Thursday, 30 October 2014

Laura Jane Matthewson - A Star Is Born


STOP PRESS NOVEMBER 30 2014

This article was originally published on October 30 2014

Exactly one month later, Laura has won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for 2014 for her performance as Rose in Dogfight at London's Southwark Playhouse theatre. Read on to learn a little more about this sensational new talent to grace the stage...

This week the newest sensation to hit London's musical theatre scene, Laura Jane Matthewson was crowned champion of the Talent 2014 competition by Michael Ball. After winning all her heats Laura was thrilled to receive some top notch goodies plus a thousand pounds too. Not a bad haul - but for this young actress, the true spoils of her entering Talent 2014 had been gained some months ago, when heat-judge Danielle Tarento laid eyes on her for the first time and signed her up as leading lady for her London premier production of the off Broadway hit Dogfight.

Dogfight was always going to be a "marmite" musical. Tackling a troubling subject: the mysogynist, sexist and abusive antics of a group of US marines pre their Vietnam deployment, a small handful of critics hated it. But they were just a few. The morning after press night the reaction to the show was "rave" - and in the first time that I can recall for a fringe production, Matthewson  was repeatedly singled out for buckets of praise. Libby Purves formerly of The Times and now perhaps the most respected independent critic on the circuit devoted half of her review to Mathewson whilst other notable pundits such as Baz Bamigboye of the Mail and The Stage's Mark Shenton also waxed lyrical. As the ripples of amazement crossed the Atlantic, even The New York Times added their penn'orth in praise of Laura.

So - as Matthewson was only last week preparing for her competition final and as Sunderland FC had just been thrashed 8-0 by Southampton, (though albeit a proud Wearsider, she did confess, in a shrimp-like state of embarrassment, a total ignorance of that humiliating score-line, explaining that "football's not her thing") I grabbed the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

The reviews of Dogfight predominantly described you as a newly-graduated (from the Royal Academy of Music) arrival on the professional scene. Was that an accurate description?

Actually it's a bit far from the truth! Whilst I was certainly new to the London stage, for the last five years (in fact ever since winning The Panto Factor) I have had regular professional roles. My first part was in a Sevenoaks pantomime, opposite former EastEnders star Leslie Grantham (who was an absolute delight to work with) and since then I have done panto every year along with numerous TIE gigs and other out of town productions.

"Dog" is a vile description of a woman. At the core of Dogfight is how a group of young men get their kicks out of debasing women and labelling them as ugly. Putting the show's politics aside, how humanly challenging was it for you to play such a role?

It's never written anywhere that Rose (my character) or that any of the women in the show are ugly. Within the parameters of 1960's America they are required to to be perceived as unconventionally attractive. For Rose, the breakdown said that the role needed somebody a bit overweight and as I have never been a stick-thin leading lady anyway, that's fine. She is somebody "quite plain and reserved but with heart", a phrase that I loved.

Rose almost has a light from within. The more that you get to know and like her, the more that she becomes attractive, which is sort of what happens with everybody in real life. You know when you meet somebody that looks beautiful and then they turn out to be a horrible person and immediately become less attractive? I don't think that the Rose is an ugly girl, she is just not "stick-thin Miss America" and neither am I.

The show stirred up a hornets nest of reactions amongst some critics. Tell me about that.

I completely agree with one of the cast members, Ciaran Joyce who played a marine, one of the marines who said he didn't  understand why people were coming to see the show and complaining about the misogyny, suggesting it was like going to see Les Mis and then complaining that it's set in France.

I feel that Rose comes out as triumphant. The show doesn't condone the dogfights - it simply acknowledges that they exist amongst some of the armed forces, and continue today. A serving US serviceman saw Dogfight and commented on its authenticity.

What was it like to read the reviews of Dogfight and find some of the harshest critics in the land raving about your performance.

Before the show I didn't really care that much what people were going to say. I was already in love with the entire project and what Matt Ryan (the director of Dogfight) was doing with the show and I think that even if the reviews had been less favorable, it would have just gone over my head.

To have that praise though was like the cherry on the cake. I was feeling  like I'd won the lottery and I'd think that this is just hilarious that they think I'm this good! I would never be naïve enough, because of the five years that I have spent leading up to this,  to think "This is going to last forever" or "This is my big break. I have made it now" or "This is", because above all, I know that these moments come but that they can also disappear overnight. When the New York Times mentioned me in an article I thought"This is perfect. Thank you!", but really, as the notices came in I was like, "That's so lovely... I'll share that on my Facebook... My Dad will be dead proud."

And what for the future?

Dogfight has really opened doors for me and in addition to musical theatre parts I am now being considered for film and television work.

This sounds cheesy, and so often what I say sounds like a cliché, but I was thinking this the other day, about the appreciation I have for this job.  I was remembering some of the TIE I did, in particular a show about the history of Olympia. We were going around schools, doing three shows a day and setting up the set ourselves and taking it back down. There was one day, when I was with a cast of four people, where we all had to get changed in a Maths cupboard behind the stage. The central heating was on full blast and we were sweating and disgusting, and I was having the biggest laugh ever and I was like, "Guys, how lucky are we that we are being paid to do something that we love? This is just amazing."

I just think that just sums it up. If you can be happy doing that, then everything else is a bonus. Those reviews were like winning the lottery.

Laura Pitt-Pulford: Keeping Ahead Of The Curve

SINCE WRITING THIS FEATURE, LAURA PITT-PULFORD'S PERFORMANCE AS MARIA HAS RECEIVED RAVE REVIEWS ACROSS THE BOARD. CLICK HERE TO READ MY REVIEW OF THE SHOW


as Lucille Frank in Parade

There is much anticipation for Leicester Curve's Christmas 2014 offering. The Sound Of Music will be Paul Kerryson, the Curve's much lauded Artistic Director's swansong show. Even more than Kerryson's expected impact upon this classic musical, is his choice of leading lady to play Maria. Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actor who is amongst the cream of her generation is to play the lapsed nun/impetuous governess and her casting is an inspired decision. This Mountview graduate (the class of 2005) has consistently delivered acclaimed excellence in every part she has played and whether it be working in the fringe or in the highest echelons of the subsidised sector, her commitment to her craft is inspirational. As the news was announced of her being cast as Maria, I caught up with Laura to find out a little more about this gifted performer.

Growing up away from the London bubble (her family hail from Rugby) it was to be some months after leaving Mountview before she got her first break in commercial theatre, as Young Heidi in Sondheim's Follies at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. It says much for Pitt-Pulford that her debut professional gig was a Sondheim - the man famously (and ingeniously) creates demanding roles, a challenge that she more than matched.

Enviably, the last few years have rarely seen Pitt-Pulford out of work, with the Southwark Playhouse, one of London's leading fringe venues, proving to be a springboard for her career. Producer Danielle Tarento spotted her to play Lucille Frank, the leading lady in Jason Robert Brown's scorching musical set around a travesty of justice that occurred in the Southern state of Georgia shortly after the American Civil War. It had been barely five years since Parade had played at London's Donmar (achieving the deserved recognition that had eluded it on Broadway), yet under Thom Southerland's direction the Tarento production was to receive its own critical acclaim, in no small measure due to Pitt-Pulford's heroic Southern belle (alongside her leading man Al Brookshaw). She had arrived in London.

Fast forwarding a year saw the Tarento-Southerland partnership stage Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel, another difficult even if beautifully scored show. Pitt-Pulford was Tarento's only choice to play Mabel Normand - but there was a hiccough. Already playing the lead in Sweet Charity at Belfast's MAC, Pitt-Pulford was only to be allowed a two week rehearsal slot for the role and had to parachute in to the company when they were already half way through their rehearsals. Suffice to say, her preparation for the role had been meticulous with the show going on to be one of London's sell out successes in the summer of 2012.

as Mabel Normand in Mack & Mabel
But Pitt-Pulford is no stranger to flying (sometimes literally) by the seat of her pants. A colleague and good friend tells of how at the Curve on the press night of Paul Kerryson's wonderfully staged Piaf, Pitt-Pulford, playing working girl Toine, was required to have draped herself, spread-eagled over a chaise-longue, clad in little more than her character’s working clothes of suspenders and underwear. As Beginners were being called, a last minute costume check by the actress led her to realise she was knicker-less and even worse, the dressing rooms were an Olympic sprint away through numerous security doors. Ever the consummate professional, the actress made it on stage, just in time, ensuring Toine's opening appeared exactly as planned.

(In a lovely moment, as Laura was talking about Piaf, the coffee shop in which we were sat played La Vie En Rose in the background. Beautiful) 

Kerryson has previous with Pitt-Pulford. Before Piaf, she was his Irene Molloy alongside an award winning Janie Dee in Hello, Dolly! whilst last year Marianne Elliott cast Pitt-Pulford in the National Theatre's The Light Princess, where aside from sporting some stunning footwear, she added puppetry to her skills and still speaks in admiration of Elliott's visionary approach to Tori Amos' ground-breaking musical. A performer who is never afraid to tackle new work, Pitt-Pulford has recently thrown herself into two of up-coming producer Katy Lipson's shows. A cracking UK premier of the Sondheim pot-pourri Marry Me A Little saw some glorious Manhattan-ite interaction with Simon Bailey, whilst her Margaret in Charles Miller's The Return Of The Soldier saw her give a sensitive exploration of the layers of a very complex woman caught up in the aftermath of PTSD during the First World War.

But it is her Maria that right now is so eagerly awaited. Laura tells me that she "just can't wait to put my stamp on it. I grew up on the film, love it, love everything about it. Such a fabulous story and she is such an interesting character." 

The re-union of Kerryson with choreographer Drew McOnie, who together wowed Leicester and the wider the theatre world with a sensational Chicago last Christmas, only adds to the anticipation surrounding the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. But it is the inspired casting of Laura Pitt-Pulford as the intriguing postulant that is likely to underscore what is sure to be a sell out festive treat.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

My Lifelong Love – An Evening with Georgia Stitt and Friends - Review

Garrick Theatre, London

*****

Georgia Stitt

Take one gifted composer, six sensational solo artists and five fine musicians. Place them on a practically empty stage and let the music do the rest. This was exactly what happened at the Garrick this week when America songwriter Georgia Stitt, for one night only, made her West End debut. 

In a cleverly arranged evening, act one comprised eleven solo numbers, with the second half a selection of songs for multiple voices. Impressive amongst the men were Jamie Muscato whose The Light Of The World was both powerful and moving. Norman Bowman joined Muscato to perform She, possibly one of the most stunning contemporary male duets written, with Bowman’s rendition of Sonnet XXIX making an excellent close to Act 1. A credit to both him and Stitt for taking some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful prose and so delicately fitting the words to music. Stitt’s confession that, having grown up in Memphis her style has been significantly influenced by the Blues, was more than evident in Simon Bailey’s incredibly cool performance of At This Turn In The Road Again, a song (along with many others) in which AJ Brinkman’s work on bass was a treat to listen to. 

Notwithstanding the testosterone-fuelled talent on stage, it was the vocal acrobatics from Stitt’s three (leading) ladies that carried the evening’s killer punch. Their talents were never bettered than when Eva Noblezada, Caroline Sheen and Cynthia Erivo combined in an electric three-part harmony for Before I Lose My Mind. Sheen is a masterclass in herself in her, notably in her powerful The Baby Song, ingeniously fooling the audience with a comedic opening, only to end in tragedy. Erivo’s velvet voice quickly evolved into the trademark musical theatre power house, especially in Stitt’s hauntingly complex number The Wanting Of You. Finally, London newcomer and Miss Saigon star Noblezada displayed innocence and vulnerability combined with her faultless vocals in Almost Everything I Need. 

Such a strong company needed no more set than the stark frame of The Garrick’s current production The Scottsboro Boys and it’s only a shame that gigs and material as good as this aren’t heard live more frequently. Let’s hope that Georgia Stitt won’t keep us waiting too long for her UK return.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Made In Dagenham - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London

****

Music by David Arnold
Lyrics by Richard Thomas
Book by Richard Bean
Directed by Rupert Goold


Gemma Arterton and company

Made in Dagenham, the musical based on the hit film of the same name, takes this true story to a new level. A bluntly comedic book by Richard Bean is the backbone of this hearty British extravaganza, with the stage version packing a punch, far mightier and steeped in laughs than the movie. Rupert Goold’s direction is tight and full of energy throughout with the production being as bold as brass, unapologetically crude and yet wonderfully uplifting.

Bunnie Christie’s stunning set and costume design is adorned with huge over sized letters from the title that hang as a reminder to the roots of the play in Dagenham. Metallic walls of car-parts divide the stage, whilst a ring of oily gearboxes mechanically and monotonously revolve with a gentle drone above the opening scene.

Gemma Arterton stars as the Ford factory worker Rita O’Grady, who fights for equal pay for women when the factory girls learn that their jobs are being downgraded to ‘unskilled’. Arterton shines as an authentically British turn, notably in Everybody Out, a brilliantly upbeat number. 

Elsewhere a top-notch cast bring the nuances of their relatable characters into glorious relief. Sophie Stanton’s Beryl in particular, a loveably burly potty mouth brings the house down consistently from start to finish, though Richard Thomas’ sentimental lyrics in Letters fall short of the emotional plea that is needed from Rita’s husband Eddie O’Grady (Adrian der Gregorian) as he takes their children and leaves his wife, who has been overtaken by her political charge. The obvious "Dad cooked us chips on toast" line wears a bit thin.

In taking on Westminster as well as east London’s Dagenham, the show delivers cracking characterisations of Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle. Mark Hadfield is a superb bloated comic sleeze, constantly suggestively sucking on his pipe and delivering some superb one liners to punctuate the action. Cabinet minister Castle is played by the coiffured and charismatic Sophie Louise-Dann. Poised and sparky, the ever excellent Dann belts as required with a beautiful delivery.

Made In Dagenham is a fabulous show about history politics and passion that takes an inspiring tale of human endeavour and sets it to glorious songs and performances. The show is also wonderful proof, amidst a flurry of Broadway imports into the West End, that quality musicals continue to be made in Britain.


Now booking until 2015 - Tickets available from www.officialtheatre.com

Guest reviewer - Lauren Gauge

Memphis - Review

Shaftesbury Theatre, London

****

Book and lyrics by Jo DiPietro
Music and lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly

The history of the United States’ black population gaining civil rights is fertile ground for musical theatre. As The Scottsboro Boys opens in the West End dealing with an horrific injustice, so now the Tony-winning Memphis arrives from Broadway. Set in 1950’s Tennessee a deeply segregated Southern state, the redneck white folk don’t tolerate “race music”. No melting pot, Memphis seethes with racist oppression and it is against this backdrop of hatred and lynching that DiPietro and the Bon Jovi keyboards player Bryan have created their tale.

Beverly Knight proves why she’s one of the UK’s greatest soul singers. As Felicia, a girl with a gift of a voice and a quietly acknowledged sensation amongst those who’ve heard her sing, Knight owns every song with her hallmark power. Her opening number Underground defines both the passion of her performance as well as setting the scene for the illicit network of clubs in the city that provide discrete stages for Black music. Her act one solo Coloured Woman is an inspired performance of on-stage soul, rarely witnessed and unforgettable.

Loosely based on the real life radio broadcaster Dewey Phillips, Killian Donnelly is Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey with a passion for African-American music and who, in a tale woven around fantastic whimsy and some brutally ugly realities, champions Felicia’s singing, breaking down some of society’s segregating barriers and getting her heard on mainstream “center of the dial” music stations. Donnelly has taken leading roles in some of London’s biggest leading shows, but unlike Knight’s pop star fame, outside of the showbiz bubble and hardcore West end fans he is barely known. His casting as Huey however proves to be not only brave, but also inspired. He has a gorgeous blues sound, displayed early on in The Music Of My Soul along with the confidence and poise to lead all his numbers. His character demands an almost geeky appearance, but it’s a veneer that cloaks a Tarantino-esque excellence.

A lot of money has been invested in Memphis and it shows. The sets are clever and the musical numbers that range in style from ranging from rock to spiritual are brilliantly arranged with Sergio Trujillo repeating his Broadway choreography. The first half of the show is stunning, leading to a pre-interval denouement that devastates in its emotional power and musical brilliance. Rarely has one staggered out for a half time G&T quite so moved. Act two however lacks dramatic substance and as the story unwinds there is little to stir the soul other than Clare Machin’s standout performance in Change Don’t Come Easy where, as Huey’s hitherto racist mother, she sings of her shift towards tolerance and acceptance.

Memphis is unquestionably a fine West End treat of a show. With a sensational cast and first rate production values it makes for a grand and moving night at the theatre.


Now booking until 2015

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Rivals

Arcola Theatre, London

***

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Selina Cadell



Nicholas Le Prevost and Gemma Jones

Selina Cadell's take on The Rivals offers a traditionally costumed interpretation of Sheridan's Restoration Comedy that at three and a quarter hours in length demands commitment from its audience. That the programme's synopsis runs to two pages of closely printed text suggests a concern amongst the creative team that the audience may not be able to clearly follow the action on stage. 

Their anxiety is well founded. Good commedia demands more than affected shouting and for far too much of this play the dialog is foppishly bellowed. Meanwhile, for the sizeable constituent of the audience seated to the left and right of the Arcola's intimate thrust, nearly all of the scenic decoration along with much of the action is obscured from view. It makes for a long evening.

Amidst the tedium however there are nuggets of pure genius. The excellent Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Anthony Absolute defines his credentials as a master of his craft. His comic timing is impeccable, whilst his vocal work as the sputtering blustering knight is perfectly weighted. Opposite him, the far too rarely seen Gemma Jones glides gloriously through the gift of a role that is Mrs Malaprop. Perhaps the greatest female comic part in the classic English canon, Jones' powdered heaving décolletage provides visual enhancement that only cements her inspired characterisation. Imagine the late great comedy gem Mollie Sugden fused with Margaret Thatcher and you can start to comprehend the brilliant hilarity that Jones creates.

Elsewhere amidst the supporting players, Adrian McLoughlin as Sir Lucius O'Trigger is charmingly entertaining, whilst Carl Prekopp as both Fag and David is also fun to watch.

Elegantly performed chamber music supplements the scene changes, but it's not enough to suppress the boredom. Outstanding in parts for sure, but this production of The Rivals is strictly for enthusiasts and students.


Runs until November 15th 2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys - Review

Garrick Theatre,  London

*****

Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman



l-r  Colman Domingo, Julian Glover and Forrest McClendon

A year after it wowed the critics in its London debut at the Young Vic, (see my 2013 review below) The Scottsboro Boys returns to cross the Thames. With many of the 2013 cast reprising their roles at the Garrick, the show's West End opening offers a rare privilege to re-review this 5-star treat, last year's Critics' Circle choice as Best Musical.

The Scottsboro Boys is written around a true 1930's travesty of justice that defined the hateful ugliness of America's Deep South. Eight black men and a boy, all of African American heritage, were falsely accused of raping two white women as their train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. Their subsequent conviction and death sentences polarised the USA. As the South was still licking its wounds barely 70 years after the Civil War, the North mounted a defence campaign that was to see 8 of the nine boys paroled. Parole, by its very nature, demands an admission of guilt and amidst a bevy of standout performances, it is Brandon Victor Dixon's Haywood Patterson, a man whose conscience couldn't permit him to utter a lie and who, defiantly, was to spend his life wrongly incarcerated, upon whom the story's spotlight falls.

Dixon is a long-established Broadway talent and having spent the last year listening to his voice on my iPhone in the NY cast recording, it is a privilege to witness him live. Patterson's journey carries the show and he bears his principled stand with passion, poignancy and perfect performance. The brilliant jazz-hands irony of his softly sung Nothing as he pleads his innocence, echoes the sardonic lyric of Kander and Ebb's Mr Cellophane from Chicago. The observations are as sharp, but this time there's no comedy.

The company are excellent throughout, with fellow Broadway imports Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon defining the harshest of satires as minstrel jesters Messrs Bones and Tambo, their gags making a pastiche of Vaudevilke. Deliberately corny, the clown-like versatility of these men and Domingo's comedy-horror rictus grin seal the brilliance of the genre.

The jarring perversity of Kander & Ebb telling this history story via a minstrel show, only serves to underline the perversion of justice to which Alabama subjugated itself as its rednecks bayed for the Boys' blood. The minstrel show's Interlocutor, 79yo veteran Brit Julian Glover, gives a performance that subtly combines majesty with a brilliantly understated bumbling ineptness. A man who believes passionately in what he perceives to be justice, yet who has also learned his racist views from childhood, carrying a sincerely held belief that black people are worth less than white. Glover's is an acting masterclass.

Elsewhere, excellence drips from this show. Broadway talent James T Lane, resplendent in frock and hat as Ruby Bates, one of the perjurious white women, dances across the stage with a movement that has to be believed. Susan Stroman, who has remained with the show since it's emergence off-Broadway back in 2010 has envisioned the ghastly tale magnificently, never bettered than in the slickly-sickly tap routine Electric Chair. A mention too for the brilliantly delivered tour of Fred Ebb's take on the South's music, played under Phil Cornwell's baton.

First time around, this review failed to pay sufficient respect to the character of The Woman, played by Dawn Hope, onstage almost throughout and saying nothing until the final scene. Consider (or google) Rosa Parks in history and it becomes abundantly clear how much of a cornerstone in the USA's Civil Rights movement The Scottsboro Boys became.

The Scottsboro Boys is unmatched on any London stage. As both a history lesson as well as a display of world-class stagecraft it stands apart. More than unmissable, if you care for humanity and appreciate some of the finest song and dance around, this show has to be seen.


Runs at until Saturday 21st February 2015


Later this month I shall be touring Scottsboro, Alabama and visiting The Scottsboro Boys Museum.

Follow me on Twitter @MrJonathanBaz for my upcoming writing about this visit.



Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


***


Music and original lyrics by Jacques Brel
Concept and English translations by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Directed by Andrew Keates


David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck and Daniel Boys

After the success of Andrew Keates' recent chamber adaptation of Dessa Rose at the Trafalgar Studios, he returns to direct this curiously titled show that treats its audience to a feast of haunting theatrical delight, executed with some sophistication. Brel was an acclaimed Belgian composer of theatrical songs. An acclaimed actor too and although destined to die tragically young at 49, his work was to influence a diverse selection of singers including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Marc Almond.

Daniel Boys and Gina Beck, both established names on London's West End, fare well in the simplicity and intimacy of this revue. Beck gives a sound performance accommodating the varied stylings of Brel’s work. One number, My Death, markig the stand out moment of her contribution. Boys’ vocal style affords him a secure performance, with his support distinctly noticeable in the larger numbers.

Eve Polycarpou, an increasingly familiar character on London’s stages, brings great depth of character to several of her songs, her Ne Me Quitte Pas, finely accompanied on guitar, being quite the standout of her set. David Burt’s approach to some of the more comic numbers within the piece is welcomed, with his Funeral Tango proving much the crowd pleaser.

Keates’ direction provides a cohesive narrative and flow to this varied revue of song and style, but there are times when Sam Spencer Lane’s choreography, although often imaginative, can fail to enhance both plot and staging. Chris de Wilde's design provides a sparse yet characterful set, boasting flavours of forgotten drama, whilst Dean Austin’s delightful 5 piece onstage band supports well, providing a dutifully decadent Parisian atmosphere.

This eclectic show, from a writer not broadly known in the mainstream, proves to be a bijou gem that is, in parts, quite charming. Performed and executed by a talented cast and creative team, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris offers a genuinely intriguing look into Brel's work. It is well worth a visit.


Runs until 22nd November

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Gypsy - Review

Chichester, Festival Theatre

*****

Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jonathan Kent


Imelda Staunton

Vaudeville is dying in 1920’s America. Against that backdrop and to Arthur Laurents’ book, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim have penned one of the bleakest yet most beautiful musicals ever. Gypsy, set in the Great Depression, charts Momma Rose’s manic depression, who as the pushiest of parents sets out to channel her own fading dream of showbiz stardom, through the lives of her daughters.

Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose defines the role. She and Jonathan Kent have previous of course, with her Mrs Lovett in his Sweeney Todd proving Chichester's 2011 sensation, going on to win her an Olivier the next year on its West End transfer. This remarkable actress offers a totality of commitment, in movement, voice and emotion that proves a truly rare trinity. As well as the most complex of paths to pathos, Staunton also finds the humour that Sondheim subtly weaves into his prose, with Small World in particular proving a delight. It is of course in the delivery of those massive numbers Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn, that Staunton proves herself beyond compare amongst her generation.

The impact of the abusive emotional neglect that Momma Rose heaps on her daughters is brought into painful relief by Lara Pulver as the over-shadowed Louise and by Gemma Sutton (a name increasingly associated with exquisite performances) as her spotlight-addicted sister June. Pulver’s portrayal of Louise, continually being overlooked in favour of her sibling, is never once overplayed by the actress. As vaudeville dies and Momma Roses pushes the shy Louise into the spotlight as a small town burlesque stripper, Pulver gives one of the most poignant segues ever, as the brutatlity of her mother’s pushing evolves into the tender, initially damaged response of the daughter. Oh and her voice in the glorious penultimate number Let Me Entertain You, is heavenly. Alongside and as a hangdog Herbie, a complex man desperately out to win Rose’s love, Kevin Whateley, a name not often associated with musical theatre convinces us of his commitment to Rose’s dream.

Other notable gems in this jewel box of a cast are Dan Burton’s Tulsa whose grace in both voice and dance wows in All I Need Is The Girl, whilst (the almost) veteran Louise Gold as Mazeppa plays the most world-weary of strippers who’s seen it all and proves as much, leading a gloriously sleazy line in You Gotta Get A Gimmick. And a salute too for young Georgia Pemberton, whose presence, dance and baton twirling brilliance as the Young June is an absolute treat.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is incisive and beautifully conceived. His company work is a joy throughout, with the meticulously managed “mediocrity” of Broadway, as Rose’s vaudevillian hoofers bungle their way through a routine, proving to be a classy confection.

The design by Anthony Ward neatly combines marquee lights with the drabness of assorted downtowns, whilst directly beneath the stage the most gloriously proportioned pit, being used here for the first time in the newly rebuilt venue, accommodates Nicholas Skilbeck’s fifteen piece (predominantly brass) band. Styne’s score is given a truly thrilling treatment, with the Overture alone setting spines tingling.

The good people of Chichester are spoiled with the flawless perfection of this show. As Gypsy demands all from Imelda Staunton, so too does theatre demand that this production reaches a wider audience. Go see Gypsy – Its haunting perfection will stay with you for a long time.


Runs until 8th November 2014 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Damn Yankees - Review

Landor Theatre, London

****

Words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallopp
Directed by Robert McWhir

Poppy Tierney
There is genius at work in Clapham North as the Landor Theatre’s creative powerhouse of Robert McWhir alongside choreographer Robbie O’Reilly, again combine to make theatrical magic from a once charming tale of Faustian compromise, set in 1950’s Washington DC.

In a time when the New York Yankees dominated US baseball, Damn Yankees explores the frivalous scenario of Joe Boyd, a middle-aged overweight fan of rivals, the Washington Senators, striking a pact with the Devil to be transformed into a youthful athlete, get signed by the Senators and lead his team to victory over the (damn) Yankees. This slight story, often ridiculous, fails to pass muster in the modern era however, but as can be so often the case, the devil really is in the delicious detail of this show.

Satanically stealing every scene is Jonathan D Ellis' devilish Mr Appleyard, For a fringe production, Ellis' immaculately tailored shiny suit is worth the ticket price alone. His presence, voice and charisma are just a delight, whilst in his solo, Those Were The Good Old Days he single-handedly re-defines the eleven o'clock number. Partnering Appleyard is his infernal accomplice Lola played by Poppy Tierney, herself only recently seen on this side of the Styx in Newbury’s The Witches of Eastwick. Tierney, whose lipstick and outfits are as red as her name, looks as good as she acts, as good as she sings. Appealing to every red-blooded male in the house, she drapes herself around Boyd, desperately trying to lead him into temptation as her big solo, a tango-themed Whatever Lola Wants is not far short of meriting the great Charles Spencer's description of "pure theatrical Viagra".

For those whose preference is to gaze upon the well formed male physique, there is talented eye-candy in abundance. The act one reprise of Heart, set in the Senators’ locker room and sung by the team clad scantily only in towels, is delivered with such polished provocative gusto that one wonders if it had been rehearsed in a Chariots sauna.

The company work is a delight throughout. Nova Skipp is tenderly and plausibly menopausal as Joe's deserted wife Meg, whilst veteran newcomer Gary Bland gives a solid performance as Joe, coming to realise he ultimately loves his devoted wife more than his beloved baseball team. Amongst the newly graduated cast members Alex Lodge as the transformed "younger" Joe makes the best of a sugary-sweet role, whilst Elizabeth Futter puts in a fine turn as a journalist who suspects that there is more to young Joe than meets the eye.

But away from the stage and aside from Ellis and Tierney, the real stars of this strangely enchanting piece are McWhir and O‘Reilly. With more than a nod to Fosse and confidently underpinned by Michael Webborn’s three piece band this production's dance work, already Offie nominated, is a breathtaking delight. The plot of Damn Yankees may be unremarkable, but these performances are unmissable.


Runs until 8th November 2014

Friday, 10 October 2014

Urinetown - Review

Apollo Theatre, London

*****

Music & lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book & lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Jamie Lloyd



Jonathan Slinger

After a successful three year run on Broadway a decade ago and a recent stint at London’s St James’ Theatre, Urinetown finally makes it to the West End. Set in a dystopian, drought-ridden future where corporations control the only toilets and the down at heel population must pay for the ‘privilege to pee’, Urinetown’s producers must be wondering what will put audiences off first – its title or its subject matter. It would be a great shame if either did because this is a seriously funny, subversively witty show. (And actually, Greg Kotis’ knowing script gets that joke in long before any reviewer has thought of it. Breaking the fourth wall at will, Jonathan Slinger’s deliciously degenerate narrator, Police Officer Lockstock, tells us that nothing kills a show like ‘too much exposition’. ‘How about a terrible title?’ asks local urchin Little Sally).

Weaving the broadest slapstick humour into a grim, highly relevant and perhaps portentous Malthusian tale, Urinetown is a musical that never stops poking fun at its own genre and unlike so many of that ilk, resists the temptation to eventually embrace its clichés in the final act. Driving it all along is Mark Hollmann’s excellent score – ranging from gospel pastiche, to rousing ‘Les Mis’ chorus – and witty lyrics. Some of the songs may be a little forgettable, but they’re still perfectly pitched within the show.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction, aided by Soutra Gilmour’s wonderfully dingy design, is razor sharp and Ann Yee’s choreography is at times a comic masterclass all of its own. Musical director Alan Williams deliverers not just an excellent band, but also, in the big second act showstopper ‘Run, Freedom, Run’, quite simply some of the tightest and most polished chorus singing to be found on a West End stage.

The cast is of the very highest quality – Jenna Russell is predictably wonderful as the fearsome gatekeeper of the urinal Miss Pennywise, while Slinger's Lockstock relishes many of the best lines. Karis Jack’s Little Sally and Mark Meadows’ sleazy senator deserve special mentions, as does an exceptionally strong ensemble.

Urinetown is modern musical theatre at its very best.


Booking to 24th January 2015 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Urinetown - Charity Gala Feature


Jenna Russell in Urinetown



It’s on Monday October 20th supporting www.Water.org, for where Urinetown is a hilarious and satirical musical set in a futuristic, dystopian society where the Earth's water supply has been depleted, therefore making private toilets unthinkable and against the law, THERE IS A REAL GLOBAL WATER CRISIS, that we, in rainy, temperate, Northern Europe, are spared. 

Urinetown may be a dark comedy but the Water Crisis facts are the grimmest, bleakest of realities:

780 million people in the world lack access to safe water. 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation.

1 in 9 people don’t have safe water to drink. 1 in 4 doesn’t have a toilet.

Every minute at least one child dies due to a water-related illness.

More people in the world have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.

This special gala performance celebrates the beginning of a long-term fundraising collaboration between Urinetown and Water.org. Urinetown will be donating proceeds from the gala to the nonprofit organization, as well as providing ongoing support in conjunction with its West End run. 

“Water.org welcomes Urinetown’s support to share our vision of a world where everyone has access to safe drinking water and can experience the dignity of a toilet,” says Water.org co-founder Gary White…

…whilst Jamie Lloyd, the show’s acclaimed director adds “The best sort of theatre engages directly with the world.  It may be great fun, but it should also be vital and apposite, and perhaps, instigate a broader discussion.  Urinetown’s dystopian future does not have to be a prediction unless we make it so.  We are delighted that the production can assist the mission of Water.org whilst keeping its audience laughing along the way.” 

Tickets for the Gala range from a very reasonable £29.50, through to a £125 premium splash, that gets you into the afterparty too. If it wasn’t such a bargain, you’d think they were taking the piss!!

You can buy the tickets here:

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Love Story - Review

Union Theatre, London

***

Music and additional lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book and lyrics by Stephen Clark
Directed by Sasha Regan


David Albury and Victoria Serra

Following on from the extremely successful run of The Dreaming and with Girlfriends in hot pursuit, Love Story is the second in the Union's three part Howard Goodall season. Whilst it is always refreshing to see venues supporting British writing and despite its nomination for an Olivier back in 2010, one cannot help but feel that there are still some holes in this classically cheesy plot that are holding the production back.

An adult fairy tale from the 1970’s, Erich Segal’s novel, famously filmed starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw and helped in no small way by Francis Lai’s Oscar winning theme, imprinted itself upon the baby-boomer generation and in the show Stephen Clark’s book makes a grand attempt to capture the dreamy yet doomed relationship between Victoria Serra’s working class Jenny and the more patrician Oliver.

Serra’s performance is executed well, flitting effortlessly from “feisty with attitude” to the slightly more delicate young innocent, swept up in the passion of an exciting romance. She demonstrates her vocal versatility and strong stage presence almost instantly in Jenny’s Piano Song, later showing an equally impressive but far more tender side in Nocturnes, a scene that is stunningly complemented by Iain Dennis’ lighting.

In slightly awkward contrast, David Albury brings an uncomfortable harshness to Oliver. There is no doubt that both Albury's chiselled looks and singing voice are wonderful, but at times one feels that a greater sense of anger, or even heartbreak is required to truly reflect not only the story's tragic ending, but also the difficult relationship, universally recognisable, that he has with his parents.

Regan directs well. She knows her beloved space intimately, ensuring that every inch of stage is used to great effect, never more so than in the opening and closing number What Can You Say? where the full company create a splendid ensemble sound, even if there seems to be just a hint of Blackrock from Goodall’s The Hired Man creeping in to the melody.

Special mention also to the female ensemble of Tanya Truman, Grace Osborn and Ellie Ann Lowe. Their voices combine beautifully as they watch the lovers’ romance develop, providing an almost Chorus like narrative, backed delightfully throughout by Inga Davis-Rutter’s exquisite musical direction.

Bring tissues and a significant other, a visit to the Union’s Love Story makes for a great date!


Runs until 25th October 2014
Picture by Darren Bell

Backstage with The Scottsboro Boys - Feature

The Young Vic Company
As the West End welcomes The Scottsboro Boys, I ventured backstage at London’s Garrick Theatre during final rehearsals to catch up with its inspirationally committed producer Catherine Schreiber, along with one of the production’s talented US imports actor James T Lane. I wanted to learn a little more about this remarkable minstrel show, that took the Young Vic by storm last December and went on to win the (UK’s most respected) Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical 2013. 

The Scottsboro Boys was to be the final collaboration of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships, that of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb were masters of that rare art of studying man’s inhumanity to man and then being able to set the wickedness to toe-tapping tunes. Who else could have written Cabaret, a show about the rise of Nazism and the impending Holocaust, that was to give Liza Minelli such a career-defining belter of a title song. 

The start of the Scottsboro Boys’ true story may pre-date Hitler’s accession to the German Chancellorship by two years and by half a world, but history has taught us that evil respects no borders. With the Great Depression gripping the nation after the stock-market crash of 1929, people hopped freight trains to travel from one city to the next in search of work when a fight between blacks and whites broke out on a train in Jackson County on March 25, 1931. The train was brought to a halt at Scottsboro and trying to avoid arrest, two women on the train falsely accused nine black youths of raping them. It was an inflammatory allegation in the Jim-Crow South, where many whites were attempting to preserve supremacy just 66 years after the end of the Civil War and it did not take too much legal process for the accusations to be “proved” and for all nine to be sentenced to Alabama’s electric chair.

The Scottsboro Boys' plight gripped the nation, galvanising liberals in the North as their champions and proving a significant keystone in the foundations of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Their case lurched precariously through the Alabama justice system and whilst this article will not reveal how the story ends, the whole musical focusses acutely upon the key tenet on which justice and decent society depend. That of individuals telling the truth. 

l-r David Thompson, Susan Stroman, Catherine Schreiber, John Kander
photo credit Paul Kolnick
Together with London's Young Vic and fellow New Yorker Paula Marie Black, Schreiber is Lead Producing the Garrick show, but the passion for both telling this tale and championing its cause is clearly in Schreiber's DNA. Following The Scottsboro Boys' off-Broadway premier at New York’s Vineyard Theatre (a production that gave rise to the only currently available Cast Recording, though Schreiber hints, intriguingly, at a London recording possibly being released) she worked hard to bring the show to Broadway, where it only was to last a disappointingly short run. Away from the stage and at home, her lawyer husband shares her passion for racial equality. He served his training clerkship with Thurgood Marshall, the man who was to become the first USA Supreme Court justice of African American heritage

Today, Scottsboro's The Scottsboro Boys Museum is curated by Shelia Washington and Schreiber’s eyes welled up (and to be honest, so did mine) as she spoke of having worked alongside this formidable woman, as the Broadway show (and beyond) evolved. Washington has laboured tirelessly for the Boys’ guilty verdicts to be revoked by the State of Alabama and her efforts remind us not only of the power of human endeavour (hers) in fighting for a cause, but also of quite how frighteningly recent and contemporary this whole episode has remained. It was not until April 2013 (that’s last year!) that the Scottsboro Boys were all finally exonerated by Alabama at a ceremony where Schreiber, already honoured with the key to Scottsboro, gave the keynote address.

Sat next to Schreiber, and with the assuring air of a performer who knows his material inside out, James T Lane exudes a gorgeously relaxed yet finely balanced poise as we talk. No stranger to the trans-Atlantic showbiz commute, this gifted hoofer not only wowed the crowds at the Young Vic with The Scottsboro Boys’ London debut, he had already spent most of that year at the London Palladium playing Richie in the acclaimed revival of A Chorus Line. His extensive experience, both on Broadway and across the USA belies his youthful 36 years and I for one would have loved to have seen his Tyrone in Fame, as the man’s voice and movement are simply astonishing.

James T Lane

As an African-American, Lane brings his own experiences to the show. Our discussions range across the racial prejudices experienced on both sides of the Atlantic, though whilst Britain is a multi-cultural nation that is still in pursuit of a more harmonious society, this country has only welcomed significant numbers of non-white immigrants since the latter half of the 20th century. America’s Statue of Liberty may well represent the open arms of a melting pot too all, but the African-American legacy that pre-dates the Civil War and stretches back to periods of horrendous slavery, provides a far more complex, painful history. 

My opening paragraph referred to The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, but remember that it was this black-slapped buffoonery that dominated America’s theatres during the 19th century, promoting its insidiously acceptable culture of acceptable racism. Shamefully, it was only as late as 1978 that the BBC were still broadcasting The Black And White Minstrel Show across Britain in a primetime Saturday night slot. That The Scottsboro Boys spectacularly lampoons the minstrel genre, with a beautifully weighted gravitas from British white veteran actor Julian Glover as the show’s Interlocutor (think of a Variety Hall’s Chairman) only adds to the show’s painful poignancy.

Lane also remarks on the joy, of instead of going “up against” his African- American competitors in auditions, often pursuing the same opportunity, how The Scottsboro Boys has provided an opportunity for him to work (brilliantly, I might add) with some of his closest friends in the business. 

But Lane is only one of a number of Americans who have travelled back to the UK with the production. As well as having performed his roles in the Broadway show (and he plays, with remarkable conviction, one of the falsely accusing white women, Ruby Bates) he is joined by other Broadway veterans, including Brandon Victor Dixon, Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, all three of whom created their roles way back in 2010 at the Vineyard. Dixon’s Hayward Patterson is the show’s lead character whose struggles with the abuse of truth prove to be the show’s emotional fulcrum, whilst McClendon and Domingo play the minstrel-show regulars of Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, adopting all manner of acutely observed satirical characterisations.

The Young Vic Production

Whilst a five-star show has to deliver perfect performances from its actors, it is the creative talent behind the show that inspires the excellence and the pedigree of The Scottsboro Boys' team is faultless. As well as Kander and Ebb’s compositions that are structured around David Thompson’s book, it is Susan Stroman, the wunder-talent of recent years in musical theatre who has remained the director and choreographer of the show from the Vineyard to the Garrick. Hers is a remarkable commitment, for on the simplest of stages (this show has no techno-gimmicks whatsoever) the movement that she extracts from her company has to be seen to be believed.

Only on for 20 weeks The Scottsboro Boys will make you laugh and cry and the West End reviews will be out soon. Until then, these are my thoughts on the Young Vic production. The show truly is unmissable. See it and be humbled and amazed.


Runs at the Garrick Theatre until Saturday 21st February 2015