between the divine and the damned caught up in a world that is literally fantastic and imaginary, he exuded confidence and talent and was frequently very funny.

Kim Strommen, a native Norwegian was Jerry’s foil throughout the show as Warm Up Man / Satan. Strommen relished his role and ably grasped some of the very challenging melodies written for his characters. Deliciously nasty throughout, he sported his Satan suit wonderfully and cleverly delivered the complex blend of evil and frustrated petulance that Thomas and Lee penned for his character.

Sam Robinson played Steve Wilkos , chief bouncer on the TV show. He was brilliant – A physical presence on stage throughout the first halr, with movement, timing and acting that was pin-pointedly precise. Humour depends upon timing and Robinson’s contribution to the success of the show is significant.

Molly Stewart and Nick Martland were Shawntel and Chucky, a couple made up of desperate housewife married to a mysoginist redneck. Stewart’s vocal and dancing talents were perfectly cast catching Shawntel's complex misery with a perception that belied her years. Martland was a chillingly convincing ignoramus, deliberately underplaying his abusive racist character and with an impressively confident voice.

Emilie Fleming, a BBC Dorothy finalist, lived up to her pedigree. Her Baby Jane was amusing in the first half and harrowing in the second with Fleming giving a performance that combined talent with considerable understated maturity from such a young actress, whilst Christina Bennington’s Peaches and Jo-anne van Steensel’s deliciously decadent Zandra were also  women whose stories one wanted to hear.

Charlotte Conquest directed with imagination, her TV experience manifest in the intelligent but non-gimmicky way, in which the “broadcast” aspect of the first act was managed, though one could question her casting decisions.  The movement and choreography of the piece were well conceived, whilst Niall Bailey’s professional band kept a perfect pitch and tempo to the night’s proceedings.

All in all a grand night out from a promising bunch of talent, shortly to be unleashed upon the professional world.

Runs until February 9 2013

Thursday, 7 February 2013

An Evening With Kerry Ellis

The Pheasantry, London


*****

Kerry Ellis
Last night saw the fabulous Kerry Ellis commence a five gig residency at The Pheasantry on London’s King Road. In the heart of chic Chelsea, sporting an outfit that was youthfully elegant with her immaculately coiffed flowing blonde hair and Louboutins to die for, Miss Ellis looked a million dollars even before she sang a note. And then she sang. And for 80 marvellous minutes, proved why she has played Wicked's Elphaba on both sides of the Atlantic, played We Will Rock You's Meat and inspired Queen's legendary guitarist Brian May to throw himself into developing her solo career.

Opening with Rodgers & Hart’s The Lady Is A Tramp, Ellis delivered vocal perfection from that song’s initial bars, right the way through to her set's encore. Will Stuart accompanying her throughout is yet another gifted young musical director whose mastery of the piano is as astounding as Ellis' vocals and whose support for his leading lady was almost intuitive throughout the evening, providing a sublime combination of voice and instrument.

Reminding us that prior to fame her break had come at the National Theatre understudying  Eliza Doolittle, where, circumstances (fortunately for her) allowed her to play the lead on numerous occasions, she went on to perform I Could Have Danced All Night, in a Craig Adams arrangement. Her light, lilting and refreshing take on such a well known number almost re-imaging Lerner and Loewe’s classic.

Her set included numerous favourites, including a handful of Queen songs ( in which an audience singalong was encouraged) that led on to her paying warm tribute to May. Before Ellis performed The Way We Were, she shared that May, whilst rehearsing her, had struggled with the idea of him as a rock star coaching her in a Barbra Streisand classic! Suffice to say that her performance of the song was merely a continuation of the spine-tingling experience that the evening had by now become.

With the song At Last, a 1942 composition, since then of course widely covered and most famously by Beyonce and Etta James, Ellis unleashed the astonishing power and range of her voice, allowing her notes to soar almost eagle like, conveying the melody’s grandeur, yet returning too, to the tight close intimacies of its closing stanzas, which played out in the acoustic cockpit of The Pheasantry, proved an aural delicacy to be savoured by the 50 strong privileged crowd.

Ellis had both the talent and the confidence to work her audience brilliantly. When seeking an audience member to sing the Glinda part in  For Good, and then choosing a game young lad (14yo Billy from Essex), effortlessly switching to sing a more appropriate As Long As Your Mine instead, (Billy was delighted!) she led a duet, which albeit one half of which was an extremely well attempting amateur schoolboy, went on to generate genuine cheers from the crowd.

Amongst the evening’s remaining highlights were Scott Alan’s wonderful and rarely heard Never Neverland, and her encore of Queen’s No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young), the latter moving many to tears in a song that recognises not only Freddie Mercury, but also when sung by Ellis, is a signature of her recognition of her mentoring from May.

Kerry Ellis' performance of every number was of sufficent precision and beauty that one could have imagined each song had been composed just for her. Rarely have I left a cabaret performance and wished there was a CD of the night to take away. To see Ellis, up close and in such an intimate venue is indeed a privilege, She is there until Sunday. Not to be missed.

Kerry Ellis performs at The Pheasantry until February 10th 2013



Monday, 4 February 2013

George Dyer At The Pheasantry

The Pheasantry, London

***


This review was first published in The Public Reviews
With a handful of professional colleagues together with a sprinkling of 3rd year students from Mountview combining to form his troupe of vocalists, George Dyer played to a packed out Pheasantry, in an evening of cabaret that comprised mainly lesser known numbers from the musical theatre canon. The show was produced by Speckulation, a company who encouragingly are as committed to supporting young and emerging talent as they are to showcasing the giants of the West End and Broadway.

In a mis-judged choice, Dyer handed the opening number, Arlen and Harburg’s Down With Love to a student who initially struggled with a confident delivery. The song is tough and bears a proud history of having been mastered by both Garland and Streisand in their pomp, so it was perhaps unfair of Dyer/Speckulation to hand such an icebreaker to a novice, performing in front of what was always going to be a critical and discerning (albeit warmly supportive) audience.

Ashleigh Gray was next up with a quirky number, Greta and her consummate professionalism and experience provided a re-assuring note of quality to the night’s singing. Gray gave several further songs through the set, including a simply spine-tingling Not A Day Goes By and quite why this woman has not commanded major recent London roles is a puzzle as she has a voice and presence that is amongst the finest of her generation.

As the show warmed up, so did the student contribution with Maggie Lynne singing an exquisitely delicate Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye prior to Rebecca Brierley’s I’ll Be Here from the chamber musical Ordinary Days, a song of desperate poignancy and sadness but also hope. The number demanded immense and precise acting throughout and Brierley captured the fragility of the melody perfectly. Another Mountview treat was Bronté Barbé’s act 2 opener, Los Penguinos, a novel song about penguins, that included their squawking. Impressively, Barbé got the guttural comedy and the swift reversion to lyrics, spot on. Act 2 got even better with Frances Mayli McCann’s Raven, this talented young professional again delivering a vocal performance of perfection to match that of Dyer at his piano.

And George Dyer evidently is an exceptionally cool, handsome and (to use the modern parlance) sickeningly talented young musician who deservedly commands the respect of his actors and students alike. With Stuart Ness on bass and Sam Edwards on drums, the musical content of the evening was faultless. Perhaps though, this skilled MD is still too young to merit hosting a cabaret night of his own. Some of his patter was witty and revealing, but too much of his dialog centered upon childish jokes and a much repeated curiosity about the Jewish provenance of musical compositions. Appearing in London right now is Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s younger daughter. Whilst Luft’s voice is (only close to) wonderful and not quite pitch-perfect, her anecdotes are sublime and one could listen to her tales all night. Today’s younger performers would do well to pitch up and learn from Luft that a sparkling cabaret is more than just songs sung superbly. However gifted the star of the show may be, their audience expects to be respected rather than patronised and their repartee should sparkle as much as the songs and music.