Monday, 29 August 2016

Prodigy Original Cast Recording - Review


The CD of the Prodigy Original Cast Recording is just released and it’s a pleasure to re-visit the show that premiered last year in London as the National Youth Music Theatre's summer offering. 

Set around a reality TV show that seeks to discover a child prodigy, Brunger and Cleary's show offers an entertaining glimpse into some of the passions and superficialities of modern life, in which the competitive desire for fame and attention can be all consuming.

Listening to a CD offers a greater opportunity to consider a show’s songs in more detail. Reality TV is fertile ground for writers. A couple of years ago I Can't Sing! Had a short-lived outing at the London Palladium, lampooning The X-Factor. To be fair Pippa Cleary's compositions stand up well in comparison to Simon Cowell's multi-million pound extravaganza, but where Prodigy falls a little flat is in the wit of its libretto. Brunger and Cleary are clearly a talented pair but a sharper bite to their lyrics wouldn't go amiss. 

The CD also demonstrates quite how magnificent the female voices were in the NYMT class of 2016. Sephora Parish is a knockout in Block Out The Noise, Laura Barnard's Good TV brings an effusive energy, whilst the wryly perceptive Mother's Shoes duet from Emma Ernest and Caroline Whittingham offers sage observations on what really matters in life, in a song that is impressively free of cliché. There is some comic genius in the show with the younger siblings’ double act, We've Got Talent Too, proving as infectiously wonderful recorded as it was live on stage. Bravo to Hannah Irvine and Luke Rozanski for giving the number the comedic chutzpah that ranks it alongside Kander and Ebb's Mr Cellophane from Chicago.

Well engineered, the recording is a credit to NYMT’s instrumentalists and especially Musical Director Candida Caldicot with the show’s band delivering an exquisitely professional sound. This is a CD that is well worth adding to one’s collection.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Burnt Part Boys - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen
Book by Mariana Elder
Directed by Matthew Iliffe

Grace Osborn

In the first musical to be staged at Park 90, the Park Theatre's smaller space, The Burnt Part Boys proves to be one of the finest examples of Off West End musical theatre.

The tale is a simple premise. Ten years after a Texan mine disaster killed a team of miners whose bodies were never recovered, the mining company announce that scene of the tragedy is to be re-opened for exploiting. Pete, the young son of one of the dead men is distraught at the idea of his father's grave being treated so sacrilegiously and sets off to dynamite what remains of the seam and frustrate the company's plan.

It is the ingenious and credible way in which Elder, Miller and Tysen thread some of humanity's most raw emotions through their text that makes this musical so strong. Not only Pete, there are his friends, his brother (now a miner himself) and appearing at times through the show, a haunting ensemble of the ghosts of five dead miners, robbed of their families who in turn were robbed of their husbands and fathers.

Not only a strong libretto, the show under Matthew Iliffe's direction, is also staged perfectly. Rarely has a stage set of such stark simplicity (suspended ropes and lanterns setting the scene alongside a handful of chairs - bravo designer Rachel Wingate) worked so imaginatively alongside flawless performance work. Through their performances alone the cast convey us over rivers, along precipitous ledges and deep into mineshaft caves.

All ten actors are magnificent. Joseph Peacock's Pete is a masterclass in youth, conveying not only the impetuousness of his age, but also a fierceness of passionate devotion to his dead father. Heenan is his young friend Dusty who also turns in a neat tune on the saw. As Frances, a girl of Pete's age who also lost her father and ran off into the hills, Grace Osborn is a revelation. Osborn is completely convincing as a feisty yet tender hillbilly. There is memorable work too from Chris Jenkins as older brother Jake and David Haydn as the enigmatic fantasy creation of Pete's imagination and the ghost of his father, with gorgeous vocal harmonies from all.

Nick Barstow's musical direction is masterful. In an environment that has had its sound designed excellently by Philip Matejtschuk, Barstow's 5 piece band which could so easily dominate the compact space in fact create the perfect Texan sound. Katherine Robb's fiddle playing is exquisite while Felix Stickland's guitar work (and, hurrah, an occasional burst of banjo too) offering up moments that suggest a hint of Ry Cooder. 

If ever a show deserved a transfer or extension this is it. The Burnt Part Boys is perceptive and exciting, with a denouement that is as unexpected as it is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Exceptional, unmissable musical theatre.

Runs until 3rd September

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Brass - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Music, lyrics and book by Benjamin Till
Additional lyrics by Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker
Directed by Hannah Chissick

The Leeds Pals before going over the top

Two years after its premiere in Leeds, the National Youth Music Theatre's production of Brass arrives at the capital's Hackney Empire. And yet again, under the aegis of this remarkable organisation, the quality of acting, song and music is magnificent.

Brass tells a powerful story of the First World War. The Leeds Pals, some 300 or so infantrymen many of whom back home comprised a brass band, were tragically killed in the first day's fighting on the Somme. But rather than just focussing on our Boys at the front, Brass also tells of the munitions girls back home. As well as hearing the soldiers' stories, the show also weaves its lightly threaded fiction through the true lives of the Barnbow Girls who worked in an armaments factory just outside Leeds and who were famous as singers. In the show they take up their boys' brass instruments, forming a band in the factory as a tribute to their loved ones fighting in France.

Using a smattering of both romantic and sibling relationships between the city's boys and girls we share the hopes and tragedies of both, with the show, as well as telling of the battlefield horrors of the Great War also sensitively highlighting the often unsung sacrifices made by women. Long before the era of Health & Safety legislation, those on the production lines suffered debilitating injuries handling the highly toxic components of weaponry.

The real strength of Brass however lies in the impressive performances that Hannah Chissick has coaxed from her company, fuelled of course by the poignancy of knowing that the average age of the NYMT cast would have been similar to that of the young women and men that the story tells of, with Jason Denvir's simply effective designs perfectly setting the scenes.

The whole company, and under Alex Aitken's baton the orchestra too, are fabulous and NYMT should be rightly proud of what is being performed here, even if it is only for two short days. Amongst a multitude of fine performances there are a handful of standouts, with Ben Mabberley, Crispin Glancy, Kitty Watson and Laura Barnard offering perhaps the night's most memorable work.

NYMT truly represent a glimpse of some of the best of what our young people can achieve, be it on stage, in a band or in the myriad of technical areas that make up a show. Take a journey to Hackney today and be inspired by the excellence that is this remarkable company.

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Comedy Of Errors - Review

Grays Inn Hall, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero

Susie Broadbent leads the company

Sixteenth century farce that, unlike much of Shakespeare's work, barely skirts around the human condition, doesn't easily stand up to modern scrutiny. The Comedy Of Errors is an implausible tale of identical twins, mistaken identities and Benny Hill style chases across the stage and to work well, demands a stylish production.

So bravo to producers Antic Disposition for pitching their production squarely in the 1920s era of jazz and spatz-shoed hoodlums. Music adds much to the show's minimalist styling and with an intelligently themed nod to the 1950s movie Some Like It Hot that starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, it all makes for a good evening of entertaining theatre.

The music is bravely conceived through an ensemble of actor-musicians. And to be fair to the creatives, in a casting exercise that must have been challenging, for the most part they have succeeded. The company has decently matching physical resemblances where required, alongside accomplished musical abilities.

William de Coverly and Alex Hooper along with Andrew Venning and Keith Higinbotham are convincing as the two sets of identical twins separated from each other in their infancy and it is a particular treat to hear Hooper's banjo strumming. With Chichester's current Half A Sixpence heavily centered around the banjo, the instrument's 2016 renaissance in both drama and musical theatre is proving a blast. There is classy work elsewhere from Susie Broadbent's Courtesan, playing the role not only as that of prostitute (as Shakespeare originally ordained) but also as a sultry-voiced Monroe-esque chanteuse, offering up a handful of American Songbook classics that nicely fill what is one of the shorter plays in the canon.

When not playing the saxophone (which she does very well), Ellie Ann Lowe stubbornly smoulders as Adriana the wife of one brother who then finds herself amorously (and unwittingly) involved with her identical brother in law. And Philip Mansfield's deliciously end-of-the-pier tackiness as inept magician Dr Pinch spices up the second half, enhanced by Lizzy Gunby's economical lighting plots. 

Horslen and Riseboro take some liberties with the verse, but the context remains clear and with most of their performers delivering top notch turns it all works well. There's a lovely note to history too - remarkably and some 400 odd years ago, the play premiered in this very same venue!

Runs until 1st September 2016

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Paramour - Review

Lyric Theatre, New York


Directed and conceived by Philippe Decoufle

Samuel William Charlton, Myriam Deraiche and Martin Charrat

With Paramour, Cirque du Soleil widen their scope venturing into musical theatre and incorporating dialogue and songs sung live alongside their signature circus wizardry.

Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood (and Broadway) and dripping in Art Deco themes, the plot is faux film-noir. Indigo (Ruby Lewis) is an actress, a small town stunner who is new to LA and looking for her break in the movies. A.J. (Jeremy Kushnier) is the mogul director who not only casts her as his new found star, but also wants her for his wife. Throw in Joey (Ryan Voner) a humble studio composer on the picture who falls hopelessly in love with Indigo as she does for him and the scene is set for a classic, corny love-triangle.

Before purists of the genre dismiss the plot as predictably shallow, remember that corny de-rigueur in noir-based musicals. Consider City Of Angels and Sunset Boulevard, both shows that offered the potential for stylish song and dance numbers, but only when set against a backdrop of cliché-riddled plot. 

Visually of course, the show is hallmark Cirque. Clever use of live action projection (black & white of course) emphasises the cinematic theme, whilst a beautifully choreographed ensemble break into tap routines at the drop of a (top) hat.

For the skimpiest of reasons the plot shifts around the studios' backlot, from sound stages filming a Cleopatra themed routine (outstanding aerial strap work from Andrew and Kevin Atherton) to a Wild West hoedown and, after the break, a nightmarish zombie invasion. The story's creakiness however is matched only by the Cirque troupe's excellence, a high spot of the second half being the hand-to-trapeze act of Samuel William Charlton and Myriam Deraiche with Martin Charrat on the ground, depicting the passions of the ill-fated trio.  

It may be the actors who top the bill, but it is the Cirque artistes that are Paramour's stars. The closing routine, played out across New York rooftops as the bad guys, clad in vividly coloured suits (think of Batman's Joker and Riddler) chase the heroes, is jaw-dropping in its impossible simplicity. Using discreetly positioned trampolines and their world class artistry, the performers literally fly themselves across the stage and up its walls. There are no wires or ropes at this point, just exceptionally choreographed human endeavor. In a modern movie the scene would be a green screen CGI creation, here it's for real.

Back in the Golden Age, audiences flocked to musicals to be wowed by spectacular routines, perfectly performed. Bravo to Cirque du Soleil for restoring that magic to Broadway.

Booking until February 2017
Photo credit: Richard Termine

Waitress - Review

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York


Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus

Jessie Mueller

Move over Mrs Lovett, there's a new baker on the block. Waitress, Sara Bareilles' female-fuelled take on modern Americana, is perhaps the finest example of new musical theatre writing in quite some years. 

Drawn from Adrienne Shelly's 2007 movie, Jessie Mueller is Jenna the titular waitress from a southern USA town, who not only serves tables but also bakes the top-notch pies that make up the diner's daily specials. Unhappily married to the inadequate and abusive misogynist Earl (covered very well by understudy Ryan Vasquez on the night of this review) Jenna discovers early on in the show that she is pregnant with their unplanned (and, by her, unwanted) child. Following her through the trimesters, the show’s story is strong, engaging and witty and under Diane Paulus' assured direction, never dissolves into sentimentality.

Jenna's two fellow waitresses are Dawn and Becky played by Jenna Ushkowitz and Keala Settle respectively, who sustain the momentum with perceptive comic relief. Dawn desperately seeks love, while Becky, a middle aged battle-axe agonising that her breasts may be misshapen whilst trapped in her own sexless marriage, goes on to satisfy her carnal frustrations in a second half surprise. Both supporting women are cleverly sketched out, with the dynamic between all three, as they share their respective anxieties and desires, proving credible, funny and ultimately moving. There should be a mention too for Charity Angél Dawson as Nurse Norma, whose dealings with the complex cavortings at the local surgery make for a witty measured performance.

Setting aside the stereotype of woman as domestic pie-making goddess, the baking analogy makes for a clever conceit. Not just Jenna's bun in her own oven, but rather the focus on what's inside a pie - ergo what's inside a woman - makes for some honest theatre. Jenna's anguish at her impending motherhood is as contemporary as it is timeless. When Mueller sings What Baking Can Do, we see the lifeline of sanity that baking has thrown to her amidst a life of domestic misery.

If the women are cleverly devised, the men are little more than thinly fleshed out flawed caricatures, with the only admirable man on stage dying before the final curtain. Escaping from Earl's contempt, Jenna stumbles into an affair with her gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (Drew Gehling). It’s an unlikely liaison, the married Pomatter’s actions being unethical, unprofessional and adulterous, however notwithstanding Pomatter cheating on his wife, the love between the two serves to inspire Jenna in believing that not all men are beasts.

Dawn finds love online with Ogie, a geekish tax auditor who shares her love of history. Little more than a decent if two-dimensional twat, Christopher Fitzgerald nonetheless imbues the role with maniacal energy. Already recognised with various awards and nominations for his performance, Fitzgerald's fabulous physicality serves the role perfectly and it is a joy to see this gifted performer so perfectly cast.

Bareilles' writing is a long overdue example of new musical theatre that is imaginative, thought provoking and most of all entertaining. More than just a hardened pie crust hurled at the patriarchy, Waitress is a perfectly baked celebration of womanhood today.

Now booking until June 2017
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Children of Eden - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by John Caird

Directed by Christian Durham, this production of Children of Eden marks the show’s 25th anniversary. It is also only the second production to be staged in Southwark’s newly built and re-located Union Theatre.

John Caird's script for the show is based on the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and goes from Creation with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel in act one through to Noah and The Flood in act two. The dialogue is minimal, involving a lot of characters in prayer - frequently overhead to the spotlights.

Notwithstanding the minimalism, the stories’ themes of hatred, forgiveness, love and death, all stemming from familiar biblical tales are immense and demand a certain gravitas from the lead characters. Unfortunately, for the most part, gravitas is the missing element in this production.

As Father, or the “God” character, Joey Dexter feels too young for the role, lacking the authority and charisma that the part desperately needs. Unfortunately Dexter is not helped by the over amplified electric piano which swamped the majority of his vocals. As with the new Union’s recent production of The Fix, the cast here are un-mic’d and poor sound balance seems to be emerging as a recurrent issue. Producers take note: the acoustic intimacy of the old Union didn’t need mics, but it looks like the new space does. 

The young cast of eleven are enthusiastic, charming and unquestionably, hardworking, with their sheer energy in Generations, the second act opening number, proving infectious. The evening’s highlight is Natasha O'Brien, newly arrived on British shores from Canada and one to watch in the future: her committed performance as both Eve and Mama Noah was eye-catching, exuding warmth and openness. O'Brien has an impressive, natural singing voice, showcased to particular effect in Ain't It Good and she seems to enjoy singing the uplifting gospel anthem as much as the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

Lucie Pankhurst devises some clever choreography, with bodies continually moving to evoke settings and props. Her work is perfect for the piece and incorporating her cast to become an elongated snake for Gabriel Mokake's serpent’s song In The Pursuit of Excellence is terrific.

When the whole cast sing in unison, the sound is quite lovely but it is the individual voices that lack confidence. Schwartz's songs, even if not up there amongst his best compositions such as Wicked and Pippin, still beg for strong voices to fill the phrases and soar with the melodies. Unfortunately here they don't and with big subject matter - God, Creation etc - more experienced performers would have made the piece more coherent. 

The relevance of Children of Eden in 2016 is debatable and this production feels slightly old fashioned where it could perhaps have been infused with an element of danger. Any theatrical experience requires the audience to believe another reality and in this show, for two and a half hours. The Union's production manages to suspend our disbelief fleetingly but not enough to convert an audience to this particular religious musical.

Runs until 10th September
Reviewed by Andie Bee

Allegro - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Richard Rodgers 
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Thom Southerland

The Company

Allegro is the third musical born from the long standing genius that is the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. While neither their most successful piece, nor their most daring and despite it being a somewhat lacklustre story, Allegro still holds all of the charm and sophistication associated with R & H musicals. 

The story follows the life of Joseph Taylor, Jr., born to a middle class family in small town America. The son of a doctor, he grows up to follow in his father’s footsteps and training as a medic and trudging through the hardships of college, medical school and all the worries that come with it.

Thom Southerland’s direction is, as ever, expertly executed with the onstage action proving beautifully slick. Paired with Lee Proud’s choreography, the cast deliver compelling performances without going over the top. Anthony Lamble’s minimalistic set design of rolling set pieces and not much else is also beautifully flexible, making for easy interchanges between time frames.

Dean Austin has done an immaculate job with the band, affording a fine respect to Richard Rodgers’ music, giving a rich and full sound that is only aided by the acoustics at Southwark.

As Joseph, Gary Tushaw’s performance is excellent. He plays the polite and quiet leading man with a gentleness that makes you sympathise with him on all of his decisions. Playing opposite him is the spritely and brash Emily Bull, who plays Jennie Brinker, Joe’s eventual wife. Her voice is strong and she plays the free spirited character with a care free energy that, despite her ending up as a rather conniving woman, is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise average story.

The most wonderful and truly gripping part of the production is the use of puppetry to display Joseph in his much younger years. The cast’s control of the simplistic yet hugely effective puppet, adds a further dimension to the performance.

The Southwark Playhouse is building a reputation for extraordinary theatre. While Allegro might not be the most gripping of its recent productions, it is still a joy to watch.

Runs until 10th September
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Scott Rylander 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Steel Magnolias - Review

Hope Theatre, London


Written by Robert Harding
Directed by Matthew Parker

Maggie Robson

A beautifully bittersweet comedy/drama, set entirely in a small Louisiana town’s hair salon, Steel Magnolias focusses on six women from all walks of life who we discover have a bond between them stronger than the volumes of hairspray securing their expertly coiffured styles.

Written by Robert Harding, the book is based on his experience of his sister's death and by the end of the show’s press night never mind a dry eye, there wasn't a person in the audience who wasn't sobbing uncontrollably.

Samantha Shellie's performance as Shelby is key to the plot. Her fast approaching wedding and dire health conditions knit the piece together and Shellie's understated performance lends itself well to the piece, particularly in contrast to the high energy given from all six actresses that does not drown her out.

Playing Shelby’s mother, Stephanie Beattie is M'Lynn. Throughout the narrative we see M'Lynn constantly battling with her daughter over the wedding and her fragile health conditions and her future. She may be a a concerned controlling mother, but she has good intentions. The raw emotion though, that she portrays in the final scene, is remarkable.

There is similar excellence from the redoubtable Maggie Robson playing Ouiser Boudreaux. Robson’s manic characterisation of the older Southern woman is sheer perfection, from her ever changing voice to her eccentric movement. Quite simply she is a woman who has seen it all, done it all and we love her for it.  And as Truvy, the salon’s owner, Jo Wickham is a treat. Wickham can shift from have the audience clutching their sides with laughter to holding their breath trying not to sob within the space of about 30 seconds. The care and time that she has invested into her character is evident.

Matthew Parker does a fine job working within the Hope Theatre’s compact space. And paired with Rachael Ryan’s fun and engaging set that creates a fully functioning salon, complete with stationary blow-dryer and hair washing station, the audience are made to feel engulfed in the on stage action.  Throughout, the cast do themselves proud offering a whirlwind of female empowerment and a masterclass in acting.

Runs until 3rd September
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: LH Photoshots

The Battle of Boat - Review

Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames


Written by Ethan Lewis Maltby and Jenna Donnelly
Directed by Kate Golledge

The Company

The Battle of Boat is a new musical from the National Youth Music Theatre. Set in a seaside town on the English south coast in 1916, the carefree happiness of a group of young children is short-lived as they find themselves discovering more and more about the First World War that is unfolding around them. Their initial response, to join the army, is thwarted as they are inevitably each rejected for being too young. There is one exception however as William, the oldest of the group (played by Jonty Peach), is enlisted and is sent to fight in France.

The tale is of the persistent attempts that the children make to do whatever it takes to help their friend and their country, with Ethan Lewis Maltby and Jenna Donnelly weaving powerful themes of rivalry, leadership and battle. As is the NYMT protocol, the cast and orchestra are entirely comprised of young artists ranging from 11 to 21. The youthfulness of the cast, and of the nation's young generation lost to the Great War, serve to make the scale and impact of the musical even greater. 

With such a strength of talent arrayed across both stage (and orchestra pit) it would be unjust to single out individual cast members. This is not to suggest that the piece lacks standout performances, rather the contrary. There is an infectious emphatic energy amongst the entire company that is tangible from the outset. Director Kate Golledge and choreographer Darragh O’Leary have combined to create some exquisite work both in scenes and songs; taking us from land to stormy seas in the blink of an eye. Golledge ensures that while the script demands a lot from the young performers, their natural innocence and raw juvenile energy is never lost. Alongside a demanding text Candida Caldicot leads the orchestra and company through Maltby and Donnelly’s emphatic score that is almost akin to cinema, such is its grandeur. 

In the vast space that is the Rose, Diego Pitarch’s set sits comfortably, whilst at all times being scarce enough to leave ample space for the show’s controlled chaos that seems at times to overspill the stage’s edge. Illuminated trees and shadows that could in time serve for the ultimate game of hide and seek form the back drop to the piece, while four seemingly plain long wooden containers are used in every possible way under O’Leary’s genius and playful choreography. 

From the epic company numbers to stunning solo moments, each line, note and lyric carries a punch. The company has the audience in the palm of their hand from the word go and under Golledge’s sensitive direction have the audience laughing along with their childish games just as effortlessly as they achieve immense empathy facing the emotional and physical challenges of their journey.

The Battle of Boat is an epic piece of musical theatre. Maltby and Donnelly have made a brave decision in focussing a story about war from the perspective and reactions of a group of children. Credit too to Jeremy Walker who has produced the show and who time and time again ensures that the NYMT’s quality and standard is nothing short of exceptional, across all departments. With only three performances remaining, the show makes a theatrical voyage that is well worth catching.

Runs until 13th August
Reviewed by Andrew Milton
Photo credit: Matt Hargraves

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

MS. A Song Cycle - Review


An album themed around the impact of a disease makes for an unusual release at the best of times and yet there is an unexpected noble beauty to Rory Sherman's MS. A Song Cycle. As Sherman writes in his CD sleeve notes, most of the people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) are women, often in their 20s or 30s whose lives are at best, rearranged and at worst, devastated. Drawn from his own conversations with friends and family, Sherman has written a collection 14 songs, each one set to music by a different composer, and each recorded by a different woman drawn from amongst the cream of Britain's musical theatre performers.

Whilst all of the recordings are as humbling as they are beautifully crafted, a number are particularly profound, moving or even dammit downright entertaining. Robert J. Sherman (he of the illustrious songwriting line of Shermans and no relation to Rory) has scored the reflective Mondays, recorded by Rosemary Ashe. There's an innate sense of wisdom in Ashe's timbre, singing of the therapy found in a weekly group meeting - with Sherman's gentle melodies only enhancing the song's message.

What's That Jim? scored by George Stiles and sung by Caroline Quentin has a music-hall ring to its take on a woman's frustration at her condition, with a clever fusion of wit and irony in  Quentin’s delivery. Likewise the satire in Mummy's Not Well sung by Lauren Samuels with music by Paul Boyd is another bittersweet gem. The song tells of a child's perspective on her mother's diagnosis, the lyrics bringing a clever poignancy - naive, yet knowing.

Laura Pitt-Pulford's Cerulean Skies (penned by the talented Sarah Travis, more often to be found directing other people's music rather than composing her own) offers a deeply personal message from a mother contemplating her own decline in health as she addresses her child. 

One of the most heartbreaking perspectives on the album comes from Caroline Sheen's Tortoise & Hare (composer Gianni Onori) - sung by a woman who sees her partner physically speeding up in comparison to her own battle with MS, that is leaving her impaired and slow. It's perceptive, painful songwriting, powerfully performed.

And that last sentence is actually an apt description for the entire album. This review has highlighted those that tracks I found left the deepest personal impression and the key word there is “personal”. There's a bevy of other songs from other talented performers and creatives, each of whose contribution may strike each listener differently. They all deserve credit so: Also appearing on the album are Alexia Khadime, Lillie Flynne, Anna Francolini, Jodie Jacobs, Siubhan Harrison, Josefina Gabrielle, Preeya Kalidas, Janie Dee and Julie Atherton. Additional compositions come from George Maguire, Brian Lowdermilk, Erin Murray Quinlan, Verity Quade, Amy Bowie, Luke Di Somma, Tamar Broadbent, Robbie White and Eamonn O'Dwyer.

And on nearly all of the tracks, Ellie Verkerk puts in sterling work on the piano.

No personal gain is being made from the album, with profits going to The MS Society. All the artists involved have donated their time and talent, with Richard O'Brien providing the cash to get the CD released. As such, this review can only be a loving appraisal - to critique would be invidious - as would be to award anything less than 5 stars. MS. A Song Cycle is beautifully performed. Buy it!

Sides - Review


Sides is Nadim Naaman's second album and it is a pleasure to catch up with this talented young man's vocal interpretations of some of Disney's and the West End's greats along with a selection of his own compositions. Naaman has also invited a number of musical theatre's contemporary leading lights to accompany him, making the album a refreshing selection of voices.

The songs are split half and half between Naaman's own writing and his covers. His own works are easy on the ear and beautifully sung even if I'd have much rather heard Jeremy Secomb duet with Naaman in a song from their pop-up pie shop Sweeney Todd that I missed in the West End. But, with a couple of exceptions, the original stuff is a bit too much of an introspective ballad-fest to truly inspire. There is however some fabulous acoustic guitar work throughout the album (of which more below) and Naaman's This'll Be The Year, has a rhythm that almost suggests a hint of Dire Straits. The song-writing is at its best in Marry Me, which seems to bear an unbridled autobiographical energy bursting from the stanzas. It is a real pleasure to listen to this uninhibited celebration of love.

Naaman is at his finest however in covering the songs written by the industry’s greats. Having played in the Southerland/Tarento production of Maury Yeston’s Titanic on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s a nice touch that sees him share the singing honours of the show’s The Proposal/The Night Was Alive with Rob Houchen who has replaced him in this summer’s Titanic revival of the show. 

A great modern creative collaboration has been that of Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken. Naaman’s take on their Out There from their The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is terrific. If this recording is Naaman laying down a marker to be considered for a West End run of the show, it’s a classy calling card. He swoops and soars through the song’s beautifully descriptive narrative, giving every suggestion that he’d make a top-notch Quasimodo.

The biggest treat however lies in Naaman’s beautiful arrangement of the title song from The Phantom Of The Opera, the show in which he currently plays Raoul. Accompanied by Celinde Schoenmaker (his current Christine) Naaman gives the number a flamenco interpretation – replacing Lloyd Webber's gothic organ riffs with guitar and, sensationally, trumpet. Of course this version can never be for the punters at Her Majesty’s Theatre – however as a re-worked interpretation of an iconic song, I’d venture to suggest it is unsurpassed. More of this please.

Sides shows a very different side to this most gifted of Gooners and is well worth the download!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Crazy For You - Review

Watermill Theatre, Newbury


Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Paul Hart

Caroline Sheen, Tom Chambers and Company

Crazy For You is a musical drawn up by Ken Ludwig in the 1990's and broadly based on the Gershwins’ Broadway foray Girl Crazy from some 60 years earlier. While the show's narrative may hang on a story that lacks both consequence and credibility, it does comprise some of the 20th century’s finest songs, along with the opportunity for some spectacular dance routines.

The Watermill has cast the show perfectly, with Tom Chambers and Caroline Sheen leading the company. But whilst the theatre may have landed one of musical theatre’s finest male dancers, unfortunately the venue’s flat performing space (there is no raised stage) means that most of Chambers’ fleet-footed brilliance is invisible to anyone in the stalls who’s had the misfortune to be sat behind the front two rows. The tap dances choreographed by Nathan M Wright sound terrific for sure – but in row 7 one barely catches a glimpse. 

The acting is strong throughout, with some fine moments of physical comedy too, but where this production excels in in its treatment of the classic songs. Sheen’s character Polly is given the lion’s share of the Gershwin greats and she delivers them with excellence and flair. Her interpretations of Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and the heartbreaking But Not For Me are spine-tinglingly good. 

Some of the singing spoils are shared: Lucy Thatcher delivers a wonderfully steamy Naughty Baby as she seduces Jeremy Legat’s (also excellent) hotelier and there’s a delightful ensemble of rednecks offering a very droll interpretation of Bidin’ My Time.

Diego Pitarch’s imaginative designs can’t conceal the fact that the show is a quart being awkwardly squeezed into the Watermill’s pint-pot, though Howard Hudson’s lighting wizardry (with some fabulous use of mirrored follow spots) does a fine job of trying to “big-up” the space. For the most part the actor-muso set up works well even if occasional lapses suggest an Arvide Abernathy's Save A Soul Mission tribute band. No doubt the musical hiccoughs will settle down over the run.

Notwithstanding the production’s flaws, the talent on display here still makes for an evening of fine entertainment - if you can grab a seat in the circle or front stalls, even better. And with Caroline Sheen’s enchanting take on a handful of the American Songbook’s greats, who could ask for anything more?

Runs until 17th September 2016
Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Treasure Island - Review

St Pauls Church, London


Written and directed by Daniel Winder

Dafydd Gwyn Howells

There are some imaginative touches in Iris Theatre’s Treasure Island – the trouble is, in a play that is 2 ½ hours long, they are too few and far between. Daniel Winder has taken Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale and boiled it down to an economically staged spin through the narrative. But whilst the budget behind the show may well have been modest (and there’s nowt wrong with that on London’s fringe) Winder allows himself too much of a self-indulgent hurrah with the prose, much of which goes over the kids’ heads and bores the adults. 

Simply put, there are too many speeches and they are too long. Kids need to see more action, more frequently. The seating of the venue, even amongst the various promenade locations (which include an impressive galleon) doesn’t help. Everyone is sat on one level, so if your little kid aint in the front row, chances are he or she is going to miss a fair amount of what there is to be seen. There were too many looks of boredom on too many young faces at different times throughout the show – and call me old-fashioned, but I like Long John Silver to have a decent wooden prosthetic to hobble around on. Brown plastic wrapped around a clearly visible ordinary boot just doesn’t cut it. 

That being said – the scenery is imaginative (Valentina Turtur the designer), the acting is all excellent and Seth and Josh my assistant reviewers aged 10 & 7, thought that the swordfights and swordplay (of which there could have been much more) were outstanding – so bravo to Fight Director Roger Bartlett. With thirty minutes (at least) trimmed from the script, this production of Treasure Island could yet make for very good theatre.

Runs until 28th August
Photo credit: Hannah Barton