Monday 31 August 2015

Howl - Review

****
Certificate TBC

Directed by Paul Hyett


Tickets please!

Helming his second full length feature, Paul Hyett’s Howl is a movie whose title along with the poster’s full moon, give a clear hint at the story's lycanthropic pitch and proves to be one of the year’s best horror pictures so far.

Some of the best werewolf movies have been made in Britain and in one of the most imaginative takes on the genre since John Landis' groundbreaking An American Werewolf In London, Hyett's yarn (penned by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler) kicks off in the comfortingly familiar surroundings of Waterloo Station.

Train based terror has long fuelled the romance of ghost and horror tales and in a summer that has rail strikes gripping the nation, it’s refreshing to watch Alpha Trains' (a fictional company whose livery is only loosely based on South West Trains) evening express pull out of the London terminus, with its dozen or so souls on board heading towards far more than their usual Waterloo sunset.

There is an ever-so British budgetary constraint to the movie that suggests an air of Hammer Horror. The cast are far from household names, (though in a neat touch, Rosie Day and Sean Pertwee, both carryovers from Hyett's The Seasoning House make short-lived cameos) the purpose built railway carriage set wouldn't withstand the scrutiny of even a mildly obsessive train-geek and some of the matte work is cringeworthy. But no matter, for as a deer on the line brings driver Pertwee's train to a shuddering and unscheduled halt, it is only a matter of time before (nearly) all of the onboard souls succumb in turn to beautifully brutal slaughter.

In a sometimes creaking story, the director’s skill lies as much in the suspense he’s woven into the film as it does in the gruesomeness of his imagery. Having cut his teeth (sorry) designing special make up and effects for creature features such as The Descent movies, Hyett has a keen eye for what shocks. To be fair there's nothing here that quite matches Rick Baker's award winning genius in American Werewolf, but Hyett knows his craft.  

Also impressive is that amidst a script of occasional corniness, (The Seasoning House had a far superior text) Hyett coaxes performances from his cast that convince throughout. Ed Speleers leads as a bumbling train guard searching for the hero inside himself, whilst Elliot Cowan is Adrian, a handsomely chiselled bounder and a womanising cad who in a neat post-modern touch reveals that he won’t employ women at his City finance house because of their annoying tendency to fall pregnant. Back in the day it used to be that just being a bastard marked a character out to deserve a spectacular death - turns out in 2015 he has to be a sexist bastard too. 

For the cinephiles playing werewolf bingo, Howl trots out most of the tropes, (but not all mind, there are no silver bullets in this picture) with the occasional twist. We’ve been brought up to know that those bitten by the beast have to become werewolves themselves. Hyett however offers up a nod to the zombie genre by having his victims spew that particularly dark red blood, only ever found in those transitioning to the world of the un-dead. There is also a lovely touch as Ania Marson, Jenny an elderly female victim, finds herself vomiting out her dentures, only to then develop a far more useful set of incisors, infinitely superior to anything available on the NHS.

As Ellen the train's trolley stewardess, Holly Weston gives an assured performance that suggests a hint of sexual frisson and rivalry amongst the characters, whilst Calvin Dean’s Paul provides occasional moments of drunken slob comedy (and classy suspense) before his number's up.

Whilst Hyett's best may yet await us, Howl remains a ripping yarn, cleverly realised and yet again, only enhanced by Paul E. Francis’ intelligent score. Not just worth the ticket and popcorn, it's a great date-movie too.

Piss off, you miserable bastard! - My visit to Dismaland

*****





Those words in the title above were the parting shot from the sales assistant as I exited through Dismaland's gift shop, having dutifully paused to pick up catalogue and t-shirt. Whilst her valedictory message was (I hope) insincere (though I fear those who know me well may say the cap fits perfectly), it summed up the spirit of the faux-misery that Banksy’s Bemusement Park strives to achieve.

Outside in the real world shop assistants, waiters, nurses, teachers, indeed anyone who routinely provides a service - heavens, that may even include accountants - will nearly always affix a smile and a pleasantry when serving a client/customer/patient – and very often the smile is sincere. But we all also know so well those occasions when our smiles are glued on and we ease our way through false pleasantries, simply because it is simply an expected common courtesy.

In Dismaland, whilst the jackanapes’ insults may be insincere (cf my above fears of course!), they are no less glib than the grinning staff member who assists you at Thorpe Park or Disneyworld, maybe at 4pm in the afternoon at the end of a long shift, when he/she doesn’t really want to help you with your baby buggy and trailing brats and just wants to go home exhausted.

But he/she glues on the smile regardless, possibly, silently, cursing you. And that is one of the aspects of what Dismaland is all about. Stripping away the hypocrisy of day to day niceties, to reveal an uglier, but not entirely unfamiliar, verite. 

Many of Dismaland’s (un-?)attractions have already been well documented in the national press. I was rather taken by the sideshow inviting one to roll-up, roll-up and attempt to topple a cast-iron anvil from its pedestal....by hurling a ping-pong ball at it. It’s a ridiculous premise – but at least it’s honestly and overtly ridiculous. The contrast of course is with sideshow attractions at real funfairs that mug off their punters who gamely believe they have some fair chance of winning that ridiculously sized cuddly toy – when of course it’s 1 in 100 or some such loaded odds. The barkers smile and flirt with you, grinning to themselves as they take your cash. At Dismaland the attendants’ style is more grim than grin, but at least what you see is what you get…



Much of Dismaland shocks. The centrepiece castle, an imitation of Disneyland’s very own imitation castle is weathered and dilapidated. After queuing to enter, the scene is one of Cinderella’s toppled pumpkin carriage, crashed and upended, with the shattered body of a Disney-esque Cinderella, all ball gown, flowing blonde locks and very much cartoon features, lying flung through a carriage window. It’s shocking, but what disturbs even more is that in the pitch black, the crash scene is surrounded by mannequins of real life paparazzi, whose flash guns, strobe-like, illuminate the horror. It’s a short hop of the imagination to Paris’ Pont de l’Alma some 18 years ago – and it is the ghoulish photographers, juxtaposed on to a cartoon scene of fictional fairytale tragedy, that makes Banksy’s work so effective.



Elsewhere the illusive artist has re-ignited the Tropicana’s mini-motorboat attraction (you know the type – coin in the slot and radio-control a miniature boat on a pond) – but Banksy’s boats are packed with models of desperate Med-crossing migrants, with the Action Man sized bodies of migrant corpses bobbing face down in the water as the boats sail over them. It makes for another troubling tableau – and with several tiny children happily steering their craft (one of the boats is a military gunboat) there was much laughter around the pond. 

Some of the adults watching (and talking about) the exhibit clearly had an evident compassion for the refugees’ plight that the boats highlight, but for all of Banksy’s noble intentions, is this exhibit leading people to laugh at, rather than care about, the migrants?

It’s a moot point and one must suspect that there will be many children (and possibly many ignorant or uncaring parents) who may not grasp the real sea-borne tragedies occurring daily. 

Has Banksy set these victims up to be laughed at? Discuss.



Even if he has, he's only been following a fine seaside tradition. The misogynist Mr Punch has, for generations, been a source of beachside hilarity and kiddie entertainment has he lays into the hapless Judy with a big stick.

Banksy updates the macabre classic, inviting Julie Burchill to script this 2015 glimpse into domestic abuse. Oh my, how the kids who sat in front of the Punch and Judy booth laughed as today’s Punch, whose banter had already referenced the monstrous Jimmy Savile, beat his wife, telling the children “you know she likes it really”.



Much has been made of the unique nature of Dismaland, but I had a niggling sense of deja-vu, that back on the train to Bristol, I nailed! In their rock opera Tommy, The Who have Uncle Ernie open up the dystopian Tommy's Holiday Camp. Dismaland is Banksy's version.
As the artist was quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Times “It’s interesting that Dismaland gets described as ‘twisted’ — I’ve never called it that. Somehow building a family attraction that doesn’t ignore injustice, casual cruelty and mortality means your attraction is deemed twisted. I think it should be the other way round.”

Banksy is laughing at us all – but thankfully he’s only charging a fiver for the humiliation. When one fails to topple his anvil there’s a consolation prize instead. It's a wristband with the slogan: Meaningless Rubber Bracelet – which in fact, one week on, has served as a pertinent reminder of the day.

Dismaland bemuses, amuses and hopefully also disturbs. If it doesn’t, there truly is no hope for society.


Dismaland is open at The Tropicana, Weston Super Mare until the end of September. Tickets are released weekly, online at www.dismaland.co.uk
Note: All tickets up until 7th September are sold out.

Tickets for 8th – 15th September will go on sale at 10am on Wednesday 2nd of September.

Friday 28 August 2015

My Eyes Went Dark – Review

Finborough Theatre, London


*****

Written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson



Thusitha Jayasundera and Cal MacAninch


"...If a country can't protect the rights of its people, what can a man do? A man must stand up... A man must defend himself."
Matthew Wilkinson's My Eyes Went Dark is an extraordinary piece of work. It tells the story of man, Nikolai Koslov, (played by Cal MacAninch) who loses his wife and two young children in a plane crash that occurred when two planes collided mid-air.

Grief stricken and utterly disconnected from the world without his family ("My life. As any family is the life of the individuals within it"), he seeks justice. This search begins immediately; as he is digesting the reality that his family is gone at the beginning of the play, he questions what happened, asking for an update on the flight recorders and attempting to coerce an explanation, of any sort, from the official he is speaking to.

This is a particularly striking characteristic of Koslov who, as a successful architect and family man, is probably used to drawing clear lines between events, ideas and thoughts, drawing out rational conclusions accordingly. He seems to be a rational being and a normal functioning one at that. This is best typified in professional settings, such as when he is giving an interview or operating in a work environment. 

This two-hander also features an outstanding performance from Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays ten different characters to incredible effect. 

Beautifully suited to the intimacy of the Finborough, the staging is simple; it features only two chairs. The sound design (Max Pappenheim) and lighting (Elliot Griggs) are flawless. Props are invisible but acted with such conviction that their physical absence is barely registered. 

The performance lasts approximately ninety minutes and comprises an intense sequence of scenes, cutting back and forth over the span of five years, over three different countries. Throughout its course, a range of themes including commentaries on justice systems, corporate responsibility and politics are investigated and provide much for consideration. 

What is incredibly powerful about My Eyes Went Dark is its ability to explore the complex and permanent effects of plane crashes. It is a tragedy that most of us are familiar with, blessedly, only through news reports that the media thrive on. The play however offers a stark reminder that the effects never leave those who have experienced loss and for whom so many questions are left unanswered.  

Wilkinson, MacAnich and Jayasundera capture this tragedy perfectly and hauntingly.


Runs until 19th September
Guest Reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Thursday 27 August 2015

Thoroughly Modern Millie - Review

Landor Theatre, London


**

Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
Directed by Matthew Iliffe


Sarah-Marie Maxwell and Alex Codd

The twenties don’t so much roar as whimper in SDWC’s new revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor. Matthew Iliffe’s production strips back not only the set and cast, but also the life and soul of the show, leaving us with a raw and undercooked slog of questionable casting and dull direction.

For those unfamiliar, Thoroughly Modern Millie transports the audience back to 1922 New York and follows the travails of a new arrival in the big city; Millie Dillmount. She is desperate to find a more metropolitan lifestyle after her Kansas upbringing and reinvent herself as the epitome of Vogue’s ‘modern woman’. Ostensibly the show is an uproarious farce that barrels through prohibition, celebrity parties and solicitous romance with all the subtlety of a travelling fair. It has the potential to be great fun, but Iliffe’s production never seems to capture the garish excess that cements the show. His pared down cast of 12 reduces the enormity of New York life to a small village community and Andrew Riley’s set is bare to the point of feeling naked. For a show like ‘Millie’, New York is as much a character as anybody on stage and her bustling crowds and grand sense of scale just felt lost in the intimate Landor space.

Sam Spencer-Lane does her best to inject the choreography with some Broadway punch, but again the sequences are at odds with their surroundings. Numbers feel hampered by the limited space, looking to explode into life with no room to grow. That a dancer crashed into some lights on the night I watched was no coincidence.

The cast also seemed to struggle with this tonal imbalance, unsure as to whether to play the show as writ, or try and adapt the uproarious dialogue for the chamber space. For most, it left them in an unflattering middle ground, precariously teetering between mugging for laughs and striving for sincerity. There were also some distracting casting decisions, with young graduate actors being unfairly asked to play far older than they are and jokes about characters’ ages therefore falling flat. More disconcerting than this though, was the decision to cast a Caucasian actor, Alex Codd, as Ching Ho, one of the Chinese henchmen. That Mrs Meers’ offensive Asian caricature is only acceptable at all is because we are supposed to laugh at the absurdity of a Caucasian female trying to pass herself off as another race. With Codd in earnest trying desperately to do the thing we are meant to be laughing at, Steph Parry’s performance as Mrs Meers becomes completely undermined. The entire villainous subplot becomes tremendously uncomfortable, laced as it was with an air of racial insensitivity.

On the positive side, Sarah-Marie Maxwell is the undeniable standout, giving a charming and incredibly watchable performance as Miss Dorothy. She is a joy every time she comes on stage and injects her scenes with just the right amount of detail and energy. Her voice is also beautiful, packing real power even without a microphone and giving a lilting edge to the higher parts of the score. The singing in general is of a high quality and Chris Guard’s small band does well to maintain the score’s brassy 20s roots even with only five members.

Thoroughly Modern Millie inherently seems like a bizarre choice for a fringe revival. It just isn’t that kind of show. Iliffe has done his best to downsize the glitz and glamour, but his endeavours lack the creativity to allow the audience to get lost in Millie’s world. Unfortunately, without stellar performances and an exciting design, these flappers are a bit of a flop.


Runs to 13th September
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson

Mrs Henderson Presents - Review

Theatre Royal, Bath


*****

Music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain
Lyrics by Don Black
Direction and book by Terry Johnson


Tracie Bennett


A musical can only be as good as its underlying book – and in Mrs Henderson Presents, the show’s fable couldn’t be more strong or poetic. Based upon the 2005 movie, the true story tells of Laura Henderson, wealthy widow and owner of London’s Windmill Theatre, who sought to halt the venue’s falling revenues by putting on shows of naked girls. Britain’s censorship laws were fierce at the time, forbidding nude performers, but in a bid to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s disapproval, Henderson, along with close adviser Vivian Van Damm, concoct a revue that will feature naked women but in still life tableaux. The Windmill’s success was assured and as war with Germany broke out in 1939, so did the Windmill never close, always packed with troops enjoying morale boosting visits even through the darkest days of the Blitz and in its own way capturing the essence of British resilience.

The story works on so many levels. Laura Henderson herself is an independently minded woman, ahead of her time. Van Dam is a Dutch Jew, painfully aware of his family’s destiny in continental Europe, the Lord Chamberlain is a deliciously blustering (and compromised) political buffoon (who one can easily imagine lived in Dolphin Square) and then there are the girls. Invited to contemplate performing in the nude, the show picks out their anxieties, aspirations and in the case of Maureen, a Lyons’ nippy who much like Mack and Mabel’s Mabel Normand is discovered by Mrs Henderson and fast becomes the star of the show, a poignant love interest too.

Terry Johnson’s book (and Johnson also directs) in conjunction with Don Black’s lyrics precisely fillets the shows emotions. There’s comedy that includes moments of fabulously rehearsed plank-based slapstick, naked men’s bottoms and a sprinkling of Carry On infused knob gags - a seam of humor which if mined responsibly can always prove eye-watering. But there is also the pathos of Laura Henderson’s love for her theatre and ultimately her girls, set against her own mortality and failing health. There’s the tragedy and passion of the war – and there is the portrayal of the girls’ journey to their nude performances, delivered without pulling any punches, but which is at all times beautiful, tasteful and not once gratuitous.

Making a welcome return to the English stage, Tracie Bennett plays Laura Henderson with her usual perfection in poise, presence and performance. Believable as a wealthy lady bucking the disapproval of her peers, Bennett commands the stage. Vocally magnificent, with Whatever Time I Have, along with a massive finish to If Mountains Were Easy To Climb Bennett reminds us what a star of today’s musical theatre stage she truly is. More of this woman, please.

Ian Bartholomew is Van Dam, bringing a carefully crafted compound of comic bluster with profound pathos to his part. There’s smutty genius in his number Rubens And Renoir, that sees him explaining the concept of nudity to the girls (in a scene that using a hugely oversized picture frame, speaks volumes just in imagery) – whilst Living In A Dream World offers just enough of a carefully weighted glimpse into his agony at what is happening across the North Sea.

Maureen is played by the truly scrumptious Emma Williams – whose voice and movement are exquisite. We see her rise and fall in love and in moments that wrench at heart strings, Williams is always on point, never sentimentalising, just delivering. Her number Ordinary Girl tells of plaintive aspirations, whilst her duet with Matthew Malthouse’s Eddie, What A Waste Of A Moon is a vocal and choreographic treat. Indeed, huge credit to choreographer Andrew Wright who at time brings traditional music hall, gorgeous tap routines and some moments of glorious ballet to the show.

Graham Hoadly’s Lord Cromer, the Lord Chancellor, is yet another turn from this gifted performer that defines comic acting through song, as Mark Hadfield serves up a treat as a stand-up comic, part narrator, part teller of gags that are as old as the hills, yet which still raise a chuckle.

The show’s nudity demands a professional bravura from its actresses and as Williams leads the line, she is ably backed by Katie Bernstein, Lizzy Connolly and Lauren Hood who all bring a respectful, tasteful dignity to their roles – beautifully sung and acted.

George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain have written a score that defines England through the 19th and 20th centuries. There is much of the music-hall in some numbers, whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Song suggests a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Their lampooning of the Germans as the war rolls on and creation of melodies that define a sense of national pride, offer a musical take on history that speaks loud and clear to a modern audience. Theirs’s is beautifully crafted work, alongside Tim Shortall's inspired set design and Richard Mawbey's wonderful wig work.

The orchestra is under Mike Dixon’s baton and it is clear that this gifted music-man has had much to do with the show’s evolution. It was the Dixon and Johnson team (with Bartholomew starring) who last year so wonderfully revived Oh What A Lovely War! At Stratford East and there is just a touch of how that show marked The Great War, in how Mrs Henderson Presents tackles the war with Hitler.

Mrs Henderson Presents is innovative new writing – beautifully staged and so wonderfully British. Only dipping the briefest of toes into Bath’s delightful Theatre Royal, this show demands a transfer to the West End.


Runs until 5th September

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Willemijn Verkaik In Concert - Review

****






The Dutch singing sensation Willemijn Verkaik In Concert at The Ambassadors Theatre was always going to be highly anticipated. Having sung the role of Wicked’s Elphaba in three different languages (an un-precedented feat) and recorded the voice of Elsa in Disney's Frozen in Dutch and German, a one off London concert to let the audience know a bit more about the lady behind the voice was long overdue. 

Joined on stage by musical director and pianist Tom Deering as part of a quartet of musicians, before the show started it did seem questionable if a theatre venue rather than a more intimate concert one would have been more appropriate. This doubt was quashed by the presence of Verkaik entering the stage and beginning her programme with A Piece of Sky from Yentl and something was quite evident, this is a lady that loves to sing. Not just that, but Verkaik offers no pretentiousness. Just the opposite. An endearing humility that is a pleasure to witness – an honesty very evident during her story of auditioning for the role of Aida in her early career and the layers of make-up and tissue paper she put down her bra to look fuller figured, witty and relatable to all the female performers in the audience!

The first act in particular contained some real crowd pleasers in terms of song choices that displayed Verkaik’s higher register impeccably such as You’ll Be In My Heart from Tarzan (in which she currently stars in Stuttgart) and Frozen’s Let It Go which she sang bilingually. Revelatory were middle voice songs that had more contrast in terms of vocal colour such as Adele’s Turning Tables and The Winner Takes it all, the later sung to acoustic guitar so tenderly.

The guest performers of Victoria Hamilton Barritt and James Fox gave strong vocals, in particular during the trio of Aida’s A Step Too Far. 

With a vocal stamina arguably unrivalled in musical theatre, Willemijn Verkaik In Concert cemented this status. Her delight in both singing and in she has achieved, is certainly refreshing. Perhaps a musical programme with more comedic interaction with her guest performers could have just been the icing on this very classy cake, but overall the night was certainly a triumph for Willemijn Verkaik.


Guest reviewer: Francesca Mepham

Carmen - Review

Soho Theatre, London


****


By Georges Bizet
In a new orchestration by Harry Blake
And a new English version and directed by Robin Norton-Hale


Flora McIntosh and Anthony Flaum

There is a simplistic charm to Carmen from Opera Up Close that see's Bizet's classic stripped down to a talented cast of nine and an orchestra reduced to the most elegant of quartets. One of the most popular works in the classical canon, Carmen makes for a great introduction for those just dipping a toe into the opera genre. With a musical score that alone could fill a Now That’s What I Call Classics compilation, the melodies are familiar and the story offers a parable that is, sadly, as timely today as at its 1875 premiere.

Set in Seville the plot tells of Carmen, a free-spirited and beautiful gypsy girl who turns the head of Don Jose, a locally garrisoned soldier. Jose, who has never known a woman's love, becomes smitten with Carmen, who in turn has seen her desires move away from the soldier, falling instead for the dashing matador Escamillio, Unable to control his jealousy, Jose brings the story to a violent, tragic conclusion.

Opera Up Close have split their company into two teams for the length of the run and on the night of this review, Flora McIntosh played Carmen whilst Anthony Flaum was the troubled young dragoon. They were both sensational in their sung roles, with McIntosh capturing Carmen's defiant spirit as well as delivering a deliciously luring Habanera (and to my non opera-savvy readers, if you think you don’t know that famous melody, just google it).

However, whilst McIntosh, who has more operatic talent in her little finger than this reviewer can even aspire to, offers a performance of technical genius, her Carmen is more MILF than irresistible provocateur and her required charm, that should be able to attract alpha-males like flies, doesn’t entirely convince.

Flaum is a perfectly cast delight. At first appropriately stilted and gauche, he evolves into smouldering jealousy. One can believe in his emotional, impressionable innocence and whilst Jose's behaviour abhors, Flaum offers a portrayal that explains his character's desperate flaws, without apologising for them.

Richard Immergluck is Escamillo, who with the opera's famous Toreador Song is gifted one of the most recognisable singing gigs ever. Again, notwithstanding sheer vocal excellence, Immergluck also doesn’t convince. From the outset, Escamillo requires a flamboyance in his appearance, marking him out as a testosterone infused stallion. As it is, Immergluck looks as if he has just stepped off a bus rather than out of the bullring and whilst towards the opera’s finale, where Carmen sports his chic bolero, defining her as the matador's lover, it is too little too late. 

Amongst the supporting company, Louisa Tee as local girl Micaela turns in some exceptional aria work and it has to be said that the entire cast are performers of the highest calibre. It makes such a refreshing change to a reviewer more acclimatised to musical theatre, to attend a musical performance in which not only are the actors un-mic'd, but their vocal work is so powerful and precise that they are crystal clear, even at the back of the auditorium.

On a modest budget, with a set that is more suggestive than detailed and fabulously lit by Joshua Pharo, Robin Norton-Hale's imaginative direction works a treat, even if her new translation occasionally grates for there is often something awkward when the contemporary English idiom is juxtaposed onto classic melodies.

A final word to musical director Berrak Dyer and her three fellow musicians Alyson Frazier, Alison Holford and Rosemary Hinton. These women are simply the best and their tireless work, is unmissable!


Runs until 19th September

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Lovebirds - CD Review

****

Music, lyrics and book by Robert J. Sherman




Premiering at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Lovebirds marks some gorgeous new musical theatre from Robert J. Sherman. The son and nephew of legendary tunesmiths Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, Robert J.'s show harks back to the era of vaudeville, Scott Fitzgerald and days of schmaltzy, beautifully voiced romance.

Telling a simple fantasy fuelled fable, whilst Sherman has written all of Lovebirds’ music, lyrics and book, the unmistakable influence of his beloved predecessors runs through the melodies like a stick of rock. Lovebirds is a world of singing birds and heartfelt passions, where a barber-shop troupe of singing penguins is signed up to a fading vaudeville show of macaws and parrots. Jealousies and rivalries emerge and an unlikely love blossoms before ultimately all the birds are in harmony expressing a passionate hope for the future. It’s a corny if imaginative premise, but what makes Lovebirds take flight is the beauty of Sherman’s music and the immaculate performances of his gifted cast.

Whilst Lovebirds is undoubtedly a sincere and warm-hearted look back at a more gentle time, it is playing to a 21st century audience – and notwithstanding the performers’ talent (captured beautifully in this immaculately engineered recording) there are a handful of Sherman’s rhymes that are too easily predicted, with other lyrics crying out for a “Tim Rice” touch to sharpen their wit. And whilst the album’s penultimate number Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow offers an outlook on the future that is syrup-like in its optimism, one cannot help but be reminded of 1963’s offering from the senior Shermans, There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow - to the extent that the sixties number almost overshadows Robert J. Sherman’s work.

There are some true gems in this recording – there’s an affectionately wistful, penguin-performed tribute to Mary Poppins that neatly references the birds’ appearance in Disney’s iconic movie, whilst the company number Tinpanorama makes for a sassy treat that sounds like it features some sensational tap work.

Amidst a flock of treats with Sherman’s melodies referencing the charleston as well as a soft-shoe shuffle in there too – and with Greg Castiglioni and Ruth Betteridge leading a flawless 9-strong troupe, there is much in Lovebirds to please the genre’s cognoscenti. An economically sized band of 3 musicians, under Neil Macdonald’s accomplished direction, also deliver excellence.

It is possible that some of the genius of the Sherman brothers came precisely because they were a pair – able to both criticise and hone each other’s contribution. Robert J. Sherman, who has a recognised gift for both composing and storytelling, writes alone. With a snappier lyricist for a wingman, Lovebirds could yet prove sensational.


Physical CDs are available from www.SimGProductions.com

Sunday 16 August 2015

Gobsmacked! - Review

Udderbelly, Edinburgh


****



Bringing together a cast of 7 talented young vocalists, Gobsmacked! delivers a unique, refreshing hour of contemporary, a capella tunes to a sell out crowd at the Udderbelly.

With a stage backlit by a vast wall of speakers and without a single instrument in sight, each cast member gets a turn in the spotlight to power through a series of catchy, superbly delivered hits from the last 40 years of pop music.

In the early stages the show does take a couple of songs to really get going, but the precision of the harmonies is remarkable at times, fusing elements of dance, R’n’B and hip-hop into a number of modern classics. An eclectic re-imagining of The Killers Mr. Brightside injects the crowd with energy in the first half, while an impeccably delivered falsetto version of Mumford & Sons I Will Wait delivers a welcome, more melancholic tempo to proceedings.

Thematically, almost all the songs focus on the same issues of love, loss and hope - That’s perfectly understandable given the source material that they are working with, but with more varied subjects or an attempt to rework songs from different genres, the group could have taken the audience on more of a journey and better demonstrated the breadth and depth of their talent.

The undoubted highlight of the show is the solo stylings of charismatic human beatboxer ‘Ball-Zee’. His light-hearted ten minute set includes taking the audience through the tuning of a virtual drum-set (complete with a pitch recalibration of each skin) before delivering a mind-melting looping sample that makes you question how one voice-box can produce such a wide variety of different sounds at exactly the same time

The show ends in exuberant fashion with a wide ranging, foot-tapping medley of hits, ranging from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition to Martin Garrix’s Animals, with each cast member entering the crowd and bringing (somewhat reluctant!) audience members onto the stage for a final dance. Shortly to head off on a deserved tour of Asia and Australia, Gobsmacked! makes for a highly entertaining evening that will be packing in the Fringe crowds throughout August.


Runs until 31st August at 4.30pm
Guest reviewer: Richard Fox

Saturday 15 August 2015

Penetrator - Review

The Hope Theatre, London


****


Written by Anthony Neilson
Directed by Phil Croft





With much in the way of 90’s revivals and a quantifiable number of in-yer-face productions hitting London’s theatre scene this year, the resurrection of Anthony Neilson's Penetrator at the Hope Theatre is nothing if not timely.

Phil Croft directs a sharply comical and ultimately scary production of this grotesque and brutally honest play. Max and Alan are unemployed twentysomething friends, home-alone, wasting away the hours watching porn and re-inventing, with ingenious wit, songs from their past to re-live the moment in which their lives had seemingly more purpose and direction. And then there’s Tadge, the other guy. A dark and intensely weird guy who brings with him a totally different atmosphere and shifts the dynamic of the play. 

Tom Manning’s Tadge captures an edge of psychosis and raw, unadulterated truth with a finesse that is genuinely frightening and ultimately very saddening to behold. Set up as an outsider from the outset. Alex Pardey’s characterisation of the slobbish, Max, is an uncomfortably familiar reflection of today’s middle class, sustained-by-parents graduate, possessed of a gift for comic timing as cutting and enjoyable as a young Ricky Gervais. There is a contrast with the sweet, house proud demeanour of Alan portrayed charmingly by Jolyon Price as a gentle, caring, embodiment of the innocence of the play, with his juvenile obsession for his teddy bears, which get repeatedly abused, much to his discomfort. Ironically, given how the play unfolds, Alan’s virtue along with that of the teddy bears, is one of the most successfully played motifs in this production. 

When Tadge arrives, having escaped a murky military past, at this harmless Hackney Hipster home, the tension is palpable. Each character’s past is carefully un-earthed to reveal hidden truths about their childhood friendships that none of the boys were expecting to face. This rejuvenated revival however littered with uneasy eruptions of laughter, nerf guns and childhood cartoon duvets, has a viciousness that evokes the feral nature of William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies. Racy and in-yer-face for sure, yet at the centre of this coming of age tragi-comic oddity beats a powerful dark heart.


Runs until 22nd August
Guest reviewer: Daphne Penn

Friday 14 August 2015

Prodigy - Review

St James Theatre, London


****


Music and Lyrics by Pippa Cleary
Book & Lyrics by Jake Brunger
Directed by Kate Golledge



Callum Howells and Francesca McKean

The National Youth Music Theatre's production of Prodigy at London's St James Theatre offers much to celebrate in Britain's musical theatre talent, both in composition and performing. With lyrics, book and some gorgeous music all from the emerging wunderkinder that are Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, the show is themed around an X-Factor type reality TV show – themed around the search for a child prodigy musician. 

The ensuing combination of pushy parents, gifted kids and the celebrity worship of TV has already proved fertile ground for musicals - there are hints of I Can't Sing!, Matilda and even an occasional whiff of Hairspray in the evening’s entertainment - but where NYMT continue to triumph is in assembling a troupe of talented young performers, all under 23 and then exposing them to the creative genius of acknowledged industry experts.

The satire kicks off mercilessly with Callum Howells’ and Francesca McKean's sizzling take on the superficial TV hosts that typically give these shows a pulse. Ridiculing (but not mimicking) the likes of ITV's Dermot O'Leary et al, these two gifted performers, under Kate Golledge's perceptive direction are spot on.

There are too many characters to name and credit in this review - all were excellent, but some are given moments of creative genius from Brunger and Cleary that linger on long after the youthful band's exit music, under the intuitive musical direction of Candida Caldicot, fades away.

Talent show finalists Kate and Luke (Caroline Whittingham and Harry Al-Adwani) provide the unlikely love story of the plot, in a heart-warming tale that sees romance blossom from adversity. Much respect is earned by the bulk of the cast who at times take on some challenging actor-muso responsibilities, with one of the show's most remarkable melodies coming from Al-Adwani's solo on an all too rarely heard vibraphone, providing an almost ethereal treat. Rupert, the villainous contestant of the piece, is played by Jamie Dodd who turns in a very convincing cad.

Jake and Pippa’s collection of parents straddle Britain’s social strata and are cleverly fleshed out. Again, amongst excellence all round, it is Emma Ernest’s Eileen (Kate’s parent) that is gifted the juiciest of roles, the actress punching well above her 19 years in a monstrous take on motherhood that almost suggests a 21st century Momma Rose!

The plot brims with perceptive wit and in Laura Barnard’s alcoholic TV producer Melissa Marconi, another cracking stereotype of the glib media world is brilliantly nailed.

Credit to this show’s creatives – they’ve even managed to throw in a jazz hands showstopper too. Luke Rozanski and Hannah Irvine (14 and 12 respectively and both great violinists) bring the house down with their hilarious younger siblings’ plea, We’ve Got Talent Too. And a worthy mention for Prodigy’s other “Finalists” Amelia Thompson (clarinet) and Seophora Parish (piano), both of whom put in accomplished performances. 

Luke Rozanski and Hannah Irvine


Diego Pitarch has designed an ingenious set that suggests a conservatoire, yet also offers an abstract flair that lends itself across the scenes. When it comes to the TV contest however, James Whiteside’s lighting design, all swooping spotlights across a smoky stage creates the location perfectly - with Darragh O'Leary's choreography remaining a delight throughout, particularly in the impressive ensemble numbers

Bravo to tireless producer Jeremy Walker, for it is largely down to his endeavours that NYMT continues to nurture talent across musical theatre, developing not just performers, but writers and creatives too. Prodigy only runs until tomorrow and if you can get your hands on a ticket you won’t be disappointed.


Runs until 15th August

Monday 10 August 2015

Oliver! - Review

Watermill Theatre, Newbury


****

Music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart
Directed by Luke Sheppard


Thomas Kerry

It is a rare treat to visit Newbury’s charmingly situated Watermill Theatre and Luke Sheppard's Oliver! more than makes the journey worthwhile. On arrival and in one of the most innovative mise-en-scenes, as the audience mingle on the lawn outside sipping Pimms and G&Ts, the cast’s ragamuffin kids dart about, not picking pockets but offering to shine shoes for a sixpence. It’s a charming touch.

As is the way at The Watermill, the production is actor-muso, with the adult cast playing their instruments during moments that don’t involve them in the show’s action. Bart’s striking overture proves an initial treat and it sets the standard for the evening’s music.

The production’s kids are an appropriately cute and talented bunch and on the night of this review the team of youngsters was headed by Thomas Kerry in the title role, with Archie Fisher as the Artful Dodger. Any production of Oliver! however will always be defined by its Fagin and Nancy and with Cameron Blakely and Alice Fearn, this show is in capable hands. If Blakely, the only actor who does not play an instrument, is initially a little too driven by stereotype he settles into the role well. Fagin should never be a truly sympathetic character, yet by the time he gets around to his wonderful Reviewing The Situation, the audience are laughing with him, not at him.

Fearn’s Nancy is simply as good as it gets. Aside from her piano and recorder playing duties she looks and sounds every inch the protagonist of one of the most complex love stories in the canon, with a voice that is just sensational. Fearn simply smashes It’s A Fine Life, whilst her As Long As He Needs Me both thrills and inspires, vocally soaring through her inexplicable devotion to Bill Sikes.

It is a stroke of genius that sees Sheppard set Nancy’s act two opener Oom-Pah-Pah, traditionally staged in an East End pub, back on the theatre’s lawn as the audience are finishing off their interval libations. Fearn’s delivery is bawdy, raucous and with a singalong encouraged if it wasn’t for the downright prosperity of surrounding Berkshire, close your eyes and you could almost be back in Whitechapel! 

Choreographer Tim Jackson also makes fine use of his cast within the compact space. The ensemble numbers are thrilling and Jackson’s work is Who Will Buy? is just a delight as the stage gradually fills to a rousing street scene.

Kit Orton (strings and percussion) puts in a fine turn as Bill Sikes, bringing a detached menace that convinces us of the evil lying at his villain’s core, whilst Steve Watts’ Mr Brownlow is the most compassionate of patricians who also proves a rather dab hand on the trumpet. Susannah van den Berg, always a treat to see perform, cuts a matronly figure as the hard-hearted Widow Corney and  also impresses with a wonderful voice and a talent for remarkable range of instruments.

Perhaps the most impressive musical moment of the night comes from Deborah Hewitt, who when she’s not playing Charlotte, is either tucked away on her drum kit or even more impressively, roaming the stage in a masterclass of syncopation, strapped to her one-(wo)man-band contraption. A nod too to the comic crafts of Tomm Coles’ (wind) Mr Sowerberry and Graham Lappin’s (piano and trombone) definition of vacuous pomposity, Mr Bumble.  

The show’s programme contains some well researched background material, but annoyingly does not give the actors any (deserved) credit for the instruments that they play. So to complete the record, also putting in a first class shift were Joey Hickman on piano and trombone, Rachel Dawson on strings and the marvellous Rhona McGregor on Piano, strings and sax

Given the impoverished backdrop to Oliver!, the economy of doing away with a separate orchestra works well and amidst Tom Rogers' striking multi-level set design and Howard Hudson’s trademark stunning lighting, the time and place of a grim Victorian London is thrillingly captured. If Lionel Bart is looking down upon the Watermill’s production, he’s surely smiling.


Runs until 19th September
Photo credit: Philip Tull

Saturday 8 August 2015

Miss-Leading Ladies - Review

St James Studio


*****

Co-written and directed by Sarah-Louise Young


Ria Jones and Ceri Dupree

Before launching into a sassy opening routine of Irving Berlin's Sisters, Ria Jones and Ceri Dupree tease their audience with a hint of Gypsy's act one Let Me Entertain You - sung of course originally by that show's child sisters June and Louise. And in that moment these two gifted performers achieve a rare and elusive vanishing point that sees dramatic irony fade into reality. For Dupree and Jones really are siblings, Dupree by a few years being Jones' elder brother.

Miss-Leading Ladies is an expertly crafted tribute to the (mainly Broadway) female musical theatre stars of the last century. Amongst many moments of side splitting humour, there can be glimpses of gut wrenching pathos - and it is a tribute to both the performers and their director Sarah-Louise Young that such a whirl through history can be as informative as it is perfectly drilled and delivered.

Jones and Dupree know how to work a crowd – and where Jones, a former Eva Peron, Fantine and Grizabella in her time, has a voice that is simply majestic both in its refined elegance and in her astonishing belt that she unleashes from time to time, it is Dupree’s outrageously glamorous drag outfits (I lost count of his wardrobe changes - bravo costume maker James Maciver ) that garner the evening’s biggest laughs.

Not just songs and patter, there’s a hint of Music Hall too complete with seaside-postcard style saucy lyrics, along with the occasional spot of encouraged singalong. As Dupree’s ability to rattle off bawdy gags hits a sweet spot, so his mimicry of Broadway’s Grand Dames is sensational. There’s a rictus Bette Davis (or was that Carol Channing?), Eartha Kitt becomes a prosecco pouring soak (thanks for the unexpected glass of fizz, mind) whilst his Marlene Dietrich, sporting a white fur train that goes on forever, sings Falling In Love again re-written to Lifting My Face Again. And those are just a few of Dupree’s personae.

Another one of Ceri Dupree's sensational outfits!

Jones plays a straighter bat, her numbers evidencing a love for Ethel Merman, though the welsh diva also gives a sublimely understated nod to Judy Garland with The Man That Got Away. As she mounts the stage clad in black and sporting a crucifix, it only takes a hint of accordion, along with her grip of a 1950’s microphone stand to suggest Piaf. Je Ne Regrette Rien and Hymn To Love duly follow and as Jones scales the latter’s simply enchanted chords, with head bowed and a perfect presence, she captures the essence of the enigmatic chanteuse.

To be honest, Miss-Leading Ladies deserves its 5 stars for Dupree’s costumes alone – but more than that - these two singers, blessed with sharing what is clearly the most gifted of gene pools, are just a terrific act. Their penultimate number Rose’s Turn, again from Gypsy, works not just as a nod to Imelda Staunton’s excellence that’s carrying on down the road, but rather gives the song an entirely new interpretation. It is a special moment to witness these talented siblings singing such a withering comment upon a failed parental ego.

Edward Court on piano together with Sally Peerless on flute and reeds offer an accompaniment that only matches their singers’ polish and to be fair, Ben Roger's lighting is a bit of a treat too.

With both drag and false lashes removed, Dupree joins Jones for a final number of Peter Allen’s Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage whence the St James audience rose as one (and not for the first time that evening either) to salute the pair. Don’t miss Miss-Leading Ladies, it is an evening of outstanding cabaret.


Runs until 30th August
Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

Thursday 6 August 2015

Grand Hotel - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

****

Book by Luther Davis
Music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright
Additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Thom Southerland

Victoria Serra and company

There is a gorgeous trinity almost akin to a planetary alignment, when producer Danielle Tarento, Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud work together, and in tackling Grand Hotel’s dark and desperate depths they again achieve artistic success.

The dramatic potential of a hotel – and of the lives inside it, has famously proved fertile ground for writers. Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, in The Shining told of the grand era of the 1920s and whilst 30 years and 5,000 miles may separate Southerland's Grand Hotel from Hitchcock's Bates Motel, both are hostelries to which people fled with dark secrets to hide and inevitable tragedy to confront.

Set in 1928 Berlin, Weimar Germany was a flawed nation and Southerland's production hints at the ugly rise of National Socialism's menacing tide. Checking in at the city's Grand Hotel are a collection of doomed or burdened folk. There is the ageing prima ballerina whose star has fallen, a bankrupt Baron pursued by villainous creditors. Other hotel guests include an impoverished young secretary devastated by an unwanted pregnancy, a failed corporate chief exec and a Jewish bookkeeper riddled with consumption. That’s an awful lot of plot to weave in to a single act show of around 100 minutes – and to be fair whilst much of what Southerland and Proud achieve is downright brilliant, the odd performance falls short of the mark.  

There is flawless excellence on display, at both ends of an age spectrum, from Victoria Serra as Flaemmchen the unfortunate secretary and Christine Grimandi as Grushinskaya the dancer. Serra enchants us with a painful desperation to escape her miserable lot, never finer than during The Girl In The Mirror. And when she’s not breaking our hearts she’s stunning the audience with her sensational dance, memorably in a sensational trio routine, Maybe My Baby partnered by Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes.

Grimandi devastates with a sensitive and perfectly weighted portrayal. Almost Norma Desmond like, such is the skill with which her complex fragilities play out, she craves the long-gone adulation of Europe's opera house audiences, yet she is wise enough to know the frailties of her age. There isn’t a more finely crafted female performance in town than that of Grimandi, a star of Italian theatre, offers at Southwark. Also outstanding in a performance of the most subtly crafted devoted depair is Valerie Cutko’s Raffaella – maid to Grushinskaya, who nurses a secret, passionate love for her mistress. 

Stepping in with barely a week or so to rehearse, David Delve’s Colonel-Doctor is another masterclass in understated brilliance. His morphine-addicted war veteran gives us a wry narrative, Chorus like, that strips away the facades of the wealthy and privileged guests and delivered with a presence that consistently commands our attention. Likewise, Jacob Chapman’s Preysing – an apparently happily married businessman who before our eyes descends into a misogynist monster as his business crumbles, is another well fashioned turn.

Lee Proud’s movement is, as always, ingenious. From ensemble representing the hotel’s revolving doors, through to glorious Charleston pastiches and immaculately created routines, Proud makes effective use of the tight traverse space.

And as for Michael Bradley’s 8-piece band, wow! With a sound that at times could suggest a full sized-orchestra, it is a rare treat to hear an ensemble so heavy on strings. There is more than a hint of a Palm Court ambience in Simon Lee's orchestrations and Bradley's immaculate execution.

It remains a continuing credit to Southerland and Tarento that together they have achieved a body of work so impressive that they can acquire the closely-guarded rights to such rarely seen shows. Grand Hotel may be dark and thematic, but presented in the Southwark Playhouse’s intimacy, its cast and creatives offer yet another display of London’s musical theatre genius.


Runs until 5th September

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton