Thursday 31 July 2014

The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks 
Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Nicola Hughes and Rufus Bonds Jr on opening night

The amphitheatre at Regents Park is dominated by a massive backdrop of beautifully buckled burnished copper. As the sun goes down and passions rise in Timothy Sheader’s inspired take on this North Carolina fable, the design reflects the light. lending its metallic nuances to the palette. Gold becomes red, becoming moonlit pale or a terrifying stormy blue. Katrina Lindsay’s stage design is breathtaking before the band have even struck up.

Sheader sets out a bold stall in the Overture. In a solo routine Bess emerges, clad only in a slip and in a lithe sensuous dance, slides into a sizzling red dress slit to the hips. Truly one of London’s Leading Ladies, Nicola Hughes owns the stage in a performance that defines her character’s complex combination of iressistible sexual magnetism with profound vulnerability.

If Hughes represents the best of British, then she is well matched against the trio of trans-atlantic talent, flown in under the UK-USA Equity deal, whose characters vie for Bess’ attentions. Cedric Neal reprises the coke peddling Sporting Life from his Broadway performance two years ago. His elegant peacocked flamboyance defining the fatally attractive evil of the drugs he supplies. In a show crammed with The American Songbook greats, Neal’s act two opener, It Ain’t Necesssarily So takes this most familiar of numbers and makes it sizzle with a thrilling interpretation. Phillip Boykin, also over from the States, nails the muscular menace of Crown. A man as large as his booming baritone, Boykin imbues Crown with the purest of dark violence. Rufus Bonds Jr completes the set of imports, starring as Porgy. Bond gives a pathos and a power to the role that makes our hearts bleed for his crippled character. His voice and presence is inspirational, defining goodness as he craves a shaft of Bess’ love to light his crippled world. Against three such stunning performers, Hughes more than rises to the challenge. “Frailty, thy name is Bess” could define her character, desperate to be a good woman, but unable to sustain a loving commitment or resist her addictions.

The company work is flawless. Sharon D Clarke’s Mariah is a performance of wisdom and presence. Golda Rosheuvel’s Serena is a role of subtle humility, yet when this actress mourns her husband with My Man’s Gone Now, her voice as if from nowhere, fills the open-air space, tingling spines. A nod too to Jade Ewen’s Clara, the diminutive Sugababe who masters the show’s signature Summertime, with a perfectly weighted poise.

Amidst such a classy company, the use of ramshackle tables and chairs as improvised scene-setters is a distraction. Excellent performers demand an excellence in staging and the frequent shifting of tacky furniture suggests low-budget fringe rather than a production that frames world-class talent. It also remains a disappointment that a show, so steeped in the troubled, racist, tenement history of America’s South plays to a London audience that is overwhelmingly white. It deserves packed houses that reflect a broader cross-section of the capital’s melting pot.

David Shrubsole coaxes a jazz-infused delight from his lavishly furnished 15-piece band and with few finer companies in town, The Open Air Theatre’s Porgy And Bess is unmissably incisive and thrillingly provocative.

Runs until 23rd August 2014 

Sunday 20 July 2014


Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Jonathan Church

Rupert Everett as Antonio Salieri

Chichester’s newly restored Festival Theatre is sumptuously graced with chandeliers and a baroque arch. It's a lavish touch from designer Simon Higlett that sets the scene for an exhilarating production of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's intriguing commentary upon Vienna’s Kappellmeister Antonio Salieri whose jealousy of the genius of his young contemporary Mozart tormented the Italian composer throughout his life.

This production is one of those rare trinities of excellence in writing, performance and stagecraft. Rupert Everett, barely offstage throughout, plays the tormented Salieri who we first encounter  infirm and at the end of his days, dementedly raving that his devious machinations some 35 years earlier had led to Mozart's untimely death, impoverished and racked with disease. Everett seamlessly slips between the years of his now senility and the conspiratorial times of his younger self. His is a maestro of mediocrity in a performance that carries the DNA of a latter day Francis Urquhart, cross bred with Shakespeare's Claudius and Iago. One feels no sympathy for Everett’s philanderous Latin, yet we are awed at the persona that he creates.

He has his match in Joshua McGuire's Mozart. Shaffer's research is meticulous, portraying the gifted Austrian as a scatologically obsessed immature with behavioural difficulties. McGuire captures the manic frustration of Mozart's genius, being so bafflingly snubbed at every turn, though as the narrative unfolds we see his resolve harden as he suspects Salieri as the phantom of his operas. McGuire skilfully references the complexities of Mozart’s relationship with his father and in some fabulous scenes defines his desperate, even if deceitful, love for his ever tolerant wife Constanze (another standout performance from Jessie Buckley). Alongside, Jonathan Church assembles a stellar supporting cast that includes Simon Jones who subtly suggests the well-meaning yet inept buffoonery of Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, with John Standing as his shrewd yet meddling censorious courtier Count Rosenberg.   

The re-constructed auditorium is a tribute to all that is excellent in modern theatre. The sightlines and acoustics are perfect, whilst the semi-circular thrust, stepped for this production, allows for an exciting 360° use of the space. Church draws upon a world-class team of creatives for the show. Fotini Dimou's costumes are a confection in themselves that would truly win Salieri's discerning approval, whilst Danuta Barszczewska's wig work is faultless. Amadeus is nothing without its musical backdrop and Matthew Scott’s musical direction (and wonderful fortepiano playing) together with Stephen Mear’s subtly staged choreography complete the journey back to the Age of Enlightenment.

Amadeus is, yet again, a Chichester show worthy of a London transfer or a wider tour. Church and his company provide an unmissable interpretation of one of the 20th century’s greatest English plays.

Runs until 2nd August 2014

Sunday 13 July 2014

Mamma Mia - Review

Novello Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

l-r Kim Ismay, Dianne Pilkington and Rebecca Lock in the finale

Mamma Mia the first (and arguably the best) of the latter-day juke box musical genre, was born more than 15 years ago from the timeless legacy of Sweden's most famous export, the 1970's supergroup Abba. Sometimes schmaltzy for sure, but Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus' lyrics speak of ordinary lives, of simple relationships and of familiar loves and losses. Most of human life is wrapped up in one or t’other of their songs and it is a testament to Catherine Johnson that her book, woven around a selection of Abba’s greatest hits, works so well.

Superficially, the narrative follows a gloriously honeyed and nigh on implausible tale of 20 yo Sophie trying to find her dad amongst a possible three of mum Donna's former fellas. The show is of course a modern day fairy-tale, for scratch the surface and the emotions that underlie Sophie's quest are raw, relevant and above all recognisable. Her sometimes angst at having grown up fatherless strikes a contemporary chime, whilst Donna's gloriously feisty and strong independence is a sincere carapace that nonetheless surrounds a post-modern woman still craving love.

Johnson is a genius, for as well as creating a mother and child whose arcs we care about, she adds two of Donna's outrageous old friends Tanya and Rosie for chick-flick comedy. Stir in the three potentially paternal old flames of Donna, who each have to consider that they may well have sired Sophie before unwittingly abandoning a young mum to be, and its all rather cheesy but actually rather brilliant. There’s some smashing ensemble work too with Anthony van Laast’s choreography still proving that young men in latex and spandex, with flippers in place of tap shoes, make for a dance routine that will never age.

And what of this most recent cast? Dianne Pilkington's Donna gets the blend of sassy with mumsy just right, coaxing "ah's" from the audience with I Do, I Do, having previously shredded the heart strings of most parents in the house singing the painfully perceptive Slipping Through My Fingers. Alice Stokoe makes her West End debut with an impressive and slick soprano Sophie. Kim Ismay and Rebecca Lock’s Tanya and Rosie respectively provide (most of) the evening’s laughs, Ismay in particular proving why she has defined her man-eating cougar over the years. Amongst the dads (all top chaps, to a man) the chiseled presence of Richard Trinder’s Sam Carmichael adds an almost believable credibility to the wonderfully ridiculous fairy-tale ending.

There aren't too many shows around that, sixteen years on, can still pack a Monday night theatre. The audience ranged from school parties through to middle-aged business men and grinning septuagenarians all blended in with a selection of tourists that outmatched the United Nations for variety. Mamma Mia remains flawless entertainment and another example of London's West End at its very best.

Booking until 2015 at the Novello Theatre

Thursday 10 July 2014


London Theatre Workshop, London


Directed by Alastair Knights

Corinne Priest, Kris Olsen, Emma Odell & Jay Worley rehearse

The Stephen Sondheim Society’s production of God was one of those rare occasions when expectations weren't just exceeded, they were smashed to pieces. OK, with Alex Parker MD'ing one should know that the standard would be excellent, but this hour long gig was virtually flawless.

The set saw four of the industry's emerging finest, deliver songs penned by assorted wits that were either about Sondheim or his compositions, or were clever pastiches of recognisable gems. And that was actually one of the reasons that set this evening of new talent apart from so many similar gigs. The songs were knowing, witty and sparkling, with no introspective or muddled mediocrity from one song cycle or another that can so often bog down new writing, to be found. Both the satire and the talent were fabulous.

All four performers kicked off proceedings with Notes, a smugly witty number from Parker himself, lyrics by Katie Lam, that weaved a series of in-jokes around a Sondheim medley. Kris Olsen and Jay Worley then delivered a new and improved Cole Porter classic, cheekily re-branded as Brush Up Your Sondheim. Both guys were to shine in solo or leading numbers too, Worley notably with Andrew Lippa's wistfully autobiographical Marshall Levin whilst Olsen delivered a spoof on Sondheim's Sunday, cafe references adding a "Brunch" to the song's title. Olsen's victorious assault on Schwartz's Popular from Wicked, re-badged as Hummable, was another of the evening’s humorous highlights. 

Corinne Priest, this year's winner of the Sondheim Society Student Performer Of The Year proved her worth with a poise and presence that matched her vocal performance, never bettered than in Everybody Wants To Be Sondheim, with Emma Odell completing the quartet and mastering the linguistic minefield of Musical Theatre a song that demanded a breakneck rendition of show titles over the years.

As the star-studded cast of Forbidden Broadway garner deserved praise at the Menier Chocolate Factory for their razor sharp de-construction of genre classics, what Alastair Knights' company achieve at Fulham's bijou London Theatre Workshop is no less impressive. Too late perhaps for Edinburgh this year, the show is a glittering fascinator that makes for a gorgeous addition to any city's fringe.

Runs until 12th July 2014

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Pacific Overtures - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Michael Strassen

The company of Pacific Overtures

One of his least performed musicals, Pacific Overtures sees Sondheim cast his gimlet eye on the diplomatic advances (the pacific overtures of the title) that America and subsequently other nations too, made towards Imperial Japan around the middle of the nineteenth century. The finely crafted tale depicts the guardians of a rarefied Japan grappling with the threat that the "barbarians" from across the Pacific posed to their culture and sovereignty. There is balance in the writing though and whilst Japan surely had a refined elegance to its way of life, Sondheim strips the scales away, portraying a harsh and murderous Japanese dictatorship, demeaning of women and with an ethos of intolerance and jingoistic nationalism fascist enough to make UKIP resemble the Rainbow Alliance.

There are few lyrical minds wittier than Sondheim and his act one lyrics, with frequent Haiku sub-cadences present an aural suggestion of Japan that has an uncanny authenticity. Michael Strassen's bold interpretation of the complex work again hints at his mastery of the musical, particularly with his work so often amongst the restrained budgets of off-West End theatre

Simple drapes suggest the ascetic world of this interpretation and with the undercroft auditorium's air heavy with the scent of joss sticks, the thematic nod to Kabuki is sealed. That the traditional Japanese art form demands a men-only cast will only have appealed to Sasha Regan's Union Theatre, a venue ever keen to present a scantily clad all-male flesh feast. But Strassen's vision holds firm and the artistic integrity of his staging is at times breathtaking, with some close harmony work that is sublime.

As with all of Sondheim’s shows, his musical numbers are akin to the Japanese military: They don't easily take prisoners. It's a simple choice, one either masters the Master's melodies or dies trying. Ken Christiansen may make for an imposing white-slapped Reciter, Shogun and ultimately Emperor, but he is found out on his singing solos. There is however excellence in abundance elsewhere. Ian Mowat is a delight in roles of varying gender and seniority, never bettered than as the geisha's madam in Welcome To Kanagawa, where his character seems to effortlessly conjoin The Engineer from Miss Saigon with Cabaret's Emcee. Amongst the boys Joel Harper-Jackson skilfully amuses as the Shogun's wife, Matt Jolly's Fisherman in Four Black Dragons is a treat, whilst Lee Van Geleen who recently impressed in HMS Pinafore, combines a pinpoint comic turn with a beautifully weighted baritone presence as the Russian Admiral.

Strassen's take on the complex piece is to be savoured, with Richard Bates' four piece band a delight, capturing much of the tale purely through the show's carefully crafted compositions. The company work in voice, movement and dance is top-notch, with Marios Nicolaides' ballet work an absolute treat. Oh and the three-part harmony of Pretty Lady has to be amongst the best in town. Not an easy show to watch, but unmissable both for Sondheim devotees and canny lovers of musical theatre.

Runs until 2nd August 2014

Saturday 5 July 2014

Call Girl - Review


Written by Eric Havens
Directed by Jill Sixx Gevargizian

Call Girl is a short film with a twist. Its simple structure pitches Laurence R. Harvey, last seen as the obesely inadequate sadist in The Human Centipede 2 reprising his monstrous misogyny as Ed, a man who pays for his carnal satisfaction. Tristan Risk (known to many as the Betty Boop lookalike in American Mary) plays Mitzy, the hooker of the movie’s title.

Jill Sixx Gevargizian directs in another celebration of girl power. Suffice to say that although Ed’s intentions are thoroughly despicable, when he receives his visit from Mitzy, all is not what it seems.

Filmed entirely from Ed’s webcam’s point of view just occasionally the photography frustrates. The tale however is so compact and enhanced by Colin Lacativa’s music, that it flows with a swift wit. Gevargizian is learning her craft and this crowd-funded micro-movie is evidence of a talented young woman with Soska-like potential. A fun cast and a freakish tale make viewing Call Girl to be five minutes very well spent.

The Green Inferno - Review


Written by Eli Roth, Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolás López
Directed by Eli Roth 

Antonieta Pari needs to eat more carrots - a scene from Eli Roth's The Green Inferno 

The Green Inferno is Roth’s first helmed movie in seven years. The emergent king of the horror genre has shifted his lens from the torturous ABC1s of Hostels 1 and 2, who set upon convincing naive young American backpackers that all the Grimm fairy tales they've heard about Europe are true, aiming his lens instead upon that other popular held nightmare, that the jungle is full of voracious man-eaters, to whom white (and as we learn, ideally virginal) flesh is a delicacy.

Introducing The Green Inferno at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Roth spoke of how he wanted to reach just that bit further into the Amazonian rain forest than Herzog managed when the German made Aguirre, Wrath Of God. Roth spoke about his production team’s discovery of the Callanayacu tribe who enjoy a lifestyle that hasn't changed for hundreds of years and who were to form the bulk of his cannibal cast. Off camera these people didn't know electricity, had never seen a movie or television and were delighted to be splashed in red paint as required by Roth's make-up crew. The power-free zone meant that refrigerated (or even un-chilled) soda that the unit brought in with them was another treat, with the director revealing that the biggest problem facing the production during the shoot wasn't mosquitoes or other such natural blights, rather that the tribesfolk would frequently wipe them out of Gatorade. Roth is nothing if not a learned movie craftsman and in a neat mark of respect, The Green Inferno's closing credits acknowledge the predominantly Italian film-makers of the 1970's and 80's cannibal genre, led by Ruggero Deodato who inspired the style, and who was to enjoy a briefly carnivorous inclusion in Hostel 2.

Eli Roth on location with Callanayacu tribes-people

The Green Inferno's preamble lacks the crafted credibility that Roth imbued in his Cabin Fever as well as the first two Hostel tales. It's all just a little too pat how our heroine (in a gorgeously measured performance from Lorenza Izzo) winds up as a guerrilla eco-warrior, on a mission to save the rainforest from the rapacious bulldozers of an evil mining company and armed with nothing more than a cellphone. Of course, the nobly intended plan goes horrifically wrong and following a plane crash (that combines a rather splendid pilot decapitation alongside some disappointing CGI) those environmentalists that survive the landing soon find themselves trapped and put on the menu, as their hungry captors set about supplementing their traditional jungle fayre with an un-healthy portion of North American Greens. 

And this is of course where Roth is in his element. The roasting of flesh, hacking of limbs and removal of eyeballs, are all served with (cinematic) relish and, as can be the hallmark of some of the great horror movies, liberally seasoned with humour too. The plot bears Roth’s hallmark swipe at America’s grandiose dream of bringing good to the world, though he also, early on, includes an informative message about the evils of FGM within his narrative. 

To say any more would be to spoil, but if this description whets your appetite for an alternative (human) churrascaria, then go see the movie soon and catch it on a big screen. Roth can command a serious budget for his projects and Antonio Quercia’s photography, stunning in its capture of the rain forest locations has helicopter shots of Amazonia that are as gloriously giddy-making as the cannibalism is nauseating.

Roth is clearly loving the life Latino and as with his last co-production Aftershock (reviewed here), set in a post-earthquake Chilean beach resort, he aligns himself with South American filmmakers Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolás López to pen the story. Retaining a loyalty to actors he knows and trusts, Roth includes Richard Burgi, the corporate client who ended up as dog-food in Hostel 2, in a cameo as Izzo’s lawyer-father. 

Whilst the story may be a little over-cooked, Roth spends his budget wisely and the photography and effects are spectacular. One of the best date/popcorn horror-flicks in ages, The Green Inferno will surely prove a devilishly hot ticket this autumn.

Friday 4 July 2014

Monty Python Live (mostly) - Review

O2, London


Let’s put the Python re-union into context please. The gathering of these 5 comedy talents on one stage is an iconic event. Monty Python, in the 1970’s and evolving from TW3 and Beyond The Fringe, re-defined what television comedy could be with an impact not dissimilar to what Elvis Presley did for rock n roll.

Such was the reach of their scripts that I grew up (and I think of myself as moderately well read) believing that they came up with the phrase “this mortal coil” (cf. The Parrot Sketch) and it wasn’t until I studied Hamlet for A Level that I realised the words were penned by the Bard. Us geeky 50-somethings, on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Americans LOVE Monty Python – remember that Eric Idle’s musical, Spamalot, began life on Broadway) can quote from the sketch outright and sing The Lumberjack Song too. But remarkably, even those far younger can still relate to that ultimate rhetorical question (only recently referred to by Gary Lineker in a World Cup commentary) “ What have the Roman’s done for us?”

And those references are but a handful of the Python’s contributions to the English-speaking comedy scene. Whilst the TV series was a product of the 1970’s, much of their writing has proved timeless. They are all getting old now and it is to Idle’s credit that he motivated all his surving peers to re-form for the show. Sure, the O2 show was at times schmaltzy and cheesy – but actually, so what? These guys ripped up the rule book in their day (and in that glorious day too, when there were only three broadcast channels and all with decent risk-taking comedy budgets at their disposal) and they paved the way for acts from The Goodies, through to The Young Ones and Little Britain to follow. Their humour was madcap, but brilliant and bravely innovative. They didn’t play down to a lowest common denominator – rather the Pythons assumed a basic working knowledge of massive cultural pillars amongst their audience: Shakespeare, Philosophy, History.

So, to see the five, live on stage performing The Four Yorkshiremen (for which we were indeed lucky) was actually, nothing short of a privilege. This tour will not be repeated – It is indeed one down, five to go and with all probability, one or more of them could well have joined the Choir Invisible in the next few years. So to witness Michael Palin, 71 and now the widely acclaimed Peter Ustinov / Alan Whicker (improved version) of his generation amongst the broadcast world, clad in suspenders, basque and acknowledging his show-biz roots, was simply priceless.

Decades old words were brought to delicious life in a song and dance extravanganza that was as tasteless and wonderfully tacky as it was brilliantly executed. Salutations to John Du Prez whose orchestra segued effortlessly from de Souza's Liberty Bell to Idle &co's more provocative compositions. Arlene Phillips (no less) and Richard Roe's choreography was drilled to pinpoint precision, whilst Carol Cleveland reprising her role as the boys' token-female, has simply not aged a jot!

Don’t compare Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin coldly, as pensioners acting out sketches that are 40 years old. If that is all you see at the O2, then you have wasted your ticket money. These men, together with Graham Chapman RIP, changed the way many people in the Western World laugh. They mocked the establishment, tradition and taboo and in their wake have left a legacy of brilliantly crafted scripts. Comedy gold.

Playing at the O2 until 20th July 2014
Tickets available from the O2 and also, at discounted prices, from Viagogo and Seatwave

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Great Britain - Review - National Theatre

National Theatre, London


Written by Richard Bean
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Billie Piper
One suspects that the biggest item on the production budget of the National Theatre’s Great Britain, opening last night on the South Bank, will have been the fees of the libel lawyers hired to meticulously scrutinise Richard Bean’s work. Barely was the ink dry on the Old Bailey phone hacking verdicts last week, when the National unveiled the production, the development of which has been kept under the tightest of wraps, lest it influence said trials. The play examines the incestuous relationship between government, press and police and although Bean may well be the nations's latest favourite funny man, as he rides the success of his One Man, Two Guvnors, fans of that blockbuster (also Hytner directed) be warned, there is no eye-watering comeddia dell’arte slapstick to be found here. Rather, Great Britain reminds one of TV's long lost Spitting Image, with gloriously recognisable lampoons of some deeply uncomfortable truths.

Bean's text offers nothing that is revelatory. Billie Piper puts in a cracking turn as Paige Britain, News Editor of The Free Press, the country's biggest selling red-top tabloid paper. Where many of the play's characters are blindingly obvious caricatures of the famous, hers is perhaps the best dramatic creation of the night, a manipulative Chorus at times speaking directly to the audience, elsewhere to be found fellating her way up the greasy poles of male-dominated legislature and law enforcement.

Some of Bean's gags are en pointe, others crash to earth in moments of blinding obviousness, yet amongst this witty yet ultimately depressing slice of modern life, there are some standout performances alongside Piper. Robert Glenister is a monstrously monstering Editor, ultimately promoted to spin doctor at No 10, Andrew Woodall is a chillingly beliveable Head of PR for the Metropolitan Police whilst Aaron Neil’s cop, Commissioner Kassam is a cracking performance though only of a thinly sketched out bumbling stereotype. The media-mogul who owns The Free Press is Paschal O’Leary a self-made Irish billionaire and whilst Dermot Crowley delivers am entertaining performance, neither he nor the play are a patch on Anthony Hopkins’ grotesque Lambert Le Roux that bestrode the Olivier stage in David Hare’s Pravda, some 30 years ago.

Bean's writing takes aim at nearly all of the fourth estate. Paige Britain makes no bones in admitting her rag is an “end of the pier” show for the nation, whilst other recognisable broadsheets include a sniggeringly titled The Dependent and best of all, The Guardener (sic) whose strapline is "We think, so you don’t have to". We laugh at the buffoonery and manipulative chicanery, whilst Neil’s performance as the first man ever to be tazered on stage is a cracker.

The dark side of this abused democracy is here too. We learn of an innocent man lynched because of a misleading story in The Free Press, we see a story about Jimmy Savile spiked by the newsroom, and a good cop kills himself as the corruption of his moral fibre sees blind justice led astray. That the (fictional) abducted young twins however, whose phones are hacked by Britain’s team, are called “Mills” is crass. Don’t the Dowlers deserve any respect? This name should be changed forthwith.

Great Britain deserves plaudits for its immediacy, relevance and outstanding stagecraft, that sees the nation’s leading theatre assemble a fine company amidst stunning sets and technical wizardry and challenge head on three of the country’s most powerful institutions. It might not be the National’s best, but it’s a damn good play nonetheless. Catch it if you can. 

Now booking until August 23rd