Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Jay Rayner Quartet: Hungry Jazz

Crazy Coqs, London

****
Jay Rayner

In reviewing Jay Rayner's Quartet at the Crazy Coqs, I need to declare an interest. My family and the Rayners go back a very long way, whilst Jay and myself overlapped secondary education for a good few years in Elstree. This review also daunts for another reason: Not only is Rayner a talented jazz pianist, he earns a respected and respectable crust as one of the nation's leading food critics. His pith-meistery is professional, whereas my punditry is purely promoted by passion. No pressure then, here we go.

A packed venue saw the relaxed Rayner take his audience through an evening of gastro-jazz and flowing bon-mots in an evening of mellow music infused with references and recollections of growing up as the youngest child of the country's favourite agony aunt (the late Claire Rayner), alongside tastefully placed nods to the culinary world. He confessed to having earned pocket money as his mother's 10yo letter-opener - sagely adding that most songs in the jazz canon sound as though they may have been letters written to an agony aunt, with the tale about the wooden cock (Coq?) sent to his mother in the mail, proving of particular fascination.

With no lack of modesty, the floppy haired pianist declared himself the best jazz pianist amongst the UKs food critics. He's probably not wrong, though the self-deprecation is undeserved. As confident and fluent at the (grand piano) keyboard as at a QWERTY work-station his whirl, mostly through the American songbook was a selection of choice morsels.

The evening's vocals came from Pat Gordon-Smith in a performance that was never less than assured and beautifully pitched with her interpretation of familiar numbers proving an utter delight. Her (almost) a capella Blue Skies, with just the merest hint of accompaniment from the talented Rob Rickenberg on bass was sensational. Dave Lewis' accomplished contribution on sax completed the quartet.

For a foodie to present a gig, one expects the links to be nothing less than cheesy and Rayner didn't disappoint. His patter on the subject of chocolate led naturally into That Old Black Magic, an intro that would have had Messrs. Mercer, Arlen and Rowntree smiling down benignly, whilst his closing number served up with a reference to a good steak, could only be Love Me Tender. The audience groaned.

Enchantingly corny? Perhaps. But unremittingly excellent? Unquestionably. Promoter Ruth Leon has unearthed another treasure here, with Rayner and his quartet proving a welcome addition to the capital's jazz scene.

Ray Shell - Back 2 Black II

Crazy Coqs, London

*****

Kim Leeson and Ray Shell

It was barely a few months ago that Ray Shell kicked off his cabaret journey to rave reviews at London's Pheasantry. Now back in the West End for a short stint at the Crazy Coqs, the art-deco venue was packed to welcome his return. Shell’s voice (and his range!) are simply sensational and that the room was well filled with original Starlight Express cast from 30 years ago, spoke volumes for the warmth of the regard in which this "legendary" (I use the word advisedly, according to Shell it means "old" in showbiz talk) performer is held.

Shell opened his set wandering around the room, greeting friends and benignly chiding any latecomers, all to a heavenly delivered Pentecostal hymn. He explained that as his father had been a minister in the church, how those melodies had been so influential in his early exposure to music. That he was singing a capella only added to the divinity of the moment. And a gig that started off fabulous, was only to get better.

Much of the set was as played at the Pheasantry (a link to that review can be found at the foot of this article) though fresh gems added to the evening's sparkle. Smokey Robinson's Tracks Of My Tears was just sublime, whilst Shell's handling of One Night Only from Dreamgirls tingled spines. Duetting with one of his impressive young singing students Shell gave a classy take on The Police's hit Wrapped Around Your Finger, before an interpretation of Miss Saigon's The Movie In My Mind that defined why the song is one of the show's finest.

Rob Barron on piano and Paul Jenkins on keys were seamless in support throughout and as Cats and Star Wars dancer Femi Taylor looked on, Shell saved the best for last. Giving a respectful nod to the late and much missed Stephanie Lawrence who created the role, he invited Kim Leeson, a subsequent Pearl at the Apollo Victoria, to join him in Only You from Starlight Express. As the song's harmonica intro played, this reviewer was just dissolved. I have not seen a finer cabaret turn.

The set ended with the sweetest rendition of Starlight Express’ title song before Shell wrapped up his second clamoured-for encore, with Amy Winehouse's Back To Black. The gig was rare and magical. When Shell returns in cabaret and he will, don't miss him.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

Thriller Live - Cleo Higgins Joins The Cast

Lyric Theatre, London

*****

Conceived by Adrian Grant
Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Cleo Higgins

A change at the top in Thriller Live's cast offers a welcome invitation to revisit the show and in a week that sees Gary Lloyd’s T.Rex inspired jukebox musical 20th Century Boy pack out the New Wimbledon Theatre, its impressive to see the talented choreographer’s tribute to Michael Jackson continue to light up London.

The newest face amongst the cast and making her West End debut is Cleo Higgins. Originally a member of the 90’s pop group Cleopatra and most recently a contestant on BBC's The Voice, Higgins has an outstanding vocal presence pulling no punches as she fills the role of Janet Jackson,. Her performance is equally matched in the talented work of Ricardo Afonso, tasked with portraying the iconic singer. Afonso continues to deliver nothing less than excellence with his flawless vocals wrapping themselves around some of the star’s most loved numbers.

The ensemble work continues to be perfect with Lloyd’s interpretation of the King Of Pop’s movement and John Maher’s musical arrangements, continuing to astound and where the juke-box musical occasionally draws (deserved) criticisim from musical theatre devotees demanding more artistic originality, Thriller Live remains a leader of the pack. The production’s unstinting commitment to perfection ensures that it stays a finely crafted tribute to the vision and the sound of Jackson, continuing not not only to celebrate his work but also to provide one of the most thrilling evenings on a London stage.


Plays at the Lyric Theatre, London

My Girl 2

Old Red Lion Theatre, London

****

Written by Barrie Keefe
Directed by Paul Tomlinson



Emily Plumtree

Sam is a social worker. An over worked, underpaid carer on the front line, confronting horrific child cruelty and neglect whilst drowning in debt. His wife Anita stays at home in their impoverished drafty council flat, a loving mum but emotionally chained and drained by parenthood and heavily pregnant with a second baby. Sam's 30th birthday looms and whilst he may be a hero to the abused at work, at home he threatens violence to his child and tells lies to his wife, as the couple drift further apart.

Sam is an everyday Walter Mitty, though possibly a far too recognisable reflection to too many. He avoids telling his wife about the extent of their payday loan indebtedness and spins pie-in-the-sky yarns to his bank manager about when the overdraft will be repaid. He is also involved in a relationship with a case/client which is at best inappropriate and at worst un-believable. In what is a tough role, Alexander Neal makes a fine job of bringing Sam's life into the confines of the flat from which the play's action never leaves. Burdened by painful boils, that he responds to with acute hypochondria he remains a whinger, whilst Anita remains the heavily tested glue that binds their nuclear family. 

Keefe is an astute writer who doesn't just have his finger on the pulse of modern England, he presses the nation's carrotid, hard. Updating his 1989 play My Girl which was a comment on Thatcherite times, he is in fact at his best when he goes off-picket line and writes about people driven to extremes, rather than politics. In Emily Plumtree's Anita one finds a stellar off-West End performance as she wrings the profound perception of the human condition from Keefe's writing. Perceptive to her husband's failings, but unaware of the depths of his flaws, she dreams of escaping their urban slum for a big house in Braintree. As Keefe’s narrative reveals quite how deceitful Sam has been to her, Plumtree's character goes from disbelief to defiance and ultimately desperation. Brilliant, harrowing and often unbearable to watch, Anita is a heroine in a play that at times suggests a modern day Greek tragedy.

Paul Tomlinson directs with sensitivity, coaxing the nuances of well written cockney grit from both performers. My Girl 2 does not make for easy watching, particularly with an ending of ambivalent despair, but it is one of the more thought-provoking pieces of theatre in town.


Runs until 12th July 2014

Friday, 27 June 2014

City Of Angels

Stratford Circus, London

****

Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Sarah Redmond


Alex Gilchrist, Tom Self & Charlotte Allchorne

There is clearly an appetite in London right now for Hollywood in the 1940's. As The Drowned Man takes its last gasps over in Paddington and the Donmar is already sold out for its star-studded City Of Angels in the Autumn, those canny folk at Trinity Laban recognised that the Coleman, Zippel and Gelbart's Tony-winning nod to Tinseltown would prove excellent fare for their 3rd year Musical Theatre students. Stratford Circus made for an engaging venue in which visionary director Sarah Redmond was able to put her graduates through their paces.

As the time and genre demands, the show was heavy on the noir. Billed as a musical comedy the plot weaves in front of and behind the camera as struggling writer Stine, battles it out with his Corona typewriter and a typically megalomaniac director/producer, channelling his frustrations through the scripted twists and turns that befall fictional private-eye Stone. 

The mature themes of adultery, revenge, oversized egos and murder were at times challenging to such a youthful cast and the production was generally at its best with ensemble numbers or duetted songs. David-Jon Ballinger was every inch the movie mogul Buddy, whilst particularly impressive were Alex Gilchrist and Tom Self as Stine and Stone. Both men respectively nailed their parts with the closing numbers to each half of the show, You're Nothing Without Me and I'm Nothing Without You each song a celebration of two strident voices. Amongst the ladies Cathy Joseph and Bethany Wilson's double act of What You Don't Know About Women proved a spine-tingling, perfectly weighted duet. Redmond also coaxed nuggets of delight in a raft of cameo performances that were sprinkled throughout her ensemble. 

A stirring aspect of the production was the 20+ piece band, drawn from Trinity Laban students under Tony Castro's direction. The predominantly brassy sound was beautifully easy on the ear, adding a depth to the show's orchestration rarely encountered in student productions. 

A brave choice of show for sure, but with their take on City Of Angels, Trinity Laban's class of '14 spread their wings impressively.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Guvnors

****

Written and directed by Gabe Turner


Harley Alexander-Sule

Set in South London, The Guvnors sees the feral, fatherless, hoodied hoodlums of the modern era rail against the gangs of 30+ years ago, when there is suggestion that crime was more "decent".

Recent movies (Harry Brown etc) have trod this well-worn path, but the The Guvnors' strength lies in a combination of a gritty yet credible story, brought to life by an ensemble of outstanding performances. Hip hop star Harley Alexander-Sule, half of the platinum-selling Rizzle Kicks is Adam, a disaffected young man who commands respect from his peers with an uncompromising mix of intimidation and blade. Showing no hesitation early on in horrifically cutting a girl's face who he suspects as an informer, he moves on to demand respect from old-timer Mickey, (a classy cameo from honey-voiced David Essex). The old-school old man, a former boxing coach, floors the young pretender with one magnificent punch but tragically fails to recognise the consequences of his nobility. Adam's gang waste no time and ignoring Queensberry rules their revenge, with the brutality that the half dozen young men can inflict upon a principled pensioner, is as cowardly as it is bloody. The vicious circle spirals as the (now middle aged) former boxing club members vow to avenge their mentor's murder and leading this line of fifty-something vigilantes, Doug Allen's Mitch, a former gangster who’s still a chiselled alpha male, squares up to Adam...

Gabe Turner writes and directs a fable that is a bleak snapshot of London's underclass with just a hint of social comment. The police are an impotent force who also miss the authority imposed by old-style "firms" and who resort to brutality whenever they can get away with it. Turner also suggests that violent behaviour is more nature than nurture - Mitch's young son, a product of a comfortable two-parent home is a foul mouthed bully at his grammar school, whilst Adam's young lad, being raised motherless in a council flat by a thug, is angelic. A neat touch from Turner has the feckless father touchingly chastise his son to "eat his greens".

The soundtrack stuns, with Rizzle Kicks having written two of the numbers that give the film an edgy contemporary pulse, whilst a spot of Madness' funk offers a crumb of recognisable music for the greying dads in the audience. Turner is nothing if not a respectful filmmaker and where once The Long Good Friday spoke of a new order taking over the capital, so too does The Guvnors pay homage to that seminal London movie, with a few nicely placed nods for the film-buffs. 

Alexander-Sule's massive fan base will see that one way or another The Guvnors will clean up either at the box office or online (though probably at both). But notwithstanding its platinum plated star the movie demands respect on merit. It is a gripping and well crafted tale, that will shock, amuse and ultimately stun with a devastating climax.


The Guvnors will be released to cinemas in August 2014

Carousel

Arcola Theatre, London

*****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer
Directed by Luke Fredericks

Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton

Producers Morphic Graffiti present a re-engineered Carousel at London’s Arcola Theatre. With the blessing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s publishers, they have pitched the tale around the time of the Great Depression, with a costume and style that sets the era apart from traditional turn of the 20th century stagings and it’s an interpretation that works, for the sense of poverty and depravation that surrounded the clapboard housed whaling communities of New England has long been a consistent theme of the show.

The time shift however is only an adaptation of style rather than substance. The grand human struggles of love and redemption, crime and endeavour that underpin Ferenc Molnar’s original play have a timelessness that speaks to us today – with perhaps the one exception being the un-conditional love that Julie Jordan feels towards Billy Bigelow whilst demonstrably accepting her lot as the victim of his domestic violence. Julie’s is a love that is tested in a way that is at best outmoded and at worst a misogynist’s charter.

But it remains Julie’s love and Billy’s futile doomed hopes to better himself that are the engine room of this show. Gemma Sutton is Julie and in the intimate cockpit of the Arcola, her expressions of passion and yearning towards her future husband are played out with pinpoint definition. Sutton masks the steel of her character in layers of hesitant tenderness and when this is married to her exquisite vocal work, the fusion is musical theatre bliss. When she sings If I Love You, her take on the complex melody is pitch perfect and later in act two, when her character, faltering, stumbles choked in her grief and unable to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone until Nettie takes over, the poignancy of the moment is at once both exquisite and unbearable. 

Opposite Sutton, Australian Tim Rogers brings an energy to Billy that suggests Hugh Jackman’s Curly, performed at the National Theatre in 1998. Rogers’ technical excellence manifest through his irreverent energy is another treat of a performance rarely found with such intense beauty on London’s off West End theatre scene.

And around these two lead performers beats a company that drips with perfection. There follows a name check of the most memorable, but all the company were no less than outstanding. Vickie Lee Taylor’s Carrie Pipperidge is a confection of perfect poise, presence and tone, whilst Joe Montague’s Enoch Snow nails the humerous foibles of the pompous but ambitious puritanical procreator. Joseph Connor, Katrina Dix and Susie Porter all display a balletic or acrobatic talent that is never less than breathtaking. A twirly-moustachioed Paul Hutton plays all manner of male authority roles with panache, whilst Amanda Minihan never falters as an inspiring Nettie, Richard Kent chills as a spiv Jigger and Valerie Cutko defines the wise yet complex cravings of carousel owner Mrs Mullins

The show’s design is perhaps the most visionary interpretation of low-budget scenery to be found, with the emotional impact of the opening Carousel Waltz reducing me to tears in minutes. The brilliant use of simple gates and boxes, combined with an acrobatic movement of the company that suggested a hint of Broadway’s Pippin is visionary dance work from Lee Proud and amongst all the numbers, Proud’s talent shines. The act two ballet in particular, a challenge to mount on a more generously proportioned stage let alone the Arcola, proving yet another display of masterful movement.

Stripped down to a 5 piece band, Andrew Corcoran gives Carousel’s timeless melodies a makeover. A subtle use of flute and bass is enchanting, whilst the harp accompaniment to You’ll Never Walk Alone is as subtly inspiring as it is heartbreaking.

Luke Frederick has fashioned a production of flawless technique and artistic excellence. Shows this good don’t come along that often and Carousel deserves a West End transfer. Whilst it plays at the Arcola until July 19th, don’t miss it.


Plays until July 19th. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

20th Century Boy

New Wimbledon Theatre, London

***

Director and choreographer - Gary Lloyd


Warren Sollars

Some twenty years ago, Steven Spielberg shocked the world, bringing life to a T. Rex in Jurassic Park. Today the movie-maker's feat has been more than matched by the clever pair of Gary Lloyd and John Maher, who having successfully delivered Michael Jackson's hits to the West End in Thriller Live, turn their creative focus to Marc Bolan and his eponymous band.

Where other juke box musicals attract an audience that spans the ages, The New Wimbledon Theatre was a packed out sea of grey as a throng of 60-somethings re-lived (or more likely imagined) a mis-spent youth. Either way, it didn't really matter. They were there to enjoy the recreated glam-rock sensation and the show did what it said on the tin. The sound (all played live) was a nigh on perfect cover and in hiring Warren Sollars to play the wild-haired rock star, casting director Anne Vosser has found a performer recognisably Bolan-esque to those of us old enough to remember the 1970's. Sollars is simply immense as the doomed singer and leads a cast that matches his skills. Donna Hines and Lucy Sinclair as Gloria, Bolan's girlfriend and June his ex-wife respectively, both put in turns that are vocally thrilling and contribute to spine-tingling moments, whilst Katia Sartini offers up a convincing Helen Shapiro.

Away from the songs, the narrative is trite and cliche-ridden. The show tracks Bolan's (real life) son Rolan on a fictional journey from LA to London, to learn about his father and ultimately reconcile Phyllis (a decent performance from Sue Jenkins), Bolan's grieving mother with June. Whilst Bolan's back story is fascinating, the show renders it trivial, with a mediocrity clearly signalled in the evening's programme: always be suspicious when no book writer is credited amongst a show's creative team.....

It is however when the band is in full spate that 20th Century Boy becomes a slick pulsating display of excellence. Lloyd's dance work is inspired and with Maher's musical arrangements, this replica T.Rex roars with an authentic magnificence. Diego Pitarch's sliding screens of scenery, married to projections that range from powerful to occasionally cheesy, lend themselves well to the touring production and credit to Chris Whybrow's sound design which was perfectly balanced on this first night in Wimbledon. A nod also to Ben Cracknell, whose lighting design that needed to segue from moments of intimacy to simulated stadia performances, was never less than convincing.

Fans will not be disappointed. All the band's hits are there and a 3 song encore had everyone dancing in the aisles and cheering for more. Technically and musically, there's no finer company in town.


Plays until 28th June then tours

John Owen-Jones - In Cabaret At The Hippodrome, London

Hippodrome, London

****
John Owen-Jones giving it everything at the Hippodrome

For over 15 years John Owen-Jones name has been inextricably linked with those two Cameron Mackintosh behemoths, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Very few can match the combined performance count of the youngest ever Jean Valjean and the longest running West End Phantom.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that his cabaret evening at the Hippodrome centred around his Mackintosh years, both in terms of song choices and in repartee with the audience, in which he revealed his (feigned) animosity for the ‘younger, better looking’ Ramin Karimloo. Backed by an excellent seven piece band under musical director John Quirk, we were treated to ‘Music of the Night’, ‘Bring Him Home’, a fine rendition of ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ - Love Never Dies’ stand out song – and the recent addition to the Les Mis songlist, ‘Suddenly’. And the epic musical theatre anthems didn’t end there, with ‘This is the Moment’ and ‘Anthem’ also getting outings. It is easy, I suppose, to be sniffy at such a list of over-performed classics, but it was clear that this was what the audience had come to hear, and very few people can sing them better than Owen-Jones. 

It did mean, however, that there was a slightly relentless quality to much of the evening which wasn’t helped by how loudly both singer and band were miked for the relatively small room. Owen-Jones has a wonderful, powerful voice, and he could have been miked a quarter less loud and still easily have carried above the band. It may have been giving the audience what they wanted, but at times one was left wishing for an introspective moment, if only to give the ear drums a rest!

And in fact, what introspective moments there were, were very lovely. Queen’s ‘Love of My Life’ (accompanied only by a solo guitar), the Bacharach-esque ‘Dangling’ by Maury Yeston, and Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ were all beautifully sung highlights. 

Aside from his years on the West End, the one other key influence on the night was made clear the moment he opened his mouth to speak: ‘In case you don’t know…I’m Welsh!’ he cheerfully announced. And easily the best moments of the night were the two songs from the back catalogue of his great hero, Tom Jones. Both ‘Thunderball’ and ‘Delilah’ were delivered with such a joyous relish and vocal power that suddenly the sound levels felt exactly right. Relentless it may have been at times, but when the singing is that good, who’s complaining?

Monday, 16 June 2014

John Owen-Jones - Profile Of A Star

John Owen-Jones
As John Owen-Jones brings his first ever solo cabaret to the West End this week, I took the opportunity to grab a coffee with one of musical theatre’s leading men and to find out a little more about the talented Welsh tenor. With more appearances under his belt (or mask) than any other Phantom and having performed Jean Valjean on both sides of the Atlantic, Owen-Jones occupies a respected and lofty viewpoint from which to comment upon theatre today, as well as to offer some choice reflections upon his career to date.

There’s a hint of romantic good luck that surrounded his early days in the business. Leaving the (as was) Central School of Speech and Drama in 1994 Owen-Jones was the only actor to graduate without having secured an agent. What followed however was that rare turn of events that saw his exceptional abilities combine with some remarkable moments of good fortune. After an initial couple of roles in Yorkshire, an ensemble part in the West End’s Les Miserables swiftly followed, that in turn led to an invitation to join the National Theatre company to play the Liebeslieder in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed A Little Night Music. The stellar cast of the National production included Judi Dench as Desiree Armfeldt (her reprisal of the show’s Send In The Clowns being one of the highlights of the RNT’s recent 50 year anniversary celebration) and Owen-Jones valued the opportunity to work in a leading theatre company alongside industry greats. He observes however how cossetted the subsidised NT’s rehearsal process was, or is, in contrast to the harsher regime that faces commercially staged productions.

As well as offering him a chance to work close up with Stephen Sondheim, his stint at the National saw him well placed to be pitched into a return to Les Mis when his South Bank time was up. Working back at the Palace Theatre and cast in the minor roles of Factory Foreman and Grantaire as well as First Cover Valjean, a terrible road accident rendered Phil Cavill (the incumbent Valjean) out of action. Owen-Jones was called to step up to the part, Cameron Mackintosh was impressed and almost immediately the young Welshman was cast as the youngest Valjean in the show’s history. Owen-Jones reflects even today upon how it was due to Cavill’s misfortune that he was catapulted into stardom, sanguinely acknowledging that one has to grab opportunities as they arise.

From Les Mis, Owen-Jones was put up for auditions for Phantom Of The Opera and whilst he was expecting to be cast in the modest role of Piangi and auditioning against John Barrowman, he was surprised to be offered the lead. There began an association with Lloyd Webber’s gothic, tragic anti-hero that was to last for almost 12 years. It was a part that Owen-Jones loved, though whilst he acknowledges that he could one day be tempted back to Cameron Mackintosh’s barricades, (maybe as Javert?) his days in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera are on hold. Married (to a schoolteacher) and with children of 10 and 12, Owen-Jones found the demands of a lengthy Phantom tour conflicted with family life, convincing him to hang up that particular mask for a while.

Owen-Jones as the eponymous Phantom
Aside from Phantom, recent years have seen the performer promote his international reputation and indeed our coffee had been held up as he negotiatied some complexities with Japan. With two solo albums under his belt, he has also worked with fellow Phantom Earl Carpenter and an original Christine, Rebecca Caine in creating the touring Three Phantoms, a concert of show-tunes that spans the years but nonetheless retains a re-assuring bias towards the modern day triumphs of Les Mis and Phantom. Seeing Owen-Jones perform in the Three Phantoms in Cardiff a couple of years ago was a treat. His evident pride in his local roots and the returned warmth shouted back at him from the crowd was a joy to witness. Owen-Jones has a comfortably relaxed air in concert and cabaret, the assuredness of man who is both excellent at his craft yet one who is profoundly aware of that excellence with, a confidence that is as modest as it is talented. In a business often crowded out by oversized egos, his is a humility rarely encountered.

Keeping in touch with modern developments on stage, Owen-Jones speaks in awe of the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin and refers to his kids (who not surprisingly have already seen a fair amount of musical theatre!) as having sat through the show “open-mouthed” in amazement. He wonders though if there is a talent-base broad enough on this side of the Atlantic that could see the show, famed for its combination of breathtaking circus skills alongside outstanding song and dance, successfully open in London. He loved I Can’t Sing!, though acknowledges that the show’s tunes were not memorable and that whilst he and his wife were crying with laughter, his kids were baffled by it. Supporting lesser known writers too, Owen-Jones has sung twice with New York composer Scott Alan in the American’s recent London gigs, once at the O2 and more recently at the London Hippodrome, engendering a warm respect between the two men, with Alan speaking warmly of his admiration for the performer, not just as an outstanding vocalist but also as a kind and compassionate man.

A spectacularly open individual, with much sage comment upon both his colleagues and the business, much of what Owen-Jones had to say had either a frankness or an irreverence that demanded that it remains off record. Unquestionably a star of the modern stage, his erudite observations on the entertainment world are the thoughts of an individual who will not suffer fools, yet commands an air of relaxed gravitas. There is not a hint of arrogance to Owen-Jones at all, just quiet, outstanding ability.

It is to the Hippodrome that Owen-Jones returns this Saturday night. With a set list that bears a nod to Joe Cocker and Tom Jones, as well as signature tunes Bring Him Home and Music Of The Night, the evening’s patter is likely to be as revelatory as the songs will be sparkling. Almost sold-out, a few tickets still remain for what is sure to be one of the capital’s most exciting cabarets this summer.



John performs in the Matcham Room at the London Hippodrome on Saturday 21st June

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Here Lies Henry

Camden People's Theatre, London

**

Written by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Jason Langley




A 70 minute bare stage monologue, punctuated only by lighting changes and occasional penile projections, Here Lies Henry is a glimpse into one man's mind, desires and frustrations. Framed around the writings of Nietzsche, the focus of the work is around the eight different kinds of lies that together add to human knowledge. The acting is breathtaking and passionate throughout, but MacIvor’s text is only sometimes profound and often, introspectively pretentious. The billboards proclaim that “you will laugh and cry”. They omit to mention that you may also yawn (or even sleep, as those unfortunates seated in the baking upper tiers of the tiny venue, were heard to confess as the show ended)

First produced nearly twenty years ago, this little known play's programme notes suggest that over the years Here Lies Henry has been described as an enigma and as an explanation of the existence and purpose of the one-person play. This conceit is misplaced, for whilst one-person arcs can indeed be stunning, (Beckett's work in particular was masterful), the overall sensation of Here Lies Henry is one of a relentless rant, rather than revelation. Sure, there are moments along the scripted tirade that do make one pause and reflect but little more than that. Text updates pay a rather sensational nod to Jimmy Savile's crimes, which prove more of a momentary distraction rather than the contemporary freshening up that the creators intend. And whilst one has no choice but to listen to Henry's observations, it is hard to truly care about them.

The production is unquestionably a tour de force from actor Matthew Hyde who merits a deserved nod for his work. There can be few harder working actors on the London stage today and notwithstanding a tendency to Nietzschean navel-gaze, if Here Lies Henry serves only as a springboard to this remarkable actor's career, then it will have achieved some good.


Runs until 14th June 2014

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Lear

Union Theatre, London

***

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Willmott


Richard Derrington as the eyeless Gloucester

‘Tis the the season to re-interpret the bard. As a trimmed down Hamlet plays out in Hammersmith, so Phil Willmott’s Lear, precociously billed as “by William Shakespeare”, opens at the Union Theatre. This should be an innovative production as Willmott has deliberately removed “King” from the play’s title - his ageing monarch is a woman and if he had sought to leave it at that, then Ursula Mohan’s performance in the title role might just have given the show the strength it needed. But whilst Willmott's bow is bent and drawn, his Lear falls far short of the mark. The directors’s treatment of the text will not only appal scholars, it may also baffle newcomers. Even knowing the play well, the hashed denouements of Willmott's truncation of Act 5 are a ghastly confusion in this production.

Staged in three sections, the first two being promenade and the final seated, the audience enter to the opening scene being an elegant modern day soiree, during which Lear divides her kingdom. The promenade concept (on press night at least) stuttered and rather than stroll and mingle around the confines of the Union space, most of the audience clung to the walls, some nervously clutching drinks, portentously suggesting the air of a party that has yet to get going. It didn’t really work, though Lear’s addressing a promenader with “cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool”, in the trial scene did make for an unexpected chuckle.

Mohan’s monarch is a creditable effort though she never truly reaches that air of tragic majesty that a good Lear should inspire. Her Fool (neat work from Joseph Taylor) is portrayed as an NHS carer/nurse and hence there is a suggestion that from the outset her mind has long been flawed, which detracts from the impact of her early rages and at the close, rarely has Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl” at Cordelia’s death been so unmoving. To those who know the play, when Lear typically mourns his daughter with “Her voice was ever soft,” that Willmott has then cut the following line “Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman” smacks of a conveniently sexist expediency in his editing. 

The post-modern touches are everywhere. From an act one “selfie” of Lear with her daughters, to Edgar shooting up with heroin after Edmund manipulatively tells him to flee, to Stephen Harakis' Cornwall chopping a line of cocaine before the (rather gloriously bloody) gouging of Gloucester's eyes. Snorts of charlie notwithstanding, Willmott chops too vigorously and rather than Kent being banished, in this version the trusted courtier is axed completely. This is a cut too far, for Kent’s noble devotion to the King should present a thread of reasoned morality in a world gone crazy.

Undoubtedly flawed, Lear is nonetheless still worth seeing. Not just for other directors to observe how not to stage a promenade piece, but for some fine acting too. Richard Derrington’s officious Gloucester nails the bumbling yet brave nobility of the adulterous Earl, whilst Rikki Lawton’s illegitimate Edmund is a plausible bastard of a bastard. There is a tad too much pantomime in all three sisters’ performances but if Willmott can temper that into the run, it will be to the show’s advantage.

Off-West End productions continue to represent a pulsing heart of the capital’s theatre scene and bravo to Willmott and co and to the Union’s Sasha Regan for having the guts to mount this version. Wear comfortable shoes and be pro-active in moving around. Gloucester may have stumbled when he saw but you won’t, it’s worth the walk.


Runs until 28th June

Monday, 2 June 2014

Picture Perfect

St James Studio, London

***

Music & lyrics by Scott Evan Davis
Conceived & directed by Simon Greiff



Jerome Pradon

In another display of fine production values, the fledgling United Theatrical team of Stuart Matthew Price and James Yeoburn have assembled a classy quartet to premiere Scott Evan Davis' new show.

Empty picture frames adorn the St James' basement stage, signalling that whilst appearances (frames) may be gilded, what lies beneath often isn't. Early on we find fourty-something Elizabeth discovering hubby Harry's infidelity. As son Josh agonises over the fear of mom leaving home, the mistress-young-enough-to-be-Harry's-daughter Ellie, swoons over her lover's apparent perfections. Throughout, Simon Greiff directs his company with a precise clarity.

Helen Hobson gives a beautifully weighted Elisabeth. Singing from the book, the script she held was barely noticeable. It is a mark of the woman that her delivery was exquisitely nuanced, either as caring mother or betrayed wife. She gives fabulous vocals and a faultless presence.

Jerome Pradon is her greying deceitful spouse. Again, a flawless performance, though it is in his role that the cracks in Davis' writing start to emerge with his guilty husband/dad character barely given an opportunity to crawl out of cliched predictability.

Josh is played by a mellifluous Joel Harper-Jackson. The young man's voice has a divine range and a fabulous belt and it is a mark of his talent that he can convince in songs that pitch him from aged 7 through to a much older young man struggling with his sexuality. He too however is bogged down by lyrics that are sometimes eye-rollingly awful. "Knowing who I was, Has taught me who I am" is a line that should never have made it past an early workshop.

As coquettish Ellie, the outstanding Charlotte Wakefield again shows why she was up for an Olivier earlier this year (coincidentally nominated for a Maria that played against Helen Hobson's Mother Abbess in the Open Air's Sound of Music). Amongst the best of her generation Wakefield dances her way through the show, each number a distinct and polished example of acting through song. A youthful audience filled the theatre (an impressive achievement on a sunny Sunday afternoon) and today's musical theatre students would do well to note the professionalism and excellence that Wakefield brings to all her roles.

Colin Billing's piano work with Sarah Bowler on cello bring a passion to the afternoon's accompaniment, though whilst all the tunes are superbly played, few are memorable.

In a curious irony, the show lives up to the pretext it purports to argue. The cast and creatives are glitteringly top-notch but scratch this show's surface and there is very little to stir the soul. Picture Perfect is a middling book about mediocre folk. Davis needs to inject more sparkling satire that lifts his lyrics above a paltry attempt at humour referencing human vices. Where Sondheim and Schwartz possess a brilliance that either tickles ribs or bites at one’s psyche, too much “new writing” (with Dougal Irvine and Scott Alan being notable exceptions) lacks the wit of these wordsmiths. On this showing, Picture Perfect remains a work in progress. Remove the cliche and there may yet be a deeply moving show waiting to emerge.

Hamlet

Riverside Studios, London

***

William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Directed by Zoe Ford


Adam Lawrence

There has long been debate over who wrote Shakespeare’s works. Bacon, Marlowe or the Bard himself? One thing’s for sure. They are all spinning in their graves tonight at what Zoe Ford has done to Hamlet.

With a slimmed down cast, Denmark’s Elsinore is translated to HM Prison Liverpool, in which Ford has decreed that some of the characters are convicts and others visitors or prison officials. A lengthy mise en scene (that includes Liverpool FC’s recent throwing away of the Premiership at Crystal Palace in the background, as well as Hamlet enduring a full body search) is a quirky addition that sets the tone for a maelstrom of meddling that does the learned Ms Ford no credit. This is a dumbed down Hamlet that strips the play not only of much of its verse, but also of several of its famous quotes and moments. Whilst Fortinbras’ omission from the text is understandable (and common), the players' arrival at Court is curiously transformed into a group therapy session, whilst other memorable text excisions include “neither a borrower nor a lender be” along with the whole of the dialogue between Hamlet and the Ghost in Gertrude’s closet. And Yorick doesn’t get a look in at all. (Actually that is a real shame, because some of Shakespeare’s finest humour occurs between the Gravediggers and Hamlet/Horatio. Ford’s pseudo-witty attempts elsewhere in the play at modern colloquial banter do not come close to the original and this scene’s butchery is a cut too far.)

There is a liberal use of the f-word throughout and a schoolgirl emphasis on the assonant fun to be had with “country matters” during the play-within-a-play scene, with the overall effect being a cheapening of the whole. One suspects that Ford, whose day job is as a Text Assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe, is driven by a worthy motive of seeking to make Shakespeare accessible to a wider audience. ‘Tis a noble cause for sure, but all she achieves here is reducing much of the prose to a lowest common denominator. A-level or GCSE students should avoid this production lest they quote Ford’s interpretation of the play, as set in a Scouse jail, on an examined script.

So, why three stars, when Ford’s edited text merits far less? Amongst her having made Shakespeare sensational (and there’s a quote waiting to be taken out of context if ever there was one), she has created some perceptive moments. Ophelia’s mad scene is poignant, (good work from Jessica White) Gertrude’s pain at Hamlet’s apparently insane interaction with the Ghost in her closet is a rare episode of deep emotional pain and the maleovelant and downright nasty duplicity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is shown in clear relief. Also, as is often the case with stage Hamlet’s, Adam Lawrence’s performance is excellent and a huge physical effort, though around him there is mediocrity as Joyce Greenaway’s Gertrude is often mumbled and Anthony Kernan’s Polonius disappoints.

Above all, this is a Hamlet that should be seen as a curiosity. If you are a newcomer to the play then sadly it will deny you much of the nuanced beauty of the finely crafted original. But if you know the play well, then go and enjoy the fun. It’s a corner-cutting novelty for sure, but at least at just over two hours including interval, it won’t leave you bored.


Runs until 22nd June 2014