Saturday, 31 August 2013

Jenny Gayner - Actress and producer

Jenny Gayner

Regular readers to these pages will know that I have particular soft spots for musical theatre on stage and the horror genre on screen. Since my twitter following has modestly grown over the months, I have come to discover that I am not alone in enjoying this eclectic combination and that there are quite a number of folk out there who can adore a full on jazz-hands routine on a Saturday night yet still find time for some popcorn-fuelled slashery and torture on a Sunday.

Of course, the connection between musical theatre and horror is actually nothing new. One of the longest running musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera is at heart nothing more than a very frightening Gothic horror story set to music, yet many (most?) of those who pack out London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre or those numerous other venues where the show plays around the world, would not dream of buying a ticket for, or downloading, an 18-certificate horror tale. In a slightly different vein(!) musical theatre horror and humour have often gone hand in hand with Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors being probably the most well known take on that particular pastiche style, though Drewe and Rowe’s Zombie Prom is another example of composers blending horror, humour and music into a quirky cocktail, whilst the same pair’s The Witches of Eastwick, famed as a musical comedy, has at its core a horrifically satanic fable. Thus the bloody fantasies of horror have a long and macabre association with the far frothier fantasy world of musical theatre’s harmonies and dance routines.  

So it was therefore a delight, on attending the press night of Chris Burgess’ Sleeping Arrangements (reviewed here) at London’s Landor Theatre earlier this year, to learn that accomplished musical theatre trouper Jenny Gayner, was not only starring in the soon to be released horror flick The Addicted, but that she’d actually gone and produced the movie too. It made for a pleasant hour as we chatted about these two very different dark and light aspects of the fantasy spectrum.

Prior to the relatively short Landor run, Gayner had already achieved a fine reputation for her work in Chicago (understudying Roxie Hart), as well as appearances in Spamalot, The Rocky Horror Show and a Manchester based production of A Chorus Line. She knows her musicals and her lengthy association with Chicago, both on its UK tour and in the show’s final London months testify to her talents. But she is also a woman who likes her horror. It may have to be bloody if necessary but above all and as with her musical theatre work, it must be built around a strong story. 

There are some films that Gayner finds too difficult to enjoy. She quotes Eli Roth’s Hostel,(based upon a horrific and true reported story, of wealthy men in the Far East who paid huge sums for the “pleasure” of torturing naive young westerners) as a film that was just too real for her liking and, notwithstanding the story’s strength, she found its reality too unpleasant to watch. For Gayner, a story needs to be credible but also fantastic. She speaks praisingly of the 2009 remake of Last House On The Left, a tale that opens with a harrowing rape and by a turn of events delivers the rapists into the hands of the victim’s parents. It’s a thrilling revenge tale, with scenes that are often graphically portrayed, yet it is also well written fantasy and knowing that the story is pure make-believe and with its heart also very much in the right place (suffice to say the villains meet grisly ends) is horror that works for her.


Gayner (l) on set in The Addicted

The Addicted will soon be available on satellite TV distribution, no mean achievement in itself for a first-time independent feature and Gayner has relished the challenge of producing a full length movie and the challenges that go with the process. Securing funding was an initial hurdle, though with independent horror being famed as a low-budget entry to movie-making, the film’s £10,000 cost was not ridiculously out of reach. Managing the sheer logistics of the movie was of course a task in itself and Gayner chuckles as she recalls frantically managing the project both from home and her Chicago dressing room! As for the film, its a gritty gruesome fantasy set around an abandoned drug rehab clinic. Suffice to say it opens with a scarily high body count but to add any more comment would be to spoil.

Its all happening for Jenny right now. The Addicted is available on satellite from September 1st, whilst the end of the month will see her solo cabaret night at London’s Pheasantry, accompanied by some stellar guests. A stylish embodiment of the classic “triple-threatening” performer, of actress singer and dancer, Gayner is all that a musical theatre professional should be, but now as an emerging producer of horror movies, she is defining herself as an innovator, keen to challenge and to explore new methods of entertaining an audience. A woman who at all times combines the professional attributes of excellence and enthusiasm, who knows… her arrival as a movie producer could yet prove addictive!


Jenny Gayner performs at The Pheasantry on September 28th , for details and tickets, click here.

The Addicted is available via satellite broadcast from September 1st

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Handel Furioso

Arcola Theatre, London

*****

Music by George Frideric Handel
Directed by Max Hoehn


Robyn Allegra Parton and Anna Starushkevych

Currently playing in London’s Dalston is one of the finest set of performances to be found on London's fringe. As part of the Arcola’s "Grimeborn Festival" the Isle of Noise are performing their Handel Furioso, a love story that they have created, fused from a selection of George Frideric Handel's duets, arias and orchestral works.

Isle of Noise is a deceptively modest title for this company, a name that suggests cacophony rather than the sublime harmonies that await. A cast of two, supported by the 8 piece Sounds Baroque Ensemble, perform, in one act, a 75 minute series of 16 separate pieces. Their story is simple, introducing us to a young boy and girl and following them through courtship, matrimony, an estranged separation and finally and enchantingly, a reconciliation in their old age before the boy (now elderly and grey-haired) dies in the (now old) woman's arms.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych plays the Boy, whilst Robyn Allegra Parton is the soprano Girl. As would be expected the staging is modest, but English surtitles are thoughtfully projected onto a moon suspended over the stage.

The singing is exquisite. My knowledge fails me in offering a structured operatic critique of these women's talents, so all I can report is that their voices are close to perfection, with both range and faultless tone deployed in a moving combination of strength and sensitivity.  Their acting is similarly excellent, as the love story unfolds and their performances and appearances age in line with their characters.

Julian Perkins conducts from the harpsichord and his ensemble, complete with William Carter on theorbo (a remarkably incongruous and oversized 16th century lute), provide an accompaniment that exceeds one's expectations for an evening of Handel.

Only in London until the weekend and then followed by a short tour, these ten talented and disciplined performers provide a rare glimpse of excellence. Their's is an eclectic take on Handel's work and if the era or the genre appeal, then this show should not be missed.


Runs until August 31st then on tour

Kerry Ellis talks of Gershwin, Scott Alan and legends



This weekend sees Kerry Ellis take to the stage at London’s Kenwood House, for an open-air evening of music celebrating the work of George Gershwin. She found time to talk briefly about the legendary New York composer, as well as the city's more contemporary Scott Alan. We also talked about the legends that have influenced her in recent years, Queen's Brian May and the Royal Air Force's very own world class display team, The Red Arrows...

What was it that attracted you to doing an evening of Gershwin?

I have always enjoyed performing at outdoor summer events and the opportunity to sing some of these fabulous songs backed by a full orchestra was just too good to refuse. The rehearsals (in a line up hosted by Michael Ball and which includes Gina Beck) have been amazing and it’s a combination of fabulous songs sung by some amazing voices.

Tell me more about performing with Michael Ball.

Michael is the ultimate showbiz person. Kind and generous, yet always professional. I have known him for years, have been a guest on his show and we’ve been at the Oliviers together, yet we have never actually performed together on stage. This is a first and I am loving the experience.

What Gershwin songs are your favourite?

Summertime, which will be sung by Gina Beck, is probably my favourite song, but another number which I love is Embraceable You, that I am so looking forward to doing as a duet with Michael.

With you as a legendary Elphaba and Gina Beck currently appearing as Glinda, is there likely to be any sort of a Wicked feel to the evening?

Not exactly. The eras and musical styles are so far apart that there is not much room for a crossover, but its an interesting thought that Gershwin, who was writing words and music in the 20s and 30s may have had some modest influence upon Stephen Schwartz, who composed so much in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Whilst many people will know you from Wicked or We Will Rock You, I was first drawn to your talent at the Royal Albert Hall's 2010 Festival of Remembrance  when you sang Chess' Anthem, accompanied by Dr Brian May on guitar. Tell me more about that performance.

That Festival, on the night before Remembrance Sunday, was one of the most memorable moments of my career and I think it will stay with me forever. The enormous emotion and significance of the occasion, combined with the power of the song and Brian’s guitar work made for an unforgettable occasion.

That evening was to precede the launch of my Anthems album which we were to take on tour and marked 8 years of Brian and I having worked together. Only recently we performed our Acoustic By Candlelight tour and where once this legendary rock guitarist of frankly iconic status had been my mentor, we have now become professional partners.

I had the privilege of hearing you sing Scott Alan's Never Neverland at your Pheasantry gig in Chelsea earlier this year. Tell me more about that connection.

I first encountered Scott when he saw me performing on Broadway and asked me to sing Behind These Walls for his album Keys. Last year he asked me to sing Never Neverland at his Birdland concert, which was also released on his album Live. I think he is a beautifully talented writer, gifted in his ability to write songs for women.

I recently interviewed Scott whilst he was in town for his concert at the O2 and there is talk that his musical Home (that includes Never Neverland) may premiere in London. If that happens, would you like to be one of the four women who make up Home's cast?

If I was asked to and was able to, then without a doubt, I would love to be involved with the show. There is a real buzz in the air at the moment about Scott's work that is very exciting.

Finally, and even asking this question makes me insanely jealous, what was it like to fly with the Red Arrows?

It was amazing. I still pinch myself that it happened. It's the ultimate thrill ride, performed by some simply amazingly brave and talented guys and I can't believe they even let me "drive" the plane too! It was a bucket list experience and an absolute privilege to be allowed into a Red Arrows cockpit. I love those guys!

Kerry can be seen in Summertime - An Evening Of Gershwin at Kenwood House this Sunday September 1st, at 5pm

Visit www.LiveByTheLake.co.uk for details and tickets.



Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Big Bad Wolves - Film 4 Frightfest Review

*****

Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado


Tzahi Grad searches for his daughter's remains

From Hora to Horror, Israel for so long famed for having given the world the Hava Nagila is fast becoming a centre of excellence in the hard and cynical world of horror movie production. Even more impressively, Film 4’s annual festival of scary movies Frightfest, selected the Israeli feature Big Bad Wolves to close the 2013 four day event, a deserved mark of recognition for writer/director duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.

Their’s is a carefully crafted tale that darts between horror, tragedy and wry black comedy. This combination of three micro-genres makes for a delicate tightrope walk of a script, particularly given the paedophilic child killing thread that runs through the movie. Can one really laugh at moments within such a film? Keshales and Papushado, by portraying acts of evil and their impact upon ordinary people, suggest that one can.

The (chilling) opening titles of the movie set the tone with a young girl’s abduction, whom we then learn very early on, has been brutally murdered and beheaded (offscreen). From the outset the cops have Dror, their prime suspect under arrest who when violently beaten during a bungled questioning, is obliged to be released by the police to avoid a complaint of brutality. Gidi, the young girl’s father has done some investigative work of his own and also believes that the released man murdered his daughter. The bungling over-zealous cop is demoted to traffic duties but sets about privately stalking the suspect, as does Gidi. The two men soon trap and imprison their target, with Gidi's motive being to torture Dror until he reveals the location of his daughter's head. With violence that is often graphic though never gratuitous, Big Bad Wolves remains a movie that is strictly for those who like their horror served bloody.

Keshales and Papushado extract fine performances from their cast. Rotem Keinan's Dror whose ambiguity of performance is sustained throughout the movie, leaves the audience never knowing whether he is guilty or not until the final scenes. In a fascinating interview with cinema website Premscene (@Premscene on Twitter), Keinan talked of the challenges of playing such an indeterminate character. He hints that the film merits a second viewing (he is right, it does) to fully appreciate the detail that he puts into playing his complex character.

In Psycho, Hitchcock introduced us to the concept of the dominating mother (albeit in Norman Bate’s case, a delusion of his schizophrenic mind). In Big Bad Wolves, the writers give us the Jewish mother, or more specifically the Jewish grandmother, as Gidi (a convincing performance from Tzahi Grad) is frequently interrupted from his torturous activities by his mother calling his cellphone. He tries to fob her off, eventually feigning illness. Wrong move. When she hears he maybe unwell, she dispatches her elderly husband to deliver their middle-aged son some soup. The old folk aren’t aware of what Gidi is up to and this counterpoint of introducing the stereotypical Jewish mother, fussing whilst Gidi vents his vengeful rage, is a clever cocktail of concepts from the writers. When Yoram, his father, does show up at the remote cabin that Gidi has acquired for his grisly purpose, he quickly understands what his son is up to. Initial shock gives way to a measured anger and the display of emotions that underlie the wreaking of a grandfather’s vengeance upon the man he believes has murdered his granddaughter, is a chilling masterclass from Israeli veteran actor Doval’e Glickman.

Whilst Gidi is away from the cabin the hungry Yoram, left to guard Dror, helps himself to a slice of cake unaware that Gidi has heavily laced it with sedatives. The episode of perceptive, almost slapstick comedy that follows as Dror, with disbelief, witnesses his captor bumble and stumble before falling unconscious, provides a moment of Tarantino’esque hilarity amidst this darkest of stories. Like Hamlet’s gravedigger scene, the funny moments of the tale break up the immense tragedy, almost giving moments of relaxation as the harrowing horror unfolds.

The movie is unquestionably a nightmare, bringing the Brothers Grimm’s philosophies into the 21st century, yet going further as it rakes over the agonising guilt of a parent who survives his child’s murder. Haim Frank Ilfman’s score is majestic yet well balanced, whilst Giora Bejach’s photography, particularly the menacing opening sequence, is similarly excellent.

Keshales and Papushado have crafted a beautifully clever picture that deserves awards. Their story’s final act will leave you devastated.

Monday, 26 August 2013

I Spit On Your Grave 2 - Film 4 Frightfest Review

**
Directed by Steven R. Monroe



Jemma Dallender in a shocking moment from the film

#ISpitOnYourGrave2 @Film4FrightFest must go down as one of the most disappointing sequels, to a remake, ever.

The 2010 remake was a tale of a heroic woman taking her revenge on a gang of rural rednecks (in cahoots with the the local sheriff) who had raped her deep in the remote wilderness somewhere in the USA. The circumstances of that story were believable, mostly and the film (helmed by Monroe) was a well made gruesome revenge story.

#2 opens in NYC - hopeful, one thinks. The heroine is a model who can't afford a professional portfolio so ends up at a dodgy Bulgarian backstreet photographer's studio. Again, plausible, these places exist, one suspects.

When it is clear they are up to no good, an attack scene that is barely believable ends up with her being drugged and flown to Bulgaria as a sex slave.

When the heroine then learns, through being told, that she is in Bulgaria, the audience laughed. Not a good omen for a serious, rather than a deliberately B-movie horror.

The story is beyond credible, and whilst it is well-acted (with a Russell Crowe lookalike thrown in for good measure as a Bulgarian Mr Big) it's a mysogynistic, exploitative vehicle, with little artistic value whatsoever. The script is often laughable.

Pre film, when asked what inspired #2, director Steven R Monroe referred to the studio and distributors believing there was mileage left in the ISOYG franchise. Sadly, the corporates are probably right, as the scenes of ridiculous un-imaginative gratuitous gore will see the DVD sell well.

The film is little more than a shameless piece of corporate exploitation of a franchise and detracts from the quality work that Monroe had put into #1

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Scott Alan - A profile of a talented guy


Scott Alan at the piano

When Scott Alan flew over a few weeks ago to host his O2 gig, I was lucky enough to grab an hour of the man’s time later that week at the bar of London’s Hippodrome. It’s a measure of his recognition and acclaim that our conversation was frequently interrupted by fans keen to grab a photo or an autograph. A charmingly polite celebrity, Alan obliged all requests and yet the conversation between us flowed effortlessly around these moments, as we talked about his life, his forthcoming musical Home and his love for London.

I had previously encountered Alan’s work performed in various cabaret routines and was aware of his talent, but the O2 evening had been my first occasion of getting a broader understanding of his writing. My understanding of his broader catalogue could not have been more informative. I was sat next to his mother Marcia, just flown in from New York and who as a typical Jewish mother could not have been bursting with more pride at her son’s work commanding such a prestigious London venue. In the absence of a printed programme for the night, it was my delight and privilege to explain to her who was who amongst a cast that included the likes of Cynthia Erivo, Nathan James and even John Owen-Jones. Marcia in return shared some of her recollections of the (very) young Scott. Apparently his musical inclinations were manifest even in the toddler years wheeling a melodious Fisher-Price pushalong from the age of 2, whilst various elementary-school teachers were to confidently predict a career on stage.

In between a delightful infancy and a successful adulthood, Alan is on record as having deeply suffered during his childhood and adolescence, trying to cope with a world that would not accept his sexuality and the sense of profound loneliness that engendered. As a gay teenager, he tells of having found high school hellish, feeling isolated and suicidal. Outside of school and aware that his sexuality was unconventional and as a consequence, knowing from a very early age that he would not be fulfilling the “traditional Jewish” routine of career, marriage and kids, he found the expectations of his family in those years almost unbearable, making his inner torment even harder to endure.

Alan (2nd r) with some of the performers at the O2

Those difficult times are now, most emphatically, consigned to history. It is clear that Alan and his family have all worked hard to forge fresh and powerful ties of warmth and his relationship with his mother and sister is evidently loving. Indeed at the gig, the bond that stretched from the composer on stage to his mom and sis in the stalls, was almost palpable. Alan is nothing if not open about his journey and acknowledges that the challenge to keep on top of depression can be ongoing. But the gloriously rude strength of his mental health is actually to be celebrated. He exemplifies a human victory over depression that is inspirational and in a world of transient and often flawed celebrities who battle and sometimes fall victim to, their demons, there can be few finer role models that evidence, so wholesomely, that depression can be controlled and mastered.

Alan talks of having written a lot about loneliness and in some depth refers to his favourite composition, Anything Worth Holding Onto, a song that speaks from the depths of depression. On the night at the O2, singer Cynthia Erivo gave herself, her soul and her tears totally to the number, yet whilst rehearsing, Erivo complained that she “just wasn’t getting it”, that there was an absence of connection with the lyrics and that she was struggling to perform the number. It is a credit to both writer and singer that Alan patiently worked with her to guide her towards the evening’s performance where, that even though all rehearsals of the song had proved a challenge, on the night itself and sat like a vulnerable teenager on the edge of the Indigo’s dwarfing stage, Erivo found it within her to bring words, music and above all her sublime interpretation, into an alignment of almost planetary perfection. The ovation that the song received was proof enough.

Cynthia Erivo in rehearsal for the O2 concert

Erivo was to sing again for Alan later that night, in a number that could not have been further removed from depression, as she portrayed a gloriously rebellious and cooky teenager, stoned out of her brains on dope. The song was from Home, a musical for four women, that Alan has been writing words and music for over the best part of 13 years with Christy Hall writing the show’s book. Home explores the relationship between a mother and her daughter Katherine, with three of the cast required to play Katherine from teenager through to mature adult, in a tale that will inspire and amuse its audience, as well as take them on an emotional rollercoaster.

Whilst some of Home’s songs have been released and performed (only recently, I was stunned by Kerry Ellis’ performance of Never Neverland at her Pheasantry concert), the O2 gig was the first occasion that the entire collection of songs had been recited in their entirety. With some of Broadway’s and the West End’s finest women on stage for the performance, Alan was understandably overwhelmed at both the outstanding performance values that all the artistes had put into his songs, as well as the reception the collection received. He says that whilst Home had enjoyed readings in the States, he had never seen a crowd respond to the material so perfectly, getting every joke and responding to each song’s emotional punch. Alan is at pains to emphasise that this had just been a sing through of songs, with none of the show’s dialogue included at all. Modestly and charmingly he rates Hall’s book even higher than his compositions, adding that his heart is in the show and that pending its premiere, he is simply not fulfilled.

Home is clearly a project that he and Hall have immersed themselves in. Before I met with Alan, I had spoken with his talented and perceptive bookwriter, where she described the show as “not only the kind of story people need to hear, but also a story that Scott and I were clearly meant to tell.” Alan resoundingly echoes her words and Hall’s description of their writing process is grinningly endorsed by the composer. I share with Alan the observation that Hall made, that when “we get in our work mode, neither of us sleep. We will quite literally give until we drop. It is just the stuff we are made of” and all he can do is nod in agreement. Hall had been delightfully free and candid in how she describes the writing process. “It's not all work and no play. Scott and I can be very silly and playful together… we always hit a wall when working and that usually leads to us sharing a bottle of wine and making fun of ourselves or talking to his sweet dog, Billy, in ridiculous voices... He's just a big dork when it really comes right down to it and to be honest? I adore him for it.”

The writing of a musical is, to those of us mere mortals looking in, a sorcerer’s combination of talent, wit and wisdom. The extent to which Hall so openly describes that creative and profoundly private professional intimacy, with words that Alan wholeheartedly agrees with, is a rare glimpse into the magicians’ workshop that they have built. Theirs is clearly a blessed creative collaboration and one can only hope that their professional union continues to yield future fruit.

Notwithstanding the Manhattan base of Hall and Alan, it seems likely that London may prove the launch pad for Home’s fully fledged emergence. Aside from the warmth of the reception to the songs at the O2, Alan is struck by the unpretentious nature of some of the UK’s leading musical theatre performers who have expressed their desire to work with him. Born and bred in New York, he describes it as a relative rarity for an established Broadway performer to reach out to a composer and say “ I want to work with you”, but in London he feels such pretensions are almost non-existent and he speaks of being bowled over by the requests he has received from leading West End names to perform his material.

It is of course also quite possible that one of the reasons Alan was so exhausted late that evening at the Hippodrome, was that he had just Eurostar’d to Paris and back with Eponine’s creator and latter day Edith Piaf, Frances Ruffelle (there had been much Parisian banter tweeted by Alan, suggesting that he planned to get Ruffelle to sing On My Own, on a rainy street corner in the city…) That Alan’s list of O2 performers went on to include Willemijn Verkaik, Richard Fleeshman, Siobhan Dillon and Julie Atherton speaks volumes for the immensity of respect that he has earned over here and when we met he had in fact spent a long session, post-Paris, in meetings discussing Home’s possible London launch. He was of course appropriately professionally coy revealing no details at all of the talks, but his excitement at the possibility of a London premiere is a delight to see as he repeatedly comments how much he looks on London as a second home.

The reason for our meeting at the Hippodrome was that Shoshana Bean (accompanied by many of Alan’s singers from the O2 guesting) was performing there in a hastily arranged event thrown together in the flurry of excitement that the Alan gig had generated. Bean’s act was shortly to commence and with all appropriate courtesies, Alan headed off through the crowds to hear his friend perform. As he walked off, pausing to sign autographs on request, he struck me as a perfect combination of charm, modesty and great talent. To quote John Dempsey’s lyric from The Witches of Eastwick he truly is “all manner of man in one man”. Whilst New York is unquestionably his home, I suspect that London will be enjoying the privilege of offering this man the Home he truly longs to see.


Pictures by Darren Bell


Choral Greats

Kenwood House, London

****

Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra
Conductor - Roderick Dunk



Hurrah! Classical concerts are back where they belong at Kenwood House, in the grounds of this beautiful 18th century mansion, tucked away on a corner of Hampstead Heath. The venue’s layout has been shaken up a bit and where once orchestras played from across the other side of the House’s ornamental lake, the whole event now takes place on the Estate’s sprawling lawns that stretch down to the lakeside, with video screens and well balanced amplification ensuring that everyone can see and hear what’s going on.

The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under the baton of Roderick Dunk got the evening’s celebration of Choral Greats underway with O Fortuna! from Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s one of the most recognisable pieces of classical melody (and if that name, or any others in this review, mean nothing to you, YouTube them and all will come flooding back) and Dunk’s wonderful symphonic sound, including Orff’s majestic gong to introduce the vocal power of the 100-strong Royal Choral Society, made for a thrilling start to the nights entertainment.

The programme listed an ambitious selection of 25 items and the selection was unashamedly populist. Whilst the bias was clearly towards choral and opera, if the evening had been called Classical Greats, (with the second half treats of Elgar’s Nimrod and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra not usually found on Choral programmes) no one would really have cared. The event was not one for cultural snobs, but rather a glorious choice of some of the most famous and beautiful classical music written. And judging by the number of young children present in the audience, (well, who can resist fireworks) the evening may just possibly have been an introduction too, to a time when music was written to be performed by nearly 200 skilled individuals in perfect harmony.

A night of Choral Greats would not be complete without a spot of Carmen and soprano Janet Mooney’s Habanera hit the spot as the rain fell on the enchanted throng enjoying her arias. Other beautiful solos included a spine-tingling Nessun Dorma from Alun Rhys-Jenkins and a sparkling O mio babbino caro, sung by sister soprano, Fiona Murphy.

As the second half unfolded, the first Kenwood classical concert of the season, evolved into the Last Night Of The Proms. Mooney returned to the stage, clad Britannia-like in a Union Jack cape seeing the evening off with a flourish of Elgar, Parry and Arne. By this point whilst the downpour might have been torrential, spirits were anything other than dampened and the flag-waving sing-alongs of Jerusalem, Rule Britannia with a firework festooned finale of Land Of Hope And Glory celebrated the patriotic beauty of these works in the grounds of one of England’s most beautiful houses.

On Friday August 30th, Live By The Lake will be screening the movie Singin In The Rain, accompanied again by the RPCO. Last night, an audience of several thousand were deliriously singing in the rain, for real. T’was a wonderful occasion, welcome back! 



The full programme of Live By The Lake runs until September 1st and can be accessed here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

West Side Story

Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

*****

Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Nikolai Foster

Amara Okereke and Jon Tarcy meet in the Dance At The Gym

Shows don’t come much bigger than West Side Story's translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into the streets and alleys of New York. With a stunning interpretation, the National Youth Music Theatre’s (NYMT) stage the show in Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse, itself a glorious reclamation of what was only recently, urban deprivation and where once stood thriving docks. Takis' set design, all steel container units evokes the poverty of the story's rival street gangs, whilst the containers’ stacking amidst iron staircases and ladders suggest the staircases that cling to tenement buildings and so define Manhattan.

Nikolai Foster, Drew McOnie and Tom Deering are an established triumvirate of excellence as director, choreographer and musical director respectively. These men combined are greater than the sum of their parts and the magic that they have worked with NYMT’s young company is at times jaw-dropping and frequently spine tingling. Deering (taking time out from MD’ing The Colour Purple) has coaxed the most exquisite sound from his 30 strong youth orchestra. The sound bounces off the steelwork in a way that must have Bernstein smiling approvingly from above and whilst all the musicians are first-rate, the brass section is a special delight whilst Deering’s percussionists make the second act’s Cool, sizzle!

The show’s Prologue which sees the stage filled with balletic thugs whose street fight is a vision of grace and technical brilliance is swiftly followed by the Dance At The Gym, one of musical theatres most celebrated dance scenes. McOnie does not disappoint and with cleverly choreographed routines and clever use of colour, the tension of the dance, the rivalry of the gangs and the spark of love between Tony and Maria is cleverly captured. These two numbers set a standard of dance that is sustained throughout.

Sienna Kelly (3rd l) leads the Sharks Girls

Foster is famed for an ability to focus on depth and nuance. He is helped in that the perfectly voiced Amara Okereke’s Maria is a remarkable turn from an actress who is just 16, whilst Jon Tarcy’s Tony grows into a performance of depth and sensitivity. Sienna Kelly’s Anita is a definitive performance of that hot blooded Latina, whilst Rebecca Ridout’s solo performance of Somewhere brings a rarely heard anthem-like beauty to this classic number.

The show has always offered some sharp moments of comedy. Gee, Officer Krupke in particular is a song that provides a welcome chuckle amidst the show’s slowly rising body count. In a recent tweet, Foster himself observed that the song must rank amongst the greatest in the canon, being so subversive, political and sardonic. A young Sondheim set himself a tough bar with this song’s lyrics and the troupe of NYMT young men who sing it in Manchester come as near as damn it to having an encore demanded of them, such is the excellence of their merciless caricatures.

Ben Cracknell's use of smoke and countless clever spotlight plots gives a lighting texture to the performance space that at all times enhances the action. Credit too to the sound team who do a fine job, ensuring that voices are heard over a huge and challenging orchestral sound.


Isaac Gryn (Jet, Baby John) is attacked by the Sharks 

West Side Story is further proof of how the NYMT, under Jeremy Walker’s leadership and vision, maintains its reputation for excellence. The company’s tackling of major and innovative works of musical theatre under the creative supervision of some of the industry’s leading practitioners, is nothing short of inspirational for those young people fortunate enough to be its members and continues to lay down a sound foundation for this country’s musical theatre future.


Runs until August 24th

Sunday, 18 August 2013

As Is

Finborough Theatre, London

***

Written by William M. Hoffman
Directed by Andrew Keates


Tom Colley and David Poynor

William M. Hoffman wrote and set As Is in New York City in the early 1980s. AIDS was relatively newly emerged and as Hoffman witnessed some of those around him succumbing to the illness, so he documented his interpretation of the time in this play. The story introduces us to Rich, a writer, recently diagnosed with the disease. His ex-boyfriend and as we are to learn, true love Saul, manifests a profound friendship and love for his former partner and the play tracks Rich’s decline through a combination of flashback sequences and contemporaneous exchanges with friends and family.

Acclaimed when it opened off Broadway 28 years ago, As Is moved on to Broadway within weeks, but time has not been kind to the piece. Notwithstanding outstanding acting and direction, whilst the play is a fine and sound history lesson, as a credible dramatic vehicle its structure is at times clich├ęd. Its depiction of aspects of the gay club scene pre-epidemic, seem cursory and sensational and when Rich speaks of sex on a tombstone in Marrrakech, it begs the question, “So what?”

As Is becomes a whirl of Rich’s experiences as the disease takes hold, including the horrendous prejudices to which he is exposed, but these moments flit by as if the author is trying to cram as many reference points into 90 minutes as is possible. Whilst the play nobly informs and educates it skims a very wide surface, rarely achieving much sympathetic or empathetic depth with its characters. Tom Colley’s Rich is undoubtedly a powerful and draining performance, but in the final act, hospitalised and dying, the actor physically bears too much of a resemblance to his own real rude health rather than an ashen diseased man, to convince us of his plight. A consequence of Rich's incongruously healthy appearance is that the gallows humour with which Hoffman has deliberately peppered his play, appears to resemble more of an ill-conceived comedy routine, rather than the desperation of someone facing death. And when Rich goes on to contemplate suicide, Hoffman sets out an argument that had been far better addressed when Brian Clark tackled the thorny question of the right to die in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Andrew Keates’ interpretation is as slick and perceptive as the writing’s formulaic structure will allow. David Poynor is a credibly compassionate Saul, and Jordan Bernarde as Rich’s brother, torn between a wife terrified of her brother-in-law’s illness and his own love for his dying sibling, offers a rare moment of poignancy. Whilst the play may be dated, with HIV/AIDS remaining a current major global health concern, Keate’s beautifully performed production holds a valid significance today.


Runs until 31st August

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Kevin Howarth - The Seasoning House star talks of acting evil



Kevin Howarth as Victor
As The Seasoning House movie is released onto DVD/BluRay and download, I caught up with the movie’s star Kevin Howarth for a brief chat about his career and what drew him to Paul Hyett’s troubling story of violent exploitation in the Balkans.

The movie, reviewed here, stems from the true and tragic philosophy, as old as time, that in a lawless world of conflict, invading armies rape the women that they have conquered. History tells that in civil wars, the brutality tends to be even worse. Thus in an unnamed Balkan state, Howarth plays Victor, a callous pimp who places no worth on humanity other than hard cash.

Howarth started out in acting the right way. Trained at Webber Douglas, he places importance upon understanding the man he is portraying. In researching for Victor, he read up on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, gaining an appreciation of how and why so many nations could hate each other and studying war criminals such as the Serbian Arkan, perpetrator of countless modern-day atrocities. To call Howarth's character atrocious though sounds frightfully British. Rather, Victor is a man who negotiates hard and only on his terms and who has little time for shame or remorse.

When Howarth talks of wanting to explore the human compassionate side of Victor, of understanding the monster’s back-story, I suggest that Victor's actions in the story suggest he lacks a compassionate side and that Hyett has created the pimp as a representation of detached evil. Whilst Howarth concurs that that is indeed the Victor as presented on screen, his purpose had always been to understand what had driven Victor to be so cold and dispassionate. Howarth speculates as to the damaged childhood that Victor would have experienced that would have so detached him from base feelings of humanity.

Howarth
Howarth's hard work has paid off with a character that is far removed from a 2 dimensional baddie. Victor is an understated menacing gangster, always under control even when angered. When early on in the movie he brutally cuts a girls throat to terrorise the newly arrived girls trafficked to work at his brothel, the slaughter is all the more chilling for being so unexpected and so calmly executed and calculated. Howarth is rightly proud of his work.

Above all, Howarth is nothing less than a consummate professional, who seeks to gain as thorough an understanding of his character's back story as is possible. The Seasoning House, by the very nature of its storyline demanded several young actresses, some fresh out of training, to take the roles of Victor’s prostitutes. If there was a consistent theme that emerged from the modest research into this article, it is that all the young actors on set, many of them new to the demands and discipline of shooting a movie, found Kevin to be a supportive, helpful and at times inspirational role model.

The Seasoning House tells of a human evil that is as old as time and of which the pimp is the (in)human face. Whilst Howarth's Victor is simply the 21st century portrayal of this infamous predatory amorality, sadly, away from the glitter of the movie screen, such criminals thrive today. That Howarth's performance is so strong only serves to tragically teach us of the evil that men are capable of.


The Seasoning House is widely available on DVD, BluRay and via download.
To read a review of The Seasoning House, click here
To read an interview with Paul Hyett click here

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Close Your Eyes - Annalene Beechey - CD Review


****



Annaleene Beechey's solo album Close Your Eyes is a pleasing collection of ballads and reflective numbers, selected by the actress to include songs that have given her both employment and inspiration over the years. A soprano whose “peppermint cream” sound is closer to the demands of the musical theatre stage than the opera house, her career has taken in some of the leading roles in the canon with a smattering of Disney’s Belle for good measure. There is an ethereal quality to Beechey's sound and whilst talented sopranos abound, few have the woman/child crystal clarity that this gorgeously lilted Irish songstress presents.

Opening with No One Is Alone / Children Will Listen accompanied by a simple cello and piano, her take on the song explores Sondheim's subtleties with delicacy. Beechey chooses to lay down several vocal tracks of the song, harmonising with herself. Whilst her duet (at times trio) for one is melodically faultless, the electronic trickery that has made it happen detracts from the honest naked beauty of her voice and is also at odds with her album note “I always wanted the recording to feel like a live ‘unplugged’ performance, warts and all”. Not for next time, please.

Later in the album, Beechey gives us Perfect Day, not the Lou Reed classic, but rather the Colin Towns composition, made famous by Miriam Stockley as the theme from Peter Rabbit. Eschewing all instruments, the accompaniment on this number is entirely a capella. Its a talented sound unquestionably, though the background chanting does at times suggest Christopher Lee's followers in the 1970's cult movie The Wicker Man, rather than the raw earthy English sound that is clearly aspired to.

But credit to Beechey, the strengths of her collection are magnificent. Doll On A Music Box, already a cracking Sherman brothers classic from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is given an occasional and surprising minor-key treatment and with mournful cello work used just enough, the song is stripped of its cute saccharine charm and becomes a heartfelt cri de coeur of a trapped and lonely soul. Rarely has such a well known song been given such a remarkable and above all, valid re-interpretation.

Sailing too (and again, not the iconic Rod Stewart number but rather the gorgeous work from Lapine and Finn’s A New Brain) is another example of a musical theatre cognoscenti’s favourite, given a charmingly upbeat and refreshingly feminine touch under Beechey's treatment. Its another gem amongst the collection. 

Beechey closes the album with the Scott Alan’s Goodnight, taken from his forthcoming musical "Home" and sung by a daughter who has returned home to nurse her elderly dying mother. Alan's words and music are nothing if not sublimely perceptive and Beechey again deploys an almost cherubic effect of a wise adult who is nonetheless still a heartbroken child, tending to her mother's passing.

Some four years since its release, the album remains a sound tribute to the achievements of one of the stage’s accomplished leading ladies. Beechey is a cracking performer and I’d love to hear her second collection!


Available from www.SimGProductions.com and iTunes

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

[title of show]

Landor Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen
Book by Hunter Bell
Directed by Robert McWhir

(l-r) Sophia Ragavelas, Simon Bailey, Sarah Galbraith and Scott Garnham


One of the most talked about arrivals on London's fringe, [title of show] opens at that powerhouse of musical theatre, Clapham's Landor. Using the modern buzz-phrase, it is a "meta-musical" (a show that is written around the business of shows), about two guys who write a musical and the two actresses who hang with them and inspire them through the show's development. Musicals don't come more "meta" than this and [title of show] isn’t so much a show that eats itself, as a one that gives birth to itself. The plot is a broad representation of the two writers’ real life journey, composing an entry for a musical theatre competition and their story is one long, knowingly wry, look at the harsh aspects of both writing for and acting on, the musical stage.

By its very nature, the plot would suggest echoes of Merrily We Roll Along, recently seen at London’s Menier and then in the West End. In fact, the only similarity between this show and that Sondheim piece is the outstanding quality of the actors. McWhir's cast is only four strong, but he has selected some of London's finest talent who offer a masterclass in comedic musical theatre. Perfect harmonies, solos, duets and meticulously rehearsed ensemble work are a joy to behold. But where Sondheim's piece focused on the human frailties of vanity and greed in show biz, [title of show] is a far lighter piece, sometimes perhaps too light, that is no more than a sharply written piece of satire, often brilliant even if occasionally over-indulgent and shallow.

Simon Bailey and Scott Garnham play the real life writing duo of Hunter and Jeff respectively. Where Hunter is more the creative spark of the pair, Jeff who by is own admission spends too much time "procrastibating" either watching old TV series or porn, is quite the creative muse for the partnership. These two talented actors are wonderful with spot on timing, both in synchronised harmony and in working the script’s gags. They are a sublime double act and their take on the early number, Two Nobodies In New York suggests the potential of a modern day pairing to match that of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr. Maybe a future cabaret idea perhaps…

Sophia Ragavelas and Sarah Galbraith are Heidi and Susan the working/aspiring actresses who share the journey of the show's evolution. Susan introduces herself as a "corporate whore" resting from the stage as she works an office job. There isn't a weak song in the show, but her leading of the cast in Die,Vampire Die, an outpouring of hate against ne'ersayers, critics and her own personal self doubt is a glorious turn from the talented young American. Where Galbraith is a former Disney princess, Ragavelas is clearly current MT royalty with Fantine and Eponine already under the corsetry of her career. The expectations that surround her performance are consequently sky-high and you know what? She doesn’t just meet expectations she smashes them. This diminutive actress’ poise, presence and pitch are perfection and her solo I Am Playing Me is simply a treat.

As always, that inspired combo of Robbie O Reilly’s choreography with McWhir’s perceptive eye for nuance and interpretation, make for a polished production, with credit to Michael Webborn on piano and shaker and who also gives a very convincing turn as Larry the inner-show’s MD. That this creative team, enhanced by Ben Newsome’s casting, have assembled such a stellar company speaks volumes for their reputation and ability.

The in-jokes are frequent but not overpowering and there is more than enough witty meat on the bones of this show to please any lover of musicals, not just those “stagey-folk” connected with the industry. Go see [title of show]. To quote Sondheim : “It’s a hit!”


Runs until 14th September

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Pipe Dream

Union Theatre, London

****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the books Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Kieran Brown and Charlotte Scott

In a rare move at her Union Theatre, Sasha Regan steps up from producing to directing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream and as it turns out, she's actually rather good. It's a quirky show, never before seen on this side of the Atlantic and with the talented writing duo having focused on the USA's eastern seaboard with Carousel and then the Dust Bowl with Oklahoma!, Pipe Dream sees their creative gaze move westward to California's Monterey on the Pacific coast.

The show's story is set amongst a glorious ensemble of bums and whores and it achieves what R&H do best, telling of a slice of American life that celebrates the emergence of an unlikely love between Doc and Suzy. Kieran Brown is Doc, an academic marine biologist whose passion is studying the sea creatures washed up in the city's coastal tide-pools. Charlotte Scott plays Suzy, a girl who arrives in town penniless and homeless but who nonetheless elects to preserve her dignity by dwelling in a drain pipe, rather than accept the offer of a roof over her head in exchange for punters in her bed at the town's brothel. Both Brown and Scott are accomplished West End performers who bring talent and depth to their roles but both of them also need to remember that the Union is unmic'd. They need to give just a little more pizazz to their performances to truly sizzle as the shows leads.

Steaming sultrily as the brothel's Madam, (curiously named Fauna) is Virge Gilchrist. It’s an all too rare appearance from this wonderfully voiced actress who knows just how to spice up her sleazy position without once becoming sordid. Her number accompanied by her girls, The Happiest House On The Block, is as witty and as entertaining as Les Mis' Lovely Ladies but happily without that song's sad conclusion. 

Virge Gilchrist and her girls

David Haydn as the senior bum of the piece, Mac, gives his all in a spicy performance that drips with gusto. When, as a bus-driver, he leads his band of reprobates in The Lopsided Bus, there could almost be a glint of a wild eyed Freddy Kruger in the way he grips his imaginary steering wheel. Lovely work too from Nick Martland as gentle giant Hazel, a guy with learning difficulties who is played with clever and witty sensitivity rather than for cheap laughs and a final nod to Christopher Connor, Rebecca Fennelly and Georgie Burdett whose lovely ballet work and eye-watering splits are a further reminder of just how good the talent is that can be found in London's fringe theatre.

Lizzi Gee's choreography is imaginative and uses the Union space with flair. Her big numbers are incredibly ambitious, though a little more polished drilling of her company would not go amiss. The Party That We're Gonna Have Tomorrow Night in particular has distinct echoes of Oklahoma!'s wonderful Kansas City, pulsing with wit, rhythm and tempo. Credit also to Christopher Peake's band who take these virtually unknown numbers and give them a beautiful musical life.

The simply designed set captures the poverty of Steinbeck's Cannery Row. A lot is left to our imagination, but Elle Rose-Hughes has used light, shadow and slatted timber brilliantly, to create a fabulous effect on a low budget.

This is not one of Broadway's grander shows. No family of seven cute kids to be found on this stage, nor songs that we know inside out. Rather this is a fine and (for London at least) freshly innovative piece of musical theatre. Gimmick free and bursting with talent, it's the most imaginative Rodgers and Hammerstein show in town.


Runs until 31st August

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Boat Factory

Kings Head Theatre, London

*****

Written by Dan Gordon
Directed by Philip Crawford


Michael Ondron (l) and Dan Gordon

The Boat Factory is that fine and rare piece of modern theatre. It’s a simply staged two-hander about the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. But where Roald Dahl has used a fictional chocolate factory to tell morality tales, Dan Gordon takes strands of historical fact and weaves them into the most beautiful yarn. The Boat Factory didn’t just dominate East Belfast, it provided the core to a community’s culture and a way of life.

Writer Gordon also plays Davy Gordon, a man introduced to us in the modern era, awaiting the results of a chest x-ray that are clearly signalled to be ominous. As Gordon confronts his mortality, he takes us on a journey of discovery, retracing his life through a series of exchanges with fellow shipyard worker Geordie Kilpatrick played by Michael Condron. Both men frequently slip in and out of different characters as foils to Gordon’s narrative acting out moments of the company’s history upon a stage of the simplest scaffolding with a blown-up image of a map of the massive shipyard for a backdrop

If the stage is simple, Gordon’s words are crafted with almost technicolor detail. We learn of the dominance of the factory over the city. We hear of the men’s pride in the company’s achievement in 1912 of building the yard’s biggest ship to that date, #401 Titanic. No moist-eyed look at Titanic’s tragedy here though, rather the glow of engineers simply basking in the deserved glory of their achievement and their subsequent devastation at the fact that this magnificent ship had sunk because a reckless owner demanded it be raced through an ice-field at night.

And its this attention to the minutest of detail that drives the success of Gordon’s play. Apprenticeships in the H&W shipyard were not only dreamed of by the city’s young men, they were actually paid for by the young trainees and even then the apprentices still had to supply their own tools! We hear of the scant disregard for an emergent health & safety culture, the factory frequently consuming its workers’ limbs, livelihoods and ultimately their lives, yet with brilliantly black humour we learn too of the skilled carpenters and joiners who cheekily used both the company's time and its materials to privately build and sell kitchens to the folk of East Belfast. No stranger too to the pain of sectarianism, Gordon acknowledges the complexities of the decades of religious hatred that have scarred his beautiful province with a well-crafted and respectful sensitivity.

Condron and Gordon’s familiarity with their work (recently back from a month’s residency in New York off-Broadway) has seen the play evolve into the smoothest of double acts. Their understanding of the text’s timing and nuances has become innate and whilst the sharply observed humour of the piece may make you cry with laughter, their tales of shipyard tragedy all related with honesty in place of soppy sentimentality, will make you sob.

For those (most) of us who know all about the tragedy of the Titanic, yet virtually nothing of the city that gave itself and its people, literally, to the construction of that ship and thousands of others too, The Boat Factory is a glorious celebration of Belfast and of its culture. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of theatre in town right now and it is a play that must be seen.



Runs until 17th August, and then from August 21st - 24th in Caithness, Scotland