Saturday, 30 November 2013

Paul Kerryson razzle dazzles in Leicester



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie Dee as Dolly Levi

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

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

Frances Ruffelle's Edith Piaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Kerryson during rehearsals

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

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


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

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Big Bad Wolves and Rabies - Israeli Cinema Does Horror

Tzahi Grad contemplates revenge in Big Bad Wolves

When Quentin Tarantino proclaims a film as the best of 2013, its time to pay attention. The filmmaker is famously reserved in his praise, so when he shared his opinion of new Israeli horror Big Bad Wolves, interest in the picture skyrocketed. The film had already closed the London Film 4 Frightfest this summer and with co-writers and directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado currently on a global promotion tour before the movie comes back to London’s West End next month, I caught up with Papushado in LA, who told me about the development both of the film and of his creative partnership with Aharon Keshales.

Both in their 30s, they met when Papushado was studying film theory at Tel Aviv University under Professor (in fact only a few years older) Keshales. The two men quickly realised they shared a passion for wanting to create exciting escapist movies, away from the typically worthy docu-drama style of film, long associated with Israeli cinema. In a country whose very existence is continually threatened, that is governed by a parliament that whilst often chaotic is still a rare democracy for the region and whose territorial policies spark fiercely divisive opinions, it has always seemed far more appropriate for Israeli cinema to reflect upon the country's history, or to seek to challenge the country’s current policies or social trends. With so many serious challenges to contemplate, few filmmakers dared venture into seriously frivolous fantasy. No Israeli was making popcorn-style thrill-ride movies that gave an audience a chance to sit back in the dark and enjoy good old fashioned (albeit horrific) fairy tales. Until now that is.

Keshales and Papushado's first picture Rabies made in 2010 and screened in the 2011 Tribeca Festival, was an offbeat horror. A story that is quirky but engaging, reminding one of Arthur Schnitlzler’s 1890’s play La Ronde that follows a sexual chain of relationships between ten individiuals, each sleeping with the next,  Rabies takes a (slightly) similar theme but explores how ten people, from different walks of life, end up in the same woods on the same day and through a circuitous series of events, end up killing or being killed by, each other. The film is profoundly imaginative, unconventional and at times shocking (both in its plotline and in some viscerally gruesome images) yet with an occasional hint of deliciously ironic humour. And all made, as is so often the way with some of the most innovative of modern horror, on a shoestring budget. It's suspense is sublime. When a character wanders off to take a pee in the woods and the camera pulls back to reveal she has strayed into a minefield, the anguished anticipation as she takes each carefree step is almost unbearable. As Rabies neared the end of its post-production, it caught the attention of an Israeli Cultural Ministry official. Liking what she saw, funds were put into the film’s distribution, creating early international recognition for the writer/directors and paving the way for Big Bad Wolves. 

Released in 2013 and reviewed here, the pair's second feature is a bravely made story that tackles the darkest criminal taboos, paedophilia and child murder. Making for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing, Navot and Papushado create moments of the starkest irony, intent on making their audience chuckle at some of the human frailities to which their adult characters are exposed, particularly those traits that bear a particularly Jewish association. Nagging elderly parents forever on the phone, seeking to evoke a reaction of guilt from their children, is one of the many comedic seams that have been gleefully mined since Woody Allen first discovered the comedic potential of the inadequate guilt-burdened "nebbisch" Jew some 50 years ago. Keshales and Papushado rudely exploit that theme, but thrust it squarely into a horror scenario. It is a bold move even to consider mixing comedy with evil and Papushado speaks of the painstaking labour that accompanied their script-writing process as the pair sought to push the parameters of acceptability, whilst remaining within decent conventions. Rabies had also briefly explored the “nagging Jewish parent/guilt” thing and Papushado comments that as writers they wish to explore further the Jewish angle on horror. It’s a brave path to take, as the pair tred carefully, anxious to avoid the double edged swords of cliché and offense. 

Big Bad Wolves comes with a budget considerably in excess of its rabid predecessor, though still modest and Papushado is proud that with one exception, all the movie's visual and special make up effects were physically created and photographed rather created by CGI. He admits that digital imagery was used to portray the effects of someone being blowtorched, but is happy (as are a wincing audience) that the particular sequence only lasts a few seconds! The understanding of the all round finished image of their movies is critical to these film-makers, with sound design and music key to their tales. Papushado praises Frank Ilfman’s scores for both pictures that suggest suspense and darkness that brilliantly complement the on-screen action.

The duo have a busy time ahead. Slated to direct one of the chapters of “The ABCs Of Death 2”, an anthology movie in which respected horror directors from across the globe, are invited to create a 5-minute horror themed around a specific letter of the alphabet (and where Papushado speaks praisingly in particular of the works of Xavier Gens and Lee Harcastle in ABC of D 1), they remain as committed to expanding the Israeli movie industry. Intriguingly and mixing popcorn with politics, their next feature will be a spaghetti western styled movie, Once Upon A Time In Palestine. Theirs will be a story of pre-Israel Palestine, when the territory was ruled by British Mandate and many of those who were to go on to become Israeli statesmen were guerrillas, freedom fighters and in the eyes of some, terrorists. 

Big Bad Wolves opens in London on December 6. It’s a funny, dark and ultimately profoundly troubling tale, brilliantly told. If you like your horror modern and uncompromising, don’t miss it.



Big Bad Wolves screens at the Prince Charles Cinema, London from 6th December

Rabies receives a UK broadcast premiere on The Horror Channel on 28th December

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Listen, We're Family

JW3, London

***

Written by Kerry Shale and Matthew Lloyd
Directed by Matthew Lloyd

(l-r) Kerry Shale, Isy Suttie, Maggie Steed and Tom Berish in rehearsal

Listen, We’re Family is a work of Jewish verbatim theatre, so bang up to date that when a character talks about keeping kosher even the recent horse-meat scandal gets a mention. Four actors play out the real-life spoken words of a range of interviewees across an age spectrum that stretches from young adults through to a nonagenarian East End barber.

It’s an intimately/incestuously constructed piece with Shale, who co-wrote, acting the elder male parts, whilst co-writer Lloyd also directs and though the dialog is a selection of brilliantly captured vignettes, the show is more like leafing through a live action scrapbook, rather than following a drama with an engaging plot and protagonists that we might possibly care about. To emphasise the fact that the actors are mouthing the actual words of real people, the performers all wear headphones throughout. This is a gimmick that only serves to create a virtual “fifth wall”, distancing the actors from audience. Verbatim is fine, Alecky Blythe has proved that at the National Theatre with her stunning London Road, it only requires good actors to learn a script. This show’s headphones distract and insult the audience.

The performances though are all good with some that are outstanding. Maggie Steed’s elder woman ranges from a maternal homemaker lighting Sabbath candles in her 60s through to an 80 year old widow, distraught that her separation from her husband led him to commit suicide. The insights that Steed brings are brutally stark and her performance is at times deeply moving.

Shale’s characters are predominantly middle age men, all with surprising stories, though his 91 year old barber is possibly the best portrayal of an old Jew since Eddie Murphy donned the white slap to play Saul in Coming To America. There is bittersweet irony and comedy aplenty throughout the script and Shale segues seamlessly between his roles. He will make for an interesting Willy Loman one day.

Isy Suttie is an engaging performer in the first act, covering the women under 50, with a particularly fascinating turn as an Austrian Holocaust émigré who fled to Canada before coming to London. Suttie brings the complex nuances of this survivor into a fascinating relief. As a younger whining wife however, too many of her other roles, particularly after the interval become indistinguishable and there is a sense of lazy writing here, with a failure to bring out the full potential of this talented young actress. Tom Berish as the younger man presents some of the least conventional characters. His gay guy is a refreshingly honest portrayal of a sexuality that is still viewed with prejudice by some within the Jewish community and his performance gives a pleasing challenge to too many age-old stereotypes.

In London Road Blythe crafted a clever musical via the verbatim genre, working around the most difficult of topics. By comparison, Shale and Lloyd’s work drifts. They present little more than a well-acted documentary, holding up images that whilst being comfortingly recognisable or even perhaps challenging to many in the audience, still offer little more than a series of familiar landscapes. (Though one of Shale's non-observant characters' references to the comforting familiarity of the cadences of Kaddish, the universal Jewish mourner’s prayer, is an inspired inclusion.) The recurring themes of dysfunctionality that the characters display suggests a skewed and sensationalised set of stories that are at odds with reality. Many Jewish families are flawed for sure, (so whose isn’t?) but there is more good out there than this play would suggest. 

Nonetheless, credit to JW3. It’s a bold, bravely commissioned work that is finely performed. One looks forward to more provocative theatre from this exciting and beautiful new venue.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Alex Young at the Leicester Square Theatre

Leicester Square Theatre, London

***
Alex Young

The Stephen Sondheim Society presented a sparkling hour of cabaret, where Alex Young gave a selection of the composer’s classic numbers amidst a set list that included other works. 

Wide-eyed and when required, teary-eyed too, Young immersed herself in the delivery of her songs. A talented singer, her mastery of Sondheim's caustically comic style was a treat in You Must Meet My Wife accompanied by Matthew Crowe, with both young singers giving a beautifully nuanced lilt to parts written with considerably older performers in mind. Crowe provided further support adding a finishing touch to Young’s neat take on By The Sea, from Sweeney Todd as well as setting the scene for her enchanting Children And Art from Sunday In The Park With George.

The evening wasn’t entirely Sondheim, with Young giving a refreshing interpretation of Tim Connor’s new writing, Back To School. Too many of her other choices however showed a tendency to resort to smut. Notwithstanding that the (predominantly) silver-haired Sondheim society audience may well have found some of Young’s selection vulgar, this clever singer would do well to remember, particularly with sexual references blatant or subtle, that less is often more.

A nod to Bacharach proved a rare and unexpected treat. In singing Whoever You Are, Young soared gloriously from ballad to belt, whilst her I’ll Never Fall In Love Again was a tender delivery of a tune more often condemned to muzak these days. Throughout, Andrew Smith’s piano accompaniment was assured, with Young’s vocal presence continuing to demonstrate to the Society that she remains a worthy winner of their 2010 Young Performer Of The Year award.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

HMS Pinafore

Union Theatre, London

****

By W.S.Gilbert and A.S.Sullivan
Directed by Sasha Regan


Benjamin Vivian-Jones

As Sasha Regan notes in the programme, it is her memories of single-sex school day shows, that fuelled her desire to bring all-male productions back to the Union. Regan is a canny director who exploits the confines of the Union well. Her company of 16 are beautifully voiced and the ensemble numbers are thrilling on the ear. The wit of Gilbert and Sullivan whilst belonging to a bygione era, brings a delicious sense of British understated irony to affairs of the heart. Not even as remotely saucy as a seaside postcard, the Victorian writers’ libretti still make us chuckle at their faux-innocent doe-eyed wordplay.

A few notables amongst the cast. Benjamin Vivian-Jones is a delightfully clipped captain. On his toes with whistle around his neck, he is a leader of men whose stature visibly shrivels when his true lowly status is revealed. Newcomer Lee Van Geleen as the beautifully baritoned cynical shipmate Dick Deadeye puts in a masterful comic turn, whilst David McKechnie’s gartered Sir Joseph Porter KCB (a truly plausible ruler of the Queen’s Navy) stole every scene with his gloriously hammed up Whitehall mandarin. Amongst the “ladies”, a veritable assembly of sisters, cousins and aunts, Bex Roberts provides a sweetly sounding Josephine.

But in a week that has seen the equality/diversity arguments thrust into the spotlight, with the National Theatre (NT) criticised by some for a paucity of female playwrights, is it right that a show in London in 2013 should eschew female actors, celebrating the dressing up of men as girls, complete with corsetry and fascinators? Modern casting is increasingly moving away from being gender and race specific and at its 50th anniversary gala, the NT had Anna Maxwell-Martin play Horatio, whilst at the same event acknowledged on film Olivier’s 1963 “blackface” Othello, a makeup that would be abhorrent today. So if it is, rightly, not acceptable to paint a white person in a black skin and pretend that he is black, why is it acceptable to dress a man as a woman and have him pretend to be a show’s female lead? Is this diversity from modern theatre and its audiences, or is it hypocrisy? Stephen Schwartz was spot on when he wrote Wicked’s Wonderful. “It's all in which label, is able to persist”

At the Union Lizzi Gee’s choreography entertains with occasional moments of sparkling innovation, whilst Chris Mundy’s piano work is flawless to the point of almost suggesting a mini-orchestra is in the room. If you like your theatre well-sung and as camp as Christmas, then set sail for SE1 and HMS Pinafore where you’ll find the festive season has arrived two months early!


Runs until 30th November 2013

The Last Five Years - 2013 Off Broadway Cast Recording

*****


Earlier this year, Jason Robert Brown directed an off-Broadway production of his partly autobiographical The Last Five Years. An essentially modern musical, it tells of a doomed love between an increasingly successful young writer Jamie and his actress girlfriend Cathy. They fall in love, marry and separate, with the show’s gimmick being to tell Jamie’s tale chronologically, whilst Cathy’s tale plays out in reverse. An unconventional show, we meet Cathy post- separation, “Still Weeping”, whilst in the sharpest of paradoxes Brown introduces us to Jamie in Shiksa Goddess a comic tale of his characters back-story, acknowledging the guilt of his Jewish identity as he finds himself irresistibly drawn to Cathy. 

The songs are perceptive and honest. Brown lays the moral responsibility for the marriage break-up squarely at the feet of Jamie who finds himself tempted by other women as soon as he is married. Though as Jamie’s writing star ascends Cathy struggles as an actor, cleverly sketched in When You Come Home To Me and the disparate nature of their experiences of success and Cathy’s inability to support her husband, is hinted at as her failing by her errant spouse.

Adam Kantor brings a youthfully loving but ultimately profoundly selfish style to Jamie. His hollow words of desire to a young lover as his marriage to Cathy is ending in Nobody Needs To Know, are as tender as they are cruelly ironic. We have heard his lies before and they make the song even more poignant. Kantor is flawess in his delivery and one senses that Brown has carefully polished every word that is sung in the show. 

Much like Kantor, Betsy Wolfe simply brings excellence to Cathy. Her carefully weighted words in See I’m Smiling, a song beautifully crafted but painful to consider as we hear her try to retrieve their marriage from the ashes of Jamie’s infidelity, are heartbreaking and through her performance and Brown’s direction, her character’s grief is tangible.

It was an unexpected treat that a recent visit to New York City should coincide with a live bookstore promo of the CD, performed by Kantor and Wolfe with Brown on piano. Having missed the show’s run, the three songs performed at the launch gave a tantalising peek at just how fine the staging must have been and whetted the appetite for a more leisurely appreciation of the recording. The Last 5 Years is a frequently performed piece of musical theatre. It's minimal cast (of two) ensures that a production budget can often be minimised, however with the show being so affordable to stage, it can often be the case that mediocrity creeps in however well-intentioned a production’s actors and creative folk may be. To thus glimpse (albeit literally) the show in a form that is entirely of its writer's creation is a rare moment of privilege.

We catch a hint of Cathy’s back-story in I Can Do Better Than That, a mini-biopic of a song that hints at Billy Joel’s Scenes From An Italian Restaurant in its tale of young folk growing up. Brown has updated his lyrics from the original and a fleeting reference to Tom Cruise has now been airbrushed from the page, replaced by the far more tacky, though nonetheless rhyming, “tattoos”. (Though quite why the nod to Duran Duran has been retained is a wonder.) And when it comes to a song’s middle eight, even prosciutto wrapped, no one writes them better than Brown. 

The CD has an air of "this is how the show should be". First produced some twelve years ago, it is clear that the writer has allowed the complex components of The Last Five Years to settle over time, before returning to personally define how his story should be told. It’s a classy move by Brown and those writers and emerging writers who still possess the faculties and abilities to direct, may do well to follow his example. This recording makes for inspirational musical theatre.



The album can be purchased and downloaded here 

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Jewish Legacy

The Radlett Centre

****

Directed by Leon Trayman





For two performances only, The Jewish Legacy came to leafy Radlett.  Devised by Katy Lipson’s Aria Entertainments and selecting only showtunes with a kosher provenance, Aria with Leon Trayman have found themselves spoilt for choice. Like a box of familiar chocolates, (soft-centred probably, judging by the age profile of the matinee audience) their compilation was a selection of Broadway favourites taken from the canon of the last 80 years or so.

Simply staged, four singers narrated and performed a programme that opened with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and ended amongst the work of current Broadway talent Jason Robert Brown. Kimberley Blake and Abi Finley provided the soprano voices, Blake having two particular second half highlights. Her Adelaide's Lament from Loesser's Guys and Dolls got the comedy-pathos of the song spot on whilst Send In The Clowns from Sondheim's A Little Night Music was a beautifully noble take on a notoriously challenging number. Finley's poise was as elegant. Having given a stunning contribution to the Kander and Ebb and Disney show medleys, her bang up to date Taylor The Latte Boy from Goldrich and Heisler was a story sweetly told through song.

Tom Millen and Trayman himself were perhaps slightly overshadowed by their leading ladies. Even so, Millen's take on On The Street Where You Live gave a genuine sense of the towering romantic desperation that Lerner and Loewe imbued within the song, whilst Trayman took it upon himself to sing Brown's (mildly autobiographical) Shiksa Goddess, a song that song bluntly and brilliantly tells of its Jewish author's grappling with his guilty conscience as as he falls for the charms of a gentile girl. 'Shiksa' is an extremely vulgar term of Yiddish slang, usually lost on a non-Jewish audience. In Radlett and to predominantly Jewish pensioners, Trayman's solid performance generated as many disapproving tuts from the old folk as it did shocked chuckles. Its a clever song but perhaps too offensive for the show's likely audience. Maybe stick to The Old Red Hills Of Home in future?

The Hebrew legacy left on The Great White Way is huge and to the producers' credit they've plugged their set full of comfortable classics with a liberal serving of Streisand and Fiddler thrown in too. Matt Rampling on piano directed his three piece band skilfully though the show would have been better served with a slightly larger musical ensemble and a compere more at ease with the show's (well researched) patter than the singers who occasionally sounded too scripted.

Demanding to be re-staged, the show is an imaginative and innovative arrangement of much loved tunes that offers a grand night out at the theatre. Both acts ended with big numbers from Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story, Tonight and Somewhere respectively. These two famous songs (a duo and a solo) have each been cleverly re-arranged for four voices and the quartet delivered them with soaring harmonies. It’s a cunning move by the producers, ensuring that when the curtain falls the audience leaves grinning and with a tune on their lips.