Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Donmar Warehouse, London


Written by James Gray
Directed by Josie Rourke

Joshua McGuire

The mise en scene to Privacy is a backdrop that slowly fills with fingerprints as more and more audience members connect to the show’s WiFi. The message is clear. We are all leaving digital fingerprints and James Graham’s play seeks to consider how this geometrically expanding volume of recorded data is used and abused. When George Orwell wrote 1984, shortly after World War 2, the society he envisioned was an horrifically portentous nation, in which all information (and even thoughts) was accessible to a totalitarian state. Orwell’s opus was a magnificent work of literary art. But where Orwell composed fiction, Graham’s work is largely based on fact.

Privacy is an exciting play. A pre-show animation, in the style of an airliner’s safety briefing, asks the audience to break with convention and keep their (silenced) smartphones switched on and connected to the theatre’s network. There is a neat joke that asks children to connect their own phones first before helping a struggling adult get theirs on the network.  The play that follows is a presentation of the author’s research into how information is obtained about us and how that information is (ab)/used by the state and exploited by commerce. Graham has been thorough and a large part of the play is taken up with verbatim reproductions of interview text. The play is fascinating and chilling and his combination of excellent acting with revelatory facts about the data that one’s iPhone is continually recording, makes for occasionally electrifying drama. But whilst the verbatim genre may be new to theatre, its style has been around for a long time on TV and there are moments when Privacy seems little more than a live-action episode of Panorama. A slick projection screen enhances the action and graphically indicates how with the UK sitting at a critical junction of most of the world’s fibre-optic data networks, as one character suggests, the UK’s security services are “basically Sky+ing the internet”, a phrase that is mind-boggling in its simplicity.

Factually the play is terrific and it is only when Graham augments his research with creative writing, that the chinks appear. A police shooting of suspected terrorists is given a kitsch Romeo and Juliet parallel that is almost insulting in its naiveté, whilst the plays denouement lacks credibility. Graham also muddles his arguments. Michelle Terry’s perfectly nuanced take on an (anonymised) 16 year-old speaking of the online bullying stemming from the ask.fm social networking site that has led to numerous teenage suicides, was poignant and painful and touched the audience with its implicit tragedy. In shifting his focus towards the Snowden leak of state secrets however, Graham’s points become blurred. Snowden’s actions are not in question, but whether he was a champion of freedom, or alternatively a traitor, is very much a matter of personal and political opinion and Graham’s prose seems too heavily weighted towards defending the actions of The Guardian newspaper in releasing the Snowden files.

The cast of six are all outstanding, seamlessly interweaving between characters (only Joshua McGuire who plays The Writer is granted one role throughout the play) with Gunnar Cauthery’s take on William Hague and Jonathan Coy’s Paddy Ashdown being particularly fine caricatures.

Josie Rourke directs with pace though at times the second half flags. Whilst there may well be more heat than light to Graham’s analysis and at nearly three hours it’s a long haul, for the most part it proves to be entertaining theatre. Innovative and challenging, Graham does not provide many answers in his work, but he will shock you into realising just how many digital fingerprints we are all leaving, everywhere.

Runs to 31st May 2014

Sunday, 27 April 2014

I Can't Sing! - It's Still a Yes From Me

It is desperately sad news that I Can’t Sing! is to close at the London Palladium in two weeks time. Sad for the company, the creatives, the producers and sad too for those audiences who were booked to see it and will now be disappointed.

I declare a very modest interest in the show. I had thoroughly enjoyed it (with a 4* review here), it’s female star Cynthia Erivo had graciously taken time away from the her demanding rehearsal schedule (and shortly before she sang for The Queen) to be interviewed by me earlier this year (linked here) and I thought that Harry Hill’s brilliantly bonkers satire was sufficiently sharp, recognisable and non-offensive, for me to have booked 30 further tickets to take our office team to see the show in June.

I Can’t Sing! is a bang up to date pantomime that brilliantly lampoons an iconic populist TV show and which has been put together with production values that are excellent and expensive. Simon Cowell is to be praised for having injected millions into developing the show, a large proportion of which will have filtered down into the economy of hard working and often underpaid talented folk. Cowell had recruited the West End’s finest for his show and on a personal level for the actors, musicians and crew, nothing can make the financial pain of job-loss any easier. Sadly t’was ever thus in the fickle cut-throat world That’s Entertainment.

No-one outside of the producers could have predicted that it would depart the massive Palladium stage so soon and with a harsh two weeks’ notice for the cast at that, but as I wrote when the show opened, the writing was on the wall for an early West End closure from day one. I Can’t Sing! is a high-grade pantomime and I struggle to understand how the business genius that is Cowell (and which has now seen him ruthlessly end the show's Palladium life) could not have foreseen that a typical family, who may be used to paying around £30 a ticket (often less for kids) to see a local panto at Christmas, would struggle with finding £67.50++ each, to see his capers in the West End – and that’s before the cost of food, travel and quite possibly accommodation. I Can’t Sing! is the right show, but in the wrong theatre and at the wrong price.

It is early days to consider a future. This production’s wounds are raw and have not even yet begun to heal, but there could and should be a further lease of life for this marvellous quirky show, at least on tour. Much of its act one scenery comprises digital projections that are at the very least transportable and it shouldn’t be beyond the ken of the talented Es Devlin to re-design her cumbersome second-half trucks to something more compact.

Erivo should still be in the running for an award for her turn as Chenice. Her take on the show’s title song was nothing less than outstanding and one can only hope that come this time next year, the Olivier judges remember that she really can sing!

And at the same time as the closing notices are mourned, we should also celebrate the fact that this show was born at all. I Can’t Sing! is madcap and innovative, yet beautifully British and assembled with world-class stagecraft. The whole production team should feel proud of their artistic creation and hope that it can be shared with a wider national audience. It’s still a Yes from me.

I Can't Sing runs until May 10 2014

Monday, 21 April 2014

Liz Robertson - Songs From My Trunk

London Hippodrome, London


Liz Robertson

For a solo night, one of musical theatre’s more talented leading ladies Liz Robertson performed in the Matcham Room at London’s Hippodrome. Her show, Songs From My Trunk was a collection of memorable and inspirational numbers that have stayed with the singer since her teens and beyond and for a woman who has professionally found herself restricted to the Julie Andrews soprano range, the gig provided an opportunity to play around with some much loved melodies, hitherto denied her.

Robertson’s sound is exquisite. Her vocal clarity and ability to hold a note is a treat and there was only a hint of a wobble as she tackled The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. (And to be fair, the song is a veritable Everest of a challenge). Her MD and friend of many years, Chris Walker, had compiled arrangements that were nearly all very easy on the ear and he conducted his three piece band with perceptive precision, subtle bass work and softened percussion giving a very jazzy feel to the evening.

Produced by Black Sapphire who are a welcome if relative newcomer on London’s cabaret scene, Robertson could perhaps have been better served by her producer shaking up the set list. Whilst some of the songs had a spark to their sweet melody, with her Old Black Magic and her second half opener, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing being particular treats, too many of her anecdotes were anodyne and too many piquant numbers were blandly merged into each other, creating more of a wallpaper of sound that neither singer nor producer would have intended. That her take on Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys classic became seamlessly segued into Art Garfunkel’s I Only Have Eyes For You, did neither song any favours.

As an encore, Miss Robertson gave an uplifting Birth To The Blues that for the first time that evening, got this reviewer’s toes tapping. More of that sensation would have been welcome and if Songs From My Trunk is a noble try-out of a future set, then perhaps an inclusion of one or two of Robertson’s finer career show tunes may just make the night’s sound a little more elevating than elevator. This diva is unquestionably enchanting, she just needs her set to be a little more thrilling. Her London return is eagerly awaited.

Friday, 18 April 2014

King Henry IV Part I

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Antony Sher and Alex Hassell

It has often been mooted that Henry IV Pt 1 should arguably have been re-named Sir John Falstaff, such is the impact of the legendary bon-viveur upon the history play and Greg Doran’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre only endorses the argument.

Commencing with the spirit of Richard II gazing down from the gods (a robed and long-haired David Tennant lookalike) we find Jasper Britton has assumed the mantle of Bolingbroke, opening the play as the newly crowned king. Britton’s performance is assured and he convincingly presents first, as a father initially struggling with his son’s errant Eastcheap ways and later as a monarch grappling with the destructive forces at work amidst his realm.

Alex Hassell is Hal, giving a performance of the Henry V (to be) that defines the young royal’s energy, vivacity and nobility far better than any recent stage portrayal of the warrior king. The robbery at Gadhill and Hal’s banter with Sir John is royal japery at its finest, yet Hassell also defines both mettle and honour in the play's later scenes, defending and loyally supporting his father. The young actor displays astonishing talent and of his generation he is unquestionably “one to watch”. Matched against him is Trevor White’s Hotspur. Envious of Hal’s preferment and bearing a chip on his shoulder, Hotspur is one of Shakespeare's more unforgiving roles. White’s energetic effort is hampered by an overplayed chip, trying just a little bit “too hard”.

The jewel in this production’s crown however is unquestionably Antony Sher’s Falstaff. A corpulent, drunken profiteer, as likely to be found in the arms of the pox-ridden Mistress Quickly (a wonderfully be-scabbed Paola Dionisotti) as to be gaming with the Prince of Wales. Sher relishes Falstaff’s every moment and that his sozzled patrician Falstaff is so at ease with the Eastcheap cutpurses only adds to the color of his character. With a perpetually unpaid bar bill and the quickest of wits, Sir John precurses the latter day comic creations of Arthur Daley or Norman Stanley Fletcher, each a quintessentially lovable rogue. One of our finest actors, Sher’s “What is honesty?” soliloquy is an outstanding delivery, with so many of his lines being pathos-laden comedy gold. A good comic must master timing as well as voice and physical presence, Sher nails the lot and one is unlikely to see a finer Shakespearean performance this year.

Other notables are Joshua Richards with a wonderfully pagan Owen Glendower and Simon Thorp's Rickman-esque Lord Chief Justice.

The RSC is again at its creative best. Terry King elicits breathtaking fightwork (Sean Chapman’s scottish Douglas menaces with the mace) whilst Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Martin Slavin’s sound design effectively suggest both location and time. A finely produced treat, Greg Doran’s interpretation is thoughtful, perceptive and hilarious.

Plays to 6th September 2014, then tours.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Beautiful Game

Union Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Ben Elton

Niamh Perry

The main focus of The Beautiful Game is Northern Ireland’s Troubles; more crucially though and through the generic tale of an amateur football team making it big, this musical actually speaks to us about the broader human values of loyalty, intimacy and trust.

In the first UK revival since the musical’s West End premier in 2000, it’s easy to see why the show hasn’t garnered more frequent outings. While there are a number of touching portraits as a generation of players and their female admirers take their final steps into adulthood, rhymes such as ‘life/wife’ seem sinfully obvious and lyrically, 'Clean the Kit' is a particularly irksome number. The cast however respond appropriately, through a tapestry of gently nuanced gestures. The occasional convincing stare, or off-beat ‘tut’ and a whole-hearted cheer, bring a refreshing truth to an otherwise often cheesy and sometimes rather over-earnest show.

Although some important moments are shielded behind pillars, Lotte Wakeham's production generally uses the Union's compact space with flair. Presented in a traverse staging, with both back rows reserved for jeering ensemble members, the audience are pitched into "opposing stands", adding a modest flavour of football rivalry to the evening.

At times ensemble members hold up washing lines, suggesting a thrifty domesticity at play and reminding us how much the central characters are a product of their society and throughout, David Shields’ designs work well. Ladies in authentic leather panel skirts and sleeveless jumpers, with the protagonist football team kitted out in patterned shirts that simply scream “peace and love”.

The production itself may be made of less intriguing material, but Niamh Perry and Ben Kerr bring a zeal to the relationship between Mary and John. Married, John drifts from playing field to incarceration as Mary drifts from the sidelines to motherhood. Backed by a strong ensemble, both actors give standout performances, furnishing the maturing relationship with their own language of physical intimacy.

The man of the match award for this production however goes to Tim Jackson. Taking a very literal approach to the sport, Jackson choreographs a scene that cements the excitement and passion of football and the energy and dedication of its players. Dramatic red lights are punctuated by stark drum beats as two teams tumble around the stage. At moments, it’s graceful - the sweetest goal is scored; seconds later, as the teams clash, there’s bloodthirsty passion in their movements. Truly an exercise in coordination and teamwork and a beautiful interpretation of the beautiful game.

Runs to 3rd May 2014

Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook

Three Sisters

Southwark Playhouse, London

Written by Anton Chekhov
In a new version by Anya Reiss
Directed by Russell Bolam

Paul McGann and Holliday Grainger

Anya Reiss’ adaptation of Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse proves to be a remarkable interpretation of the Russian classic. Set in modern times and based around a British Embassy located somewhere in a land in turmoil, Reiss’ sisters are long-term ex-pat Brits who have built their lives 3,000 miles from home, each nurturing either a fondness or a yearning for home. Where Chekhov created a grand Russian sense of bleakness in the sisters' world, so too does Reiss. This production hints at a location in the east but it could be anywhere, the adaptation's structure deftly reflecting the women's hopes and frustrations.

The themes are grand and classic but the setting is intense and opressive. Olivia Hallinan is Olga, the most controlled of the three orphaned sisters, convincing with an understated youthful maturity that provides a modest emotional compass to her siblings, with Russell Bolam having coaxed a subtle allure into the actress' presence. Holliday Grainger plays Irina, a complex woman who attracts the attentions of two soldiers posted to the Embassy. Where Tusenbach (a sometimes awkward performance from David Carlyle) is a devoted paramour, his rival Solyony, forever sanitising his hands such is his familiarity with death, displays a more basic and brutal desire to make Irina his. Reiss skilfully narrates the path that will lead to the play’s tragic denouement.

Masha is the more volatile of the sisters and Emily Taffe imbues her with a provocative fragility. Her frustrations with her local-born husband Kulygin are tangible and through a combination of skilled writing and excellent performance her desire for the soldiers’ commanding officer is a perceptive portrayal of a love tragically stifled.

Paul McGann is Vershinin, the commanding officer, bringing a clipped maturity to the role. He too is trapped in a frustrated and difficult marriage and finds himself craving the emotional succour that the three sisters offer. Whilst he succumbs to his love for Masha, the evident fondness he displays for the world that the three women have created in exile is a gem of understatement in a classy performance. McGann’s name on the bill hints at a star quality performance and he does not disappoint.

Co-producer Danielle Tarento’s hallmark fingerprints of excellence adorn the production. Howard Hudson’s lighting is as ever spot on, enhancing both nuance and location whilst Max Pappenheim’s sound design is also subtly excellent.

Reiss’ perceptive prose is all the more remarkable given her youth. Following her treatment of The Seagull (also recently directed by Bolam at the Southwark Playhouse) she clearly knows how to make Russian poetry accessible to a wired 21st century audience. Her work is peppered with modern cultural references and though they may appall traditional Chekhovian scholars, they are likely to prove invaluable in guiding many of Reiss’ generation towards such classic literature.

Runs to 3rd May 2014

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Danielle Tarento - In Profile

Danielle Tarento

Tonight sees performances commence of one of the most anticipated productions of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in recent times. At the southernmost tip of the Bakerloo Line, the Southwark Playhouse in Elephant and Castle is to stage the play with a cast that includes former Dr Who and Withnail & I star Paul McGann and a creative team with as impressive credentials. The adaptation is by celebrated wunderkind, Anya Reiss, Russell Bolam directs and the production is co-produced by Danielle Tarento, who in recent years has established a world class reputation for her Off West End productions. Midway through rehearsals, I met with this talented producer to understand a little more of her remarkable Midas touch that delivers consistent excellence to her shows.

Tarento had wanted to be an actor from the age of four but speaks warmly of how that desire set her at odds with her academically high-achieving family's expectations. Fabulous A Level grades (natch) failed to secure her a university place to study Drama and English, a knock back she describes as "serendipitous" and she then took a gap year before being admitted to Guildhall to train as an actor. Alongside Daniel Evans (they were the youngest in their year) she loved the training and was steered towards a career on screen. Tarento looks back on having appeared in most of the 1990's TV sitcoms, often in a state of undress(!), as well as having made it to the last three in the castings for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo And Juliet. But it was to be after a decently paid but nonetheless un-satisfying stretch on Sky's Dream Team and the inevitable re-evaluation of life that happens as one approaches 30, that she took the brave call to decide that TV bit-parts were not how she wanted her career to develop.

Another gap year beckoned, during which she worked and saved. With a family background in the hospitality industry, (her parents had owned wine bars) she was then to meet aspiring producer David Babani and within three weeks of the two of them meeting, they had signed a lease for the site of the old Menier Chocolate Factory. Their impact upon the venue’s facilities of restaurant, theatre and rehearsal space was astonishing. The combined acumen of Tarento and Babani saw the Chocolate Factory becoming a leading venue in the capital's Of West End theatre scene with Tarento adding that her three years spent in Southwark were immensely rewarding. Perhaps their largest production at the Chocolate Factory was Sunday In The Park With George that received critical acclaim before enjoying a West End transfer. She is no fool though and whilst the show was an outstanding first revival of the show since its premiere at the National, she is the first to admit that it's tough to make money out of Sondheim in the West End. Her fondest memory of the Chocolate Factory remains its production of Tick, Tick, Boom, that remarkably included Neil Patrick Harris who was even then a Broadway star, notwithstanding his current elevated status.

In many ways Tarento's career has been blessed with a sequence of fortuitous developments. A spell working with a casting director friend was meant to last a few months but ran to a year and a half and in the process she was to learn much about the contractual complexities that underpin any professional production. Tarento also learned that ultimately what she really wanted to do is to run her own space. With a provocative glint in her eye, she suggests to me that such a development is indeed on the cards (she's far too shrewd to spill any beans at this early stage) but until then she just wants to continue freelancing her skills, producing the right work in the right place.

She has had a string of successes, predominantly (though not always) drawn from musical theatre and often hiring director Thom Southerland to helm. Their outstanding takes on Jason Robert Brown's Parade and Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel proved to be an ingenious use of the tunnel space at the (old) Southwark Playhouse. (Though it was with Christopher Renshaw that she was to deliver a spellbinding re-working of the Boy George musical Taboo.)

The symbiosis that has existed between her and Southerland is quite rare. She speaks of the director "taking her out for a burger" as he pitches his next idea. Frequently, she accedes to his request and invariably the result is a hit, with their most recent collaboration, 2013's multi-award winning version of Maury Yeston's Titanic, shortly to set sail from the (new) Southwark Playhouse, first to Toronto before a run on Broadway. Her pride at Titanic's success is evident and Tarento believes that Southerland will one day be spoken of as a future Daldry or Grandage.

London and to be fair, the nation's, fringe theatre industry has long drawn comment and brickbats within the creative community for being an environment of low pay or often no pay for its actors. It's a tough paradox against which Tarento actually presents herself as an honest broker of a producer. She budgets her shows with realistic ambition, on record as saying that £90,000 is an approximate production spend with some musicals costing more (as in Titanic) and plays, often less (ergo Three Sisters). She prides herself on (with only one exception), never having lost an investor money (speaking warmly and very appreciatively of her loyal band of angels) and of running a scrupulously open book of accounts that is presented to her cast when the run is over. Her investors know that a fixed tranche of profit will always be paid to the actors first, yet Tarento admits that anything remotely approaching a commercial profit or wage for the cast is always going to be challenging when, notwithstanding excellent ticket sales, her shows only play to a maximum house of around 230 souls and then at a maximum ticket price of around £22. She wryly comments that for the price of a West End show, often staged with a lesser calibre company, one could see three of her productions!

Paul McGann

And so to Three Sisters. The idea for the production was sparked whilst The Seagull (also adapted by Reiss) was on at the Southwark Playhouse at the same time as Tarento was staging hers' and Southerland's Victor/Victoria. The respective companies shared numerous evenings in the bar ("all night, every night") and one creative thing led to another. Bolam was also directing The Seagull and Tarento has nothing but praise not only for the director, but for Reiss and her "extraordinary talent". Breaking The Seagull down to two 40 minute acts, she is in awe at how Reiss' prose manages to combine moments of utterly modern relevance with sequences that are just so Chekovian she suggests that the young playwright's words could almost have been written by the legendary Russian.

On her casting, whilst she acknowledges the Whovian force field that McGann can exert at the box office, she is at pains to emphasise that whilst a sexy celebrity can undoubtedly help ticket sales, she abhors "stunt casting" insisting on only the right actor for any role. The combined firepower of the production's creatives was enough to lure McGann to the role, though Tarento also muses that a relatively short run with no obligation to tour, is also an attraction in drawing a big name to appear in a fringe show. Whilst she is sanguine enough to know that productions of Three Sisters are frequent, (another two are slated for this year alone), for other more eclectic productions such as Mack & Mabel, Titanic or Victor/Victoria, she suggests that these roles come along so rarely that often the actors she wants to hire are only too keen to be cast, knowing that opportunities to play those roles may not come knocking again in their careers.

As this feature is released, Three Sisters' previews are sold out, with very encouraging pre-press night ticket sales for the remainder of the run. Hardworking and realistic, but undeniably fuelled by ambition, Tarento speaks respectfully of The Seagull, which at the time of its opening had the highest advance for a play in the Southwark Playhouse’s history. That target has already been smashed by Three Sisters and Tarento’s parting shot is “I want to break every record, obviously!". Based on her form, it would be a fool who'd bet against that.

Three Sisters runs at Southwark Playhouse from 3rd April to 3rd May 2014

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Savoy Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Written by Jeffrey Lane
Directed by Jerry Mitchell

Rufus Hound and Robert Lindsay

Located in the plush basement of one of London’s grandest hotels, the Savoy Theatre could not be a more fitting venue for a show that gloriously revolves around both the real and (far more entertainingly) the illusory trappings of wealth and style. This UK premiere of David Yazbek's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a chic and jazzy treat, with the show's cracking overture in particular being a perfect scene setter. 

The story owes its modern-day fame to the classic movie caper starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. The screen giants played two rival con-men plying the French Riviera and out to fleece millionaire heiress Christine Colgate, of her fortune. In the right hands the tale is comedy gold, with Yazbeck describing the movie as “ripe for adaptation”. The Tony winning show first opened in the US in 2006, directed by Jack O'Brien with Jerry Mitchell choreographing. This time round, in addition to the dance work, Mitchell returns to helm the show, describing his take on the the piece as “re-conceived and re-imagined”. Whilst the producers can be assured of a hit as this is (yet another) musical that has been safely based upon and inspired by a massive movie, it still bursts with invigorating panache and style. 

Gimmick free, there is a reliance upon the traditional values of strong tunes, clever lyrics and classy performances. The movie set a high bar for the two leading men and when it comes to delivering faux class in London, Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound as the lovable rogues are sublime. Lindsay, surely another national treasure in waiting, plays the cool and experienced con Lawrence Jameson, with his first appearance on stage prompting an unusual (and British traditionalists may venture to suggest, unwelcome) New York style round of applause. Sliding into the piece with a suave charm, he seals the illusion of the Riviera location. Alongside Hound, very much an emergent star of the modern era, the two are an engine of pinpoint pace, delivering some of the best comic timing in town. 

Other stand out performances come from Katherine Kingsley's Colgate, whose voice gives Yazbeck’s melodies a sexiness and innocence, whilst John Marquez as Andre Thibault has a great time with some of Jeffrey Lane’s cheeky one liners. Mitchell’s direction is canny throughout, though his choreography despite being stunning and sharp, lacks a risk that may well have given some of the bigger ensemble numbers greater impact. 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an example of first class musical theatre. One grins throughout and in much the same way that rascal Jameson returns to to the Riviera for each season, so are audiences likely to do the same for this dirty rotten treat of a show. 

Booking to 29th November 2014