Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pure Imagination - Review

St James Theatre


****


Devised by Leslie Bricusse, Chrisopher Renshaw and Danielle Tarento
Directed by Christopher Renshaw



Giles Terera


Who can take a set list? Sprinkle it with class……

… as through two hours a delicious cast of 5 chart a course through nigh on 60 of the songs of lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Unashamedly a ‘juke-box musical’, the show marks producer Danielle Tarento’s first foray into that genre, with a combination of both song snatches and entire numbers as Bricusse’s remarkable body of work is referenced and respected.

There is however something distinctive to Pure Imagination that sets it apart from most of the other shows that have been fashioned out of back catalogue cash-cows and which currently clog London’s theatres. First and foremost, Bricusse is a wordsmith whose career has seen him partner a diverse range of composing collaborators.

Sure the man has penned a few melodies himself, but that the show includes tunes from those Atlantic-straddling greats including John Barry, John Williams, Henry Mancini and of course Anthony Newley, leads to a collection that is close to a chocolate box of surprises. Who knew that (under a pseudonym) Bricusse had lobbed in the lyrics to Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle delight, My Old Man’s A Dustman, which with honky tonk piano brought on centre-stage, gives rise to a rather wonderful almost knees-up in the first half!

True to form, Tarento draws a talented company to stage the show. Veteran Dave Willis is The Man, oozing panache and flair with every number and in an exciting Who Can I Turn To? proving that he still is, very much, the man. Opposite Willetts, Siobhan McCarthy is The Woman, bringing a measured maturity to her share of the numbers, her act two opener a sizzling, Fosse-infused, Le Jazz Hot a delight.

Other special moments include Willett’s laconic Bond-fuelled take on Goldfinger (even if he channels more Moore than Connery) with perhaps the cheesiest/wittiest segue ever as The Man smoothly segues into Talk To The Animals from Giles Terera’s feline Pink Panther (yes, there were lyrics to that iconic signature tune)

Terera’s Joker offers talent elsewhere too, making spines almost tingle in his What Kind Of Fool Am I and giving a stylishly sassy take to If I Ruled The World.

As The Boy, Niall Sheehy brings a younger perspective to some numbers, with Jekyll & Hyde’s This Is The Moment proving particularly special. Completing the cast, Julie Atherton brings her hallmark polished poise to the production

That the band’s sextet outnumber the actors speaks volumes for the creatives’ vision and much of the evening’s credit is due to Michael England’s immaculate arrangements and pinpoint musical direction. Mention too for Richard Coughlan, whose finely fingered bass work enhances the production’s jazz.

Chris Renshawe directs with a wise touch. Old enough to understand Bricusse’s legacy, Renshawe keeps his finger firmly on a contemporary pulse, ensuring a style that works for today (even if the numerous selfie gags are a touch laboured)

The pure imagination of Bricusse, Tarento and Renshawe has created a confection of a show that blends nostalgia and wit with a generous splash of excellence. It all makes for a charming night out.


Runs until 17th October 2015

Friday, 25 September 2015

Kiss Me, Kate - Review

Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds

***

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Directed by Jo Davies


Quirjin De Lang, Jeni Bern and Company


Opera North, a leading UK arts organisation whose key focus and goal is to 'actively challenge conventional perceptions of opera' (as stated in the programme), return to Leeds Grand this Autumn to present their latest season of work, with this new production of Kiss Me, Kate being the first in a diverse line-up.

Kiss Me, Kate tells the story of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, two actors whose tempestuous love lives take centre stage as they perform in a new musical version of The Taming of the Shrew in 1940s Baltimore. Almost fabricated as a play within a play, Kiss Me, Kate takes a different tack to the musical theatre norm and allows the audience to see both the on stage and off stage dramatics and hysteria of the story's main arc.

Quirijn De Lang and Jeni Bern, the key protagonists, shine in their roles offering the audience a true abundance of wit, charm and delight as they work with an overly complex plot that takes an hour and a half to actually get to the point. Whilst there are some great comedic interludes from Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as Gunman 1 and Gunman 2, Kiss Me, Kate struggles to sell itself as a piece of high class musical theatre.

With a running time of almost 3 hours, Kiss Me, Kate fails to pack the punch required for such a long piece of theatre, with scenes drawn out for much longer than required. At least half an hour could be trimmed and still allow a piece that could be easily grasped without becoming boring due to a lack of tension, suspense or characters one can truly care for.

Tiffany Graves and Ashley Day feel a tad miscast as the secondary characters Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun - there's a surprising lack of chemistry between the two and apart from a wonderful, albeit small, comedic moment in Tom, Dick or Harry. Katie Kerr as Hattie seems underused with an absolutely divine voice that opens up the first act in Another Op'nin, Another Show, whilst Claire Pascoe as the Stage Manager is another ensemble member who stands out, grabbing our attention as soon as she walks on stage.

The main saving grace of this production is its music. Superbly conducted by David Charles Abell, Kiss Me, Kate harks back to Musical Theatre's golden era. The best moments are the ensemble numbers particularly Too Darn Hot the second act opener.

The lighting and set designs for this production are ambitious considering the size of the theatre but Ben Cracknell and Colin Richmond do a remarkable job, providing stunning backdrops that draw the audience in and help sell a flawed story.

Kiss Me, Kate’s lack of purpose and confusing storyline will possibly leave many feeling a little cold and put out. For those Shakespeare aficionados however who fancy seeing something a bit different and unconventional, then it may well prove the perfect night out.


Runs until 31 October and then tours
Guest reviewer: Megan Kinsey

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Casa Valentina - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


*****


Written by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Luke Sheppard


Gareth Snook and Ashley Robinson


Harvey Fierstein’s second London opening this week after Kinky Boots is Casa Valentina, which makes its European premier at the Southwark Playhouse and proves a remarkable piece of theatre.

Set in the remote Chevalier D’Eon inn, tucked away in New York’s Catskill Mountains the drama revolves around a group of transvestites, all ostensibly heterosexual married men who visit the resort for weekend retreats where they can live out their feminine personae. The time is the early 60’s and as Fierstein’s brilliantly layered narrative unfolds, the complexities of denial and deceit and repressed sexualities plays out against a McCarthy-esque backdrop of prejudice, where even in the liberal Northern USA, homosexuality is still a crime.

The opening act paints a rich and credible tableau. George (aka Valentina and played by Edward Wolstenholme – keep up) runs the Inn with wife Rita (Tamsin Carroll) – and who as business is flagging, has enlisted the support of Charlotte (or Isadore – Gareth Snook) a Californian transvestite (TV) whose Sorority Magazine promotes the TV cause across the country and whose endorsement of the resort could boost visitors. But Charlotte has her own agenda and as Matthew Rixon’s brilliant Bessie (aka Albert) a man who, for these weekends, becomes a “decorated war hero in housecoat and turban” sagely comments: “politics and prosthetics don’t mix”.

The humour, poignancy and pathos of the piece is perfectly crafted by Fierstein, with Ben Deery’s nervous Jonathan/Miranda proving a finely nuanced definition of gauche as a relatively recently married man, nervously experimenting for the first time amongst fellow TVs. Ashley Robinson’s Michael/Gloria offers another finely sketched portrayal of a handsome young man who having famously deflowered most of the girls in his college year, still found himself yearning for their dresses the morning after. Veteran Bruce Montague as Theodore/Terry is a gem, whose brief appearance smoking a pipe whilst in full female garb is comedy gold, whilst Robert Morgan’s Judge (or Amy) hairy armed and on the verge of retirement takes the story to tragic depths.

Luke Sheppard has coaxed flawless work from his entire company – and in a production where again, budgetary constraints are tight, the genius of this show can only flow from the human talent on stage. Not only the acting, but also technical wizardry of some of the “girls’”makeovers is remarkable, both in make-up and mannerism.

Snook’s handbagged creation is every inch a woman whose shrewd and ruthless politics channel Margaret Thatcher crossed with Machiavelli. Perfectly poised and sensational without sensationalising, his is a convincingly terrifying performance. Yet it is Tamsin Carroll who breaks us. Her loving wife, desperately clinging to the vestiges of the man she thought she loved – but who ultimately loves Valentina over all else – offers a picture of grief and despair as profound as it is understated. This remarkable cast define Casa Valentina as unmissable theatre. It deserves a West End transfer – but until then, rush to catch it in Southwark.


Runs until 10th October 2015

Kinky Boots - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


****


Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell


The Company

Two years after its Broadway debut, Kinky Boots strides into London’s Adelphi Theatre, helmed again by Jerry Mitchell who is evidently looking to repeat the show’s award-winning success over here.

Based on the BBC film of a decade ago – in turn inspired by true events - Kinky Boots tells of a Northampton based shoe factory facing closure, that stumbles across the idea of making women’s fashion thigh-length boots but built for a man’s body. As their kinky boots go down a storm amongst the transvestite and drag community, the company is saved.

It’s a neat conceit and the story hinges around two men. Lola - really Simon from Clacton – an acclaimed drag act, who underneath the costumed façade is desperate to be accepted by the world around him, particularly his ageing father. Charlie is a straight guy who has inherited the shoe factory and who comes to learn to love and respect Lola (who has provided the inspiration along with the creative input and design for the factory’s kinky boots), for who he is.

But whilst there’s a decent integrity to the show’s pulse of self belief and determination, Fierstein’s book is too predictable. If Matt Henry’s Lola, in all his splendour, had burst into singing I Am What I Am from La Cage Aux Folles when he visits the Clacton old folk’s home, in place of the maudlin Hold Me In Your Heart it would not have been out of place. That being said, Henry is a stunning turn and his duet with Killian Donnelly’s equally impressive Charlie in Not My Father’s Son, makes for spine tingling musical theatre. 

In amongst all the fabulously choreographed dick-heavy chicks there’s a straight love story too. Amy Lennox’s Lauren offers way too much talent to a role that’s often not much more than cliché, rivalling Amy Ross’ deliciously cynical Nicola, Charlie’s frustrated fiancee who’s harshly not even offered one song credit. The view of a gritty Northampton through Fierstein and Lauper’s glitzy Broadway prism doesn’t quite convince and if only there was as much meat in the show’s story as there is in its well packed dancers' lunchboxes, then this could have been quite the perfect musical.

But no matter, because for the whooping girlies and twirlies in the audience, Kinky Boots undoubtedly hits the spot. Mitchell also choreographs and his vision creates some sensational routines. With numbers staged on fashion-show runways, workshop staircases and ridiculously (but with jaw-dropping brilliance) even on a moving factory conveyor belt, the song and dance of Kinky Boots bear the hallmarks of cutting edge West End originality.


Booking until 6th February

The White Feather - Review

Union Theatre,  London


***

Written by Ross Clarke
Directed by Andrew Keates


Abigail Matthews


New British musical The White Feather tells the story of Georgina Briggs whose brother Harry was one of hundreds of allied soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War and who consequently spent her life fighting for justice & a posthumous pardon. It is a show that offers us the young idealistic soldiers marching off to fight with bravado and returning, in the words of one character, 'broken'.

There are some pretty tunes in the score by Ross Clark & Matthew Strachan, with some stand out songs namely Set Them In Stone sung beautifully by Abigail Matthews as Georgina and I'll Tell You What I'm Fighting For performed with passion by Kate Brennan as Edith. Strangely, it felt as if there may be too many songs in this show, particularly in the first half. Some numbers feel prematurely cut short and a little fragmented, not helping the act’s cohesion. A notable exception is "In No Man's Land", where Lee Dillon-Stuart engages totally. The second act seems better crafted, perhaps due to fewer songs.

As Harry, Adam Pettigrew conveys the naivety of a 16 year old wanting adventure. Sadly, we don’t get to fully see his transformation from innocence to acute suffering since he is staged with his back to the audience. We need and want to see his eyes and witness Harry's fear, due to him being affected by what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, Harry evolves into a secondary character, talked to and about, rather than the audience observing for ourselves, through Pettigrew's acting, the horror of his plight. 

There's an intriguing homosexual storyline between Edward Brown, who escapes active service due to a faked medical documents procured by the upper class Adam Davey. David Flynn plays Davey with well placed self importance, thinly veiling his insecurities. Zac Hamilton's stand out performance as Edward is perfectly placed, his solo at the end of the show a heartbreaking outpouring of grief that is genuinely touching.

A simple, striking set of a multipurpose stone wall by Tim McQuillen-Wright beautifully captures rural East Anglia in the early 1900s, transforming the space in the Union Theatre, lit with subtle skill by Neill Brickworth. 

The musical arrangements by Dustin Conrad and Martin Coslett were delightful, the trio of piano, cello and violin creating an atmosphere, almost eerie in places. 

Director Andrew Keates has developed the piece and co-written the book with Ross Clarke, for a cast of nine. The White Feather has some lovely moments within a story that spans a generation and it also marks another welcome burst of new English writing for musical theatre, but it’s not quite there yet. With some modest work, this could yet be a fine musical. 


Runs until 17th October 2015
Guest reviewer: Andy Bee

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Puttin’ On The Ritz – Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


***

The Ensemble


Puttin’ On The Ritz – which promises to take the audience back to the ‘golden age of Hollywood’ – has the potential to be a hit show. Billed as a ‘song and dance extravaganza’, it plays to the country’s fascination with ballroom dancing (as demonstrated by Strictly Come Dancing) and with the musical genius of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, whose hits caused many audience members to sing along.

But this show misses that stellar target. Opening to reveal a static set with two staircases either side, the suggestion is more of a wedding reception. And as the show begins it is also apparent that the design isn’t optimised for space, which results in some constrictions for the dancers. Curiously, above the stage is a screen which occasionally plays out clips of old Hollywood films, including snatches of Fred Astaire. This is a peculiar concept as it only really serves to highlight the gap between Astaire's iconic magic and the live performances that don’t really come close. 

There are, however, some notable highlights. Anya Garnis and Robin Windsor (from Strictly Come Dancing) masterfully deliver three pieces at breath-taking pace, with wonderful skill, fluidity and stage presence. Their final dance, set to Michael Buble’s version of Feelin Good, is superb. Ricky Rojas, one of the six singers, is also very much at ease in engaging with the audience and delivers some sterling vocals. 

But the best performances come from Ray Quinn. Where Anya and Robin arguably fall short is in their failure to integrate with the other cast members in their delivery – their pieces are very much separate to the rest of the show – but Ray works with the rest of the cast. His solo songs are performed with conviction and personality, and he captures the essence of a seasoned showman. He also goes beyond singing to perform a couple of slick tap routines.

Heather Davis’ costumes are outstanding and if the show just  sometimes doesn’t quite manage to put on the ritz, at least Davis’ designs deliver on the glitz.


Runs until 19th September, then continues on tour
Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Brash Young Turks - Review

***

Certificate 15


Written by Paul Danquah, Ash Mahmood and Naeem Mahmood
Directed by Naeem Mahmood and Ash Mahmood

Melissa Latouche and Paul Chiedozie


Brash Young Turks marks an impressive feature debut from brothers Naeem and Ash Mahmood. It’s a gritty gripping thriller that tells of a journey into adulthood, set against the cut throat worlds of London’s estate agents and rip-off salesmen.

We are introduced to Dave and Terrell as kids forging a powerful bond of loyalty – before the movie fast forwards the pair ten years where as young men Paul Chiedozie and Charlie MacGechan turn in performances that balance impeccable style, with just enough menace and swagger.

Visually the film is a blast, with locations including Sushi Samba’s glass elevator placing the yarn firmly in the London of today. If the action is occasionally a little far-fetched, the acting is classy. In a cleverly crafted role, Melissa Latouche (who along with Chiedozie also produces) plays Mia a damaged young girl in the care of social services, who is desperate to be loved. 

There is a scene where the mixed-race Mia (living, desperately, in a children’s home where she’s sexually abused by staff) is visited by her white mum. When the visit ends and her mum just ups and leaves we see Mia, distraught, as she watches her mother hug her white husband and kids who are waiting in a car outside. In that briefest of moments Mia’s pain and back-story are brilliantly relayed via minimal dialog and exceptional performance. Genius filmmaking from the Mahmoods. 

Kimberley Marren is Shaz, the long term “moll” of Dave and Terrell and she does well in a role that needed just a little bit more from the writers. Richard Shelton puts in a convincing bad-guy as millionaire property man/the young turks’ nemesis Holmes. Elsewhere the venerable Julian Glover gives a lovingly played turn (even if his dialog is as corny as hell) as a cynically ripped-off pensioner and listen out too for Julian’s missus, Isla Blair as a radio newsreader.

D Double E’s music gives the film a thrilling pulse and Inspire - Hackney's Education and Business Partnership also deserve a shout out for the vision they've shown in getting behind the production. A bold and ballsy movie, Brash Young Turks is much of what young London in 2015 is all about.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Dogfight - October 11th - A brief return to London

As Danielle Tarento's award winning production of Dogfight returns to London's St James Theatre for one day only on Sunday 11th October, here is an opportunity to re-visit my my interview from last year with the show's acclaimed star, Laura Jane Matthewson. Read on....  

Laura Jane Matthewson - A Star Is Born


STOP PRESS NOVEMBER 30 2014

This article was originally published on October 30 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what for the future?

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

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

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

NOW READ MY 5* DOGFIGHT REVIEW OF THIS CAST, LAST YEAR

Dogfight - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

*****

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Directed by Matt Ryan

Laura Jane Matthewson and Jamie Muscato

In 1991 the Warner Brothers movie Dogfight, starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, told of a quirky poignant romance between Rose and Eddie, born out of the cruellest of games. Set up by a group of young Marines the night before they deploy to Vietnam, the dogfight demands each Marine competes to bring the ugliest girl they can find to the party. It makes for a harsh dynamic that is uncomfortably recognisable.

In 2012, the young composing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, together with bookwriter Peter Duchan translated the compelling saga into an off-Broadway show that opened to rave reviews. Their cast album followed some months later (reviewed here on its UK release) but it has taken until now, and the inspirational vision of Danielle Tarento arguably the most dynamic of London’s off-West End producers, to carry the show across the pond.

The Southwark Playhouse cast bring a wonderful energy to Pasek & Paul’s vibrant and exciting compositions. Making her professional debut, Laura Jane Matthewson shines as Rose, an unsophisticated, naive country girl with an innocent  purity. Never sentimental, she displays an intelligence and strength clearly demonstrating that innocent doesn't mean stupid. She continually challenges Eddie about his anger and bad language, going on to beat him at his own game in a hilarious second act exchange. Jamie Muscato plays a multi faceted Eddie, as Rose draws his vulnerable softer self out from the on-display tough, angry, bullshitting Marine, deserted by his father as an infant. Both voices singing with technical brilliance and soul-searing intensity.

Eddie is well supported by his buddy marines, notably the bespectacled Bernstein played by Nicholas Corre and Hardman Boland played by Cellen Chugg Jones, all three bonded by Bee tattoos. Amanda Minihan, not long stepped off the Arcola’s wonderful Carousel gives a beautiful depth, warmth and musicality to Rose's mother, whilst Rebecca Trehearn plays hooker Marcy with perceptive humour and fantastic vocals.

Duchan’s book makes judicious use of the movie's simply crafted screenplay. George Dyer conducts a tight, nuanced band enhanced by some beautiful string playing, fully releasing the score as the cast deliver punchy lyrics, lush harmonies, and some beautifully judged pianissimo moments. Impressive choreography by Lucie Pankhurst with some carefully detailed and seamless scene links holds the story. Matt Ryan’s powerfully realised production demonstrating that crass attitudes and behaviour all hide a desperate need for purpose and a sense of belonging. In an increasingly fractured world, Dogfight speaks to us on many many levels. Unquestionably a must-see show, the performances are stunning and the writing sparkles. 

Monday, 14 September 2015

National Youth Ballet Gala 2015 - Review

Sadler's Wells


****




The National Youth Ballet (NYB) celebrated the end of its 2015 season with a Gala programme at Sadler's Wells and the home of dance provided the ideal setting for some of Britain's most promising young talent.

Featuring 11 distinct pieces, each created by a young choreographer, the programme highlighted the breadth of abilities honed by each member of the company.

Over half of the show comprised dances that were being shown for the first time, each offering a completely different perspective. The Sighing (Jo Meredith) narrates the relationship between a soldier in the First World War and his lover at home, through a letter and powerful yet muted choreography. At the other end of the spectrum, Jamie Neale’s Trotters, featured elaborate costumes, staging and energetic dance, set to a live performance from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Venn from Eleanor Marsh, a contemporary, fluid and vibrant piece of work is also worth mentioning.

A highlight was Arielle Smith's Athena, presenting a twist on the classic story of Giselle, set within a dark underworld and blending elements of jazz, contemporary and street dance to unforgettable effect. Outstanding performances by Bryony Harrison and Chris Thomas suggest that both dancers have promising futures ahead. 

Wonderful to witness was the evolution of dance excellence through the ages. Performances such as Lavender’s Blue (Anna Meadmore), which featured younger dancers skipping gaily to a sprightly soundtrack of nursery rhymes,  contrasted with more complex and challenging performances by the older members of the company in the programme. 

A stellar performance by three of the NYB’s alumni, Rock n Roll (Jenna Lee), illustrated nicely how high these young dancers can go (quite literally, given the height of the dancers’ jumps and lifts) and would no doubt have provided much inspiration to the young troupe. 

The evening closed with a performance of Wayne Sleep’s Cinderella, which played to the youthfulness of the dancers. Spirited mice, lizards and the Ember Fairies were a delight, while the leads did a wonderful job in the well-established roles of Cinderella, Prince Charming and the Ugly Sisters.  

Cinderella offered a strong end to a varied and creative programme, supporting the conclusion of NYB Founding Director Jill Tookey and Patron Joanna Lumley, that the future of Britain’s ballet looks bright indeed.


Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Monday, 7 September 2015

Dusty - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


*


Directed by Chris Cowey


Alison Arnopp

Dusty is a show that has attracted a huge amount of challenging press during a troubled preview run that has lasted many months. So it is a brave (and largely new) cast that step up tonight to take their bows before the press. 

To those in the audience used to an evening of well-crafted entertainment – for which London’s theatre scene both on and off West End is rightly praised, the evening is a dreadful disappointment. The glorious brass-heavy chords of Pino Donaggio’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me open the proceedings (always a worry when the biggest number opens a show) and from then on its downhill all the way.

Alison Arnopp tries to be an energetic lead, but Dusty she ain’t. I’ve seen better Springfield tributes. To be fair though Arnopp’s blushes are spared for much of the evening as the iconic songs are more often than not played back via poorly synched videotapes from the 60s. And when it’s not VT, the stagehands are (noisily) putting up and taking down the paraphernalia that projects a holographic Dusty. They needn’t waste their time.  

It’s not just Dusty’s technology that disappoints. The script is dire too, though maybe for a show set in the 1950s/60s, for the dialog to sound as wooden as a Crossroads episode of Crossroads was possibly intentional?

There are glimpses of human talent on stage – Whitney White’s Martha Reeves offers the evening’s one moment that comes close to spine-tingling, whilst Francesca Jackson’s Nancy, (and not so long ago, one of the BBC’s Nancys too) duetting with Arnopp in How Can I Be Sure, goes a long way to confirming Jackson’s star quality. 

But you know what? This show is gonna make its money back and then some.

Britain is (in part) a nation laden with Baby Boomer grannies who LOVE Dusty Springfield. Their failing vision may (thankfully) not allow them to spot the difference between actor and avatar, but they’ll happily hand over their hard-earned pension to let the nostalgia wash over them. Mark my words.


Now booking to 21st November

Legally Blonde - Review

Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire


****


Music and Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book: Heather Hach
Director and Choreographer: Mitch Sebastian


Jennifer Harding

Omigod - as autumn approaches and the nights are drawing in, Legally Blonde is creating a fabulously pink infusion of summer fun in the gorgeous grounds of Kilworth House Hotel’s theatre. 

From a distance the show’s story couldn’t be cheesier. Elle expects boyfriend Warner to propose to her but instead the cad dumps her, prior to his leaving town to study law at Harvard – and find a fiancée of greater intellect and social standing. Not to be put down, Elle pursues her man, studying hard and also joining Harvard Law School. What follows is a story as delicious as it is improbable, as through a combination of hard work and sassy female intuition Elle heroically wins the day.

To say any more would spoil – for actually Legally Blonde is all about brilliantly executed song and dance, the breaking and mending of hearts and the lampooning of men whose attitudes to female equality belong in the Stone Age.

Fresh up from being nominated in London’s Off West Awards for Best Female Performer of the Year, Jennifer Harding is Elle. Barely off stage throughout, the strikingly blonde Canadian drives the show with stunning vocals and breathtaking presence. We sense her indignation, resilience, passion and yes at times, a deliciously ditzy blondeness that fuels the narrative. All of Harding’s singing is a treat, with her take on the title song and its Remix, proving spectacular. 

Supporting Elle are a raft of featured characters. Greg Miller Burns is good-guy Emmet, who convinces in his transformation from geek to chic. The accomplished Jodie Jacobs is a delight as Paulette – scene stealing deservedly in her big number Ireland and bringing the house down during the Find My Way/Finale number.

Jenny Gayner puts in an eye-wateringly energetic turn as fitness guru Brooke Wyndham, a woman whose circumstances provide the opportunity for Elle to triumph. Gayner’s Delta Nu Nu Nu duet with Harding proves to be another of the show’s ridiculously memorable moments.

Mitch Sebastian directs and choreographs imaginatively – and for such a charmingly quirky venue, Philip Whitcomb’s set along with Chris Whybrow’s well-crafted sound design ensure all the action is both seen and heard as the sun sets behind the trees, with John Morton’s 11 piece band making fine work of the sugary score.

Fun musicals don’t get better than this!


Runs until 20th September

Friday, 4 September 2015

Parade - Review

London Theatre Workshop, London


***


Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Jody Tranter


Victoria Hope

Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is a beautifully constructed Tony-winner of a show that shuttered early. Broadway’s loss was to prove London’s gain, as Rob Ashford (who was the original show’s dance captain) went on to stage a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, before Thom Southerland was to match his feat at the Southwark Playhouse some 4 years later. 

So why did the New York public shun the work? Possibly because Parade holds a mirror up to an ugly stain on America’s history: the brute racism of the country’s Confederate Southland. And no-one, least of all the Americans, likes to hear of their own nation’s fallibilities.

Parade tells the true, tragic tale of Leo Frank an Atlanta Jew who was falsely accused of murdering a Christian girl and subsequently lynched. Frank’s murder trial, in which he was framed before being found guilty (though was quite likely en-route to a pardon at the time of his lynching), polarised a nation, to this day still split by the Mason Dixon line, as the North campaigned for his liberty. The Frank case was made all the more distinctive in American history as it was a white man who was lynched. Brown’s genius is to pull none of his punches and as act two opens with Rumblin’ and a Rollin’, the show’s only two black cast members sing the lyric “there's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree”, acknowledging the more familiar horror of the Deep South’s racist heritage. 

Jody Tranter is ambitious in mounting the show in the modest confines of Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop. Brown’s glorious music channels styles that range from ballad, to gospel and even a cakewalk with the composer bestowing unforgiving complexity on his melodies. Fortunately under musical director Erika Gundesen’s five piece ensemble, the justice that was denied Leo Frank is beautifully done to the score and a special mention to drummer Tom Chester for nailing the staccato beat of fascism that Brown intended.

Notwithstanding some moments of first rate acting however, with Ross Barnes’ Leo Frank convincing as the humble Frank, the musical magnificence does not extend to the cast’s singing. A modest budget has kept the company un-mic’d and as a consequence, all too often, Brown’s razor sharp lyrics are inaudible – this from a reviewer sat in the front row! And when the ensemble voices kick off (beautifully) any solo moments are lost in a vocal melee.

Songs that should pack a punch, particularly You Don’t Know This Man, fail to hit their intended sweet spot and at times it is hard to find the emotional connection to the work that in a well-executed show, should be wringing the audience’s consciences and heart strings.

There are some moments of class: Lily de-la-Haye’s Lucille Frank is a picture of tragic desperation as the jubilant town celebrates the guilty verdicts in a harrowing act one closer, whilst Nazerene Williams and Michael Moulton deliver the aforementioned second half opener with strength and gusto. If some of the doubling up of roles is occasionally confusing, Victoria Hope’s multi-part contribution to the show is delivered with a vocal punch that makes us sit up and listen. Her take on My Child Will Forgive Me is sublime and if (most of) the rest of the cast were to copy hers’ (and to be fair, also the veteran Dudley Rogers’) excellent voicework, it can only be for the production’s good.

Whilst a modest budget is understandable, sloppy typos in the programme are inexcusable and hint at a lack of attention to detail - Jason Robert Brown and this talented company deserve better from the producers.


Runs to 13th September

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Hatched 'n' Dispatched - Review

Park Theatre, London


*****


Written by Gemma Page and Michael Kirk
Directed by Michael Kirk


The cast of Hatched 'n' Dispatched

Much credit to Jez Bond at London’s Park Theatre for boldly staging another innovative and provocative new play.

It is 1959, Arthur is dead and as his family gather for the wake, there are drunken giggles to be had and secrets to be spilled. They don’t write ‘em like this any more and more’s the bloody pity, for in his debut full length play Michael Kirk together with Gemma Page has captured a slice of British social history, hinting at the incisiveness that once hallmarked the BBC’s Play For Today and which latterly Mike Leigh can occasionally capture on screen. 

Kirk and Page place themselves on a literary high wire, such is the potential for melodrama and cliché that their narrative presents. However one can only assume that Kirk, who has based the play on his own experiences of growing up in the 1950’s, enjoyed(?) the most colourful of childhoods, for Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched is at all times credible and often excruciatingly funny. It is as act two unfolds that the carefully crafted text arguably suggests aspects of an English Arthur Miller, as the narrative scrapes away at both layers and years of hypocrisy and deceit, descending into an orgy of shame and humiliation.

Wendi Peters is Dorothy, Arthur’s sister in law. An overbearing matriarch and on the surface every inch a Hyacinth Bucket. But beneath her much manicured and kept-up appearance there’s a gimlet eye that sees everything, even the failings that lie closest to her heart.

Irene played by Wendy Morgan, is Arthur’s widow and Dorothy’s sister and has been (as we learn early in act one) having an affair with her sister’s husband Edward for as long as they’ve been married. The rich complexities of this most acute of sibling rivalries are finely played out by both women, with the sensitivities of their so very different pains represented on stage by the subtlest of movements and gestures. Blink and you risk missing a gem. It was not so long ago that Peters starred in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a show famous for amongst other numbers, Sisters. That song includes the line “And lord help the sister, who comes between me and my man” In the light of this play, that lyric can take on a whole new resonance. 

Peters and Morgan lead their flawless company with a masterclass in performance. Kevin McGowan turns in a brilliant Edward (who can't even keep his hands from groping his daughter in law for chrissakes) – all trousers but no backbone. Their son Kenneth (James Wrighton) is a whoring wife-beater, whilst Danielle Flett, playing his abused wife Corinne is tragically believable as the woman who’s had one cracked-rib too many. There is brilliantly fleshed out comic relief from the allotment loving but possibly infertile Oliver (classy work from Matthew Fraser Holland) whilst his wife Madeleine (Edward’s sister, played by Vicky Binns) desperate for a child offers a beautifully nuanced take on the sexual naivetés of the time.

Diana Vickers is a treat as Irene’s young daughter Susan. Sexy, blonde and quite possibly pregnant (unplanned and by a black guy and remember this is a racially troubled Britain in the 50’s), she combines just the right combination of 'ditzy' with compassionate love for her mother. Vickers' is another perfectly weighted performance.

Credit too to casting director Anne Vosser for again assembling a perfect troupe and to PJ McEvoy whose set – and it all takes place in Arthur and Irene’s Front Room – is for once an economic design that is completely justified and in context and whose costume design, including some stunning stilettos, nails the era perfectly. Most of all, further credit to Kirk for directing his own work with such measured assurance.

Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched is glorious new writing that deserves a longer life – either on a West End stage or maybe even on screen. This play is all about the gripping close up of intimate performance and agonised humanity. It is unmissable drama.


Runs until 26th September

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

McQueen - Review

Haymarket Theatre, London


****

Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird


Carly Bawden

Making its West End transfer from the St James Theatre, James Phillips’ McQueen, a semi-biopic exploration into the psyche of fashion icon Alexander McQueen, hangs in composite parts. Just like the brown paper sizing charts we see when McQueen brings the waifish and mysterious Dahlia to his old tailors on Saville Row, Phillips has constructed a series slightly uneven vignettes, and strung them up together without stitching them into a cohesive whole. It makes for an undulating evening, that at some points is fascinating, and at others is achingly slow. However, even if seen only in glimpses, the window into McQueen's tortured mind is worth every peep.

The play is a journey, taking us through the crushing spectre of depression, right through to the euphoric discovery of inspiration. The stage is often constructed as a dream scape, with lucid video designs  by Timothy Bird latching on to the melting fragmentations of McQueen's mind, demonstrating how his fragile thoughts project not only those around him, but the very walls of his surroundings. Stephen Wight's Lee McQueen starts the show before the audience have even taken their seats, pacing relentlessly, muttering and clutching a belt with foreboding animosity. There is an edgy restlessness to the proceedings before the lights even go down, and it creates a sense of dramatic anticipation that unfortunately is never again matched during the night. Scenes leap through unspecified gaps in time, and the dreamy hallucinogenic atmosphere undercuts any kind of narrative tension as the stakes drop from beneath the characters feet. John Caird's direction shows a keen eye for the visual, and has a forceful specificity, but lacks nuance in the pacing. Some scenes linger far beyond their welcome, whilst other sections come to a dissatisfying halt just as they were building some intrigue. The humour of the opening exchanges between McQueen and his unexpected intruder, Dahlia (Carly Bawden), is a delight, but is never again revisited. There is a light tone to their banter, a dance of verbal one one-upmanship, intrigue laced with fear, fascination mixed with trepidation. It's an enticing tone to begin the show, but it falls by the wayside as the play progresses and becomes bogged down with the darker harbinger of suicide.

Wight is tasked with the exploration of these macabre themes and does fantastic work. His is a central performance of tremendous skill, investing Lee McQueen with the right amount of sensitivity, whilst also hinting at an untapped well of visceral anger towards a world that will always expect more. There's a real empathetic power to his speeches on the constant pressure to deliver  whatever is 'next', as Wight constructs an unflinchingly relatable portrait of a man waving to the expectant crowd with a fake smile and a shaking hand. Bawden also shows some impressive chops with her take on the murky girl from the tree. There is a spirited intensity and confidence to her scenes, but she also shows a knowing physicality that belies inescapable vulnerability.

What elevates the piece though, is the stunning choreography by Christopher Marney, expertly conducted by an ensemble of ghoulishly beautiful dancers. These balletic interludes both transition and invade scenes and are breathtaking whenever they feature. Dressed both as mannequins and runway models, the dancers are both nightmarish in their grotesque inhumanity and angelic in their perfection. Their movements can be stilted at one moment, and lyrical in the next, effectively echoing both the frustration and beauty of human thought and inspiration.

The meandering pace and lack of narrative focus threaten to undo McQueen at certain points, however, it succeeds with excellent performances and a sumptuous design in keeping with the artistic genius at its centre. When Caird is freed from the lightweight plot and able to examine visually the psychosis of creativity, and the abject terror of failure; the piece soars on great golden wings.


Runs until 7th November
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson