Thursday, 28 January 2016

Jeepers Creepers - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


**

Written by Robert Ross
Directed by Terry Jones


Rebecca Vaughan and David Boyle

Marty Feldman was a unique comedy turn who could have been a giant. His distinctive boggled eye face and wild hair set him apart visually and as a peer of some of the late 20th century comedy greats he wrote for, and performed with, the best. Jeepers Creepers written by Robert Ross looks at Feldman away from the stage and studio, focussing instead on the philanderer and his devoted, even if humiliated, spouse Lauretta.

With Terry Jones at the helm expectations ran high – yes, one knows that Feldman was taken tragically young and that his life was difficult – but we also know that he was a gifted comedian. So somewhere in a play about a comic, directed by the man who with Monty Python’s Life Of Brian gave the world one of its funniest ever movies, there’s a hope that along with the poignancy, there may also be some belly laughs too – and Ross has certainly tried, interjecting Feldman-esque gags along the way. But ultimately and to borrow a line from the play, Jeepers Creepers “does to comedy what the RAF did to Dresden” – and it all makes for a three act offering that’s more endurance than entertainment.

Notwithstanding the confines of the Leicester Square Theatre’s basement Studio, Jones’ direction plods. The two actors, to their credit however, are magnificent. David Boyle captures the essential mania of the man, in a performance that convinces and which must be exhausting. Likewise Rebecca Vaughan as Lauretta, drawn by the deepest of loves to a man whose infidelities continuously break her heart, also puts in a fabulous turn.

But ultimately there are neither tears nor guffaws to be found here. Jeepers Creepers makes for a laboured drama-documentary that shows only Feldman’s dark side and offers nothing of his genius to today’s younger audiences who may know little, if anything, of the man. An opportunity wasted.


Runs until 20th February

Seasons Of Larson - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


***

Directed by Grant Murphy




Jonathan Larson died tragically young, aged just 35. A writer who touched so many lives, it was an inspired idea that saw Katy Lipson and Guy James mark the twentieth anniversary of his passing by staging a concert to remember the man and his work. Seasons Of Larson was a journey back to “the end of the millennium” for an emotional roller coaster of songs, chosen to represent Larson’s best.

The evening had pre-recorded tributes from its performers played out as voicemails throughout the concert – a clever nod to Rent – which despite being cutely anecdotal style stories, in actual fact provided the audience with an opportunity to check back in to reality, shuffle themselves in their seat and prepare for the next (and for the most part self-indulgent) turn. 

Notwithstanding perhaps a little too much eye-closing, air-grabbing and (ahem) lyric-dropping there were some dazzling moments that stunned the audience, none finer than Debbie Kurup’s Come To Your Senses from Tick Tick Boom. Kurup’s performance stole the show, proving utterly believable from beginning to end. 

There was light relief from the endearing Noel Sullivan whose comedy timing and vocals were both on point as he delivered One Of These Days towards the end of the Spring Season, with the sassy Krysten Cummings adding many more laugh out loud moments in Out Tonight and Break Out The Booze.

Subtle and clever staging from Grant Murphy allowed the cast room to breathe, nicely making way for Anton Stephans’ rendition of I'll Cover You to totally bring the house down. 

The predominantly Renthead audience were clearly hungry for anything from that show. Within seconds of hearing the opening bar of any number, excitable murmurs and ear-pricking would ensue, none more so than for Seasons of Love. The song aptly fronted the concert’s second half, as of course it does the show and performed by the whole cast, it proved a very special and unique act two opening.

The evening proved a lovely tribute to the writer, with neat musical direction from Gareth Bretherton. Here's hoping a Larson show may come back to the London theatre scene soon.


Guest reviewer: Heather Lloyd

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Let It Be - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


****

Music and lyrics by The Beatles
Directed by John Maher


The band

Let It Be, kicking off its tour in Bromley this week, serves as a remarkable reminder of The Beatles' story. Tracing the band’s beginnings in The Cavern club in Liverpool, it follows the soon to be named Fab Four on their fast track to greatness, hurtling to London and America and on to packed stadium tours, taking the audience with them on this journey.

The art of writing a truly great pop song requires some genius. Although many attempt it, only a handful manage to get it right – with The Beatles creating an entire catalogue of hits, incredibly over only a decade.

On top of this, to be a great performer is even harder, requiring immense commitment and enthusiasm on stage along with an almost unified consensus from the entire band on the direction of travel. Watching Let It Be, it is difficult to avoid comparing the career of this great band to the artists of today. That The Beatles managed to achieve such success and heights of adulation largely on their own merit – without teams of songwriters and stylists manufacturing hits for them - only adds to the depth of their impact upon popular music.

John (Paul Canning), Paul (Iain Hornal), George (John Brosnan) and Ringo (Luke Roberts) illustrate the life of The Beatles through a series of different performances. As the sets change, so do hairstyles and outfits, remaining true to the essence of the band’s personality at any moment in time.

There are highlights aplenty, including an ambitious recreation of the band’s performance at The Royal Variety Performance, with the original 1960’s footage from that show playing above the live musicians on stage. The company’s attention to detail is astounding with each band member mimicking their character’s mannerisms. We recognise Ringo’s head movements, George’s dancing around the stage and even the singers’ stances behind the microphones.

As the show progresses we see Lennon become slightly more reserved, Harrison more confident and Starr more present – while McCartney, by contrast, remains largely unchanged.

Iain Hornal’s performance of Blackbird is hauntingly beautiful. But the standout performance, that brings the audience to its feet, is of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. John Brosnan recreates Eric Clapton’s guitar solo with such mastery that it fully grips the audience in its magnificence.

Let It Be proves to be a wonderfully unexpected show, guaranteed to thrill not just fans of The Beatles, but anyone with an appreciation of their great music and showmanship. 


Runs until 30th January, then on tour
Reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: David Munn Photography 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Hero's Welcome - Review

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford


***


Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn


Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play sees this most prolific of playwrights fire off yet another salvo of domestic dysfunctionality. Hero’s Welcome, set in a northern English town, treats his audience to tableaux of human misery staged as an end of the pier farce. 

Murray is a decorated soldier returning home from a conflict somewhere east of the Adriatic, to the town he'd fled nearly 20 years ago when he jilted the pregnant Alice at the altar. Time has seen Alice go on to marry Derek, a charmingly inadequate builder (and sensitively played by Russell Dixon) devoted to his model railway layout. Meanwhile, in a palatial house out on the hills, Brad (a former childhood buddy of Murray) has built his home, married to the desperately unhappy Kara. There's the smouldering ashes of a love triangle in here too and if all this seems familiar Ayckbourn territory, the playwright resolutely catapults us into the modern era introducing Baba, Murray's young and devoted wife displaced by war and who Murray has recently married during a tour of duty. 

Ayckbourn (much like Arthur Miller) dwells upon the human condition in his work. But where Miller applies a surgeon's scalpel to fillet out grief and emotion, Ayckbourn uses a chainsaw (or should that be shotgun?) to make his point. Whilst many of Hero's Welcome's themes are recognisable, by the time its characters have endured murder, arson (and for good measure, one of them suffers a debilitating stroke half way through act 2) the play's credibility has all but evaporated.

That being said, Ayckbourn, who also directs, has assembled a marvellous ensemble. Richard Stacey's Murray is believable as the flawed warrior, whilst Elizabeth Boag's Alice cleverly hints at her once glamorous youth and an adulthood quietly spent in a marriage of disappointing compromise.

As Brad, an absolute cardboard cutout of a morally bankrupt bounder, Stephen Billington sports the chiseled good looks demanded of his millionaire lifestyle - and whilst Ayckbourn offers him little more than crass cliché by way of dialog, he makes the most of it. Likewise, Emma Manton's Kara offers a thoughtful study in housebound misery. Though Manton's re-appearance towards the play's end, appallingly wigged and playing her daughter Simone, is stagecraft at its clumsiest. 

The centrepiece of this company however is Evelyn Hoskins' Baba. Hoskins (around whom, one suspects, the part may well have been written) brings an fragile, elfin stature to a woman wise beyond her years and who has witnessed life's horrors. Hers is one of Ayckbourn's most well-conceived back-stories in a long while, with Hoskins defining the resolute determination and courage of a loving woman, desperate to re-build her life in the West. In a masterful turn from Hoskins we sense Baba's vulnerability yet admire her steely resolve.

Aside from the litany of his character's woes, Ayckbourn seeks to comment on other social malaises, raising his scatter gun to take aim at the rise of gastro-pubs, binge drinking whilst all the while inviting us to laugh at other people's misfortunes.

But Scarborough's literary hero is a canny chap and knows what entertains his devoted fan base. After a UK tour Ayckbourn’s company take the play to New York for a summer residency.


Now on tour

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Private Lives - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


***

Written by Noël Coward
Directed by Tom Attenborough


Laura Rogers and Tom Chambers

Pleasing on the eye and ear, this 1930s Noël Coward script is brought to life for 2016 by director Tom Attenborough and a cast of five. 

Telling the story of two newly married divorcees who find themselves honeymooning in conjoining suites, the play follows Elyot and Amanda as they differentiate between love and marriage and perception and reality – both with each other and their new partners. 

The cast inject the tongue-in-cheek script with a generally well received joie de vivre. Although there are some remarks that distinctly date the script, the issues of misogyny and domestic violence – thorny at the best of times, not least in front of a 21st century audience – are tackled with sufficient comedy to set the audience somewhat at ease. 

Richard Teverson as the booming and pompous Victor Prynne delivers a solid performance, but confined by the script, it is difficult for the audience to warm to him. The same is true of Charlotte Ritchie’s Sibyl Chase – but her Sibyl evolves to gradually show more gumption and, in the second half, seems to be taking increasing inspiration from Amanda, in a good way. 

There is a disappointing performance from Tom Chambers, playing Elyot Chase, who struggles to match the presence of his fellow actors and – although he has some excellent moments – the lack of consistency is noted. 

But Laura Rogers (as Amanda Prynne) steals the show; her fluidity and energy makes her a captivating performer to watch, and seeing her hurtle through varying degrees of passion and back with apparent ease is wonderful. 

The set and costuming work well, effectively transporting the audience back to the grandeur of the lives lived by England’s wealthy. 

A classic piece of theatre and, for the most part, an entertaining evening. 


Runs until 23rd January - Then tours.
Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

King and Country. Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings - Review

A complete cycle of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V

Barbican Centre, London


*****

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran




The RSC’s opening to Shakespeare's 400th anniversary year could neither have been more extraordinary nor ambitious: the full cycle of the Henriad performed as an entire historical epic. 

The four shows which in their original productions were already examples of English theatre at its finest, achieve new depth and strength when witnessed as a single event. Being able to follow the development of the characters from the very beginning and through each play is an enlightening and immersive experience for the audience and no doubt for the actors too. 

Looking at Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V in temporal continuity, one after the other gives a new perspective to their deeds and emotions: they appear more human, less kings, no longer absolute protagonists of their own single play but parts of a greater scenario. 

The set, ingeniously designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis and thanks to impressive projections on curtains of small metallic chains, becomes the unchanging historical frame. The throne, the crown, the arches of Westminster are always there, unchanging throughout the years, real grandiose witnesses of the fate of King after King who inhabits them.

From that fresh perspective Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V are merely men: weak, brave, vicious, self-questioning, strong, doubtful, destined to pass, to die – their deaths to be regretted later, even by those who killed or betrayed them. To see the complete tetralogy helps us to read this clearly: the history of the country and the stories of those men. 

For the successful delivery of such a unique venture the director Greg Doran can count on the truly astonishing abilities of a stellar cast led by David Tennant as Richard II, Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke/Henry IV, Alex Hassell as Prince Hal/Henry V and Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff.

Tennant’s Richard II conveys brilliantly the complex inner struggle of the last medieval king. Successor to Edward III, Richard II and ascending the throne when he was just 10 years old, he firmly believed he was entitled to the power by God. Shakespeare shrewdly sets the action during the last period of his reign when he was more a corrupted and self-obsessed tyrant than a king. The audience knows this, but nonetheless his astonishment and suffering at being deposed by mere mortal men are so engagingly portrayed by Tennant that it proves almost impossible not to sympathise. 

Where Tennant’s Richard is pure nerves and aristocratic snobbery, Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) is a neat and solid presence from his first entrance. If, as I have already said, no-one can avoid feeling Richard’s sorrow, it is at the same time equally impossible to perceive Bolingbroke as a wicked usurper. Seen via the three works, his becoming Henry IV appears just a step on the path of history towards newer, more modern times.

Henry IV's and Henry V’s development through the cycle is reason enough in itself to participate in the whole event. Jasper Britton’s performance is magnificent and flawless: from fighting soldier to strong king to ill monarch he is at every moment utterly convincing. 

But it is with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal/Henry V that we have the real crescendo. Hassell’s ability to transform from a daredevil Prince of Wales to a warrior King to a clumsy lover is mesmerising, especially as he achieves such results with a more naturalistic, lower-key delivery. We are not in the presence of a self-conscious King, what we have here is a great human monarch who is trying to learn how to build himself and his country.

Obviously the transformation from being Prince Hal to becoming King Henry V would not be so credible without the hulking presence of Antony Sher’s Falstaff. The jovially immoral friend of binges is played with a mix of practical common sense and jolly enthusiasm by Sher. The scene of their last meeting has the power to sound like the end of an era. The childish Prince is dead, long live the King.

On this unmissable occasion the leading men have the support not only of a superb cast but also of virtuoso live musicians in delivering the most sublime theatrical and Shakespearian experience seen in a long while. Twelve hours over three days may not seem right for everyone, but it truly is a unique event and a commitment you won't regret.

Runs until January 24th.


Guest Reviewer Simona Negretto

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Audra McDonald In Concert - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


*****



There are occasions as a reviewer when it is simply a privilege to attend a performance. Sunday at the Leicester Square Theatre and in a one-night only visit, Audra McDonald ending her 63 city tour was one such occasion.

Much has been made of McDonald's 6 Tony wins and she is typically spoken of with reverence. But with it having been nigh on 15 years since she last performed in London, it has only been those lucky enough to have seen her perform on the other side of assorted oceans that have been able to testify to her on-stage reputation. 

A 90 minute set, accompanied throughout by Andy Einhorn on piano, saw the diva take us on a tour of the American Musical Theatre Songbook stretching back almost a century. Opening with the gorgeous but little known When Did I Fall In Love? from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello, the audience experienced for the first time the vocal magnificence that underline's McDonald's performances - and with that one opening number McDonald confirmed just how deserved her reputation is.

Her voice is akin to the 7 litre V12 engine found in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Smooth, immaculately tuned and able to purr perfectly. Yet also, effortlessly and in a blink, able to glide to a display of breathtaking power. That is Audra McDonald.

Her selection ranged from Gershwin to Jason Robert Brown, giving Brown's Stars and the Moon from Songs For A New World a gorgeously assured delivery. McDonald's interpretation of Sondheim's The Glamorous Life (a part confessional, sung from the perspective of her loving teenage daughter who has had to grow up with a mom on tour) displayed the most remarkable arrangement, condensing a number designed for three voices (at least) into a sensational solo.

But it was in tackling Broadway's biggest songs that McDonald re-defined unsurpassable. From Porgy and Bess her Summertime was sublime, before she eased into one of the greatest 11 o'clock numbers ever, Maybe This Time from Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. The song has the most delicious of slow builds and the audience listened in a rapturous anticipatory awe as McDonald effortlessly scaled the number's delicious key changes, leading to a final reprise that tingled every spine in the room. 

Cunningly - and whilst not a classic, still a Kander & Ebb gem - McDonald broke our hearts with a delicately plaintive Go Back Home from The Scottsboro Boys. Hop a freight? McDonald had me riding a boxcar, sobbing.

The evening closed with McDonald treating us to her Mother Abbess, as broadcast live in the USA's Sound Of Music a few years ago. Again, she didn't just Climb Ev'ry Mountain, she scaled its lofty crags, perching on vocal footholds that lifted her to heights not often seen on the London cabaret circuit. We rose as one to salute her.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Muted


Ashleigh Gray

Muted, being staged in a concert performance in early February, looks like an interesting and exciting venture, with the gig being timed to mark its album’s launch.  

Penned by the double-hyphened partnership of Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin from Sarah Henley’s book, Muted re-works the original musical After The Turn, a 2012 production that itself received much acclaim with Mark Shenton dubbing it “the British Rent”. 

Ashleigh Gray and Steven Webb will head the cast for the gig on 4th February and whilst the concert will be directed by up and coming Jamie Jackson, there is an eager anticipation for a fully staged production that is likely to include the creative input of Gary Lloyd. 

The pedigree of both cast and creatives is impressive. Lloyd is the vision behind the 5* transatlantic success Thriller Live, the Michael Jackson tribute show, whilst Gray is an established Elphaba in Wicked and Prottey-Jones was a finalist in ITV’s Superstar and is currently appearing in Kinky Boots. 

There is a Kickstarter appeal in place to help the project along – Head along to the Actors Church in Bedford Street, Thursday Feb 4th,  to hear how Muted has evolved.

Kickstarter details here

Big Brother Blitzkrieg - Review

King's Head Theatre, London


****


Written and directed by Hew Rous Eyre & Max Elton


Stephen Chance

The Big Brother House is no stranger to fevered egos, control freaks and folk in pursuit of fame. But right now at the King’s Head Theatre it is being graced with the presence of one particularly charismatic house mate, the Fuhrer himself.

Hew Rouse Eyre & Max Elton’s “Big Brother Blitzkrieg” is an Alice In Wonderland kind of tale: after a botched suicide attempt Adolph finds himself fallen down the rabbit hole into the peculiar world of reality TV. Or put simply, our world.

Using the Big Brother House is an ingenious device, allowing the writers to tell a story, reflecting the effect of Hitler’s character upon this bizarre microcosm of society.

Hitler’s housemates are an odd bunch, but it soon becomes apparent that they are there to reflect “us”. Adolph quickly assimilates into life in the Big Brother House, which sees the plot quickly darkening towards a powerful conclusion that leaves the audience with goosebumps.

Every single member of the small cast was superb with no exceptions, with Stephen Chance’s Adolph proving particularly memorable with an uncanny charisma and a pinpoint comedy style that drives the show.

Tracey Ann Wood plays Rachel,  a housemate whom it doesn’t take long for Hitler to deduce, is a Jew. Wood’s performance, especially towards the end is jarring and worthy of particular praise. Hers is the only character who doesn’t take to Adolph’s charisma, remaining constant as others change.

And it is these changes in those around Hitler that make this play special. This play is not so much about Adolph Hitler in the world of reality TV, as it is about us. Every exchange and dialogue that the housemates have with Hitler is meaningful as he manipulates them like a master puppeteer. They are all affected by his presence and at just over an hour in length no moment of dialogue is wasted and the tale never drags.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg proves to be the the darkest of satire and notwithstanding that the world was rid of Hitler over 70 years ago, the play chimes with an unnerving relevance today. If you want something provocative and which will leave you feeling slightly discouraged and pessimistic about the human condition today, then go see it whilst you can.


Runs until 30th January
Guest reviewer: Josh Kemp

Legally Blonde - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


****


Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book by Heather Hach
Directed by John Plews


Abbie Chambers

There's an irrepressible sugary charm that surrounds Legally Blonde. Late into the show's run and on a cold January night too, the Gatehouse Theatre was packed with a grinning audience picking up on the cast's infectious enthusiasm.

Legally Blonde's sexual politics are intriguing. With the exception of Emmett (and possibly Kyle) its underlying premise is that men are duplicitous bums. And whilst (look away - spoiler alert) Elle Woods does of course go on to achieve legal success, she doesn't achieve this recognition through a knowledge of law - but rather by applying her initiative to what are actually stereotypical female reference points: a sensitive "gaydar" and a knowledge of perms. So, does Legally Blonde actually champion female empowerment, or simply reinforce age-old tropes? Discuss.

Either way, Abbie Chambers who makes her professional debut as Elle does a fabulous job in the role. It's a massive part - on stage almost throughout, Chambers never fails to convince as she journeys through heartbreak and endeavour to her ultimate happy ending.

The most sympathetic character on stage is Jodie Jacobs’ hairdresser Paulette, who in a world away from Elle’s pink infused (and albeit superficial) vacuity, is actually grounded in her disappointment. Jacobs keeps Paulette adorably optimistic and able to offer the wisdom of a woman who's seen life for what it really is, in a reprise of the part that she delivered so fabulously at Kilworth House last summer. Jacobs is in a league of her own here, her voice is gorgeously powered, whilst her experience sees her to master Paulette’s wry comedy, perfectly.

Robert Colvin offers a polished and three dimensional take on Warner - who really is a 2-D creation. There is an interesting and timely parallel between the fictional Warner and Grey Gardens' real-life Joseph Kennedy - both characters out to use love to further their own personal career ambitions - discarding relationships as it suits.

Stepping into the role of Brooke Wyndham, Katie Bradley does a fabulous job as the energetic and entertaining fitness guru. And a nod here to Anthony Whiteman's remarkable choreography. Brooke's second half opener Whipped Into Shape is but a blur of skipping rope as her ensemble achieve a wow of a routine in the narrow confines of the Gatehouse's traverse.

John Plews triumphs again. The director is at his best compacting big shows into his beloved venue, assisted here by Matt Abrams and his band who deliver an assured take on the upbeat score, whilst Isobel Power Smith's set also impresses.

The show is only on for another two weeks and this ensemble make it a lovely night out.


Runs until 31st January
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Guys and Dolls - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


****


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg


Jamie Parker

It is a sound idea that has seen Chichester Festival Theatre send their acclaimed 2014 production of Guys and Dolls on the road. The UK tour that commenced in Manchester in November last year is now making a 3 month stop at London's Savoy and it proves fun to re-visit some of this productions more inspired moments.

Guys and Dolls is long acknowledged as one of the Broadway greats (Kenneth Tynan famously commented that along with Death Of A Salesman, the musical was the finest example of American literature) the Savoy show throws into relief how well the show works as a study of love and the human condition. But a cautionary tale. Its cute 1940's New York patter can easily become dated and too many of the show's gags need a punchy comic delivery that not all of this company are up to.

Staying with the production from Chichester's original cast, Jamie Parker's Sky Masterson is up there with the best. His Sky has the gorgeous insouciance that the gambler demands, yet as he realises that he's never been in love before meeting Sarah, Parker reveals the cutest vulnerability too. And boy can he sing. Parker must surely rank amongst the best of his generation in acting through song.

The other gem amongst the show's four leading roles is Sophie Thompson's Miss Adelaide. Barely clad in more mink than a mink, Thompson milks Loesser's wry Manhattan wit with spot-on timing, earning our chuckling sympathy for this most long-term of fiancées.

David Haig plays Nathan Detroit. Whilst Haig may well be a national treasure in waiting, a good Detroit is a tough call and it could be suggested that Haig is also, possibly, a tad too old for the part. Aside from Sue Me he doesn't have too many singing responsibilities (probably a good thing In Haig's case). Above all Haig lacks the ridiculously implausible New York chutzpah that Bob Hoskins defined in 1982 and which, frankly, we ain't seen since. To be fair, Peter Polycarpou who triumphed in the role at Chichester, came close and he is sorely missed from this touring cast. (see note)

This reviewer is missing Clare Foster too – Siubhan Harrison makes a decent stab at Sarah Brown, but doesn't quite rise to the role's tough challenge.

The dance work however is spectacular. Andrew Wright with Carlos Acosta has created some gorgeous routines - and with imaginative Runyonland and Cuba numbers, along with some sensational sewer-dance in the Crapshooters' Ballet the show's choreography is surely amongst the best musical theatre footwork in town right now. And the Hot Box Girls are gorgeously wonderful!

The scenery (marquee lights and advertising hoardings that again suggest a nod to the National's 1982 ground-breaker) is more lightweight than lavish - though remember that this show is on tour so portable sets rather than a full blown West End set of trucks is to be expected.

If you love the show, or just simply adore imaginative dance work then it's well worth a trip to the Savoy.

NOTE:

If Sonia Friedman is reading this review here's my suggestion for a Guys and Dolls dream cast that is probably best staged within the next five years.

Jamie Parker needs to stay as Sky - he won't be bettered. But Parker, a former History Boy, needs to be re-united with his classmate James Corden as Nathan Detroit. Lob in Sheridan Smith as Miss Adelaide and with either Clare Foster or Laura Pitt-Pulford as Sarah Brown and I believe there'd be platinum fol-de-rol for Friedman.


Runs until 12th March, then tours

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Oliver! - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


****


Music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart
Directed by Paul Kerryson


The Company


The Christmas decorations may be taken down - but at Leicester's Curve the seasonal family show has another two weeks to run and judging by Friday’s packed, cheering audience it is continuing to bring much festive joy to the city.

Oliver! has always been best suited to a large stage and the Curve's main house proves ideal. Matt Kinley's impressive designs: grim ironmongery for the workhouse; beaten up timbers for Fagin's kitchen including a brilliantly silhouetted St Pauls Cathedral; and chocolate box Georgian for Brownlow's Bloomsbury are ingenious and expansive - though a minor niggle, the portrait of Brownlow’s beloved Agnes isn’t visible to those seated stage left.

Paul Kerryson places this glimpse of Victoriana in a warts and all context, pulling no punches with the tale's underlying sex and violence. It has been a while since the genius of Bart's craft in both lyric and score has been so carefully exposed.

In the title role Albert Hart capture's Oliver's wise naïveté. His presence commands the audience (he is almost angelic in Who Will Buy) and if he wisely avoids singing some of the role's highest notes, it's no big deal. Hart rises above the audience's "aahs" and alongside Joel Fossard-Jones' Artful Dodger, the pair achieve a delightfully cheese-less cheekiness.

Aside from the leading parts, it's the detail of the minor characters that work so well in this take on one of the most English musicals in the canon. We get an early glimpse of the show’s passionate darkness with Jenna Boyd and James Gant (Widow Corney and Beadle Bumble respectively) bringing a neatly worked hint of Carry On humour (another most English genre in itself) to their capers.

Likewise Jez Unwin's ghoulish Sowerberry and Natalie Moore-Williams as his ghastly wife. Inspired direction sees a macabre It's Your Funeral partly played out with the two borne aloft, corpse-like as they sing.

The show's splendour opens up in London of course, where Peter Polycarpou's Fagin (clad in an inspired takis-designed robe) is another musical theatre treat. If his semitic caricature was perhaps a tad too stereotypical, in all other respects the actor’s portrayal of this most complex of villains is as beautifully performed as it is cleverly layered. Reviewing The Situation proving Polycarpou as one of the masters of his craft.

There's more delicious detail in Lucy Thomas' Bet - Nancy's friend - who again brings a shading to this modest role that's rarely seen. Likewise John Griffiths as the principled and patrician Brownlow works well.

Bill Sikes is a cracking turn from Oliver Boot. There's all the traditional scary menace associated with this misogynist thug, yet Boot also cleverly works in a vulnerability. His Sikes struggles with both his love for Nancy and his uncontrollable and ultimately murderous abuse of her.

And then there's Nancy…

Bravely stepping in to the role for the run's final three weeks, Laura Pitt-Pulford again shows her professional devotion to director Kerryson, as long has he needs her. Earning a UK Theatre Awards nomination this time last year for her marvellous Maria (and who knows, if she hadn't have been up against Imelda Staunton's unstoppable Rose, she might well have scooped the gong) one can only hope that the award's assessors are calling in at the Curve to catch Pitt-Pulford’s takeover. I'd go anywhere to see this actress and with good reason. Her powerful As Long As He Needs Me is magnificent, reducing many in the house to tears, whilst the loving sensitivity showed towards Oliver (and which Pitt-Pulford portrayed so well towards the Von-Trapp brats a year ago) displays the skill of a performer who not only exudes excellence, but inspires a respect and affection from her fellow company members that is rarely seen in such sincerity.

It is only on re-listening to Bart's score that his melodic genius truly filters through - and under Jo Cichonska's baton the 11 piece orchestra offer an excellent interpretation. A mention to Guy Button, Steve Cooper and Sophie Gledhill whose strings work skilfully brings out the haunting klezmer riffs that underlie Fagin's performance. Choreographer Andrew Wright goes to town with the show's big numbers. We first see Wright's grand visions kick-off in Consider Yourself and he goes on to bring moments of ingenious wit to I'd Do Anything and of course the carnival of street-vendor splendour that is Who Will Buy.

Paul Kerryson gives a classy treatment to a classic show. With only two more weeks left, you should buy these wonderful tickets!


Runs until 23rd January
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday, 8 January 2016

Grey Gardens - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


*****


Book by Doug Wright
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Thom Southerland



Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock

Making its European premiere, Grey Gardens is a blend of fact and fiction that tells of Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt to and her daughter Edie. What sets this family apart is that the two women were respectively aunt and first cousin to the woman who was to become the world’s First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Based upon an acclaimed documentary, the show is a cultural fusion that blends Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard with Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son (with just a hint of The Great Gatsby). The first half, set in 1941, describes the patrician ascendancy of the Bouvier Beale family whilst act two pitches forward thirty years, depicting almost unbelievably, the flea-infested squalor to which mother and daughter had descended. Grey Gardens their mansion, now overrun with cats. 

The drama of this show is as magnificent as its music, with an ingenious casting conceit. We meet Sheila Hancock, the elderly Edith as the curtain rises, though she is quickly transformed into Jenna Russell who plays (the younger) Edith in act one and (an elder) Edie after the break. Hancock, amongst the finest of her generation, is witheringly contemptuous towards her daughter and yet desperately dependent upon her. She can also sing with remarkable presence - her take on The Cake I Had, a treat.

Russell as Hancock's younger self, captures the manipulative dominance that was to stifle her daughter's attempts at love, whilst in playing the 56 yo Edie (brilliantly costumed in an array of scarves suggesting variously cat-woman crossed with a jihadi bride) she also captures the profound love that her character feels for her mother. If the whole thing wasn't so damnably credible as a dysfunctional family, it would be ridiculous.

And then there's Jenna Russell's voice. Virtually peerless in musical theatre and picking on just two of her stunning moments, Russell’s act two opener The Revolutionary Costume For Today raises the roof, whilst her 11 o clock number Another Winter In A Summer Town touches hearts with its perfectly weighted pathos.

It's not just Russell and Hancock though. Edie in the 1940's is given a captivating performance by Rachel Ann Rayham, whose Daddy's Girl, sung with her hopefully intended Joseph P Kennedy is a glorious fusion of music and movement. (Great choreography Lee Proud). Credit too to the remarkable Aaron Sidwell as the young Kennedy. From Loserville, through American Idiot, to now playing JFK's older brother, Sidwell masters the dynasty's manicured scion. 

Jeremy Legat as Edith's preppy consort musician George Strong offers another perfect cameo, whilst Ako Mitchell and Billy Boyle in a number of roles complete the adult company. As is her custom, Danielle Tarento has casts as well as produced the show and her work here is flawless.

To be fair though, all the creative team have been surpassed themselves. Tom Roger's multi layered set is magnificent, Howard Hudson's lighting again highlighting the subtleties of time and location, Andrew Johnson's sound design ensures neither note nor word are lost, whilst Michael Bradley's 10 piece band make Frankel's complex score a delight.

Tarento and Southerland have never been better and in all honesty there's not much on offer anywhere in London right now that could top this production. Southwark Playhouse should be rightly proud of Grey Gardens. It is unmissable theatre that demands a transfer.


Runs until 6th February
Photo credit: Scott Rylander