Thursday, 28 April 2016

Show Boat - Review

New London Theatre, London


Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel "Show Boat" by Edna Ferber
Directed by Daniel Evans

Emmanuel Kojo

Show Boat at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre was the best musical that I saw last year and its London transfer is setting a very high bar for 2016. Daniel Evans' production, mounted on Lez Brotherston's spectacularly evocative set doesn't just reprise one of Broadway's greatest ever musicals, it recreates Americas Southlands and Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, with a spine tingling intensity.

Famed as the "original Broadway musical" Show Boat is powered by a narrative that steams through human love and tragedy, fuelled by some of the finest songs written - and in this production, performed by arguably the most talented company in town. Chris Peluso and Gina Beck lead as Gaylord Ravenal and his wife Magnolia. Peluso, who takes over the role from Michael Xavier, offers his own distinctive interpretation of the riverboat-gambler whose heart is melted and enchants with a convincing passion both in solo and in his famous duets of Make Believe and You Are Love.

Beck continues to deliver a magnificent Magnolia with an arc, tragic yet strong, that breaks our hearts. As Magnolia matures from wide-eyed love-struck teenager into a challenging adult life, Beck is en pointe throughout. Truly one of the finest of her generation, the power of her soprano is spine-tingling. Her duets with Peluso may be charming, but in After The Ball, she takes the roof off.

Rebecca Trehearn's Julie offers a performance that is perfectly nuanced throughout. Her character hides a complex secret (no spoilers here) and on re-visiting Trehearn's performance, the tiny details that betray Julie’s deepest fears are performed exquisitely. And of course she matches Beck's vocal perfection. Can't Help Loving That Man Of Mine evolves throughout the evening until it's the song on everyone's lips at the final curtain, whilst Bill, a beautiful lament Is one of the second half's highlights.

Rebecca Trehearn and Gina Beck

The musical is famous for Ol' Man River, a song that's arguably bigger than the Mississippi it tells of. The ridiculously young and talented Emmanuel Kojo continues to kick the song out of the park. He gives it a beautifully bass foundation, yet also allows it to soar with a spirituality. The despair of the African American stevedores, so cleverly evinced in Kern's classic chords and Hammerstein's inspired lyrics is a thing of wondrous grief when sung by Kojo's Joe. Sandra Marvin as Queenie brings a worldly wisdom to her modest role but, again with her gorgeous vocal range, she makes fine work of Mis’ry’s Comin’ Roun’ and the second half’s jolly Hey, Feller!

Alex Young's rising star continues to shine. Her feisty Ellie Mae Shipley providing many of the show's compassionately comic moments with Life Upon The Wicked Stage being delightfully executed. Opposite her, Danny Collins plays her stage husband Frank Schultz. Collins’ dance work is a marvel, his routine with Young during Goodbye My Lady Love being a blur of perfectly executed footwork. In fact Alistair David’s choreography is stunning throughout. The company numbers are breathtaking, either in their raw humanity during Ol’ Man River, or the simply stunning exuberance of Act One’s opening and closing routines.

Show Boat speaks with charm of a time gone by. Whilst its darker sides of racism and gambling/alcohol addiction are sadly timeless, so too is its observation of marriage. As the Ravenals’ union fails, both Joe and Queenie’s marriage along with that of Captain Andy Hawks and wife Parthy (again, excellent supporting work from Malcolm Sinclair and Lucy Briers) endure the decades. There’s a theme of recognizable hen-pecked husbandry that bridges the racial separation and while Parthy and Queenie’s domineering wives raise a warm chuckle in their disciplined approach to housekeeping, it all harks back to a golden and more gentle age of storytelling, when vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood entertained the world. It’s a further credit to Evans, David and Brotherston that the whole production exudes such a filmic quality.

As Tom Brady's orchestra provide the perfect backdrop to a night of laughter and tears, Show Boat defines flawless musical theatre.

Booking until 7th January 2017
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Toxic Avenger The Musical - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Benji Sperring

The company

There's a fabulous pedigree behind the satirical jaunt that is The Toxic Avenger - The Musical. Inspired by the Troma Studios b-movies of the same name and with music and lyrics by David Bryan (he of Bon Jovi) and Joe DiPietro (both of Memphis fame), the show is an irreverent pastiche of late 20th century America.

Set against the toxically polluted backdrop of “Tromaville”, New Jersey, Mark Anderson is Melvin Ferd The Third, inadequate but essentially good, who gets dropped into a vat of toxic waste by hoodlums. He survives the dunking but emerges as Toxie, a hideously deformed mutant with superhuman powers who sets out to win the heart of Sarah, a (conveniently) blind librarian. To describe the show as tongue in cheek could almost be an obtuse reference to the grotesque prosthetic (good work from Jonathan Moriarty North's studios) that Anderson sports as Toxie. But this musical's not to be taken seriously and it's only to be seen by those who share that guilty pleasure of liking like their comedy served bloody, with a large helping of political incorrectness on the side.

Deliberately setting out to spoof itself by requiring a cast of only five, Anderson along with Hannah Grover who plays Sarah, are the only actors allowed to stay in role throughout. The remaining multitude of characters are made up by Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering who spin through costume changes with breathtaking speed and Lizzii Hills who spends her time alternating between Tromaville's Mayor and Melvin's mother - and who closes act one hilariously as her two characters fight (each other!) in a number aptly entitled Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore.

There's merciless mockery in Bryan and DiPietro's lyrics and the show drips with wit and some killer lyrics. That Toxie’s stench, can be rhymed not only with “french” but also with “mensch” is a stroke of genius. If some of the satire sometimes flags, when it’s good it’s inspired. Pickering’s appearance as a Folk Singer with The Legend Of The Toxic Avenger is a spot-on tribute to John Cougar’s Jack and Diane, whilst Anderson’s You Tore My Heart Out will stay with me for a long time. 

The creative work is classy too, with Mike Lee’s set design, all skyline, vats, and steam-belching oil drums cleverly re-creating New Jersey’s polluted shoreline. Set above the stage, Alex Beetschen’s band make fine work of a score that’s epic in its range.

If you enjoy comedy-horror that while being carefully (and expensively) crafted, refuses to take itself seriously, you'll love The Toxic Avenger. Not for the easily offended, this is top-notch trash! 

Runs until 21st May
Picture credit: Claire Bilyard

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Evelyn Hoskins - There Was A Little Girl - Review

Battersea Barge, London

Evelyn Hoskins and her band

A packed Battersea Barge saw Evelyn Hoskins deliver a slick and intimate cabaret. Elfin / gamine / diminutive - take your pick of the adjectives, Hoskins' looks famously belie her age and for a show titled There Was A Little Girl she not unreasonably opened her set, clad in a tightly fitted and collared school-girl outfit.

The Sound Of Music's Liesel (who Hoskins recently played live on ITV) was famously 16 going on 17, and only this time last year Hoskins was playing Carrie, a telekinetic teenager of similar age yet barely out of puberty - so clearly there's been a little bit of typecasting going on. But the singer has cannily and professionally exploited her charms to the full. As she sung When I Grow Up from Matilda, Hoskins brought an almost ethereal beauty to the number.

A few songs into the evening however and it didn't take long for Hoskins to shed the chrysalis of her kid's costume, literally let her hair down and emerge before our very eyes, transformed from precocious brat to twenty-something beauty. Her set list stepped up a gear too as she duetted First Date / Last Night with Jon Tarcy (previously her ITV Rolf), later duetting with Sam Lupton in a mellowed That's What's Up.

Hoskins' take on The Things That Men Don't Say offered a beautiful vocal, framed with a maturity that dispelled her trademark youthfulness - and there was to be another most charming of double acts as, whilst strumming the ukulele, she sang Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun alongside her director Frances Ruffelle. Few performers understand the nuance of cabaret like Ruffelle who had polished Hoskins' act to a lustrous sparkle, ably supported by MD James Taylor's three piece band.

A gloriously assured and virtually faultless performer, Evelyn Hoskins is a welcome addition to London's cabaret scene.

Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Doctor Faustus - Review

Duke of York’s Theatre, London


Written by Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Jenna Russell and Kit Harington

Christopher Marlowe’s story of Dr Faustus is well-known. The scholar no longer able to find interest in the traditional fields of knowledge (law, religion and medicine) who delves deep into the dark arts and to make a pact with the Devil, selling his soul in exchange for 24 years of godlike powers. 24 years of fame and success followed by eternal damnation. 

Black and existential in its original form, here Marlowe's play is given a more cynically contemporary twist as Colin Teevan introduces new texts that connect today’s transient and trashy pop culture with the moral vacuum Faust makes for himself. 

The result is  fascinating, disturbing and at the same time farcically ironic, like a delirious post-hangover nightmare. The barely-dressed actors inhabit Soutra Gilmour’s stage as already-damned souls, occasionally with an unbearable tension much like the slow-motion protagonists of a Bill Viola video, at other times simply with aggressive violence.

Kit Harington plays a young Faustus, in possession of both human frailty and ingenuity. His pact with Lucifer however is firmly set in the 21st century, with our anti-hero seeking TV celebrity rather than the traditional order of regular superpowers. No longer a scholar, he becomes a magician like David Copperfield or Dynamo, desperate for popularity. Faustus’ longing for a show in Vegas reveals the height of his ambition: we're not in 1592 anymore and people’s deepest desires have changed. 

Harington, albeit looking more comfortable delivering the modern sections by Teevan than the originals, convinces as the easily-duped Faustus. The real strengths of this production however lie with Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles and Forbes Masson as Lucifer. Russell’s performance is magnificent, part demonic seductress and part talent agent. Her ability to convey the suffocating love/hate relationship with Faustus – Who is really the master, who the servant? – is outstanding. In her nightgown, with her short hair, Russell remains the powerful central focus of her scenes and don't linger too long in the bar either - her on-stage singing towards the end of the interval is an infernally ingenious treat.

Masson shines as a sardonic and auto-ironic Lucifer, dangerously mellifluous more than straightforwardly intimidating and a nod too to Tom Edden for his representation of the seven deadly sins. Helped by Jon Clark’s lighting, his is a spectacular transformation through the sins. 

It certainly makes for a stimulating night at the theatre. Lloyd and Gilmour have a well-established partnership that leads to stunning visuals, usually supported by outstanding performances. Russell is fabulous, Harington’s Faustus is likely to be best enjoyed by his fans.  

Runs until June 25th.
Reviewed by Simona Negretto
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday, 22 April 2016

Funny Girl - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer

Sheridan Smith

“People”, who didn’t manage to nab their seats fast enough for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Funny Girl can most definitely rest easy in the knowledge that this acclaimed and triumphant revival is an even bigger and better show following its transfer across the river to the Savoy.

Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice simply oozes star quality. Her comic moments are sublime, as is the heartbreak in her portrayal of Brice’s journey as the laughs fade and her world turns ever so less funny. Smith’s versatility as an actress is displayed to heart rending consequences. She grabs the audience with her quirky grin, comic panache and a varied quip of one liners and expressions sure to catch anyone’s eye, quickly proving that she has what it takes to sweep both the dashing Nick Arnstein and the audience into both her life and our hearts. Darius Campbell plays Arnstein to perfection and opposite Smith, gives us a pairing you’ll want to root for and hate in equal measure as the tale unfolds. Equally, Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice gives us an all too stern, yet familiar (and alongside her friends, hilarious) mother to Fanny.

Michael Mayer’s flawless direction has allowed the transfer to grow effortlessly on to the Savoy’s stage. Lynne Page’s choreography is much more refined and suited to the larger house here, with numbers such as Henry Street and the ever so hilariously diplomatic Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat evolving from impressive, to now “stand out” at the Savoy. In particular, the magnitude and accomplished intricacy of Page’s Temporary Arrangement truly dazzles in its new home. A nod too to the ensemble, whose efforts in such a fast paced “conveyor belt” of a show, both literally and metaphorically, provide the backbone to both Fanny’s fast moving world and this epic production.

Arriving (almost) hard on the heels of Gypsy, there’s more of Jule Styne’s sensational music to fill the Savoy. Under Theo Jamieson’s baton the 14 piece band provide pizzazz and nuance in equal measure as they deliver so many seasoned songbook favourites. Harvey Fierstein too has done a fabulous job in fine-tuning Isobel Lennart’s original book, proving that even the greatest shows can be improved upon.

Just, for one minute, take a look back at London’s theatre landscape over the last 12 months. It is incredible that so many of this nation’s smaller and regional theatres have transferred sensational revivals of Broadway classics into West End houses (and, in the case of the Menier’s The Color Purple, even back to Broadway itself!). Britain’s theatre practitioners lead the way, with Funny Girl proving yet another 5* example of world class Theatre.

Booking until 8th October
Reviewed by: Jack Clements
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Ria Jones Plays Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lonny Price

Ria Jones

Last night, following the indisposition of the show's leading lady, Ria Jones was called upon to play Norma Desmond.

Theatre PR Kevin Wilson was in the audience and with his permission, I am proud to share his review here.

The West End and Broadway is littered with real-life cases of people taking over in a starring role through illness or misfortune and shows like 42nd Street even use it as the main story frame. But those of us fortunate to personally know Ria Jones, who stepped up to the plate so heroically in Sunset Boulevard last night when Glenn Close was taken ill, know that she is already one of our greatest Musical Theatre stars, yet largely unknown as a "face". 

At 19 she had been the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron in 'Evita', followed shortly by her stunning West End debut in 'Chess' as both Svetlana and Florence. Grizabella in 'CATS', Fantine in 'Les Miserables, The Narrator in 'Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' Liz Imbrie in 'High Society' Reno Sweeney in 'Anything Goes', 'The Witches of Eastwick' all followed among many other notable roles... Hell, she even created the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's original Sydmonton workshop. 

Born to play this flashy, dramatic, highly operatic role, she was always billed as The Alternate Norma but few expected her to get to actually don the turban. Last night she did with just a few hours notice. And she stormed the stage and took the roof off the building. She must have been terrified (and exhilerated in turn) as she uttered Norma's first words off stage and descended the massive staircase to the stage below and a sea of disappointed punters. But she won them over with a performance that was pure CLASS.

There had been blood on the carpet in the box office as puce-faced theatregoers waving self-print tickets costing hundreds of £££ in the air demanded their money back (no chance, there) – and they delayed the show by 20 agonising minutes. Thanks to just 3 puny notices, hundreds more in their seats weren't aware anything was wrong... Then the theatre manager (poor man) took to the stage with a microphone and announced Ria was in the lead. Someone behind me in the stalls shamefully shouted out loudly "GIVE US OUR MONEY BACK!" There was no large scale booing but much murmuring and muttering then her army of fans – me included - many in the gods having bought tickets at just an hours' notice screamed and shouted and clapped her in. 

"I know you are in for a treat and it sounds like many of you here know already and agree with me," the apologist manager finished with final rejoinder to the neersayers. 

And Ria was S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N-A-L. Backed by the 51-piece ENO orchestra (who all applauded her off stage after the curtain call) she has never sounded better... this was HER MOMENT and she knew she had to be better than she's ever been before. She hit every high note like a clarion bell. Her final, thrilling defiant "They'll say Norma's back at last ...With one look I'll be me!" silenced any doubters that they were seeing an inferior performance... and the crowd went absolutely wild. 

At the curtain call, co-star Michael Xavier bowed down before her on stage and producer Michael Grade was first to grab her in the wings as the sound of the cast applauding her enveloped her. A class act, indeed and one I am so priviliged to say I witnessed up close and personal from the front row. It was a night I will never forget.

Siobhan Dillon, Michael Xavier, Ria Jones, Fred Johanson

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Lennon: Through a Glass Onion - Review

Epstein Theatre, Liverpool


Written and directed by John Waters

Daniel Taylor
After playing Australia, New York’s Off-Broadway and to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe, Lennon: Through A Glass Onion comes to Liverpool for a two week run at the Epstein Theatre - and as rightfully site-specific locations go, it doesn’t get much better than this. 

In a cross between a play and a juke-box musical, the show itself is simply John Lennon on stage, with Daniel Taylor portraying the man, telling a narrative of key moments in his life, looking back at times gone by. The stories range from childhood through The Beatles to adulthood and fatherhood and of course that day in December 1980 outside the Dakota building. 

However, where John Waters and his creative team have done something quite remarkable is to use the night of Lennon’s shooting as a vehicle, taking the audience through a journey of tales and music in an almost twilight-esque space. Nothing is real, with both performers and audience becoming part of a dream like experience. Daniel Taylor not only visually embodies the man, in an iconic denim jacket and t shirt, but at times shows a vulnerability and a side to Lennon that is not so familiar.

The music adds to the show, making it so much more than just a “night with John Lennon”. The set list is vast with Taylor on acoustic guitar and Stewart D’Arrietta on piano and includes classics that both Lennon and Beatles fans are sure to appreciate. When an injection of rock n roll is required, D’Arrietta’s electrifyingly powerful piano work lifts the numbers without the need for electric guitar or bass.

The fact that Lennon’s autobiographical writings, recounted in between the songs, flow so naturally is a credit to John Waters who brings this local legend to life. The script is simply spot on, including having garnered the approval of Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono

Lennon: Through A Glass Onion ends in a way that is haunting, respectful and above all, effective. This is a superb production that pays tribute to the life and music of a remarkable man. If you go are fortunate enough to be in or near Merseyside, go see it. It makes for a memorable night.

Runs until 29th April
Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

My Mother Said I Never Should - Review

St James Theatre, London


Written by Charlotte Keatley
Directed by Paul Robinson

Katie Brayben

There's a pain and beauty to this first London revival of My Mother Said I Never Should in nearly 30 years that is, at times, quite devastating.

Like a ride on a fairground waltzer, Charlotte Keatley's narrative spins us around and through four generations of Doris Partington's family. Her scenes jump between the years, playing out the evolution of female emancipation in post-war England. 

Keatley's writing is finely honed. She has crafted a (subtly updated) play that is as much a commentary upon Britain's social history as it is a study of four women. There may be a timelessness to the challenges of a loveless marriage, but whilst Maureen Lipman's Doris weathered 61 years of wedlock, confessing on her husband's death that "I don't think we liked each other very much", daughter Margaret sees her own marriage fail in middle-age in the 1980s, whilst granddaughter Jackie faces her own teenage, agonising compromise following the unplanned birth of her daughter Rosie.

Lipman heads a quartet that must surely represent one of the finest ensembles in town. In a play that explores the power and the bind of motherhood, Keatley's characters are stoic. Lipman's brings a measured wisdom and a quiet wounded pain to Doris. All seeing and all knowing, she seasons the morsels of wit that Keatley has sprinkled with a perfect nuance, capturing our affection and respect.

Katie Brayben as Jackie has a first half that could be likened to “Fantine's back story”. Her pain as mother Margaret takes Rosie to raise as her own is a masterclass in understated agony. And it's not just the acting too that is so brilliant - it is Keatley's brutally honest text. Unlike Fantine these women aren’t heroines of grand literature. Fictitious yes, but played out against the suburbs of Manchester and Croydon, they are a part of all our lives.

Caroline Faber's Margaret faces her own agonies. Supporting her daughter, loving and raising her granddaughter and ultimately deserted by her husband, she brings a resonant cadence to her speeches. And then there's Serena Manteghi's gorgeous Rosie. In the early scenes, when the stage-baby is simply a mass of swaddling, Manteghi sits stage right, gurgling and cooing and (brilliantly) giving vocal life to the linen. As she grows into adolescence we forget that the actor's an adult. Manteghi captures Rosie’s childhood without cliché and as the inevitable denouement looms, her pain is refreshingly free of melodrama.

Paul Robinson directs with sensitivity as Simon Slater's sound and music enhance proceedings, with the production marking an impressive debut by producers Tiny Fires. 

Go see this play – the acting is sensational.

Runs until 21st May
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Forever Plaid - Review

St James Studio, London


Written by Stuart Ross
Directed by Grant Murphy

The Plaids

The gingham tablecloths set the tone for Forever Plaid, currently downstairs at St James' Studio. Look closely and the "menu cards" are actually the evening's set list. If it wasn't for the excellent performances on display, all that would be missing would be a juke-box to seal the illusion of 1960's Americana that Forever Plaid so carefully re-creates.

With a plotline as melodramatic as the era it tells of, we meet The Plaids, a fictitious covers band all killed in a road crash and whose spirits are returned to Earth to perform a gig. It's a ridiculous conceit and one that can only work at all if the show's actors are at the top of their game. Fortunately, they are.

The quartet's harmonies are simply the closest possible. The show opens with Three Coins In The Fountain, a rat pack classic that so defines the period, before bespectacled bass man (and bass player) Matthew Quinn makes a perfectly weighted contribution to Gotta Be This Or That. Luke Striffler's Frankie is handed most of the evening's (occasionally too cheesy) narrative, however with a perfect vocal contribution, his singing delights throughout. 

Keith Jack (of BBC's Any Dream Will Do fame) delights as the geeky Sparky, though it is Jon Lee, with a track record that includes both S Club 7 and having played Franke Valli in Jersey Boys, whose voice (especially in Cry) provides the cherry on the top of this malted milk shake of a show.

It's not just the voices that shine. Accompanying throughout on piano (and occasionally on the far too rarely heard melodica) Anthony Gabriele delivers his usual musical perfection. Grant Murphy (assisted here by Katie Bradley) choreographs the four in routines that are as slick as they are witty. Ben Rogers' lighting design works a treat, (I LOVED the location-specific pantograph flood light as a finale touch), whilst Nik Corrall offers an ingenious design of stage and costume, with vinyl and chrome microphone stands everywhere 

More than just a selection of perfectly performed classics, Forever Plaid offers a step back in time. It may be corny, but it’s classy.

Runs until 24th April
Then touring to the Radlett Centre and Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Friday, 15 April 2016

Fiddler on the Roof - Review

Broadway Theatre, New York


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories
Directed by Bartlett Sher

Alexandra Silber and Adam Kantor

Bartlett Sher’s interpretation of Fiddler on the Roof casts fresh eyes over one of the most beloved shows in the canon. Sheldon Harnick's lyrics remain as written, but much of the dance has been deliciously expanded, transforming a 20th century classic, about 19th century Russia, into a 21st century masterpiece.

Memorable Fiddlers have always been about the Tevye - and on this review visit, the much lauded Danny Burstein was replaced by understudy Adam Grupper. To be fair, as the evening played out, Grupper grew wonderfully into the role with the classic narrative losing nothing through the re-shuffle, for in this Fiddler, above all, it is the sum of its parts that define its magnificence.

Jessica Hecht's Golde is as wise and all-knowing as Harnick and Stein intended. Torn between her maternal love for her kids and her spiritual commitment to her faith, the pain as these two worlds collide with daughter Chava's marriage to the gentile Fyedka, she breaks our hearts, struggling with her dilemma. Whilst Sholom Aleichem’s characters may all have been larger than life, Hecht keeps her Golde inspirationally grounded – and beautifully voiced!

Perhaps the most enchanting dynamic on stage is the love that blossoms between Alexandra Silber's Tzeitel (Tevye and Golde's eldest child) and Adam Kantor's Motel the tailor. Silber is no stranger to the show having been a delightful Hodel in London's West End 8 years ago. Here however, and in a role that convinces as a teenager, she brings a well-crafted interpretation to the complex nuances of the young woman she portrays. Her terror at the thought of marriage to the much older Lazar Wolf is palpable, whilst her love for Motel is as believable as is heartwarming. And, of course, Silber possess one of the finest musical theatre presences of her generation, bringing a piquancy to Matchmaker that explores new depths within the famed lyrics.

Likewise, Kantor's Motel is a delight. I last reviewed the actor in his recording of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years and it is clear that he is as comfortable in portraying a young Jewish man's angst irrespective of the century his character is placed in. His take on Motel, the charming nebbish who grows a spine, makes us love and laugh with, the tailor – with his take on Miracle Of Miracles proving a delight.

To be fair, Samantha Massell's Hodel alongside Melanie Moore's Chava both offer an enchanting and revived look as the elder of Tzeitel's four siblings - and in a nod to another understudy, George Psomas' Perchik was a class act too. 

Bartlett Sher's direction is at once sensitive and inspirational. The opening scene sees "Tevye", anorak clad in the modern day, arriving at Anatevka station, guidebook in hand. As he reads his guidebook aloud, it is clear that this Fiddler is not just celebrating the Jews of Tsarist Russia, it is also memorialising the Jewish communities of Europe, so throughly eradicated by Hitler some 40 years later and with a gruesome efficiency that the Tsar could only have dreamed of. Sher's use of the Fiddler too - weaving throughout so much of the action only enhances the music's roots. The final expulsion from Anatevka - the characters silhouetted only in relief, is as tragic as it is brilliantly simple.

It's the little touches too - as the Jews of Anatevka are dispersed we see Lazar Wolf (in a wonderful turn from Adam Dannheisser), unnoticed and seeking no thanks, slip a wad of cash into the impoverished Tevye's luggage.

Michael Yeargan’s set design is ingenious, combining simplicity with world class stage technology. In a show that memorialises the destruction of European Jewry as much as telling the fabled tales from the shtetl, characters don’t just come on from the wings they emerge, walking up steps from an upstage pit, enhancing the setting's spirituality. Some of the scenery is wooden cottages that the characters inhabit, whilst other constructions are smaller homes that hover, ghost like, above the action, suggesting the style of the Marc Chagall pictures that so famously inspired Bock, Harnick and the show's original director Hal Prince, back when Fiddler was evolving in the 1960's.

Hofesh Shechter’s choreography is visionary. His routines respect Jerome Robbin's original themes, but with more music to play with, there is even more of Bock's fabulous fusion of klezmer and cantorial to set the movement to. The big numbers of Tradition and Tevye's Dream are re-imagined here in an explosion of dance that brings this forgotten world of orthodox Judaism bang up to date. And where The Wedding is usually remembered for its breathtaking bottle dancing, Schechter doesn't disappoint - but rather expands the celebration into a joyous explosion of dance that sees the gender barriers taken down with wit and subtlety. 

There is also something re-assuringly "authentic" in seeing the show in New York, and with a significantly Jewish cast. Whilst theatre does not need to be confined to racial or gender constraints, remember that this show was originally written by the descendants of European immigrants, for an American audience. Listen carefully to the self-deprecating Jewish humour that Harnick delicately sprinkles over his lyrics and there's echoes of Frank Loesser and Damon Runyon, along with an ironic seam that continues to this day in the work of Mel Brooks and others. 

Fiddler on the Roof works beautifully on Broadway. As its timeless message demands to be unforgettable, so is this show unmissable.

Booking until 31st December 

Fun Home - Review

Circle In The Square, Broadway


Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel

Rarely does a new musical emerge from a book that is as heartfelt as Fun Home's and yet fails on stage to either inspire or deliver. 

The show is based around the true and troubled memoirs of graphic artist Alison Bechdel whose childhood and adolescence was blighted by her undertaker father's homosexual infidelities. For much of her youth his sexuality was a secret from her, which she only to learn of during her college years, coinciding with her own realisation that she was a lesbian. Spoiler alert: That shortly after that realisation her father commits suicide - a death heavily signalled from the show's opening bars - only adds to the toxic soup of Bechdel’s familial dysfunctionality.

Three actresses play Alison: as cute precocious kid; gauche teenager; and as her adult self looking back. The show's narrative, aided and abetted by some expensive and gimmicky stage hydraulics, shifts the tale back and forth across the years. Swap complex aspects of sexuality with the frustrations of the American Dream and Fun Home could almost have been re-titled Death Of A Salesman (ok, Death Of An Undertaker), The Musical.

But where Arthur Miller's play was a work of finely crafted genius and Bechdel's tale is surely worthy of respectful consideration, as a musical the show is lame.

The tunes are forgettable and the lyrics, witless. Musical theatre is no stranger to difficult subjects, yet where Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown and Kander and Ebb have honed their lyrics to pinpoint poignancy - offering us both food for thought and wonder at their songsmiths' craft, Fun Home's words are flat and repetitive, offering little musical meat. There's an entertaining Jackson 5 inspired routine from young Alison and her two junior siblings - but otherwise the songs are a laboured ballad-fest.

The actors are all fine and should be proud of their work. Young Alison is an assured performance from a confidently young and accomplished Gabriella Pizzolo, whilst playing the artist in the show's middle years, Lauren Patten is outstanding as a young woman leaving adolescence and battling immense issues. Wrapping up the trio, Beth Malone as Alison senior is creditable, even if she is overshadowed by her junior counterparts.

Likewise Michael Cerveris as Alison's morally bankrupt father Bruce (who cruised for underage men given the opportunity) puts in a worthy performance, whilst Rebecca Luker’s Helen, Alison’s mother offers an interpretation that's perfectly weighted. We see the measured sorrow in her eyes from the opening scenes - it's just a shame that the quality of the material doesn't match her talent.

And yet, maybe like the fabled Emperor’s new clothes, for some reason Broadway lauded Fun Home with nigh on a clean sweep in the 2015 awards. As a musical (and pardon the cockney vernacular) it’s more pony than Tony.

Boooking until 9th October

The Color Purple - Review

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York


Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle

Cynthia Erivo
It says much for London's modest but acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory that their production of The Color Purple, first staged three years ago, has been shipped back to Broadway to a rave reception. John Doyle's simple staging that worked so well in the Menier's cockpit, all stripped-back wood and chairs, has been neatly expanded to fit the Bernard B. Jacobs’ cavernous stage and the transition works well. As in London, there is no fancy gimmickry to this rawest tale of human endeavour - the strengths of Doyle's Color Purple rest entirely upon its cast and of course upon its leading lady, the diminutive English powerhouse that is Cynthia Erivo.

The tale is of the grim life of Erivo's Celie, whose illegitimate children are taken from her in an abused adolescence, who is then "married" to the most brutal of men and yet who goes on to find the most unlikely of redeemers in her love for Shug Avery, a travelling singer with few morals but a heart of gold. 

John Doyle has cleverly envisioned the work. Slavery may have been abolished but civil rights remained a dream. When Celie reveals that her father was lynched, the disclosure is so casual it underlines the ingrained racism of the South. For this British reviewer however, it is sobering to revisit the show on Broadway, amidst an audience significantly comprised of African Americans. There were audible gasps at Celie’s throwaway lynching reference and where, in the UK, we only hear of America's racist troubles in the news and media, in much of the USA today racism remains a strong evil. That #BlackLivesMatter remains a powerful hashtag for the modern era speaks volumes for the troubling timelessness of Marsha Norman's book. 

 With an entirely black cast, the story tells of the love and cruelty that lived within the South's Black community. Yet it is the humour and compassion that shines out from within these characters that makes the show sparkle. Rarely has the term "bittersweet" been so apt.

It says much for Erivo, hitherto unknown on Broadway, that she not only tops the billing alongside accomplished headliner Jennifer Hudson, but that she defines star-quality in a rarely seen display of breathtaking energy and emotion. On stage for almost the entire show, Erivo has the audience rooting for her character.

Hudson captures Avery's bisexual irresistibility perfectly and with a set of pipes to match. And as her scarlet character merges with the blues of her singing, Hudson defines a powerfully passionate purple. 

Whilst Erivo is the diva who’s deservedly crossed the Atlantic, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there was a fine company supporting her at the Menier and to be fair, the same is true here. There's another nod amongst the cast to the powerhouse of London's SE1 theatre-quarter with Kyle Scatliffe, who stunned in the Young Vic's Scottsboro Boys shortly after The Color Purple closed, taking on the role of the hapless Harpo. Danielle Brooks delivers a fearsomely feisty Sofia, whilst Isaiah Johnson’s Mister brings a redemption to his despicable character that is entirely believable. And a mention too for Phoenix Best, Patrice Covington and Rema Webb as the gossipy Church Ladies of Celie’s Georgia community. Amidst the tightest of harmonies and delivered at breakneck speed, they were never less than hilarious. Brava!

There’s talk of a Tony and rightly so. Erivo’s star may have been proudly born in London – but Broadway is sealing its place in the firmament.

Booking until 2nd October

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

How The Other Half Loves - Review

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London


Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Alan Strachan

Matthew Cottle and Gillian Wright

Written before he had become one of the nation's most prolific playwrights, yet as ever focusing upon his hallmark theme of domestic dysfunctionality, How The Other Half Loves is Alan Ayckbourn's 1969 effort, viewed through the prism of well-performed comedy.

Fuelled by differences in class and alongside marital infidelity that spans the social strata, the young and argumentative Teresa and Bob Philips (Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Merrells) live modestly whilst the older Frank and Fiona Foster (Nicholas Le Prevost and Jenny Seagrove) enjoy a more privileged lifestyle. This being Ayckbourn however, Bob is having an affair with Fiona and thrown into the mix are the dull and dim Featherstones (William and Mary played by Matthew Cottle and Gillian Wright respectively) who have no idea that they’re being used as scape goats to hide the sordid carryings on. 

For the most part the book is well thought out. Mistaken suspicions are cleverly managed to comical and catastrophic results, with occasional moments of perfectly timed slapstick only enhancing the humour. But while there's much energy on display, the ending disappoints, feeling a little weak and somewhat rushed and almost doing a disservice to the preceding hilarity. The lengthy curtain drops between scene changes don't help, with the frequent halts dissipating dramatic momentum. 

Le Prevost, Wright and Cottle are all on top form. Le Prevost’s embodiment of a Blithering older gentleman with a constant misunderstanding of what’s been said to him brings the audience to its knees with roaring hilarity. He shows a believable stereotype that continues to surprise and is extremely enjoyable to watch. Wright’s Mary is shy and understated, with a masterclass performance in how to use pauses to full effect and a wonderful collaboration on stage with Cottle, who embodies a warm awkwardness on stage that one could watch for hours.

Alan Strachan's direction is choreographed to perfection with pinpoint timing and movement, delivering an Ayckbourn revival that is fun to watch and which refreshingly restores some old school charm to the theatre.

Runs until 25th June
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Alistair Muir

Hand to God - Review

Vaudeville Theatre


Written by Robert Askins
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel

Harry Melling

Hand to God is the cleverly written story of Jason (played by Harry Melling of Harry Potter fame) a quiet and awkward teenager, struggling to deal with his father's death six months prior.

Through his mother's church Puppet Therapy class, Jason discovers a friend in Tyrone, his sock-puppet, or so it would seem. As the story progresses Tyrone begins to act on Jason’s real thoughts and desires with wild abandon, from flirting with his classroom crush (Jemima Rooper) to standing up to and viciously attacking his bully (Kevin Mains), having sex and generally wreaking havoc. It has been suggested that Tyrone is the manifestation of a demonic possession and that dark forces are at work. More realistically though, the extreme puppetry touches upon the issues and mental struggles that Jason faces in dealing with his grief and the lack of support from his Janie Dee as his mother - who herself ends up having a steamy, slightly dominatrix-like affair with his bully in the church bathroom.

Mellings' performances of Jason and Tyrone are remarkable. From portraying the quiet and shy Jason one second, whilst the next giving an entirely juxtaposed performance of Tyrone complete with expert puppeteering, shows the makings of a very talented actor. 

It’s not just the performances that impress. Robert Askins' book is clever, crude and full of witty one-liners that make the audience cringe, cry out and laugh all at once. Beowulf Boritt's set is another highlight, detailed with clean and swift scene changes, it adds to making the show crisp and well put together.

In a story that some may find offensive, Hand to God is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Its quick humour, extensive set and intelligent subtext certainly will however make a big impression. Hand to God is an intriguing and relevant comedy with a heart of darkness that makes for excellent modern theatre.

Runs until 11th June
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy