Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Next Fall - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

****

Written by Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Mitchell Mullen and Nancy Crane

Set in Manhattan, Next Fall is a carefully written exposition of faith, sexuality and denial, played out across the cultural chasm of the Mason-Dixon Line that even today, still fractures the United States.

Martin Delaney is Luke, a gay Southerner, committed to his Christian faith and who has been unable to come out to his long-divorced parents.  The play opens with his having sustained life-threatening injuries in a car crash, and as he lies offstage on a ventilator the drama plays out through flashbacks and real-time, as the jigsaw pieces of his life slowly fall into place.

Luke's lover Adam is an atheist New Yorker, stymied by Luke's shielding of his sexuality from his parents and desperate to be able to express his love for Luke as the younger man’s life hangs by a thread. Charlie Condou plays Adam, on stage for almost the entire play and injecting a passion into his performance that never once slips from excruciating credibility.

All the performances in this meticulously researched piece are top notch, with Mitchell Mullen's Butch, Luke's redneck father, a brilliantly crafted study of a man who has lived his life believing that gays and blacks should be lynched, now having to cope with the consequences of having denied to himself his son's sexuality. In a performance that ranges from rage to heartbreak, Mullen is masterful.

The Judaeo-Christian fusion of the North Eastern metropolis is in stark contrast to the bible-bashing prejudice of the South and Naufft's carefully constructs his drama around the painful paradoxes of faith. There are moments in the second half when the characters' back stories tend to drag, yet the drama is never more intense than when Adam grapples with wanting to tell Butch all, whilst at the same time the old man is having to contemplate the agony of agreeing to organ donation, should Luke succumb to.his devastating injuries It makes for brilliant theatre.

There is good work all round, Sirine Saba's Jewish Holly proving to be the glue struggling to sustain the damaged people around her and who all love Luke for different reasons. Nancy Crane is Luke's manic yet fragile mother Arlene, in a performance that perceptively combines a mother's agony for her wounded child, with a desperate lurch into the welcoming arms of anti-depressants.

David Woodhead's design with Howard Hudson's lighting makes clever work of The Little's compact space, efficiently suggesting changes in both time and location, and Luke Sheppard has done well on capturing the nuances from his talented troupe.

Next Fall is one of the more impressive productions of gay theatre in recent years. The performances are perfect and the play makes for a troubling and thought provoking night.


Runs until 25th October 2014

West End Heroes - Review

Dominion Theatre, London

*****
Flt Lt Matthew Little and Tiffany Graves


One of the treats of reviewing shows is to be thrilled by on-stage excellence in theatres around the country. It is however a rare privilege to be humbled too. But to sit in a packed Dominion Theatre and witness the cream of the nation's performing talent and armed forces, joining forces for Help For Heroes was to see a night where our top-flight troopers and troupers became indistinguishable.

Michael Ball, he of National Treasure status and the reigning daddy of Britain's musical theatre world hosted the gig bringing just the right combination of gravitas and levity - and that was before he sang. Ball’s act one closer of Andersson and Ulvaeus' Anthem made spines tingle, leading to the first standing ovation of the night. And at a show supporting the sacrifices our servicemen make, his Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (and remember that Ball was Les Miserables' original Marius) carried a rare poignancy, marking those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Notable at the gala were the dozens of West End performers who had given up nights off to hoof some of their shows' biggest numbers. The Evita cast re-staged a marvellous Buenos Aires, whilst in the second half the boys from Miss Saigon gave a tear-inducing Bui Doi with Hugh Maynard, who has clearly grown into the role of John since the show opened a few months ago, owning both stage and song with an inspirational passion.

Collabro, the boy band with a hint of musical theatre and this year's Britain's Got Talent winners gave the first Les Mis contribution of the night with their famously spine-tingling take on Bring Him Home. Tiffany Graves together with the RAF's secret (singing) weapon of Flt Lt Matthew Little was then to give a brilliant Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better capturing the sparkling wit of the song's rivalry with the airman's tenor tones proving more than a match for Graves' poise and polished professional perfection. That they weaved in and out of dancers and military bandsmen during the number only added to the immaculate comedy timing of the performance. 

Matt Flint's choreography was a treat throughout, never bettered than in the Sherman Brothers' Step In Time, complete with the number's hallmark aerial tap routine that saw Freddie Huddlestone dance himself around the full 360 degrees of the Dominion's gaping proscenium arch. A special note to those masters of aerial theatre Flying By Foy, who had managed to rig the spectacular stunt in record time.

Oliver Tompsett with Jo Gibb led some beautiful wartime songs in a preview of Songs for Victory, Woman The Band gave a novel take on A Hard Day’s Night and backing for many of the evening’s soloists came from the West End Choir, made up for the night from technical and front of house folk from across the capital's theatre scene.

The night was a sparkling collection of gems. Louise Dearman blazed her way through possibly Ahrens and Flaherty's finest song, Back To Before, whilst in a pre-Xmas show promotion Wendi Peters' White Christmas created a singalong mood that was as cheesy as it was lovely. To a backdrop video of serving soldiers, Daniel Boys and Lauren Samuels gave Michael Buble's Home a distinct and moving resonance.

Les Mis was to offer the evening's rousing close with Do You Hear The People Sing, but not before Carrie Hope Fletcher, a woman who is simply all beautiful voice, hair and stunning presence gave what must have been her 9th (?) performance of On My Own that week. Ball introduced Fletcher, commenting that 12 years ago the much younger actress had played Jemima to his Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - hers remains truly a career to watch.

But enough of the performers - what of the music? Under Stuart Morley's arrangement and direction and Wing Cmdr Duncan Stubbs’ expert baton, The Central Band Of The Royal Air Force, the big band sound of The Royal Air Force Squadronnaires, The Band of HM Royal Marines, The Band Of The Queen’s Division and The Queen’s Colour Squadron Air Force Regiment gave an accompaniment that was, as one would expect, immaculately rehearsed and drilled, proving to be a spectacular tribute to London's pit orchestras whose work they replicated superbly. 

And in referring to the military contribution to the night, here is where one must pause and reflect.

Our fine actors (or rather of course, those fortunate enough to be in employment) give of their brilliant all 6 days a week. But for Our Boys and Our Girls in uniform, service under the military covenant is 24/7. In a world that is increasingly terrifying, these personnel represent the very best of our nation, literally putting their lives on the line to defend our democratic freedoms. Theirs' is truly a 5* performance, all year round.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Sweeney Todd - Review

Twickenham Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Derek Anderson

David Bedella and Sarah Ingram

Twickenham is the newest of fringe theatres to open in the capital. Perched above a pub, little more than a stone’s throw from the train station it’s a pleasantly accessible suburban venue and with Derek Anderson’s entertaining production of Sondheim’s bloodiest work, Twickenham has laid down its marker for quality.

There’s a steampunk feel to the piece. Amidst dripping pipes and a smoke filled gloom creating the infernal grime of Mrs Lovett’s bakehouse, David Bedella and Sarah Ingram breathe life into the doomed couple. Bedella’s Todd is callow, drawn and hungry for vengeance. Controlled understatement defines his crafted performance though vocally, on press night at least, it felt that he could be giving more. In two of Sweeney’s biggest numbers, My Friends and Epiphany, Bedella is magnificent, though he and the cast are not helped by clumsy sound design throwing voices in and out of amplification depending upon proximity to static mikes.

The treat of the show however is Ingram whose buxomly decolletaged Mrs Lovett is at once a fusion of Carry On’s Hattie Jaques, Oliver’s Nancy and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Ingram nuances the menace of her character perfectly, The Worst Pies In London being a comic treat whilst By The Sea blends her romantic desperation with Sondheim’s remarkable understanding of English banter. Ingram could slow down just a tad in A Little Priest, some of the gags are garbled.

Elsewhere there is excellence from Genevieve Kingsford making her debut in the desperately challenging soprano role of Johanna. She sings exquisitely in Kiss Me and Green Finch And Linnet Bird. Mikaela Newton’s Tobias is touchningly convincing whilst Mark McKerracher is appropriately old enough to make his misogynistic lust for his young ward as disgusting as it should be, though his moment of self-flagellation is distractingly feeble.

The staging is simple with Rachel Stone’s design generally working well. Sweeney’s chair is an ingeniously low-budget affair but it serves its purpose, shuttling the slaughtered carcasses off the stage. The fake blood flows in torrents, turning most of the show’s murders into moments of comedy-horror, though too often the blood squirting nozzle is visible on the “victim”. If the mechanics behind an effect are visible, it is no longer “special” and an audience’s suspended disbelief can lurch dangerously south.

Benjamin Holder’s four piece band tackle Sondheim with aplomb. The two keyboards in particular maintain an almost orchestral backing to the show and are a constant reminder of the outstanding performance values to be found in London’s Off West End. I won’t be the only critic to say this, but make the trip to Twickenham’s Sweeney Todd. It’s a bloody good musical.


Runs until 4th October 2014

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Return Of The Soldier - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London

****

Music by Charles Miller.
Book and Lyrics by Tim Sanders
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Stewart Clarke and Laura Pitt-Pulford

There was a group of students from Mountview Drama School attending on the same night that I reviewed The Return Of The Soldier and they could not have chosen a finer master-class to demonstrate their pursued craft, for this tiny company, five strong, drip with excellence. Charlotte Westenra's production that premieres this troubling WW1 musical, marks another theatrical tribute that respects the centenary of the outbreak of "the war to end all wars".

Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actress whose name on any bill guarantees a classy performance, is Margaret, a barely happily married woman, whose feelings for a past flame of her youth are re-kindled when the dashing former beau inexplicably starts sending her love letters. Stewart Clarke plays Captain Baldry the gloriously moustachioed and patrician officer who captured her heart all those years ago. The tale unfolds and we learn that Baldry has long since married Kitty, a frightfully snobbish debutante, socially way above the common barmaid Margaret and that the Captain has just been sent back from the Front suffering from shell-shock (or PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) The PTSD has erased any memory of his marriage from his conscience, leaving him only to recall and yearn for his long lost love for Margaret. Rebecca West's novel, adapted by Tim Sanders is ripe for the grand sweep of a musical treatment. Pitt-Pulford's layered Margaret is a masterclass and we feel for her character's emotional dilemma, drawn back to the Baldry house (invited actually, by Kitty) to act almost as a "tethered goat" to try and re-kindle the injured officer’s cognisance of the present.

Making her second foray this year into the theatre of The Great War, Zoe Rainey, recently seen in Stratford East's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War! evokes both our contempt for her despicable treatment of Margaret, yet also touches a profound note of sympathy as she grapples with a husband who no longer not only recognises her, but burns with desire for his former love. Alongside Pitt-Pulford, Rainey's work is of the highest standard.

Clarke's Baldry is further evidence that this gifted young actor remains one to watch, whilst doubling up as Margaret's humbling bumbling husband William, as well as the manipulative psychiatrist Dr Anderson, Michael Matus is, as ever, excellent. There is a scene in act one where Margaret kneads dough as she talks to William and casting directors take note: a future Sweeney Todd that pairs Matus with Pitt-Pulford would be sensational.

Whilst the talent that visionary producer Katy Lipson, together with Guy James, has assembled is flawless, the same does not hold true for Miller and Sander’s writing. The melodies often fail to satisfy (notwithstanding several moments of pitch-perfect close harmony) whilst the ironic wit of Dr Anderson’s solo number Head Master lacks the incisive bite of Littlewood's near-perfect collection of war satire. As the story’s endgame plays out we learn of childrens' deaths. To lose one toddler in a plot is forgivable, to learn of two such fatalities is downright careless and notwithstanding the ending’s poignancy, the infant mortalities muddle the emotional thrust of the work, detracting from the raw brutal horrors of trench warfare and PTSD.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Return Of The Soldier is a fine piece of chamber theatre, with the cello and piano work of Simon Lambert’s band proving exquisite. In the tight confines of the Jermyn Street’s cockpit it remains an utter privilege to be able to see and scrutinise such an exceptional cast at work.


Runs to 20th September 2014