Sunday, 31 July 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Review

Palace Theatre, London


*****

Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
Written by Jack Thorne
Directed by John Tiffany


Jamie Parker

Translating Harry Potter from page to stage is a task so immense that it almost requires wizardry itself. In her books J.K. Rowling has written with such detail that the reader can picture the action as vividly as the imagination will allow. Similarly and alongside, in the movies' post production suites clever editing combined with digital technology has brought almost anything to life. So, could a stage presentation of the latest episode(s) of the Harry Potter series match the buzz of the books or the hype and hysteria that has surrounded the much loved movies? 

The answer is most definitely Yes.

The success of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child lies not just with its excellent cast, but rather with its creative team and writers. From the outset, both parts of this gargantuan production constantly reference and revisit the series' previous books, yet all the while pulling off a magnificent coup by moving forward with a spellbinding script that actually demands no prior Potter knowledge at all.

Notwithstanding that any Harry Potter story is going to demand spectacular trickery, the real magic here lies with the basics, with Steven Hoggett’s movement direction proving as slick as any of the on-stage illusions. Hoggett’s choreography - alongside Imogen Heap's music - not only sets the scenes but also captures the atmosphere of locations such as Hogwarts School where the majority of the play is set. 

John Tiffany seamlessly stitches together state of the art effects alongside traditional top-notch stagecraft. While all the expected illusions and gimmicks are here, everything goes one step further than expected. Flying, floating and transforming all take place before the eyes of the audience, at times even filling the auditorium, but the sucker punch is delivered on stage by the cast. Carving out intimate moments on stage, Tiffany allows us to meet the characters - some more familiar than others - but each nonetheless given time to establish their relationships with each other. 

Amongst hard core fans in the audience some revelations may cause gasps of shock and surprise but again, previous knowledge is far from a necessity. Picking up the Potter legacy nineteen years from where the story left off, Jamie Parker's Harry, Norma Dumezweni as Hermione and Paul Thornley's Ron are all adults now. Jack Thorne's writing ensures that each of the three bring their character's classic traits and tributes from the books to their own performance, while more than putting their own stamp firmly on their respective roles.

Parker’s take on the relationship between Harry Potter and his two sons is particularly moving. Tom Milligan plays James Potter the mad, eccentric big brother to Albus Potter played by Sam Clemmett. The play sets off with the two brothers on their way to Hogwarts. James settles in well and is proud of his father’s name at the school. Albus' time at Hogwarts is more challenging and through the various twists and turns of his struggles, the relationship between father and son becomes even more strained. Parker and Clemmett rise to the roles with raw and emotive performances from both actors. 

Building a set that comes close to some of the great Rowling tableaux was never going to be easy but Christine Jones' tall gothic arches create the Potter world perfectly. Bookcases swivel to become mazes, as staircases twist and turn transforming settings, all enhanced by Neil Austin's ingenious lighting designs.

When the Potter books were first published there was acclaim for J.K. Rowling, not just for having penned a damn good yarn, but for having almost single-handedly reintroduced reading to a generation. And as this review is published, bookstore queues are stretching around the block for the play's script, released today as the 8th title in the series. It would be wonderful if when the play transfers globally, as it surely will, that it may also take introduce the inspirational experience of live dramatic theatre to a new generation too. 

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is a spectacular play - and it should remain a source of much pride to Sonia Friedman, Rowling and the show's entire cast and crew that such epic theatre has been developed and premiered in London's West End.


Booking until December 2017
Review by Joe Sharpe
Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Exposure - Review

St James Theatre, London


**


Music, lyrics and book by Mike Dyer
Directed by Phil Willmott


The company

With a talented cast, fleshed out with the odd soap star and a top notch creative team, Exposure promised to be a night of lively, entertaining theatre. It was certainly lively, but that didn't save it from being entirely nonsensical and ridiculous. 

In the 12 years it took Dyer to write the book and having collaborated with as many composers, why did nobody sit the man down and let him know he was creating, possibly the most bizarre piece of theatre ever written.

The story, such as it is, follows Jimmy, (David Albury) a passionate photographer who has just returned from a harrowing assignment in the Sudan to take some PR shots of a pop princess (Niamh Perry) that he used to go to school with. Possibly (to many in the audience) one of the few good things about this show was that more often than not the ripped Albury was shirtless.

Jimmy is then introduced to the pop star's demonic manager, Miles Mason (Michael Greco), who at one point sings a song (entitled Miles Mason) about how hearing his own name gives him an erection - though to be honest, given Greco's inability to pronounce words clearly, the hardest part of the number was trying to discern the words at all.

Greco propositions our leading man to take paparazzi photographs of examples of the seven deadly sins. What follows is then some bizarre satanic battle in a London Underground inspired Hell. And somewhere in all of this madness Jimmy falls in love with a random homeless woman, Tara, (Natalie Anderson) who makes angels out of coke cans. 

The show’s truly impressive feature is Lindon Barr's choreography. The ensemble were incredibly tight and despite the ever changing story line, the movement in each scene was perfect. Barr should be proud of himself.

One doubts that this musical will be revisited any time soon - it may well have received too much exposure already.


Runs until 27th August
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit Pamela Raith


Half A Sixpence - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


****



New music and lyrics by George Stiles And Anthony Drewe
Original songs by David Heneker
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh


Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp

Half A Sixpence headlines Chichester's summer season this year and with Cameron Mackintosh co-producing, it's a rather grand re-working of Beverley Cross and David Heneker's 1963 musical. The original numbers have been reworked by Stiles and Drewe with a few new songs added too, in what is a light-hearted and delightfully dated snapshot of the English class system and its social mores around the turn of the 20th century.

The show remains based on H.G.Wells' novel Kipps: The Story Of A Simple Soul but these days no respectable take on the Edwardian era would dare show its face without Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey's esteemed progenitor, popping up somewhere in its DNA. Fellowes has been dutifully hired to re-write the book and to be fair, he's made a decent fist of it. But with one eye perhaps on a transatlantic export/transfer and the potentially short attention spans of our American cousins, the storyline has been kept tissue-paper thin.

Set in coastal Kent, Arthur Kipps is a humble working class lad who falls in love with the equally lowly Ann Pornick. Upon inheriting a fortune he finds himself escalated to the “above-stairs” world, where a new romance emerges with the wealthy Helen Walsingham. Trials and tribulations follow, before an ultimate marriage to one of his paramours, all played out to a relentless moral backdrop that true love is more precious than material wealth. 

Originally a vehicle for the 1960's idol Tommy Steele who played Kipps, nearly every song featured his character and the reworked show upholds this premise. Charlie Stemp, an actor who has only played featured parts to date, is thrust into his first leading role and he shines. Fine in both movement and voice, Stemp is on stage virtually throughout and truly leads the cast. All of his songs are a delight, however the tender charm of his first half opener (the title song) along with the rumbustious romance of The One Who's Run Away which kicks off act two, display the range of the man's talents.

Devon-Elise Johnson's Ann is an Essex-infused delight. She was first reviewed on this site in 2013 where (as a supporting performer) her starring role potential was clearly visible even then. Johnson is a marriage of cockney charm alongside musical theatre excellence - a highlight being her take on Heneker's Long Ago, a beautifully reflective piece. 

As the quintessentially proper Helen, Emma Williams is, as ever, magnificent. Vocally gorgeous, Williams also offers the evening's briefest of dips into poignant pathos. Offered one of the newer songs to shine in, Believe In Yourself, throughout Williams re-asserts herself as one of the leading ladies of her generation.


Emma Williams and Charlie Stemp

Fresh from playing alongside Williams in Mrs Henderson Presents, Ian Bartholomew turns in a cracking cameo as Chitterlow a writer who more than loosely mirrors Wells himself. Bartholomew has the presence and panache to drive the role along with a particularly corny chapter of the narrative magnificently, bringing an overstated flamboyance that complements the show like a fizzing cocktail and is entirely in keeping with his character.

Downton enthusiasts will love the waspish sparking between dowagers Mrs Walsingham and Lady Punnet (Vivien Parry and Jane How respectively). Fellowes is no fool and has been wise to replicate the acid style of the TV series’ clashes between Maggie Smith/Penelope Wilton, which make for fine entertainment.

Stiles and Drewe's input is a curate's egg. Their contributions to (a lengthy) act one don't compare well to Heneker's original numbers of 50 years ago and if one or two of those compositions were dropped it would be no bad thing. However, after the break, their work is revelatory. Their song Pick Out A Simple Tune is the closest thing to a showstopper seen in new musical theatre writing, offering an anarchic beauty (largely fuelled by Andrew Wright's outstanding choreography) that as each new verse and key-change reveals itself, leaves one wishing the song would never end. It really is that good!

Rachel Kavanaugh's direction is masterful, playing her company well on the concentric revolves of Paul Brown's set. Truly charming, Half A Sixpence is flawlessly performed and well worth a seaside jaunt to Chichester.


Runs until 3rd September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Superman and me - Review

King's Head Theatre, London


***

Written by Suzette Coon
Directed by Eloise Lally




Tracey Ann Wood and Paul Giddings

Superman and me is a short, (if not so) sweet, two-handed snapshot of domestic dysfunctionality. Focusing on journalists Lois and Clark (geddit?) who met while working on the same newspaper, the half-hour long play, simply set in the chairs of their marriage-guidance counsellor's therapy room, flits in and out of the time zones of their ultimately unhappy twenty-something years together.

Suzette Coon's writing is a patchwork of barbed dialogue and reflective, sometime wistful monologues. Poignant, painful and occasionally perceptive, we witness her characters pick their way through the recognisable compromises of post-modern couples. Clark struggles with his conventionally macho ego being challenged by his ambitious and intellectual wife, whilst Lois sacrifices her stimulating career advancement on the altar of (mildly) resented motherhood. It ain't Pinter, but rather recognisable themes which Coon, for the most part, addresses avoiding cliché.

That the play dabbles fleetingly with the complexities and consequences of manic depression is a niggle. Mental health issues need to be talked about for sure - but making someone's breakdown the focus of a self described "anti romantic comedy" hints at a flippant treatment of the illness, which one suspects could not be further from Coon's intentions. A little more work is needed, 

Unquestionably written from the female perspective, Tracey Ann Wood (last reviewed here in Big Brother Blitzkrieg) remains outstanding, with every word capturing both the poise and nuance of her frustrations. Paul Giddings’ Clark however is a shallower creation, confined to playing (albeit very well) little more than a fatally stymied geek. One wishes that the text might have offered him an opportunity to explore a broader range of emotions.

But credit to Coon, for her innovative writing is punchy and emphatic and she's maintained a ruthless eye on the clock too. Superman and me deserves its inclusion in The King's Head's admirable Festival 46 and is well worth watching.


Performed again on 28th July

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Truth - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


****


Written by Florian Zeller
Directed by Lindsay Posner


Alexander Hanson and Frances O'Connor

Florian Zeller is a precocious writing talent. The Truth is his third play to enthral London theatre goers in a year. Zeller's drama The Father reduced some viewers to tears with its' poignant and painful depiction of dementia. The Truth, a modern day farce about lies and adultery, brings tears of laughter.

Laurence (Tanya Franks) is married to Michel (Alexander Hanson) who is having an affair with Alice (Frances O'Connor) who is married to Michel's best friend Paul (Robert Portal). We watch in fascination as the reality of the characters' lives implode. Who is telling the truth? What are the lies? The audience is cleverly manipulated as the story unfolds. Zeller has certainly tapped into the male psyche concerning adultery but what makes this interesting is that the female characters are as complicit (or are they?) as the men. 

Alexander Hanson starts the proceedings, yanking up his underpants and meandering the stage like an impatient John Wayne. Never has the search for a sock been so amusing. Throughout, Hanson moves around the stage, a caged creature, whilst the other characters have a centred quality and often, a stillness. The simple, effective direction by Lindsay Posner keeps the action clean, letting the dialogue shine, lines ricocheting around the auditorium. 

Lizzie Clachan's stylish, minimalist set is highly effective in its simplicity. A pale, streamlined background of rooms that change ever so subtly; no doors are used as associated with our expectation of traditional farce. There is restrained embellishment, beautifully allowing the focus onto the actors.

Frances O'Connor has a regal quality in her sharp stilettos and brings a disarming coldness to Alice. For a play steeped in sex, O'Connor's Alice is calculating & practical, her sensual side kept under-wraps in her skin tight designer dresses. Tanya Franks' Laurence appears stoic, a perfect portrayal of middle class normality. She has a payoff in the final scene which she plays beautifully, the veneer that had been held together throughout, crumbling before our eyes. 

Robert Portal's Paul, has strength and conviction but an under lying sadness. Portal's body language and broad-chested stance belie his internal questioning. His confidence seems contrived and Portal keeps the audience questioning to the very end of Paul's motives. 

Throughout the 90 minutes duration (without an interval, which works perfectly) I found myself constantly drawn to Hanson's Michel. Even as a loathsome narcissist, he never fails to have immense charm and aplomb. His increasingly nervous, nuanced, suppressed manic philanderer is the glue that holds the whole piece together. It is a quite mesmeric performance which deserves as big an audience as possible.

The Truth packs the entertainment punch of a really good old fashioned farce, though Zeller has brought the genre into 2016 with barbed words, stating uncomfortable truths: with lies dressed in the hubris of modern day self belief. At one point, a character asks if they are in a comedy or a tragedy. And there is the truth - the play is both but manages to keep the tragedy of this predicament firmly within the comedy genre. This is darn good theatre, highly recommended. Go see it!


Booking until 3rd September
Reviewed by Andy Bee

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


*****

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Tyrone Huntley and Declan Bennett

In what is unquestionably a Superstar for the 21st century Timothy Sheader's Jesus is no long haired prophet. In an electrifying performance that captures both Christ’s charisma and his flawed vulnerability, Declan Bennett's Messiah is a powerfully charged hipster. Played out against Tom Scutt's rusted-steel framed set (that interestingly evokes the Angel Of The North in its unpretentious simplicity) and with hand held mics throughout, this production places the emphasis as much upon Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock-driven score, as it does upon its sensational cast.

Bennett brings an energy to the title role that is moving and credible. Vocally he is perfect and as act one sees a momentum gather, it is in the second half with his remarkable Gethsemane (opened beautifully by Bennett himself on acoustic guitar) that the actor soars. His performance is as harrowing to watch as it is probably exhausting to perform. We flinch at the Trial By Pilate / 39 Lashes and during his crucifixion, the extent to which Bennett subtly underplays his agony makes it all the tougher for the audience to watch - and all this alongside Scutt's ingenious interpretation of Calvary, itself a scenic triumph that must surely rank amongst the capital's finest this year.

Next to Bennett, Tyrone Huntley's Judas is sensational. His opening take on Heaven On Their Minds displays an intelligence and energy that has been carefully honed during his already impressive career. Gifted several stunning solos, he closes the first half with Blood Money and a neat theatrical take on the "pieces of silver" that won't be revealed here. Throughout, Huntley offers a clever interpretation of the complex dissolution of his friendship with Jesus. When the Oliviers are being handed out this year, both Bennett and Huntley deserve to be on the list.

There is imaginative excellence across the company. With both Everything's Alright and I Don't Know How To Love Him, Anouska Lucas's Mary is a thing of beauty, the actress highlighting not just Mary's damaged frailty, but also the inexplicably wondrous love that she feels towards Jesus. David Thaxton's Pilate is another treat and as he sings Pilate's Dream, leading on electric guitar, the background acoustic work of Bennett and Joel Harper-Jackson (who plays Simon Zealotes) offers another layer to the song's troubling spirituality. Peter Caulfield's Herod, truly as camp as Christmas, is a blast, (and wonderfully costumed too), whilst Cavin Cornwall's imposing Caiaphas offers a baritone that has to be heard to be believed.

Shearer has surrounded himself with a top-notch creative team. Under Tom Deering's direction Lloyd Webber's score thrills, with the show evolving into a celebration of the guitar in the modern musical, as much as a biblical interpretation. Drew McOnie's choreography makes fine use of the ensemble and the multi-level space with his movement evoking not just a seething biblical crowd but also the febrile tensions of the times. 

Lee Curran's lighting adds dimension too. The rock-concert style of the evening piece lends itself to smoke - and as the park’s daylight finally succumbs to night over the crucifixion, so to like Longinus' spear, do Curran's shafts of light pierce the darkness.

This is beautiful brilliant theatre. Don't miss it.


Runs until 27th August
Photo credit Johan Perssonn

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Die Fledermaus - Review

Opera Holland Park, London


****

by Johan Strauss II
Libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genee
Libretto translation by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans

John Lofthouse, Peter Davoren and Susanna Hurrell 


There can truly be no finer night to visit Martin Lloyd-Evans' new production of Die Fledermaus than the hottest day of the year. As the sun set over the Opera Holland Park arena, West London's balmy climes proved a perfect ambience for this most barmy of operettas.

And make no mistake - the story of Die Fledermaus requires ones disbelief to be suspended beyond belief. It's a crackpot tale of the ultimate mate's revenge - involving more infidelity, cuckoldry and trousers around ankles than could fill a season of Whitehall farces. Amidst a risible plot of deception and frustrated assignations, the dated (but nonetheless mildly witty) humour of act one evaporates after the break - and the final act's nod to pantomime, with its references to Cameron, Johnson, Farage et al is already found to be woefully out of date by its omission of Theresa May! 

Alistair Beaton's 1994 translation may be a masterpiece of alliteration and assonance - but it really needed the wit of Jimmy Perry and David Croft to take a 19th century comedy classic and update it to something more than an episode of 'Allo 'Allo! and one that lasts for nigh on three hours at that!

That being said......

The artistic values behind this production are really rather glorious. Ben Johnson and Susanna Hurrell are the married Von Eisenstein and Rosalinde, both desperately and futilely craving extra-marital fornication and they are both magnificent. Hurrell in particular with the gorgeous Hungarian Countess' Csárdás in act two. Peter Davoren's irresistibly adulterous tenor Alfred is another performance of vocal excellence - though the true honours of the night must go to the northern-tones of Jennifer France's Adele who makes sensational work of The Laughing Song.

Under John Rigby's baton the orchestra are magnificent - and for those reading this, who are unfamiliar with the piece, seek out the Die Fledermaus Waltz. You'll find that you've known it for years - and hearing it played with such finesse is truly a treat.

As ever, takis designs imaginatively. Set in the 1920's, his imagery is heavy on Art Deco and Mondrian, with some wonderful gowns for the ladies attending Count Orlofsky's ball - not least the feathered number put to good use by Didi Derrière in a brief moment of burlesque cabaret. Howard Hudson's lighting is similarly dreamy - taking on increasing force as the evening's natural light gradually fades. 

Die Fledermaus' libretto may be tedious - but its delivery at Opera Holland Park, in both style and performance is stunning.


In repertory until August 5

Stalking The Bogeyman - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


****


By Markus Potter and David Holthouse 
with additional writing by Santino Fontana, Shane Zeigler and Shane Stokes
Directed by Markus Potter


Mike Evans and Gerard McCarthy

Stalking The Bogeyman is a brave and challenging play. Co-written with Markus Potter who directs, David Holthouse tells his very personal and true story of having been raped at the age of seven by a neighbour and family friend, and of the impact that the rape was to have upon his life.

Holthouse lived then (and still does to this day) in Alaska where winter, the season in which he was assaulted, is a time of below freezing temperatures and perpetual darkness. The rapist was ten years older than the young Holthouse, an athletic young man who the child idolised.

In a remarkable performance Gerard McCarthy plays David and it is a measure of both well-crafted writing and performance that sensitively portrays the moment of the rape. Before us, the wide-eyed child at play is transformed from a trusting innocent into a violently violated victim. The drama tracks Holthouse until his mid-30s and we witness not so much the appalling physical damage wreaked upon him by the rape, but rather the emotional and psychological aftermath of the attack. As Holthouse comments later in the play, the very rape itself became part of the fabric of his life, a burden that he has to carry with him every single day. When he learns in adult life that his abuser has, by chance, moved into to his town he purchases a gun and plots a murderous revenge.

McCarthy leads a strong company. Opposite him, Mike Evans puts in a carefully weighted performance as The Bogeyman. At no point are either McCarthy or Evans seeking sensationalism in their roles – rather a desperate glimpse into some of humanity’s darkest corners. There’s fine work too from Glynis Barber as Nancy, Holthouses’s mother. Only learning of his abuse years after the event, Nancy’s pain at having been unable to protect her baby from such horror is a finely tuned performance. Likewise, Amy Van Nostrand’s Molly, Holthouse’s drug dealer and a survivor herself is another well-layered turn. Geoffrey Towers and John Moraitis, playing a variety of roles and ages, complete the sextet.

Cleverly staged in the round, Rob Casey’s lighting and Erik T. Lawson’s music subtly enhance the play’s bleakness. Remarkably Stalking The Bogeyman ends on a message of hope, but sat in The Little at Southwark Playhouse, the venue’s walls have been transformed into a scrapbook of references to rape and child exploitation. The message is clear – sexual violence is everywhere.


Runs until 6th August

Sunday, 17 July 2016

American Idiot - Review

Arts Theatre, London


****


Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day
Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews


Newton Faulkner
Green Day’s anarchic and rebellious, teen-angst filled musical, American Idiot is back on the London stage with a star-studded cast who battle, and floor, the age old scepticism of putting celebrities into a commercial show. After a well received UK tour Racky Plews’ take on the concept album returns to the Arts Theatre for a tourist-tempting summer residency.

With music and book written by the band’s front man Billie Joe Armstrong, it’s not surprising that the material entirely embodies the initial anger and frustration toward American society that inspired the album back in 2004. The story follows three friends, Johnny, Tunny and Will as they mature, struggling to grow up in a world of right-wing politics and commercial greed that they don’t conform with and we see the three all end up in very different areas of a painful modern life.

Johnny (Newton Faulkner) is the main focus of the story, with a vision to move to the city and separate himself and his friends from the small town mind-set that they’ve been living in and start a new, free life and Faulkner proves a pleasant surprise with a strong performance. There are a few moments when his voice becomes lost in the on stage anarchy, but he suits the character and seems entirely comfortable in the piece. His shining moment is the calm and quiet rendition of Wake Me Up When September Ends, transporting the audience into an intimate, acoustic gig. Learning that he started his music career playing bass guitar in a Green Day cover band comes as no surprise.

The ensemble though is filled with strong seasoned performers who really make the show. Lucas Rush again soars in his role as the heroin-created alter ego of Johnny, St Jimmy. His energy on stage is gripping and each time he appears you are instantly drawn to watch him.

The same can be said for Amelia Lily continuing in the role of Whatsername, with a chemistry across from Faulkner that is enchanting and despite the small role, Lily shines.

Contrasted against current political and social affairs, American Idiot continues to be a very relevant piece of theatre.


Runs until 25th September
Photo credit: Darren Bell

The Fix - Review

Union Theatre, London


****

Music by Dana P. Rowe
Book & lyrics by John Dempsey
Directed & choreographed by Michael Strassen


Lucy Williamson

The timing could hardly be better as Michael Strassen reprises his take on The Fix. With the United States hurtling towards what is likely to be the most fiercely contested Presidential election in decades, John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe's satirical expose of the American political machine is apposite to say the least.

Fra Fee is the naive Cal Chandler - who when his Senator father dies in his mistress' bed is ruthlessly thrust into the race for political power by his scheming mother Violet. While Violet may be the power behind the Chandler throne, pulling the strings is her late husband's brother Grahame, crippled by polio and with an eye on a seat in the judiciary. Oh, and there's been a romantic liaison between Violet and Grahame too - think of Hamlet, Macbeth and The West Wing all hurled into a blender and you start to get close to the Machiavellian machinations of the aspirational Chandler administration.

The acting is fine throughout - and Fee marks the emergent Chandler well, convincing us of the young man's reluctance to have been dragged from his privileged but youthful primrose path, into the glaring scrutiny of public life and politics. There's charming supporting work too from the talented Madalena Alberto as Tina McCoy, a stripper who wins Cal's love, tempting him away from his loveless marriage of convenience. 

The show however is driven by the astonishing performances of Lucy Williamson as Violet and Ken Christiansen's Grahame. Williamson's performance is a powerhouse. In a show that is un-mic'd (see below) her performance is one of the few that offers vocal magnificence, with passion and nuance elicited from every syllable. 

Christiansen, who only last month was wowing the Union's audiences in Little Voice, yet again nails his character's manipulative duplicity. Flawless in both voice and presence, alongside Williamson, the pair steal every scene they're in.

There is magnificent supporting work too from Peter Saul Blewden and Alastair Hill who between them offer up a range of incidental characters, all crucial to the narrative.

This is the first production at The Union Theatre's new space across the road. The building is a beautiful improvement and Sasha Regan should feel justly proud of what she has achieved. But, the acoustics of the new place need a lot of careful thought as sat in the third row, too much of the show's lyrics proved inaudible. Likewise, when action was played out low down on the Union's floor, it becomes invisible to those of us further back. These are very early teething days for the new venue of course, but in the old place, audiences were barely raked and there was little need for mics. The new space offers much gorgeous opportunity for sure, but it also presents challenges that future producers and directors must learn to overcome.

For the most part, Strassen's direction and choreography are a thrilling fusion of sound and vision, enhanced by Josh Sood’s 4 piece band. Simply staged and with an occasional use of the American flag Strassen cleverly evokes the darker side of USA politics. Viewed from Britain, the 2016 Presidential race sees Donald Trump frequently held out as an almost pantomime villain. The closing scene of The Fix however argues otherwise. There's a strong suggestion, as Strassen places the sensational Williamson behind a lectern, maniacal and eyes-blazing, that Hillary Clinton is the more devious contender.


Runs until 6th August
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Patch Of Fog - Review

****


Written by John Cairns and Michael McCartney 
Directed by Michael Lennox



A Patch of Fog from Michael Lennox marks one of the UK’s more intriguing thrillers of recent years.

Conleth Hill is Sandy, a professor and TV personality. He is also a compulsive shoplifter whose life unravels when he’s caught on camera by security guard Robert (Stephen Graham) . A pathological loner, Robert projects a whole unwanted friendship onto the trapped academic as a profoundly unnerving tale evolves.

What makes Lennox’s story so compelling is that both protagonists are flawed and, to different degrees, unsympathetic characters.  The apparently decent Sandy is a thief, (who can't even resist stealing the cigarette lighter belonging to a late-night petrol station cashier), while Robert is evidently disturbed as he sets about his own path of criminality, stalking, blackmailing and threatening the hapless professor. There’s fine work too from Lara Pulver as single mum Lucy and Sandy’s girlfriend, who is also cunningly preyed upon by Robert.

As a psychological thriller it’s a beautifully crafted picture. The script is tight, edgy and suspenseful, with performances to match. Different time, location and style for sure, but there’s a hint of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me to the tense narrative. A Northern Irish movie, it's a neat touch that sees Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid from the province’s acclaimed Snow Patrol score a perfectly pitched soundtrack in accompaniment.


A classy picture, well worth catching.


Now in cinemas and available in VOD online

Ceili O Connor - The Understudy - Review

Century Club, London


*****




Amongst the best of her generation, Ceili O'Connor has achieved numerous West End castings with a talent that has seen her understudy many a leading lady, truly an achievement in itself. With understduies all too often overlooked, it has not been until recently, when we have seen some of London's finest shows having to famously call upon their understudies when the headlining star has been indisposed, that audiences have been famously reminded of just how good those covering performers are. Their performances are typically nothing less than magnificent.

But for O'Connor however, who has covered some of the biggest roles in town and on tour, fate has never yet allowed her to go on in the leading roles that she has understudied. Ever. 

So what better way to showcase her cabaret than as The Understudy - treating a packed audience at the Century Club to a whirl through many of the numbers that she had evidently honed to perfection, though enchantingly giving each of these classic songs a delightful re-imagining.

To confess, I have never seen O'Connor on stage in a large scale commercial show - rather I have only seen her deliver perfection in several fringe productions through the years. So it was appropriate that whilst her set was wittily attributed to the role of the understudy, early on in her act she paid tribute to her fringe career too, with a sublime take on Someone To Watch Over Me from Crazy For You, in which she had featured some years ago at Highgate.

O'Connor's patter was confident, assured, touching and witty. It says much for the actress that so much of her set was shared with fellow performers - and it says even more that each duet or ensemble number was performed with a meticulous yet relaxed precision. When Emily Tierney and Sophie Evans joined her for I Wish I May (surely one of the best close harmony songs written for three female voices ever) the moment was nothing short of spine-tingling. There was delicious supporting work from her fellow understudy troupers Imelda Warren-Green, Eloise Davis and Emma Kingston - and in yet another ingenious re-interpretation of a classic number and accompanied by Matthew Harvey on guitar, she offered up You Must Love Me from Evita (another leading role that O'Connor has covered) with a tenderness that revealed new layers to the song.

It wasn't all show tunes though. An ingenious act-two opener saw her blend the songs that she had grown up with into an intoxicating fusion. Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell, Disney, Cyndi Lauper and even the Spice Girls all became one glorious concoction. There was not a hint of pretentiousness around O'Connor's set list - rather a focus on honesty, wit and excellence, truly the ingredients of a perfect cabaret. 

With O'Connor having understudied Dorothy the evening had to include Somewhere Over The Rainbow and there was a neat tribute to Beguelin and Sklar, the composers of Elf. A moment of charming selflessness saw O'Connor invite her talented younger sister Aisling to sing her own composition.

One of the most unexpected treats of the night was when Michael Bradley took over the keys from Tim Evans (who'd done a sterling job MD'ing through the gig) to accompany O'Connor and Eloise in a medley of Billy Joel songs. The selection that opened and closed with New York State Of Mind was perfectly tailored as half a dozen Joel classics seamlessly segued into each other. The medley was a touching tribute to her mum and dad in the audience, Joel being one of their favourites. He happens to be one of mine too and the moment proved magical.

It's encouraging that London's cabaret circuit can attract young performers able to blend the contemporary with the classic. But more than that - they need to breach that fourth wall with elegance and élan. Supported by her guests, Ceili O'Connor performed with a beautiful bravura that was simply a delight. When her cabaret returns to London, don't miss it.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Through the Mill - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

****

Written and directed by Ray Rackham 





Frank Sinatra famously said, “The rest of us will be forgotten – Never Judy.” This is a quote that has lasted the test of time and Through the Mill gives but a handful of the many examples as to why this remains as true today, as it was then. 

Starting its life at The London theatre Workshop back in 2014, Through the Mill reveals an untold chapter in the life of Judy Garland, delving deeper into her personal life than ever before. It explores her neglected and practically non-existent childhood, her many failed relationships and romantic excursions in her late 20’s and the struggles she faced in her adult life with money, drugs, alcohol and thin stretched fame – all whilst desperately trying to get a TV show off the ground, despite the constant negative public reactions and her creative team changing every two weeks. The story portrayed is hilarious, touching, shocking and creates a whole new impression of the child star.

The first thing to note is how well the production has been cast. The three lead actresses who play Judy at the three pivotal stages in her life, CBS Judy (Helen Sheals), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) are diverse and expertly show different sides of the damaged actress. 

A basic set from Johnson Williams lends itself well to the story’s practicality. The constant weaving in and out of time lines cries out for a flexible and malleable set that can be a sound studio one moment, or a touring train or cabaret stage the next. The use of actor musicians however is a distraction. Having some of the actors double as the sound studio band or Garland’s orchestra may be clever and economic, however it takes away from some characters’ performances. 

Sheals portrayal of Garland in her older years, is the first version of Judy we are given and her performance is really something. She captures Garland in her entirety from her distinctive voice to her very specific physical movements on stage whilst performing. Sheals’ juxtaposition of vulnerability and strength in different moments has one on her side throughout, regardless of whether or not her actions are childish or selfish - Specifically her performance of The Man That Got Away, is phenomenal and a real show stopping moment. Likewise, Wollaston is equally as moving, showing the actress during her developing romance with manager Sid Luft (Harry Anton) who she went on to marry. There is a particularly intimate moment on stage between Wallaston and Anton, where despite the heat and passion of the occasion, every movement is made as though there is an audience watching, giving us a look into the psyche of Garland – That no part of her every day could be acted out without her being made up as a spectacle. 

The star of the show however is Lucy Penrose with a portrayal of the younger Garland that is utterly breath taking and an imitation of Garland’s voice that is simply perfect. Penrose is not only completely convincing, her acting is passionate with an ability to show the wide variety of emotions - dealing with MGM’s constant criticising of her weight, to falling in love with her accompanist Roger Edens (Tom Elliot Reade) or defending her father from the crushing belittlement of her domineering mother, that is nothing short of heart breaking. 

So much more than just a story weaved around Judy Garland’s timeless songs, Ray Rackham has turned out a gorgeous piece of thrilling theatre.


Runs until 30th July
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Savage - Review

Above the Arts Theatre, London


****

Written and directed by Claudio Macor




Claudio Macor's Savage is a brave play examining yet another facet of the depravity that was Hitler's regime, where along with other minorities in Nazi occupied Europe, homosexuals were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps. Savage however sets out to explore and expose the persecution of the continent's gays, focusing on the work of the real life Danish doctor Carl Vaernet, a Copenhagen GP who evoked an horrific hypothesis that by injecting monkey testosterone into the testicles of gay men, that they could be cured of their homosexuality.

Macor weaves a fictional if troubling tale around his carefully researched argument. His gay protagonist Nikolai Bergsen is shattered by the experiments practised upon him, as elsewhere a vicious SS General is forced to hide his own homosexuality, as a kindly nurse and a coterie of companions facilitate the narrative. Interestingly, Macor reserves perhaps some of his sharpest criticism for the British war crimes investigators who after the war interrogated Vaernet with more than a degree of friendly bias - this being of course the era when homosexuality remained a crime in Britain and gays could be sentence to chemical castration. 

There are occasional moments of simplification in Macor's tale - perhaps understandable given its broad canvas that stretches to Argentina to where Vaernet, along with countless other Nazi criminals fled. But throughout, the story combined with a collection of excellent performances, make for compelling theatre.

Alexander Huetson puts in a brave turn as Bergsen, showing us a terrified agony and anguish, alongside a complex, deep yet ultimately damaged love for Nic Kyle's Zack Travis. Macor takes an unconventional stance with the General - played convincingly by Bradley Clarkson. It makes for a reasonable argument to portray an evil man as himself troubled by his hidden sexuality - but *spoiler alert* is it right that the General's suicide should evoke our sympathy, just because he's gay and facing the same conventions of deceit and cover up that those who he is persecuting must endure? By all means recognise (and dare one say it, condemn even) the man's hypocrisy. But inviting us to care for his demise is perhaps a conceit too far.

Gary Fannin's Vaernet is an intelligent if slightly caricatured portrayal, though ever since Gregory Peck played the notorious Dr Mengele in the 1978 movie The Boys From Brazil his evil Nazi doctor has been a tough act to top.

Amongst the darkness though Macor injects a brilliant shaft of humanity in Nurse Paulsen, played with an enchanting sensitivity by Emily Lynne. Her care and compassion towards Bergsen reminding us of the importance of love and kindness in seeking to heal the ravages of hatred.

Savage, itself inspired by the campaigning journalism of Peter Tatchell, confronts us with a glimpse of humanity at its darkest. Even more concerning is that this history of some 75 years ago is repeating itself today, in lands just beyond our own continent, where minorities are massacred for their belief or sexuality. Sadly, Macor's play makes for desperately essential theatre.


Runs until 23rd July