Tuesday, 24 September 2013

John Barr - Self Portrait

Crazy Coqs, London


Apparently it's been 5 years since John Barr last performed in cabaret,but judging by his slick and polished turn at the Crazy Coqs, you would think he was riding high, mid-season. Diminutive in stature (he jokingly boasts of being the tallest in his family) and shaven headed, Barr has a stage presence that demands your attention. He hits impossible harmonics and sustains perfectly held notes that go on forever. If Barr's voice was a motorbike it would be a Harley-Davidson, comfortable, beautiful to listen to, a world class standard that is designed to be appreciated and as able to deliver guttural exhilaration as it is to instantly switch to beautifully breezy ballads. 

Any good cabaret set demands a repartee with the audience that reaches out across the "fourth wall". Barr doesn’t just bring that wall down, he demolishes it and with a devilishly cheeky grin and twinkle in his eyes, proceeds to dance upon its rubble throughout the evening. With Fiz Shapur on piano it is clear that these two talented professionals have an innate understanding of each other. When Barr chats too much, Shapur whisperingly suggests that he should "shut up and sing".

It is a gloriously eclectic selection that opens with Starting Here, Starting Now, sweetly defining Barr’s ballad credentials with the Tear Up The Town that follows, a fine display of tone and impact. A reference to his early days at Sylvia Young's theatre school (contemporary alumni Frances Ruffelle and Jenna Russell were in the crowd) was the intro to his fond look back on a childhood Sondheim showcase with Anyone Can Whistle and clearly adoring Streisand, his What About Today is a glorious tribute to the diva. Barr speaks warmly of his brief work with Anthony Newley before offering a fine take on Newley's signature number What Kind Of Fool Am I? and he goes on to close act one with Pippin's Corner Of The Sky, boastfully, brazenly, telling the crowd how proud he is that composer Stephen Schwartz often asks him to sing the number. Having bigged himself up, (hey, if you got it, flaunt it) Shapur leads in with a beautiful arrangement of the song's haunting opening and whilst its lyrics may sometimes be corny, Schwartz's sublime melodies and key changes were simply smashed. Eagles did indeed belong where they can fly, as Barr soared off for a well earned half-time break.

Act two saw some reflective moments on Barr's past loves before a fine interpretation of Nat King Cole's Nature Boy. The little known Mama, A Rainbow from Minnie's Boys gave Barr the chance to pay tribute to his mum Marie in the audience. Summoning her on stage (with an introduction of questionable chivalry, that if he ever went into drag, his mum is what he'd look like) the love between son and mother was a celebration of inspirational tenderness. Whilst some may call the moment cheesy, it's fondness and above all, sincerity was undoubted. Maintaining his commitment to the importance of family, he dedicated John Bucchino's Grateful to his goddaughter (Russell's child) before his pre-encore closer of Self Portrait from Ed Kleban's A Class Act. Barr had given an acclaimed performance as Kleban in that show, earlier this year and his tender rendition of a number that speaks of incredible sadness and realisation made for another sparkling moment.

Judging the man by his company, Barr's packed audience were a blend of family, friends and industry legends. In town for one night only, this show demands an early reprise. John Barr's Self Portrait is a masterpiece.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Bodyguard - 2013 Cast

Adelphi Theatre, London


Based on the Warner Bros. Film
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Beverley Knight and Tristan Gemmill

A cast change is always a good excuse to be asked back to a show, so as Beverly Knight sets out her take on The Bodyguard’s Rachel Marron, the singer with fans to die for, we train our sights on the West End’s newest diva, in this blockbuster tribute to the Whitney Houston / Kevin Costner Oscar-nominated song fest.
Earlier comments on the show and its story can be found here. This new pairing of Knight with Tristan Gemmill as Frank Farmer, the hired gun who has her back, has some truly inspired moments. Knight opens the show with 'Queen of the Night' and goes on to simply own her stage. Knight the singer is spine-tinglingly sublime, though as her character’s feelings for Farmer dedevelop and she becomes increasingly torn between the safety of her family and her career, Knight the actress slightly loses impact and her underlying emotions seem to faulter. Early days mind you and these will no doubt strengthen over time.

Gemmill’s Frank oozes with masterful control from start to finish. From befriending Marron’s young and initially cynical son Fletcher (a cute and professional turn from Elliot Aubrey) early on, to charming the star in a karaoke bar, he avoids arrogance and defines Farmer’s virtue of a quiet understated presence that modestly belies his focussed mind and sharpened steeled backbone. Providing a tragically conflicting love interest, Debbie Kurup as Marron’s sister Nicki remains one of the Adelphi’s treats.

This juke box musical may still be one of the new kids on the block compared to some of its moneyspinning rivals, but it’s a gripping show that packs a punch. On this visit, one of the show’s truly thrilling high-spots made an audience member literally scream out in fright, a moment of pure theatrical gold. It may be a cheesy tale, but you already know the songs and you’ll love the performances. For a night that continues to be world-class West End excellence, The Bodyguard’s got it covered.

For tickets to The Bodyguard click here

Frankenstein's Army

Certificate 18, available on Blu-ray and DVD from September 30th 2013
Directed by Richard Raaphorst 

( ALERT: Some of this review may not be for the faint-hearted)

Frankenstein’s Army is the best B Movie in ages. It’s a ridiculous plot, serviced by dodgy dialog with a mad scientist straight out of a 1950’s horror classic.

As WWII is coming to an end, a group of Russian soldiers who are mopping up the last stragglers of the Nazi war machine on the Eastern Front, come across an apparently deserted farm. Local graves have been robbed and electric cables strewn everywhere lead to generators and lightning conductors.

The farm is of course a laboratory cum factory and it is where the evil Dr Frankenstein (son/grandson of Mary Shelley’s original, I didn’t quite work out the family tree) has been stitching together corpses. But wait for it, this Dr F. is replacing limbs with weapons. Drill bits, steel claws, spiked helmets for skulls and even the engine and propellor unit of an aeroplane. Get the picture? Its gruesome but very imaginative and as the story pans out as the current gets switched back on, various Russians come to exceedingly gory ends. In a visionary step towards advancing world peace, Dr Frankenstein opens up the skull of a Communist, removes the left half of his brain (the special effects and prosthetics are wonderful) and replaces it with half of a Nazi's brain. Ridiculous but inspired fun.

Funded in part by the Czech Culture Ministry, Richard Raaphorst’s debut has clearly had a few bob to spend on special effects and it shows. If you are seeking a film that bears a nod to the horror of Eli Roth’s Hostel, the grit of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron and has clearly been inspired by that TV programme favoured by kids and geeks alike, Robot Wars, then look no further. This movie only lacks Jonathan Pearce as narrator. An unmissable 3 star wonder.

Friday, 20 September 2013


Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


A new play by Mark Ravenhill
Inspired by Voltaire

Sarah Ridgeway

Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, is one of those rare pieces of theatre that not only sets out to challenge some widely held perceptions on life, but actually succeeds in its mission, via provocative stagecraft that is close to perfect.

Ravenhill's starting point is Voltaire’s hero Candide, an eternal optimist who believes that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Candide’s progress however sees him encounter a succession of grim realities that continually test his gloriously naïve and eternally hopeful presumptions, until the argument is ultimately proposed that optimism is simply people tricking themselves.

That’s it for the philosophical comment of this review and if you want to learn more, see the show! But if Voltaire provided the seed of Ravenhill’s journey, then the structure of his play is at times more of a nod to Doc Brown’s time machine from the movie Back To The Future rather than the classic French tale. The play opens in 18th century Westphalia where Candide, in a performance from Matthew Needham that just occasionally feels slightly forced, is expelled from his adoptive home after virtually seducing his young cousin Cunegonde. Conscripted into the army, battle follows and whilst at all times following Voltaire’s underlying themes, Ravenhill brutally lurches us into the present day and the birthday celebrations in a swanky hotel of an apparently catatonic Sophie. Awakened from her trance like state, Sophie in a performance of electrifying menace, massacres her family one by one, whilst bewailing her grief at the destruction that modern humankind is wreaking upon the planet. Candide’s arc broadly continues in modern times, amongst shocking, visceral theatre, beautifully envisioned by Lyndsey Turner that is as exhilarating as it is disturbing to watch. If Ravenhill’s mission has been not only to provoke and to stimulate his audience but also to entertain them, then he gloriously succeeds.

Stylish writing is matched here by sublime performances. Ian Redford (is this really his RSC debut season?) shines as Sophie’s Ray Winstone like grandfather, going on to threaten as an ultimately corrupt Pangloss. Sarah Ridgeway’s Sophie brings a chilling intensity rarely seen outside Tarantino movies, to leafy sleepy Stratford whilst Rose Reynolds, who like many of her peers has delivered consistent excellence throughout this season, is a delight as the wide-eyed coquettishly climactic Cunegonde. John Hopkins as cynical film director Tim again shows his versatility in a range of roles, whilst Kevin Harvey’s Voltaire is just a delight to listen to. Harvey's scouse diction, so perfectly clipped and matching his immaculate presence enhances all his scenes, whilst veteran Susan Engel’s final act is as shocking as it is enthralling. Soutra Gilmour’s designs that bridge continents as equally as they span the centuries keep up with the mania that appears to be Ravenhill’s powerfully creative mind.

This production is such a stunning confection of ideas and imagery that it deserves a wider audience. With apologies for yet another cinematic comparison, but the political and philosophical absurdity of Ravenhill's interpretation of Candide's journey suggested echoes of Lindsay Anderson's seminal movie, O Lucky Man! The RSC who well know how to exploit a successful production, should consider engaging a British filmmaker to translate Ravenhill’s visions on to the big screen. His ideas have a contemporary beauty that is rare, wonderful and refreshingly free of all pretension and his Candide is a story that must be seen.

Runs until 26th October 2013

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Barking In Essex

Wyndham's Theatre, London


Written by Clive Exton
Directed by Harry Burton

(l-r) Sheila Hancock, Lee Evans and Keeley Hawes

Barking In Essex is a new comedy to arrive in the West End. A classily cast show but nonetheless very much a tale of two halves. The play opens in a garishly tacky lounge somewhere in perma-tan Essex, where clearly no expense has been spared on a huge flat screen TV, a juke box and where chintzy posters of Brooklyn Bridge (complete with naff neon mini lights) and Pulp Fiction, adorn the walls. Rarely has a designer been so deliciously tasteless as Simon Higlett, in this perfectly contexted setting. The release of murderous villain Algie from jail is fearfully awaited by his family (don't worry, he never shows up and lest you think that is a spoiler, the programme and publicity, rather spoilingly, do not list Algie as a cast member.) The key to the plot is that whilst Algie's been locked up his family have spent all his swag and they know that his revenge will be ruthless.

Sheila Hancock is a marvellous ageing matriarch, whose withering put downs and occasional brilliantly timed dottiness are the mark of a true professional. This actress is long overdue a Dame-hood, but based on this show and its inconsistent material, she may yet have to wait a little longer. Lee Evans is her son and Keeley Hawes his wife. The play’s dialog is frequently foul mouthed and those who are easily offended should stay away. Littered with profanity indeed, but snobs beware, as for many years the language of the barrack room has gradually worked it's way into our common parlance, be it on the football terraces or in the reality TV shows that wallpaper our lives. People swear and as this blog has commented before, if mined responsibly both the f- and the c-word can yield rich seams of comedy. Well in Act One they do, with dialog that supports Evans' madcap antics in a tale that bears more than a nod to the genius of an Ealing Comedy complete with macguffin, laced with comeddia dell'arte and all brought bang up to date.

Act Two is more confused, with a strangely Latin-styled location and a story that whilst having been delightfully tenuous in the first half, crumbles away to a ridiculous ending. The only bit of humour post-interval is from Evans' physicality of performance though Karl Johnson puts in a craftily created performance as a doddering hitman and as a character who swears considerably less than his fellow performers, Exton has actually given this supporting role some of the show's funniest lines.

Lee Evans' fans will not be disappointed. His maladroit rubber faced presence is a gift to comedy writers, who when they sense their script may be tissue-paper thin, know that Evans' quirky gift will still salvage a laugh from the moment.

The first half of this show is an inspired work of funny fantasy, the second half is tedious. Exton's profanity dictates that this has to be a show for adults, so have a stiff drink before the show or even better, make it a large one in the interval. When you then find yourself watching Barking In Essex through beer goggles, you'll think its brilliant!

To book tickets for Barking In Essex, click here

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Frances Ruffelle - Eponine, Piaf and a Paris Original

As this article is published, Frances Ruffelle is in Manhattan, back by popular demand to reprise her Beneath The Skirt cabaret at the discerning New York venue, 54 Below. It was only four months ago that her act was first seen in the city and to be invited back in such gloriously indecent haste speaks volumes for the singer's reputation.

So I was delighted to learn that this popular and talented performer could find time amidst her busy schedule of pre-New York packing, for lunch and a chat about her work and family. Casually dressed in short cut dungarees and trainers, she breezed into a cafe high up on London's leafy Harrow On The Hill. Her home is much closer to the city centre, but Ruffelle was out in this suburb for a lesson in accordion playing. It is a tiny clue to this actress' devotion, that whilst she was not only refining her NY set, she was also planning her London cabaret Paris Original which opens on October 8 at the Crazy Coqs. Themed around her love for all things French and without giving any secrets away, it seems hardly surprising that she is throwing herself into learning this most quintessentially French of instruments, though if truth be told, she is not a complete stranger to the charm of the squeezebox. Her son taught himself to play and she laughs as she speaks of having frequently picked the instrument up to dance around the living room.

With New York looming large, we talk about Broadway. Having created the role of Eponine with the RSC’s Les Miserables in London, it was to be only her and Colm Wilkinson (as Jean Valjean) who were asked to reprise their roles when the show opened in the USA, her invitation to cross the Atlantic coming as something of a surprise to the young actress who had already been told that she would not be crossing the pond. Whilst Ruffelle is rightly proud of her achievement in creating one of the 20th century’s most romantic stage characters she is also refreshingly modest in acknowledging the honour and the responsibility that came with breathing life into Eponine in both the West End and on Broadway. In her words, “everything is bigger in New York” and she speaks of having learned so much in having taken the role to the world’s two leading musical theatre cities. She clearly loves New York and feels very comfortable performing there amongst a city that she feels has always welcomed her.

Ruffelle’s accordion teacher is Romano Viazanni with whom she has sung in the past, notably in the Leicester Curve production of Piaf where she played the title role. The production which ran some eight months ago was arguably one of the finest female stage performances to be seen in recent years, and whilst Leicester and Paul Kerryson are to be praised for having elicited such a marvellous production from Ruffelle and the show’s company, it is a modest regret that Piaf neither transferred south nor toured. Should life ever be breathed back into that production, then Ruffelle’s Edith Piaf is a must-see.

For a detailed look back, a review of Piaf can be found here, but to hear how Ruffelle prepared herself for such an all-consuming role is fascinating. Detaching herself from cast and crew she talks of how she kept herself apart in her hotel, mirroring the loneliness and solitude that was such a persistent feature of Piaf’s life. (Ruffelle is at pains to point out however, that where Piaf would take the elevator down to a hotel bar and hook up with a stranger, she was quite happy to exclude that particular experience from her preparations.) Her Piaf on the verge of death was a picture of a woman broken and Ruffelle’s dedication and immersion in the role left her genuinely in tears and destroyed at the end of each performance. The actress speaks warmly of how her own children, sons of 18 and 23 and daughter of 25 knew barely anything of Piaf before the Leicester show and how struck they were by the story that their mother was telling. Ruffelle also shares her sadness at Amy Winehouse’s tragic early death and how much she felt that Winehouse’s trajectory echoed Piaf’s brightly blazing arc, also a sublimely gifted performer yet so physically broken and taken so young.

Interestingly and bringing the conversation directly back to her career, the actress comments on the real life harshness of Piaf’s childhood and youth, raised in a brothel and no stranger to life on the streets, with the bleak circumstances of Eponine’s (albeit fictional) adolescence on the streets of Paris. Both young women alone and desperately craving love.

The Eponine / Piaf comparison is a valid parallel and leads our conversation almost seamlessly into her Paris Original act. One can imagine that Ruffelle almost has the red white and blue tri-colours running through her. She lives in London, loves New York, and simply adores anything culturally French. The food, the clothes, the shops, the Metro, she is clearly in awe of French style and speaks of how she as a child she adored playing French roles and how often she was mistaken for a native Francais. She adores the French composers and we reflect how whilst there have been very few French contributors to grand musical theatre aside from Boublil and Schonberg and also that French theatre itself is famed for little more than the Moulin Rouge, French culture has fuelled many an epic tale. The Phantom, Quasimodo, Beauty’s Beast and of course Hugo’s Les Miserables, have all provided fantastic canvasses from which to create duly fantastic musicals, whilst the truly legendary British musical fables of My Fair Lady, Oliver and possibly Mary Poppins all seem rather tame by comparison. I speculate that of the four French stories mentioned, three of them feature characters that are terribly disfigured. Perhaps this further defines a French charm, which is to recognise above all that real beauty lies deeper than just in stylish appearance.

Ruffelle’s sets for both shows are not those standard selections of familiar stage songs that either have made her famous or else are typically popular favourites known to all. She is deliberately coy about her selections, both for New York and for London, other than to say that her choices are simply the songs that mean a lot to her and above all are those that she enjoys to sing. First and foremost though she recognises that she is an entertainer and strives to offer her audience their money’s worth in her acts. She loves what cabaret can offer and the intimacy that breaking down the “fourth wall” can achieve, but she is ruthless in considering other acts (that she refuses to name) whose choice of songs can appear as though they had been thrown together that very afternoon. Ruffelle spends months preparing her routines and cites as her inspirations, entertainers who are, or were, world class. Not surprisingly she reels off Midler, Minnelli, Sinatra and Presley as performers who have made her spine tingle.

Another common thread to both of her cabaret gigs is producer and close friend Danielle Tarento. Famed for producing off West End productions to standards that are sector-leading in their consistent excellence, Tarento works well with the singer. The two women despise mediocrity and only recognise perfection in performance. Ruffelle speaks warmly of her relationship with Tarento that goes back many years to early TV acting together and refers to her friend’s contribution now being so much more than simply producing the events. She describes Tarento as akin to her “resident director” offering her notes after each night’s performance.

Ruffelle is not just proud of her professional abilities, she is fiercely proud of her kids too. The work ethic seems to have permeated down to her brood as her two sons clutter up the house with the materials necessary to run their business that is manufacturing bespoke smartphone covers, whilst her daughter Eliza Doolittle is carving out a Top Ten career as one of the UK’s fastest rising singer-songwriter pop stars. Whilst Ruffelle acknowledges her daughter’s showbiz genes (Frances' mother is legendary stage school supremo Sylvia Young and Eliza’s dad is eminent theatre director and Les Mis co-director John Caird) she cannot emphasise enough how much her daughter’s success is not as a result of family connections, but rather the product of sheer guts and hard work.

Even more than discussing her cabaret sets, when she speaks of her sons’ business achievements and Eliza having been writing songs for more than eleven years and having forged her own professional relationships with agent and manager, she beams with pride. “I’d like to say I taught her everything she knows” she jokingly enthuses, but well aware of how tough “the Business” is away from the spotlight, Ruffelle sees in Eliza an assured young woman who is as grounded and prepared as could be in managing the fame that she has earned. I suspect that the relationship between this dynamic mother and celebrity daughter could not be closer and Ruffelle projects the image of a mother who knows that there are few things more important than a caring and responsible love between parent and (even adult) child.

To define Frances Ruffelle as a workaholic is quite possibly to understate the scale of the autumnal challenges currently on the actress’ radar. Returning from New York at the end of this week, picking up at the Crazy Coqs two weeks later, in between these two residencies, this whirlwind of a performer will be workshopping the new musical interpretation of Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 britflick, Bend It Like Beckham. With music and lyrics by Howard Goodall and Charles Hart respectively and with Chadha returning to direct, the workshop’s credentials are impeccable. It’s a hectic time and Ruffelle sees her preparation for the workshop as simply just another professional obligation that deserves the very best of her abilities.

It’s a gloriously sunny day amongst Harrow’s ancient beauty as Ruffelle, in a casually chic style that could almost suggest Jane Birkin, wanders off to her accordion lesson. An actress and mother, proud of herself and of her family and a truly impressive woman.

Frances Ruffelle can be seen at 54 Below in Manhattan on 18th September. Click here to book tickets

And she can also be seen at London's Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel from 8th October to 12th October. Click here to book tickets

Sunday, 15 September 2013

When Midnight Strikes

Gatehouse Theatre, London


Book and lyrics by Kevin Hammonds
Music by Charles Miller
Directed by Grant Murphy & Damian Sandys

Midnight Strikes.....

When Midnight Strikes is that rare event on London's fringe. It's a show with a respectably sized cast of 12, each of whom is a simply perfect performer. One can offer no criticism at all upon any of the actors and whilst the show itself is well suited to the fringe, the standard of acting on display would grace (or possibly even be better than) many a West End stage.

The show centres upon the New Year celebrations that Chris and Jennifer West are hosting in their stylish Manhattan apartment. Early on, we learn that Jennifer has just discovered an unsigned note that documents her husband's infidelity and in a further revelation we discover that the note's author's handwriting matches that of an unspecified party guest. So the plot thickens as the evening plays out against a back story of a sexual whodunit.

Miranda Wilford is Jennifer and her performance is an exquisite take on someone who has been shattered emotionally, trying to get by with an attempt at a facade at her own party. She captures every minute nuance in a beautifully voiced performance of painfully anguished maturity. Directors Grant Murphy and Damian Sandys have shown perception in coaxing such understated brilliance from this actress.

The magic of this show though is how as Jennifer's life is falling apart, a series of vignettes that showcase each guest in turn, play out around her. The skill that Hammonds displays, in segueing so effortlessly from hilarity to heartbreak is a rare craft indeed and almosts suggests a mash up of Stephen Sondheim with Edward Albee. Sarah Harlington and Stephanie Parker's characters Twyla and Nicole lead a brilliant number, Shut Up, that mercilessly dissects the banal bullshit of cocktail party small talk. Parker later performs way above her years with a painfully wry What You See Ain't Always What You Get, while Ashley Emerson's Chris leads one of several sassily staged company numbers, Smoke Em If You Got Em. It is left to Lucyelle Cliffe to deliver the comedy sub-plot highspot of the night as her cleavage-spilling predatory harridan Murial, the next door neighbour in the block, virtually devours the virtually virginal software millionaire uber-geek Edward (Newley Aucutt), in the sofa based romp When I Make Love To You.

Sexual desire permeates the tale. Jessica Anne Ball is a cracking all-seeing waitress, John Hicks and Samuel Parker keep the male numbers of the cast balanced out with stunning contributions whilst Victoria Croft as hippy Zoe makes the best of perhaps the least defined character of the piece. Tash Holman's Rachel leads Tom Millen's Greg a merry dance as he tries to reignite their relationship and amidst all this mayhem there remains Jennifer's gradual descent into dignified despair.

Music is simply provided by Matt Rampling on piano with cello accompaniment. It's a simple touch that suits the elegant New York ambience of the story. If you like your romance wry, with just a twist of bitter irony, then there are few finer shows to be found in London.

Runs until 29th September

Saturday, 14 September 2013


Apollo Victoria, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by  Joe Mantello

Louise Dearman

There is never a bad time to return to Oz and so it was a pleasure to be invited back to the Apollo Victoria for a final glimpse of the cast under Gina Beck and Louise Dearman, as their take on Schwartz's mega-musical draws to a close.

A feature of London's West End since 2006 and with the show still a Broadway hit, Wicked continues to be a tale, that if you are familiar with L Frank Baum's story of Dorothy, will amuse you with its wit and if you have no background knowledge whatsoever, still works as a charming tale of rivalries overcome and friendships formed amidst conflict and adversity. 

Wicked can be viewed as a very simple magical piece about friendship and trust. However there is also Elphaba's rejection by society from the moment she is born and the consequences that such contempt can spawn. Louise Dearman's take on Elphaba, the misunderstood emerald green girl destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West is almost faultless. Hers is a complex character, good and innocent at the outset and only seeking affection. Shunned because of her skin colour (an allegory for our own racist world) she learns to hate only because hatred is what the world has shown her. Dearman's mezzo-soprano performance is breathtaking and 'Defying Gravity', the show's spectacular act one closing number and 'No Good Deed' continue to raise the roof at the Apollo. Dearman is unique in the show's global history as the only actress to have played both Elphaba and her opposite, Glinda. 

As Elphaba's antagonist, the elfin Gina Beck is everything that the saccharine-sweet soprano Glinda should be. Nominally the Good Witch, she flips effortlessly from being wise, warm and motherly to care free and witty with her early number 'Popular' cleverly showing how innocent yet still manipulatively scheming the so called good witch can be.

Whilst the two leading ladies give a formidable double act, other notable performances on the night came from Stuart Ramsay whose understudying of The Wizard, despite being much younger than most actors who play the role, gave a surprisingly genuine warmth and Sam Lupton's Boq was also a refreshingly endearing turn. The role of Fiyero was also an understudied performance, this time by Jason Winter who disappointingly lacked impact and presence for such a pivotal supporting responsibility.

Even on a return visit, Susan Hilferty and Eugene Lee's designs remain breathtaking with the Wizzamania sequence in particular leaving the audience grinning. No gimmicks, just a combination of story, characters, music and costume all coming together to create perfect musical theatre.

Elphaba's ambition and determination define the show as a feel good musical and as act two ends, again free of gimmicks, Schwartz's For Good remains one of the greatest celebrations of friendship in the canon. The song's lyrics might groan just a bit, but the two-part harmonies alone define its magic.

Now booking well into 2014 and with Willemijn Verkaik soon to take over as Elphaba, Wicked remains an innovative celebration of good triumphant over evil staged with wit, flair and some of the best showtunes of recent years.

To book tickets for Wicked, click here

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Color Purple

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle

Cynthia Erivo

Catching up with this show just before its run ends is to witness musical theatre at its very best. A cast of 17 with a bare stage, some chairs and the simplest of costumed props, depict America's Deep South and occasionally Africa in the early twentieth century. The tale is of the grim life of Celie, whose illegitimate children are taken from her in her youth, who is then "married" to the most brutal of men, yet who goes on to find the most unlikely of redeemers in a scarlet woman who has few morals but a heart of gold. The story tracks Celie's difficult life yet ends with hope and inspiration. 

John Doyle has cleverly envisioned the work. Slavery is long abolished, but civil rights remain a dream. When Celie reveals that her father was lynched, the disclosure is so casual as to underline the ingrained racism of the South. With an entirely black cast, the story tells of the cruelty and contempt that lived within the African-American community, itself born out of a culture of contempt and slavery. Yet it is the humour and compassion that shines out from within these people that makes the show sparkle. Rarely has the term "bittersweet" been so apt.

Cynthia Erivo is the diminutive Celie. Her character grows throughout, from an abused pregnant child in the opening scene, to a wise and elderly mother by the end. Erivo's look is plain and hers is to play the cruelly labelled uglier of two sisters. Yet whilst her abusive husband Mister, a first class performance of bullying calculated menace, yet also vulnerability, from Christopher Colquhoun condemns her for her ugliness and servility, Erivo shines throughout with a vocal and physical beauty that is rare to witness. Her solo I'm Here saw the audience rise as one to salute her midway through the second act. Whilst the production's success is of course due to the company as a whole, Erivo has proved to be its dazzling star. Nearly 30 years ago Steven Spielberg's Color Purple movie blasted Whoopi Goldberg's career from modest actress to global celebrity. In a more modest manner, so is history repeating itself. Whilst Erivo was little known outside of the profession before The Color Purple, it has recently been announced that she is to take a leading role at London’s Palladium Theatre next year.

Sophia Nomvete is a delightful Sofia. Feisty funny and furious early on, she breaks our hearts as the victim of a savage racist beating and as Nettie, Celie's sister whose being wrenched apart from her sibling causes such anguish, Abiona Omonua gives a performance of carefully crafted fragile hope. It is left to Nicola Hughes’ Shug Avery, Mister's mistress, who on visiting Celie's miserable home, reaches out to free her from her husband's abuse and set her on an inspirational path to liberty. Hughes' stage pedigree is impeccable and whilst Celie is the show's leading character, her interaction with Avery is an astonishing double act. Their duet What About Love? is as perfect a harmony as is to be found.

Tom Deering's musical direction alongside Catherine Jayes' supervision provides a soulful Southern sound, peppered with the Blues and with an intoxicating African interlude, all rhythm and drums for good measure. Matthew Wright's costume work sets scenes perfectly whilst Linda McKnight's wig design adds a slick authenticity to the actresses.

No need to recommend, it's sold out. But this work demands more. If the gods of the theatre can grant this show a West End transfer, it would be no less than what both London and this glorious production deserve. 

Runs to 14th September

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Prodigals

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Written by Ray Goudie and Joe Harmston
Directed by Joe Harmston

Greg Oliver

The Prodigals is that curious piece of musical theatre that whilst often provoking disbelief, still packs a significant punch.

The show’s graphic motif is a poppy and it is aspects of that powerful flower that form the focus of the musical’s message. The poppy is the symbol of British military sacrifice and remembrance; it is the cash crop for the Afghan farmers that British forces are often tasked to destroy; and most pointedly it is also the source of the opium that has claimed and ruined so many lives.

The parable of the prodigal son is the premise that underlies the show. Simon Bowman is the proud regimental Colonel Gibson, the father of two sons. Mike has dutifully followed his father, taking up a commission in the army, whilst Kyle's passion lies in music. As the rock star’s fame grows, so too does his dependency on heroin and a tragic but muddled act one sees him fall from grace after supplying a fatal dose of heroin to Kelly his childhood friend and singing partner. Act two sees the show gather pace and the unconditional love that Bowman showers upon his wastrel offspring provides a (rare) moment of powerful poignancy.

Bowman’s measured grief, anguish and torment is a performance of depth and sensitivity that often outweighs the material he is given to work with. His dialog whilst impassioned, too often lacks credibility and there is a sense here of a magnificent talent squandered. Sam Ferriday's Mike is a lacklustre performance, also not helped by a script and lyrics that are just too trite.

The redemption of this work however lies with the youthful and bogglingly talented Greg Oliver as troubled musician Kyle. His journey into addiction is vivid, upsetting and above all, believable. We wince at his pain and in an inspired move by the show’s creators, the effects of a heroin fix are brilliantly realised by three mocking airline stewardesses, fantasy illusions brought on by the drug, who are as chilling as they are superficially comic. Oliver brings power, passion and an incredible athleticism to his role and whenever his dialog even hints at becoming cheesy, he redeems the moment with an astonishing depth of performance. To be fair, his performance is complemented by Sarah Watson's Kelly, evoking tragedy and pathos without once straying into mawkish sentimentality. Beautiful voice too! 

A shout-out is earned by Ben Cracknell whose as ever clever lighting suggests poppy fields, prison cells, Chinook helicopters and rock concerts.

The show clearly speaks to its youthful audience, who impressively rose to salute the cast at the finale. Where Trainspotting was a movie that spoke of a drug-damaged generation, so too does The Prodigals offer an unsentimental look at the tragic consequences of heroin abuse. It deserves a future but demands major re-working.

Runs until 14th September 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Fiddler On The Roof

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Craig Revel Horwood

Paul Michael Glaser

Making his UK stage debut, it’s a treat to see Paul Michael Glaser step up to the challenge of Tevye in Craig Revel Horwood’s take on this classic musical. Some 40 years ago the actor enjoyed global stardom as the Starsky of Starsky & Hutch fame, but to mis-quote Michael Caine, not many people know that around the same time he also enjoyed a supporting role as Perchik in Norman Jewison’s movie of Fiddler. Thus it was almost destined for Glaser to rise to the mantle of the story’s leading man and as a father and husband who has known profound personal tragedy in his life, his performance at times evokes real pathos. When Glaser's Tevye reaches out from the stage to share his deliberations with the audience and we share his monologue debates with God, there are moments of truly wry observation and a shrug so authentic that it symbolises a person familiar with enormous challenge. Not quite the finished product, Glaser occasionally stumbles in word and performance, though these are but bumps that a few performances into the tour will iron out.

Revel Horwood again directs a musical that has been set around a cast of actor-musicians. To explain, all the cast are on-stage members of the orchestra and have responsibility for giving life to Jerry Bock's wonderful score. To their credit, this is quite possibly the best actor-muso production to have been seen in some time. As musicians the performers are spot on, no small task given that they are denied the luxury of sheet music that a typical pit-orchestra would enjoy and all play entirely from memory. Bravo to them and to the slick musical direction and orchestration from Sarah Travis that allows them to blend in effortlessly with the staging. Extra special credit to Jennifer Douglas who as the most nimbly gamine Fiddler gives the show a perfect haunting klezmer-esque violin signature.

It is easy for a Fiddler On The Roof to slip into cliché and the meerkat-Russian accents that plague the dialogue, though thankfully not the songs, would be best dropped. Together with some of the ridiculously glued on beards, they distract from the otherwise beautifully simple design of the show and at this early stage in the run, these points can be easily addressed. A more permanent irritation is the Hebrew text written on the timbers and the roof tiles of the village buildings. Whilst Anatevka may be fictional, it is not some Disney created fantasy village. It represents a beautiful if at times grim snapshot of a culture destroyed and Diego Pitarch's whimsical lettering cheapens that memory.

The supporting cast prove that they can act as well as play a tune. Daniel Bolton’s Fyedka is a beautifully voiced Cossack dancer. Liz Kitchen gives a wonderfully gossipy Yente as well as a touchingly hilarious Grandmother Tzeitel. Jon Trenchard’s Motel is a delightfully plausible and sincere schlemiel whilst Claire Petzal’s Chava broke hearts as she clawed in vain at the rock of her father’s faith in choosing to marry Fyedka. The audience on press night were warm and enthusiastic, laughing in all the right places and even clapping along to To Life. That they laughed however at Golde’s (Karen Mann) raw grief at Chava’s marriage suggests that the structure of that moment needs to be re-examined by Revel Horwood.  

The choreography, as to be expected from such an expert in movement, is divine. Revel Horwood has reproduced Jerome Robbin’s original Broadway staging and Glaser's Tevye, swaggering in his celebration of life is glorious, whilst the highlight of the Bottle Dance exceeds expectations with sweetly synchronised movement that is as always, breathtaking.

Playing at Southampton until September 14, the show tours Britain and Ireland until well into next year. It’s an affectionately crafted production, crammed full of familiar numbers that are sung to perfection and makes for a grand night out.

To find out tour dates and to book tickets visit the production website here

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Jamie Nichols - Preparing for Houdini

Jamie Nichols as Harry Houdini

Jamie Nichols, an accomplished young London actor, commences a gruelling national tour this week in the title role of Stuart Brennan’s Houdini, a tightly cast play based upon the legendary American escapologist. Rehearsing out of town before the show opens in Stoke this week, I grabbed a few minutes with Jamie, in between rehearsal sessions and a final lesson in illusions. 

A Londoner born and bred, with three older brothers and two younger sisters, Nichols has predominantly been cast to date in roles that reflect his London background. After a modest break from performance to explore life as a theatrical agent, he was cast earlier this year by Rikkie Beadle Blair as one of the four Prospect brothers in Blair’s contemporary take on broken Britain, Gutted (reviewed by me here).  Set in south London, the play was an honest and at times harrowing account of fractured lives, with Nichols performance being as physically demanding as it was compelling. Nichol’s talks of the regime to prepare for Gutted as having some echoes of what he is currently going through pre Houdini. Interestingly, he also speaks of having to have explored the subtle differences between the two Londons that exist on the different banks of the Thames. A passionate Arsenal supporter, he was the only north London cast member and he talks of having found the research into the different nuances of London life, between north and south, fascinating and distinctive.

His affinity with the capital will have had little to do with Nichols having been cast for this role, for other than when Houdini toured his act to London, the Hungarian born magician had little association with the UK. Notwithstanding, one of Houdini’s toughest on-stage moments ever came about in 1904  when he was nearly beaten in a challenge laid down by the London Daily Mirror that required him to escape from a purpose built set of lock and chains in front of an audience at London’s Hippodrome. Nichols, who had studiously worked on magic tricks and handcuff escapology prior to his audition for the play, was thrilled when he learnt that the auditions were themselves to be held at the legendary Leicester Square venue as a mark of respect to the man.

Nichol’s regime in preparation for the role has been all consuming. With a strict diet and extreme exercise, he has shed a stone in weight and has almost halved his % body fat. He is indebted to dietician/trainer James Farmer who is coaching him through this process, though Nichols has also reflects with some sadness how the totality of the rehearsal process has led to him having to have missed social events including a friends’ wedding, such has been his immersion in the role.

It turns out that immersion is to be the watchword of this all consuming performance. Harry Houdini was famed for his Upside Down stunt that required him to be suspended by his ankles in a glass tank filled with several thousand gallons of water. Nichols’ does not give too much away, but when he hints that he has undergone SCUBA training and that the show will feature an onstage water escape and when he  goes on to sketch out the health and safety planning that has gone into the stunt’s design, it suggests something spectacular. 

In one of those historical quirks that saw gangster Al Capone imprisoned not for murder but for tax fraud, so did Houdini die at 52, not in a disastrous stunt-failure but rather from the complications of a burst appendix sustained from a punch. The play references that tragic blow and nursing a few minor injuries himself Nichols suggests that getting ready for this show in particular has taken a modest toll, though nothing of course that his super-fit physique cannot endure!

The show also features Houdini’s brother Theo, played by Brennan and wife Bess played by Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood, Evanna Lynch and Nichols speaks warmly of the camaraderie that exists between the entire cast. Working with the writer, he has immense respect for Brennan’s knowledge of his subject.

The five week tour concludes in Ireland, with Houdini being a play that promises to offer a compelling turn from this remarkably talented performer.

Touring from 9th September . For details, visit www.HoudiniThePlay.com

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Seagull

Barons Court Theatre, London


Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Mackenzie Thorpe

All credit to Green Girl Productions for having the theatrical guts and tenacity to rehearse what is generally a quality cast of actors through Chekhkov's The Seagull for a run that is merely a week long. That the production company are committed to mount this fringe production in front of what was a modest audience and probably for meagre financial reward speaks volumes for the commitment of these troupers to their art. Mackenzie Thorpe writes of setting his production as an allegory on the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s. Whilst Thorpe's intentions are noble his allegory fails as the production seems resolutely (sometimes stolidly) rooted in a Chekhovian era, albeit with modern dress. 

Notwithstanding, Thorpe's take on the tragic tale is a fair portrayal of passions denied and jealousies burned. James Rose's Aberdonian Boris is perhaps the star of the night, with voice and movement demanding our attention. Newcomer Grace Lyons Hudson also puts in a consistently smashing and ultimately moving turn as Nina the fragile wannabe actress whose love for Boris is painfully scorned. Marysia Trembecka's Irina, a character who is yet another actress, is a distinctive performance though too often and too distractingly, one that suggests more of a Desiree Armfeldt, than may have been Thorpe's intention. Late in act 4, Nina speaks of the "agony of someone who goes through a play and knows how badly they are acting". Awkwardly, that sentence could apply to one or two of the men in this production though not it should be said, Patrick Osbourne's Constantine, who starts off wonderfully even if he struggles with the melodrama of his character's final scenes.

The basement of this Barons Court venue proves to be as hot and steamy as the on stage passion so dress comfortably and take a bottle of water. Whilst the show teaches us little new about The Seagull, it does contain some moments of inspirational performance and interpretation. Strictly for the enthusiasts.

Runs until 8th September

Monday, 2 September 2013

An Evening of Gershwin

Kenwood House, London


Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra
Conductor - Jae Alexander

An afternoon of Gershwin, in the glorious grounds of Kenwood House, on a balmy late summer’s afternoon, gave a whole new meaning to "Sunday in the park with George". The last in the 2013 series of the Live By The Lake concerts got underway at the altogether rather civilised time of 5pm with the event having a strangely grand but nonetheless traditional feel of sitting in front of a rather sumptuous bandstand.

The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra returned to the stage for the occasion with Jae Alexander conducting. Alexander had already amassed years of Gershwin experience from the pit of the Prince Edward Theatre’s Crazy For You run, but with the orchestral magnificence of the Kenwood sound dwarfing even the finest West End show band, he can rarely have conducted such a musically magnificent take on the New York composer's work.

The afternoon’s cast were magnificent. Gina Beck taking time out from her Glinda’s Wicked swansong was a soprano delight with The Man I Love and defined the afternoon’s Gershwin credentials with a sublime Summertime in the second half.

Kerry Ellis, who with We Will Rock You’s Meat and Wicked’s Elphaba performed on both sides of the Atlantic to her credit, must surely be West End royalty, gave the classic Someone To Watch Over Me an absolutely sparkling treatment, having already warmed up with one of the most bittersweet numbers written, But Not For Me.

David Bardsley provided some fabulous baritone work with A Foggy Day In London Town being appropriate for the location (if not the delightful weather).

Michael Ball, billed as the show’s star, was conspicuously absent through much of the first half until that set’s closing number. Walking modestly onto the stage, as Alexander struck up the band, so Ball eased himself into Strike Up The Band, re-imagining the song with soul and sensitivity in a delivery that was simply spine-tingling. The audience who had been baying for his arrival were swiftly placated and as the number played out, the cheers from the crowd as they headed off for a tea and champagne break were rousing.

The second half featured Ball extensively, including a delightful duet with Ellis who gave perhaps the most enchanting corpse ever. Embraceable You had been carefully planned and rehearsed by the pair, yet Ellis, heavily pregnant so therefore of course forgiveable for any vocal wanderings that she may commit, collapsed into infectious laughter and just giggled her way through Ball’s having to turn the prepared two-hander into a solo. It was all rather lovely.

Highspot of the half though was Viv McLean’s Rhapsody In Blue. For one to be able to lie back on the Kenwood lawns, bubbly in hand, gaze at the skies and listen to this man’s virtuoso take on one of the most glorious piano compositions of the 20th century canon, was nothing short of a fine and rare privilege. 

Bravo to Rouge Events who have had the vision and tenacity to negotiate with Kenwood’s neighbours and re-instate these concerts as a fixture of London’s calendar. Here’s to the 2014 season and their beautiful contribution to the capital’s Summertime.