Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Heart of Winter -Review


Written by Tim Connor and Lia Buddle

Corinne Priest

An informal performance of Buddle and Connor’s new song cycle Heart of Winter offered a chance to hear this new-release played live and to discover its collection of witty and charming songs alongside a stunning musical accompaniment. 

Far too often song cycles miss the mark. Lacking solid narrative, they can hover in a musical theatre limbo, somewhere between show and concert and frequently ending up as a series of numbers with little interlocking story or characters to connect with. Heart Of Winter marks a vast improvement on this trend.

Consisting of 12 songs, we are thrown headfirst into the life of primary school teacher Kate, a brash and bold Northerner who's not afraid to say exactly what she’s thinking, literally seconds after she has broken up with her boyfriend of three years following her discovery of his having cheated on her.  

We follow Kate’s journey through all the typical stages of post relationship trauma, pushing through into learning how to readjust to normal life. On My Way is a hilarious up-tempo number, whilst Back To School – in which hungover, Kate has to teach needy, loud primary school children how to be dancing crabs -  offers an instantly recognisable nuance. The balladry works too. The audience is moved to an intense silence in Something About The Room as Kate becomes aware of quite how much she misses being in a relationship, battling with her inability to hate her unfaithful ex.

Connor's lyrics are delightfully easy to relate to, but it is their performance and delivery by Corrine Priest that makes this album wonderful.  Priest is a gifted actress. Her comedic timing is spot on and she catches the humour in each lyric with clear intelligence, alongside the change you feel in her voice and persona amidst the album’s more reflective moments.

Heart of Winter marks an impressive creation. Lia Buddle, Tim Connor and Priest should all be proud of their achievement. 

Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy

Bug - Review

Found 111, London


Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Simon Evans

James Norton and Kate Fleetwood

Tracy Letts’ Bug at the Found111 space is a pressure cooker of paranoid chaos, as fascinating as it is terrifying. It draws a thin line between reality and neurosis, trapping the audience in a claustrophobic motel room, which represents both a cosy haven and a nausea inducing prison. The nature of fear, reality and human companionship are all held literally under the microscope in a breathlessly disquieting evening. 

We find Kate Fleetwood’s damaged Agnes, perched in the doorframe of her room, a squalid sordid little shrine to loneliness (expertly dressed by designer Ben Stones). After her friend R.C (Daisy Lewis) introduces Agnes to Peter (James Norton), she becomes swept up in a world of paranoia, infestation and real danger, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her son and her need for human connection. 

It’s a powerful piece of writing, driven with tight pacing. Letts tenderly leads us along the path of intrigue, building the suspense delicately until the pot boils over in the second act and Peter’s ravaged ‘hive’ mind is unleashed. Characters are at once broken and totally complete in their convictions, never truly allowing us to be certain of their intentions or indeed their validity. We feel Peter’s fears and can empathise with his concerns about unseen foes. “We’re never truly safe”, he says, wounded eyes etched with sincerity. It’s a statement that an audience of 2016, assaulted daily with terror attacks and body counts, can all too easily identify with. 

Letts’ characters are fantastically well drawn, but equally well skilled are the performances that give them life. Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes is a desperately tragic figure, in need of rescue but latching on to the wrong life raft. Fleetwood taps into the isolation and fragile terror that haunt Agnes and the guilt she feels having lost her son. Her strangled cries towards the end of the play, as she unravels the conspiracies of Peter’s mind betray a woman drowning in maternal guilt. 

Norton is sweetly sympathetic as Peter, expertly flitting between deluded kook and perceptive fundamentalist. He brings a child-like innocence to the role, stripping him of his more obvious physical sexual appeal and legitimising Agnes’ obsession with protecting him as the play unfolds. 

There’s also strong work from the supporting cast, particularly Alec Newman as Agnes’s abusive ex-husband. There is a real menace to his limited stage time, as he pulses with the constant possibility of violence. 

Director Simon Evans understands the environment of Found111 and willingly embraces the claustrophobia of the space. Brutally minimal staging draws the audience into the action, placing us in the motel room, fidgeting in our seats, wondering if the titular bugs are crawling around our feet. Lighting Designer Richard Howell and Sound Designer Edward Lewis combine to brilliant effect to create the disconnect between the calm banality of the outside world and the fevered panic of the Agnes and Peter’s existence. Lewis’ mechanical soundscapes feature noises that are reassuringly familiar: a car passing, an AC unit kicking in. However, in their incessant repetition throughout the piece they take on the menace and foreboding that inform Peter’s technophobia. 

Evans mentions in his programme notes that he ‘all-but threw’ Bug at Emily Dobbs when discussing his next play at Found111 and it’s not hard to understand his enthusiasm to see it staged. It’s a thrilling piece with universal themes that strike relevant chords for a modern audience and here is performed with real panache by a top-notch cast. You’d be as foolish as a fruit fly to miss it.

Runs until 7th May
Reviewed by: Will Clarkson
Photo credit: Simon Annand

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Ian Bartholomew Talks About Mrs Henderson Presents

As the 2016 Olivier Awards ceremony draws closer, new musical Mrs Henderson Presents is nominated in four categories. 
Ian Bartholomew is up for Best Actor In A Musical and I spoke with him about the show.

Ian Bartholomew

JB:    Ian, what attracted you to Mrs Henderson Presents?

IB:     I was working with Terry Johnson (who has both directed and written the book for Mrs Henderson Presents) in Oh! What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and he was doing some demos for this show. So I went along, did the songs, read the script and thought, you know what? I'd really like a crack at this. 

Parts for gentlemen of a certain age don't come along like that. There's a bit of a love interest, there are some cracking songs, there are a few laughs and my character Vivian Van Damm is very much at the centre of the show. Towards the end of the first half when Van Damm sings his big ballad Living In A Dream World, it takes the show to a different area. It’s not just about the nudity, the musical and the fluff that everybody sees. There's heart and tragedy to it. The war and the Holocaust are happening and it takes the show into a place that you don't expect.

JB:    You mentioned Oh! What A Lovely War a musical that offers a particularly powerful message about the 1914-18 conflict. Here, your character is telling a very difficult message about the time of the Second World War. Tell me your thoughts on the potential of musical theatre to educate.

IB:    Education is not a word that you'd normally associate with musical theatre, though I don't mean to denigrate the genre in any way. I think any good theatre should make you think. When it makes you think, it may make you want to go and read up on the subject you've seen. You may talk about it with people and all good theatre should do that. Particularly with Oh! What A Lovely War which was, (and I use this word sparingly because it's used far too much) an "iconic" show. It did something that nobody had expected, packing an incredibly powerful message wrapped up in this confection of an end of the pier show.

I think that juxtaposition is what worked for Oh! What A Lovely War, making it so powerful and I think, Mrs. Henderson has elements of that too. 

JB:    What has it been like to work on the development of a new musical?

IB:    It's always been very intense. Terry knew exactly what he wanted from the show. He's no fool, our Terry. He's a real craftsman and a showman. 

JB:    Were you involved much with Don Black, the show’s lyricist, as the production developed?

IB:    Don was always around and very supportive and encouraging. Of course the creative process as regards the writing was always done elsewhere. They’d take it away to be fashioned and hammered out in a room somewhere else, as we were going on with our routines and scenes. 

JB:    What has it been like to work with two of musical theatre’s most talented ladies, Tracie Bennett and Emma Williams? 

IB:    Tracie and I have worked together a lot over the years. We did Guys and Dolls together in Sheffield actually where she was Miss Adelaide to my Nathan Detroit. That was great fun and we developed an understanding and a language of how to work with each other. 

Tracie approaches it in a completely different way to me. Both of us respect each other's way of working. We just sort of go with it and whatever comes out of it we then put together and make it work. We do laugh a lot. Tracie can be very blunt and I quite like that. I'd rather know where I am then somebody hedging around it. We have a very easy relationship on stage and we support each other a lot.

With Emma, she's just got this glorious voice. She's very particular in how she works, crafting things and you just let her get on with it. 

What I tend to do is to let things flow around me and see how I react to it. I never go into a room with a very fixed idea of what I'm going to do, I let it develop. Whereas Tracie and Emma had started very quickly to have a very clear idea of what they were doing and I would just go with it. They're both fantastic in their separate ways. They fulfil their roles within the show, I think, brilliantly.

JB:    And finally, what else would you like to say about Mrs Henderson Presents? 

IB:    I'm very proud of it. I think it's a well-crafted piece of work that is new, original and British. It’s about a part of the British character that I think was very prevalent during the War and I think is very important to be remembered.

I also think it's quite a brave show to put on. It's an “old-fashioned, modern” musical. I know that may sound odd but the story is very relevant to the time in which the show is set. It's like an old musical but it's not, because you know, 20 years ago you wouldn't have been able to put something like this on. I'm just very proud of it. 

JB: Thank you very much for your time and good luck for the Oliviers this weekend!

The Olivier Awards are presented this weekend. Mrs Henderson Presents is booking until 18th June

I Say Yeh Yeh - CD review


Like a fine cognac, Frances Ruffelle's most recent album deliciously distils her passion for France. Remembering that it was Ruffelle who created the role of Eponine in Les Miserables, a show that was to evolve into one of musical theatre's few truly global sensations, that she is in love with all things French is hardly a surprise.

I Say Yeh Yeh is a pot-pourri of songs special to Ruffelle for a variety of reasons. Les Mis is there, obviously, as are a handful Piaf numbers - but it is in discovering the unexpected amongst the tracks that the album takes on an eclectic charm.

Bookending the collection is Les Miserables and the album opens with L'un Vers L'autre, a Boublil and Schoenberg composition that never made the English show's final cut. The song offers a tiny glimpse into the genesis of a show, with echoes of recognisable motifs occasionally breaking cover. One is left, pondering smilingly, how different the show might have been had L'un Vers L'autre been included.

Eponine's big solo, On My Own closes the album, in an intriguing re-work. Ruffelle's timbre is timeless, but when this most famous of show-tunes is sung here by a woman rather than a girl, Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics are imbued with a worldly-wise insouciance that replaces the number’s hallmark youthful aspiration and gives the song an intriguing evolution.

Ruffelle admits that after having searched for a perfectly resonant male voice to record the enigmatically romantic Paris Summer, it was only her chance suggestion to local hairdresser Rowan John that led to him covering the track - in a vocal revelation as charming as the song's lyrics.

It has famously been recounted by Ruffelle that it was her take on Edith Piaf's Hymn To Love at a Les Mis audition that landed her both the role and later, John Caird the show's co-director as her husband. Traditionally anthem-esque, though recorded on here with a soft accordion accompaniment, Hymne À L'amour is included along with a handful of other Piaf gems. The song, perhaps more than any other and even though performed in English, defines Ruffelle's exquisite understanding of Piaf's magic. (Her take on the French singer in Paul Kerryson's production of Pam Gem's Piaf, staged at Leicester's Curve some 3 years ago, reviewed here, was arguably definitive and this album offers a neat reminder of Ruffelle's excellent interpretation.)

Produced by Gwyneth Herbert - who accompanies Ruffelle on a cover of Georgie Fame's eponymous title track - the CD offers a most delicate of musical mille feuilles, a finely crafted foray Français. Ruffelle adds that she recorded I Say Yeh-Yeh for love, rather than the pressure of any commercial or contractual requirement and it shows. A must-have for her fans and Francophiles alike!

Available for download from iTunes

Friday, 25 March 2016

Jackie The Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Based on the book by Mike James
Directed by Anna Linstrum

It's a neat conceit - turning a long defunct magazine brand, synonymous with the childhood of girls of the 70s into a night to remember for those very same girls, now of course women.

Jackie The Musical tells the story of Jackie played by Janet Dibley, a 54 year-old divorcee who, while navigating post-marital life (including but not limited to coping with her ex-husband's impending nuptials to his younger fiancée, the world of dating and her son's life choices), discovers she is not alone in doing so. 

After finding old copies of the magazine one alcohol-fuelled evening, her teenage self materialises, providing Jackie with the insights that used to guide her thoughts, gleaned from the magazine from way back then. 

What follows is a punchy and genuinely funny script that displays a chemistry between the main cast and lets the actors play off each other with ease. Interactions between Jackie and her best friend, Lori Haley Fox’s Jill, are particularly enjoyable.

The dialogue is neatly intertwined with musical hits from Jackie's era that, by their nature, compel the audience into a singalong. Under Dan de Cruz's direction, the house band - situated upstage throughout - brings a great deal of energy to the production and a punchy score.

Arlene Phillips' slick choreography keeps the tempo high, alongside Tim Shortall's smartly designed set that relies on just minor details to create different scenes. Shortall's costuming is similarly classy, adding another layer of colour, texture and prints to the overall aesthetic.

Whilst the pace occasionally slows, Daisy Steere's teenage Jackie is a standout star and Graham Bickley as Jackie's ex-husband John is surprisingly engaging and funny and with a terrific voice to boot and Ben Harm's Frankie, the proprietor at the local cafe and wine bar, proves an outrageous delight.

Jackie The Musical is joyously upbeat, with a welcome and refreshing message of empowerment that’s guaranteed to entertain.

Runs until 26 March, then tours
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

In The Heights - Review

Kings Cross Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Sam McKay and Eve Polycarpou

This week offered a chance to re-visit Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights and a first time to see it in its Kings Cross home. The revised traverse staging is a magnificent showcase for the production’s first and foremost strength – an exuberant explosion of Latino energy, fuelled by Drew McOnie’s Olivier nominated electric choreography.

Hudes' story remains slight but whilst there may be no soaring perspective on the human condition to match the splendour of McOnie's dance, as the staging swoops in upon life across New York’s Washington Heights the frenetic salsa-fused culture and tempo of the barrio proves infectious

Opening with one man and his boom box, the show’s opening number In The Heights nails the mood immediately, rising swiftly to our first glimpse of McOnie’s choreography. There appears such a fusion between dance and the rap-infused lyrics it could almost be as if the two had been written and choregraphed simultaneously.

Sam McKay still shines as Usnavi, whose bodega provides a communal hotspot. McKay drives the lyrical pulse of the show, though on the night and in a supporting role Cleve September’s Sonny stole the show.

Amongst the female members of the company, Courtney Mae Briggs lights up the ensemble whilst Eve Polycarpou continues to inject such warmth and love as Abuela Claudia, you just want to give her a big hug – and that’s without even mentioning her epic solo number Paciencia y Fe. Also reprising his Southwark role, David Bedella’s passionate yet indignantly paternal Kevin justifies his Olivier nomination.

Luke Sheppard, together with designer takis and lighting guru Howard Hudson have done an ingenious job in expanding the production to fit this most unique of stages. As Miranda's star continues to ascend with Broadway’s Hamilton, In The Heights offers London a glimpse of his visionary talent.

Booking until 30th October

Twelfth Night - Review

French Protestant Church, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Cecilia Dorland

Harriet Hare

Following the acclaimed success of their production last year of Sad Stories of the Death of Kings, Scena Mundi mark their own celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with a production of Twelfth Night, which they describe as "haute-couture and Surrealist" inspired. 

This time, the dreamlike world of Illyria, where nothing is as it seems, comes alive inside the fascinating French Protestant Church, a little hidden gem on Soho Square. This unconventional location, which could have lent a strong advantage to this production, instead proves itself problematic. During the first half in particular, the director, Cecilia Dorland, does not explore the full potential of the space, staging the performance in a very traditional way using the central aisle as main entrance and not helped by sometimes uncertain lighting. The result is that the cast does not seem to completely inhabit or fill the space. A far better result is achieved after the interval with the clever use of the organ niche as Malvolio’s cell: red-lit, uncomfortable and claustrophobic, it is the perfect setting for his despair. 

But, as noted by director Cecilia Dorland in the programme, this Twelfth Night aims to be fashionable and elegant. And, glamorously so, it is. Georgia Green’s costumes are simply outstanding – a brilliant mix of Renaissance aristocracy and New Romantics with a devilish touch of Jean Paul Gaultier. The opening procession resembles a terrific tableau vivant where Shakespeare meets, perhaps for the first time ever, Steve Strange’s Blitz Club. In the cast’s very first entrance the period court movement stirs a reminiscence for 80s posing, enhanced in some measure by Jean-Philippe Martinez’s glorious musical crescendo. 

Unfortunately, after such a sparkling start, the performance continues on a more conventional path, where perhaps one might have wished the fashion and surreal aspects to have been explored further. 

The cast unite impressively, with Harriett Hare embodying the mystery of Viola/Cesario – a riddle that is perceived but not solved by the other characters. Despair, resolution, wit and shy, tender love – all are gently conveyed by her fine performance. Edward Fisher’s Feste is a sardonic, wise fool; a surreal figure even in his gestures and movements; part the Pied Piper of Hamelin (especially in the opening procession), part mastermind of all the noble (or perhaps not always so much so) inhabitants of Illyria. 

Martin Prest’s Malvolio is perhaps the most enjoyable performance. Malvolio is quite a challenging character to play as there is the constant risk of delivering it simply as a ridiculously hideous figure, but he does much more than that. Prest’s distress in prison is sincere and when the joke is over in the choral happy ending it is hard not to sympathise with him. 

Scena Mundi’s Twelfth Night is an interesting and well-delivered project and whilst this production's eclectic setting may have proved just a little over-ambitious, it is certainly worth seeing. 

Runs until April 9th. 
Guest reviewer: Simona Negretto

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Anne Reid - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


Anne Reid

Wrapping up a UK tour, this week sees Anne Reid take up a residency at the Crazy Coqs. Not just as one of the nation’s most beloved actresses, Reid’s cabaret reputation precedes her and her set that lasts the best part of two hours is a delight.

Don Black, one of our finest lyricists, loves to see Reid in cabaret for the yarns that she can spin. Much of the evening is spent listening to her anecdotes – and where not so long ago Lorna Luft held audiences rapt with tales of Judy Garland and Hollywood, so too does Reid enthral us, with recollections of a career on England’s stage and screen that stretches back to the 1950s. Her self-deprecating charm takes no prisoners – but it’s impossible not to love a woman who stands on stage wistfully reminiscing about filming a love scene with Daniel Craig in The Mother, before going on to share that Craig is only four years older than her son!

Reid defines the concept of bon viveur. Her opening numbers, They Say Its Spring, followed swiftly by I’m Feeling Too Good Today (Reid adding kazoo accompaniment) are an infectious delight. Though it’s far more than just an upbeat view on life that defines this actress as a chanteuse. Alongside her wry take on Makin’ Whoopee Reid offers a gorgeously defined take on Streisand’s 11o’clock classic, The Way We Were. 

But as Don Black emphasised, it is Anne Reid’s stories that make her cabaret take flight. From Coronation Street to Last Tango In Halifax, her performances are woven into the nation’s DNA - and don’t forget she was the voice of Wendolene in Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave some twenty (20!) years ago too. She sagely comments that Shakespeare’s texts are harder to learn than Victoria Wood’s, whilst offering backstage snippets that show her to have been at home in a far-flung provincial theatre as she is in filming a show that is destined to be seen by millions. Reid oozes a rare and humble charm that understates the depth and richness of what has been to date a quite phenomenal career.

Her musical director Jason Carr accompanies throughout, occasionally taking to the microphone too. Carr’s keyboard skills are sublime, with an affinity between pianist and diva that is sweet and tangible.

It says much for the singer that her encore number was More I Cannot Wish You from Guys and Dolls. The song is finely crafted, soft and enchanting – and not heard often enough. Much like Anne Reid herself.

In residency until 26th March

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Hamlet - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin

Paapa Essiedu

As the lights come up on Simon Godwin’s Hamlet with Marcellus and Barnardo keeping watch on Elsinore’s perimeter, there are crickets chirping. For whilst Denmark has always been fixed in a traditionally chilly Scandinavia this show shifts it to Africa, a continent infamous for corrupt and despotic regimes. Claudius’ murderous reign is well suited to the territory – and as the production plays out against Paul Wills’ stunning drapes and beautifully sourced Africana, one senses that where some 22 years ago Disney’s Lion King famously and ingeniously shifted this timeless plot to the Dark Continent, so, in Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, does the RSC proudly endorse the location. 

The little known Paapa Essiedu plays the Prince, rising magnificently to the role. Essiedu’s take on the prose is beautifully nuanced, handling some of the most famous lines in the canon with a youthful confidence that is revelatory. Rarely have I been so moved by the “nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, whilst his “Alas, poor Yorick” flowed with the natural rhythm that Shakespeare imbued into the iambic, long before the text became a cliché.

Godwin has his actor splattered with paint throughout most of the first half’s “madness” and the exaggerated visual depiction of Hamlet’s antic disposition works well. After the interval as Essiedu, bare-chested, confronts Gertrude in the closet, there were gasps from the audience at the actor’s impressive physique.

For the most part Essiedu is blessed with playing off an excellent company. Clarence Smith’s Claudius skilfully avoids melodrama as the extent of his fratricidal wickedness is gradually revealed, whilst Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude (glamorous and in sunglasses at Ophelia’s funeral) offers up the classiest African Queen since John Huston’s Oscar winner. 

Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia breaks our hearts with her mental decline, alongside Ewart James Walters who in the traditional double-casting of Ghost/Gravedigger, is superb. To many there will be more than a hint of Mufasa in his murdered King, whilst Walters’ patois-inflected Gravedigger is comedy gold.

Cyril Nri captures Polonius' pontificating pomposity perfectly as Marcus Griffiths’ Laertes, whose return to Elsinore is via a helicopter-dropped abseil captures the righteous indignation of vengeful son and brother. The play's final fight, between Laertes and Hamlet, is staged in this production with a breathtaking use of staves in place of swords. A mention here for Kevin McCurdy’s perfectly choreographed fight direction and even more so for Mbulelo Ndabeni’s movement work, across the company, that so adds to the African setting sealed by Sola Akingbola’s deliciously drum-heavy musical accompaniment.   

This being Africa, the cast is black with the exception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These most celebrated of Shakespeare’s inept and inadequates (James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane respectively) are here played as white English. The message is clear – that England’s imperial bunglings into Africa have been naïve and crass. The argument may not be to everyone’s taste, but it sweetly suits the tone of this production. 

Unencumbered with the overblown expectations of a stunt-cast star in the title role, this is the best Hamlet in years having been given such a finely worked interpretation. This is an inspired and memorable production that plays in repertory until the summer. Broadcast to cinemas in June – don’t miss it!

Runs until 13th August - And in cinemas from 8th June

Friday, 18 March 2016

Miss Atomic Bomb - Review

St James Theatre, London


Written by Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long
Co directed by Bill Deamer and Adam Long

Olivia Fines with Stephane Anelli

Miss Atomic Bomb blasts onto the St James stage with a visually impressive bang. In a show that's a chain reaction of spectacular dance work (including some delicious tap routines), choreographer Bill Deamer's fingerprints (or rather footprints) are everywhere. Deamer, who also co-directs, has a consummate understanding of the spectacular and the dancing here is amongst the best in town. 

The show demands a heavily stylised treatment, set in and around Las Vegas in the 1950s against the backdrop of the Cold War and in a time when atomic bomb tests in the region were not only frequent, they were a source of national pride. Thousands flocked to Vegas to witness the mushroom clouds from only a few miles away, ignorantly unaware of the fallout risk. Seeking to draw the crowds, the musical’s story focusses upon the Golden Goose Hotel that comes up with the idea of a Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest as an attraction and so it unfolds.

As a historic reference point the show offers some value. There are nods to the fervent patriotism of the time, the all-powerful military, the nation's underlying ignorance, along with a McCarthyist response to the fear of Communism and Un-American activities. But whilst the show's style, for the most part, is as cleverly clichéd as a Lichtenstein cartoon, its book struggles. The plot lines are far-fetched and its endgame is just garbled. Which is a shame - because the talent on stage here is well cast and sensational.

Simon Lipkin is on top form as Lou Lubowitz the hotel manager. Lipkin only knows excellent and his neurotic/opportunistic pastiche is spot on with voice, dance and movement a delight throughout. Likewise Catherine Tate as Myrna a curious Greek fashion designer with an attitude. Tate does dumb America brilliantly - though having shone in Assassins last year (as did Lipkin), the show’s muddled book doesn't help either character.

Dean-John Wilson and Florence Andrews pick up the two other leads as Joey (Lou’s brother), a deserting soldier and Candy Johnson, a farm girl, respectively. Both are flawless and one can eagerly look forward to WIlson's Aladdin later this year. He pulls off the curious burden of pretending to be a rabbi for most of the second half, though his reflective duet with Lipkin, I’ll Stay With You offers the best of a mediocre bunch of ballads. Andrew’s character maybe trailer trash, but her feisty cowgirl commands the stage.

There's a curious cameo from Daniel Boys as a Javert-inspired repo-man out to take back Candy’s trailer. Boy can Boys sing, but as his role descends into little more than a Les Mis meta-dig it all gets just a bit too silly. Come the contest itself, Olivia Fines' Monroe-esque Sharon is a dancing celebration of the Stars and Stripes whilst Jessica Buckby's Norwegian (don't ask) Tregunta also wows with her movement.

This ain't the RSC's Oppenheimer - which last year stunned the theatre world with its fusion of nuclear horror and artistic genius, nor do the writers have the surgical skills of Kander and Ebb in dissecting some of humanity's ghastlier aspects and re-arranging them into a musical. There's work to be done here - the first half is too long, the second too crude (an election/erection gag? Really??) and the classy projected backdrops irritatingly melt under the brilliant beams of the follow spots. 

However, at the core of Miss Atomic Bomb is potentially something rather fine. Go see it for its top-notch company, Ti Green's wicked costumes, Richard Mawbey's fabulous wigs and above all Deamer's dazzling dance. It's a fun night out.

Runs until 9th April
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Lord of the Flies - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Written by William Golding
Adapted by Nigel Williams
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Lord of the Flies

The Churchill's curtain rises, revealing a crashed plane in a jungle-esque setting. To a deeply reverberating score plied with ominous overtones, the stage is set for this darkest of tales.

Lord of the Flies, studied at schools across the country, is one of the great British novels. William Golding, an English teacher, once allowed his class to conduct a classroom debate and when verbal and physical mayhem ensued, had to intervene to calm things down. The episode was to inspire the premise of his text - that the evil capacity to descend into savagery exists inside us all. 

Golding's chilling novel is aptly staged by Regent Park's Open Air Theatre. John Bausor's excellent set is ingeniously adapted to the Bromley floorboards and with Nick Powell's carefully composed score, the cast of young actors has an ideal environment in which to explore themes of governance, decency and humanity.

Director Timothy Sheader and co-director Liam Steel do an outstanding job in amplifying the uncomfortable truths buried within Golding's story. Whilst the performances across the board may be variable, the well established chemistry between the actors is undeniable, resulting in a seamless and believable interpretation of Nigel Williams' script.

Anthony Robert's Piggy, Luke Ward-Wilkinson's Ralph and Matthew Castle's Roger are all immensely comfortable in their characters' skins and their performances are probably the most natural and riveting. However it is the youngest member of the cast, Benedict Barker as Perceval, who steals the show. With a beautifully executed vocal and physical delivery Barker is at home on this stage and he makes an impressive professional debut.

Building towards the horrific denouement, the directors do a fine job focussing on particular elements, slowing down the action to ensure nothing is missed by the audience. True to form, the ending is abrupt after a much heightened climax, leaving the audience stunned and one actor still racking with sobs as the cast takes a bow. To say this production has punch would be a gross understatement. 

Closing the end of its UK tour at Bromley's Churchill Theatre, this show marks the triumphant finale of a masterful production.

Runs until 19th March
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Bad Girls - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Kath Gotts
Book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus
Directed by Will Keith

Bad Girls

Ten years after it opened (and swiftly closed) in the West End, there’s a fringe revival of this tuneful take on life in a women's prison. Drawn from Bad Girls, their popular TV series, Chadwick and McManus took the programme's characters and location and fashioned them into a full blown musical. That it only lasted two months is not surprising - the plot lines are predictable and the characters are, for the most part, clichéd caricatures.

So yes - for a multi-million pound production with West End expectations, Bad Girls was possibly always destined to struggle. 

However....strip the show down to a micro-budget, stage it in the Union's intimate yet versatile cockpit and shower it with some of the strongest performing talent around - and this curious composition evolves into an evening of sometimes electrifying song and dance.

Bad Girls’ narrative duly trots out the tropes. Though with an abusive screw who can't keep it in his trousers; a principled senior prison officer out to right a flawed and corrupted system; some good cons, some bad; and jealousies, drugs, a suicide and a smouldering lesbian love between officer and prisoner (natch), there's never a dull (nor, to be honest, an unexpected) moment.

Will Keith uses the traverse space well, and with Jess Phillips' ingenious design - the simple use of meshing around the band and across the ceiling suggesting the landings between the cells - the venue's own rustic charm transforms convincingly into a prison interior - and let’s be honest, rarely have the Union's gruesome Victorian lavatories created such an effective mise-en-scene! 

There are too many back stories to describe in this review - so focusing instead upon the talent, Ceili O'Connor's Nikki offers a well-crafted glimpse of a principled murderer. She’s not been given the wit  that Kander and Ebb bestowed on Chicago’s Roxie Hart, but nonetheless O'Connor charms throughout, with magnificent voice and presence, notably in numbers Every Night and This Is My Life. She show’s some classy hoofing too in the ensemble numbers.

The "villains" of the show are the bent warders Jim and Sylvia (Gareth Davies and Maggie Robson respectively). Theirs is a strangely Vaudevillian partnership, which for all its incongruity is brilliantly choreographed here by Jo McShane and then fabulously executed by the duo, together with their supporting ensemble. There's humour in both Jailcraft and The Future is Bright, the latter comprising a sensational chorus line, Rockettes style, the intricacy of which shows just how much imagninative and exciting dance can be achieved in such a tiny space. Davies puts in a fine performance as a perverted rapist, but (SPOILER ALERT) that he ends the show in handcuffs is just too much of a pantomime happy ending. History tells us that powerful abusers rarely get brought to justice, going on to exploit their position for years. This perhaps is the show's greatest structural flaw.

Gareth Davies and Maggie Robson

Sarah Goggin as the young, vulnerable teenage mother Rachel who’s only just been sent down, offers up a performance of perfectly measured pain. Sensibly, her role is barely offered a singing number, for what she has to endure is beyond the happy parameters of a showtune. It’s all down to Goggin's acting and she smashes it, subtly breaking our hearts with her response to the (off-stage) abuse she suffers.

As the drug-dealers at the top of the prisoners' food chain, Sinead Long's Shell and her sidekick Denny (Imelda Warren-Green) make fine work of characters which, to be fair, are fleshed out with decent credibility. Their youthful menace reminds one of Alan Clarke's seminal 1977 movie Scum, and their Guardian Angel number, early on in the show is a strong piece.

Sinead Long, Imelda Warren-Green and Sarah Goggins

The two older banged up brasses, Julie Saunders and Julie Johnston are tarts with hearts who've seen it all. Jayne Ashley and Catherine Digges are on top form throughout, and if Ashley's (sincerely tear-stained) number Sorry didn't quite tug at heartstrings as much as the writers might have wished, the Julies' contribution to All Banged Up (think Loose Women, desperate for sex, but in the style of Bob Fosse) offered a further moment of hilarious excellence - again with a nod to McShane's dance work.

As gangster's missus Yvonne, all fur coat and killer heels, Christine Holman is a treat. Holman offers another example of an outstanding performance, as she makes up for a thinly fleshed out character, with stunning voice and movement. 

Christine Holman

Elsewhere Livy Evans' god-fearing Crystal kicks off the second half with the sweetest a-capella opener to Freedom Road. As Helen, the compassionate prison officer hiding a love that can't be spoken, Tori Hargreaves manages a tough gig well. Her character is little more than a two-dimensional cliché – but she shines in her love duets.  

Further praise is due to the show’s creatives. Adam Braham has cast the show with perception and Jack Weir's lighting is outstanding. In the absence of physical scenic changes it is down to the lighting plots to suggest time and place and it is rare that an off West End show is found to offer such distinctive clarity. Similarly Alex Bellamy coaxes fine work from his three piece band.

Above all - salutations to producer Sasha Regan who works tirelessly to generate this theatre's prodigious output. Shortly to move down the road, the current space's iron girders and collapsing seats will be affectionately missed. Right now however, the sassy, classy production values of Bad Girls define the Union's remarkable contribution to London’s theatre scene. 

Runs until 2nd April 
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Friday, 11 March 2016

Barmitzvah Boy - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Jack Rosenthal
Book revised by David Thompson

Lara Stubbs, Sue Kelvin and Robert Maskell

Jule Styne and Don Black's Barmitzvah Boy, now playing in Highgate, takes a look at Jewish life in suburban London with a perspective that is both delightfully dated and yet timeless. It was in 1976 that Jack Rosenthal’s inspired BBC TV play of the same title was broadcast. Rosenthal's skill lay in affectionately spotting the satire that exists in the world around us and then gently, subtly, teasing his observations into a carefully crafted script. Barmitzvah Boy was so much more than a (rather far-fetched) tale of a young boy balking at the rite of passage that lies ahead of him. It offered a perfectly weighted glimpse into the quasi-assimilated angst of North West London's Jewish community, with a cast of characters that were as recognisable as they were hilarious. 

It was to be Don Black who spotted the story’s musical potential and whilst musical theatre may not have been Rosenthal's genre of choice, his magnificent characters lend themselves well to the transition. 

We find the Green family preparing to celebrate the Barmitzvah of their youngest, Eliot. Cab-driver Victor (Eliot's father) resigns himself to the cost of the event (with three insurance policies cashed in and counting) whilst his wife Rita frets about her hair, the guest list and all manner of trivia which, as a major celebration looms, of course take on an immense significance.

Making his professional debut in the title role, Adam Bregman (just 13 and only recently Bar Mitzvah'd himself) puts in a cutely confident turn, displaying just the right amount of cheeky chutzpah. Robert Maskell's Victor is a comic delight - He doesn't over-egg his hard working sufferance in life, rather offering a portrayal of a Tevye 100 years on, only driving a cab and reading the Daily Express rather than hauling a milk cart and praying in synagogue. The enduring pathos of Victor’s well-worn love for Rita (think again of Tevye and Golde, only moved to a suburban semi rather than the shtetl), as well as a delightful duet with his aged father in law (Hayward B Morse) in Why Can't He Be Like Me?, mark a nicely measured performance.

Sue Kelvin as Rita is every inch the Jewish mother. Rosenthal was merciless in skewering her character's much stereotyped neuroses - but where so often comedy has usually placed such a matriarch in New York's Brooklyn, to find her so recognisably sketched out in Willesden remains one of Barmitzvah Boy’s endearing treats. 

The cast in general deliver a quality package. Lara Stubbs puts in a beautifully voiced turn as Eliot's older sister Lesley and there's particularly fine supporting work from Nicholas Corre as Harold, her schlemiel of a boyfriend. What makes Corre's work in particular so remarkable is his delivery of a guy who is a complete klutz, yet doing so with a combination of well-crafted acting, fine movement and a stunning vocal presence. There is also a charming cameo from NYMT alumna Hannah Rose-Thompson as Eliot's school friend Denise. 

Notwithstanding the familiarity of its family/Jewish shtick, Barmitzvah Boy is very much a period piece. David Thompson has updated the book and whilst Rosenthal's reference to TV cop Kojak squarely (and delightfully) pitches the action into the 1970's, the outmoded references to "Chinks" (now unpleasantly racist and not penned by Rosenthal either) could have been cut out completely.

Bravo to producer Katy Lipson for having blown the dust off this time-machine of a show and credit to Stewart Nicholls for cleverly helming a potentially tricky piece. Ultimately Rosenthal and Black (along with Styne's score, some of which is sensational and which is delightfully delivered on the night by Ed Court's four piece band) have created a show that describes, over 2 hours, a culture that Jason Robert Brown distilled into 3 minutes in the song Shiksa Goddess from his show The Last Five Years.

Dripping with so much schmaltz that it could quite possibly congeal arteries, Barmitzvah Boy is most likely to appeal to musical theatre fans and Jews. This is one of those shows that makes London's fringe great - and, after the recent triumphs of Gypsy and Funny Girl, for those who want to discover one of Jule Styne's lesser known works, it’s unmissable.

Runs until 10th April, then at the Radlett Centre