Friday, 29 May 2015

Julian Glover's Beowulf - Review

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, London


*****

Adapted by Julian Glover from the translations by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan and from the Bristol Old Vic production directed by John David and John Elvery


Julian Glover


Beowulf is an Old English (possibly the oldest English) poem. Known to have been written in the tenth century, but with probable older origins, it's verses tell of a time of dragons, sea monsters, smoking swords and throughout it all wassail and riotous assembly in cavernous mead halls.

Julian Glover has been reciting the poem for nigh on thirty years, in a version that he has painstakingly laboured over. His editing of the verse has led to it being mainly recited in the contemporary idiom, with an occasional stanza of Old English and his helpful programme notes tell us of history having stressed that Beowulf "should not only be read to oneself, but spoken out loud". Thus it was, for two shows only last weekend, that Glover was to give his final performances of the poem in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

The venue was enchanting. Lit mainly by flickering candles (supplemented by a floodlit yellow wash) the Playhouse offers an elegant Elizabethan intimacy and that it was packed on a pleasant spring afternoon speaks much for Julian Glover's reputation.

Glover's delivery is the work of a master. Such is the actor's genius that even when speaking in the ancient tongue, typically unintelligible to a modern audience, his rhythm enhanced by a perfect emphasis on the text's alliterative strengths made even the most incomprehensible language seem crystal clear.

Using minimal props (a tankard, sword and throne, all used only occasionally) and dressed in simple, sober modern blacks, Glover's recital, through perfectly honed inflection and nuance, was a step back in time. For what must be nigh on millennia, folk have been entertained by talented raconteurs telling stories and this is precisely the ambience that Glover achieved. A man as at home performing in a Broadway musical as he is mastering Shakespeare, this wonderful actor held the crowd in the palm of his hand.

This review covered the matinee performance. Later that evening Glover's son Jamie, an accomplished actor himself, was to inherit his father's mantle by concluding the recital and carrying on its oral tradition. 

Today’s writers, directors and dramaturgs would do well to attend the future recitals of Glover Junior. Simply staged and beautifully performed, the purest of theatre does not get better than this.

The Theory of Relativity - Review

Drayton Arms Theatre, London

***

Music & lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Christopher Lane


Jodie Steele, Simon Bailey, Natasha Karp

It's a brave conceit to fuse art with science and one that The RSC only recently pulled off with their stunning Oppenheimer, analysing the atomic bomb's evolution. On a more modest level, The Theory of Relativity seeks to link Einstein's eponymous theory with the human condition. That the show's final monologue (delivered it must be said, via a brilliant performance from Jodie Steele) seeks to play on the rather tortuous wordplay of "the speed of light" vs "the speed of life" offers a hint at how shallow this show's thesis turns out to be. As an exercise in modern metaphysics The Theory of Relativity turns out to be little more than a sometimes flawed song-cycle, albeit one that showcases some top notch performance work.

The always excellent Simon Bailey leads the company as a quirky geek, in a character who also offers the one strand of chuckle-worthy humour with a recurring motif that gradually takes the value of pi to an increasing number of decimals. Bailey brings a precision to both his vocal and physical presence that lifts the show - with a beautifully resonant tone.

Steele's presence matches Bailey - with a vocal belt and a poignant lyric that also defines her as an actor of considerable merit.

Elsewhere, Natasha Karp is a strong neurotic and Ina Marie Smith has a pleasing presence too - though for the writers, in 2013 no less, to have been making fun of size 16 women and OCD is offensive. A number intriguingly titled Apples and Oranges hinted perhaps at a foray into Newtonian physics? Alas, it was merely a trite and patronising nod towards diversity. 

Set above a pub and with a noisy air conditioning unit, the shallow raked audience placed end-on to the action demands a vocal strength in the company’s projected voice work that isn’t always achieved. More work is needed here, certainly in the show’s softer moments.

Musically, MD Barney Ashworth, occasionally accompanied by actor-muso Andrew Gallo on guitar, delivers an impressive shift on the keyboard. 

Put together on what appears to be a micro-budget even for London's fringe, The Theory of Relativity is a one act work that drags – and if you struggled with maths and physics at school, there are no easy answers here. That being said, it offers a hard working troupe in action and to catch a close up glimpse of some of our nation’s finest young performers, then fans, producers and casting directors should head to SW5.


Runs until 13th June

Picture credit: Poppy Carter Portraits at www.poppycarterportraits.com

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Jason Robert Brown - Live In Concert - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London

****

Jason Robert Brown

Returning to a London concert for one night only, New York composer Jason Robert Brown plus West End guests, performed to an adoring Royal Festival Hall. Opening the gig with the overture from Honeymoon in Vegas, his latest to show to open (and after 3 months, close) on Broadway, there was an air of refreshing even if disarmingly honesty self-deprecation as Brown told his audience that the show was "the latest in a long series of shows you're not going to see over here!”

Musical director Torquil Munro had assembled an impressive orchestra for the evening, though given the venue’s vast expanse, a little more attention needed to have been paid to the sound-mix that occasionally went awry.  In what was to prove an event of two quite distinct halves, the evening’s first section was, for the most part, little more than a simply entertaining line-up. It was post-interval however that Brown’s selection of both singer and song became jewel-encrusted. 

Memorable from act one was wunderkind Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s What It Means To Be A Friend from Brown's paean to teenage angst, 13, whilst Bertie Carvel offered a touching reprise of his Leo Frank from the Donmar Warehouse's 2007 production of Parade of 2007. The highlight of the half however was Laura Pitt-Pulford (who merited a second half re-appearance) re-visiting her Lucille Frank, also from Parade only this time the Southwark Playhouse’s 2011 production. Pitt-Pulford's You Don't Know This Man offered a performance of beautifully measured power alongside quite possibly the best example of acting-through-song of the night.

Act two kicked off with a medley from The Bridges of Madison County, another of Brown's briefly lived Broadway shows - and whilst Caroline Sheen was exquisite as Italian immigrant Francesca, singing opposite both Matt Henry and Sean Palmer, too often the numbers suggested a Gaelic rather than Latin pulse, or maybe that was down to the hall's acoustics too. It took a one-off composition from Brown, Melinda, drawn from a fusion of the music of 1970's New York for the second half to truly ignite. Beautifully channelling a Billy Joel inspired sound, Melinda offered a rare moment to witness Brown's dazzling keyboard skills.

Amy Booth-Steel got the evening’s  The Last Five Years chapter underway with a beautifully nuanced I'm Still Hurting, though it was to be Cynthia Erivo's I Can Do Better Than That that saw this “national treasure in waiting” of musical theatre Festival Hall’s roof clean off!. It was tough on Oliver Tompsett who had to follow Erivo with a thoroughly decent (but by now, completely overshadowed) Moving Too Fast. In a number that was to see her powerfully duet with Brown, Willemijn Verkaik was on fine form with And I Will Follow. 

Whilst Brown's melodies are consistently ingenious, his lyrics vary. The caustic irony he imbued in The Last Five Years and in Parade was a mark of genius that matches Sondheim’s best for its pinpoint, minimalist dissection of the human condition, yet the evening's snatches of The Bridges Of Madison County seemed to lack the perceptive wit of his earlier years.  

Amara Okereke led a Drew McOnie choreographed Brand New You routine from 13, complete with a nearly drilled adolescent NYMT ensemble reprising their West End premiere from some years back, before Brown took the microphone again to encore with a passionate Someone To Fall Back On.

Seeming genuinely taken aback at the blazing warmth of his reception, Brown commented to the crowd who stood as one to salute him, that he "doesn’t see that every day!” Much like fellow American Scott Alan who himself only recently played London, one senses that both New Yorkers feel more appreciated on this side of the pond than back home.

Jason Robert Brown should return here soon, to a more intimate venue and for a (better rehearsed) residency of modest length. His talent as writer, pianist and heavenly-voiced singer too is unquestioned and what is more, London loves him.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Jerry's Girls - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Concepts by Larry Alford, Wayne Cilento and Jerry Herman
Directed by Kate Golledge


(l-r) Sarah-Louise Young, Emma Barton and Ria Jones

Drawn from the shows of Jerry Herman, Jerry’s Girls is a delightful cabaret that in the hands of three talented ladies, offers a whirl of show tunes that thoroughly deserves its hastily arranged return visit to Jermyn Street
  
Emma Barton, Ria Jones and Sarah-Louise Young are magnificent throughout, working their way through a set list that was originally put together for a Broadway revue back in the 1980’s. The compilation is rarely seen over here and credit to producers Katy Lipson and Guy James for having the ingenuity to have mounted it so successfully.

With perhaps the exception of Milk and Honey, the numbers are all familiar to musical theatre lovers and the combination of gloriously powerful belts intermingled with moments of the purest poignancy make for an evening that would be an emotional rollercoaster were it not all so ridiculously enjoyable. All of Herman’s big shows get a look in, with Barton’s Mabel in Wherever He Ain’t channelling an exquisite vocal presence that also suggests just a hint of Albert Square! From the same show, Young and Jones give a gorgeous and perfectly weighted nuance to I Won’t Send Roses. 

Herman’s humour sparkles, never wittier than in a song he wrote for the revue, Take It All Off, that wonderfully spoofs burlesque stripping. Again there is fabulous work from Young with Jones being disarmingly (and hilariously) self-deprecating as a stripper whose best years are behind her. 

There are nods to Hello Dolly throughout, with the show ending on a powerful tribute to all that La Cage Aux Folles stood for. Grins along with lumps-in-throats all round.

Kate Golledge directs assuredly, with an entertaining eye for detail. Matthew Cole choreographs cleverly too given the venue's intimacy and that Tap Your Troubles Away evolved into all three women tap-dancing, accompanied by pianist and MD Edward Court and his reed and mandolin playing partner Sophie Byrne on their feet too, (both fabulous musicians to boot) only added to the wondrous sparkle of the occasion. My one regret was not having discovered this gem of a show sooner so I could have had the opportunity to have returned to see it again.

Jerry’s Girls is only playing until May 31st. Barely lasting two hours, it offers West End entertainment at a fraction of a typical West End price. If you love what Broadway, Streisand, Merman & co were/are all about, then you’ll come out grinning. Go see this show!


Runs until 31st May

Thursday, 21 May 2015

McQueen - Review

St James Theatre, London

***

Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird


Tracy-Ann Oberman and Steven Wight

James Phillips’ new play McQueen offers a lavish tribute to one of Britain’s most acclaimed fashion designers. That Alexander McQueen was to tragically take his own life at 40 only (ghoulishly?) adds to his iconic mystique – though as the play opens with McQueen contemplating his own mortality and then proceeds to take us through what is suggested to be his last night alive, the narrative’s structure at times suggests a re-branded Arthur Miller. In place of Salesman, think Death Of A Designer.

In the title role Stephen Wight is a marvel. The accomplished performer literally becomes McQueen in a relentless performance that never sees him off stage. Wight masters the cocky, cockney genius that so defined McQueen – and when the dialog offers his character profound moments of reflection, Wight’s delivery is scorching. During a dialogue with journalist Arabella (a perfectly weighted performance from Laura Rees), McQueen offers his explanation of what makes a woman feel valued and there is an analysis in his words that is both relevant and recognisable, as Wight speaks with a touching and convincing resonance. 

But if McQueen was haute-couture, Phillips choice of dramatic vehicle to portray the man is last seasons Primark. Dahlia, a fan and stranger has let herself into his home, providing the designer to re-tell his flashback tableaux.

Dianna Agron, star of the US TV series Glee plays Dahlia and one has to conclude that she has been “stunt-cast” based upon a Twitter following of two million, rather than ability. Her biography offers no hint of stage experience and it shows. Performing in close up to camera and with the safety net of re-takes is one thing but live theatre is a cruel master, demanding that an actor communicates at all times with voice and presence in a way that makes the audience suspend their disbelief. Agron tries valiantly, but her performance never gets above mediocre. John Caird is one of our leading directors and he should know better than this. His performer needs to be coached into filling the auditorium with her persona and one hopes that Agron will find her feet as the run matures.

David Shaw-Parker is a flawless delight as John Hitchcock, the master tailor under whose tutelage McQueen mastered the art of cutting fabrics. When Shaw-Parker speaks, it is though he has walked in from Savile Row. Tracy-Ann Oberman plays the complex role of Isabella Blow a style icon/muse to the designer, whose own suicide three years before his, hit him hard. Oberman delivers a trademark classy turn, though in a show that’s all about style, if her costume is to hint at décolletage, then it needs to be tightened up to conceal the actor’s underwear. McQueen would spin in his grave…

An imaginative twist sees a soundtrack of music selected by McQueen that accompanied a number of his collection launches, with tracks ranging from Handel to Bjork and Marilyn Manson. Set to the music, Christopher Marney’s choreography is electric, with a company of androgynous mannequins drilled into a perfect graceful poise. Particularly striking are Carrie Willis and Eloise Hymas’ shock-headed twins, en-pointe in unison throughout. A chic, bravura touch.

Timothy Bird’s ingenious video projections and Linda McKnight’s stunning wig design go a long way to suggesting the ascetic élan that McQueen became a part of, though Phillips stops short of offering too close an explanation of why McQueen chose to kill himself.

In what is largely a celebration of style over substance, McQueen offers a highly charged look at a very contemporary era in British fashion. Flawed for sure, but there is content here that makes for stimulating and sometimes exhilarating theatre.


Runs until 27th June 2015

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


****

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Jonathan Butterell


Clarke Peters (l) and Jonathan Groff in rehearsal

There must be something in the Thames as it flows around the bend of Waterloo Bridge that enchants the work of Frank Loesser. Back in the 1980s the National Theatre gave the capital a groundbreaking Guys and Dolls and yesterday, for one night only, Jonathan Butterell directed a sensational production of Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (almost) next door at the Royal Festival Hall.

It’s been fifty years since How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying last popped up in the West End and Butterell was blessed with a star-studded cast to perform this concert staging. In a story that is occasionally heavy on a complex narrative, the show set in the offices of the World Wide Wicket company takes us on a whirlwind tour of ladder-climbing both literal and metaphorical, as we watch “the rise” of window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch and his studious devotion to a self-help book on business success. In today’s parlance the show would represent a mash-up of The Office with The Apprentice and all set to show-tunes of a deliciously cheesy improbability. 

Crossing the Atlantic to play Finch, Jonathan Groff is probably best known here for his time on the US TV series Glee. Make no mistake though, Groff has serious stage credentials, with spurs earned both on and off-Broadway and stellar vocals that make Finch the true hero of the piece. It should also be noted that given the very  limited rehearsal time available, his performance oozed a charming confidence that forgave his occasional glances at the script.

Cynthia Erivo and Hannah Waddingham made for Finch’s vibrantly intriguing colleagues. As love interest Rosemary, Erivo brought a warmth and sincerity to her vocals that truly allowed us to understand her desires beyond the office walls whilst Waddingham’s Hedy La Rue brought another aspect of sexual desire to the tale in a role as perfect to listen to as to gaze upon. 

Making a rare and welcome return to a London stage, Clarke Peters’company President J.B Biggley provided a strong backbone to the office set up. Elsewhere Clive Rowe as Trimble was as ever delightful in his fleeting appearances, with Rowe’s soaring vocals lending a massive contribution, not least to the glorious ensemble numbers Company Way and Brotherhood Of Man. In another neat touch, London's Loesser cognoscenti will have noted that both Peters and Rowe include the National’s Guys and Dolls in their biographies

A nod too to Amy Ellen Richardson as Smitty and Anna Jane Casey’s Miss Jones, who both brought quirk and charm to the office table on top of their stunning stage presence. 

Loesser’s luscious and vibrant score, boasting many forgotten and understated classics, was expertly executed under Mike Dixon conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. It is a treat to hear a classic score so excitingly pitched and performed at that by a full size orchestra too.

The company’s excellence left one longing for a fully staged return of this charming old show and with such a remarkable array of talent and so finely polished too, Butterell certainly showed how to succeed in musical theatre!


Picture credit: Poppy Carter Portraits at www.poppycarterportraits.com

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London

*****

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Greg Doran


Antony Sher and Alex Hassell

Plaudits have already been heaped on Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman in Greg Doran’s scorching production of Death Of A Salesman for the RSC.  Arthur Miller’s keynote play, long held up as a searching critique of the 20th century American psyche, pitches Sher into a role that sees him suicidally depressed, hurled onto the scrap heap and casually catapulted between imaginary decades at the playwright's whim. Often referred to as the Hamlet of American literature, Sher's immersion in the role is total as he nails Loman’s doomed fragility.

And yet the Hamlet “handle” serves the play well, for as with Shakespeare's classic, so too does the (last) day in this salesman's life encapsulate so much of the human condition, as Willy's mind disintegrates and we witness snapshots of years gone by.

Central to Loman's life is his family and as I have written here, Harriet Walter's interpretation of loyal, even if wise and wrung-out wife Linda, is heartbreaking in its intensity.

In one of the most challenging supporting roles in the canon, Alex Hassell's Biff, their eldest son undertakes a complex journey. Hassell convinces magnificently, be it as a gorgeously chiselled footballing jock, or as a devastated young man confronted with the gut-wrenching evidence of his father's failings.

Less enigmatic, but still troubled is Sam Marks’ Happy, Biff’s younger brother. Whilst at times little more than a skirt-chasing wastrel, Happy shows not only the expected selfish traits, but also a deep and recognisable filial love for his parents.

Harriet Walter, Sam Marks and Alex Hassell

And then there are the other oh-so brilliantly familiar vignettes, epic yet everyman. Emotional hand grenades that Miller tosses into Loman's path. Struggling to meet the final payment on the family refrigerator, Willy asks to meet with Howard Wagner (fine work from Tobias Beer), his young and ruthless boss and a man who thinks nothing of blowing $100 dollars on the latest new-fangled tape recorder, unthinkingly boasting about it to Loman who is can't even meet thr finance payments on his refrigerator.

As the old man begs for a salary, an office based job and his dignity, he is up against Wagner who cares only for his business’ bottom line. As Wagner summarily fires him on the spot, with no regard for the salesman's lifetime of service to the company, Loman reminds him: "You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit". Rarely is the brutality of corporate USA thrown into such sharp relief.

Meanwhile (and consider yet another Hamlet association) Guy Paul's ghostly Uncle Ben appears to Loman's enviously fractured mind. A self-made millionaire, Ben should epitomise the American Dream. It is a stroke of genius that Miller makes him a nightmarish phantom.

But the Land Of The Free is not all bad. Willy's long-time friend and neighbour is Charley. As Joshua Richards plays this goodly, decent man, who as son Bernard (another perfectly weighted performance from Brodie Ross) grows up to be a Supreme Court lawyer, we are reminded that success, built on merit with compassion, is also a part of what made America great.

Completing the landscape of post-war New York / New England Sarah Parks’ Woman, and Ross Green’s wry Waiter, both of whom “have seen it all before” add further lustre to Miller’s palette.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set, constructed according to Miller’s notes and with signature tenement fire escapes, is nicely zoomed in from its Stratford origins which only enhances the cramped confines of the Loman home. Paul Englishby’s quartet of musicians seals both time and place.

It bodes well for this brief West End run that as the curtain fell, the packed house saluted Sher and his company with rapturous applause. Garnering a slew of five star reviews at its Stratford opening last month, the acclaim is still deserved. London is unlikely to see a better ensemble drama this year.


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

To read my review of this production at Stratford, click here

Now booking until 18th July 2015

Monday, 11 May 2015

Harriet Walter : In Conversation about Linda in Death Of A Salesman

Harriet Walter
For my review of the current West End production of Death Of A Salesman, click here 

Rarely has a show moved to the West End at the lightning speed with which the RSC have transferred Death Of A Salesman. Opening in Stratford upon Avon only last month, to rave reviews across the board, Greg Doran's interpretation of the Arthur Miller classic features Antony Sher as Willy Loman, the titular doomed salesman.

It is Harriet Walter however, one of our finest performers and arguably the RSC's leading lady of her generation, who plays opposite Sher as Linda, Loman's long suffering spouse.

Having reviewed the Stratford production, I can confirm that both actors deliver virtuoso performances - with Walter in particular giving a finely tuned display of loving loyalty, made all the more excruciating as she witnesses her family disintegrate before her eyes. Few playwrights have offered such a devastating analysis of the complexities of marriage and maternity as Arthur Miller does with Linda.

The RSC company were completing their rehearsals last week, prior to opening at London's Noel Coward Theatre, when I caught up over lunch with Harriet to learn more about her remarkable interpretation of Linda.  


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Paul Baker : A Bakers Dozen - Review

St James Studio, London

*****



Making a rare appearance in front of the microphone, Paul Baker's show A Baker's Dozen was a polished one-nighter that packed out the St James Studio.

In a set lasting little more than an hour, Baker's magnificent tenor danced over numbers familiar and new in a set-list that was to prove pleasingly heavy on Newley numbers - reminding us that this fabulous British songwriter deserves greater exposure.

Quick to flex his magnificent belt with Streisand's Being Good Isn't Good Enough, Baker was soon into the first of his Taboo tributes with Stranger In This World – preceded by a touching if painful recollection of being bullied as a kid – and that his next number was a Quentin Crisp tribute, blending Sting’s An Englishman In New York, with Taboo’s Freak / Ode To Attention Seekers stayed on message in an inspired combo.  

Fondly reflecting on Philip Henderson’s The Far Pavilions, the composer was in the audience to see Baker deliver a soaring take on Brighter By Far that had been re-arranged for the St James occasion.

As his selection went on to include Makin’ Whoopee, one wished for Baker to make an album of the American Songbook. The man displays a polished understanding of both lyric and presence, par excellence.

Performing solo throughout, there was one exception when director Frances Ruffelle (who had only recently been directed herself by Baker) joined him on stage for Nice from Lucky Stiff,  a duet that reprised their 1997 pairing from the Ahrens and Flaherty show.

Maintaining a standard of nothing short of excellent, a medley of Newley greats treated the crowd to Once In A Lifetime, The Candy Man and What Kind of Fool Am I, with Baker also un-earthing Newley’s Pagliacci-esque The Man Who Makes You Laugh. As the singer sat at an onstage make-up table, donning the pierrot’s white slap and garishly rouged lips, the song’s irony was chilling.

Accompanied throughout by Alex Parker’s quintet, the music was perfectly weighted. Parker’s understanding of the subtleties of musical direction is unmatched for one so young – and under his command the evening's musical ambience effortlessly ranged from cocktail lounge intimacy to big band bravado.

Wrapping his set with Taboo’s Petrified, a song that Baker has made his own, a few muffled sobs from the St James crowd evidenced the sensitivity of the moment.  

This show is off to New York’s 54 Below later this month and Manhattan is in for a treat. The gig offers moments that are at times reflective, spectacular but most of all and for various reasons, simply spine-tingling. When he returns from the USA, A Bakers Dozen demands a longer London run.


Missed Paul in London? You can catch him at New York's 54 Below on 19th May.



Thursday, 7 May 2015

Carrie - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London 

****

A musical based on the novel by Stephen King
Music by Michael Gore
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Book by Lawrence D. Cohen

Kim Criswell and Evelyn Hoskins

Carrie makes its London debut at the Southwark Playhouse. Stephen King's classic horror mixes the recognisably human tale of Carrie White, a schoolgirl teased and shunned by her peers but who discovers, with her late onset of puberty, that she is gifted/cursed with tele-kinetic powers that allow her to make things happen just by willing them. We all know that in life there are few environments more cruel and terrifying than the bully and his gang at school and King's genius was in gifting a young girl with the ability to wreak a murderous revenge upon her wicked tormentors.

The story's horror is gothically graphic and as in any scary tale, our disbelief can only be truly suspended if the trinity of a fine script, excellent stagecraft and perfect acting is achieved. But where Brian de Palma's Oscar nominated 1976 movie succeeded in scaring us witless, the musical treatment falls far short. No one would dare add song and dance to Hitchcock's Psycho or Kubrick's The Shining, so quite what prompted the creative trio (and remember that Lawrence D Cohen wrote the movie's screenplay too) to spawn this show is a mystery in itself. Whilst the songs are immaculately delivered, King's horror has been mercilessly diluted, Pitchford’s lyrics are trite and Gore's tunes quite frankly forgettable.

But...This is a Gary Lloyd show - and with Thriller Live, Lloyd has defined himself as without equal in staging visually stunning (and occasionally spooky) numbers to a rock tempo. It is only a pity that the score does not include more ensemble numbers, for when the Southwark Playhouse floor is packed with his performers the show’s pulse soars, fed by Mark Crossland's powerful 7 piece band.

In the title role, Evelyn Hoskins is simply sensational. Her elfin physique melded with a perfect poise and a haunted demeanour convince us of a girl truly horrified by reaching her menarche at 17. Hoskins convinces us, not only of her pain but also of her supernatural endowments and her voice, especially in the numbers Carrie and Why Not Me is just heavenly (or should that be hellish?).

There is excellence elsewhere too – and were it not for Imelda Staunton’s Momma Rose currently wowing them across the river, then Kim Criswell would steal the award for Most Domineering Mother in a show. Her flame-haired bible bashing creation is a masterpiece of on-stage menace, her acting presence honed to perfection. And oh, what magnificent vocals. Criswell's take on And Eve Was Weak will truly make an audience pray for their salvation, whilst her hymn-like When There’s No-One treated the audience to a voice of cathedral-like magnificence, a quality rarely heard on the Newington Causeway.

Jodie Jacobs puts in a lovely and sympathetic turn as Miss Gardner, the teacher who cares for Carrie, whilst elsewhere quality performers make the best they can of thinly sketched 2-D characters. As the baddy of the piece Gabriella William's blonde and bitchy Chris is all hot pants and hatred, whilst Dex Lee (a newcomer who only recently stunned in The Scottsboro Boys) also sparkles as her schoolboy henchman Billy. Likewise, Sarah McNicholas makes a very decent fist of Sue, the musical's narrator and a role savagely slashed from its movie origins.

Tim McQuillen-Wright's design, all ripped up concrete and Jeremy Chernick's special effects are fun with gimmicks galore, but the company deserve better flying from Foy than was evident on press night. The stage blood flows and if you're sat front row prepare for a light spattering.

The show famously, expensively (and arguably, deservedly) flopped on Broadway nearly 30 years ago and whilst this version is slightly refined, it's still a bleeding piece of meat - albeit one that Paul Taylor-Mills has produced superbly. 

Carrie won't come around very often - and for that reason if you love musicals it's a must see along with being quite possibly the best date-night in town. Unquestionably a period piece, it is perfectly performed and bloody good fun.


Runs until 30th May

Bugsy Malone - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London

****

Play by Alan Parker
Words and Music by Paul Williams
Directed by Sean Holmes


Zoe Brough

The list of gangster movies inspired by 1920’s prohibition-era Chicago is lengthy, but it was not to be until 1976 that British director Alan Parker was to redefine the genre with Bugsy Malone. His award-winning feature film was an inspired musical romp for children, with the classic themes of love and crime all scaled down to a kids-eye view of morality and with sub-machine guns converted to spray custard-pie “splurge” rather than murderous lead. 

Bugsy Malone is rarely seen on stage and the Lyric Hammersmith, re-opening now after a multi-million pound redevelopment, could not have chosen a more suitable show. With new facilities aimed at engaging young people and connecting with the community, Artistic Director Sean Holmes describes the show as “witty and ironic, heartfelt yet never sentimental” and as director, he delivers on his promise. 

From the opening sequence of ‘Splurge Gun’ shootings the world in which these junior mobsters thrive is teed up perfectly. Splurge aside, Holmes and his choreographer Drew McOnie do a fine job in ensuring the 7 youngsters playing lead roles alongside the 12 older ensemble members seamlessly deliver the show’s style and energy.  

The show has a history of being a launch pad for the stars of tomorrow with a young Jodie Foster having played gangster’s moll Tallulah in the movie, whilst in 1996 a youthful Sheridan Smith graced the National Youth Music Theatre’s production, in the same role. Impressing this time round (or at least on the night that the Baz was in) Zoe Brough as Blousey Brown sang Ordinary Fool with an innocence and honesty that ran throughout her performance. In the title role, Sasha Gray's performance is a charmer. 

While the young cast shine as individuals, the ensemble are electric together. Once again McOnie devises stunning dance and his company make it look easy. From car chase to boxing match there seems no limit to his creativity, which also manages to maintain a tongue in cheek playfulness, notably in Fat Sam’s gang’s group number Bad Guys.

Jon Bausor’s set design sees slick transitions from speakeasy to sidewalk, whilst Phil Bateman’s band makes perfect work of Williams’ gorgeously hummable tunes.

Staging the show meticulously, Holmes ensures that as all the splurge stays on stage, with audience faces only ending up spattered with smiles. Mounting a show so dependent on young shoulders is a risk for any creative team, yet the Lyric have found themselves with a sure-fire hit on their hands.


Runs until 1st August 2015

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Product - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


***

Written by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Robert Shaw


Olivia Poulet

Ten years is a long time in the theatre and as geo-political influences and events have shifted, so too has Mark Ravenhill’s Product that was written in 2005 for a world post 9/11, come to look a little dated.

The one-hander focusses around movie producer Leah who is attempting to sell the role of Amy to Julia, a wannabe starlet. The emptiness of Amy’s life and by analogy Leah’s, is highlighted in the sharp contrast between what motivates her and what motivates the tall, dusky ‘hero’.

Ravenhill’s perspectives would have been timely and relevant in their day, with Amy having been wounded by the events of 9/11 and the loss of her lover in the Twin Towers’ destruction. The writer’s aim of confronting our own prejudices, stereotypes and interestingly, our fantasies too, not so much of Islam, but of Islamic men, would also have made for an interesting conceit, giving us a flavour of the appeal to loveless faithless Western women of the tall, dusky men whose lives are dominated by ‘the knife’ and ‘the prayer mat’, subservient to the mullah and a guaranteed path to paradise.

But the shadow of recent years’ atrocities, both in the UK and abroad, have cast a sobering shadow over Ravenhill’s “romanticized” perspective and writing a decade ago, he could never have conceived the notion of young women fleeing this country in the hope of finding love amongst terrorist fighters abroad. 

Olivia Poulet’s Leah is a powerful performance with the cliché rich text that Leah enthusiastically thumbs throughout the 50 minute monologue quite possibly serving as a metaphor for her own cliché ridden life. The passion with which she enthuses the storyline’s references to its heroine’s huge loft style apartment in a converted East London abattoir, albeit lacking a loving relationship, suggest her own lifestyle might be somewhat similar.

Whilst its relevance may have waned, Product remains a powerfully performed and sharp observation of the humiliating process of pitching, written with a generous measure of humour that draws an empathetic laugh from the audience. Poulet’s creation of the parallel characters of Leah and Amy, bringing the starlet Julia to life through her one-way exchanges with the audience, is masterful and her performance alone justifies the ticket.


Runs until 23rd May 2015

Scott Alan & Cynthia Erivo: Home Again - Review

St James Studio, London

*****



Coming in the midst of the London Festival of Cabaret, Scott Alan leaves a very distinctive handprint on the genre. Typically contemplative, his songs touch emotions that are common to us all - love and loss, rejection and reflection. It is however in Alan's sharing of his life with his audience, (where his pre-song spiel can often last longer than the song itself) that he re-engineers cabaret. Where earlier in the week this pied-piper of songwriting had assembled a phone-book sized guest list of artists to sing his work, tonight was one of a three-night residency simply featuring Cynthia Erivo alongside the songwriter. 

I have written before of Erivo's handling of some of Alan's most sensitive work and as Broadway beckons, it is plain to see that she is not only one of Alan’s most cherished friends, she is also fast becoming a muse to his creativity.

With one of the strongest yet most perfectly controlled voices of her generation, Erivo brings a polished fragility to Alan’s soulful verse, her take on And There It Is displaying an almost ethereal impishness as her lightly smiling face belied a lyric of complex emotions.

When the pair occasionally duetted, their sensitive counterpoint added a depth. Always, which ended the first half was exquisitely rendered and later it was to be Alan who (surprisingly) delivered the opening lines of Anything Worth Holding Onto before Erivo joined him in a song of remarkable profundity that she has long laid claimed to. 

The act one closer was preceded by a confessional to the microphone of the painful loss Alan still feels for Kyle, an ex-boyfriend now deceased. As Alan sobbed at the microphone, there was a sense of witnessing a man on a high wire, as this gifted composer continues to challenge his demons, though any hint of audience prurience or of performer-sensationalism should be swept aside. Alan continually battles his depression and chooses to do so, at times in public and at a piano. His message to those who criticise his on-stage confessionals was blunt. Knowing that his words have inspired other depressives to choose life, he values that contribution over a critic’s carping. It is impossible to fault the man’s integrity, nor to be inspired by his message.

It wasn’t entirely Alan and Erivo. Oliver Tompsett returned to the St James’ stage with a gorgeously nuanced Kiss The Air, Alan’s paean to his mother left bereft after his father’s abrupt marriage walk-out. Tompsett was also to earn an ovation when he was thrust (by Erivo) into joining her in Never Neverland, a song that was not only out of his range but one that he was also completely unfamiliar with. Tompsett rose to the challenge – and where Alan can often be a Lord of Misrule, subjecting his singers to impromptu set-list changes and additions, it was a treat to see him for once hoist with his own petard, Erivo delightfully calling the shots.

Their sold-out run ends tonight – and if Alan needs anything to hold onto at all it is knowing that whilst Erivo is in New York with The Color Purple, the two of them could pack out 54 Below every Sunday night for a year. Get ready to book your tickets, you read it here first!



Jerry's Girls - Review

St James Studio, London

****

Created by Jerry Herman and Larry Alford
Directed by Kate Golledge


Sarah-Louise Young, Anna-Jane Casey and Ria Jones

After the relative failure of Mack & Mabel on Broadway, Jerry Herman took a break from composition and embraced interior design. It might seem an unusual departure for the writer of mega-hits such as Mame and Hello Dolly! but Herman was pragmatic about the highs and lows of the industry. In 1981 however, he teamed up with Larry Alford to create a small cabaret of his greatest hits called Jerry's Girls. The production was a modest success and when La Cage Aux Folles opened two years later, Herman was hot again and with a little tweaking Jerry's Girls was given a full-blown production, first in Florida and then on Broadway.

Perhaps embracing the original concept, Aria Productions puts the emphasis on the songs rather than spectacle and feature three diversely talented performers - Ria Jones, Anna-Jane Casey and Sarah-Louise Young -  each of whom bring something very special to the table. Director Kate Golledge recognises the lightness of touch required for this style of cabaret and allows this triple-threat trio a relatively free hand to engage properly with their audience.

Musically, the highlights come thick and fast, from the clinking glasses that herald Tap Your Troubles Away to the edifying anthem I Am What I Am, delivered with steely determination by an exceptional Jones. Casey proves once again a truly versatile performer, clambering across the grand piano trilling the hilarious Nelson and yet bringing such poignancy to If He Walked Into My Life. Young's comic timing is very much in evidence throughout, no doubt honed through years on the cabaret circuit and lending an easy familiarity to the nature of La Cage Aux Folles.

In the intimacy of the St James Studio Matthew Cole's choreography only really comes to the fore with the Tap Your Troubles Away routine. What this number actually highlights is the versatility of Edward Court on piano and Sophie Byrne on woodwind, who gamely join in the routine and establish themselves irrefutably as part of the ensemble.

Jerry's Girls is however something of a misnomer. The book lists a few token references to the great performers Herman wrote for including Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters and of course, there are his creations such as Dolly Levi, Mame Dennis, Mabel Normand, Countess Aurelia from Dear World and -  somewhat ambiguously - Zaza from La Cage. Thankfully Jerry's Boys make a few appearances and it wouldn't really be a Herman retrospective without the lyrical signature tune from Mack and Mabel, I Won't Send Roses.

Whichever way you look at it, one thing Jerry's Girls will remind you of is Herman's mastery of the musical theatre idiom. A genius of lyric as well as music, you will leave Jerry's Girls anxious for a revival of Mame or at least a desire to check out Hello Dolly! on Netflix. Of course, dedicated Herman fans will have already caught the wonderful recent production of The Grand Tour at the Finborough and have probably already booked for Mack and Mabel at Chichester.


Runs until March 15th 2015

Guest Reviewer : Paul Vale

Monday, 4 May 2015

Scott Alan :Everything Worth Holding Onto - Review

St James Theatre, London

*****


There was a deliciously different diversity that Scott Alan brought to his one-off gig at the St James Theatre. Entertaining a packed house for an eye-watering (almost) four hours, his guest list ranged from West End stars and TV Reality Show finalists through to audience wannabes.

The New York based singer/songwriter has strong friendships with many of musical theatre’s leading ladies and recent years has seen Cynthia Erivo evolve into a performer who truly gets under the skin of Alan’s writing. With a 3 night Alan & Erivo residency (sold out) about to start at the venue’s smaller Studio room, her inclusion on the bill was an unexpected treat. Erivo set the tone for the evening with her signature Rolls-Royce vocal performance – immense power couched in a silky, elegant style.

An Alan gig is never less than a ballad-fest and Oliver Tompsett, guesting with Darlin’ (Without You), sealed the atmosphere of soulful reflection. It was however to be Madalena Alberto’s take on Blessing, with its verses documenting the pain of Alan coming out to his mother, that brought many to tears. 

In another moment of exquisite soprano serenity, The Phantom Of The Opera's Christine and her cover, Harriet Jones and Emmi Christensson respectively, gave an enchanting interpretation of Always On Your Side. They proved a breathtakingly beautiful pairing, with later on in the evening and also from Phantom, Oliver Savile impressing too.

Anna Jane Casey offered an accomplished excellence to And There It Is, in yet another performance that spoiled the audience with the riches of talent that Alan is able to invite and it was a precious moment that then saw Sophie Evans, previously one of Lloyd Webber’s Dorothys and a finalist from the BBC’s Over The Rainbow, give a fresh nuance to Look, A Rainbow.  

Newcomer David Albury performed one of the writer’s most popular numbers Never Neverland with an invigorating up-tempo beat – though in a delightful twist Alan was later to invite any audience member who wanted to sing the number, to join him on stage. Reminiscent of kids called up to a pantomime stage, this impromptu people’s chorus made for a moment that was free of all pretension, with some stunning yet to be discovered voices in the routine!

Elsewhere and away from established star names, Alan had unearthed via YouTube Nicola Henderson and Dublin’s Niall O’Halloran, two performers who shone in their brief moment of West End limelight. The Irishman’s Kiss The Air proving particularly powerful.

And there was just so much more to the gig – It speaks volumes for the professional devotion of Eva Noblezada, currently performing Miss Saigon’s Kim 8 times a week, that she could find the honed energy to sing Alan’s Home with a perfectly poised passion. Lucie Jones was shown somewhat less respect in a cheekily foof-fuelled intro from Alan, but her sensational Watch Me Soar more than answered her host’s irreverence.

Teamed with Craig Colton, Zoe Birkett’s The Journey was immense. Carley Stenson wowed with her usual aplomb and in a revelatory performance Danny-Boy Hatchard, aka EastEnders’ Lee Carter took Alan’s Now, a song written amidst the still bleeding wounds of a ripped-apart relationship and stunned the room again.

Alan famously wears his heart on his sleeve, speaking to the audience of his battle with depression and doing much to trample on the stigma associated with mental health. Above all his overarching message and one that many are likely to have found inspirational, is that life is worth holding on to. (Though the frequent references to his evening’s diet comprising white wine and Xanax could have been toned down.) 

Supported on the night by a six-piece band that was all strings and percussion, Musical Director and drummer Ryan Martin delivered a perfectly rehearsed and weighted accompaniment.

As the gig came to a close Erivo returned. Broadway-bound this year as she takes her sensational Celie in The Color Purple to star in New York, when news broke of her casting Alan wrote her a song. At All captured Erivo’s excitement at the achievement of having landed the show’s transfer, yet crossed that emotion with her pain at having to leave her loved ones behind in the UK. Honest lyrics that reduced the singer to tears.

It was left to Sam Bailey to wrap a fine and moving evening with Alan’s cri de coeur, Anything Worth Holding Onto.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Backtrack - Review

**

Written by Mick Sands
Directed by Tom Sands

Julian Glover prepares to hit some unwittingyoung campers for six

Backtrack is an ambitiously self-proclaimed "psychological horror" whose far-fetched story rests upon 4 unfortunate young people who regress (either deliberately or without realising) into their "past-lives". Unfortunately ley lines get tangled and it turns out that the past-lives in question coincide with the very much present life of a now-doddery Nazi parachutist who had been sent into Britain to cause mayhem during World War Two. His mission failed when his plane crashed on Sussex's South Downs and now the old and gruesomely scarred German ekes out his days as a devil-worshipping recluse in a Sussex barn, quietly awaiting the opportunity to avenge the deaths of his wife and kids who didn't survive the war. 

Julian Glover, veteran of the RSC and almost a national treasure, plays the old man and that this movie even scores two stars is due to Glover's outstanding contribution, making the often execrable dialog sound threatening. Elsewhere Haydn West’s sumptuous Downs photography and Richard Morson's score also impress.

But that's it. Opening with a WW2 battle sequence that seems inspired by the Call Of Duty video game, with references elsewhere to horror classics The Shining and An American Werewolf In London, director Sands' ambitions are high. His achievement however is a movie that resembles a cross between a shoddier version of Carry On Camping, crossed with a DIY instruction video as Glover gets medieval with a blowtorch on the unfortunate youngsters. 

Good horror along with well executed gory effects is all part of the magic of the movies. But Backtrack just isn’t good. Glover apart, the acting disappoints, with much of the film proving unintentionally comical (the scene in which a tractor drags an occupied tent across a field could be straight out of Top Gear). Further, too much of the graphic violence is gratuitously laboured, with shoddy visual effects to boot. In their recent film Big Bad Wolves, directors Keshales and Papushado showed how horrific a blowtorch can be, when photographed by a skilled and subtle director. Unfortunately Backtrack's racks of sizzling human flesh amount to little more than cheap “torture porn” 

Nonetheless the movie does represent a new filmmaker practising his craft and when I spoke with Glover about the shoot, the actor, who to his credit has a recognised history of supporting emerging creative talent, spoke highly of the professionalism of Sands and his cast and crew. 

Accompanied by a good drink and maybe a takeaway, Backtrack could make for an evening's entertainment. Just go easy on ordering anything flame-grilled.


UK RELEASE: Backtrack is now available in the UK on DVD and LoveFilm through Mandala Films and on Amazon Prime and Blinkbox through Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment under the alternate title ‘Nazi Vengeance.’