Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Pajama Game

Shaftesbury Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Directed by Richard Eyre

Michael Xavier and Joanna Riding

Following the triumphant West End transfers of Singing In The Rain and Sweeney Todd, Chichester’s 2013 smash hit The Pajama Game has snuggled itself into London’s Shaftesbury Theatre for a twenty week run.

In a sugar coated tale of workers vs capitalism, the story follows the cute but unlikely love that develops between factory Superintendent Sid Sorokin and Union rep Babe Williams. The Pajama Game is a show that whilst being based on a simple story of moral granite relies heavily on glitzy sparkling routines to entertain. To that end, Richard Eyre’s direction and Stephen Mears’ choreography are best performed framed by a classic West End proscenium in contrast to the open studio thrust of Chichester’s Minerva. The journey up the A3 has done this show a power of good.

Many of the original cast have travelled to London and if you can, get in early to see Peter Polycarpou reprise his Hines, a carefully crafted comic masterpiece as the factory time and motion supervisor. Manic, jealous and hilariously delivered, his vocal presence and knife-throwing abilities are a treat. Another émigré from Chichester is Alexis Owen-Hobbs who plays Hines’ implausibly young and glamorous sweetheart Gladys. Owen-Hobbs’ dancing is sensational. She wows in the act two opener Steam Heat and amongst the splendours of Mear’s visionary Hernando’s Hideaway, together with the company, she creates the most exciting Latin dance work in town. Clare Machin’s Mabel is another fine example of well honed flirtatiously mature comic excellence whilst Eugene McCoy’s  union chief Prez defines lascivious, chasing anything in a skirt.

Leading the line are Joanna Riding’s feisty Williams and Michael Xavier’s Sorokin. Riding is a lithe and energetic babe of a Babe. She created the role at Chichester and hers’ in particular is a performance best suited to being played out on a traditional stage, rather than the searching scrutiny of the Minerva.

Xavier defines smouldering cool. He is perfectly cast and whilst Hadley Fraser, last year’s Superintendent could sing, Xavier adds a smooth and gorgeously chiselled gravitas that oozes sex appeal. And of course his signature song Hey There (You with the Stars in your Eyes), gloriously duetted with himself on a dictaphone, is the spine-tingling highlight of the first half.

The Pajama Game may be affectionately dated, but with a loving eye to detail from all of Eyre’s creative team and brimming with well crafted songs it remains a musical theatre treat.

Runs until 13th September 2014

All My Sons

Open Air Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Tom Mannion and Brid Brennan

Challenging perceptions of right and wrong and forcing us to question personal choices, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, his 20th century scorching classic on lies, deceit and integrity, is given a powerful revival by Timothy Sheader at the Open Air Theatre. The Regents Park setting suits the play, with Lizzie Clachan's simple set of a square lawn underpinned by long mangled roots being dominated by a huge Norman Rockwell image of a ‘perfect’ 1940’s post-war smiling family. The irony is profound.

Tensions rise as we encounter the Keller family, seemingly close and still grappling with the loss of son Larry some three years after his death. Surviving son Chris sensitively portrayed by Charles Aitken wants to move on with his life but is thwarted by a mother who refuses to accept that Larry is dead and by his father Joe who doesn’t want to rock the boat. Chris seeks inspiration and something beautiful to come home to, whilst Joe (a finely tuned performance from Tom Mannion) just wants something tangible to pass on that will have marked his existance. But soaring around this family are guilty secrets and a history of hideous compromises. With a nod to Greek tragedy and a grim inevitability, Miller skilfully weaves the threads that will lead to Joe Keller’s destruction. This is a harrowing production of a devastating play.

Brid Brennan’s powerful, intense matriarch Kate, grief stricken and in deep denial, tries to hold her family together as the overhead roar of Heathrow bound jet planes adds an unexpected layer of poignant pain to the events on stage. Powerful work too from Amy Nuttall as girlfriend Ann, harbouring her own devastating secret and also from Andy McKeane as her brother George.

Nick Powell’s atmospheric music is ominous throughout, complementing Sheader’s interpretation, with the evening proving to be coruscating theatre.  Effective productions of Miller should never be easy to watch and this production is as harrowing as it is brilliant.

Runs until 7th June 2014

Miss Saigon

Prince Edward Theatre, London


Book and lyrics by Alain Boublil
Concept, book and music by Claude Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jnr
Additional lyrics by Michael Mahler
Directed by Laurence Connor

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer

Cameron Mackintosh is the consummate showman. His re-launch of Miss Saigon, some 25 years after it first landed on a London stage has already recouped its reported £4.5million investment and it appears that not a penny has been wasted. His excellent cast is large and immaculately rehearsed, whilst the design and technical wizardry of his creative team is further evidence of the capital's world class reputation in stagecraft. 

The show re-works Puccini’s classic tale from Madam Butterfly, setting it amongst the melee of the fall of Saigon in 1975, and introducing The Engineer, an (anti) hero Eurasian pimp and one of the finest characters to be written for musical theatre in recent years. A man whose only loyalty is to himself and to whom knowing and exploiting the weaknesses of all men is second nature, he dreams of a new life in the USA. His portrayal in this production by US actor Jon Jon Briones is a revelation. Briones holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout, with his act two showstopper The American Dream being a glorious comment upon Western greed and cynicism. 

Eva Noblezada plays Kim, the virginal Saigon bar girl caught up in a whirlwind romance with GI Chris, and who falls pregnant just as her lover is flown out of Vietnam with the US withdrawal. Noblezada, who incredibly is making her professional stage debut in the role, is gorgeously convincing and fabulously voiced as she evolves from timid country girl to fiercely protective mother. Her character’s story is not as striking as her performance however and there is too much of her journey that is clichéd melodrama, with plotlines that defy credibility. 

The beauty of this show though lies in its staging and in the talent that Mackintosh has assembled on one stage. Bob Avian’s original choreography has been re-worked and the clarity of his vision is no better demonstrated than in the phenomenal routines of a flag waving communist army in act one’s The Morning Of The Dragon, contrasted with the dollar-bill and Cadillac extravaganza of the second half’s The American Dream, both numbers being sensational. Amidst much (occasionally tiresome) musical motif repetition, other tunes stand out, notably The Movie In My Mind, sung by Kim and fellow bargirl GiGi a perceptive performance from Rachelle Ann Go,  whose plaintive lyrics speak too of the dream to flee their Saigon poverty and build a new life in the USA, the land of the movies.If The Engineer is the show’s best creation, then this number is arguably one of its best songs.

Miss Saigon also bears a nod to the legacy of the Bui Doi, the mixed-race kids that feckless GIs left behind. Act two opens with Bui Doi, an anthemic number that champions these youngsters’ cause and in which, 25 years ago, John played by Peter Polycarpou broke hearts at Drury Lane as he sang. Today’s John is played by Hugh Maynard and the song is a disappointing rush, set to a beat that is at odds with the melody’s pulse. As with Boublil and Schonberg's Les Miserables, the entire production is set to music, with nearly every line of dialog in rhyme which often proves a naïve distraction. Along with the 2 minute gimmick of an on-stage helicopter these are a reminder of just how far audience expectations have grown over the last two decades. Gimmicks are out and strong songs are in – hence the rise of the juke box musical across both Broadway and the West End. Audiences want to tap their feet.

Immaculate to look at for sure, no doubt Miss Saigon will provide employment for many and will also channel much tourist wealth into both the London economy and the (deserving) coffers of Mackintosh whose philanthropic support of musical theatre is nothing short of remarkable. It’s not a must see by any means, but it is undoubtedly one hell of a show!

Booking until 2015

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Park Theatre, London


Written and directed by Jethro Compton
Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson

Paul Albertson

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a classic Western, released in 1962, immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece for both its director John Ford and its legendary stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda and since then recognised by the US Library of Congress as being a film of Cultural Significance. The tale revolved around the expansion of the (to be) US territories as the pioneers headed west, encompassing the lawlessness and elementary justice of the time. It also interweaved a well crafted love story and aspects of political compromise, against a backdrop of tumbleweed, saloon bars and much whiskey. Like the fine distillation of a spirit, the ridiculously talented and at 25 young, Jethro Compton (who also directs) has taken the movie’s plot, retaining most key milestones and adding a couple of new ones. The end result is a play that condenses a cinema-scoped canvas into a compelling drama that is set entirely within a saloon bar. It’s an astounding script, tightly written, that provides a thrilling, moving and entirely credible glimpse of quite how Wild the West (and how horrifically racist the South) was.

In the town of Two Trees, where “the sun is hot but the salsa is hotter” a bruised Ransome Forest is brought in badly beaten, having been rescued by rancher Bert Barricune. Hallie Jackson, assisted by her black servant boy Jim Mosten runs the saloon and tends to Forest’s wounds. It emerges that Forest is an educated man from the North East and we see him put down roots in Two Trees, where he teaches the illiterate Jackson and Mosten. The play follows the subtly complex love that develops between the landlady and her Eastern tutor as Barricune’s jealousy smoulders.

There’s a telling line in the play: “bring in education, there follows legislation”. Many folk in the South could not abide the concept of educated black people and Forest’s education of Mosten soon attracts the attention of the racist gang-leader Liberty Valance. To say more would be to spoil, but it is to Compton’s credit that he manages the suspense as well as the morality and love interest with mature aplomb. His writing is at all times exciting, masterful and often gripping.

The performances are faultless throughout. Oliver Lansley is Foster and he nails the portrayal of a caring liberal, committed to a cause yet useless with a gun. Late in the tale, Lansley’s character is elected Governor and Lansley subtly picks out the oleaginous nature shared by all in political office. Paul Albertson’s Barricune could almost suggest the work of a man who has been playing cowboys all his life. His gun-slinging yet complex character is a masterful portrayal that is as weathered and leathered as the coat he wears. (With a nod to fabulous costume work from Jessica Knight). Bringing up the leads, Niamh Walsh is Jackson with another performance of finely observed perfection, convincing as a young woman wise beyond her years. 

Outstanding in support, Lanre Malaolu is Mosten. Capturing the honest enthusiasm of his character and later his blind terror as he recognises the inevitability of his fate, it’s a performance that mixes humour with tragedy and Malalou is unquestionably a young actor who is one to watch. James Marlowe is the bad guy Liberty Valance. Understated chilling menace permeate his scenes, with a combination of vocal work, poise and timing (all skills shared by the rest of the company, to be fair) that create a frighteningly recognisable image of the racist ugliness of America’s South. Sarah Booth’s elegantly detailed saloon bar set, complete with an upstairs landing and swing doors that are gloriously authentic and without a hint of kitsch, stylishly completes the suspension of our disbelief.

Currently this show ranks as my best of 2014. Tightly written and with electrifying performances (that include the coolest of pre-recorded narrations from screen legend Robert Vaughn) it is a work of first-class stagecraft that provides a well observed history lesson into not only how the West was won, but in how the USA was formed. Not to be missed and deserving of a transfer.

Runs to 22nd June 2014

Friday, 16 May 2014

In The Heights

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Luke Sheppard

The company of In The Heights

In The Heights makes its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse in a production that oozes talent. The show is a fusion of contemporary New York cultures, combining latin infused melodies with rap and blending salsa with breakdance. The music is invigorating and the imagery created by Drew McOnie's choreography and his ridiculously talented company are breathtaking. The story though lacks depth and whilst the show is mostly fabulous to watch, the plotlines are hard to care about.

Set in Washington Heights, a famously latin New York district, the show revolves around the events in one neighbourhood (barrio) over the 4th of July period. The immigrant Latin American pulse of the show at times hints at what Bernstein and Sondheim created with West Side Story and indeed the creative trio behind this production's last collaboration, McOnie, designer takis and musical supervisor Tom Deering, was that Broadway classic, in the 2013 NYMT production (reviewed here).The signature of takis’ deign work is evident throughout, with corrugated steel suggesting the impoverished circumstances of the barrio’s residents. But where Sondheim’s lyrics are timeless, Miranda’s offerings are forgettable.

The cast are gems. David Bedella is Kevin, the father of Nina (Christina Modestou) who has just quit Stanford University because she couldn’t pay her way. With the song Inutil, in which Bedella expresses his character’s sense of inadequacy at having failed to provide for his daughter, there is a glimpse of Bedella’s genius as he captures his character’s tortured soul. Alongside Bedella the entire company shine, especially the feisty and beautifully voiced Josie Benson who is a treat to watch as his wife Camila. Alejandro Postigo who has coached the cast in Spanish and culture has done a fantastic job and the show’s hispanic façade is as convincing as could be wished.

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is Daniela, the neighbourhood hairdresser and source of wise counsel (and gossip). She steals her scenes with poise, presence and impeccable timing. More of a a scene-setter than stealer, Nathan Amzi’s Piragua Guy is another touch of class. The moustachioed drinks seller (think Super Mario pushing a hot dog cart) deploys his beautiful tones with panache and its just a shame his role is so small. Sam Mackay does a sound job as the all-rapping Usnavi, delivering much of the show’s narrative in a worthy Eminem tribute.

Not for the first time, the star of the production is Drew McOnie’s choreography. Whilst the Southwark Playhouse may offer a large performing space for a fringe venue, there was a compactness to the thrust staging that imbued the sense of cramped tenement accommodation. This is where McOnie is at his best, as he again sculpts his dancers into vivid flowing tableaux of movement and colour. Deering’s musical interpretations are bold for the tight space and his fabulous eight piece band perform brass arrangements with a pulsing gusto, as well as some gorgeous flute work from Hannah Riches. Gareth Owen needs to tinker with his sound design however as lyrics are sometimes drowned, especially in the multi-part harmonies.

The book and lyrics may disappoint, but the singing, dancing and creative talent show the very finest of talent to be found in town, either on or off the West End. There is excellence at work here, go see. 

Runs until 7th June 2014

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Scott Alan

Hippodrome, London

Scott Alan accompanies Cynthia Erivo

Straight off the plane from New York, Scott Alan pitched up at London's Hippodrome for a week's late night residency. The composer truly has a remarkable draw as like the Pied Piper he attracts talent from across the capital's music theatre scene to perform with him. Alan last played London in August 2013, packing out the Indigo O2 arena in a memorable evening that set a very high bar. At the Hippodrome, accompanied again by a crop of the West End's young and finest, Alan smashed expectations with a collection of performances that defined excellence.

There was much patter from the man at the piano. Unburdening himself to his audience and very much at home, preferring London as his favourite city to perform him, much of his banter was a disarmingly honest account of his struggles with his sexuality and of being rejected at home and bullied at high school. The family ties are healed now, but Alan's words tell of painful domestic dysfunctionality as well as his continuing and inspirational battle with depression. The self-deprecating humour flowed and where his guests could be affectionately mocked, Alan showed no mercy. But the underlying spirit of the event was a glorious triumph of the human spirit, interspersed with some wonderful songs and sung by some of the best voices in town.

Alan opened the proceedings with Nothing Remains from his latest album. Whilst his guests were to deliver vocal excellence, what Alan brings to the mic is an, at times, uncomfortably raw honesty and his ballad set a reflective tone. Next up though was Danielle Steers hot-footing it from The Bodyguard. Her energy and powerful mezzo delivery was a revelation and as she perfectly held the strongest notes for what seemed an eternity, Steers defined the hallmark of the evening's quality.

Sprinkled throughout the gig were talent-show winners, whose YouTube submissions had been judged by Alan with a lucky few invited to perform through the week. All showed enthusiastic promise, with Kara Bayer in particular having a fidelity that came dangerously close to matching the professional talent sandwiching the amateurs. 

Rob Houchen, fresh from his Marius obligations around the corner in Les Mis gave a beautifully invigorating take on Kiss The Air. Danielle Hope took to the stage with a delightful recollection of how the song Always is a personal inspiration to her, her intro summing up the essence of the night: well crafted numbers that mean so much to so many. Her singing was of course sublime.

Dean John Wilson electrified the crowd singing Home in a performance of soaring bravura, whilst partner Cynthia Erivo gave the sweetest interpretation of And There It Is in a number that defined the intimacy of both the song and the occasion.

A nod to the final two numbers that Alan himself sung. Blessing threw into relief the searing pain he felt at his mother's initial reaction to his coming out. Again, Alan’s disarming honesty at the microphone giving the song a powerful poignancy. The evening’s penultimate number Anything Worth Holding On To proving an emotional Everest for Alan to conquer,

Erivo was to return with an unexpected encore. Alan spontaneously decided he wanted the gig to end on a high and asked the singer to reprise her O2 triumph, High, a brilliant satire sung by and about a weed-stoned teenager, with no notice. Erivo graciously agreed and her hilarious performance proved a masterclass in acting through song, made all the more remarkable given that she hadn’t rehearsed the number for at least 8 months!

With a selection of stellar names guesting through the week, intimate performance does not get better than this. For fans, both of Alan and the modern cabaret genre, this residency is unmissable.

Scott Alan performs until 16th May as part of the London Festival of Cabaret

Lauren Fox

Crazy Coqs, London


Lauren Fox

Lauren Fox takes up a one week residency at the Crazy Coqs with her set entitled Love, Lust, Fear & Freedom: The Songs of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, a distinctive take on the works of the iconic pair. Not quite a tribute act, though Fox's rambling (if meticulously researched) patter between songs is nothing less than a gushing tribute to both artistes, she takes a broadly chronological journey through the pair’s separate catalogues, pausing to comment on the life milestones pertinent to each singer as well as centering her act around the brief period when Cohen and Mitchell were in a relationship.

Opening with the endearing Michael From Mountains, there is a charming clarity to her manner and it is a measure of the evening that she can comfortably swoop from that number to the wryly cynical Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye from Cohen. Eschweing all props, she simply dons a trilby that subtly suggests Cohen’s style when singing the man’s songs. Other than that, the evening is carried by the simplicity of her voice and John Webber’s seductively well rehearsed 3-piece band.

Some of Fox’s work is finely presented. Singing the Mitchell number Little Green, the song was beautifully arranged and she picked out its poignant delicacy well. A vibrato twang in her early numbers was proved to be nerves and midway through the first half, Fox dried painfully. Her stumble was respected sensitively by the crowded venue and picking herself up professionally. Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning proved to be an invigorating display of talent.

When singing Mitchell’s work, Fox is at times sublime, with her encore number of the classic Both Sides Now, a treat. The laconic drawl of Cohen, such an aural hallmark of his sound, does not translate as easily and some moments, particulary the few brave episodes of a capella singing, seemed to not quite hit the spot. That being said, the arrangement of both vocals and accompaniment for Cohen’s famous Hallelujah was another closing delight.

Acclaimed on the other side of the pond, it may just have been first night nerves that took the gleam off Fox’s mettle and one suspects that as her week plays out she will grow in confidence. If the Cohen / Mitchell era appeals, or if you simply enjoy a relaxed interpretation of some 20th century classics, then wander along to this offering at the Crazy Coqs as part of the London Festival of Cabaret. There is some deliciously mellowed talent on display.

Runs until 17th May 2014

Swan Lake

Swan Theatre, High Wycombe


Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographed by Matthew Bourne

The corps de ballet in Swan Lake 

Matthew Bourne has just announced that his emotionally charged, audacious Swan Lake has become the longest running ballet, both in the West End and on Broadway. His reinvention of the Bolshoi’s 19th Century iconic beautiful swans famously replaces traditional ‘beautiful’ female corps de ballet with strong, edgy and irascible male creatures. He says ‘…The strength, beauty and enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu…’ and indeed his choreography, the swans bouncing with long ‘necks’, perfectly portrays the graceful birds.

Chris Trenfield as the spell-binding Swan / psychopathic alter ego leather clad Stranger and Simon Williams as a Prince whose journey of self-discovery is both painful and joyous both dance and acte with such emotion and power that the standing ovation for the company started immediately they re-appeared after the final chords had sounded: the Prince dead on his huge bed, his mother too late feeling something for her son whilst above we see the Dead Swan, killed by his swans, carrying his dead Prince to eternity. Dramatic stuff indeed and incredibly emotional.

The 14 corps de ballet male Swans themselves are indispensable and remarkable. Strong, fluid, humorous yet menacing and ultimately cruel and lethal. The 4 baby cygnets take their moment also, witty, nervous, clumsy and fun!

Along the way, Bourne’s stylish company bring character, comedy, precision, mime and wit as palace servants, royal officials, asylum nurses and society’s finest; parodying romantic ballet with ornate costumes as butterflies, flowers, woodcutters and insects. Madelaine Brennan is elegance personified as the ice-cold Queen. Carrie Johnson exacted every ounce of comedy as a delightful out-of-her-depth flighty, dim girlfriend/wannabe wag.

The award winning set and design by Lez Brotherston is huge and grandiose, enhanced by stunning costumes (so much attention to detail in gloves, accessories, glitz and makeup) and Rick Fisher’s lighting.

Swan Lake is the world’s most frequently performed ballet but who would have imagined this production’s tremendous achievement when first performed in London 19 years ago? Judging by the first night full house standing ovation at the Wycombe Swan, it looks set to run for decades more!

Runs until 17th May 2014, then tours.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Good People

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Imelda Staunton

Good People is a searching drama for the modern age. Jonathan Kent directs the London premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 Tony-winner that explores the two faces of America’s Dream with a nod too to some of that country’s greatest 20th century literature.

With the first half of the action set squarely on the wrong side of South Boston’s tracks, the play follows a few days in the life of Margaret, a “Southie” all her life and a middle aged single parent who has cared for a severely disabled adult daughter since birth. Her daughter’s demands have denied Margaret the ability to hold down steady employment and the play opens with her being fired from her supermarket cashier's job. Desperate for work she tracks down Mike, a childhood friend and now a successful doctor and amidst banter with her bingo hall buddies and an intriguing past with the doctor, so Lindsay-Abaire’s tale pans out.

The star turn of the play is Imelda Staunton's Margaret. She and Kent have previous form together (he directed her Oliver award winning Mrs Lovett in Chichester's Sweeney Todd three years ago) and he coaxes from Staunton a performance of the most marvellously measured mania. Margaret’s lot is a tough one and Staunton never once lets us forget that hers’ is a character that has only known the hard knock life. There is a hint of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in the story's opening moments as we see her fired, reluctantly, by a supermarket manager who we learn is the son of an old friend. Her tragic circumstances are continuous and whilst Staunton’s performance of a woman, literally on the edge, is sublime and sensitively realised, that so many of the audience laugh at her so often, is actually rather uncomfortable. There’s a distasteful prurience at work here, (Is it really so "blisteringly funny" as the posters proclaim, to laugh at a woman so tragically desperate?) that possibly says more about the chattering classes of the play’s predominantly well-heeled audience, than it does about the painstakingly fleshed-out heroine.

Mike is played by Lloyd Owen. Life has dealt him aces and he has clawed his way out of the South Boston poverty projects through a combination of luck and hard work. He has a complex history however and in his dialogues both with Margaret and with young wife Kate (Angel Coulby) the timing and nuance of all three actors is exquisite. We find that Mike and Kate's marriage is shaky and built on some reluctant compromises and there are moments in act 2, largely set in their beautiful suburban mansion, that echo Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

At the bingo hall Susan Brown and Lorraine Ashbourne put in delicious caricatures of hardened harridans, ultimately loving towards Margaret yet as sceptical as good friends should be. Again, the dialogue between the three women is acutely observed by Lindsay-Abaire, with perfectly weighted performances.

Whilst some of the story’s links may stretch credibility and occasionally the tale’s chapters sit oddly together, what is unquestionable is that each chapter is brilliantly scripted. The text convinces and all the actors are nigh on flawless. Hildegard Bechtler’s ingenious use of the theatre’s revolve also impresses.

Lindsay-Abaire captures the grit of human endeavour, tragedy and deceit in his two hour work. Whether Good People leaves you amused or troubled it will surely make you ponder. The play should not be missed and its outstanding cast will leave you stunned.

Booking until 14th June 2014

De Profundis

Leicester Square Theatre


Music and lyrics by Paul Dale Vickers
Directed by Stuart Saint

Alastair Brookshaw
Three years after his acclaimed performance as Leo Frank, imprisoned on trumped up charges in Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, Alastair Brookshaw finds himself once again behind bars. The actor who is a master of profoundly fragile strength is once more playing a prisoner of conscience, this time the author and poet Oscar Wilde, who in the late 19th century was imprisoned for gross indecency a charge that arose from his (illegal at the time) homosexuality.

De Profundis is drawn from the 50,000 word letter that Wilde wrote (but never sent) to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, whilst incarcerated in Reading Prison. A solo performance, it is presented at the Leicester Square Theatre as the chosen show from The New Musical Project competition held earlier this year.

As with his Leo Frank, Brookshaw again astonishes. Commanding the compact stage of the (packed) Lounge space, for one hour the shows' melodies range from ballad to distinctly upbeat as this beautifully talented tenor captures the tortured soul of one of England's most celebrated writers.

Paul Dale Vickers has chosen wisely in his extracts from the original opus. From an opening reference to "we are the grotesques" in which we glean the misery of Wilde’s condition, through to the glorious melody of I Must Have Love In My Heart, a song that that gives Brookshaw a chance to fill the room with his voice, the work is a finely balanced combination of styles. 

The musical highspot of the show coincides with Wilde’s nadir, as he learns whilst imprisoned that the court has removed his children from his care. The pain is acute and Brookshaw sings How Sick The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name with such controlled rage that there is an almost Gethsemane-like quality to his treatment. It's a spine tingling moment in such an intimate theatre. 

Stuart Saint has delivered a gem in his interpretation of this new writing. Enhanced by Jonny Dickie's subtle sound design and clever lighting, the dank isolation of a Victorian jail is convincingly suggested. This ballad of Reading gaol though merits a wider audience and an auditorium with grander acoustics than a sticky-floored Leicester Square basement. Brookshaw's mellifluous tones are frequently deployed as a chorister in the splendour of both St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and to hear him deliver Vickers' majestic melodies in a classic venue, built with echoing walls of stone, would be a treat.

Until then, Alastair Brookshaw serves his current term until 8th June. Visitors are most definitely encouraged.

Runs until 8th June

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Emerging Artists - April 2014

Crazy Coqs, London

Produced by Simon Greiff

The series of Emerging Artist gigs that are taking place at London’s Crazy Coqs is a potentially exciting showcase for new talent in the arenas of both performance and also creativity. The guru behind the events is Simon Greiff, long recognised as a champion of the talent that is to be found breaking through in musical theatre.

Three writer/composers were showcased in the April session, Jonathan Eio, Ella Grace and Dan Looney. All talented musicians for sure, far more talented than this critic and all able to structure a song with a respectable number of verses, a key change and a middle eight that works too. But it was a disappointment that too many of the evening’s numbers bore the hallmarks of bland ballads. The human condition has long been the driving force of strong musical theatre and songs about relationships are all very well and good. But, there’s a difference between just writing a song and writing a good striking song that hooks the audience. All too often there wasn’t enough imaginative bait on offer to make me want to bite, either in terms of an exciting melody or truly witty lyrics.

That being said, whilst Eio’s When You Were Mine may have been lyrically trite, Adele Pope’s delivery of the song was rather gorgeous. Elsewhere in the programme Grace’s Promise Me tackled the challenge of violent abuse. A dark subject for any song (Suzanne Vega nailed it years ago with Luka) and whilst Kay Hindmarsh sung it beautifully, the lyrics veered from being painfully percepetive to at times being shallow and occasionally patronising. These are criticisms that I suspect could not have been further from Grace’s mind when she penned the number, her song simply needs more work.

Dan Looney’s work was generally excellent. His Swear Our Love, about a young man with Tourettes, was a brave song that trod very thin ice. To write a witty song about a disability requires profound sensitivity and tact and Looney got the balance just right, showing judgement and maturity in his lyrics. Looney was also blessed with two of the evening’s stellar performers. Seasoned young star Matthew Rowland served his Excalibur 93 number very well, whilst Mollie Melia-Redgrave was a stunning Ditsy Blonde.

Not really an emerging talent, more a leading-lady in waiting, Laura Pitt-Pulford graced the stage with Eio’s Sandbox. Pitt-Pulford only really knows to do “fabulous” when she sings and this song proved no exception. A cracking performance as ever, which also seemed to truly tickle the hen party that staggered in to the Crazy Coqs half way through her number!

Talent showcases will always present a variety of abilities and whilst it is proving hard to discern an emerging wit to match the the likes of a young Rice Sondheim or Schwartz there is definite potential amongst today’s young composers. The venue was packed, the show only lasted an hour and it costs a tenner. And all this all takes place in one of London’s most elegant art deco cabaret venues. Greiff’s next gig in the series is on Saturday June 7 and if you care about the future of the genre, it’s well worth attending.

The next concert in the series is at Crazy Coqs on 7th June

Monday, 5 May 2014

Anything Worth Holding On To - Scott Alan - CD Review


Music and lyrics by Scott Alan
Produced by Paul Vazquez and Scott Alan

Many artists seek to bare their souls in their work and it can often be a journey of self-discovery or confession that leads to the recording of an album or the creation of a work of art. But whilst many creative individuals sincerely try to open their hearts, few bring the level of measured brilliance to their work that Scott Alan displays in his album released this week, Anything Worth Holding On To. Alan’s liner notes talk of the songs coming from difficult periods of his life and in having been so open and on the record about his battles with depression, the glimpse into his emotions that the album gives is both profound and moving.

There is an intimacy to the start of most tracks that lay down either the sound of breaking waves or gentle rainfall. Opening with the plaintive Nothing Remains, Alan gives us the sound of seagulls and footsteps along a shore easing into a song that suggests a bleak sense of loneliness and despair, yet also expresses a hope for a future fulfilling love. As with (nearly) all the tracks, Alan sings his words alone, though on this number Oliver Tompsett and David Hunter providing an ethereal backing harmony.

Take Me Away is a beautiful track expressing the hope of a man weighed down in depression to again soar in the sky and climb a mountain peak. Jessie Vargas arrangement of Chris Delis’ exquisite guitar work encapsulates what this album is all about, the importance of looking up and holding on to a visionary dream.

The title track is a stunning song. Alan scored Anything Worth Holding On To, a song that he is particularly proud of, from the darkest pain of depression. I first heard it sung by a sobbing Cynthia Erivo live in London last year and was intrigued as to how Alan himself would deliver the number. Handing over the piano responsibilities (for this track only) to Logan Culwell, Alan re-immerses himself in his song’s intensity and his take on the song delivers up a shocking honesty about his experience that shines out from the recording. It is humbling to listen to this track.

Shoshana Bean joins Alan as the album’s only featured artist, on I’m In Pain, a song that speaks of the desperation of his suffering. Bean’s contribution to the recording gives it a strangely everyman feel, making the singer’s pain recognisable to so many. This number also has no rainfall intro, rather it ominously fades to the muffled sound of thunder.

Bonus tracks include an instrumental take on Anything Worth Holding On To and a live recording of Nothing More, taken during a London gig in 2009. 

Alan's words are sometimes painful to hear, though throughout the album is imbued with well crafted harmonies. Returning to the liner notes, Alan writes that he hopes his words and music will motivate the listener to “pick yourself up when life is keeping you down”. His is a motive that is noble and altruistic. Scott Alan has known the darkest of times and in Anything Worth Holding On To he bravely seeks to shine a beacon in that darkness, not just for himself but others too. This is an inspirational album and a beautiful collection of songs.

Available from May 6 on Amazon and iTunes

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Titus Andronicus

Shakespeare's Globe, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lucy Bailey

Matthew Needham, William Houston and Indira Varma

Much like General Titus himself, Lucy Bailey’s production of this most bloodthirsty of Shakespeare’s works, makes a glorious and triumphant return to Shakespeare’s Globe. Under Bill Dudley’s black and oppressive velarium spread atop the yard space, the groundlings are spared blistering sunshine, but remain exposed to the pouring rain, which on press night only added to the ghoulish horrors of the ghastly tale. Guttural percussion and pungent incense assault one's senses on entering the Globe’s performing space and even before the players take to the stage, this production hints at being a festival of Shakespearean fun.

The classic story is driven by the vengeance that Tamora, the Goth Queen and Titus her conqueror, wreak upon each other's families for the various acts of murder, rape and mutilation that their children have suffered. Around these tribes and fuelling their appetites for revenge, Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover, spins a web of lies and deceit that adds to the body count. Whilst the horrendous rape and disfigurement of Titus’ daughter Lavinia occurs offstage, nearly all the other carnage occurs in full view of the audience. For those who like their literature served bloody, this play truly is a rare treat.

Lavinia's rape is evil and Flora Spencer-Longhurst puts in a moving performance as the victim, pleading to Indira Varma’s Tamora woman to woman that she should call off sons Chiron and Demetrius from ravishing her. Elsewhere in the play however, and as can be so often the case with horror, there is much comedy. When Tamora gives birth to a mixed-race baby, conceived illegitimately with Aaron, the proud father boasts to her shocked legitimate sons. When they accuse him of having “undone” their mother, he retorts “I have done thy mother”. Obi Abili convinces as the malevolent Moor and deftly extracts a deserved guffaw from the crowd. Some of the play's comedy is occasionally overplayed and Matthew Needham’s Emperor Saturninus is at times just a little heavy on the Kenneth Williams style antics.

William Houston plays the wearied Titus well. Rome’s loyal servant, he comes close to losing his mind as he witnesses the terrors that befall his family, though in the play’s final scenes, adorned in chef’s hat as the Bard instructs, his serving up of the pie in which Chiron and Demetrius have been slaughtered and baked, is delivered with relish. One should also give a nod to Brian Martin and Samuel Edward-Cook's performances as the errant young Goths, destined to fill Titus' infernal pasty. Their final scene before Andronicus slits their throats is excruciating to watch. Suspended by their ankles for what is probably five minutes but seems an eternity, their ultimate despatch comes as a blessed relief to the audience.

Ian Gelder is a wise counsel as Titus’ brother Marcus, though it is also largely through this play's creative team that Bailey has also achieved her success. Django Bates’ music, haunting trumpets and relentless drums, suggest a world of violence and discord. Terry King, arguably one of the greatest fight directors, choreographs the mayhem with aplomb whilst Pam Humpage’s make-up effects go a long way to convincing us that the onstage horrors are for real.

If you can stomach violence (and 13 people were spotted being helped from the auditorium during act one alone) then Bailey's production truly is Shakespeare for the people. The yard space is used to the full as the groundlings become Rome’s plebeians and the bacchanalic splashing of wine over the squealing crowd only adds to the merriment. Shocking, upsetting and at times hilarious, this Titus Andronicus is bloody good Shakespeare.

Runs until 13th July 2014


Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


Written by Hugh Whitemore
Directed by Christopher Morahan

Zoe Wanamaker

Christopher Morahan’s Stevie that opens this year’s season at Chichester, is a masterclass in modern drama. From the life and work of 20th century English poet Stevie Smith Hugh Whitemore’s carefully crafted text, weaves extracts of Smith’s verse into a narrative tell of poetry allowing her to escape a dull middle-class suburban world.

Spanning decades, the play takes place entirely in Smith’s sitting room in Palmers Green. It’s a compact work. Chris Larkin takes on the role of various male friends of the poet (including a post-war chap who bears a striking vocal similarity to Maggie Smith) whilst Lynda Baron plays the Aunt who tended to Stevie since childhood and who in turn was cared for by Smith as she became old and infirm. Baron (aided by excellent wig work from Campbell Young) convinces as the wise and humdrum relative, more moved by letters from the Inland Revenue than her niece’s writing, yet all the while still showing her charge love and care. It’s a performance of subtle charm and Baron is marvellous.

Driving the work however is Zoe Wanamaker’s astonishing Stevie. On stage almost throughout, the role is massive both in terms of her character’s emotional complexities (Smith suffered from depression) as well as the sheer volume of text. Wanamaker is sublime, capturing the fragility of Smith’s youth, blighted by TB and from there charts her life with perception. Smith displayed a sanguine self-deprecation, referring to her parents unhappiness she describes herself as the “product of an unsuitable marriage”. Chain smoking and mainly plainly dressed, Wanamaker bestows on Stevie the gimlet eye that gave her poems such clarity of vision. Later in her career, she observes to a friend that “one doesn’t want happiness in a poem, it spoils the fun”, yet when she reflects upon her Aunt, now passed away, Wanamaker comments that on having lived with an old lady from an early age, one “never ceases to be a child”. That she can breathe sensitive and empathetic life into these two sentences, each at opposite ends of an emotional spectrum, is a mark of Wanamaker's understated excellence. Her Smith is at all times a down to earth north London suburbanite, feted for her talents for sure, yet in Wanamaker’s performance, remaining aloof from the Bohemian pretensions that one might perhaps associate with the Hampstead or Bloomsbury sets. 

Morahan is masterful in his direction. Finely crafted movement work conveys time and age and adds to the excellence of the production, whilst Jason Carr's music adds a fine accompaniment. There are few finer performances to be found than Wanamaker’s Stevie and this unmissable performance demands a London transfer.

Runs to 24th May 2014

Photograph by Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 1 May 2014

King Henry IV Part II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Antony Sher

Greg Doran’s Henry IV Part 2 is a world class interpretation of a play that is at once a historical comment upon England, a bittersweet study on the frailities of age and a beautiful exposition of the human condition. Picking up from Part 1 with Hotspur’s death at Shrewsbury, the play dwells upon the waning of Henry IV’s reign, the revolutions that are continually afoot and the (now separate) paths of young Hal and Falstaff.

In the only obvious nod to the modern era, Doran opens the play with Antony Byrne's Rumour, in jeans, imploring us to open our ears. It is the only overtly stylistic nod to modern times, though such is the wit of Shakespeare's verse that many dramatic creations of our times clearly draw their inspiration from the Bard.

King Henry’s appearances in Part 2 are less frequent, he is an old man now, but Jasper Britton’s interpretation of the King is all the sweeter for being so much more condensed. His “uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown” speech being a beautifully focussed insight into the burdens of statesmanship. Britton is amongst excellent company on stage. Alex Hassell’s Hal is every inch the King to be, well weighted in addressing his father’s demise and steeled with the cold aloofness of absolute power as heartbreakingly he ultimately scorns Falstaff, his former friend. 

It is in his depiction of England and its natives though that Shakespeare gives us an endearing social comment. The elderly Justices Shallow and Silent, exquisitely defined by Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, seeing out their days in idyllic Gloucestershire, could so easily be the inspiration for television's Last Of The Summer Wine with just a hint of old Mr Grace thrown in for good measure. Ever considered what classical sources may have led to the creation of Albert Square's Angie Watts and Dot Cotton? Well get yourself to Stratford where Paola Dionisotti's marvellous Mistress Quickly presides over her brothel/tavern in a style that as much suggests EastEnders as Eastcheap.

And presiding over this carnival of characters is Antony Sher's Falstaff. The glory of his Part 1 excellence is only polished in this sequel. Sher extracts painful pathos as he acknowledges he is too old to sate the flame of his desire that burns for Nia Gwynne’s young whore Doll Tearsheet. He frequently owns the stage with his oratory, the soliloquy in praise of sherry being one of the evening's many delights. At the play's close Falstaff, full of bombast, is snubbed by the King in front of his old friends the Justices to whom he had promised access to the Court. The pain of this humiliation, so brilliantly penned by Shakespeare, in Sher’s hands is tragi-comedy defined. As he attempts to shrug off his own shrugging off by the King, one can sense more than a hint of Del Boy telling Rodney not to worry, "next year, we'll be millionaires". The relevance of the prose is timeless

Again the RSC surpass themselves. Dominic Dromgoole recently commented that some countries "do Shakespeare" better than us and occasionally he may be right. But this production cannot be bettered. The stagecraft on display, from both cast and creatives is perfection. Rarely is a classic work performed with such wit, freshness and vitality.

Runs until 6th September 2014, then tours.