Saturday 29 March 2014

The Threepenny Opera

Birmingham Rep, Birminham


By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
English translation of the dialogue by Robert David MacDonald
English translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams

Joey Hickman, Stephen Collins, Garry Robson, TJ Holmes, Joe Vetch 

There is a raw contemporary relevance about Birmingham Rep's staging of Brecht and Weill's famous work. Against a current backdrop of increasing social deprivation and a widening gap between the poor and the "haves", this co-production with diversity champions Graeae Theatre ingeniously combines able-bodied performers with disabled actors, lobbing in the challenge of actor-muso responsibilities for good measure. 

The staging is raw brickwork enhanced with projections, with both dialog and lyrics being signed as well as being shown as surtitles. We first meet the Peachum family, where Gary Robson's pater-familias is one of the evening's gems. Robson's rough diamond cockney charm is deliciously credible and his explanation of how he has carved up London into different thieving boroughs has echoes of The Long Good Friday's Bob Hoskins. Mrs Peachum is played by Victoria Oruwari, who delivers an exquisite soprano voice. The star however of this (distinctly company-based) show is CiCi Howells, as the much put upon Polly, the Peachums' daughter. In this her first leading role, Howells steps up to the plate magnificently, delivering voice and presence that at all times convinces us of her tortuous journey in love with and then married to Milton Lopes' villainous Macheath (aka Mack The Knife). And when Howells is not singing countless numbers, she drops back into the ensemble and along with the rest of the troupe is responsible for playing up to four musical instruments during the night.

Natasha Lewis, Milton Lopes, Cici Howells

Other notables amongst the cast include Ben Goffe whose (far too brief) tap routine was brilliant, Amelia Cavallo's Jenny, whose smoky, steamy A Little Knocking Shop In Bethnal Green was a fun duet with Lopes whilst Natasha Lewis' Lucy was another treat.

There are flaws, mind. Lopes' Macheath disappoints. Excellent movement, but vocally the actor is nowhere near the menacing charm that his raffish murderer demands. And from a political perspective, whilst the show is meant to challenge and also to protest, some of Jeremy Sam's translation proves too much of a picket line to wade through. There is unnessecary offence too. Politicians and Royalty can be considered fair game for lampooning, but a song that mocks the British Army treads on very thin ice. At one point, a video projection of today's real-life “baddies” screens an image of David Cameron immediately after one of Jimmy Savile. Cameron may well be a political laughing stock, but to compare him to the notorious paedophile is both infantile in gesture and offensive to Savile's victims. The creative team can do better than this.

This Threepenny Opera's strengths though far outweigh its weaknesses. The tales’ references to a flawed judiciary and a fractured world are currently being echoed in Unrinetown, a show on stage in the West End and this show packs at least as big a punch as the far more grandly staged London offering. This is a deliciously unconventional production of a classic piece of musical theatre, performed by a company who present an alternative, stirring and profoundly wholesome approach to the genre. There are moments when the on-stage talent in Birmingham is quite simply inspirational and humbling.

Runs to 12th April 2014
Then touring to the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Friday 28 March 2014

I Can't Sing!

Palladium, London


Music and lyrics by Steve Brown
Book and additional lyrics by Harry Hill
Directed by Sean Foley 


Nigel Harman

Christmas has come early to the London Palladium as I Can't Sing! - The X Factor Musical lampoons modern Britain in a hilarious pantomime of a show. Merciless in its satirical view on Simon Cowell, the judges and all of the rituals that comprise the eponymous talent show, nor stinting in mocking itself, this is a glorious festival of frivolity, that also carries a message both about and to, a modern cynical audience.

The “boy meets girl” story may be a shallow cliché, yet around this cheesy structure, Harry Hill has crafted moments of comic brilliance. Speaking to The Stage newspaper after opening night Cowell, who has co-produced the show, says of Hill that "in TV Burp he used to take the piss out of (the X Factor) every week, but in a really fun way. He approached it with a sense of humour and observation" and it's that observation that gives this show it's bite. Contestants, hosts and celebrities are mocked perceptively, yet amongst the satire and the corny romance, there's a number in the first act sung by the show’s two lovebirds, Missing You Already, that combines honest emotion with on screen projections of the lyrics transcribed into tender text messages. It’s a clever touch that speaks to today's teenagers.

But the real strength of I Can’t Sing! lies in the human talents on and off stage. Nigel Harman's portrayal of Cowell is a brave assault on a living icon. Harman pulls it off, notably in the lavish tap number Uncomplicated Love, giving the media tycoon a strong hint of Chicago's Billy Flynn. Preposterously overstated maybe, but it works. The reality show's host, Dermot O'Leary is similarly scrutinised with Simon Bailey's brilliant Liam O'Deary being the (cynical) highlight of the evening. The heroine, Chenice, who hails from the wrong side of the tracks is accompanied everywhere by her pet dog Barlow and building upon his puppetry skills deployed in Avenue Q, Simon Lipkin animates the dog with flair and pinpoint wit. Katy Secombe (a spitting image of dad Harry) gives a cracking turn as a Susan Boyle supermarket misfit whilst playing the other half of the loving leads, Alan Morrissey puts in a credible shift as Max, a ukulele playing plumber with an alter ego as a singer songwriter.

Simon Lipkin, Cynthia Erivo, Alan Morrissey

It is however in Cynthia Erivo’s creation of Chenice, that this show has cemented the reputation of one of the West End’s newest stars. Playing a typically ditsy self-deprecating heroine who through the show learns to believe in herself, it is not until 40 minutes into the first half when Erivo sings the title number, that she displays her vocal process. Chenice is yet another stunning performance from this elegantly framed lady whose voice is sweet, rare and profoundly powerful. When she sings, she captivates and even though it is Harman’s name that tops the bill, it is Erivo who deservedly takes the final curtain call.

In many respects I Can’t Sing! is a glorious celebration of contemporary British musical theatre. Blessed with tycoon producers who have been able to invest millions in a show that notwithstanding being totally bonkers, actually strings together some good tunes, some great gags and all on a set that designer Es Devlin has been allowed to spend a fortune upon, all makes for a fun night out. It's not perfect though. Some of the writing is a tad too silly and the ending will leave jaws dropped at such a flamboyant re-definition of “ridiculous”. There is also little to appeal to foreign tourists who will be unfamiliar with the ridicule of our domestic idiosyncrasies and even more importantly, among the home market that consumes Cowell’s broadcast output, many will find the price of London tickets prohibitive. The show may well not be due the longest of runs at the Palladium, but it sure as heck deserves to tour. The regions have contributed much to Cowell’s wealth and they are entitled to this show being taken on the road.

I Cant Sing! presents a technically excellent company delivering clever and innovative work. And in Cynthia Erivo’s performance, one is surely witnessing what has to be the West End’s very own X Factor.

Now booking through 2014

Wednesday 19 March 2014

2014 Budget Update - Theatre Relief

The Budget announces that the government will introduce Theatre Tax Relief
from September 2014.

This corporation tax relief will support the production of plays, musicals, opera, ballet
and dance at a rate of 25% for touring productions and 20% for other theatre productions.

A consultation on the relief will be launched shortly.


Gatehouse Theatre, London


Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Tim Frost

That the audience take their seats to Eye Level, the theme of vintage TV cop show Van Der Valk and later exit to Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, suggests that Tim Frost's staging of Anthony Shaffer’s Murderer is rooted firmly in the kitsch cultural whirpool that was the 1970’s.

Intended as a comedy thriller (Shaffer had already penned Sleuth and The Wicker Man), the play is a curious combination of farce and suspense that is centered around Dorset painter Norman Bartholomew. With a morbid fascination for famous murderers of old, Bartholomew is up to his neck in a steamy but clichéd affair and dreams of the perfect way to murder his wife.

The performances in this 4-hander are often outstanding. Bradley Clarkson is Bartholomew and that the first twenty minutes of act one are dialogue free is a tribute to his remarkable craft. We witness him apparently drug, murder and dismember a victim, set to background music that along with wonderful hair, costume and mannerisms, date the production perfectly. Also on form is Andrew Ashford as village policeman Sgt Stenning, getting the balance just right between would-be sleuth and bungling parish bobby. When Stenning consumes, on stage and for real, two pints of booze in a moment that echoes the West End’s current hit Urinetown, he develops an urgent need to pee. The audience know all along that there’s a body in the bath and there follows a performance of sublime comic timing between the copper, busting to go and hopping from foot to foot and the agitated Bartholomew, anxious to have the PC relieve himself anywhere but the bathroom. Elsewhere, Zoe Teverson convinces as the much put-upon Mrs Bartholomew, whilst Abby Forknall plays a scantily clad victim with aplomb.

But whilst costumes and fabulous performance seal the illusion of the 40 year time shift, unfortunately so too does Shaffer’s writing. Writing in the programme, Frost hopefully suggests that we can “love the characters’ idiosyncracies”. It's a tall request. The plot, whilst conjuring up occasional moments of genuine surprise, stretches credibility to breaking point, with the tale largely revolving around a dated and disgracefully misogynist conceit that treats the apparent on-stage murders of three women as light entertainment. There’s a line towards the play’s end, “mediocrity my darling has no...status”. Shaffer could well have been writing about his own work.

A nod to Philip Lindley’s set which is of the usual Gatehouse classy standard with Kirsty Gillmore’s sound design going a long way to scene and atmosphere creation. But Murderer is very much a period piece, probably best enjoyed by those with a fondness for the style and attitudes of an England from 40 years ago.

Runs until 20th April 2014

Monday 17 March 2014

West End Recast

Duke Of York's Theatre, London

Directed by Adam Lenson

Every now and then the planets align and an occasion of breathtaking excellence is created. So it was at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, where Adam Lenson's revue West End Recast was staged for one night only. An ingenious conceit - invite the best of West End talent to sing numbers that for reasons of age, race, gender, physique, whatever, they would be unlikely to perform in a regular commercial casting. Though this review features only a few of the sixteen performers, without exception all were outstanding, with turns ranging from comic brilliance to spine tingling magnificence.

Emma Williams got proceedings underway as a Diana Ross inspired Billy Elliott singing Electricity and as she warmed the crowd up so followed the incredibly voiced Jon Robyns with I Cain't Say No from Oklahoma!. Robyn’s be-suited straight-faced take on Ado Annie was to prove the first pastiche highspot of the night. Other first half gems included Gareth Snook's sublime interpretation of Sally Bowles' Cabaret. Bowler hatted and with spread legs suggesting a nod to Fosse (notwithstanding a bulging crotch) his red-stockinged chanteuse was a blast. Martin Callaghan was listed to sing A Chorus Line's Dance Ten Looks Three, but actually opened his routine with I Hope I Get It from the same show, making a witty if ironic and poignant reference to his own need for a job in the light of Stephen Ward's untimely closure. Simon Bailey's rarely heard Make Them Hear You from Ragtime proved the most stirring moment of the half, as he powerfully brought home the message of the song's plea for liberty, given a distinct twist sung by a white man. Closing the act, Nick Holder sung Defying Gravity in an arrangement that was both soulful and outrageous. Written by Schwartz to be sung by an adolescent student girl, to hear the modern classic performed by a beautifully voiced but nonetheless portly and grey-haired man, summed up the quirky brilliance of the show.

Frances Ruffelle opened act two with Wilkommen from Cabaret as the show’s gartered, gamine, Emcee. Fresh from her Paris focussed cabaret set, Ruffelle's accent was perhaps a tad more French than German, however her neatly choreographed take on Two Ladies, accompanied by the gender-reversed Snook and Callaghan was a hoot. Laura Pitt-Pulford was then to give what must surely be the most re-imagined Tevye ever. Her take on If I Was A Rich Man displayed her beautiful voice having an almost klezmeresque authenticity whilst her performance suggested a Jewish Princess with movement that simply sizzled. Michael Matus defined the coruscating bitterness behind Joanne's The Ladies Who Lunch from Company in a performance that was powerful and at the same time wryly tragic.

Bailey returned as Disney's Ariel with a hilarious Part Of Your World, but it was with Tracie Bennett's Ol' Man River, a song claimed originally, classically and above all, appropriately by Paul Robeson, that for the first time amongst the audience, jaws dropped. Bennett's take on the Showboat classic was so moving and inspirational that it almost prompts a recasting of the show, with the diva playing Joe the muscle bound dock worker.

It was left to Cynthia Erivo to close the set and where Bennett had dropped jaws, Erivo nailed them to the floor. Taking two songs from Streisand's Funny Girl she opened with a masterfully understated People, before segueing seamlessly into Don't Rain On My Parade. No wonder Simon Cowell has cast this actress to lead his Palladium show - her X-Factor was off the scale as her petite frame produced a sound that filled the Duke Of York's with a performance of clarity, expression and sheer beautiful power.

An ensemble encore of When I Grow Up was a neat touch that sweetly rounded off the evening. With Daniel A. Weiss’ 5 piece band, Adam Lenson has created an event of magical potential. The show demands to be repeated, it is simply the very best of London's talent.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Molly Wobbly

Phoenix Artist Club, London


Written and directed by Paul Boyd

Leanne Jones and Russell Morton

Making a long overdue arrival in the capital Molly Wobbly, Paul Boyd's smutty subversive paean to the vanity of cosmetic surgery finally opens at the Phoenix Arts Club. A search through these reviews will find the Edinburgh 2012 production version and subsequent CD already well commented upon and in a week when the satirical US import Urinetown is making a splash in Victoria, it's grand to see new British writing celebrated too.

Molly Wobbly's bizarre fable follows three married couples in a sleepy British village, all frustrated and unhappy with their lot and their sex lives until the arrival of a shock-headed freak, bizarrely named IThankYou, who suggests that the cure for the women's respective miseries lies in breast enhancement. The show's humour is cupped firmly (or wobbly) in an 18-rated style of "Carry On" crude, with some of the gags being eye wateringly brilliant and many of Boyd's melodies proving extremely hummable too.

The beauty of this staged concert version lies in the company that Boyd has assembled. A handful of newcomers combine with some stalwarts from the Edinburgh cast and notwithstanding the pre-recorded backing track, the vocal work on display is immense. All of the harmonies are glorious with Leanne Jones' spine-tingling 11 o'clock lament, Designed By Margaret Brown an absolute belter. Fans of former The Voice star Jordan Lee Davies should also head to the basement venue. Davies plays Kitten, a strange sidekick/henchman to IThankYou and his mellifluously depraved homage to casual gay sex, One Night Stand, is just as hilarious two years on from Edinburgh, notwithstanding Boyd’s nip and tuck to the lyrics. Kitten's torch song however, Guardian Angel, a number that is simply gorgeous on the CD and is possibly one of the best British musical theatre songs of recent years, loses some of its majestic impact against the over-amplified backing. An easy fix to remedy.

Russell Morton's IThankYou is a treat of a performance, whilst Kate England's repressed Presbyterian minister's wife also provides some well written laughs. Conleth Kane brilliantly reprises his camp hairdresser, alongside an Alastair Brookshaw who as Malcom, Margaret Brown's husband is a convincing spouse, henpecked by a wife (Jones) who is so much larger than life.

The venue ain't great (pub noise wafts in too often) but the performances are magical and the talent and innovation manifest by the show deserve a wider audience. Give Molly Wobbly a live band and a larger stage and she could truly reach her full potential.

With funny filthy lyrics, ridiculously skilled singers that are busting with talent and saucy scantily clad actresses, this is a show that speaks both to and about, us all.

Runs to 19th March

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Aaron Weinstein

Crazy Coqs, London


For this week only Aaron Weinstein, one of New York’s most talented jazz violinists takes up residence at the Crazy Coqs. And if you like your Great American Songbook beautifully arranged and served with a twist then go see him. His playing is sublime and on the occasions that he puts his violin down he simply replaces it with a mandolin, also virtuoso style, natch.

Weinstein opens his set with a self-deprecating charm, telling his audience he is simply going to perform “incredibly overplayed songs” and then goes on to do just that. His takes on Pennies From Heaven and Makin Whoopee are ingenious arrangements of classic numbers and alongside Dave Newton on piano, Weinstein’s fiddle almost becomes a part of the man such is the ease and fluidity with which he works the instrument.

The self-deprecation grates after a while. Those people who have likened Weinstein’s shtick to Woody Allen’s flatter the musican. On strings he is literally out of this world, but delivering his patter into the mike he resembles a bow-tie clad Harry Potter giving a barmitzvah speech. 13 year olds can get away with corny but at 28, Weinstein who is clearly an uber-talented chap, allows his routine to become too trite too often. Maybe the Yanks love it, who knows? In London he should speak (much) less and let his music do the talking. The eloquence of his instruments is sublime.

High spots in a set that lasts just over the hour are an eclectic selction from the musical Gypsy and an encore of Over The Rainbow, played on solo mandolin that will both break your heart and make it soar. The guy’s a genius.

Performing until 15th March

Tuesday 11 March 2014


St James Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book & lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Richard Fleeshman confronts Jenna Russell

More than a decade after it's acclaimed Broadway debut, Urinetown splashes down on this side of the Atlantic, premiering at London's bijou St James Theatre. Brash and brassy, the show is set in an America of the future. Water is scarce, sewerage is rationed and evil big business controls the municipal toilets, where "spending a penny" costs just that and sometimes considerably more. Packing a seriously portentous message (wise minds have long suggested that future wars will be fought over water rather than oil), the show is a satirical meta-musical, that not only takes the piss out of peeing, but also out of its own genre too.

The style throughout is of a 1960’s graphic novel. The bad guys are really bad, the cops are in the pay of the suits and the poor are down-trodden. The violence is beautifully choreographed and when the (copious) stage-blood flows it is often as a thick black goo as well as the classic scarlet, mimicking the comic-books' monochrome. Thomas Malthus is the other literary reference that streams through the show. Jonathan Slinger (who only recently was the RSC’s Hamlet at Stratford) opens proceedings as sardonic cop Officer Lockstock, sat on stage in a mise en scene, quietly reading from the 18th century philosopher as the audience take their seats. Malthus’ apocalyptic predictions drive the tale, prophesying that ultimately the world’s resources will not be able to sustain its geometrically expanding human population. 

Jamie Lloyd again lays down his marker as a creator of visionary theatre. Working with a first class company his caricatured characters are as hilarious as they are disturbing. Musical theatre's grand dame in waiting, Jenna Russell, is Penelope Pennywise the grotesquely rubber-aproned supervisor of Public Amenity 9. Her role down amongst the city's low lifes is to guard the facility, ensuring that only those who pay, can pee. With her ghostly, ghastly, white-slapped face Russell is sublime and her big number, It’s A Privilege To Pee, is a masterclass in performance.

Also starring is Richard Fleeshman as Bobby Strong, the hero who dares to challenge the system. Fleeshman does not disappoint and if his big number Look At The Sky is a touch too heavy on the ironic melodrama, he more than makes up for it in delivery. As corporate baddie, Caldwell B. Cladwell, Simon Paisley Day is everything a villain should be. With a moustache inspired by Moriarty and the sharpest satirical dialog, Day relishes the role and is a joy to watch throughout. At times the show’s structure creaks more than it leaks. Lockstock's role is also that of occasional narrator, a mechanism that too often seems to be an easy way out for the writers, checking up that the audience “geddit” just in case the show has nauseated rather than amused.

The strengths of this production however lie within the carefully crafted values that producer Julian Stoneman has evidently insisted (and spent a fortune) upon. The acting company is top drawer throughout with even supporting roles being outstanding. Karis Jack’s Little Sally is a cracker and Adam Pearce’s thuggishly rotund Officer Barrel (Lockstock’s sidekick) is another modest glimpse of excellence. After the interval the glorious ensemble number Run, Freedom, Run displays every sign of evolving into the show-stopper that the cast clearly hope it to be. Soutra Gilmour's ingeniously grim designs of sewer and slum with multi-level multiple revolves suit the steeply raked theatre perfectly, alongside Ann Yee’s choreography and Kate Water’s multiple fight designs that are delivered with pinpoint drill and perfectly timed conviction.

Urinetown is musical theatre of the highest standard. Clearly staged with a deserved transfer in mind it is the work of a cast and creative team at the top of their game and demands to be seen. You're in for a treat!

Runs until 3rd May 2014

Thursday 6 March 2014

Kerry Ellis At The Pheasantry

The Pheasantry, London


Almost a year since her last residency at The Pheasantry, Kerry Ellis, the musical theatre queen of her generation returned to the Kings Road for a three night stint. A packed venue sat adoringly as Ellis worked her way through a set list of classic film and showtunes, with just a sprinkling of Queen and paying particular homage to writers Don Black and Stephen Schwartz.

In recent years Ellis has famously worked closely with Brian May, who has fashioned an astounding harmony of her voice with his talent on guitar. But the intimacy of a cabaret venue demands a different arrangement and Ellis’ long time collaborator on piano and keyboards. Craig Adams has crafted some new takes on old favourites, that were masterfully played on the night by the man himself.

A medley of classic Bond numbers opened the show and in the Oscars weekend, Ellis' neat take on Adele's 2013 winner Skyfall set the tone for a collection of songs that was too have a gorgeously distinctive fidelity. Black's song cycle Tell Me On A Sunday furnished Ellis with a handful of numbers that gave rise to a refreshing moment and amidst that show’s current return to the West End, provided a long yearned for opportunity to hear the songs sung by a woman who is at round about the approximate age that they were written for. Her nods to Wicked were a magically mellow take on Defying Gravity along with I’m Not That Girl, the blockbuster show’s exquisite torch song.

Miss Ellis has been out crowd-funding to raise funds for a video production and one of the opportunities up for grabs had been the chance to sing live with the diva. Flame haired student Megan Yates had bid for this particular evening's slot and the 20 year old cut a fine impression duetting with Ellis and singing In His Eyes, a rarely heard number from Leslie Bricusse and Wildhorn’s Jekyll And Hyde.

With a career that has amassed plenty of anecdotal moments, her banter through the night hit the perfect tone. Sometimes revealing, always respectful and throughout, offering her audience a glimpse into the string of West End smash hits that have come to feature her name up on the marquee. 

Encoring with Alfie, touchingly devoted to her four month old, (who had of course graced this same stage last year, albeit in utero) her enchanting take on the Bacharach/David number was loaded with love for her son. A glorious evening of warmly familiar classics, sung to perfection.


Almeida Theatre, London


By George Orwell
Adapted and created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

Mark Arends, (centre seated) and Company

This adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan of George Orwell's chillingly prescient classic, respects the story and its 65 year old heritage, yet gives it a disturbing relevance that speaks to our 21st century lives.

One wonders what Orwell would make of today’s multi-lane information superhighway. A world in which millions of digital fingerprints are left every day, creating a priceless seam of data to be mined or exploited by governments, corporations and bandits able to reach beyond the always outmoded and feeble data protection legislation. And that’s just here in the free West. Elsewhere dictatorships and fundamentalists across a spectrum of political and religious extremes tragically perpetuate the evils that Orwell’s oft quoted dystopian hell sought to mimic.

The Almeida’s co-production with Headlong and the Nottingham Playhouse is vivid and perceptive. Chloe Lamford’s set design shows meticulous detail in depicting Winston Smith’s world, details that literally fall away after his arrest, with the stark screened whiteness of Room 101 being so bleak that Smith’s blood, shed during harrowing torture scenes, provides a shocking splash of colour. Ingeniously Lamford deploys large video screens across every scene, graphically promoting the reality that Big Brother is watching everything.

Mark Arends’ Smith embodies the flawed everyman that Orwell intended and his grappling with desire, love and betrayal, against a backdrop of the pernicious Thought Police is as plausible as is his pain during torture that is almost unbearable to witness. Onstage throughout the single act 100 minute play, his performance is a flawless demonstration of his craft. Provoking and breaking Smith, Tim Dutton’s O’Brien is almost a cliché, were it not that the spook he represents is just so believably manipulative. Hara Yannas’ Julia, who loves Smith and yet who betrays him, as he betrays her under duress, gets the balance spot on in her character’s ambiguity.

Deservedly sold out, the play holds a mirror to our fractured world. That our democratic society provides a forum in which theatre such as 1984, together with the political debate it sparks, can thrive, is a liberty that in itself should be cherished. In far too many nations, the worst aspects of Orwell’s grim fantasy remain a terrible reality. 

Runs to 29th March 2014