Monday, 28 October 2013

Richard II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

To be broadcast live to cinemas on 13th November


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

David Tennant

Greg Doran’s Richard II takes a complex Shakespearean political conundrum, strips it down to the Bard’s beautiful verse, assembles a platinum cast and presents the tale in a form that is accessible, exciting and at times deeply moving. David Tennant is Richard, thoroughly earning the star-billing of the title role and his name alone will ensure that the production sells out at the Barbican. (It is already sold out at Stratford.) The marketing impact of “brand Tennant” powerful though it is, almost unfairly masks the underlying genius of this production, as Tennant and his supporting company are simply outstanding.

The play opens to a beautiful projection of Westminster Hall where we find Jane Lapotaire, Gloucester’s widow, mourning at her husband’s casket. It’s a tiny role, sweetly executed by this national treasure of an actress (why has she not yet been honoured?) and sets the tone for the themes of vengeance, retribution and restitution that are to run through the piece. Michael Pennington plays her brother in law John O Gaunt wise and politically astute enough to have suspected the King’s complicity in Gloucester’s death. Every word that Pennington speaks is measured and weighted to perfection and when later in the play we meet Oliver Ford Davies’ York, there can surely be no finer collection of senior UK Shakespearean talent currently assembled on one stage.

Making his RSC debut Nigel Lindsay, some months since he washed off the green make-up of Dreamwork’s ogre Shrek, steps up to the role of Gaunt’s son Bolingbroke. Banished by Richard he returns from exile, raises an army and challenges the monarch. Lindsay gives a fine turn combining a complex mix of ruthless vengeance with compassion. His character has more decency than most in this bloody tale and he gets the balance between good and bad spot on.

Tennant’s Richard is sublime. Successor to Edward III, Tennant subtly yet brilliantly shows how he has become absolutely corrupted by absolute power. His and his fellow actors' interpretation of the text makes the complex poetry of the play immediately understandable, even to a newcomer to the story. When Bolingbroke forces the king to abdicate, Tennant’s aura of profound devastation and humbling bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the late Margaret Thatcher as she left 10 Downing Street for good and in tears. And whilst Thatcher (arguably) was not akin to the heartless monarch of 1399, that sense of "shock and awe" experienced when one sees before ones very eyes, the moment of a great person toppling, is easy to recognise but very hard to define. Tennant conveys such a moment in Richard II with ease and maturity, eliciting our sympathy in a truly moving portrayal.

Richard II represents the RSC at its very best. Live musical accompaniment enhanced by three heavenly soprano voices (who provide a beautiful mise en scene before the lights go down, as a backdrop to the grieving Lapotaire) only adds to the quality on offer. Unmissable.

Plays at Stratford Upon Avon until 16th November 2013 ( sold out)

The production will be broadcast live from Stratford, to cinemas across the UK on 13th November 2013. To find out details of these screenings, click here.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Thriller Live - 2000th London performance

Lyric Theatre, London


Conceived by Adrian Grant
Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Invited back to Thriller Live as the show celebrated its 2,000th performance at London’s Lyric Theatre gave another opportunity to take a look at this most slick of musicals. The show was reviewed in some detail back in January of this year, but this particular visit gave an opportunity to see a new cast step up to performing the songs of the King of Pop. The show was fabulous a few months ago and it proves to be even better with the return of Zoe Birkett.

A Pop Idol finalist of some ten years ago, Birkett has since had a phenomenally busy showbiz career and was last seen by this blog stealing every scene she appeared in, in Rent at Greenwich. Birkett is also no stranger to Thriller Live having not only “previous” from the London Lyric production, but has also spent the last six months playing her role in South America. She knows the part of Janet Jackson intimately and brings a zest to the performance that is simply breathtaking.

Taking the principal role of lead singer through the show, Britt Quentin captures the style and presence of Jackson with flawless voice and dance work. Latin heartthrob Ricardo Afonso assumes the Jacko persona for two songs in particular, Dirty Diana and She’s Out Of My Life giving an almost electric tenderness and sensitivity to the latter number. It was pleasing to see young Eshan Gopal remaining juvenile enough to play young Michael. The kid sings, dances and moonwalks with ease. Cute for sure, but incredibly talented with it.

Gary Lloyd’s choreography and John Maher’s arrangements, praised here in January, remain as fresh and perfectly performed as ever. On paper, Thriller Live is simply another juke-box musical showcasing Jackson’s work. Live and on stage, it remains a sublimely designed tribute to the vision and the sound of the man. It continues not only to celebrate Michael Jackson’s songs but also to showcase some of the most talented performers and musicians to be found on a London stage.

Now booking to 2014

From Here To Eternity

Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Stuart Brayson
Book by Bill Oakes
Director Tamara Harvey

A passionate wartime romance, a star studded cinema legacy and Tim Rice's lyrics all suggest a musical of grand ambition and spectacular promise. But whilst From Here To Eternity is welcomed as a new piece of musical theatre, as for so many shows or movies themed around Hawaii in that fateful 1941 winter, it proves to be heavy on Pacific promise but, like Soutra Gilmour's (effectively) minimalist set designs, light on artistic content. 

It's a grand canvas indeed that has a show climaxing with the USA being drawn into the second world war. Set around the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, we meet First Sergeant Warden, who is to fall for his womanizing Captain's wife Karen Holmes and Private Prewitt, a member of Warden’s company, who is to lose his heart to Island whore Lorene. Where one love interest is usually enough for most musicals, to be writing for a quartet of lovers is a potential distraction to both writer and audience. Rice's ambitions are noble, but his scope is just too broad to effectively support such romantic complexity.

The show is not helped through the star-casting of Darius Campbell as Warden. Chiselled looks and beautifully voiced for sure, he looks heroic but his acting lacks subtlety and depth and he fails to capture our belief. Robert Lonsdale's Prewitt is a performance that is West End worthy. His take on the song Fight The Fight is stirring and convincing as he grapples with his conscience over being required to fight in conflict. Two reprisals of any song is usually at least one too many and that this song re-appears so often, with other musical motifs returning throughout the evening, indicates that composer Stuart Brayson lacks the talent to match the scale of the show and the renowned wit of his lyricist.

The two lead women delight. Siubhan Harrison is Lorene, a character whose tough shell conceals a wise and tender heart and who inthe number Run Along Joe, gives two pleasing and well-crafted perspectives on the same song through its reprisals. It is Rebecca Thornhill as Karen Holmes who shines out amongst the cast. Her loveless marriage now worn threadbare through countless army flings, the poignancy of the love she craves with Warden is compelling. 

Harvey's direction and Javier De Frutos's choreography is sound throughout even if the constant carrying of metal beds on and off stage by the male ensemble intrudes at times, no more so than half way through the title song From Here To Eternity. The creative pair are at their best though with the routine for You Got The Money that becomes an exciting array of dance, lifts and beautifully timed rendezvous.

The story famously builds towards the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. A big event that in the West End demands effects that are state of the art. In an era of digital illusion and to audiences used to the best of CGI, the attack as presented here is a damp squib. If, on a fraction of this show’s budget the Southwark Playhouse managed to impressively sink the Titanic earlier this year, then it cannot have been beyond the wit of Rice and his co-producers to know that something spectacular was called for above and beyond the projections that we witness shone onto the Shaftesbury stage. 

Notwithstanding a closing nod to the human cost of war that is both respectful and moving, From Here To Eternity is much like the US Pacific Fleet, ill-fated and unlikely to remain afloat for long.

Now booking into 2014

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Blood Wedding

Courtyard Theatre, London


Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Translation by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Cassidy Janson

Lorca's Blood Wedding is a classic 20th century tragedy. Drawing upon the primal influences of the moon, the importance of the land and the spirituality of water and sketched out across a framework of love, despair and passionately tragic revenge, its poetry should harrow and destroy an audience. Bronagh Lagan's treatment of Tanya Ronder's translation sadly blunts the stark beauty of Lorca's verse.

In a cast of twelve, only three actors deliver engaging performances. Miles Yekinni, on stage for much of the single-act's 90 minute duration, stalks the characters as Death, frequently checking a pocket watch to indicate the looming, pre-destined bloody climax. Cassidy Janson, as a family servant, is an actor who only knows how to be excellent and her presence adds value to each of her scenes. Tamarin Payne's Moon, perhaps an over-excitable young girl for too much of the play's early movements, shows a beautiful balletic grace in a sweetly staged dance with Death. 

But that's it for the talent. Lynsey Beauchamp's grieving Mother hacks her way through text that should slice the audience open with her pain, trying too hard and lacking a natural air that is to be expected of a good professional performer. As the Bride, torn between the cravings of her heart for the already married Leonardo and the dutiful wife she knows she must be to her Groom, Anna Bamberger, (who also co-produces, an ominous sign) is lacklustre and wooden. And as for the story's wedding sequence, what should be an opportunity for a flamboyant and extravagant Latin dance routine is squandered. Maybe Lagan should have hired a choreographer, for whilst her wedding dance bore some recognisably Spanish touches, it was poorly planned and sloppily drilled.

Aria Entertainment who co-produce under the veritable human dynamo of Katy Lipson should get it better than this. Perhaps they need to focus more on the quality of their productions rather than the quantity?

Runs until 16th November 2013

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Titus Andronicus

Arcola Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Zoe Ford

On the basis that a good Titus Andronicus should never be for the faint-hearted, then this Hiraeth production should rate as outstanding.Well it's good, for sure, but it cuts too many corners and takes a few too many liberties to be a truly memorable Titus.

Zoe Ford sets her tale in 1980's London. The Roman Andronici are fascist skinheads. Tattoos, lager and skinhead haircuts depict hatred. Their Goth enemy, in this show, are Irish immigrants. There's sufficient potential for hatred and retribution between these two communities to support the revenge themes that run through the veins of the play and interestingly Aaron the Moor, a compelling performance from Stanley J Browne, is given an added degree of depth as being a black man amongst such a vile and racist people. In a text that has been been cut extensively by Ford, she has wisely retained Aaron's closing speech of venomous hatred.

It's a show that's curiously cast. As Titus, David Vaughn Knight does an excellent take on Bob Hoskins' Harold Shand from the movie The Long Good Friday. No one does revenge better than a pissed off Cockney, but Titus is more than vengeful. Like the Goth Queen Tamora, he is also a wronged parent, grieving for the woes inflicted on his children and whilst Rosalind Blessed's lusty, busty, flame haired Tamora is all sex and wicked deviousness, she also portrays a distraught parent with far more credible grief than Knight. Maya Thomas' Lavinia is perhaps a bit too much of a thug prior to her rape and she does not come across as sufficiently chaste to merit the pursuit of emperor Saturninus, a critical component of the play's opening movements. Notwithstanding, following her assault, she does elicit our pity portraying her muteness with heart-rending pathos.

The cast and creative team have clearly had some fun here and for a typically low-budget Titus, the stage blood flows. Chiron and Demetrius have their throats cut with a circular saw, whilst Titus lops off his own hand with a heavy garden spade. It's deliciously brutal and not for the squeamish, though one complaint: when Lavinia tries to speak following the ripping out of her tongue, the torrent of stage blood that pours from her mouth is expected. Her bleeding stumps however deserve more of a special effect than a pair of red socks, which look suspiciously like a cheap cop-out by the designer.

Ford has played it fast and loose with the prose and that's a disappointment. Whilst liberal additions of the "f" and "c" words might be presumed to make a production more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare's writing, they actually detract from the beauty of the Bard's verse. That too many of the lines are inaudible is also a detraction from the impact of the text.

If nothing else, the play is certainly an uncomfortably humorous take on slaughter, which at two hours length including interval, will not leave you bored. That Ford opens her work with the 80's classic Come On Eileen blaring and for a finale sends her cast on to take their bows to Madness' Our House, suggests that for all her worthy intentions she does not wish her production to be taken too seriously.

Runs until 26th October

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pasek and Paul - Live at the London Hippodrome

Hippodrome, London


Justin Paul and Benj Pasek

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a wunderkind brace who are the current creative young darlings of Broadway were in London for just one night. Unknown on this side of the pond outside of the musical theatre bubble, they nonetheless packed out the Hippodrome’s Matcham Room and attracted some of London’s top talent to join them in a late-evening showcase presented by Nathan Amzi.

An uber-talented pair, Pasek’s keyboard skills are exquisite and in performance the two dovetail together in perfectly synchronised harmony. They recently enjoyed Tony nominated Broadway success with their seasonal offering A Christmas Story, preceding that with the off-Broadway musical Dogfight helmed by Wicked director Joe Mantello. The cast recording of Dogfight has already been reviewed here and its fair to say that it reflects a carefully crafted tale, including action, tragedy and passion in equal measure. Based upon an unlikely and complicated love that emerges from a cruel prank played by a troop of US Marines before they ship out to war, the show’s lyrics demonstrate a perception and wisdom that belies Pasek and Paul’s youth. On stage in London, the Dogfight selection included the impressive First Date / Last Night along with the painfully poignant Pretty Funny, the latter sung by London’s Elphaba in waiting, Willemijn Verkaik. Amongst their achievements, as television songwriters the two men contributed Caught In A Storm to the TV series Smash. This song, also performed by Verkaik was a disappointment, sung by a voice that was too old and too polished for the number’s underlying mediocrity and not helped by Verkaik’s casual and untidy appearance that was at odds with the venue's glamour.

And thereby hangs the paradox of Pasek and Paul. Some of what they write is inspired and even if their patter went on too long, their refreshingly self-deprecating style along with a handful of numbers that Tom Lehrer would be proud of, served to remind us quite how razor-sharp their perceptive wits are. Yet the ballad With You Everywhere That You Are whilst having noble intentions and written as a memory of loved ones lost, came across as soppy and shallow, lacking the honesty of emotion with which Scott Alan easily seems to infuse his songs. Performing live, this pair who have been hailed as the next Rogers and Hammerstein bear a scary resemblance to Ant and Dec The Musical.

Yet their strengths undoubtedly outweigh their weaknesses and by some measure. Oliver Tompsett gave a beautiful version of Do You Remember, reminding us all why he is such an acclaimed performer, though perhaps the star turn of the night was Lauren Varnham whose take on the Pasek and Paul’s Perfect from their Edges song cycle, was a spine tingling moment. Clad in a simply elegant black dress, Varnham who had impressively dashed from performing From Here To Eternity looked as good as she sounded. The night closed on a standing ovation. Pasek and Paul may be inconsistent, but when they’re on their game they’re genius. 

Dogfight – Original Cast Recording


Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Produced by Kurt Deutsch, Lawrence Manchester, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Dogfight is an all-American musical set in Los Angeles between 1963 and 1967 around the time of the Vietnam conflict. Premiering off Broadway in 2011, it tells of three young Marines on their last night on the town before shipping out to war. The “dogfight” of the title is a cruel lads game in which each Marine has to find the least attractive girl to take on a date. The guy who, in the opinion of his buddies, brings the ugliest date wins the pot of cash that they have all funded.

It’s a simple, sadly plausible, premise for a tale already made into an acclaimed 1991 movie and Paul, Pasek and Duchan have plenty of rich material: reckless abandon; broken hearts; hope and despair, with the looming background of war’s potential fatalities, with which to fashion a musical that touches on many of life’s grand and sweeping issues.

Of the three Marines, Privates Bernstein and Boland are the most carefree and selfish, each inviting a girl to accompany them to the dance hall, before callously discarding their partners in favour of fairground rides and whores. It is Birdlace who gets caught up in the emotional turmoil of the upset he has caused his girl Rose and a complex love emerges between them.

The numbers are written with a perceptive ear for a 1960s sound yet still acknowledging the expectations of a 21st century audience. Birdlace’s ‘Come To A Party’ is a buoyant song as he lathers on the flattery to shy homely Rose. Her song that follows, ‘Nothing Short of Wonderful’, a sweet girly whirl of a tune as she preps her hair and outfit for the night out is all the more poignant for us knowing that she is being set up. The Marines ultimately vote Boland’s girl Marcy as the ugliest date, and when she, in the Ladies Room, tells Rose that the evening has been a dogfight, the lyrics have a raucous piercing honesty, as we hear Rose’s bubble bursting.

‘Hometown Heroe’s Tickertape Parade’ is a riotous explosion of pre-conflict optimism that the Marines sing whilst on the town. Its lyrics are cleverly reprised post-war, when emotions are far more grounded and those who survived the war confront a very unglamorous reality as homecoming veterans.

From a broader UK perspective however this show is likely to have little appeal and the prospect of it becoming a commercial success “over here” is remote. The story is so enmeshed in the post-Vietnam psyche of modern America that other than perhaps via an off West End or work-shopped production it is unlikely to cross the Atlantic.

Dogfight is nonetheless an album that is entertaining from the outset with a storyline and lyrics that are clear to follow. It’s an innovative sound that remains a pleasing purchase for all who have a passion for the musical theatre medium.

Available from Sh-K-Boom records

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Light Princess

National Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Tori Amos
Book & lyrics by Samuel Adamson
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Rosalie Craig

It says much for Marianne Elliott that the National Theatre currently have three of her shows on in town. This visionary director confounds the conventional boundaries of theatre and in combining well crafted puppetry with slick animation and excellent actors continues to astonish her audiences. A George MacDonald 19th century fairy tale, The Light Princess has been transformed into a musical by Amos and Adamson and whilst the show is a visual treat, scratch the surface and the musical is found to be truly light indeed.

Amos’ melodies albeit with an occasional rock undertone, often blend into a ballad-fest, with lyrics that lack craftsmanship (one loses count of how often the clumsy phrase “H2O” appears in songs). The show has a strong message to deliver on female emancipation, but sets about bludgeoning its cause into the audience with the subtlelty of a suffragette protestor rather than a slickness of modern artistic debate. Lest the show’s message is lost, Amos and Adamson hammer it home with lengthy speeches for both prologue and epilogue and the good folk of the National (under the brilliant Lyn Haill) endorse the politics with a programme that includes 18 pages of (some political) commentary and lavish photographs, yet strangely omits a list of the show’s musical numbers. Extensive animations pepper the show, yet all this clever speech and vision do not make up for the singular failure of The Light Princess to convey its message through the genre of musical theatre. A good musical, even one with a political message, (think Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Kiss Of The Spider Woman or Jason Robert Brown’s Parade) should be able to tell its entire story through song and dance. Prologues, epilogues and fancy animations are tell-tale signs of writers who lack the depth or talent to fully argue their subject musically and who have taken an easy way out. The beautiful work of Macdonald’s original tale and Elliott’s stunning direction is cheapened by Amos' and Adamson’s feminist politicising, with a reference in the show to anorexia that is almost offensive. When Althea vomits through having been force-fed, should that really be a laughing point for the audience? Of course not and that moment is a (thankfully rare) episode of disappointing stagecraft.

Notwithstanding her minor flaws, it still remains Elliott’s treatment of the show that demands that this piece of theatre be given attention. Rosalie Craig is Althea, the Light Princess, onstage almost throughout and who through the devices of both beautiful human puppetry and state of the art flying technology, spends nearly the entire show with her feet off the ground. In Elliott’s War Horse, the human puppeteers “disappear” from conscious vision after about 5 minutes or so and we believe we are seeing horses on stage. In this show, the excellent Acrobats who manipulate Craig don’t quite disappear from our vision, but they do deliver an effect that surely is as enchanting as anything MacDonald could have wished for. Craig is a delight in her starring performance though she is supported by a sublime cast around her. Clive Rowe could not be a more majestic king and whilst his previous National roles have offered him better lyrics to work with, his singing in this show reminds us what a treasure of the London stage he truly is. Amy Booth-Steel’s Piper narrates and sings with flair, whilst Laura Pitt-Pulford’s gorgeously booted Falconer, gives a thrilling rock belt to a number early in the show that is one of the few musically exciting moments of the evening.

New theatre and especially musical theatre is always to be encouraged and bravo to the National and to Nick Hytner for getting behind such innovation. The show might not be the best of the bunch, but its performers certainly are.

Now booking until 9th January 2014.


Certificate 18


Written by ElI Roth, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo
Drected by Nicolas Lopez

Eli Roth finds the weight of fallen masonry too much to bear in Aftershock

Aftershock,co-created by Eli Roth with Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo is a roller-coaster ride of a 1970s style disaster movie brought up to date to meet a modern adult audience's expectations. As with his two Hostel movies, Roth pitches us into a world that is as frighteningly believable as it's horror is monstrous.

The movie is a Chilean production, set in the resort town of Valparaiso. There is a 30 minute lead in before the action kicks off, which has writing that is not Roth's finest, seeing clever humour mixed with cliched corn. The title is a heavy hint that there's an earthquake brewing and sure enough, following possibly the cheesiest mother/daughter argument ever scripted, the earth moves.

The strength of this tale lies in its portrayal of the devastation of the 'quake and of the ghastly human choices and consequences that can arise from such bloody mayhem. The brutality and the gore is shocking, but in a real moment of mass bloody death and injury, what else would one expect? Years ago, Universal Studios gave us Genevieve Bujold and Charlton Heston enduring an earthquake hitting San Francisco and introducing the world to the (extremely short-lived) Sensurround, a low frequency noise that made our cinema seats resonate. Roth is more direct. In an earthquake and one suspects, in the aftermath of a bomb explosion too, horrible things happen to people. Victims are crushed, decapitated, lose limbs and are impaled. Aftershock's tracking of a weary band of survivors exposes them not only to these horrors, but also to the brutal inhumanity of man against man when the fabric of society literally collapses around them

A prison crumbles leading to a mass escape of marauding convicts. Roth's performance as an injured man tortured by the escapees into revealing where his women companions are and thus condemning them to rape, (filmed tastefully, no nudity) is a brilliant micro-study in the guilt of betrayal. Elsewhere vigilante mothers shoot good people, simply because they cannot know for sure if the good can be trusted. Safer to kill than to take risk.

The film-making is masterful, the sets are convincing, the CGI and special make-up effects are virtually flawless and if occasionally a devastated street has the air of a studio back-lot, the dialog and performances soon serve to ensure that disbelief remains suspended. Chilean actor Ariel Levy heads the cast and in a clever move that adds to the story's authenticity, Roth plays one of a handful of English-speaking gringos, with other key roles spoken in Spanish with English subtitles.

Whilst there is a whiff of predictability about the (magnificently photographed) ending and the story's opening chapters have minor flaws, the filling of this movie's sandwich is magnificent. It is classic horror, brutally and brilliantly filmed, made all the more shocking by its perceptive take on the worst of humanity in the worst of times. Albeit with a master by his side, Lopez has helmed the movie well.

Perhaps Roth could go on to consider turning his creative lens towards a Towering Inferno for the 21st century? Aftershock clearly shows that this wunderkind of horror truly has what it takes to set a scene alight.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Big Fish

Neil Simon Theatre, New York City


Book by John August
Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Susan Stroman

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz

Big Fish is an imaginative piece of new musical theatre to emerge on Broadway. Based on Tim Burton’s 2003 movie, the show’s book is by original screenwriter John August and with the innovative approach of Andrew Lippa’s compositions and Susan Stroman at the helm, the show would be expected to have a sound pedigree.

The Big Fish of the title is a euphemistic reference to the tall stories that Edward Bloom, played by Norbert Leo Butz has told throughout his life. Bloom is a curious character, an ordinary travelling salesman by trade supported by a wise and loving wife Sandra (Kate Baldwin), struggling to earn the respect of his grown-up son Will (Bobby Steggert). For a plot that is seeking depth through fantasy, this show does at times skim over very shallow waters. That Edward blurts out his son’s impending fatherhood during the young man’s wedding, after having been expressly forbidden to do so is a an act of such crassness that it almost justifies the contempt in which Will views his father. If Bloom Snr is truly so insensitive, what hope for reconciliation between the two men can there possibly be? 

With the first act demonstrating the pain of father and son at emotional loggerheads and with a death in the family clearly signalled, come the interval one could be forgiven for mistaking the show for a musical take on Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. Fear not though, for with Harvey Weinstein amongst the show’s producers however, darkness is to be banished. There has clearly been every intention for this to have been a thoroughbred Broadway production, sired by Hollywood out of Stroman and where an ending of pure schmaltz is de rigeur. 

If act one drags, the second half zips along with pace and spectacle. Stroman’s zanily patriotic vision of Red, White And True offers more than a nod to her brilliantly choreographed Springtime For Hitler from The Producers and Butz proves why he is one of today’s leading men on Broadway with masterful deliveries of Be The Hero and Fight The Dragon. The show clearly has impact, for when Butz sings his final number, How It Ends, many of the audience sobbed. Sandra is a cleverly crafted character and Baldwin's pragmatically wistful I Don’t Need A Roof is a fine performance.

Suspend your disbelief as high as possible, enjoy the talent on display and you will find the show to be a moving and occasionally, an enchanting night at the theatre. Don't expect Big Fish to swim the Atlantic anytime soon though. It's an un-ashamedly all American show, that's likely to find itself flapping out of water on this side of the pond.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013


Music Box Theatre, New York City


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus 

Pippin is a show of quirky historical provenance. It tells of the time of medieval French emperor Charlemagne who was committed to expanding Christendom and slaughtering non-believers. Pippin was his student son, ostensibly committed to the people and appalled at his fathers tyranny. As the show unfolds Pippin discovers rebellion, love and sex and from these potent threads does Schwartz craft his tale. Written some forty years ago against a backdrop of a USA enmeshed in the Vietnam War, American anti-Communist policies garnering questionable popularity and a nation reeling from the sacrifice of thousands of US troops in a far-off conflict of dubious purpose, there are moments when Pippin's message deafens with a contemporary resonance.

Schwartz's tale is told by a group of travelling players and set almost entirely as a play within a play. It is in Diane Paulus' interpretation of this show however, that musical theatre is re-defined. The troupe's Leading Player invites the audience to join her in watching their imminent spectacle in Magic To Do and hers and the company's superlative-fuelled descriptions are not hollow promises. The vision of Paulus’ production is quite-simply jaw dropping. The players perform in an on-stage circus ring, but where for example Barnum tried superficially to recreate a circus on stage, this show uses world class circus skills as the simple means to tell its story.Circus is the medium rather than the message and with illusions and stunts that are often breathtaking, it is truly rare to encounter a show that presents such a display of sheer human talent with minimal gimmickry.

Gabrielle McClinton understudied magnificently as the Leading Player. Her poise and coquette-ish cocked hat every inch a nod to the original work of Bob Fosse in whose style Chet Walker has choreographed this production. Both vocally and in her physical presence she held her audience rapt, showing as is often the case the energetic enthusiasm of the understudy who brings a fresh proud vigour to their performance.

Brit, Matthew James Thomas provides just the right amount of youthful naïveté to Pippin. Vocally perhaps not completely warmed up for the show's signature number, Corner Of The Sky, he was beautifully on his game for a spine tingling Morning Glow that closed the first act.

Key featured actors include fellow brit Terrence Mann as emperor Charles. The Yanks just can't resist an Englishman to play the bad guy and Mann does not disappoint. Laconically corrupted by absolute power, his War Is A Science is a cracking turn whose lyrics, on closer study, are a horrific comment upon the slaughter of war. Mann's real-life spouse Charlotte D'Amboise plays his on-stage wife Fastrada with a treacherously sly allure, whilst Rachel Bay Jones is widowed single mum and Pippin's love interest Catherine, bringing just the right amount of kookiness to remind us that the show was written when memories of the hippy 1960s would still be fresh

It is down to cast newcomer Tovah Feldshuh as Pippin's grandmother Berthe to provide the evening's show-stopper. Whilst her number No Time At All was always written as a singalong piece, Schwartz can surely never have imagined that it would be sung by a sexagenarian actress, suspending herself from a trapeze high above the stage, (sterling physical accompaniment from the muscular Yannick Thomas, up there with her) as she sings the brilliant yet powerfully poignant shtick of lyrics that tell of a rudely youthful and vigorous mind reluctantly forced to acknowledge the constraints of an ageing body. Feldshuh's routine is flawless theatrical excellence.

Schwartz's melodies are inspired, his harmonies sublime and with lyrics that are often outstanding, he can be forgiven the odd lapse (a "left-handed flea" anyone?) in his pursuit of gloriously assonant rhyme at all costs. (And in an un-related hint of possible post-Pippin plagiarism, listen carefully to the middle bars of Pippin's Glory and ponder if they might have inspired John Kander's opening bars of All That Jazz from his and Fred Ebb's Chicago that was to hit Broadway some three years later.)

This band of travelling players, or at the very least their production, need to do what Charlemagne failed to achieve. Land in Britain, conquer the West End (soon) and run for years.

For a glimpse of the magic that this show represents, watch this video.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Paris Original - Frances Ruffelle

Crazy Coqs, London


Frances Ruffelle

Frances Ruffelle is a London diamond born and bred, yet with a remarkable affinity for the songs and the culture that hail from across the Channel. That she created the role of Les Miserables’ Eponine, on both sides of the Atlantic and has only recently been nominated for Best Performance in a Musical following her astonishing portrayal of France's legendary Edith Piaf,  suggests a delicious timelessness to her talent. So when Ruffelle emerges in the art nouveau basement of the Crazy Coqs, clad in chic mackintosh and shades and humming the quintessentially French melody from Un Homme Et Une Femme, there is more than a hint that the evening is going to reflect the singer's savoir faire.

On an evening that should have the smoking ban lifted (a haze of Gauloises/Gitanes smoke is actually de rigeur for an act like this), Ruffelle gives her own invigorating interpretation of cabaret. On record as wanting to ensure an audience is given damn good entertainment for their money, she does not disappoint. Her 4 piece band under Ben Atkinson are immaculately rehearsed and her routine is witty, eclectic and provocative. Never breaching the “fourth wall”, the actress rather stretches it, exploring how far she can let her French personae run wild through the course of an evening.

The set list is refreshing and like Ruffelle herself, almost petulantly unpredictable. She chooses songs special to her and with an early nod to Disney, her inclusion of the Sherman Brother's Scales And Arpeggios from The Aristocats is an unexpected and amusing choice. That she precedes that classic kid's (and her own childhood) favourite with Piaf's La Goualante Du Pauvre Jean, bravely picking up the accordion to accompany herself with the song’s famous melody, is testament to her confidence in taking on French culture and firmly placing her stamp on it. It is hard to think of another performer who could have the audacity to segue Noel Harrison’s 60’s masterpiece The Windmills Of Your Mind into a haunting The Movie In My Mind from Miss Saigon, poignantly suggesting that the anguish of a prostitute is global.

In a varied set list, every song was choice and performing with no interval save for some costume changes in and out of some wickedly provocative Parisian suggesting lingerie, her performance was breathtaking. But it was when Ruffelle sung Piaf that an electricity filled the room. It is London’s loss that the capital never saw the genius that she brought to Leicester’s Curve Theatre. (A link to that show's review is at the foot of this page.) Slipping between English and French versions of different songs, her The Three Bells, with young Cole Emsley as a heavenly chorister accompanying, had spines tingling and when Piaf’s L’Accordioniste was played by the instrument’s (Italian) virtuoso Romano Viazzani, the room was enchanted. Revealing that her audition piece for Les Mis had been Hymn To Love, to witness her take on that song, performing it again to an audience that included the show’s co-director Trevor Nunn (one of many UK musical theatre luminaries present) and immerse herself in an all-consuming performance, was to see and hear a truly special moment.

Ruffelle’s week-long residency is sold out, a hallmark of an excellent performer and also the skilled touch of her unsung producer Danielle Tarento. If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, you’re in for a treat. There’s talk of the run being repeated and so it should be. There is no finer example of excellence, in both cabaret and musical theatre, in town.

My review of Piaf can be found here.

My recent profile of Frances Ruffelle can be found here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013


Theatre Royal, Windsor


Written by Stuart Brennan
Directed by Peter Snee

Jamie Nichols as Harry Houdini

The life and times of the legendary escapologist Harry Houdini should have the makings of a great piece of theatre. Stuart Brennan's tale charts the journey of Houdini and his brother Theo, also a magician and apparently the brains behind some of the star's early acts. As charismatic Harry succeeds in life, so the relationship between two siblings becomes strained, with Theo stranded in his brother's shadow.

Brennan's play focuses more upon the fraternal love, rivalry and jealousy between the brothers, than upon Harry's famous death defying acts of derring-do, becoming a commentary upon familiar and potentially troubling aspects of the human condition. Such a grand emotional canvas however demands great insight and Brennan's style remains too superficial to adequately deliver. Audiences want to see and learn more about the great Harry, not the mediocre Theo and in having cast himself as Theo, Brennan does not help matters. Onstage for much of the show, his accent varies (occasionally Irish?), his acting stutters and he and his character lack the gravitas for us to care about them quite enough.

By contrast, Jamie Nichols gives a compelling and credibly believable performance as Harry. His look, poise and presence suggest a man driven by a desire to perform, with his Houdini at times suggesting the character of P.T. Barnum, the gifted American showman who preceded Houdini by some 70 years and who knew just how to humbug an audience. (If only Cameron Mackintosh had cast Nichols in his recent Chichester musical revival...) Technical glitches have beset the production and it's a shame that more illusion is not offered on stage. The few escapology stunts that are presented are entertaining and even though the lack of a strait-jacket routine disappoints, it remains fair to say that Nichols' performance alone does justify the ticket price. 

The supporting cast make the best of the two-dimensional characters that have been written for them. Mark Lyminster is the believably ruthless Martin Beck, Houdini's producer, whilst Evanna Lynch (Harry Potter fans will not be disappointed, she played Luna Lovegood in the movies) has a complex role to play as Harry's wife Bess. As Houdini's fame grows, their marriage stumbles and Lynch is offered too much dialog that is little more than clumsy cliche. She makes a good job of it though and offers a look that has a gorgeously classic style with a hint of her character’s contemporary, Keystone Studios’ movie starlet Mabel Normand in her appearance. Katie Johnson's hair and make-up work is impressive.

Brennan needs to drastically re-write this piece with less of the struggling Theo and more of a spotlight on glamorous showman Harry, with lots more magic thrown in too. If his show were filled with classy illusions it would sell out. Somewhere inside the confines of this Houdini there is a truly great play struggling to break free.

Runs until October 12 2013 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Saturday, 5 October 2013

National Histories - Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter

As a part of the NT50 celebrations, The Shed at the National Theatre was nicely filled to warmly welcome Imelda Staunton and husband Jim Carter to a platform performance Q&A as part of the "National Histories" series. No audience participation, rather the discussion was their responses to10 questions that the NT are posing to all participants / performers in this season.

Cranford, Carson and Vera Drake were off-limits for this chat, it was strictly the actors' reminiscences of time spent working in, or simply watching, NT productions. Not surprisingly Richard Eyre's1982 production of Guys & Dolls featured heavily in the discussion. The couple first met at the show's first read-through and were married two years later. Staunton who had previously played lead roles in provincial reps. spoke of the humbling awe she experienced, joining a company led by Bob Hoskins, Ian Charleston, Julie Covington and above all, Julia McKenzie. Staunton has gone on to achieve greatness on stage and screen, yet her and her husband look back on that show with particular fondness. As an actress not usually cast for a glamorous look, Staunton took delight in the fur stole, sequinned bodice and lacy gloves that she then had to strip out of in Take Back Your Mink, describing it as her favourite costume ever, with Carter concurring that his favourite dressing-up role was the glamorous transvestite outfit from the show's Cuba routine. (Who knew that all through Act One, menacing mobster Big Julie was sporting fishnets underneath his double-breasted suit?)

Imelda Staunton gives back her mink

Both spoke warmly too of the people values that the National inculcates amongst its staff, describing the backstage, technical and stage management crews as the finest in the world. They spoke of the longevity of employment that exists amongst the National's team that has fostered a culture of care and concern in looking after it's performers, whilst at all times striving towards excellence. (That culture has evidently been maintained, with 2013's newcomers to the National’s Light Princess company privately expressing astonishment to me at quite how well they are cared for.)

Staunton and Carter both expressed their admiration for the quality of acting that permeates a typical National company and not just amongst the star names. Whilst Anthony Hopkins' Lambert Le Roux in Howard Brenton's Pravda earned their plaudits, they were both spoke of their admiration and respect for NT stalwarts that included the likes of the late Michael Bryant and who consistently delivered excellence in supporting roles.

Jim Carter threatens Bob Hoskins in rehearsal for Guys and Dolls

The 45 minute chat was but a tiny peek into the recollections of a talented couple whose personal lives owe so much to the NT and who have also given so much to the NT canon of work. The National Histories series continues through October. The guest list is mouthwatering. Not to be missed!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Barrier

Park Theatre, London


Written by Sally Llewellyn
Directed by Kirrie Wratten

Jack Pierce and Antonia Davis

Set in London’s Stamford Hill, The Barrier sees an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family move in next door to a kindly and reasonable WASP couple who have lived in the road for years. When the Jews discover that the neighbours' infra-red security-floodlight beam can be activated in their household it causes much anguish. The rules of the Sabbath forbid them from creating fire or switching on a light and thus the beam is forcing them to break a commandment. Thus, in a bid to shield their property from the intrusive scanner, the bewildering Jewish response is to erect an oversized wooden barrier between the properties in contravention of both planning permission and neighbourly courtesy. From this religious and ethical dilemma does Sally Llewellyn fashion a play.

As it turns out, Llewellyn’s writing combines clever subtlety with clumsy naïveté in equal measure. Dominique Gerrard's Malka, the orthodox wife, is a well-crafted portrayal of a young woman who has become a mother to too many, too early and who is battling depression. Toby Liszt is her fur-hatted husband Shalev whose performance ranges from brilliant nuance to inept caricature. Blinkered by generations of sexist tradition, he is useless in his inability to address his wife's despair, struggling to recognise her as anyone more than just a homemaker and breeder of children. Hiding behind an almost childlike delight in traditional food and seasonal religious ritual allows him a denial of her mental illness that is sadly all too plausible. To her credit, Llewellyn’s take on the cruel compromises that the orthodox Jewish culture, whose traditions derive from the pre-revolutionary Russian shtetl, but which now faces a more modern existence in the diaspora, raises interesting questions.

This is a play that could arguably be re-named Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, as next door’s Cas (a good performance from Antonia Davis) is trying hard to be well meaning and tolerant but finds her neighbours' noisy traditions combined with her consultant surgeon husband's disinterest in her domestic responsibilities all too much to bear. Much like Malka, she too is struggling to stay on the rails. Jack Pierce is husband Sam, every inch the assured middle-class doctor who delivers a sound performance even if he's often given mediocre dialog to work with. And if all that seems like a nod to what often appears to be the impetuous writing of a well-meaning A-level English student, Llewellyn also throws in Cas' mum who lacks credibility as an ageing new-age Pagan complete with poorly fleshed out partner, the cynical Harry. Add in a foul-mouthed local neo-nazi who becomes violent when drunk and the set of clichés is almost complete.

The Barrier is at its most perceptive when highlighting a widespread emotional suffocation of women and in suggesting how England's famously tolerant attitude to immigration has been abused. When Nikos, a Greek electrician hired by Cas to adjust the offending scanner, tells her that Britain's problems of cultural integration are the fault of the English, because they have "let everyone in and they [the immigrants] take the piss", it's one of the most powerful lines in the play.

Llewellyn has identified some strong themes in her work, but ultimately it's a muddled piece that in targeting Orthodox Judaism has cowardly shied away from shining a spotlight upon other, perhaps more controversially extremist, faith groups. She shows potential as a writer but needs to focus her ideas, strip away themes that distract and allow her arguments a deeper and more measured analysis.

Runs until 20th October

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

I'll Bring You A Song


This review first appeared on The Public Reviews
I'll Bring You A Song is Shona White's album that was first released in 2011. A compilation of mainly show tunes some well known, some less recognisable but the common theme is a pleasing treatment of each number, combined with a commitment to solid production values from this evidently talented trouper.

White opens with the over-familiar Take That Look Off Your Face from Don Black / Lloyd Webber. What's rather appealing however, is that her take on this classic piece of lift music is attractively engineered, whilst the crystal clarity of White's diction and annunciation revealed lyrics that had hitherto been lost to me. Sat in an airport lounge listening to the album, it was a genuine surprise to discover words in the song that previous recordings had simply blurred. Stephen Schwartz's As Long As Your Mine offers Daniel Boys a chance to accompany as Fiyero, in a big song that demands a similar sized treatment. Together with strong keyboards and a sound that suggests modestly lavish orchestrations, White works the Wicked words with the satisfying verve they deserve.

Dipping into the 1960s with Dusty Springfield's top ten hit I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, proves a real treat from White. This is a rock ballad heard all too rarely and the deceptively fine acoustic guitar intro that leads straight into a cracking electric guitar riff makes for a welcome trip back through the years. White clearly has a fondness for the decade for with To Sir, With Love, she provides a lovely take on Lulu's 1967 song that holds the curious distinction of being the only song ever that reached #1 in the USA, whilst not even charting on this side of the pond. 

Nobody's Side from Chess is another big female solo that White confidently masters. Perhaps on this track the backing singers could have been dispensed with, as they add a slightly cliched air to the number.

White wraps up her collection with How 'Bout A Dance, another Don Black composition (music by Frank Wildhorn) from the short-lived Broadway run of Bonnie & Clyde. It's a little known song, bluesy, that gives the singer a fabulous opportunity to play with and deliver the romantic irony that the lyrics suggest.

This is an enchanting if eclectic set of songs. Shona White confirms her reputation as one of today's more finely voiced musical theatre actresses with a recording that is one of the most charming easy-listening collections to be found.

Let It Be

Savoy Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by The Beatles
Directed by John Maher

One year on, Let It Be played to a packed house as it celebrated the anniversary of its arrival in the West End. It's a simply conceived show, presenting The Beatle's greatest hits, performed live and to an exceptional standard. Where other "juke-box musicals" have sought to frame a story around a catalog of classic numbers, pure fiction in Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, history in Jersey Boys, Let It Be makes a bold move as a production by dropping all narrative whatsoever, it's simply songs.

The programme informs us the actors on stage are selected from a group of possible performers, but it's not until the final bow that we are told who's who on the night. This leads to a sterility of connection between audience and cast as the identities of the performers are withheld until the final bow. There is no spontaneity and the occasional asides from the on-stage Fab Four are scripted from actual utterances and delivered with pinpoint synchronicity that allows the (impressive) lights and techno to seamlessly flow together. It's every inch a packaged, manufactured show that is based upon a band that was anything but manufactured. If you are seeking a story of The Beatles you'll need to look elsewhere.

But as a technical piece of performance and stagecraft, this show is excellent. Four actor-musos with an additional keyboards wizard upstage, reproduce The Beatles' sound almost perfectly. No easy feat when one considers that the entire English speaking world has the band's songs in their DNA and judging by the Japanese contingent in the audience, grinning in delight through nearly all of the show, quite possibly the rest of the world too! The vocals and music are magnificent and whilst the programme shamefully doesn't credit a Wigs Designer someone somewhere has clearly done a fantastic job, with the boys looking fantastic as they age convincingly through the songs.

Opening with I Saw Her Standing There the authentic recreation of the band's sound is astonishing. Memorable on the night were James Fox's Paul McCartney on piano giving a surprisingly moving Yesterday, along with projected video backdrops for both A Day In The Life and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Let It Be is more juke-box than juke-box musical. You don't have to wait long between numbers as they are virtually incessant. The show is undoubtedly a quality offering, but it's little more than a well crafted trip down memory lane. For foreign visitors struggling with the English language, the show makes for a safe and rather lovely visit to the theatre. It's a nod to the 60s and a celebration of a national culture that's as emphatically English as Shakespeare. If you are after an onstage performance of a CD compilation album, then shows don't get much better than this.

Now booking into 2014 at the Savoy Theatre.