Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Hired Man - Review

Union Theatre, London


****

Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Brendan Matthew


The Hired Man Company

Taken from Melvyn Bragg’s acclaimed description of England’s Lake District as the 19th century passed into the 20th, The Hired Man is a richly fruited glimpse of a way of life long since passed. Howard Goodall’s melodies encompass a range of traditional English sources, as the musical’s narrative charts a transition in the nation’s working men (and women), from open-skied agriculture to coal-consuming heavy industry against a backdrop of The Great War.

Brendan Matthew makes a decent job of the libretto’s vast landscape. From the opening Song of the Hired Men, both the time and the place of the show are firmly anchored as we chart the titular John Tallentire’s arc through a challenging life and love.

Playing Tallentire is Ifan Gwilym-Jones who convinces as the muscular man of the land, far happier behind a plough than a coal pick, but ultimately forced to work the pits when the money for labourers dries up above ground. Gwilym-Jones possesses a fine voice, never stronger than in the first half denouement of What A Fool I’ve Been which is spine-tingling in its intensity. Elsewhere though (and along with many other members of the company) his voice is hard to hear - and this from a reviewer sat in the front row! Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre is truly a beautiful off-West End performing space, but (and this has been said before) producers need to mic their casts if many of these well trained voices are even to be heard, let alone appreciated. 

Opposite Gwilym-Jones, Rebecca Gilliland plays Emily his wife, bringing a focussed energy to a role that draws on complex emotions. Gilliland has a presence (and vocal power) that commands the stage and she makes fine enthusiastic work of Now For The First Time, along with the far more challenging If I Could. She also cleverly enlivens the complex passions that burn inside one of Goodall’s most intriguing leading ladies, not least in a heartfelt I Wouldn't be the First.

Notable amongst the company is Jack McNeill who captures the pre-teen and teenage youthfulness of the Tallentire’s son Harry, while at the opposite end of the age spectrum Christopher Lyne turns in all manner of magnificently voiced cameos, playing the story’s older men.

Jonathan Carlton puts in a fabulous shift as Seth, John Tallentire’s brother who becomes a committed Trade Unionist, fighting for miners’ workplace safety. As a history lesson The Union Song does well to remind us of the honourable, proud and decent principles that were once at the core of the Labour movement. There’s yet more history on offer with the show’s reference to the First World War. Goodall’s heartfelt chords (and that sublime key change) in Farewell Song will always make a loving tribute to those who never returned, even more so this year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the horrific Battle of Passchendaele.

Matthew’s direction is at its best in the ensemble numbers where Charlotte Tooth’s imaginative choreography supported by her lithe and graceful dance captain Rebecca Withers offer up some of the finest movement currently to be found on London’s fringe. The Union space is compact and in the show’s large routines that take place in the market square, the tavern and especially The Work Song, Tooth’s work is a visual treat.

At the keyboard Richard Bates works hard directing his two strings players. Goodall’s northern English tunes typically work best with a spot of brass, but notwithstanding this gap the musical accompaniment was polished and perfectly delivered.

The Hired Man makes for a pleasing evening’s entertainment and if some dodgy sound and lighting cues can be ironed out, this show may well yet mature into a truly fine production.


Runs until 12th August 2017
Photo credit: PND Photography

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Fiddler on the Roof - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


****


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


Emma Kingston and Louis Maskell

Any large scale production of Fiddler on the Roof is always worth a visit. In 1972 the show capped Broadway’s Golden Era by becoming New York’s (then) longest running musical and it has continually retained a global affection for its charming yet honest depiction of Jewish life in the small Russian village of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century. 

So with Daniel Evans settling in as Chichester’s Artistic Director and building upon the acclaim of recent years for his Sheffield revivals of Show Boat and Anything Goes (both 5* raves on this site), has he achieved the same glory with his shtetl shtick? The answer is, not quite.

Omid Djalili steps up to the pivotal role of Tevye the milkman. Married to Golde and with 5 daughters (3 of marriageable age) Djalili captures a hen-pecked, hardworking weariness of the poor pious family man who dreams of maybe, just a small fortune. Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics deserved their 1965 Tony. His perceptive writing captured not only Tevye’s grappling with the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, they also masterfully caught his humour, his despair, his pride and above all his love for his wife and daughters. 

Djalili is first and foremost a comedian and as a lookalike for Zero Mostel (who created the role on Broadway) he’s unmatched. If you’ve seen those classic images over the years of Tevye, prayer-shawl whirling, dancing in ecstasy to If I Were A Rich Man, or To Life, then Djalili more than delivers.

But whilst he does serve up most of what makes a strong Tevye, Djalili fails to grasp the essential self-deprecating irony that underscores much of Jewish humour and also mangles moments that should be of the deepest pathos. As his younger daughter Hodel leaves him to journey to fiancé Perchik, banished to Siberia, she says to her father that “God alone knows when we will meet again”. The moment should be a heartbreaker, but amidst overplayed steam train sound effects and a rushed speech, Djalili mutes the tragedy.

Opposite Djalili, Tracy-Ann Oberman makes her musical theatre debut as Golde and it shows. Whilst she convinces as a deeply loving mother, Oberman’s singing is lacklustre. And what on earth was Evans thinking when he instructed her to speak with a cod-Russian accent?

Elsewhere though  there is theatrical magnificence. Emma Kingston and Louis Maskell as Hodel and Perchik are quite simply a committed and passionate delight. Their growing love is tangible and one only wishes that the libretto could have offered Hodel more of a solo platform to enjoy Kingston’s perfectly weighted voice.  

There is solid work too from Jos Slovick’s Motel, with Gareth Snook turning in a decidedly creepy Lazar Wolf, the widowed old butcher with an eye for Simbi Akande’s Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest, as his next wife.

Tevye’s Dream is a delight. Amidst a whirl of trap doors and cranes, Mia Soteriou’s Grandma Tzeitel makes us chuckle affectionately, while Laura Tebbutt’s brilliantly camped up cameo as Fruma Sarah will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous stuff as high above the stage, Tom Brady's 14 piece orchestra make fine work of Jerry Bock's luscious score.

So while Chichester’s flawed Fiddler may not be one for the purists, it’s still a finely executed piece of musical theatre. And for those who've never seen this Broadway classic, Daniel Evans’ production is a must-see.


Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday, 16 July 2017

X & Y - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London


***


Written and directed by Melina Namar and Jessica Manu




In 2011 Beyoncé Knowles proclaimed in a mightily catchy hook that girls run the world, a far cry of course from James Brown's 1966 declaration that "This is a man’s world”. Whatever the truth of the matter, fast forward to 2017 and everyone seems to be a little bit lost. The topic of gender seems to continually be at the forefront of our cultural narrative, with the ever-shifting paradigm of what it truly means to be a man or a woman or indeed neither, in the modern era.

So it was that under the Lyric Hammersmith’s Open Mic banner and for one night only, Melina Namdar and Jessica Manu offered a fascinating glimpse into bringing these complex issues to the surface. Featuring a series of short, modern scenarios facing both men and women, the evening ranged from such first-world tribulations as swiping through Tinder, to the harder hitting and more volatile issues of abortion and rape. There was much here to fuel provocative thought and debate.

Overall, the show was a mixed bag. Some moments were harrowingly true and effective, hitting the right notes in terms of both gravitas and comedic astuteness. Elsewhere however, aspects seemed slightly contrived though this may well derive from the piece’s structure, compressing enormous issues into tantalisingly brief performance windows. X&Y clearly has a powerful message but it needs to expand its characters’ story lines and give more context to their plight as individuals.

What was undeniable however was the young performing talent that gives the play its authenticity and energy.  Michael Ajih’s honest portrayal of a young man who suffers a traumatic event and is subsequently confronted by a therapist to talk about his experience, has an incredible impact.  The hesitation and build up as he overcame his reluctance to talk, was both moving and credible.

Another stand out performance was Thea Mayeux as a woman confronted with a manipulative and ultimately bad apple of a partner, whose true colours are revealed when she informs him that she’s pregnant. Mayeux’s ability to convey emotional distress with a simple yet effective glazed look in her eyes as she realised her dire situation was immense. A captivating performance that left a considerable impression.

Melina Namar and Jessica Manu have put together a stellar group of young actors and created a piece of theatre that asks questions and explores issues, rarely depicted on stage. If X&Y is any indicator to go by, look out for their future productions.


Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Brexodus! - Review

The Other Palace, London


***


Composed by Frederick Appleby and Russell Sarre
Libretto by David Shirreff
Directed by Lucy Appleby



Airlie Scott as Theresa May


The performances in Brexodus! are, for the most part, top notch – it’s only a shame that the written material doesn’t quite match up to the acting talent on stage. Over a lengthy two hours the talented cast of 5 offer up a whirlwind tour of the political issues that have gripped the nation since early last year.

The show’s lampooning takes no prisoners, placing all our current political figures squarely in its sights. However, whilst Brexodus! takes aim at politicos of all sides, David Shirreff’s sentiments are resolutely Remain. By all means mock political life (and heaven knows post June 8th, it merits mockery even further) but when the balance tips towards bias, the evening ultimately evolves into little more than an immaculate and polished professional performance of a schoolboy script.

The performances are memorable. Paul Croft turns in an excellent Nigel Farage, Recip Erdogan and Lord Heseltine (amongst many others) with their identifiable traits honed to perfection. Croft’s rock-star/communist interpretation of Jeremy Corbyn is cutely chuckle worthy – but the text’s lack of reference to Corbyn’s long avowed contempt for the EU was perhaps an overly convenient omission by Shirreff?

Airlie Scott as the only woman on stage offers up a wonderful Theresa May, as well as a strikingly believable Sarah Vine (aka Mrs Michael Gove). James Sanderson’s blustering take on a buffoon-like Boris is instantly recognisable – but by the second act the novelty of his cycle helmeted garb has worn off. Also Sanderson’s take on Trump needs to shake off its orange-faced clumsiness.

Technically Frederick Appleby’s piano work is crisp and the cast have clearly been rehearsed into a polished performance of pinpoint timing – brava Lucy Appleby.

The words may be as clichéd as the caricatures are good, but while you’re unlikely to cry with laughter, there’s much in the show to chuckle at.


Paul Croft as Jeremy Corbyn



Runs until 15th July

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Tempest - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


****


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by  Gregory Doran


Simon Russell Beale and Jenny Rainsford

In just seven days it has been possible to catch the RSC doing what they do best - offering an insight into Shakespeare’s profound understanding of the breadth of the human condition. At Stratford last week Titus Andronicus evidenced man’s capacity to wreak bloody revenge. This week with The Tempest, we observe the power of forgiveness.

In a literally magical production, the London transfer of Stratford upon Avon's 2016 hit sees Simon Russell Beale as Prospero shipwrecked on an enchanted island in the Med, with only his daughter Miranda to accompany him and a library of books and spells. 

Also resident on the island are Caliban, a hulkingly ugly witch’s son and Ariel, a spirit, both of whom are under Prospero’s spell - and as the (literally fantastic) story unfolds we learn of Dukedoms usurped, resentments nurtured, smouldering love and passionate jealousies.

What makes Greg Doran’s production soar is a virtually seamless marriage of some of the finest acting to be found, alongside breathtaking 21st century technology. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stage design is magnificent - the entire play taking place within the massive gaping ribs of a shipwreck’s hull. Onto these perished timbers, The Imaginarium Studios and Finn Ross project digital creations which through a combination of both ingenious imagery and the screens onto which their work is projected, breathe a supernatural life into the island.

Russell Beale’s Prospero is wise and measured, with the actor’s hallmark twang of wry exasperation giving a lilting cadence to some of Shakespeare's most beautiful verse. Jenny Rainsford as Miranda is a young woman brimming with desire. Her joy on first encountering the subsequently shipwrecked Ferdinand, the King’s son played by Daniel Easton is almost palpable and the love that evolves between the couple, albeit within the confines of a tale based on magical whimsy, is entirely plausible.

As the grotesquely piscatorial Caliban, replete with flapping fish, Joe Dixon’s spinally exo-skeletal costume could almost have been designed by H.R.Giger. Dixon captures Caliban’s slow-witted complexities perfectly, while as Ariel, the bodysuited, lithe Mark Quartley turns in a performance that is as acrobatic as it is stunningly empathetic. Excelling throughout, in a performance that blends bewilderingly believably into the digital domain Quartley’s understated elation as Ariel receives his liberty in the final act, is a celebration of sensitivity.

While all of the performances are spot on, there’s a niggle in the casting of Jonathan Broadbent as Antonio. He may well be Prospero’s brother, but the significant age gap between the performers makes that particular conceit hard to grasp. There must however be a mention for the outstanding soprano work from Elly Condron, Jennifer Witton and Samantha Hay as Iris, Juno and Ceres respectively, who only add a further degree of enchantment to the consecration of Miranda and Ferdinand’s union.

Paul Englishby’s music and Lucy Cullingford’s movement alongside the production’s stunning sound and lighting only add to what is yet another work of excellence from the RSC.


Runs until 18th August 2017
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Friday, 7 July 2017

King Kong A Comedy - Review

The Vaults, London


****


A comedy by Daniel Clarkson
Directed by Owen Lewis


Brendan Murphy and Sam Donnelly

Ridiculous, slightly bizarre, but also just a little bit brilliant - this is Owen Lewis and Daniel Clarkson’s delightfully comic spin on Hollywood’s classic tale of adventure, love, wonder and, of course, bananas.

Set beneath Waterloo in The Vaults, the venue’s underground ambience feeds into the play, allowing the audience to get lost in the silliness. The character of the movie’s Carl Denham is deliciously played for wonderful parody, with Rob Crouch giving Jack Black more than a run for his money. Also bound for the ominous Skull Island are Jack Driscoll, played here by Ben Chamberlain who’s a considerably less smooth operator and hero than Adrien Brody. Chamberlain’s Driscoll is more like Eugene from Grease, only this time with a fear of everything under the sun! Sam Donnelly plays the skipper, while Brendan Murphy puts in a manic turn as Token Guy, a vital crew member and component to the plot who will most certainly not wind up dead.

The love interest has always fuelled the complex passions of King Kong and at The Vaults it's Alix Dunmore who takes on the tragic responsibilities of Anne. Dunmore does a delightful job in poking fun at the misogynistic overtones of the time, steering the hapless crew in the right direction on their doomed quest.

The show broadly follows the famed plot with just some slight tweaks that only add to the overall hilarity. It’s a short and sweet piece of comedic joy with some bananas and some clueless primates thrown in for good measure. The show even manages to tug the heartstrings, with the King Kong’s fabled climax, proving to be a surprisingly effective ending, even when staged on a micro-budget.

Be it beauty, planes or the concrete of 5th Avenue, whatever it was that killed the beast, this King Kong will leave you roaring with laughter. 

Runs until 27th August
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Titus Andronicus - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


***


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blanche McIntyre


David Troughton

Blanche McIntyre strives to give an aura of political correctness to her take on the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays - but she misses the point. Titus Andronicus is always going to be more about its final act’s Imperial Bake-Off than it will ever be about the failings of society. 

A lengthy mise-en-scene featuring masked social justice warriors protesting about “Austerity” drags the Roman setting to 21st century Britain. As an amuse-bouche it’s certainly well choreographed, (suggesting at times the Crapshooters’ Ballet from Guys and Dolls) but McIntyre protests too much, methinks. However hard a director’s moral compass may point her to dress up Titus Andronicus with a worthy polemic, one must remember that it remains little more than a 16th Century Carry On caper. Misogyny, mutilation, rape and murder drive the narrative, with a degree of violence that by today’s standards would be both offensive and gratuitous.

That’s not to say Titus Andronicus  shouldn't be performed. It merits its place in the canon, but for all McIntyre’s worthy endeavours she’s still delivered a play that treats women abominably and other than, perhaps, Aaron’s scheming lies being labelled as “Fake News”, has little real comment to offer upon today’s events, however broken our world may be perceived to be.

David Troughton is a strong and forceful Titus. His love for Rome is unquestioning as he carries the role of weathered warrior magnificently.  We share his grief and he wins our sympathy as he pursues his own path in this most vengefully vicious circle. Likewise Martin Hutson’s Saturninus is appropriately oleaginous - there’s shades of any politician you may care to think of in his performance, but understand that any such resemblance is fleeting and barely more than superficial. 

Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is a curious casting. Gwynne captures the complex essence of Tamora’s maternal vengeance, and in the final act her portrayal of Revenge is truly ethereal - but she lacks the sex-fuelled stature of a Tamora who’s as capable of seducing Saturninus as she is to wantonly surrendering to Aaron.

Stefan Adegbola and Nia Gwynne

McIntyre is on record as having been kept “awake at night” (and rightly so) that the play’s violence against women is portrayed responsibly, but only in some very small part she has succeeded. Tamora’s wincing (was this an aspect of sisterly concern for Lavinia?) as her sons violently ravished the helpless young woman seemed contrived, as if to suit McIntyre’s agenda rather than define Tamora’s credibility. And again, in the play’s endgame, one might have hoped that McIntyre, as a modern woman, may have offered some tiny moral slant on Titus’ slaying of his daughter as worthy of some critique for the despicable “honour killing” that it truly is, rather than let it flash by in the melee of mealtime madness.

Where McIntyre has offered some new insight is in her use of the supernatural. The spirits of Titus’ dead sons Quintus and Marcius appear often, not least in the scene where Titus overpowers and captures Chiron and Demetrius, assisted by the two dead brothers’ bloodied but muscular ghosts. In a scene that is often hard to explain technically (just how does the old Titus come to overpower two fit and strapping young lads?) McIntyre makes it work. The ghost of Alarbus also appears in a final moment that offers a jolt reminiscent of the closing shock of Stephen King’s Carrie, hinting at the never ending cycle of Rome’s revenging curse.

Hannah Morrish’s Lavinia is a charming if emotionally muted interpretation. Bereft of tongue and hands, the role will always be challenging and whilst Morrish garners our sympathy, were she to dig just a little deeper she’d make us weep. Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart (respectively Chiron and Demetrius) are recognisably modern day thugs. Both actors possess a lithe muscularity that supports their personae and they equally impress, suspended by their ankles, as Titus wreaks his vengeance upon their throats. There’s a hint of TV’s Nick Hewer (or maybe Theresa May’s husband Philip) to Patrick Drury’s Marcus where again, a little more depth might really show an avuncular love for the violated Lavinia.

Arguably the star turn of the night is Stefan Adegbola’s Aaron. His vocal work is perfection and with sparkling eyes and an amazing physicality, Adegbola truly suggests the diabolical, at the same time displaying a love for his bastard child that is as passionate as his contempt for those he ruthlessly despatches.

The lighting, music and design are fun and if there’s a minor niggle, its that the hardworking RSC techies still need to sort out the effectiveness some of the hidden blood bags (especially Bassianus’), where a clumsy special effect can easily shatter the hard won suspension of our disbelief 

The political treatment may be naive, but the merciless misogyny of Titus Andronicus is probably and sadly timeless in too many of today’s multi-cultured communities - it’s only a shame the programme notes don't highlight that particular observation.

Nonetheless, lavishly budgeted productions of Titus Andronicus don’t come along that often and so for that reason if no other, the show is worth a pie-packed trip to Stratford. Or why not book now to see it at the Barbican over Christmas, for a very alternative festive feast!


Runs until 2nd September

Broadcast live to cinemas on 9th August

Plays at the Barbican Theatre, London from 7th December 2017 until 19th January 2018

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Saturday, 1 July 2017

These Trees Are Made Of Blood - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


****

Music and lyrics by Darren Clark
Text by Paul Jenkins
Original Story by Amy Draper, Paul Jenkins and Darren Clark
Directed by Amy Draper


Alexander Luttley


These Trees Are Made of Blood is quite the title, and “political musical cabaret” is quite the concept. Inspired by the director’s study year in Buenos Aires and the harrowing yet inspiring story she uncovered there, this is a performance well deserving of its transfer from the Southwark Playhouse. 

Rob Castrell as the General, making full use of his dangerous eyes and casual charm, takes centre stage. He draws us into the seemingly fine and dandy world of 1970s Argentina (The Coup Coup Club, the “p” is silent) with his brazen Wing Commander (Alexander Luttley) backup prancing in marvellous drag. Luttley is cheeky and flirtatious from the moment one enters the theatre, piquing the audience’s curiosity about what lies in store before they’ve even picked up their tickets.

The three military leads beautifully juxtapose each other, from the commanding gumption of the General, to the gentle but discerning tones of Lieutenant Suarez (Neil Kelso), who mesmerises with magic that seems playful if you don’t think about it too much and the Wing Commander in shoes that one could barely walk in.

The whole point of the 1970s military in Argentina seems to have been to ensure that the people didn’t think too much and trusted the seemingly magnanimous General, the self proclaimed Father of the Nation. With the audience taking on the role of the nation it isn’t difficult to ride the wave into stark realisation with Ellen O' Grady's Madre. 

The chief double-threat in a show of marvellous actor/singers is O’Grady, who gives the most honest performance (in the sense most others have a hidden agenda or several characters to encompass). Her stunning and heart bursting rendition of My Little Bird in the second act leaves the audience in little doubt that the perceived light-heartedness is well and truly over. 

Darren Clark's musical numbers ingeniously make the audience laugh when they shouldn’t for as long as possible before a perhaps too hasty descent into the dark reality of the plot. In true cabaret style, the music is brought to life by an incredible live band including Anne-Marie Piazza playing accordion and ukulele, Josh Sneesby on guitar and grieving boyfriend, Eilon Morris playing drums and Judge and Rosalind Ford playing cello and CIA agent stripper. 

Amy Draper directs a show that surprises, entertains and informs, bringing into the light a worryingly modern but not widely known conflict that ended with the Falklands War. The show harrowingly acknowledges the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, who continue to remember the hundreds of disappeared children under the stifling regime of the Dirty War.

The sometimes overly literal language hints at the show’s flaws, but that is by no means a reason not to buy a ticket. See this show to peek behind a flashy cabaret curtain and uncover a fascinating tale of subterfuge and state terrorism beyond.


Runs until 15th July
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Tommy - Review

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London


*****

Music and lyrics by Pete Townsend
Book by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff
Additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Kerry Michael



Ramps On The Moon’s production of Tommy, directed by Kerry Michael, is a truly wonderful production. As the rock opera created by The Who is famously about a “deaf, dumb and blind kid”, so does this work build upon a cast, at least half of whom triumph in their performance over a range of disabilities.

The story telling is clear and alongside Michael’s deft and moving direction, Mark Smith (himself deaf and who choreographed a stunning Tommy two years ago at Greenwich) again does wonders with his dancework, offering yet even more truth and honesty to the complex moralities of the tale.

The casting is ingenious. Peter Straker’s Acid Queen is astonishing vocally, with a stage presence alone that exudes power and is worth the price of admission! Pete Townsend has even written him a new song in Act 2, that rounds off his character perfectly - and remember: when Tommy first played in the West End in 1979, Straker was the show's Narrator. 

Shekinah McFarlane’s take on Mother is out of this world - this talented performer has a voice that firmly places her in the diva category as she remains one to watch. 

In the title role, Tommy is played beautifully and emotionally by newcomer William Glint. When he sees his father for the first time and shouts out ‘Daddy’, spines tingle. Max Runham sings powerfully as Captain Walker and his scenes with Glint are very touching. Garry Robson is a suitably gruesome Uncle Ernie.

The whole ensemble play, sing and dance many roles throughout the show, with a mention too to Robert Hyman’s sensational band, who break out into character parts as well as playing their instruments.

This Tommy is a magnificent production that serves to highlight the scarcity of disabled people on stage generally and it is a shame that it takes a ground-breaking production like this to point that out. Hopefully more theatre companies will be inspired by this example.


Reviewed by Trevor Davies
Touring until 1st July

Blondel - Review

Union Theatre, London


***


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Oliver & Tim Rice
Book by Tom Williams & Tim Rice
Directed by Sasha Regan


Michael Burgen and Connor Arnold


Tim Rice’s ‘Blondel’ is given a new and updated life at the Union Theatre, delivering a light hearted and uplifting production that borders on the bizarre, but which still leaves audiences laughing.

Set in the 1180’s, King Richard the Lionheart  (played by Neil Moors) proclaims he will set off on a Crusade, and go to war with Saladin in the Middle East, leaving the county in the hands of the maniacal Prince John (James Thackeray). On this passionate adventure he drags along laundress, Fiona (Jessie May) , the fiancée of a struggling court Musician named ‘Blondel. After the king is kidnapped, Blondel (played by Connor Arnold) sets out on a mission to perform outside every single castle in the world, hoping that the king will hear his song, return his beloved and rescue the country from his despicable brother. 

The writing of the show is clearly intelligent. The humour, though incredibly dry at points and entirely absurd, is elevating, delivering an entertaining 2 hour performance, though one occasionally wonders why the hell some actions on stage are actually happening!

The highlight of the evening is Michael Burgen’s performance as an Assassin hired by Prince John to eliminate King Richard, who despite loathing Blondel’s work, ends up traipsing around Europe after him, slowly going insane. Burgen is fantastic, he completely draws you in, delivering a standard to which the other performers need to match. His comic timing is superb and the energy with which he throws himself around the stage does genuinely have you clutching your sides.

Blondel is an entertaining production and the show itself is wholly reminiscent of Spamalot, (Editor's note: Remember though that back in the day Blondel predated Spamalot, even if movie Monty Python And The Holy Grail was the daddy of the genre). The challenge to set yourself is see just how many references to Rice’s other works you can spot in the lyrics or musical motifs.


Runs until 15th July
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Bat Out Of Hell - Review

London Coliseum, London

****


Music & lyrics by Jim Steinman
Book by Jim Steinman & Stuart Beatttie
Directed by Jay Scheib


Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington

Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell has just landed in the West End and with no intention of being a quiet neighbour in theatreland either. From the onset the audience are confronted with an immense overture of the loud rock delights that feature in this epic production.

Steinman is of course best known as the co-creator of 1970s rock megastar Meat Loaf, and while a familiarity with the singer’s work will only enhance the show, it is far from a prerequisite.

A familiar tale of forbidden love serves as the story’s template, swerving more often into rock opera rather than jukebox musical. Imagine a gothic West Side Story replaced with the flames and ruin of a dystopian Manhattan driven by rock power ballads and one begins to grasp the tone of the show. 

Leading the cast is Andrew Polec’s young Strat, who with his gang of “eternally” 18 year olds seeks to win over the love of the newly turned 18 and beautiful, Raven played by Christina Bennington. She’s been kept prisoner in a high tower by her over bearing parents (Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton) who as a duo work brilliantly off each other, delivering some of the evening’s best comedic moments.

If it’s at times slightly cheesy, the show is nothing if not true to the theatrical nature of Meat Loaf as an act - the audience on board with the campery and making the journey even more special. 

It is hard to single out cast favourites, with every name on the bill delivering vocal work that is hair-raisingly brilliant. Emma Portner’s choreography is spectacular, only adding to the immensity of the experience, as director Jay Scheib succeeds in incorporating visual effects that immerse the audience further into the tale.

The songs play out with an operatic fluidity as unnecessary dialogue has been mercilessly trimmed. Bat Out Of Hell is all about the music and as one classic number follows another, so too do the audience seem to channel their own energy back to the actors. By the finale the whole crowd are on their feet, screaming to the Coliseum’s lofty rafters, craving more.

If you're a Meat Loaf fan - the show is five star bliss, but even if you’re not just go and wallow in a night of premium rock opera. Side effects may include feet stomping, feelings of joy and acute whistling of songs upon leaving the theatre. Like a bat out of hell, get yourself tickets before they're gone gone gone.


Runs until 22nd August
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Specular

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Hamlet - Review

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


****


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Icke


Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott’s take on Hamlet, in Robert Icke’s Almeida production that has just transferred to the West End, is a testament to the versatility of Shakespeare’s prose. With Benedict Cumberbatch, TV’s Sherlock, having been London’s last celebrity Hamlet, Scott’s (who played Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty) take on the role offers us a striking glimpse into the breadth of interpretation and intrigue that is offered by the Prince of Denmark.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s modern, flawless set, seamlessly lending itself from Elsinore’s grandeur to its dungeons, the cast offer up the classic tale with daringly long pauses and underplayed comic timing. They revel in the poetry and articulation that the dialogue commands so that the audience, however numb their bums are getting as the third hour passes, never miss a moment.

The play is directed with Icke’s signature dystopian flare. His is a Denmark obsessed with cameras on every corner and machine guns in authoritarian hands. Here it is only Hamlet who finds this setup odd and slightly ridiculous. Scott plays the perfect madman, convinced of his sanity in a world of insanity, grounded only by his friend Horatio (Joshua Higgott) and the wisdom in his monologues.

As Hamlet’s perceived craziness unravels, with Scott’s small voice and large gestures demanding a quiet room, there is little doubt of the incessant screaming inside this mourning man’s head, buried under his philosophical and iconic words.

The drama is all the better highlighted by Natasha Chivers’ lighting, unsettling the audience with flashing lights and almost spotlit soliloquies. Bechtler’s costumes dress Hamlet as a woeful performer, with others as uptight citizens in a despotic world. 

Jessica Brown Findlay’s marvellous Ophelia is a light in the darkness for everyone from Hamlet to Polonius (played with bumbling perfection by Peter Wight). The old man’s inherent waffling makes most sigh, smile and shake their head - thus his death is even sadder, with Ophelia’s loyalty and despair ever more understandable.

There is much clarity of tone from Scott and the ensemble, which occasionally contrasts with Icke’s work feeling rushed and muddled. Key moments unfold in seconds, while asides seem to last for minutes. And as for the play’s conclusion it is over in the blink of an eye, almost as if the dramatic action of the finale had not been given the same care and attention as elsewhere in the production.

Saying that, the show is well worth the night bus home, offering an evening of passion and surprise for even the most well-versed Shakespeare student. Scott’s is a Hamlet we can all relate to.


Runs until 2nd September
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Saturday, 10 June 2017

After Anatevka - Review

****

Written by Alexandra Silber




Alexandra Silber’s first novel After Anatevka is a carefully crafted study into love and life in Russia in the early twentieth century. Much like Marc Chagall was to paint enchanted images of that era, so too do Silber's words offer a painstaking picture of a world long since disappeared. 

Not just a writer, Silber is amongst the finest musical theatre performers of her generation and on both sides of the Atlantic. The novel however marks her own remarkable and professional journey which in this instance, and unconventionally, has gone from “stage" to "page”. Read on... 

Every now and then an actress can come along who leaves an indelible impression upon a role. Think here perhaps of Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose or Glenn Close’s sensational take on Norma Desmond. Far more intriguing however, is when the role turns out to have left its own indelible handprint on the heart of its performer. 

So it was in 2006, when Lindsay Posner chose Silber to play Hodel in what was to be his acclaimed production of Fiddler On The Roof at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. With Henry Goodman as Tevye the show was a sensation, becoming  swiftly earmarked for a West End transfer, playing at London’s Savoy for nearly two years.

Hodel of course is the second eldest of Tevye and Golde's daughters. When Perchik, the Jewish revolutionary firebrand blazes his way into the shtetl of Anatevka to steal her heart, what emerges is an onstage love story that is as sweet and inspirational as it is heartbreaking. It was 1894 when Sholom Aleichem breathed life into his fictional characters in his series of short shtetl-based yarns, collectively called Tevye The Dairyman. Some 70 years Joseph Stein was to draw on that creation in writing the book for Fiddler (a work that was only to be enhanced by Sheldon Harnick's Tony-winning lyrics). It has taken a further half-century for Silber to add a further thread into Aleichem, Stein and Harnick's golden literary tapestry.

One of the most poignant scenes in musical theatre's canon takes place on the platform of Anatevka's railway station. Some time earlier Perchik, branded as a political criminal by the tsarist regime, had been banished thousands of miles away to Siberia. His brief stay in the shtetl however had been long enough to win Hodel's committed and passionate love.  

Hodel realises that she must follow her heart to Siberia, and as the train approaches in the distance, she promises her father that she and Perchik will, one day, be married under a traditional Jewish canopy. Amidst the combined whirlwinds of political revolution, the impending destruction of Anatevka and the dispersal of its inhabitants across the globe, both father and daughter know that they are unlikely to meet again. As Hodel says to her Tevye "God alone knows when we shall see each other again", the audience's hearts are broken. 

This scene is a manifestation of love at its most raw and pure. The exchange is carefully crafted prose which in the hands of skilled actors (and this scene has rarely come finer than with Silber and Goodman) can be a performance masterclass. Silber and Goodman did indeed break our hearts - but few (if any) in the audiences will have been aware of Silber's own tragedy that she brought to the role. Barely 23 years old at the time, she had borne the pain of losing her own and much loved father to cancer not long before taking on the role. The impassioned, blazing soul that fuelled Silber's performance was unforgettable.

And so, from the novel's background, to the tale of After Anatevka itself. It is a meticulously detailed story that paints a strangely recognisable picture of Russia’s imposing and corrupt hierarchy and the hardships wreaked upon those who offended the State. There are nosings of both Dostoevsky and Pasternak in Silber's work and she paints a picture of violence and violation as the backdrop to Hodel's remarkable quest to reach her betrothed and the life that they were to build amongst the salt mines of the East.

Silber's research has been thorough. Aside from studying archives of the vanished Jewish world of the Pale of Settlement she visited Siberia to understand for herself the detail and character of the region.

And yet, as well as the projecting the characters into their imagined futures, Silber also offers some charmingly imagined back-stories from the world of Anatevka that can only have come from a woman who has well and truly got under the skin of Tevye's daughters. For not only did Silber play Hodel in the UK, but two years ago in New York, when producers were searching for a Tzeitel for Bartlett Sher's (also acclaimed) revival of Fiddler, it was Sheldon Harnick himself who was to call Silber and ask her to re-visit his show, this time playing Tevye’s oldest daughter. Silber of course was again magnificent on stage and as an aside, the bond between Harnick and Silber is clear for the gifted lyricist has penned a sage and heartfelt foreword to the book.

Silber explores how the sisters grew up together. She offers Hodel's wistful perceptions on her older sister's strengths and capabilities, describing their shared childhood and how much their mother imbued in them the strengths and spiritual importance of 'tradition". The paragraphs in which Hodel recalls Golde instructing the girls in how to bake challah (the Jewish plaited loaf eaten on Sabbath) are but one example of the delightful detail with which Silber fleshes out her world.

There's also a fascinating back story to Perchik. Who would have guessed that this inspirationally handsome communist had started life as an accountant? Though while Perchik is surely no Leo Bloom, Silber breathes a fascinating life into his own troubled past  

After Anatevka is an impressive published debut. Alexandra Silber offers a profoundly perceptive yet quintessentially female take on a world in which tradition was both revered and challenged. Silber also gives us a stunning study into the power of love.


After Anatevka is published on 4th July 2017 and will be available from all good online book distributors

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Bromance - Review

Studio Theatre,  Henley On Thames


****


Music, lyrics and book by Kyle Ewalt and Michael Ian Walker
Directed by Sarah Redmond


The cast of Bromance
On for one week only Bromance, a new musical from the Americans Kyle Ewalt and Michael Ian Walker played to a packed venue at Henley's intimate Studio Theatre.

With a story that, in principle, is timeless Bromance is all about the beer, the ball games and the bravado that fuels male bonding. Tom Dick and Harry are three buddies whose friendship exists (or 'should' exist) to the exclusion of all others. Their rituals and banter are a deliciously, politically incorrect display of touching loyalty, misplaced bravado and bungling ineptitude. There's a hint of the Guys And Dolls trio of Nathan Detroit, Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson to their friendship, for theirs is a longstanding and well tested relationship in a world that has (or appears to have) little regard for the finer emotional sensitivities of women and yet, as the evolves, is unable to exist without female wisdom. 

Rituals are crucial to the Bros' co existence - St Patrick's Day (Paddy's Day) is observed religiously as is the Super Bowl along with, for these three guys at least, an obsessive devotion to the Patrick Swayze / Keanu Reeves action / buddy movie, Point Break. And everything, of course, is driven by alcohol.

Into this band of brothers wanders Marty. He's Jewish, from out of town, rebounding from a girlfriend he's just broken up with, and desperate for friendship. He's also (at first) a bit of a nebbish so not only is he alone, he's also an outsider. Bromance's thrust is to follow the impact of Marty's arrival on the gang of three, his evolving friendship with Dick (that prompts a jealous response from both Tom and Harry) before finishing off with a deliriously happy ending.

For the most part, the beer-fuelled story works. What makes this particular production thrive however is the vision of director Sarah Redmond, and the cracking work she's coaxed from her quintet of performers. Liam Ross-Mills works well as Marty, displaying a convincing naïveté, backed up by some gorgeously well balanced vocal work. As Tom, and in his first professional gig, Glen Newham turns in a performance that has us believing in his engagement to the long suffering Colleen. The show is choreographed by Christian Valle and to be fair, Newham’s footwork is fabulous.

There are a number of comic treats to the night, not least with David Zachary's Harry, whose piano-playing solo Heartburn, sung in despair as he sees his friendships fading all around him is a blast.  Australian Robbie Smith’s Dick is similarly impressive. Smith nails Dick's handsome bum with a swagger that is as infectious as it is ultimately vulnerable. All four guys are great.

Arguably the star turn(s) of the night however rests with Rebecca Hazel, who amidst rapid fire costume and wig changes, plays ALL 5 (!) of the show's female characters. Hazel is sensational, with her worldly wise barmaid Tina offering just a hint of Jessica Mueller's Donna from Waitress, while her take on Sanchez (aka the SheBro) a sleazy croupier who doubles as a stunt pilot is a turn that is as manic as it is seductively masterful.

The whole show played to an audience sat at tables throughout and amidst Dan Gillingwater’s simply ingenious take on a small town American bar, dominated by a screen showing football games. As both mise en scene and a backdrop, it worked well. The score is a pastiche of ballad /country /rock, with Andy Smith directing his four piece band perfectly.

It's been a bold move to stage Bromance out of town. Redmond has done some fine work here and the show certainly deserves a transferred life to within the M25!


Reviewed by Gary Moore