Friday, 25 November 2016

Soho Cinders - Review

Union Theatre, London


****


Music by George Stiles
Lyrics by Anthony Drewe
Book by Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis
Directed by Will Keith




Shifting London's Old Compton Street south of the river, the run up to Xmas sees the Union present Stiles & Drewe's newish Soho Cinders, their Cinderella for the 21st Century, as a festive offering.

Elliot Davis co-writes the book with Drewe and together they offer a bold attempt at re-defining the classic fairy tale. Cinderella is now Robbie, a young gay boy who as the story unfolds, finds himself unwittingly caught in a Keith Vaz style sleazy maelstrom between James Prince (geddit?) the handsome London Mayoral candidate who loves him (and who Robbie loves in return) and Chris Coleman's dastardly Tory, Lord Bellingham. Matters are made worse by Prince also being engaged to Marilyn, his sweetheart from university days and if things weren't bad enough for the County Hall hopeful, his devious campaign manager William (great work from Samuel Haughton) is a bit of a bastard too.

Throw in Robbie's best friend Velcro, along with Clodagh and Dana, his gloriously horrible step-sisters and it all begins to get rather confusing. The Fix, which played recently at The Union, sent up the politics shtick far more convincingly. For all its noble intentions, this musical melee of modern day metro-sexuality is perhaps just a little too tangled

That being said.... the strengths of this production lie in the marvellous work that Will Keith has coaxed from his company. Lewis Asquith is every inch the confused and handsome Prince, torn between his emotional commitment to Lorri Walton's (beautifully voiced) Marilyn and his burning desire for Robbie. Asquith nails his character's moral turmoil, delivering a vocal presence that comfortably rises above Sarah Morrison's well balanced 3-piece band. While Prince’s character may have been originally written as a caricature, Asquith's perfectly weighted nuance imbues it with a carefully crafted complexity.

Joshua Lewindon captures Robbie's vulnerability, portraying a young man who's just on the right side of straying into a world of vice. Vocally however Lewindon needs to do more - he's great on the big numbers, but needs to sing the softer stuff stronger if it is to be fully appreciated above the music.

As Velcro, Emily Deamer sings powerfully, with Wishing For The Normal being one of Stiles & Drewe's more enchanting ballads of recent years. Deamer is the essence of feisty sensitivity and she tackles an unconventional character with a classy style.

Natalie Harman and Michaela Stern as Dana and Clodagh are without question the evening's guilty pleasure. Costumed in the cheapest leopard skin getups and with their commanding presence and immaculate comic timing, they are a contemporary definition of pantomime's ugly sisters. They're also given the evening's funniest numbers I'm So Over Men and Fifteen Minutes, with their magnificent soprano voices smashing both songs out of the park.

The Christmas cracker at the heart of this show however is Joanne McShane's stunning choreography. There is clearly a synergy between Keith and McShane for yet again in one of his shows she displays an inspired ingenuity in arranging stunning routines within the space available. Her ensemble work in particular proving evidence of well drilled, imaginative movement.

Much work has gone into the production and it shows. Soho Cinders is a fun night at the theatre - go see it, you won’t be disappointed!


Runs until 22nd December

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

An Inspector Calls - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


*****


Written by J.B.Priestley
Directed by Stephen Daldry


Liam Brennan

Timeless and yet innovative, Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls is a treat as the director reprises his bold take on J.B.Priestley’s famed work.

Ian MacNeil’s dynamic and innovative set acts as much more than a mere backdrop, becoming an active and evolving canvas that both reflects and enhances the changing moods of the Birling’s dinner party that plays out through the evening.

Liam Brennan’s Inspector is rough, aggressive and progressively confronting in his stance and it works perfectly, contrasting the angry and righteous Scotsman with the bumbling English Birlings in their perceived arrogance and detachment from reality. Brennan breathes a new life and a wonderful difference into a familiar character. 

Too often, An Inspector Calls can fall into the trap of preaching to its audience. Not here however, with all the pieces coming together to create a stand-out production. 

Other notables are Clive Francis and Barbara Marten as Arthur and Sybil, the two senior members of the Birling family. Hitting just the right note, they capture the moments of humour and drama perfectly. The pair are at their best throughout, highlighting the Birling’s arrogance and the hypocrisy in an incredibly human way that makes the play only more harrowing in its relevance and message.

Today’s GCSE English Literature students can count their lucky stars that this production is running while the story is on their syllabus. A version of a classic that defies convention, with a breathtaking set and excellent performances from a stellar cast.


Runs until 25th March 2017
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The Unmarried - Review

Camden People’s Theatre


*** 


Written by Lauren Gauge
Directed by Niall Phillips


Lauren Gauge

On for one night only, The Unmarried is an originally styled production that attempts to break down barriers and cross into a more modern, urban side of musical theatre.

Touching on issues such as club culture, 90’s garage music, teen pregnancy and unfulfilling relationships, Lauren Gauge’s story in this 50 minute comedy is much more relatable to the younger, modern audience. The writing is sharp, comedic and poetic, laced with explosive musical beats. This is gig theatre. 

Gauge’s character, Luna, is a bold a brass late teens “chav”, on the prowl for wild times whilst in a 7 year long relationship with an inner city banker. Her performance, while witty and bright is deep and the truth behind the humour is very evident in her portrayal. This is a subject that clearly means a lot.

Rhythmically underscored by a live mix of beat boxing by Kate Donnachie and Nate Forderstaple of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy, Luna explores the life of a young powerful feminist determined to defy the legacy of a patriarchal society that has attempted to narrate her life and guide her story. At times however, the beatboxing is a distraction, with Kate and Nate’s impressive vocal abilities, particularly  as they perform a few old school favourites, taking the attention away from Gauge’s narrative.

As a production The Unmarried is very much one of a kind, holding an individuality that gives it both an edge as well as a platform that allows Gauge’s commendable writing and performing abilities to stand out from the crowd. A niche production that not all will “get” maybe, but despite this the material on stage is enjoyable. 


Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs-Hughes

Monday, 21 November 2016

What's the Matter With Slithers? - Review

*****

Written by Barbara Michaels




This first book from Barbara Michaels is a delightful story pitched squarely at kids aged 3 to 6. Slithers is the name of a pet corn snake who discovers one day that his scaly skin is unusually itchy. Why could this be?

Owned and cared for by a little boy called Matt, one day Slithers overhears that Matt is off on a school trip to the zoo and spying a gap in the door of his tank, quickly works out that a sneaky trip to the Reptile House could answer all his questions. Grabbing the opportunity, he slithers his way, unnoticed, into Matt's school bag and is off on an adventure to the zoo.

What follows is a tale of thrills and spills all beautifully described by Michaels and delightfully illustrated by Sian Bowman. There's excitement and danger and even a hint of romance as Slithers pursues his quest. What's more, there's a wonderfully happy ending too.

With Christmas just around the corner, What's the Matter With Slithers? is a perfectly priced gift that will have kids' imaginations running wild!


To purchase online directly from Candy Jar Books - click here

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Half A Sixpence - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


****


Book by Julian Fellowes
New Music & Songs by George Stiles & Anthony Drew
Original Songs by David Heneker
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh



Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp

The musical Half a Sixpence bounds into the West End from Chichester, newly adapted by Julian Fellows, with a spring in its step and an infectious grin. The story of Arthur Kipps, a lowly haberdashers' assistant who comes into money but ultimately questions what happiness it brings, is brought to life in a visually beautiful production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.


The well known 1967 film of the musical (after the original 1963 stage production) was based on the HG Wells novel Kipps, A Simple Soul. In an Edwardian seaside town, Kipps, coming into an inheritance, has his head turned by upper class Helen Walsingham while his heart lies with his childhood sweetheart, scullery maid, Ann Pornick. Kipps & Helen are engaged to be married yet the Walsingham family, the epitome of Edwardian snobbery, only wish to use Kipps for his fortune. Helen tries to "make a gentleman" of her commoner beau but Kipps realises his happiness lies "within his own kind". The script, though full of punchy one liners, is light on heart and emotion.

Fortunately, the staging and choreography is top-notch with an exceptionally talented ensemble singing and dancing faultlessly. Andrew Wright's choreography is full of inventive mannerisms and the energy created is infectious. Flash Bang Wallop at the end of the show is a tour de force bringing the audience collectively to its feet.

Paul Brown's set design, concentric circles of revolving stage, creates a fluidity to the production with seamless scene changes that makes the stage seem vast. From a seaside pier to the ballroom of a mansion, each scene is placed perfectly with artistry, while using the minimum of props.

As Arthur Kipps, Charlie Stemp is glorious. A dancer to the tips of his fingers, he looks totally at ease taking the lead in nearly every number. Charming, committed and cocky, Stemp makes Kipps incredibly likeable. It would be good to see more emotion when in turmoil (this Kipps shows more love for a banjo than any woman) but Stemp commands the stage and was a joy to watch.

Emma Williams is spot-on as the rather unsympathetically written Helen, with perfectly clipped speech, elegant manner and singing that plucks at the heart strings. Devon-Elise Johnson is a delightful Ann, not only singing from the heart but imbuing every line of dialogue meaning. As Ann's friend Flo, Bethany Huckle adds depth and warmth to her supporting female character and her skittish duet with Johnson, A Little Touch Of Happiness is the act one highlight.

Julian Fellowes' script offers more than a nod to his juggernaut TV success of Downton Abbey with his dowagers Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry) and Lady Punnet (Jane How). Both actresses relish their scenes, How particularly eliciting howls of laughter with every hilarious line. Perfect for the role, she gives a master class in taking the stage and working an audience.

George Stiles & Anthony Drew's new and additional songs work, for the most part. In the overly long first act, Just a Few Little Things is brilliant, however, some of their new material feels unnecessary. The second half motors along with Pick Out A Simple Tune becoming a modern day classic - it is absolutely the best number seen in this or any show for quite some time.

This is a show that will make you smile. It will make you tap your feet. It will probably make you go home singing on the tube. And that can't be a bad thing.


Booking until 11th Februuary 2017
Reviewed by Andy Bee
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

42nd Street - Review

Theatre du Chatelet, Paris


*****

Music by Harry Warren
Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed and choreographed by Stephen Mear


Dan Burton and the Company
There can be few more impressive openings to a musical than Stephen Mear's treatment of 42nd Street. With the orchestra (magnificent under Gareth Valentine's baton) having played the overture’s first few pages the curtain rises teasingly, just a yard or so, to reveal a stage full of dancing feet tapping out the show's melodies. With a company numbering nigh on 40, the sight and sound of this unexpected treat, performed with pinpoint, perfectly drilled precision, is simply breathtaking. Rarely has a show set its stall out so impressively in the overture and then gone on to exceed expectations as the evening plays out.

The story behind 42nd Street is a classic, corny even, meta-musical fairytale. It is 1933 and Peggy Sawyer, a young and gifted dancer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has no showbiz experience wants to be cast in the new Broadway show Pretty Lady. Its genius but tyrannical director Julian Marsh is on his uppers after the Wall Street crash and in desperate need of a hit. Marsh overlooks Sawyer, and casts Dorothy Brock, a leading lady of years gone by as his star because Brock's sugar-daddy boyfriend has bankrolled Pretty Lady's production costs.

As love rivalries smoulder amongst the cast, Brock breaks her leg at the last minute. As Marsh is about to close the show, the ensemble persuade Marsh him to choose the talented Sawyer as Brock's replacement and of course she and the show become an instant hit.

Whilst the story may be corny, Mear who directs and choreographs has demanded production values that are anything but. Emerging talent Monique Young plays Sawyer and she brings a coquettish insouciance to the role matched only by her sensational footwork, handling her vocal solos with a confident charm and magnificent poise.

Sharing the honours as the show's other leading lady is Ria Jones' Brock. Mear knows Jones well (she famously understudied Glenn Close in his Sunset Boulevard earlier this year) and his understanding of the woman's gift has delivered yet another example of on-stage excellence. Jones hams up Brock wonderfully when she has to, yet shows off the full Rolls-Royce potential of her vocal majesty with her interpretations of I Only Have Eyes For You and the act one closer of the show's title number. As an aside, Jones is one of those occasional performers on London's cabaret scene who truly merits the description "unmissable".

Dan Burton who plays Sawyer's love interest Billy Lawlor is another of Mear's regular ingénues, last seen in the West End's Gypsy. Arguably the best of his generation in musical theatre dance, Burton has a grace in his movement that has to be seen to be believed alongside perfectly pitched, mellifluous vocals. Alexander Hanson's Marsh completes the quartet of key roles and he brings a believable gravitas to a part that can so easily become a cliché in less talented hands. Elsewhere in this magnificent company, Jennie Dale (yet another Mear regular) shines in support as Maggie Jones.


Dan Burton and Ensemble

It’s not just the cast that make this production quite so special. Valentine's orchestra is lavishly furnished, while Peter McKintosh's sets display an imaginative detail that can all too often these days be reduced to an economy of projected images, but here at the Theatre du Chatelet, are displayed in fabulous constructions of steel and backdrops.

And then of course there's the show's famously big numbers. Keep Young and Beautiful, We're in the Money and Lullaby of Broadway are done to a perfect turn. Mear fills McKintosh's stagings (and Philadelphia's Broad Street Station, complete with massive working clock stuns on its own) with a plethora of bodies that define flawless synchronised harmony.

The Chatelet’s producers have lavishly and tastefully invested a fortune in their cast and creatives and it shows. If you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket to Paris, go. This production of 42nd Street is quite simply musical theatre perfection - there's no better show to be seen this side of the Atlantic.


Runs until 8th January 2017

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Dracula - Review

King's Head Theatre, London


****


Written by Danny Wainwright and Daniel Hallissey
Directed by Danny Wainwright






The tale of Dracula (although not quite as Bram Stoker may have intended) comes to The King's Head for a joyous night of quintessentially British comedy.

Danny Wainwright & Daniel Hallissey’s take on the classic horror yarn beats along at a steady pace and is short and sweet with moments of delightful, raunchy and very dry comedy. The manic style is reminiscent of the West End's recent take on The 39 Steps, with a few sprinklings of pop culture references and obscene yet hilarious moments, with the five multi-faceted 5 cast members all delivering fantastic performances worthy of praise.

The play follows the quest of Count Dracula (Rob Cummings) whose curse of vampirism can only be broken by finding true love back in England. True love, that is, with a few caveats thrown in for good measure.

On his journey we encounter 3 nymphomaniacs, 3 hapless suitors all bidding for the affections of a young lady, a vampire hunting legend and a young woman hopelessly fallen for her bumbling lover who himself has a fixation for old decrepit nuns. If it sounds outlandish, whacky and mad, that's simply because it is. What's more - it only lasts an hour. Head over to Islington and catch this hilarious gem whilst you can. 


Runs until 26th November
Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Rumpy Pumpy! - Review

Union Theatre, London



***

Music, lyrics and book by Barbara Jane Mackie
Directed by Simon Grieff


Linda Nolan and Louise Jameson


The true story behind Rumpy Pumpy! is both noble and remarkable. Jean Johnson and Shirley Landers, two stalwart Hampshire grandmothers and pillars of the WI no less took it upon themselves to try and right the conditions of the county's sex workers. Their research saw them travel the world in a pursuit of dignity and safety for the women. Barbara Jane Mackie has taken their tale and transformed it into a musical, first seen last year and now making a brief re-appearance at London’s Union Theatre before a hoped-for national tour and possible movie treatment too.

Likened to "Calendar Girls meets London Road", Rumpy Pumpy! actually falls short of both. The performances may well be flawless throughout, led impressively by the trio of Louise Jameson and Tricia Deighton as Johnson and Landers respectively alongside Linda Nolan's Holly, a Portsmouth Madam - but that’s about it. Aside from occasional gems (act one's Red Bull and Cigarettes is particularly punchy), the songs lack depth. Likewise Mackie's book, for all its truthful bedrock, reverts too often to clumsy cliché. The baddy female cop, DC Hecks (a good effort from Basienka Blake) is more Keystone than the Javert / Frollo nemesis that Mackie may have had in mind and none of the writer's verses match the caustically poignant wit that Boublil and Schoenberg imbued in Lovely Ladies from Les Miserables or that Kander and Ebb were able to capture in their work. The evening's numerous numbers that are performed in fishnets and lingerie hint at a show that is more of a "Chicago Lite" than innovative new writing.

Paul Smith's solo hard work on the piano offered a fluid accompaniment and if Gregor Donnelly's costumes were a little unimaginative, at least the money spent on shoes wasn’t wasted - the heels on display were stunning! There may yet be an entertaining film to be made here - the locations themselves from Pompey's grime to New Zealand via Nevada are potentially mouthwatering. But this worthy homage to the working girl needs work.


Runs until 19th November
Photo credit:Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Dead Funny - Review

Vaudeville Theatre, London


****

Written and directed by Terry Johnson


Katherine Parkinson, Steve Pemberton, Emily Berrington, Rufus Jones and Ralf Little

Terry Johnson deftly directs the West End revival of his 1994 play, a sharply observed often painfully funny dark comedy with several dramatic twists, as well as a good dose of slapstick and added custard pies.

The action takes place on the eve of the death of TV comic Benny Hill in 1992. The Dead Funny Society are a group of comedy enthusiasts, sharing a common interest in laughter. They regularly meet to re-enact classic sketches and celebrate the late great comedy masters such as Frankie Howerd, Max Miller & Eric Morecambe.

Richard, a consultant obstetrician is married to Eleanor. He routinely performs 5 hysterectomies a day and professes to not wanting to be touched "anywhere", to the frustration of his wife Eleanor who craves a baby. Katherine Parkinson's Eleanor, who often has the wittiest of lines, watches her marriage disintegrate before her eyes; the more she tries to connect with her husband, the more distant and cold he becomes. Rufus Jones's Richard, a stifled man-child of huge proportions, ignores the constant advances of his wife, even when lying fully naked on the floor whilst receiving relaxation "therapy", a scene so painfully funny that Jones should be awarded a West End medal for services to full frontal nakedness.

As Brian, Steve Pemberton commands the stage from his first entrance in a multi-coloured anorak clutching a Tesco carrier bag. A lovable aging mama's boy with a poignant vulnerability, Pemberton relishes every moment on stage, with a physical comedy that is as compelling as his perfectly timed one-liners.

Ralf Little and Emily Berrington play married couple and new parents Nick and Lisa. They embrace their membership of the Dead Funny Society but also have a fractured relationship which we discover is not all as it first seems. The emotional survival of all five characters is brought to stark reality with sharp repartee and often toxic verbal missiles.

As the only non-member of the appreciation society, Eleanor’s frustration at their antics is palpable. Parkinson portrays her with a sardonic charm and intelligence, only thinly veiling her pain. Her portrait is rooted strongly in reality, even in the sections of the play that offer more than a nod to the farces of Ray Cooney.

Johnson's play feels slightly old fashioned but that's more to do with the changes in comedy tastes in the past twenty odd years than his writing. Many of his throw way lines are utter gems, whilst when Eleanor speaks of her "tiny taps being turned off inside" Johnson piquantly reminds us just how well he can juxtapose painful drama right alongside hilarity.

A refreshing comedy that's a welcome addition to the West End. The stars cast in this play should have appreciation societies of their own.


Booking until 4th February 2017
Reviewed by Andy Bee
Photo credit: Alistair Muir

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Drones, Baby, Drones - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


**


This Tuesday
Written by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb
Directed by Nicolas Kent


The Kid
Written by David Greig
Directed by Mehmet Ergen



Anne Adams as Maxine

An evening of two short plays sandwiched between the verbatim thoughts of Reprieve’s Clive Stafford-Smith, Drones, Baby, Drones examines the psychologies at play behind the controllers of America's drone fleet. The texts look at both the Washington based elite who draw up the weekly hit lists for the missiles to be aimed at, and the pilots who actually fly the unmanned planes via remote control from an air force base just outside Las Vegas.

The first piece, This Tuesday is set in DC early one morning and is based around the build up to the White House weekly target meeting. The complexities set in as Maxine, a senior CIA official who is due to attend the meeting, learns of her daughter having been critically injured in a road crash (that's coincidentally witnessed by Meredith, the young intern/mistress of Doug, one of the Administration’s security advisers and another meeting attendee). The premise is clear, comparing Maxine’s love for her precious child with her disregard for the targetted victims, along with the associated collateral deaths, thousands of miles away. 

The second half's offering, The Kid, sees a social evening at the Nevada home of drone pilot Pete. His partner Shawna is newly pregnant and the joy and value in their unborn child is again contrasted with the lives of kids in the target zone. Intra-couple friction between the guests smoulders, sending the whole cheese and wine gig into a take on Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf mixed with a Stop The War meeting.

There are clearly sound dramatic and moral messages to be explored here, but both these plays' conceits are just too patronisingly obvious. Neither work is helped by Stafford-Smith's stated slant that all those involved in drone warfare, Britain's GCHQ included, are part of a modern-day Mafia.

Notwithstanding the cliched dialogue and blunt politicking. the acting is, for the most part excellent and Lucy Sierra’s design is imaginative. But the shows' arguments are naive and clumsy, lacking the precision of the Hellfire missiles that they're based around. Mercifully it’s all over in 90 minutes.


Runs until 26th November
Photo credit: Simon Annand

Sunday, 6 November 2016

takis talks- Performance Designed

The musical Side Show that recently opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse, is another achievement for one of the most distinctive stage designers around. For several years now the reputation of takis (the lower case ‘t’ is deliberate) has acquired immense respect from theatre and opera producers alike. Having admired takis’ work for years, I am one of the few reviewers to have seen much of his work in both theatre and opera as well as a number of regional productions. 
Before Side Show opened, I spoke with takis to learn a little more about his designs for the show, as well as aspects of his other work, including In The Heights.

Side Show

JB:          I have to start with your distinctive name. Please enlighten me

takis:     Well, I am from Greece and it is a Greek name! It was there that my passion with the theatre commenced. I joined an amateur theatre over there and did a lot of work with them. Everything! Performing, choreographing, designing and from the age of 14 to 18 I spent one month a year in Italy doing ancient Greek drama, festivals and touring. That's how it all built up. Then when I was 16, I was like, "That's what I want to do, costumes and design!"

So I decided to study Fine Arts and Costumes in a very old fashioned academy in Bucharest, learnt Romanian and set off.

JB:          Is Side Show your first time back at the Southwark Playhouse since In The Heights?

takis:     Yes and designing the show has been a blessing and a challenge at the same time. A blessing, as the audience have an inclusive, immersive experience of a freak/vaudeville show and are able to observe closely the life journey of (the real life conjoined twins) Violet & Daisy Hilton played extraordinary by Laura Pitt-Pulford & Louise Dearman. On the other hand, having the audience that close you need to be as authentic as possible with the overall design and its details.

Designing real people and in our case ‘freaks’ has not been an easy task. My first challenge was the conjoining of the two sisters, we kept changing the device until Laura & Louise felt connected. We are not talking about only a simple costume connection, but something more anatomical. Their joining has an impact of how they move, dance and how both embodied the two sisters. After achieving the ‘connection’ we worked on how to make them look alike and how to create all the costumes around the achieved conjoined bodies. We had also to create the ‘freaks’, real people of the 1920s with physical abnormalities. The realisation of all the freaks (bearded lady, 3 leg man, pin cushion human, cannibal, lizard man, half man/half woman, tattooed lady, fortune teller/dolly dimple, dog boy) is based on each performer and period research. All the designs are driven by the physique and look of each performer. We experimented and tested ideas until each character came alive. To be fair, the only way we were able to achieve this was to have two extremely talented team members in Clare Amos (wardrobe supervisor) and Natasha Lawes (Wigs, Make up, Prosthetics & Tech-Fx Supervisor).

Moving to the set design; from the beginning we decided that the best configuration would be ‘in thrust’ which means the actual stage space is very limited. I had to create levels, entrances and exits and then, within that, incorporate 7 musicians & 14 cast members. I always design by responding to the actual architecture of the venue, making the space a friend rather than an enemy and I have tried to create a 1920s environment which can change from a freak show to a vaudeville stage.

With the metal structure, cladded with wooden plunks and lighting bulbs I tried to play with illusions, to exaggerate height and depth, create perspective compositions. All the wooden planks are connected but are taking different directions mirroring the characters of the 2 sisters. The metal, art deco circular shapes bring glimpses of the period style, but also illustrate the circles of life; from the full circle to the interrupted ones.

I am really proud of what we have achieved here.

Oliver!

JB:          Looking at some of your other work, tell me firstly about the Oliver! that you designed at Leicester’s Curve last year.

takis:     Well, I’d worked a lot with the director Paul Kerryson before, so I knew that we wanted to make sure that the understanding of the period was correct. We knew that it needed to be dark as well as brightly coloured.

We have the posh characters, so you want to help that number to really be strong, have silks. Then you have Fagin’s gang, the underground, where you have the ability to bring in a lot of textures and colours of the era. Then I will put some modern fabrics within that, some fabrics that you could question them if they are of the time, but as a feeling they will give you exactly that. I went with feelings and textures.

Then of course with the main characters, I always want to meet them. I want to see, "Who do I have? What is interesting of them?" Sometimes they have incredible eyes, they have a nose which you want to exaggerate, or they have a bosom, or they have a waist. Each performer has something to give you that is good to know. Sometimes you have a conversation with them. Sometimes you have to design much earlier before you meet them, but still I do a lot of research per individual, who are these people?

JB:          Tell me more about the importance of costume in your work.

Takis:     In Bucharest we learned costume through art and through dance. Much like a choreographer will learn the dances of the period, so we understood how dress changes in society according to the movements that they made and how they danced and so on.

Then we opened up the garments to see the patterns, sometimes deconstructing them into something else. Having worked with the opera in Rome for many summers, while I was studying I learned scenic paint, costume making and many other skills. I know the basics and the tools and then I twist them to suit my needs.

JB:          Explain more about your work in opera.

takis:     Opera and ballet are on such grand scales! I did a world premiere of ballet with The Little Mermaid and it took a year to design it. The scale was enormous. The vision there, in Scandinavia, was something that we don’t have here. They're really up for exploring.

The brief that they gave me was, “takis, we want a design that will bring the classic ballet into the future". So I brought in 3D projections, floors moving up, moving down, things coming in, flying people, flying through the auditorium, things coming out. There were 12 full sets, moving floors, lifts.

JB:          That sounds spectacular - what was the budget that you had to work with for that?

takis:     I never asked!

This year in particular has been very opera-focussed for me too with an elegant Die Fledermaus at Holland Park this summer and currently the English Touring Opera’s production of Ulysses’ Homecoming and La Calisto.

We push these works to different areas, genres and feelings according to where they are performed and for which audience and why. As with musicals, the music leads you. That's what I love now more and more in musicals, opera and ballets - the stimulation is via the music.

In The Heights

JB:          Coming back to musical theatre I want to ask you about In The Heights. When you first put it together at Southwark, what were your thoughts about the show? 

takis:     I think when we heard the music, we all went, "Wow!". It is a fusion of different cultures. It hits you. It's something that moves you. It moves your body somehow.

The thing that comes out for In The Heights is the heat and the sexiness if you like, that is around there. Also, the values of friends and family are all these elements that are familiar to me because strangely enough, these Latin values are very close to Mediterranean values. We might not dance Latin, but it's these kind of things that sometimes make you respond by dance.

At Southwark we kind of brought the audience in the three sides and then I had to work with the floor and the wall. It's not a big space and we wanted to keep the key locations. Then I played with the lights of the subway, kind of taking us a different direction, different houses, different lines of like, if you like. We see the life of a society, but the life of differing individuals and how they take this cross between each other. That's kind of what's strung for it. We play with bold colours and then I just had the idea to put in fluorescence and of course Howard Hudson is an absolutely incredible lighting designer. We always work so well together.

JB:          And the transfer to the Kings Cross Theatre and sharing the venue itself with The Railway Children. That must have been a fascinating challenge from a design perspective?

takis:     Yes and you’ve driven the train there haven’t you? So you realise what the space is there! How we change between the two shows within one hour has been an amazing challenge. It was more of an engineering designing rather than designing for a show.

I had to work with platforms that are 2 meters square. We put in fills, where the trucks are and then we roll out a dance floor that brings it all together.

I feel happy that we managed to do it, in the sense of we all wanted the show to come back and it's so good that it's back, with all the Oliviers and everything that happened to it. We all have put our souls in that show. It is one of the shows that from day one, we were like, "Yeah". We were like kids, you know how you feel, no matter what age you are. We had this energy in all of us and I think that comes across to the audience.


Side Show plays at  the Southwark Playhouse until 3rd December
In The Heights plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until 8th January 2017

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Fool For Love - Review

Found 111, London


****


Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Simon Evans



Adam Rothenberg and Lydia Wilson


“They fuck you up, your mum and dad” wrote Philip Larkin and it is precisely that sentiment that sits squarely at the heart of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love currently playing at Found 111. The derelict former college, perched aloft the building site that currently masquerades as the Charing Cross Road, is an appropriately stark setting for this bleak piece of modern Americana. 

Shepard's 1980's work stunned audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and it makes a well timed return, his two young adults struggling with the unspeakable complexities of their desire.

Adam Rothenberg and Lydia Wilson are Eddie and May, the one-time lovers who can’t seem to tear themselves apart. As Eddie speaks of his dreams of a ranch in Wyoming, it becomes increasingly, devastatingly, clear that the couple's emotional landscape is likely to prove as barren and unforgiving as the Mojave Desert surrounding the shabby motel in which the entire 75 minutes action plays out.

Rothenberg and Wilson are commanding in their portrayal of passion and pain. They are well served by Joe McGann's Old Man, a leathery, gnarled cowboy with a secret, whose spirit hovers over the entire work. It is down to Luke Neal's Martin, a bumbling, regular kinda guy in innocent pursuit of May, to open a yawning chasm of horrors. 

Simon Evans directs thoughtfully (even if his doors slam too loud, too often) in this classy conclusion to the Found 111 season.


Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Last Five Years - Review

St James Theatre, London


****


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jason Robert Brown


Samntha Barks and Jonathan Bailey
At the heart of almost every musical is the progression and development of a love story that can be often entwined with twists, turns and sub plots. Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years however goes further than that, offering an audience the ambitious conceit of focussing solely upon the relationship itself and how, before their eyes, it simultaneously both forms and unravels.  

Opening with two lovers sharing a kiss, for Samantha Barks' Cathy, an aspiring actress it is her tragic last, while for writer Jamie, played by Jonathan Bailey it is a trepidatious first. And thereby hangs the bittersweet time-bending vortex of Brown's work. As his show plays out, Jamie's story runs forward in time, watching the relationship grow and then decay, as Cathy's perspective is in reverse, opening with the couple parting as their marriage ends – their two timelines only tanatalisingly coinciding at the "half-way" moment of their wedding day - and her story ending on the heartbreaking excitement of newly discovered love.

Both Barks and Bailey are magnificent, mastering the show's anti-romantic chemistry. With only the pivotal wedding day scene pitching them opposite each other in real time, rarely do they elsewhere even share the stage, with the plot's developments and its roller-coaster of emotions typically being played out in alternating solo numbers.

Barks tackles Brown's complex score with ease. Arguably as good as it gets, Barks' take on I Can Do Better Than That is a highlight of the evening, truly defining her as one of today's leading ladies. Equally, Bailey's quasi-autobiographical Jamie bursts onto the stage like a ball of fizzing testosterone, nailing the outer-cool veneer that masks a molten tumult of desire. The pair's comic moments come naturally, even when least expected, with the honesty in both Barks' and Bailey's work making the contrasts of heartbreak and hysteria even more poignant. 

In a rare treat for the capital, Brown himself has crossed the Atlantic to direct his work with an incisive precision. The set-up is clear from the beginning with a progression that is so carefully constructed that each step of this love story really leaves one wanting to discover the next chapter. For sure, Brown's beautifully detailed score does a lot of the work for the actors, but with the man himself directing, every nuance is sweetly elicited. 

For the most part the show is enhanced by Derek McLane's design. Two simple sets of typical New York window panes creating the sense of separation. Annoyingly though, other pieces of scenery awkwardly squeak their way on stage and are a minor distraction. 

Any score with such complex melodies demands a musical director that can give it life and with his 6 piece band. Torquil Munro does exactly that. With the majority of stand-alone numbers exceeding 5 minutes and limited text, The Last Five Years is no mean feat for both its actors and musicians alike. 

Already extended to December and with a stellar cast and the writer himself directing, this production of The Last Five Years is an exquisite display of musical theatre performance. A show for both connoisseurs and fans alike and not to be missed.


Runs until 3rd December
Photo credit: Scott Rylander