Thursday, 30 April 2015

Titus Andronicus - Review

Greenwich Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Yaz Al-Shaater

Smooth Faced Gentlemen's all female Titus Andronicus is a deftly trimmed take on Shakespeare's most bloody tragedy. Amidst some cracking performances, a company of 8 clad in white blouses and black trousers and performing on a stark white set, deploy litres of red paint to depict the story's carnage.

The base motives of the play: lust, betrayal and parental love are all preserved in a text that has been finely chopped to just 80 minutes plus interval. The acting is a delight, with imaginative voice work chanted in from the wings that only adds to the Roman - Gothic chamber of horrors unfolding on stage. The moments of comedy are well defined and with paintbrushes (and occasionally rollers) replacing the conventional ironmongery of weapons, the irony and horror of the piece are cleverly preserved.

The cast are all strong, led by an imposing Ariane Barnes in the title role. Stand out performances amongst a talented troupe are Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Aaron who frequently has the audience in the palm of her hand as she effortlessly blends evil with comedy. As Tamora, Olivia Bromley exudes an infernal cocktail of defiant maternal love, alongside a sickening contempt for Lavinia's vulnerable womanhood as well as a burning sexuality.

Four of the cast swap between various roles and whilst their transitions are slick, they add a layer of complexity that may well confuse a newcomer. Memorable from the role-changers is Ashlea Kaye who manages the challenge of portraying Demetrius' evil youth whilst also capturing Marcus' warm avuncular balm.

Only here for four days before a return to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, Yaz Al-Shaater directs this triumphant truncation assuredly. This gender bending production takes a little getting used to and Titus novices would do well to peruse a pre-show synopsis, whilst those familiar with the fable should revel in this Elizabethan prequel to Come Dine With Me. With lashings of red sauce, the Smooth Faced Gents' Titus Andronicus makes for some of the most refreshingly accessible Shakespeare in town.

Plays until 2nd May - Then at the Edinburgh Fringe 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Don Black In Conversation - Pt 1: Cabaret

Don Black

The London Festival of Cabaret opens this week and runs for a fortnight across the city. Featuring a line-up from both sides of the Atlantic you can expect legendary names getting up close to a microphone, singing songs that they love (and may also have composed) and reaching out beyond the spotlight to share stories with an audience.

Unlike a staged musical the atmosphere couldn’t be more relaxed – and over a cocktail or glass of wine, maybe with a bite to eat too, listening to an inspirational performer either singing beautifully or sharing a sparkling anecdote makes for a charming evening.

As the final preparations were being drawn up for Tuesday’s opening night, I caught up with Festival Patron and Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black to talk about his love for the art-form.

JB:    Don, what drew you to supporting the Festival? 

DB:    I've always, for as long as I can remember, loved cabaret. When I was managing Matt Monroe, all those years ago, I used to go to those northern clubs and cabaret clubs which were rife in the '60's. Places like Talk of the Town, I used to love the atmosphere. 

When I started going to America a lot, I used go to all the cabaret places in New York. Lots of things drew me to these places.

You would get singers there who sang the different songs, special material, witty songs. Songs you hear very often. No one in cabaret sings My Way or those out and out popular songs. You get some very, very interesting and intriguing artists.

In New York I used to go and see a guy named Oscar Brown Jr., wherever he appeared. In fact I was discussing him only the other day with Van Morrison, who is a huge fan of his, so is Paul Jones, and many people.

I used to go and see Matt Dennis who wrote great songs like Angel Eyes and Let's Get Away From It All. 

I just like that closeness, the intimacy of the cabaret room. I'm delighted that so much is going on in London, in cabaret. I go to the Crazy Coqs quite often along with the St. James and I go to The Pheasantry too. The other night at The Pheasantry I saw Charles Strouse, the man who wrote Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Now, you tell me where you can go see a guy, nearly 87 years old, talking for 2 hours and sharing anecdotes about Jule Styne and Hal Prince singing his songs?

Also, I really like the idea of them not being great singers! I like watching the song writers, like Strouse, who's not a great piano player, not a great singer. You get so much heart and so much emotion in those couple of hours. It's a different kind of evening. Cabaret really is a great love of mine. 

I recently saw Anne Reid at the Crazy Coqs. Now Anne is a great example of someone and she won't mind me saying this, who really is not a great singer. But she's a great actress, and therefore a great story-teller. 

JB:    What are your thoughts on the younger cabaret artistes, as compared to those who do cabaret on the back of longer established careers? 

DB:    What you get from young artists, that you may not get from the older people, is new material. You do get the younger people, they'll find a song from a failed musical. You think, "Oh isn't that beautiful." They can be full of surprises.

But of course the more seasoned a performer is, the more they've got more to draw on and of course you can feel for them too. You are close up. So when you see a person in their 60's and 70's singing a song about years gone by or missed opportunities, you cannot help but be moved. It is very touching when you see Anne Reid, who's I don't know nearly 80 now, singing a Barbara Cook song. You get the goosebumps. And as I said about Charles Strouse, when he went into The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow, I mean, god almighty it was phenomenal!

I saw Mitch Winehouse at the Hippodrome a few weeks ago, Amy’s dad. He really put through with about a 12 piece orchestra, and he was terrific. So interesting and of course lots of anecdotes about Amy. It was very personal and also very touching. 

JB:    So – is it about the songs or the story-telling?

DB:    Being a lyric writer I've always gone for the story teller. It's interesting because Tony Bennett's favourite singer and he’s often said this and it says a lot, is Louis Armstrong. Sinatra's favourite singer was Fred Astaire. These people aren't known for singing but they are known for storytelling. You hang on every word when these people sing. That's what I like about cabaret, you don't have to be the greatest singer, but you just have to get your story across. That's why with people like Lorna Luft, you hang on every comma. 

JB: Don, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and enjoy the Festival!

Aside from cabaret, Don also spoke at length about his song-writing career and part 2 of this fascinating conversation will be published shortly.

The London Festival Of Cabaret – Celebrating Song opens on 28th April and continues at venues across the capital until 11th May. Confirmed artists appearing include Kerry Ellis, Barb Jungr, Janie Dee and Scott Alan (amongst many others) and you can also watch some of today’s younger stars such as Jamie Parker and Caroline Sheen branching out onto the capital’s cabaret circuit. 

Friday, 24 April 2015

In The Dead Of Night - Review

Landor Theatre, London


Written and directed by Claudio Macor

Judith Paris and Susannah Allman

In The Dead Of Night sets out an ambitious premise. Very much a nod to the film noir of the 1940s, Claudio Macor's play draws upon the classic romantic motifs with a tale set in the fictional South American town of La Roca.  Amidst an intrigue of whores, drug cartels, sleazy dockside rendezvous and ultimately murder, passions run high and hearts are broken.

But back in the day Hollywood was enslaved to the Hays Code – a puritanical ethic that governed all aspects of intimacy and sexuality in the movie industry. Macor has already explored this era with The Tailor Made Man. In The Dead Of Night takes artistic licence one step further, by pitching the plot as though the Hays Code did not exist. Gay love is celebrated rather than hidden, whilst the straight sex simmers too. The noir genre cruelly demands respect and scripting the period can prove to be a notorious challenge if melodrama is to be avoided. Whilst Macor's research into the cocaine-fuelled period is learned and sincere, he overdoses on cliché.

Acclaimed actor Judith Paris leads the company as La Roca's ageing madam, Elvira. Paris is a delight, making a larger than life character accessible, whilst at the same time casting a GILF-like spell over most of the men in town.  Shamelessly exploitative, Macor has chosen his performers with an eye for beauty as much as for talent. Countless ripped young men strut about in vests and butt-slung braces, who if they are not lusting after Elvira, are falling at the feet of Susannah Allman's Rita, or in the story’s strongest love theme, each other. Defying the conventions of the time, the story leads on the doomed love between Leandro and Massimo, respectively Matt Mella and Jordan Alexander, in a courtship that includes some fabulously choreographed man to man tango.

And it's Anthony Whiteman’s choreography that marks this show out. Delivering quite possibly the best off-West End dance work in London today, his sublime tangos and salsas are breath-taking for what they accomplish, especially given the Landor’s modest space. Immaculately drilled, his company oozes passion whilst the perfectly sculpted and scantily clad Allman, gives a performance that is not only a smouldering tribute to Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, but also a sensational dance accomplishment as she moves around her would be suitors.

Notable too on the night are Ned Wolfgang Kelly’s devious Falchi, whilst Ross Harper Millar’s Martinez is memorably classy as a drink and drugs addled Latin bum.

Overblown hokum for sure, but with Paul Boyd (he of Molly Wobbly fame)  having laid down a keyboard driven backing score that adds to both time and genre and all supporting a deliciously talented troupe, In The Dead Of Night makes for an entertaining night out. Worth catching!

Runs to 16th May 2015  

Sunday, 19 April 2015

John G Smith Trio - Review

John G Smith

The John G Smith Trio are a relatively new addition (albeit comprised of some fabulously experienced talent) to London’s jazz and cabaret circuit and it was a full Crazy Coqs that welcomed their debut late night gig.

With Smith on piano and occasional vocals. James Graydon on guitar and singing too and Zoltan Dekany on acoustic bass, the evening was billed as a humorous rediscovery of songs by Billy Joel, Paul Simon and others. Whilst Joel’s tunes were given a sometimes intelligent re-working, with an opening mash up of And So It Goes with The Longest Time that will have tickled the eardrums of the star’s cognoscenti in the audience, some of the jazz work missed its mark. Joel’s gorgeous number from his Turnstiles collection, New York State Of Mind was not only re-arranged, its tempo was brutally speeded up too. In so doing, much of the song’s delicate beauty  was lost. 

Also, Smith had decided to eschew all of Joel’s lyrics. On reflection this was probably a wise call, given that the words would no longer have scanned to fit the revised beats that Smith had imposed. But even more intriguingly, the pianist had then decided to include the lyrics of a handful of songs that he and Graydon had composed and which were dedicated to / inspired by their respective loving partners. Great idea, but the homegrown words proved as cheesy as they were sincere. If you’re going to strip out Joel’s poetry from your set list, then it’s a tad disingenuous to subject a captive audience to your own scribblings, anodyne in comparison to Joel’s balladeer-ing brilliance. 

That being said – there were moments of genius on the night. All three musicians were a joy to behold, with Dekany’s fabulous fingerwork in Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie defining the purest of talents. When they were joined, sadly for one number only, by jazz violinist Michael Keelan who had hot-footed it over from the Drury Lane orchestra pit, the passionate Chick Corea inspired collaboration set the room alight. 

The two-act set makes for some charming entertainment – but it needs work. The Billy Joel compositions deserve more than the current re-engineering into muzak and if the band are going to hint at humour on the flyer, then they need to deliver on the night. Though, with a musical craftsmanship (and pedigree) that cannot be faulted, The John G Smith Trio have every chance of developing into a vibrant feature of the capital’s jazz scene.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Gypsy - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


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

Imelda Staunton

It is rare to see perfection improved upon, but in its transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s Gypsy achieves just that. A highlight of 2014, the resonance of Jule Styne's big band brassy score filled the Sussex theatre's world class open stage. But Gypsy was written in and for the Golden Age of Broadway, to be mounted on a proscenium stage. In re-sculpting their masterpiece to fit the Savoy’s traditional confines, Kent and choreographer Stephen Mear have excelled.

Like a fine wine, Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose has matured since last year's press night. To this most complex of women (a role sometimes likened to the King Lear of musical theatre), Staunton now adds an even richer lustre. Not just a pushy mother, Rose is at once loving of her daughters yet insensitive to their needs, principled and yet shamelessly opportunistic and above all, endowed with the most monstrous of egos. Staunton owns her stage mastering a complex cocktail of passion, drive and ultimately the most fragile of vulnerabilities in a virtuoso performance. Stamping her mark on the show with a strength of voice that matches perfection in tone and an unbelievable presence, her comic one-liners are as perfectly honed as the pathos she wrings in her spot-lit solo finale, Rose's Turn. Truly, Staunton is now the finest female actor of her time.

Lara Pulver is exquisite as the initially fragile and over-shadowed Louise. In Little Lamb, Pulver blends a painful poignancy alongside our horrendous realisation that she is a young woman whose emotional development is literally being stifled by her mother. In a performance of mastered subtlety, Pulver commands our sympathy throughout. Thrown onto a burlesque stage at a moment’s notice, Pulver makes her first faltering steps into small-town sleaze straight into a piercing white spotlight and her character’s awkward pain is evident. But when she emerges, sable clad in fame and fortune yet still able to comfort her distraught mother whose own dreams now lie shattered, Pulver breaks our hearts.

Peter Davison completes the leading trio. New to the show, he brings a relaxed yet weathered and leathered credibility to Herbie that was the one missing link in Chichester. Davison can sing and move in line with his stature - and as Stephen Mear has already commented, the chemistry between Davison and Staunton sparkles.

Gypsy’s gems are richly sprinkled amongst its uber-talented company, with Dan Burton’s Tulsa proving him to be as smoothly voiced as his body is lithe. Burton’s routine in All I Need Is The Girl oozes the coolest of romance, with Mear choreographing the man magnificently.

Gemma Sutton's June hits the mark in the first half. One of the leading talents of her generation, Sutton imbues her over-mothered character with just the right amount of squeaky-voiced ambition, yet also despair. Top notch dance work from this talented young lady too.

The three seen-it-all Wichita strippers played by the (far from veteran) Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand, offer the show’s wryest perspective, with a world-weary wisdom not dissimilar to the tragi-comedy of Hamlet’s gravediggers. Their wonderful You Gotta Get A Gimmick proving gloriously and hilariously that womanhood is still to be celebrated after the flush of youth has faded. 

The kids on press night were a polished troupe, with Isla Huggins-Barr’s Baby June bravely and brilliantly dancing her socks off, winning the West End audience with a precocious charm. A nod too to Holly Hazleton’s impeccable Baby Louise, one of the few kids to transfer from Chichester in what is a challenging role.

Anthony Ward’s design deploys ingenious scene shifts, framed within a chocolate box lid of a proscenium façade, whilst Nicholas Skilbeck’s direction of his 15 piece orchestra (all brass and wind, there’s no space for schmaltzy strings in this show) breathes a magnificence into Styne’s compositions that wows from the Overture’s opening bars.

In an era when juke-box songs, fancy stage sets or stunt casting are frequently needed to sell seats, Gypsy marks (another) breath of fresh air in recognising the simple genius of a perfectly written show, exquisitely staged. Moments such as the jaw-dropping choreography of the Time Lapse Transition, Jerome Robbins' original Broadway routine, leave us stunned.

Gypsy’s stage may have shrunk since Chichester, but like Babies June and Louise, this show has grown. Only in town for a few months, they don’t get better than this. Know too that in her Momma Rose, Imelda Staunton is offering the musical theatre performance of the century.

To read my recent interview with Stephen Mear on bringing Gypsy to the West End, click here

To read my review of the original Chichester production, click here.

Gypsy is now booking until 28th November 2015

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Gypsy In Mear - Stephen Mear On Choreographing Gypsy For The West End

clockwise from left Dan Burton, Stephen Mear, Lara Pulver and Imelda Staunton


As Gypsy opens at the Savoy Theatre tonight, I caught up with its choreographer and one of the country's leading creative talents, Stephen Mear to talk about the show and in particular to understand more of his work with and respect for leading lady Imelda Staunton.

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's classic was one of the highlights of 2014 winning the Critics Circle award for Best Musical and cementing Staunton's position as quite possibly the nation's greatest musical theatre actress with her portrayal of the complex if monstrous Mamma Rose.

JB:    Stephen, thank you so much for finding the time to talk during the hectic work of Gypsy’s preview run. How's it’s going?

SM:    I don't think I've experienced anything like it before, ever, to be quite honest. We’ve already had Stephen Sondheim in to watch the show and with Imelda having got a full standing ovation after Rosie’s Turn at the first preview, it's really been quite breathtaking.

The full house just stood up instantaneously. It was quite something. I've always said with Imelda it's like watching a volcano erupt. It's all just so brilliantly acted. She's so controlled even in the bonkers section. She's just on the right side of everything. 

JB:    What is it like for you to have created something that was so sensationally acclaimed back in the summer and to then have a chance to revisit it?

SM:    I think it's always amazing to go back and revisit a show that you've done, if only because you have more time to work out different things.

We've changed Lara's strips and made them quicker and more continuous. That was wonderful to do.

JB:    And what challenges have you found in re-staging the show’s movement from Chichester’s modern thrust to the proscenium at the Savoy? 

SM:    At nearly twice the size of the Savoy, Chichester is a wonderful place. You've got three sides and you have to make sure everyone is entertained, including those to the side, otherwise there’s the risk that some of the audience might slightly miss out at some point. We’ve mastered that now, not least because I've worked there so many times.

JB:    The show very much describes a specific time and period in American history. What drove you in your vision to have the dance and movement reflect the era? 

SM:    Being true to the period is always so important. I have watched so many of Gypsy Rose Lee's strips, to try and improve Lara's strip routines

And I love that period anyway. I was brought up on MGM musicals!

 JB:    Tell me about choreographing Lara Pulver

SM:    I'm very lucky that we have got Lara who is just sensational and such a brilliant lady with her physicality. She goes from being a plain Jane, and you think, "How the hell is she going to become a fabulous stripper?" She does because, one, she's an amazing actress and two, she's so aware of her body, of how it works. She's just a dream to work with. 

It's the same with Dan Burton with All I Need is the Girl. I know how he works and I know his physicality. He's just so sensational to work on. His line and his flair and his elegance and style. He's got that period style for this piece as well.

JB:    And what does newcomer Peter Davison brings to the show. 

SM:    Peter has brought something different and it’s quite funny. His chemistry is wonderful with Imelda. They seem to be more flirtatious in the first scene which sets it up for me.  He also stands up to her a lot at the end, and it is quite interesting when he does that. 

JB:    Imelda Staunton is one of the finest actresses on both stage and screen and also one of the few who has earned an outstanding reputation that straddles both drama and musical theatre.

SM:    You see, I thought that when I was first was going to do the job, I thought, "I wonder how good her voice is?" And it is truly stunning!

She can sing, she can belt those big notes that Mama Rosie has to do at the end without going down a key or anything. She does not miss a beat. Sometimes she will go away to work on a routine and the next week, she'll come back and she's nailed it exactly to the timing, but with it all looking so natural without ever making it seem like I've said, "Look could you do a shoulder roll there."

She shows all sides of her character. She doesn't show just nice sides, she shows bonkers, sexy, everything. She's like a roller coaster and it’s that that keeps people on the edge of their seat.

JB:    She has an outstanding reputation in the industry as an excellent leading lady. Did you see that in her?

SM:    She's 100% a brilliant leader of the company like you wouldn't believe. She goes around the dressing rooms saying hello to everybody. She's a real star, beyond a star, I think.

When you hear of companies that are having troubles, it normally stems from the top. But if you've got somebody like Imelda, nobody’s ever going to mess about and everybody has to up their game. She's just got that old school mentality that not only knows how to keep everybody happy, she leads the show to what it is.

JB:    To what extent do you reference Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway choreography? 

SM:    We very much wanted to respect Jerome in the scene where the kids turn from young to old, having the old and young actors going simultaneously through each other without the audience suddenly realizing that they are all on stage. That was a challenge but it worked out great and rightly so, like many iconic moments. Jerome Robbins' era paved the way for all of us choreographers and it’s nice to tip your hat to people if you're doing one of their shows

JB:    Stephen, thanks again and I wish you and the company "broken legs" all round for a successful West End run!

Gypsy is now booking at the Savoy Theatre until 28th November 2015

Click here to read my review of the original Chichester production.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Beneath The Dress - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


Back by popular demand, Frances Ruffelle brought her song cycle of a show, Beneath The Dress, to a packed out Crazy Coqs for two nights only.

In what was to prove an eclectic, coquette-ick whirl, Ruffelle ‘s one-woman one-act set drew on a collection of mainstream and left field numbers from both sides of the Atlantic. In parts whimsical and reflective, at other times outrageously celebratory, those who know the singer well may perhaps recognise the moments that she has suggested hint at autobiography.

Ruffelle’s entrance through the crowd offered a provocative wit, with the singer soon into one of her own compositions, Hit Me With A Hot Note, proving she not only possesses one of the most gorgeously controlled and distinctively timbred voices around, her writing is neat too.

Above all, Ruffelle is one of those uber-talented women who defines the craft of acting through song. The students of today need to watch her and learn, as she imbues just the right amount of melancholy into Rodgers and Hart’s Ten Cents A Dance, whilst her take on Lilac Wine the James Shelton 1950 classic and made famous in turn (depending upon your age) by Nina Simone, Elkie Brooks and latterly Katie Melua, was revelatory. Ruffelle understands her songs intimately, coaxing newly discovered nuance and poignancy from numbers we thought we knew well.

The unpredictability to the set list mirrored Ruffelle’s cutely distinctive persona. Tom Waits’ Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis is probably not often heard amidst the art-deco swirls of the Crazy Coqs, likewise the car crash of a number that is Coffee from See What I See. Each though added to the confection of reflection that made up the night.

The show wouldn’t have been complete without a nod to Ruffelle’s most celebrated creation, Les Miserables’ Eponine and with several tributes to Piaf throughout the evening, including an enchanting mash up that saw Piaf’s classic Hymn To Love segueing in and out of Les Mis’ On My Own, it is clear to see Ruffelle has a metier that's firmly rooted in the entente cordiale.

David Barber’s five piece band were excellent in support and as ever, producer Danielle Tarento’s commitment to excellence had ensured a polished turn. Beneath The Dress show has already toured widely and these two nights were not enough. Ruffelle fills the venue, not just with an audience but a gorgeous ambience too – The Crazy Coqs should get her back soon.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Greg Doran

Harriet Walter and Antony Sher
To read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here

Death Of A Salesman not only marks the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth, but in Greg Doran’s production being staged over Shakespeare’s April birthday, is also the RSC’s jewel in its 2015 crown.

Widely acclaimed as the greatest American play, we witness a meticulous dissection of the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. His sales are flagging, buyers won’t see him anymore and he has been reduced to “commission only” by his young and ruthless boss Howard, a man who (in one of many moments of Miller’s cruel perception) Willy has watched grow up from boyhood to inherit his family's business. The mounting finance bills on car (and hellishly, even the refrigerator) remind us of the domestic pressures that Antony Sher's Willy can never escape.

As guilt and failure take their toll on Loman, we see early on how wise his wife (Harriet Walter's Linda) is to his confusion. “Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.” But she is being kind. As act one unfolds, Harriet Walter delivers one of the most devastating female performances, telling sons Biff and Happy that not only is she fully aware of Willy’s suicidal depression, but that she cannot let him know that she knows, for such a revelation would destroy him. Linda’s strength as a wife and mother, desperate to glue her family together is a recognisable pain and as Walter spoke, the sobbing around the auditorium was profound.

Miller is merciless as he twists the knife into Loman’s last desperate hours. As Biff again disappoints him, the true depths of Willy’s guilt and shame are revealed, whilst Happy (Sam Marks convincing as the shallow even if ultimately loving son, too easily led by his trousers) is happy to desert his desolate father in a restaurant, as he heads off in pursuit of women.

Loman’s descent will be recognised by all and quite possibly be familiar to many and yet along the way he encounters everyday kindnesses too. Linda’s love for her husband breaks our hearts, whilst Charley (a beautifully weighted performance from the lugubrious Joshua Richards) provides one of the most touching definitions of friendship ever penned. In the play’s Requiem, Charley’s eulogy echoes Horatio's "now cracks a noble heart" speech from Hamlet, as the old New Yorker says of Willy: 

”He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”

Nowhere else in the canon has the so-called “American dream” been so concisely revealed as the nightmare that it can so easily become.

Besides the faultless text, it is Doran’s company that mark this production as one of the greats. Sat at his kitchen table, the shoe-shining Sher defines Miller’s anti-hero for a new generation and as his mind unravels, Sher’s Loman is as brilliantly desperate as he is pitiful.

In a pairing that has seen Alex Hassell play Hal to Sher’s Falstaff, so is the younger man now Biff. Magnificent throughout, it is late into act two when Hassell, with minimal dialogue and outstanding acting, portrays a young man watching the rock that he had previously believed his father to be, crumble before his eyes. Watching the equal despair of the humiliated father and his devastated son, both now destroyed, is almost unbearable. 

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ powerfully overbearing set depicts a tenemented Brooklyn, the Lomans’ home, where nothing grows anymore – and as Miller has the play’s action flash between the years, so too does the staging mirror Loman’s muddled mind. Credit also to Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s music, both perfectly enhancing time and place.

In 1979 Miller described Warren Mitchell in Mitchel Rudman’s National Theatre production, as “definitive”. I saw the NT show more than once and Greg Doran’s version shares that pantheon. 

A tragedy that is timeless and epic and yet also everyman, Death Of A Salesman plays at Stratford, before an immediate transfer to London. The production is unmissable. Drama does not come better than this.

Plays at Stratford until 2nd May 2015. Then plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 9th May until 18th July 2015

Monday, 6 April 2015

Beneath The Dress with Frances Ruffelle

Frances Ruffelle returns to London's Crazy Coqs at the end of this week for two nights only. Reprising her acclaimed one-woman show Beneath The Dress, it is no surprise that her Friday night gig is already sold out with only a handful of tickets remaining for Saturday.

Amidst rehearsals and preparation, I caught up with Frances for a brief chat about the show.

JB:    Please tell me, what was the inspiration for Beneath The Dress? 

FR:    Basically I just put together a show that was about myself in a way, but also about situations that I associate with, or singers who I love, or songs that I have been influenced by and songs with situations that I associate with as well. And also it just simply celebrates women who love to entertain. 

It's really a song cycle more than a cabaret, a story of one woman, but a lot of people when they are watching it, think I am playing different characters. It's one woman going through her life and starting out as young and excited, with her whole life in front of her and the set evolves into a much more jaded older woman at the end who is basically having to come to terms with stuff and accept life as it is.

JB:    Is there an autobiographical inspiration to the show? 

FR:    Not exactly. But there are moments of me in the show that my friends will recognise. 

JB:    What is the history of the show? 

FR:    I first did it at Madame JoJo's actually and then I did it in Edinburgh about five years ago. I’ve done it in New York, in Poland, a lot of places. I’d sort of felt as if the show was in my past and I didn't expect to be doing it again, but then Ruth Leon at the Crazy Coqs who hadn't seen it, said “Hey how about coming back to the Crazy Coqs and doing Beneath the Dress because I would like to see it”. So here I am!

I’ve added three or four different songs because I thought it would be great for audiences that have seen it before to have something else, and I actually think these songs help tell the story even more. I have refined it.

JB:    Without expecting you to give away any secrets, where do the songs derive from, is it shows, is it the songbooks?

FR:    From absolutely everywhere. From Cole Porter to Tom Waits, to Jacques Brel. I also have also some lyrics that I have written myself.

JB:    How big is your band?

FR:    We have got four pieces, we might have five we are not sure yet. I am going to decide that with David Barber, my MD. Originally the show had a six-piece band, but that's too much for the Crazy Coqs. Making sure that the show perfectly fits the venue is very important to me.

JB:    And who is producing or directing you?

FR:    Well Danielle Tarento always produces me and originally I had taken direction from Paul Baker. Paul and I have played opposite each other three times in three different productions including my Roxy to his Amos in the West End. He directed me at the Edinburgh Festival and has been really really helpful and amazing as Beneath The Dress has evolved. Funnily enough, I am going to be directing his one man show later this year as well.

JB:    I recall that in your last appearance at the Crazy Coqs in your Paris Original cabaret, the show included several gorgeous costume changes. How many changes of dress make up Beneath The Dress?

FR:    [laughs] Four!

JB:    Sounds fabulous and I am looking forward to seeing the show. Thanks so much for sparing the time to talk!

Frances Ruffelle performs in Beneath The Dress at the Crazy Coqs on Friday April 10 (sold out) and Saturday April 11

Friday, 3 April 2015

I Know I Mustn't Fall Into The Pit - Backstage With Anthony Gabriele and the Cats' Orchestra

At nearly every musical, after the cast have taken their final bow and as the audience start filing out onto the street, the band will typically play a minute or so of exit music, almost the opposite of an overture, before they too sign off for the night. I try to make a point of staying in the auditorium until that number is over, by which time often more than half the crowd will have left, so as to applaud the band (and at that moment in time, only the band) for the usually top-notch contribution that they will have made to the evening’s entertainment. 

So I was delighted when on having mentioned to my friend Anthony Gabriele, currently the musical director (MD) of Cats at the London Palladium, of my curiosity to see inside the orchestra pit during a big West End show, that he graciously invited me to sit in for a performance. Meeting me at the stage door, he showed me down to the pit and as we made our way through the clowder of feline-costumed actors having their radio mikes checked, I felt suitably humiliated surrounded by such talented and athletic performers each of whom could probably summon up more fitness in their little finger than I could muster at all!

A good musical production is a akin to a 3-legged stool. The cast, the creative team and the orchestra make it a success and if you take away any one of those legs, the show flounders. Traditionally a show’s pit is located sunken and to the front of the stage, where the audience’s typical view is of the conductor’s head and whirling baton just visible, allowing him eye contact with both stage and band. The staging of Cats is such that there is no room for such a luxurious, standard location and instead the musicians are located completely out of sight beneath the stage in a virtual musical dungeon. TV monitors allow Gabriele to see the action up top, whilst the usual screens fixed to the front of the dress circle (carefully located out of audience sightlines) allow the performers to clock the conductor.

Like a train formed of an engine and its carriages, (and for that read the orchestra and the cast – and I daren’t say as to who is the engine!) it is the MD who not only drives the train but more importantly, couples those units into one. He or she must be strong enough to hold the train together, yet flexible enough to allow bumps along the track to be absorbed into a smooth journey that neither de-rail nor delay the train and which 99 times out of a hundred, will not even be noticed by the paying passengers enjoying the journey.

Anthony Gabriele, Kerry Ellis and Jonathan Baz

Stopping off en-route to the pit to say a quick hello to the lovely Kerry Ellis, starring as the show’s Grizabella, I was then sat close to Gabriele (but out of the way), in front of his 8 musicians and issued headphones (cans) to listen to the voices that would be coming from afar. 

Out of sight, the dress code is a casual mix of jeans, trainers and t-shirts, but this is an appearance that couldn’t be more deceptive. As the overture starts it is clear that these men can play tunes, known the world over, to a world class standard. My phone was safely set to flight mode and with baton raised, maestro Gabriele got the show underway.

Andrew Lloyd Webber began composing Cats in the 1970’s and there is a strong synthesised/ keyboards bias to his compositions. Gabriele’s band comprise 3 keyboard players, 2 people on reeds, a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player.

The Cats pit has some clever touches. An array of speakers feed the keyboards’ electronic output (already being channelled directly to the show’s sound desk) into the room, to blend with the acoustic sounds of the traditional instruments. Microphones suspended from the ceiling pick up this ambient melding of the sounds, providing a further layer of texture to the finished product that the sound team put out to the audience. It has proved to be a gorgeous enhancement of the melodies.

Paul Slater, Tom Clare and Ben Kennedy (note the arrayed speakers)

It takes a MD of considerable talent to connect with performers located elsewhere in the building but the youthful Gabriele is amongst the very best of the bunch. The man knows the show intimately along with many more besides. Indeed, it was a surprise during the interval to find him helping Joseph Poulton (Mistoffelees in the show), with the tongue-twisting Zulu lyrics from The Lion King's Circle Of Life opener, before the actor transfers there when Cats closes at the end of April. Gabriele has MD'd that show too.

A musical that is either sung or danced through completely, there is barely a moment in Cats that is music-free, and whilst the headphones proved a useful assistance in following the action on stage, there were times when I just took them off and listened in amazement to the talent manifest around me.

What struck me on the night observing the 8 musicians was the passion and commitment writ on their faces as they delivered the classic score, along with an immense sense of welcoming camaraderie shown to the two deputising musicians (“deps”) who were in on the night, covering for absent regulars.

In no particular order and amidst a sea of excellence, memorable moments were the relaxed banter amidst the keyboard players, the gorgeous double-bass work during Growltiger’s Last Stand with a deliciously jazzy syncopation throughout the number. There was a “funk-rock” sound to Mr. Misstofelees that included moments of percussive wonder from the drummer, (I was amazed to see and hear played, up close and for the first time, the enchanting glissando of a mark tree) whilst the brash big-band sound of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer was a delight and of course the overall orchestral splendour of the Jellicle Ball helped explain why, for so long, this show had been the longest running hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cans were slipped back on to hear Kerry Ellis smash the line “Touch me..” from Memory, proving that even through a headset and on a black and white monitor, her performance is still nothing short of sensational – though as the song played out I took the cans off to luxuriate in these 8 musicians generating what has become one of the most broadcast and beloved songs in the canon in recent years.

Gabriele brings the show to a close - in the background Howard McGill, Dan Czwartos and Darren Lord

The musicians who welcomed me on the night were:
Keyboard 1: Paul Slater 
Keyboard 2: Darren Lord (depping for Assistant Musical Director: Tim Davies) 
Keyboard 3/Deputy Conductor: Ben Kennedy
Electric Guitar/Acoustic Guitar: Nick Rees 
Electric Bass/Double Bass: Nathan Finn 
Drums/Percussion: Tom Clare 
Woodwind 1 - Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet/Tenor Saxophone: Howard McGill (depping for Gavin Tate-Lovery)
Woodwind 2 - Clarinet/Soprano Saxophone/Baritone Saxophone: Dan Czwartos

Gentlemen, thank you all. It was a night I shall never forget.

Orchestral Management: Stephen Hill for Musicians UK Ltd.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Spend Spend Spend - Review

Union Theatre, London

Music by Steve Brown
Lyrics and book by Steve Brown and Justin Greene
Based on the book by Viv Nicholson and Stephen Smith

Julie Armstrong

The true story of Viv Nicholson's 1961 win on the football pools and her life immediately thereafter   has proved a seam of rich material over the years. Her exuberant pledge to "spend, spend, spend!" went on to be the title of her 1975 autobiography, which in turn was transformed into a BAFTA winning BBC Play For Today (remember those?) by Jack Rosenthal, though it was not to be until 1998 that her saga received the full-blown musical treatment from Steve Brown and Justin Greene.

Nicholson's win, equivalent to £2 million in today's money, was a lifechanger and set her on a path to extravagance, numerous husbands, addictions and ultimately bankruptcy. Rarely has a modern day fable proved so literally fabulous, with Nicholson's tale having much to say about how whether happiness and fulfilment can actually be bought for cash. And whilst the Union's production would benefit from a bigger spend itself, once again Sasha Regan uses the venue's bare walls and pillars to her advantage. Under Christian Durham’s direction not only does the space serve the more intimate and tender moments well, but equally allows the brash, ballsy and gloriously British tone of the piece to thrive.

Elle-Rose Hughes simple yet effective set consists of a painted wall adorned with newspaper cuttings. Such staged austerity demands much from the cast and the company of Spend Spend Spend deliver energy from the outset. Ensemble numbers such as the brilliantly period-defining  ‘John Collier’, along with  ‘One In A Million’ and the act one closer's title number are sizzlingly sung by the 15 strong troupe, balancing a raucous verve with musical precision under the skilled musical direction of Inga Davis-Rutter. 

The leading role of Nicholson is shared by Katy Dean and Julie Armstrong as Viv young and old respectively, who prove the powerhouse of the piece. An infectious pair, particularly as they duet with in ‘Whose gonna love me’. Armstrong’s Viv is full of heart as her character re-lives the memory of the money-made roller coaster, even when watching scenes play out from the side lines. Armstrong maintains a nostalgic glint in her eye that gives her performance an immense warmth throughout. That said, it is Dean who is the driving force of both plot and pace, particularly in the number ‘Sexual Happening’. With such a reflective story there could always be a risk of a slide into monotony but Dean allays these fears, delivering feisty from the off.

Notwithstanding a rich musicality, the occasional flaw (such as some lyrics being repeated too frequently) can pull the pace back. Nonetheless the show remains a defiantly British musical that offers a great night of entertainment and theatre and at £20 a pop there's certainly no need for the audience to Spend Spend Spend.

Runs until 18th April 2015