Saturday, 31 October 2015

Fresh Dressed - Review


Directed by Sacha Jenkins

The inimitable and intertwined relationship between fashion and hip hop is explored in Fresh Dressed, the fascinating new documentary from Sacha Jenkins.

Hip-hop fashion began on the streets of New York and its journey continued from there. Fresh Dressed uses insights from some of the biggest figures in the field including Kanye West, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Swizz Beatz, Damon Dash, Pusha T, Nas and former Vogue editor-at-large AndrĂ© Leon Talley to narrate the story of how and why street fashion became so prevalent in today’s culture. 

It is this evolution of hip-hop and urban fashion that is conveyed to great success.

The film is packed with nuggets of information – such as how the origins of customisation began within New York gang warfare – and interviews with heavy hitting tastemakers – such as Dapper Dan, who spent eight years designing cutting-edge pieces based on high fashion, that were worn by global superstars such as LL Cool J.

Fresh Dressed also explores a multitude of themes including race, class and identity, drawing out exactly why this genre of fashion evolved in the way it did. The social environment in which it thrived played a phenomenal role in its development and relationships between and within the urban community and commercial world had a huge impact too.

While the list of celebrities interviewed for the documentary is impressive, the most memorable conversations are with the individuals who have played a more active role, to lesser fame, in growing the movement. Their first-hand accounts of what they were seeing occur around them, and how they responded accordingly, adds some astute insight into the project.

Visually, Fresh Dressed is a delight to watch. Brightly coloured pieces, and clever illustrations that bring elements of the story to life, make it aesthetically pleasing.

Sonically, and not unexpectedly, the soundtrack is packed with some of hip-hop’s finest masterpieces, complementing the segment of the tale being told.

Through drawing upon different elements of African American culture, the New York that gave birth to hip hop and by speaking to individuals heavily involved in the movement, it finds its answer. 

Ultimately, Fresh Dressed seeks to explore what it means to be ‘fresh.’ It really is a must-see for anyone even mildly interested in fashion, music or even, more broadly, popular culture. It makes an understanding of the urban culture – which is embedded into the fabric of today’s society – accessible to the world.

Guest Reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Monday, 26 October 2015

Peter Pan - A Musical Adventure

Adelphi Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Directed by Jonathan Butterell

Jenna Russell and Evelyn Hoskins

There have been many interpretations of J M Barrie's Peter Pan story but this musical version by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe, with book by Willis Hall, deserves a place of note. The tale of the boy who doesn't want to grow up and the three young Darling children of Bloomsbury he takes on an adventure to Neverland, has a charm which beguiles children and adults alike.

Stiles & Drewe (Honk!, Just So, Betty Blue Eyes) premiered Peter Pan in 1999. This concert version of the full production, imaginatively staged by Jonathan Butterell, worked well, with the actors and singers in front of a full orchestra on stage. Very often in concert productions, the larger group numbers can suffer from their lack of space and set; not so in this case. Astute choreography and spot-on delivery made a highlight of The Lost Boys Gang, a seriously catchy tune performed with gusto by the talented ensemble of Lost Boys.

George Stiles has written some enchanting melodies within a rich score, Never Land and There's Always Tomorrow having a distinctly timeless quality. In the hands of Jenna Russell, the show opened with accomplished vocals in Just Beyond The Stars, Miss Russell giving every phrase meaning; a skill she brings so effortlessly to her work. She imbues Mrs Darling with a warmth and the relationship between her and her husband Mr Darling (Bradley Walsh who also plays Captain Hook) seemed real, setting the tone for the evening. The casting of the three Darling children was spot on. Toby Nash and John McCrae as Michael & John were both funny, with huge spirit and not a hint of wimp about either of them.

However, Evelyn Hoskins as Wendy was a revelation. Her solo, Who Will Mother Me? was a show stopper, delivered beautifully. Miss Hoskins' voice soared within the Adelphi Theatre, her interpretation of the eldest Darling child a delight to watch. 

The cleverness of Anthony Drewe's lyrics is particularly apparent in the pirate songs. Bradley Walsh relished playing Captain Hook, making Murder For a Pirate with a Heart a hilarious musical soliloquy. His closing of Act 1 was terrific. Walsh was admirably supported by pirate crew of imaginative actors, each creating a unique character that you could "see" without them having costume or props. Particular note to Steve Elias and John Barr for their subtle nuances and physical precision that was both captivating and hilarious.

Sheila Hancock added gravitas as the story teller, holding the audience in the palm of her hand at the end of the show when revealing she is, in fact, Wendy, the wide eyed child now older, having lived her life fully, without fear. Peter's break down at this realisation at the close of the show was a satisfying twist to a familiar story.

The eponymous role was played with great energy by Ray Quinn. Quinn's interpretation of Pan was assured but a touch heavy handed at times, lacking innocence. However, his personal charm worked well for what is a tough role.

David Shrubsole conducted with aplomb and the finale, when orchestra, actors, children and choir joined together, a little bit of magic was cast within the Adelphi Theatre.

Guest reviewer: Andy Bee 

Hey Old Friends: An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

The Company

A concert of this sort – large numbers of quite well known people along with full backstage back-up giving their services for charity (Esther Rantzen’s Silver Line) on a Sunday evening usually succeeds on adrenaline and goodwill and this one was no exception. With people such as Julia McKenzie, Nicholas Parsons, Sally Ann Triplett and Michael Xavier on stage you can’t really go too far wrong.

High spots included an entertaining and very clever top speed medley number by the astonishingly talented Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris who say they pack 33 songs into less than five minutes although I didn’t actually count. Then there was the ageless, still elegantly outrageous Millicent Martin with the hilarious and impeccably articulated and timed “I never do anything twice”. Astonishing Bonnie Langford, now 51 – yes, 51 – can still sing perfectly while simultaneously dropping into the splits and later being suspended upside down by Anton Du Beke with whom she flirts outrageously in “Can that boy Foxtrot!” Also good fun is the pretend anti-Sondheim pastiche at the beginning by Kit and McConnel who kept it going as an intermittent running gag throughout the show. Haydn Gwynne did well with “Send in the Clowns” too – a different rendering from the more familiar Judi Dench one but moving with Daniel Evans as the recipient. Evans sings “Pretty Lady” nicely too with Simon Green and Michael Peavoy - how many canons are there in musical theatre? One of the things which stuck me forcibly at this concert is Sondheim’s remarkable range, versatility and ongoing originality. He’s still going strong at 85 and steering clear of all stylistic ruts.

At the centre of all this – and it’s literally centre stage with many exits and entrances taking place from behind and alongside it – is a full and very fine orchestra conducted by MD, Gareth Valentine and that makes a real difference. The show is also enhanced by the fine ensemble backing of students from Arts Educational Schools London who sing magnificently as they gather first class experience on stage with the pros.

Of course a concert of this sort is assembled and rehearsed in a very short time so it is never going to be perfect. There were too many mics around the orchestra so that sometimes the sound balance was wrong and singers were struggling to be heard. And the celebratory excitement of the event notwithstanding, at three full hours the show was too long and would have been better with at least one item cut from each half. We all know how lighting designers love stage smoke because they can beam pretty colours through it and get spectacular effects easily. Here it was overdone to the point of irritation.

Also puzzling, given the number of participants is that there weren’t more Very Big Names in the cast. Maria Friedman, Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, for example, were conspicuous by their absence.

Guest reviewer: Susan Elkins

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

North v South - Review

Certificate 18


Written and directed by Steven Nesbit

Freema Agyeman

North v South from Steven Nesbit is a British gangster movie that combines a sharp and witty script with some beautifully conceived violence, all performed by a cast that is to die for.

As John Claridge and Vic Clarke, crime bosses of England’s rival North and South regions meet to hammer out a partnership, Gary a psychopathic lieutenant from the South, kills the wrong man (who’s dressed up as a clown, don’t ask) and from then on it’s all, brutally, downhill. 

Both sides have traitors in the camp and for the most part Nesbit keeps the tale-telling tight. The story wobbles with a slightly implausible Romeo and Juliet theme  that centres around a smouldering Charlotte Hope, but overall the tale combines wit and grit in equal part. 

Much of the pleasure of North v South comes from its awesome line-up. Steven Berkoff’s Clarke proves once again that no-one does a bigger, better or balder Cockney bastard than this roughest of East End diamonds. That Keith Allen is his henchman only adds weight to the film’s sassy dialog, whilst Brad Moore as the treacherous Gary sets himself up for one of the most spectacular deaths in recent British cinema.

The Northerners are led by another screen giant, the weathered and wily Bernard Hill. Mixing menace with charm, Hill’s firm includes a shrewd Oliver Cotton as the brains behind the muscle, along with an ingenious casting choice that sees Freema Agyeman leap from some sensational TV performances to date, to play Penny, a sassy, educated and  multi lingual thug, as violent as she is stylish.

There is a sensational cameo from Dom Monot as transvestite assassin Gustave, whilst a novel touch sees an impressive performance from young Sydney Wade as Sam. Witnessing her clown-dad’s murder early on, her subsequent childish fumbling as she learns her way around a hi-velocity rifle gives rise to an on-screen killing that is as hilarious as it is brutal and with just a hint of Tarantino too. 

Beautifully photographed by Kyle Heslop, Neil Athale’s music also adds a dimension.

North v South is brutal, bloody and brilliant. One of the year’s classier Brit-flicks. 

Steven Berkoff and Charlotte Hope

In cinemas nationwide

Frances Ruffelle - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


The term ‘icon’ is often freely used with little regard for it’s true definition – however from last night’s gig at The Crazy Coqs, Frances Ruffelle clearly merits the title.

The Tony award winner is an acclaimed stage and recording artist who originated the role of Eponine in the legendary Les Miserables (which “On Its Own” might qualify her for icon status), but it’s also her electrifying authenticity that radiates from her in every part of her performance that makes her truly special. 

Promoting her new album ‘I Say Yeh Yeh , that coincides with Les Miserables 30th Anniversary, seems like no real coincidence as from the outset the audience were enthralled by Ruffelle singing in perfect French with the accompaniment of a four piece band. She offered a Parisian sensuality in her story telling, which L’un Vers L’Autre the opening number demonstrated eloquently. 

As Ruffelle interjected a spoken interlude to describe a lovers' bedroom scene, including crisp bed sheets and clothing scattered around the floor, the first glimmer of her comedic excellence shone through. This contrasted with a hauntingly beautiful duet, Paris Summer, sung at the bar with guest singer Rowan and proving one of the evening’s early highlights, showcasing Ruffelle’s distinctive vocal quality.

Ruffelle’s naturally vivacious personality was so joyfully evident, not only in her witty spoken dialogue, but in her songs. When joined by Gwyneth Herbert who has produced the new album, the two complemented each other perfectly. Their duet of the album’s title track was simply infectious to all who had the pleasure of being in the room, voices blending together effortlessly, along with playful interaction with the band.

The most breathtaking moment of the evening ( and there were many!) was Ruffelle singing Eponine’s On My Own in what can only be described as a homage to the role that catapulted her in to public recognition thirty years ago and a way of interpreting the song to reflect her as a performer and most importantly as a person. Kneeling on the piano, with the double bass hinting at a 1930’s jazz number, Ruffelle put her heart and soul as well as her powerful upper register in to the song, making it sound as fresh as ever, 

Her performance will linger in your memory long after leaving the Crazy Coqs. As she says in her concert “Love is rare, life is strange”. What is certain however is that Frances Ruffelle is one of the most gifted and iconic performers that the UK has ever produced.

Frances Ruffelle is in residence until 17th October
Guest reviewer: Francesca Mepham

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Tiffany Graves - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


Tiffany Graves

For one night only, the fabulous Tiffany Graves was in cabaret at the Crazy Coqs. The stunning performer, increasingly appearing as one of our finest leading ladies offered a collection of numbers that mixed career highspots with a dash of poignancy and some fabulous comedy.

In a gorgeous evening dress and sparkling with bling Tiffany got the show underway with a nod to her magnificent Ulla in the recent tour of The Producers. It was a treat to hear When You Got It, Flaunt It for once sung without the cod Swedish accent, allowing Graves to focus on the lyrics’ inherent humour. 

A witty little number Tweet, penned by Graves (inspired by Pal Joey’s Zip) saw her give name checks to friends and associates cramming the basement venue (interest declared – I was proud to be one of the shout-outs) before easing into a spine-tingling take on Tony Hatch’s Downtown. A song for so long associated with Petula Clark, Graves, accompanied solely by Leigh Thompson on piano did away with the trademark interpretations of the 1965 chart-topper, giving the number an all-new frisson in her version.  

A nod to her current role in Kiss Me Kate led to a delicious Why Can’t You Behave, before the most enchanting of spiels led into an inspired mash-up of The Beatle’s Let It Be, with Disney’s Let It Go, Graves unleashing the full power of her remarkable belt.

Act two saw Graves return clad in a black- sequinned and closely tailored mermaid dress - which with her hair tightly cut reminded me of the look of a youthful Jamie Lee Curtis. A (mildly barbed, no names mentioned here) reference to her time in Sweet Charity kicked off the second half, that then saw the erudite Alexander Bermange take to the piano and mic for a guest spot that showcased the man's hallmark wit. 

Turning to the 1970’s Graves took the Marvin Hamlisch Bond song Nobody Does It Better, filleting the classic into ballad and belt and again giving an oh-so familiar number a wonderfully fresh interpretation.

It turned out that the night was Graves’ first wedding anniversary too (ahh..) and with devoted hubby Oliver toasting her from the crowd, who could begrudge a girl some self-indulgent romance as she closed her set with the schmaltzy (even if unquestionably sincere) I’ll Be Here With You, dedicated to her man. 

Graves’ has to bring this solo show back. Gorgeous singing along with a cabaret patter that was as revealing as it was confident and hilarious. Her witty words at one point segueing into a deliriously wonderful Words, Words, Words from The Witches of Eastwick.

When she does, don’t miss it!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

A Little Night Music - Review

Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Tim McArthur

A Little Night Music is up there as one of the great Sondheim musicals and it’s a nobly ambitious show that Aaron Clingham’s All Star Productions mount at Walthamstow’s Rose and Crown Theatre. Tim McArthur directs a cast of sixteen who cavort their way through the musical rom-com, itself a take on the seminal Ingmar Bergman classic, Smiles Of A Summer Night and there are some gems amongst his company.

Leading the troupe is Sarah Waddell as Desiree Armfeldt and Alexander McMorran as her enamoured and beloved Frederik Egerman. Waddell possesses the gorgeous MILFish charm that her role demands – but struggles to make an impact when she sings. If she were to tackle some of the (potentially hilarious) funny lines of You Must Meet My Wife without a mouthful of food it would immeasurably boost the lyrics’ comedy. – and McMorran (who appears a tad too young to convince in the role) offers charm but also lacks vocal presence. Every Sondheim lyric demands attention and whilst Egerman is of course a reserved man by character, the actor playing him needs a measured flamboyance to make the lawyer’s cleverly created bumbling integrity truly come across to the audience

Nonetheless, the treats amongst the cast make this production a worthwhile venture. Samuel Baker’s Count Carl-Magnus is famously a cardboard (or should that be tin?) cut out role, every inch a cliched stereotype, but the beautifully booted Baker relishes the regimented dragoon and makes the part his own. He is only surpassed by the ever excellent Jamie Birkett as his embittered Countess. Birkett nails the tragi-comedy of her character, whilst her masterful Every Day A Little Death proves the evening’s heartbreaker.

Elsewhere Joshua Considine’s cello-playing Henrik is deliciously angst-ridden, whilst Jodie Beth Meyer’s lusty Petra positively steals the second half (which should rightfully have belonged to Desiree’s Send In The Clowns) with a passionate The Millers Son.

Hard on the heels of her recent outing as Mary Phagan in Parade in Fulham, the gamine Kerry Loosemore reprises her cute 14yo girl – is Loosemore a future Eponine perhaps? – whilst another Southern belle from that Parade, Lily De-La-Haye shines out amongst the (otherwise generally good) Liebeslieder Singers.

Flaws notwithstanding, there’s more than enough here to entertain as Clingham’s four-piece band make a valiant fist of Sondheim’s demanding orchestrations. Just as the summer night smiles on the young, the old and the foolish, so too does this show smile on Walthamstow, making for a delightful night out.

Runs until 31st October

Friday, 9 October 2015

Thriller Live - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Conceived by Adrian Grant
Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd


Marking seven years in the West End (along with an eye-watering global box office take of £150million) Thriller Live continues at the Lyric after a magnificent makeover.

At its heart the show is still the same juke-box musical, chock full of hits. But there’s no fictional fairy-tale woven around the songs of Michael Jackson here and nor does the show pretend to be a (potentially tedious) biopic. Thriller Live remains a simple yet lavish, tribute to the music, the styles and the dance that Jackson created, excellently performed.

A re-worked opening sequence hints at some of Jackson’s greatest hits before the ever-sensational Eshan Gopal, almost dwarfed by his super-sized afro wig, bounds on to the stage to take the show through the early Jackson 5 days. Young yes, but Gopal’s an old-hand in the show and his confidence is matched only by his ability, smashing ABC with flawless vocals and movement.

The essence of Thriller Live is not in having one actor play Jackson. In place of an overly structured, scripted piece, 5 leading performers dip in and out of the “Jackson” role, suggesting the style and the voice of the man and at all times performing as an inspired tribute rather than a tacky replica. The staging is enhanced by ingenious electronic imagery, with LED panels so subtly configured that real life-silhouettes can barely be discerned from Colin Rozee and Potion Pictures' animations.

Of this Jackson five, Alex Buchanan’s vocals are divine – never bettered than in a finely worked She’s Out Of My Life. Reflecting Jackson’s complicated and sometimes androgynous persona, Trenyce Cobbins, the sole female lead, offers a take on the performer’s presence that is as distinctive as it is assured. It is the immaculately manicured Dajiow however who captures the essence of Jackson at the height of his fame, sporting a look and poise that even at the show’s after-party made one do a double take. When Dajiow moonwalks it could be Michael.

The secret of the show’s success, aside from Jackson’s platinum-plated back catalogue, has to lie with director / choreographer Gary Lloyd who has stayed with the production from the outset. Jackson wrote the songs, but it is Lloyd’s vision that has translated concepts first revealed either in Jackson’s sensational videos or stadia performances and scaled them down to fit a West End stage, whilst retaining the creative essence of Jackson’s magic.

Aside from the precision Lloyd has drilled into his company whether the routine be body-popping, breakdancing, moonwalking, or zombies boogying, the dance maestro focuses at all times on an unpretentious flair that captures Jackson’s style and yet avoids mimicry. 

From a strikingly 70s Rockin’ Robin routine – all flared red and white costumes with the dancers moving seamlessly on heels that would give most people vertigo, through to a psychedelic angle to Can You Feel It, Lloyd’s vision is inspired throughout. The show’s title number is reserved to (almost) the very end – with Dajiow wearing the red leather jacket from John Landis' legendary video and Lloyd conceiving a routine that with a dozen or so dancers pays homage to Landis’ spectacular work, filmed with a far larger cast some 30+ years back.

Thriller Live offers no plot other than a glimpse of the dazzling arc that Michael Jackson’s work created. Sensational songs, stunningly performed! 

Booking until mid-2016

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Cynthia Erivo and Oliver Tompsett sing Scott Alan - Review


There’s an eclectic, relaxed charm to this collection of Scott Alan’s songs as performed by Cynthia Erivo and Oliver Tompsett. With Alan having enjoyed a modest UK residency this summer / autumn, there is a natural evolution that has seen this album born out of a collaboration of three people who evidently enjoy and above all complement each other’s talents.

Many people will have seen Alan perform live at London’s various cabaret venues in recent years with both Erivo and Tompsett. Whilst this album doesn’t seek to replicate a gig’s unique intimacy, it offers a glimpse into the warm and informal excellence that defines these particular collaborations. 

With few exceptions it is the whole of this album that makes it distinctive, rather than specific songs. Each track is passionately recorded and carefully mastered but Alan cognoscenti may feel some works have been more finely crafted elsewhere. Erivo’s take on Anything Worth Holding Onto in particular, is “heartbreakingly sublime” on the Greatest Hits Volume 1 album – whereas here it’s simply more peacefully introspective, though still retaining its inherently inspirational message.

Tompsett’s Sail is divine – and whilst all of his work on the album is flawless, this number defines the man's regard for Alan’s work. Singing with Erivo on harmonised numbers that include Warm, You’re Not Alone and Always/Goodnight offers up a surfeit of beautiful balladry. 

Perhaps the album’s biggest treat is a recording of At All, written for Erivo as she takes her first steps as a Broadway leading lady. There's a huge significance to this song for it was in 2013, midway through Erivo’s storming, starring run as Celie in The Color Purple (the production that is now transferring to NY) at London’s modest Menier Chocolate Factory that she first came to Alan’s work. Even after rushed rehearsals Erivo only unlocked Anything Worth Holding Onto as she sat on the O2 stage, in front of thousands, with tears streaming down her face. The friendship that has since evolved between the writer and his muse is a joy to behold – and this number defines the pair’s mutual understanding.

If some suggest the album’s a three way self-indulgence, they’re being cynical. Only this week Alan is on record tweeting: “True artists don’t compete with others, they support.”

This album defines that sentiment, go add it to your collection.

Available to download from 9th October
Photography: Darren Bell

Barbarians - Review

Central St Martins School of Art, London


Written by Barrie Keefe
Directed by Bill Buckhurst

Jake Davies, Thomas Coombes and Josh Williams

It has long been recognised that when writing about his world, Barrie Keefe’s finger is firmly on society’s pulse. With Barbarians however Keefe goes one step further, not just finding that pulse, but slicing it open in front of us, confronting his audience with those bloody, ugly realities that, skin-deep, continually surround us.

A 1970s trilogy of short plays, Barbarians follows three disaffected young men from their confused and sometimes angry adolescence into adulthood. Keefe’s deployment of irony is always a treat and the evening's opening play, Killing Time is peppered with his trademark black humour as the teenagers, not long out of school, contemplate an evening of petty crime.

Abide With Me sees the audience shepherded into holding pens to watch the three lads, all fans of Manchester United, spend the 1976 Cup Final ticketless outside Wembley Stadium and brimming with futile hopes to get in to see the game. Anger and frustrations bubble, as amidst the trio’s evolving dynamics, Keefe also exposes football's vicariously exploitative place in modern England. For young men with little else to believe in, their team offers a cause and a flag to rally behind, in later years a devotion often further exploited by the right wing National Front.

Barbarians ends with In The City, set against a backdrop of the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are grown up now, yet still Keefe's scalpel mercilessly exposes further layers of pain and frustration.

Youth unemployment was (and is) rife when Keefe wrote the scripts and his prose remains a masterful and perceptive analysis of angst and inadequacy. Those of us who knew the era will relish the nods to Dickie Davis and adverts for Denim after shave, as well as recalling the days when a "tranny" meant a portable radio and a Rover 3500 signified some modest status. Alternatively, Barbarian’s younger audiences may perhaps consider a comparison with Green Day’s American Idiot, a show that speaks to and of an American wasted generation, as they observe Keefe’s characters walking their own boulevards of broken dreams.

Throughout, the three actors compel, no mean feat for a show that's nigh on three hours. Thomas Coombes plays Paul the wannabe alpha-male. He’s all mouth (or boot, or knife as circumstances dictate) and menace. Coombes explores his character’s machismo with an impressively thuggish sensitivity. Railing against a world that is passing him by bestowing him no favours, his ignorant hatred darkens with each chapter.

Josh Williams is Louis, the black kid. In Killing Time he’s the one of the trio that’s gone and got himself a skill as a refrigeration engineer. As he displays a decent commitment later to the army cadets and ultimately in landing himself a decent job, we see Keefe’s caustic vision expose the decay of friendships that were once strong, into an envious and racially fuelled contempt.

Completing the trio is Jake Davies’ Jan. The least impacting of the three in the first two plays though his subtly played reactions to his friends is critical, Jan dominates In The City. As a newly passed-out squaddie who's fearfully contemplating a posting to Belfast, Jan's terror and frustrations surge into a revelation that is as agonising as it is horrific.

Staging Barbarians in the starkly furnished former Central St Martins School of Art lends the tales an aura of frustrated bleakness and the fact that 40 years ago the venue hosted the first Sex Pistols gig, thus becoming the birthplace of punk, only adds to the evening’s zeitgeist. The site itself is a challenge. Three floors up, no lift and with a requirement to walk (or be herded) between the space’s auditoria, it’s a deliberately uncomfortable experience. Credit to Rob Youngson’s lighting and Josh Richardson’s sound design, both of which classily complement the location's complexities

Reprising Tooting Arts Club’s 2012 revival (although of that cast only Coombes remains), Bill Buckhurst - who recently directed the TAC's acclaimed pop-up Sweeney Todd - returns to the helm. Amidst spellbinding soliloquy and monologue, Buckhurst demonstrates a profound understanding of Keefe’s language and nuance, delivering a scorching, brilliant drama.

Runs until 7th November

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Farinelli and the King - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Claire van Kampen
Directed by John Dove

Mark Rylance

At the age of 32, at the very height of a superstardom today reserved for the Hollywood A-list, the great 18th Century castrato Farinelli turned his back on the stage, never to return, to sing for only one man – Philippe V, the King of Spain. The King, suffering from a madness brought on by depression, could only find solace and sanity in Farinelli’s heavenly tones.

This apparently true historical titbit is the basis of Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, recently transferred from the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to the Duke of York’s Theatre. At the play’s heart is an attempt to imagine the relationship between these two men, both ‘Kings’ in their own spheres and explain their friendship. And it is in exploring the dichotomy of these private, ordinary men and the public roles that they were forced to play that the piece is most interesting. After telling Farinelli how he became King, Philippe asks ‘When were you robbed of your normality?’

That dichotomy is given literal form in the case of Farinelli since the character is played by two men on any given night – Sam Crane taking a speaking role and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies joining him on stage to portray the singing superstar. This device, no doubt born out of necessity (countertenors of Davies’ quality are rare enough without expecting them to also be capable of acting the lead in a West End play), works well. Crane’s diffident ordinariness is a fine contrast to Davies’ strutting, golden-voiced megastar and it is Davies who provides many of the show’s highlights, aided by Robert Howarth's fine band. 

Of course, most of the audience had come not so see Farinelli but the King. Few actors are capable of playing bewildered, childlike madness as magnetically as Mark Rylance. At turns broadly comic, at others brooding and sinister, it is a predictably fine performance by one of the finest stage actors of his generation. And yet, there is perhaps a suspicion that a part so obviously written for him (van Kampen is his wife) has resulted in a one that he could do with his eyes closed without ever really needing to be at his glorious best – essentially a watered down version of his Richard II. 

Whilst the sometimes thin script provides fine moments of both humour and pathos, it at times straying dangerously close to Blackadder territory. Melody Grove in particular, has a rather thankless ‘one note’ task as Philippe’s long-suffering wife Isabella and neither she nor Crane convince in a predictable and possibly unnecessary love triangle.

Thank goodness, then, for the glorious music and the sublime voice of Davies, whose interjections bolster the piece. The scintillatingly beautiful “Lascia ch’io pianga” that closes the play is as memorable a moment as you will see on stage all year.

Runs until 5th December 2015

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Henry V - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Alex Hassell

In a time of celebrity cast Shakespeare productions, it is a pleasure to observe Greg Doran’s take on Henry V and see not so much a band of brothers, but rather a company of craftsmen offering one of the most intelligent interpretations of this complex play in recent years.

Famously seized upon by directors as a platform for political comment, Henry V has often been rolled out as a platform (bandwagon) to voice an opinion upon contemporary conflict. On screen Olivier’s Harry sought to rally the nation as the 1944 Normandy landings loomed, whilst in 2003 as war raged in Iraq, Adrian Lester’s dusty jeep sped onto the Olivier stage to draw Nick Hytner’s line in the sand as he became the National’s director. 

But in this show, today’s politics are sidelined in place of comment on the universal compromises that war imposes upon humanity. Doran eschews all sense of contemporary tub-thumping in place of well honed drama and lets the Bard’s verse speak to its own strengths. Broadly staged in period garb, apart from Oliver Ford Davies’ marvellous Chorus, clad in modern dress, setting out Stratford’s cockpit whilst the House lights stay on, this is an un-pretentious Henry V.

Marking a natural progression from his Prince Hal in both parts of Doran’s Henry IV, Alex Hassell accedes to the throne and his performance is a thing of beauty. Having observed his development in the preceding plays, his Henry matures before our eyes as the responsibilities of inspirational monarchy weigh upon him. Hassell brings a heroic handsome humility to the role that sheaths a steely spine. His Henry’s pragmatic ruthlessness is as credible in dealing with the traitors at Southampton, as it is in the famously troubling (and often excised) command that his troops should kill their French prisoners. 

Hassell’s handling of the St Crispin’s Day speech is majestic yet free of pomposity and condescension, whilst his  entreaties to his troops to treat the defeated French with decency ring with an envious integrity.

Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin needs work – it’s a complex role to carry off and he’s not quite there yet in suspending our disbelief. Elsewhere there is a fine company work to support Hassell’s Harry. Joshua Richards’ Bardolph/Fluellen offers impressive soldiers’ perspectives both on conflict and upon dutiful service. In a minor role, Sam Marks’ (who only recently played Happy opposite Hassell's Biff in the RSC's Death Of A Salesman) French Constable shone out as a beacon of credibility, whilst Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel, in the briefest of speeches, defines with dignity France’s pain in defeat and her nation’s hopes for the future.

As ever, the RSC's stagecraft is world class with Stephen Brimson Lewis’ use of projections and eerily effective understage lighting in his set designs proving particularly effective.

Shortly to move to London’s Barbican Theatre, one suspects that like a fine wine, this already impressive production play will only improve with time. 

Setting politics aside, this Henry V offers up a perspective on war that speaks to us all.

Runs until 20th October