Saturday, 27 February 2016

Miss Julie - Review

Etcetera Theatre, London


***


Written by August Strindberg
Translated by Michael Meyer
Directed by Gary Condes


Danielle Henry, Charlie Dorfman and Laura Greenwood

Written originally by August Strindberg and translated here by Michael Meyer, Miss Julie is set on Midsummers Eve during a party on the estate of a rich Swedish Count whose daughter is known for behaving, not only with wild abandon, but also below her status. She finds a fascination with the older and well educated valet of the estate, Jean and the two become entangled in a dangerous infatuation that endangers both his engagement with the family cook and her own status in the house.

Laura Greenwood plays the titular Julie and while during points of extreme and heightened emotion, she is committed and impressive, her more relaxed and informal moments lack conviction. A deeply disturbed character such as Julie demands a more complex passionate emotion to lie behind her eyes.

Similarly there is a lack of convincing chemistry between Greenwood and Charlie Dorfman who plays Jean the valet. The struggle of circumstance and passionate attraction between the pair, separated by class and education, should hold the two in a fiery grip – and this is, at times, absent.

Dorfman clearly has the makings of a strong and versatile actor. There is intention behind his choices and in his moments of stillness he is truly moving. However, his accent was unplaceable, with a mix of Northern, Scottish and at times London intonations. This is nothing that a voice coach cannot fix but it should be done quickly! 

Danielle Henry as Kristin, the household cook and, critically, Dorfman’s fiancée, has of the three performers, significantly less stage time however she radiates a beautiful truth. The thought process behind each line and movement is visible from the beginning – from struggling to take the laundry down from the walls, to giving a moving speech about her belief in God. Henry is by far the play's shining performer.

The creative team behind this production are experienced and have sound vision. Carla Goodman’s set is detailed with an old fashioned stove, ornaments and dried herbs and flowers hanging from every nook and cranny, setting a rustic feel that only adds to the authenticity of the 19th century kitchen in which the whole play takes place. Likewise, Goodman’s costumes also excellent.

Situated above The Oxford Arms pub, the Etcetera Theatre embodies the class that London's fringe theatre deserves. The space is charming and the acoustics are wonderful. Notwithstanding its flaws, the execution and design of Miss Julie is impressive and The Buckland Theatre Company should be proud of their premiere production.


Runs until 19th March
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Great Jewish American Songbook - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


****


Written by Chris Burgess
Directed by Matthew Gould



The Ensemble
Once upon a time Jews wrote the shows…Now it seems they ARE the shows, with revues and plays, some good, some Bad lining up to have the “J” word in the title. The latest pot-pourri - or should that be cholent (google it) – of kosher-themed offerings is Aria Entertainments’ rather charming The Great Jewish American Songbook, which includes many of the 20th century songwriters who composed for Broadway and Hollywood. Note “many”, but significantly, not “all”, with notable omissions on the night including Bernstein, Sondheim, Styne, Kander, Ebb. 

Anyway – this ensemble is really rather good. Their set list runs in chronological order, kicking off with "the daddy" of the Broadway musical, Jerome Kern and ending up somewhere in the 1960’s with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler On The Roof. Such was the familiarly of the numbers that the (mainly silver-haired) crowd could barely stop tapping their feet.  

Jennifer Harding first made audience spines tingle with a thrilling Can’t Help Loving That Man from Show Boat and if Lee Ormsby’s Ol’ Man River wasn’t quite as sensational (Lee, a tip, the “d” in Ol isn’t just silent, it’s non-existent!), it offered a chance to re-visit one of the biggest songs ever, from Ormsby’s gorgeous baritone. 

Harding was soon to stun again with a sizzling extract from Gershwin’s Summertime, in a section of the show that illustrated the classy structure of Chris Burgess' book, linking the songs with insightful narrative. The poignancy of the cast telling of Gershwin’s death and then immediately singing They Can’t Take That Away From Me was a link of heartbreaking magnitude. Jessie May who was on top form throughout, went on to deliver the composer’s gorgeous Our Love Is Here To Stay.

Burgess’ skill is not just in showcasing the favourites, but also unearthing some rare gems. Grant McConvey made great work of Irving Berlin’s Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars – a number so full of Jewish American humour it could easily have been penned by Tom Lehrer or Mel Brooks. It was Harding and May however who were again to break the hearts of a packed Gatehouse with Berlin’s Suppertime, from the little known show As Thousands Cheer, the song’s harrowing lyrics telling of an African American woman having to tell her kids their father’s been lynched.

The second half offered a whirl through first Rodgers and Hart, then Hammerstein with perhaps one of the evening’s rare duds, Oklahoma. The song was written to be sung by a full company – and scaling it down to just four voices left it denuded. Also – whilst much of the narrative was fascinating, some of it, told on this night to a predominantly Jewish audience from a predominantly non-Jewish cast sounded occasionally just a tad patronising. Nothing that can’t be tweaked mind and anyway, what's a review of a Jewish show without at least one complaint!

The biggest accolade of the night has to go to Musical Director Neil MacDonald and his unseen Musical Arranger Andy Collyer. The whole gig was a seamless segue of musical excellence, MacDonald’s three piece band capturing the distilled classics perfectly.

Whilst its Highgate run is about to end, this delightful evening deserves a (to misquote Tevye) Long Life! There’s wit and wisdom in abundance as well as a respectful acknowledgment of the century’s horrors that so decimated European Jewry. When it comes around again, don’t miss it!


Runs until 28th February, then at The Radlett Centre on 6th March
Photo credit: Kim Sheard

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Cynthia Erivo and Oliver Tompsett sing Scott Alan - Deluxe Edition - Review


****




Scott Alan has recently brought out a Deluxe version of the album he released last autumn that featured the paired voices of Cynthia Erivo and Oliver Tompsett. Alan has worked with many of today's musical theatre stars, but with Tompsett and in particular Erivo, there is a muse-like connection between the writer and his performing talent.

So what's new in this Deluxe offering? Aside from the repeated original collection (reviewed here) there are three additional vocal interpretations and charmingly, a full set of "instrumentals only". Of the new stuff, Letting Go Of You is a hallmark Alan ballad, fuelled by experience and voiced by Tompsett who intuitively lends an almost autobiographical voice-over to the number, telling Alan's life through his song.

Erivo adds another solo effort with the profoundly inspirational Don't Give Up - again drawn from the depths of a depressive trough but still, sweetly and amidst the desperation, offering a message of essential hope.

The most revealing addition to the album is the duetting given to Anything Worth Holding Onto, a song long defined by Erivo's interpretation. Here however, with Tompsett delivering those familiar opening lyrics, hearing this scorching number sung by a man place's the song squarely back in Alan's personal domain, opening up another perspective into both the song's singer and its writer. When Erivo accompanies Tompsett she sings in the manner of the song's master (or rather, perhaps, its mistress) stepping back and letting her fellow actor (or in this particular number, maybe even her apprentice) explore the depths of the song's reach.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the Deluxe version is simply the opportunity to sit back and re-appreciate At All, the song Alan wrote for Erivo in anticipation of her crossing the Atlantic to open in The Color Purple on Broadway. Well the show’s opened now - and the song that so presciently talked about the fame and acclaim that awaited her has been proved correct. As we sit in England and ponder that we might just have lost this Londoner forever, the song takes on a deeper poignancy knowing that Erivo is arrived on Broadway, her star billing more than deserved with the deluge of five-star reviews garnered by the show.

The instrumental tracks are a gift for musical theatre performers, students and fans alike. Alan's songs are popular choices in modern balladry and these recordings open up his work to interpretation, exploration (and quite possibly, dare I say it, well-meaning decimation too) to those who admire his work.

If you love the genre and admire Alan's writing, this Deluxe album will only enhance your collection.


The album is available via the usual channels on Amazon and iTunes.

Orphans - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


****


Written by Lyle Kessler
Directed by Paul Tomlinson


Mitchell Mullen

Imagine a play that presents itself as a cocktail of (an extreme take on) TV’s Only Fools And Horses with just a twist of Harold Pinter's menace and you start to get close to contemplating the enigma that is Lyle Kessler's Orphans.

Treat and Philip are brothers who (appear to) have grown up rudderless and orphaned in a Philadelphia apartment. Treat is the controlling chancer of the two, a petty criminal (think Del Boy, but with a nasty streak) and who appears to have kept his brother indoors throughput his life. Completely controlled, Philip's only connection with the outside world is through the views from his window and television.

When Treat bungles the kidnap of Harold, a man of impressive stature and murky connections, the interjection of this third man (who quickly escapes the clumsy rope restraints that Treat has tied around him) into the brothers' lives upends their distorted normality.

The drama is skillfully written: often oppressive in never leaving the close confines of the apartment; sometimes threatening; and on occasions, hilarious. The strength of this production however lies in the carefully worked interpretations that the three actors bring.

Alexander Neal's Treat is a brute with issues. Clearly in need of anger management therapy, he has only been able to care for his brother through ultra-control. And yet beneath Treat’s noisy bluster he bears a deep and caring love for his brother. As Philip, Chris Pybus offers perhaps the most nuanced performance of the night. His character is clearly beset with learning difficulties (largely because Treat has denied him all opportunities to learn) and yet Pybus plays him sympathetically, never pandering to cliché.

The heart of this production lies with Mitchell Mullen's wise, weathered and silver haired Harold. Aside from having the only authentic American accent of the three, Mullen brings a curiously compassionate frisson of danger to the proceedings. Much as he easily slips out of Treat's rope ties, so too is he keen to free Philip from his ghastly entrapment. There is a rich worldly wisdom to Harold and Mullen plays the sage old gangster to a tee – one could listen to his yarns all evening. 

Another intelligent production from Paul Tomlinson and Dilated Theatre. If you like your theatre served rare but feisty, it’s definitely worth catching.


Runs until 5th March

Blood Brothers - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


****


Written by Willy Russell
Directed by Bob Tomson




A heart-wrenching tale of a family ruthlessly torn apart by society and yet intrinsically linked by fate, Blood Brothers has evolved into a classic modern British musical.

Packed with strong characters, a clear purpose and an emotionally charged score, its hard-hitting social themes and doomed inevitability of death place it amongst the grandest of tales. But the story of Mickey and Eddie, the titular brothers, is unique. 

Willy Russell's script looks through the lens of two Liverpudlian families. Smartly constructed, it ensures that the audience simply cannot avoid the big questions that he wants them to think about. What defines a mother? What makes a friendship? And nature vs nurture - to what degree do people really have a hand in determining their paths in life?

And it’s not just the script – Russell’s lyrics too offer neat conceits that make us laugh and cry and are never pretentious. 

The concept of destiny is present from beginning to end. It is both artificially constructed - through the choices that certain characters make - but also, inevitably, through society. Kris Harding's Narrator with his stellar voice beautifully captures the sense of foreboding and growing desperation as the story arcs towards its tragic denouement.

Lyn Paul, playing Mrs Johnstone, is outstanding as the brothers' mother with each of her successive heartbreaks cutting to the core of the audience. As an actor, she captures every nuanced emotion perfectly and with ease. As a singer, Paul's performance is flawless.

Sean Jones is also a joy to watch with his portrayal of Mickey Johnstone’s evolution, from child to man being brilliant and clever.

The set (Andy Walmsley) is subtle – complementing the company’s performance by sitting contently in the background. Russell’s music captures the retro feel of the 60s and 70s, although at several points the reverb overpowers, masking the sung lyrics. 

Blood Brothers reduces the audience to tears, then brings them to their feet in a well deserved standing ovation.


Runs until 27th February, then tours
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

Monday, 22 February 2016

Firebird - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


***


Written by Phil Davies
Directed by Edward Hall


Callie Cooke and Phadlut Sharma

Transferring from a sell-out run at Hampstead's Downstairs theatre last year, Phil Davies' Firebird tackles the ghastly undercurrent of child sexual exploitation that blights so many of this country's towns and young people.

Pitched in a fictional Northern town, the play is at its most touching in the exchanges between the deeply harmed and 14yo Tia (played by Callie Cooke), who has been placed in local authority care since a baby and her friend Katie, who by contrast has at least a loving mum in her life and a background sheltered from ruthless violent abuse.

The play opens with a well worded exchange between the two kids, that subtly hints at Tia being, in her words "damaged goods". In what is Davies' first full length play, this dialog displays a talent for carefully crafted drama. The one act play concludes with this opening scene continuing - however in between the two halves of this poignant park-set scene, Davies' subjects us to the horrors Tia endures and its here that his dramatic structure weakens. We shift from the brilliant pathos of the two girls' friendship (and Waterloo Road's Tahirah Sharif who plays Katie is a carefully crafted turn), to first a kebab shop, thence to an abuser's house and finally a police station.

At the take-away joint Phadlut Sharma is AJ, a flashily impressive (to Tia at least) Asian man who knows how to groom and who quickly impresses the naive child. Inside the bedroom of torture however, we are subject to the excruciating pain of what Tia has to endure. There is so much blood and shouting however, that Davies' dramatic impact is lost amongst the yells. It's not pleasant to watch, but it's also not that moving either, drifting dangerously close to prurient sensationalism in place of dramatic structure. When the scene shifts to the police station, Sharma, who here doubles up as a disinterested detective, fails to convince. As we read the real life nightmares of agencies charged with protecting children and which failed abysmally in their duties, Sharma’s cop is just too much of a poorly fleshed out shallow cliché.

The strength of this piece however rests with Cooke’s superhuman performance. Just out of drama school, Cooke throws herself vocally and physically into this most consuming of performances. And when, in the closing scene, Katie invites her back home for dinner with her mum, Tia's struggling to comprehend such an unsolicited act of kindness, amidst a world that has only shown her contempt, is truly heartbreaking.

In the light of the Rochdale and Oxford abuse scandals (to name but two) there is an important story to be told here. Davies doesn't pull his punches, but sometimes "less is more". One only has to think of Bryony Lavery's Frozen, a play that that dealt with the harrowing impact of murderous paedophilia but which had no onstage horrors, relying instead only upon a brilliantly crafted narrative and commentary.

Davies is to be saluted. Whilst his writing is sometimes patchy, Firebird is a brave and contemporary play that tackles a horrendous situation, head on. And in Callie Cooke’s performance, Edward Hall has unearthed a cracker of a leading lady.


Runs until 19th March
Photo credit:  Robert Day

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Ennio Morricone - The 60 Years of Music Tour - Review

The O2, London


*****




In a world that sees the phrase "legend" used far too freely, Ennio Morricone defines the word.

The maestro has been composing film scores since the 1960s and whilst his name may possibly be unfamiliar to an ignorant few, his haunting theme from Sergio Leone's spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is up there as one of the most famous tunes. Ever.

Having given the movie industry so much of his talent for so long, recent years have seen Morricone, who at 87 still composes, undertake frequent tours performing a selection of his work live. The evening's programme has to be kept to only a selection, for records suggest that he has scored close to 500 films.

At this concert the elitist snobbery so often associated with orchestras and arias is deliciously turned on its head. In an era where the world's popular music is so often derived from a 12 bar blues structure,  it has been left to cinema to provide the much of the fertile ground in which composers can bring lavish symphonies to commercial success. The great film composers (of whom Morricone is one of the greatest) bring a classical structure to a mass and popular market. And all too often it can be a movie's fabulous score (think here of John William's Star Wars theme or Bernard Herrmann's Psycho-tic strings) that lives in our memories, serving as a movie's truly lasting hallmark. 



Sat in London's cavernous yet packed O2, there was a rock concert feel to the evening. Merchandise was on sale (and yes, hell yes, I bought the t-shirt) as banks of speakers and jumbo screens brought the music to those on the arena's perimeter. And so what if the music was pumped up through (for the most part) a perfectly balanced sound system? Morricone had always intended it to be played via Dolby's finest technology from the outset.

Where most touring concerts typically number less than two dozen artists and a swarm of roadies, Morricone travels with The Czech National Symphony Orchestra along with both the Hungarian Kodaly and Csokonai National Theatre Choirs. That’s a total of 200 performers plus crew. Floodlights illuminate the stage in a simple white wash and that’s it. There is no need for spotlight-stabbed smoke or a dazzling laser display. The charm of this gig lies solely in Morricone's magical melodies.

The Italian was one of the first to fuse the majesty of a classical orchestra with the emergent post-war electric instruments such as guitar, bass and keyboard and the video screens helped pick out the artists such as Rocco Zifarelli on electric guitar and Nanni Civitenga, on bass whose contributions so subliminally enhanced (by way of example) The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Chi Mai respectively. Older readers will of course recall Chi Mai as the theme to the BBC's The Life And Times Of David Lloyd George.

Not all of the evening’s programme was Morricone's most famous works. Kicking off with a homage to Giuseppe Tornatore (and quite why Cinema Paradiso was omitted from the night remains a mystery) The Legend of 1900, from the film of the same name, offered an enchanting harp section that melded into a mournful violin solo with a hint of blues, evolving into the most gorgeous example of the Italianità - that espresso-infused essence of style that so defines the beauty of modern Italian culture.

The first unrestrained whoop of audience pre-recognition came as (a shamefully unnamed) wind-player put a Hohner to his lips for the opening bars of The Man with the Harmonica from Leone's epic western, Once Upon A Time In The West - a score that was in fact completed some six years before photography began on the movie -  Hearing the haunting riff was spine tingling - but when soprano Susanna Rigacci stepped up to sing the aria to Jill’s Theme from the same movie, tears flowed and here was the very essence of Morricone's craft. There was no clever, witty libretto for the diva to sing. Just her ethereal voice in perfect harmony with the orchestra.

And remember that in cinema, often, no narrative is asked for from the composer - the director, screenwriter and actors do that bit. Most times the composer is there to simply enhance the visuals and dialogue. So when a wordless melody, taken on its own and away from the distraction of the silver screen can prove so exquisite - there can be no better definition of Morricone's genius.




Rigacci only fuelled my love for the soprano voice, remaining on stage to sing The Ecstasy of Gold. Don’t recognize the title? Search it out on You Tube and you'll certainly know its melody. As she closed the first half, the audience rose in thunderous appreciation.

The interval saw Morricone being presented with his sixth BAFTA, this time for the score to Quentin Tarantino's most recent movie The Hateful Eight. Tarantino's previous movies have used classy compilation collections as their soundtracks that have often included Morricone’s work from earlier films and there has long been a mutual regard between director and composer. That Morricone has now scooped both Golden Globe and BAFTA for The Hateful Eight (and who knows, maybe an Oscar too for the hat trick?), this particular score marked his return to westerns after a 40-year absence. It therefore was appropriate that the second half opened with The Last Stagecoach to Red Rock and then Bestiality from this latest release. Even neater too, it was this very Czech orchestra that had recorded the movie’s original soundtrack only last year, adding to the authenticity of the gig. It also makes one consider the richness of global collaboration - Italian composer, American movie, Czech musicians and Hungarian singers

Further treats included Deborah’s Theme from Once Upon A Time In America and a closing trio from The Mission that ended the programme with On Earth as it is in Heaven. The music had been magnificent in the movie however live, and under Morricone’s baton, it wasn’t so much a waterfall as a tsunami that engulfed the O2. The purest most modern yet majestic beauty of man, woman and instrument in perfect harmony.

It is perhaps Morricone’s fellow artists who can best pay him tribute. Composer Hans Zimmer, 30 years Morricone’s junior, has said of the Italian that “there are a handful of great composers, but Ennio is so above everybody”. Whilst Tornatore himself commented “he is not just a great film composer, he is a great composer”.

Three thunderous ovation-fuelled encores were to see Rigaccci return to finally end proceedings, reprising The Ecstasy of Gold. The emotions and the talent of the night were unforgettable. Ennio Morricone is 87 years old and has already created the legacy of a legend.




Ennio Morricone plays in the UK again at Blenheim Palace on 23rd June 2016

The tour continues across Europe. Dates can be accessed here 

Shrek The Musical - Review

The Lowry Theatre, Manchester


***


Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics and book by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Nigel Harman


The Company

As the Shrek UK tour draws to a close, it was fun to catch up with the show’s final week at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre.

Long long ago, before Shrek became a stage musical, it was an award winning DreamWorks movie that stole the hearts of adults and children alike. Upon its release in 2001, Shrek won the first ever Academy award for Best Animated Feature, as well as receiving countless nominations at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes.

The story follows the tale of loveable ogre, Shrek and his trusted steed Donkey, as they head out on a quest to rescue the Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower. Meanwhile and elsewhere, formidable if miniscule and extremely short tempered Lord Farquad has banished the Kingdom’s fairy-tale creatures to exile In Shrek’s swamp home.

From the get go, the set engages the audience with vibrant colours and fabulous detail, throwing us into Shrek’s fairytale theme. The writing sparkles, with numerous references to other big musicals including Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Wicked – and when the Dragon (brilliantly voiced by Candace Furbert) is revealed, the detail of the puppetry behind the creature is exquisite and almost identical to the creature in the film.

Shrek, played by Dean Chisnall is an instantly likeable character, notwithstanding a few accent wobbles. A few bars into his first song however and the audience was left with no worries. He is a fabulous performer with a voice that would leave most envious!

Idriss Kargbo’s Donkey is a lovably hilarious character with perfect comedic timing, effortless charm and strong vocals. Likewise Bronté Barbé, who played the tomboyish Princess Fiona with a committed performance and impressive dancing, though their might just have been a hint of end-of-tour fatigue creeping into both of these performances. 

Gerard Carey however was a delight as the dastardly Lord Farquad. The tour's director Nigel Harman had originated this role in the UK in an Olivier-winning performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane back in 2011, so one might perhaps a touch of excellence here. Carey’s vocals are good but it’s his character that really steals the show. His commitment to the role is genius and his comic timing and the way he has adapted to performing the whole show on his knees to adopt the illusion of being so particularly short, deserves praise indeed! 

Overall the show itself is fantastic, the ensemble are tight and perform powerful and impressive numbers that entertain and enlighten. Whilst this tour maybe ending, Jeanine Tesori’s bright and uplifting music and David Lindsay Abaire’s witty lyrics should ensure that Shrek remains a family favourite for many years to come.


Guest reviewer: Charlotte Darcy

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Mrs Henderson Presents - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


****

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




Fresh out of the ‘Bath’ as it were and straight into London’s West End comes the eagerly anticipated transfer of last year’s adaptation of the film Mrs Henderson Presents. Perhaps most commonly known to most as the ‘striptease revue film’ starring Judi Dench, Will Young & the late great Bob Hoskins. Mrs Laura Henderson and her girls bring us straight to the heart of an austerity Britain, with the women and the workers of World War 2, providing a much more gut-wrenching hit than one might have imagined. 

The show is a glorious step back into the good old days of great British revue and sits comfortably when jumping between both the on and offstage lives of its characters. Delivering equal measures of comedy and song there is also Terry Johnson’s fabulously risqué book-full of one liners to make more than your hairs stand on end. Credit here also to Johnson’s direction, which alongside Don Blacks lyrics provides captures much of Britain’s earlier theatrical heritage. The book offers all the ingredients of a hit, with just the right amount of pathos and pain on display. George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s score serves the piece accordingly, adding a variety of flavours that all evoke both the era and the show itself. The only missing ingredient for this ‘revue’ would have been the delicious addition of an Overture and/or Entr’acte to the proceedings, that could perhaps have paid homage to some of the great British musical classics.

Helming her ‘Revuedeville’ Girls - the fabulous Tracie Bennett steals the show and the laughs with some outstanding lines and a wonderfully driven and deliciously dirty Mrs Henderson. Bennett gives an effervescent portrayal of wit, charm and sincerity that may well go on to pay dividends for her come awards season. And whilst it is left to Bennett to steal the laughs, Emma Williams has no problem in stealing our hearts with a beautifully epic portrayal of the wonderful Maureen. Williams again delivers comedy and heartache in abundance, providing another award worthy performance to add to her catalogue of recent successes. A special nod must also be given to Lizzy Connolly, Katie Bernstein and Lauren Hood, leading their fellow ensemble of girls through a whirlwind performance of both excitingly comical and poignantly beautiful work when it comes to Mrs Henderson’s show itself. Throughout, the ensemble provide a sparkling array of classic musical theatre magic, with production numbers such as the wonderful Mrs Henderson Presents led by Samuel Holmes and What a Waste of a Moon, with its beautiful choreography from Andrew Wright. 

With a wonderful supporting design by Tim Shortall, and some inspired musical direction of this fine new score from Barney Ashworth, Mrs Henderson Presents gives us more than a glimpse into the bleak and backstage struggle of Britain in the midst of crisis - and perhaps this is where both show and story triumph. It is what is going on behind the curtain that makes Mrs Henderson Presents quite such an epic statement on the country’s chaos. And, indeed, ultimately makes Laura Henderson herself quite the empowered and driven ambassador at the helm of her show, and our story. Mrs Henderson Presents certainly doesn’t fail to capture our attention - but quite unexpectedly it manages to capture our hearts as well.


Now booking until 18th June 
Guest reviewer: Jack Clements
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Dr Faustus - Review

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


****


Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Maria Aberg


Oliver Ryan
Much of what makes The RSC great is embodied in Maria Aberg’s Doctor Faustus, now playing in Stratford’s Swan Theatre. A classic Elizabethan text that is given an invigorating and challenging interpretation and presented in a display of top-notch stagecraft. For students of modern theatre, Aberg’s show should be compulsory viewing.

Dr Faustus’ pact with the Devil is legendary. Having amassed all human knowledge and keen to broaden his horizons yet further, Dr Faustus summons up Lucifer’s demon Mephistophilis. After some hard persuading a deal is struck, Faustus’ veins are cut open and a contract signed in his blood. He is to be given 24 years of superhuman immortal powers on earth, after which his soul will belong to the Devil in eternal damnation. As Faustus is presented with the 7 Deadly Sins and assorted amoral choices, Marlowe’s allegory is clear – that the temptation to evil lies within us all.

In a novel touch, two actors share the leading roles. They enter the stage identically clad and simultaneously strike a match each. He whose match burns out last leaves the stage, to return as Mephistophilis. On press night Oliver Ryan was to play the title role with the lean scot, Sandy Grierson shortly to return shirtless, in an immaculately tailored white suit and in a neat touch, with charred blackened bare feet.

This is a brutal, bloody and above all desperately physical production with Ryan’s Faustus on stage virtually throughout the 1hr 45 one act play. Faustus paints a crude pentagram across the Swan’s black stage to summon the Devil, the bucket of whitewash slopping in his desperation. As the evening unfolds, so does the Doctor become more and more stained by the painted mess that he has created.

Mephistophilis summons up a nightmarish cohort of scholars to confront Faustus on his journey– black clad and hatted and almost suggesting an ensemble of bottle-dancing Jews – and it is in their movement that much of this show’s magic lies. Ayse Tashkiran choreographs his actors with an infernal ingenuity (that at other times hints at the zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video), meanwhile up in the gods (natch) Jonathan Williams six-piece band deliver the classy yet disquieting dischord of Orlando Gough’s musical backdrop with a chilling resonance. The costuming and design (credit Naomi Dawson) is at once simple and grotesque, exemplified best perhaps by Natey Jones’ transvestite manifestation of the deadly sin Lechery. He’s all legs and frock, complete with outrageously kinky heels, though it is Ruth Everett’s Wrath, sporting a wig that’s half black and half white and which offers a troubling suggestion of anger stemming from a psychiatric disorder, which offers up another of this production’s perceptive yet brilliant conceits.


Sandy Grierson and the scholars

Ryan gives his soul to the role as he finds his all-knowing self so knowingly played by Grierson’s perpetually suave and sardonic emissary. It all makes for compelling, unsettling theatre.

Perhaps the most troubling image of all is that of Jade Croot’s Helen Of Troy. This child-woman, with a face that launched a thousand ships, provided by the Devil to satisfy Faustus’ lust, launches her gamine youthfulness at the Doctor. Their passion rises in a whirling embrace, until, spent, her prone body is lifeless in Faustus’ arms as he fast recognises his impending doom. Like much of the play, the moment is both beautiful and terrifying.


Runs in repertoire until 4th August
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Road Show - Review

Union Theatre, London


***


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Phil Willmott


The Ensemble

Stephen Sondheim's Road Show pulls in to Union Street this week for a February residency. It's a curiously intriguing tale, part fact part fiction, inspired by the real life architect Addison Mizner, who with his brother Wilson, was to build the southern Florida city of Boca Raton, a development of luxurious haciendas, populated by America's wealthy elite.

Of course there's more to Sondheim than just property development - and as Addison finds himself drawn to his (fictional) gay and wealthy patron Hollis Bessemer, so does Willie lurch from gambling to prize fighters, to boxcar-riding destitution, before re-uniting with his brother to build the coastal city.

Whilst it’s certainly an imaginative production from Phil Wilmott, on occasions too much is left to our imagination. (Those screwed up balls of newspaper for instance?) An upstage framed gauze, suggesting vistas beyond our view, works well in the occasional back lighting of characters, but muffles the sound of those singing behind it. And in playing Addison, whilst Howard Jenkins captures his character's frustrating strive for integrity, he lacks a vocal impact, which for a lead role makes it hard for us to empathise with his journey. Andre Refig's Wilson meanwhile convinces us of his reptilian talents, the two brothers expressing a clearly inescapable sibling dependency. 

There are nuggets of excellence amongst the company. Steve Watts' Papa Meisner is an assured pater-familias with a deliciously sonorous tone - likewise the accomplished Christina Thornton who in an array of ensemble roles brings a touch of old-school class to her singing. Joshua Le Clair, impressive in last year's She Loves Me, does it again as Addison's effete "mark" Hollis, his big number Talent proving a treat. Also notable amongst the ensemble are Damian Robinson's prize fighter (blink and you'll miss it) and Amy Perry's Myra. Its early days here and if all the company were to emulate these actors' vocal power, the show will become a lot closer to the exciting roadster Sondheim intended it to be.

In a long haul (1hr 45 with no interval) Richard Baker's 3 piece band, playing virtually throughout, offer a fine if economic interpretation of the score - and credit too to Thomas Michael Voss' choreography. For the show’s big ensemble number Boca Raton and aided only by strong lights and sunglasses, his routine neatly suggests the privileged playground.

With a contemporary punch at the finale, Wilmott offers us food for thought. And in giving us a glimpse of some of tomorrow’s musical theatre talent, Road Show will certainly entertain Sondheim fans.


Runs until 5th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Perfect Murder - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


****


Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna
Directed by Ian Talbot


Jessie Wallace and Shane Ritchie

There really is such a thing as the perfect murder, so the audience is informed by a gleeful Victor Smiley near the beginning of this play: it's the one you've never heard of.

The Perfect Murder is a stage adaption of Peter James’ novella of the same name, itself inspired by a conversation that James had had with a chief constable in which the policeman had suggested that “we all, at some point in our lives, consider killing someone.”

And so begins a tale of premeditated murder. Victor (Shane Ritchie) plans to murder wife Joan (Jessie Wallace), in the perfect solution to a dead marriage now filled with resentment and endless arguing. There's a familiarity to the set up; a childless couple, married for 20 years, with nothing to entertain them but each other. 

James' story moves between a small 1960s house in Saltdean, just outside Brighton and a room at The Kitten Parlour, a brothel in the town. Michael Holt’s set is beautifully crafted, allowing seamless transitions between the various elements.  

The story may be a bold premise but it is tackled with heaps of comic effect predominantly through the script, but also through well-timed physical humour. The play is, after all, dealing with murder – in a very black comedy.

Ritchie and Wallace are outstanding, bringing to the stage elements of the television relationship that they are most well-known for. Throughout, their interactions deliver plenty of laughs. Ritchie is particularly brilliant, switching between monologues – in which he explains his grand ideas – and dialogue with Wallace, delivered with a dry acknowledgement that the audience is aware of the true meaning behind his words. 

Completing the line-up are Simona Armstrong, Stephen Fletcher and Benjamin Wilkin, who plays a young Roy Grace, the star of James’ internationally best-selling crime thriller series. 

The full house attests to the crime genre's perennial appeal. While some in the audience may have been drawn by the leads' star appeal, the strength of this production stands on its own.  


Runs until 13th February, then on tour. 
Reviewed by: Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Honeybunn Photography

Saturday, 6 February 2016

I Loved Lucy - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


***


Written by Lee Tannen
Directed by Anthony Biggs


Sandra Dickinson and Matthew Bunn

Playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, I Loved Lucy is Lee Tannen's “autobiographical” biography of the final chapters of Lucille Ball's life. An age gap of 40 years separated Ball and Tannen, who had been a devoted fan of America's favourite TV comedienne since his very young childhood. So when Ball's second marriage was, by chance, to bring her into a distant branch of Tannen's family, the young Jewish aficionado was gifted the first chance to meet his (TV) screen idol. From then on, through Tannen's early adult life he was to press ahead with cementing a devoted and enchantingly mutual, loving friendship with the star.

What emerges in Tannen's adaptation of his book, is a heartwarming tale of companionship and backgammon. Theirs may have been nothing stronger than the deepest of platonic friendships, but in an industry famed for superficiality and an obsession with image over substance, what nourished both Ball and Tannen was the sincerity of their fondness for each other. Two of the play's more profound moments are revealed in the second half: Firstly where Ball expresses her fears (and remember that this was the 1980's) that the gay Tannen may succumb to the AIDS rampage;  and later, where having presented the Oscars alongside Bob Hope, she returns home to Tannen expressing her disgust at the fawning she'd received, remembering how when starting out in the business, she’d literally had nothing. Sandra Dickinson, in a remarkable take on Ball, pitches the scenes perfectly

Anthony Biggs directs with Matthew Bunn putting in a hardworking and creditable shift as the Ball-besotted New Yorker. But as the TV star herself, Dickinson steals the show. Her long established TV persona in the UK was derived from playing ditzy blondes. Here, as the supremely sassy redhead and in a sensational performance, Dickinson not only captures the publicly broadcast spirit of Ball, but also offers a convincing and sometimes fascinating glimpse into the star's later life.

Dickinson's performance has to rank amongst the best in town right now. Tannen's witty writing and recollections may occasionally let sentiment blur dramatic impact, but nonetheless this compelling two-hander makes for very entertaining theatre.


Runs until 27th February

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The World Goes Round - Review

St James' Theatre, London


****

Sally Samad, Oliver Tompsett, Debbie Kurup, Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Alexandra Da Silva


Kander & Ebb's repertoire is famously bleak with musicals that have focused on the rise of Nazism, torture and misery in a Latin American jail, racism in the Deep South and celebrity criminals and corruption in Chicago. Their shows are challenging, often making for very uncomfortable entertainment. So it makes for quite a paradox that The World Goes Round offers an evening of delightful musical theatre treats. Conceived some 25 years ago, it was Susan Stroman and David Thompson together with Scott Ellis who put together this eclectic selection that referenced all the composers' musicals to date (though of course omitting The Scottsboro Boys which had yet to be written.)

Now on for one week only at the St James' Studio, there's an understated aura of finesse that surrounds this revival. Debbie Kurup leads an accomplished vocal quintet and with a nod to her Velma Kelly, makes fine work of Chicago's All That Jazz. There’s a measured quality elsewhere from Kurup with a neatly stylish opening take on the revue's title number and a sensational duet in the second half alongside Alexandra Da Silva, the women giving a perfect interpretation of The Grass Is Always Greener from the not so well known Woman Of The Year. 

Da Silva's acting through song proves to be one of the evening's highlights, kicking off the second half with Ring Them Bells. Sally Samad completes the female trio - and proves her credentials in (another) duet with Da Silva, Class from Chicago perfectly capturing the number's wry irony.

Oliver Tompsett and Steffan Lloyd-Evans provide the evening's tenor tones, never bettered than with Tompsett's I Don't Remember You segueing sweetly into Lloyd-Evans' take on Sometimes A Day Goes By - though a nod too for Lloyd-Evans' Mr Cellophane that captures the song's wit and pathos. 

It makes for a novel twist to hear Cabaret actually sung in cabaret - and the five-voice arrangement, accompanied mainly by Rhys Lovell's bass, offers a refreshing interpretation of one of the Songbook's greats. Kris Rawlinson's four piece band are on point throughout, lending a polished turn to the show's arrangements.

In a set that's crammed with the familiar as well as the obscure, The World Goes Round makes for a gig of unadulterated charm.


Runs until 7th February 2016

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Train Driver Baz Joins The Railway Children


Slow down Mr Baz!
We all know that moment in The Railway Children….there’s been a landslide, the track is strewn with rocks and rubble that can only spell disaster for the train we can hear approaching in the distance. In the book it is gripping, whilst in Lionel Jefferies’ acclaimed movie the moment is almost terrifying. And now, thanks to the ingenuity of the National Railway Museum, Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden the spectacle is being brought to life for real in a theatre built on a reclaimed good yard near Kings Cross, as 80 tons of genuine steam train emerges, amid billows of smoke and the screeching of brakes.

So how can such a pivotal event in our nation's culture become even more exciting? Simple. You get a chance to drive the actual train!

I’ve loved trains forever and especially steam trains. So when Ben Hewis of WhatsOnStage.com, late one evening last year tweeted a request for #StageyBucketList suggestions, it only took a moment, sprawled across a sofa at home and helped by the whisky I was sipping, to promptly tweet back that given half a chance I’d love to drive the train in The Railway Children (or @TRCKingsCross as the production is called on Twitter).

Ten minutes later my phone pinged and I almost (but thankfully didn’t) spilt my scotch in surprise. It was @TRCKingsCross, tweeting back a reply and saying that they could make my wish come true!

And so it was that I found myself on the footplate of that marvellous engine, awaiting my cue to steam into the auditorium. The excitement was building, the smoke was built up back stage so that the train emerged through billowing clouds – and then, with a jolt, we were off. Lit by the orange glow of the engine’s roaring fire and with the actors on the track in front, waving desperately for me to stop the train, I desperately strived to bring the 80 tons of this massive, beautiful machine to a brake-screeching halt. Just in time….

Stationmaster Shaun Williamson with his rookie driver
It wasn’t just the excitement of driving the train in the show though. The glimpse behind the scenes at Kings Cross was fascinating. There was Alison and Dominique in the wardrobe department who had miraculously assembled a costume that fitted me perfectly. The warm welcome of the cast who took my awestruck amateur dramatics into their bosom  and made me feel so welcome, especially the show’s regular train drivers who showed this novice just what to do. And in act two, when I was a passenger on the train, thank you Connie Hyde, who guided a terrified first-timer (me) to exactly where I had to sit and walk for the show’s Finale.

Shaun Williamson who currently leads the cast as Mr Perks was a delight and a special thanks to resident director Michael Vivian who patiently took me through a crash course (literally) in train driving, telling me where I needed to be and when.

To be invited backstage of any show is a treat, to take a peek into that world of make believe where a theatre company create their stories. But to cross the line and, for one fabulous night only, to actually become a part of that magical process we call “theatre” was, quite simply a privilege and a night I shall never forget.

A massive thank you to everyone at The Railway Children. I was chuffed!


The company of The Railway Children with their new driver


PS Before you think that letting me loose at the train’s controls was a reckless failure of health and safety by the producers, let me assure you that the technology and safety processes - and just a hint of theatre magic too - in place at the Kings Cross Theatre ensure that at all times the show's audience, cast and crew remain completely safe.




Photography (lower two pictures) by Michael Curtis
Top picture by Johan Persson