Friday, 22 September 2017

Legally Blonde The Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley



****


Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book by Heather Hach
Based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture
Directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams


Lucie Jones

Oh my god, you guys. So, this blonde sorority girl from Malibu like totally defies the odds and gets into Harvard Law School to win back her ex-boyfriend who dumped her because she wasn't serious enough, and it's, like, totally awesome!

It's a unique start to a law career but, then again, Elle Woods is the epitome of unique.

Legally Blonde The Musical is the stage adaption of the classic 2001 film, which starred Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson and Jennifer Coolidge. At its core, it is a tale of aspiration with the message that anything is possible if you only believe in yourself.

It's a shame that Woods' rousing valedictorian speech - which neatly summarises this concept in the movie - is omitted from the stage version, but its absence serves as a reminder that the musical is wildly different from the film. And treating this show as an entity of its own, offers up a slightly different story. The importance of love as a motivator becomes its own thread, the role that physical appearances play in society is amplified – and it's all served up with a huge dollop of joy.

That much is evident from the outset. The gaudy set design (Jon Harris, Jason Bishop and David Shields), beautifully condensed for this touring production, is over-the-top and dazzling, elevating the story further into a fantastical space. The costuming from Elizabeth Dennis is outstanding, channelling 90s American styles. Each number is a fashion show in itself, making the whole gig feel like an extension of London Fashion Week that ended only a few days ago. 

What's more, the cast are clearly having a wonderful time. Lucie Jones is exquisite as Elle, seamlessly blending nods to Witherspoon's portrayal with her own flavour. This Elle comes with a level of self-awareness and sass that makes her truly memorable. And with a voice that is made for the stage, complete with mesmerising blonde hair, Jones truly embodies the character.

Rita Simons as the flamboyant Paulette Bonafonté is another remarkable performance; the hopeless romantic hairdresser with a knockout voice and witty zingers that elicit rapturous laughter.

The musical numbers make for occasional treats; there is a particularly exceptional number starring Brooke Wyndham (Helen Petrova) performing skipping rope-based choreography, followed soon after by a deliciously comic routine in a courtroom. Under James McCullagh’s direction, the orchestra is fantastic and you can’t help but feel as though they are having just as much fun as their colleagues on stage.

There’s no denying that Legally Blonde The Musical is a raucous, silly and above all fun production. And OMG! - anyone who goes to see it over the coming months is in for a brilliantly entertaining evening.


Runs until 23 September, then tours (details here)
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Revlon Girl - Review

Park Theatre, London



*****


Written by Neil Anthony Docking
Directed by Maxine Evans


The cast of The Revlon Girl

On a 1966 October morning in the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan, an estimated 150,000 tonnes of colliery waste suddenly began to move. Thundering down the slopes,  the sliding slurry was to take 144 lives, 116 of whom were children from the local primary school that had long been towered over by the mountainous pile of slag.  

Aberfan was a devastatingly cruel tragedy that gripped the nation at the time but that ultimately, as one of the protagonists in The Revlon Girl prophesies, vanished into the annals of history.

Eight months on from the event, we find ourselves at a meeting for Aberfan’s mothers who had lost  children in the disaster. It’s a regular occurrence, championed by Sian (Charlotte Gray) who, with her cheerful demeanour and generous character, is one of the mothers herself. On this occasion, they’ve been joined by beautifully put together ‘Revlon’ (Antonia Kinlay) who is there to help the women feel better about themselves through make-up and skincare. 

The women’s Revlon session begins with varying levels of enthusiasm for the exercise at hand, with a preview of the products evolving rapidly into a forum for ambiguous tensions and open conflicts to be aired and explored. Everything is touched upon, from personal identity and familial relationships through to media, religion, politics and capitalism. As a small village, Aberfan is not exempt from these complexities and in fact, because it is so small, everything seems more personal.

As a construct, the Revlon girl is a stroke of brilliance. She is the outsider who means only the best for these women and can only empathise, but who gradually moves from being a helpless viewer to a critical dynamic within it. While her journey progresses, so does that of the group along with the definition of female friendship. Sian and Revlon are joined by Jean (Zoë Harrison), Marilyn (Michelle McTernan) and the unforgettable Rona (Bethan Thomas) who brings a particular vigour.

Much has been said about the portrayal of women in arts and the media, with criticisms typically concerned with a lack of complexity. The Revlon Girl fully stares this down and brings to the table five incredibly well-rounded, believable and flawed women who are gripping to watch. Each has their own distinctive personality and constraints, which is particularly interesting considering that they have all followed a broadly similar trajectory through life. 

Under Maxine Evans’ direction, Docking’s whip-smart script is transformed into a faultless production. While the audience is taken on a journey that elicits both roaring laughter and tears, the play also challenges preconceptions of grief. In the light of recent disasters both in the UK and abroad, these questions are particularly affecting. 

To be human is a complex thing. To be a woman, even more so. To be a mother, and a bereaved one at that, goes beyond comprehension. The Revlon Girl is founded upon a deep understanding of these intricacies, transposed against a real-life disaster of epic proportion. In its exploration of both, it is an astonishing piece of work.


Runs until 14 October
Reviewed  by Bhakti Gajjar

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Five Guys Named Moe - Review

Marble Arch Theatre, London


*****


Music and lyrics by Louis Jourdan
Book by Clarke Peters
Directed by Clarke Peters

Dex Lee
In what is so much more than just a show, Five Guys Named Moe is a flawless spectacle that enlightens and thrills. Created thirty years ago by Clarke Peters and swiftly transferring from the Theatre Royal Stratford East across town to the West End and then to Broadway, it is a delight to see the show return to London. where it simply outclasses many of  today's long running musicals.

The story is uncomplicated. Nomax, a recent heartbreak-ee, returns home in a drunken stupor and is visited by five ghostly jazz spectre’s, who attempt to show him the error of his ways and convince him that he can change and win back the love of his life not just through their advice, but most importantly, through the words and melodies of jazz legend, Louis Jordan.

The pop-up Marble Arch venue is a new take on theatre production in Britain. In what is so much more than just an evening at a show, under takis’ ingenious designs the Spiegel tent is kitted out as an immensely detailed New Orleans Mardi Gras-esque street party. Musicians and understudies, atop a band stand, perform jazz classics before and after the show as well as during the interval, that keep the vibe and theme of the show alive throughout the entire evening.

The energy that the six strong cast then bring to the stage is enthralling. There is not a single dip in the vibrancy of the performance and the charisma and charm brought to the numbers is magnetic. This is, quite simply, a feel good show that keeps on giving.
Andrew Wright’s choreography is slick and faultless, at times leaving one thinking that with all the on-stage frivolity, a cast member could tumble off of the cleverly designed revolve at any moment. But the execution of each move is tight and seemingly effortless. Praise especially to Dex Lee and Idriss Kargbo (Know Moe and Little Moe), their vocals were accomplished and despite not seeming to keep one foot on the ground for very long, there wasn’t a single waver in either of their performances. 

The medley arrangement of, Is You Is Or Is You ‘Aint My Baby as the penultimate number is a masterful piece of music, showcasing finitely crisp harmonies, blended with unblemished ease. Led by pianist Steve Hill, the jazz sextet fill the theatre with a lush and authentic jazz feel, Jessamy Holder’s breath taking sax solo’s, though infrequent, proving  astonishing. The company should be proud to be paying such a true homage to some of Louis Jordan’s best known numbers.

Five Guys Named Moe triumphs in what is quite possibly the most exciting piece of theatre in the West End.


Runs until 17th February 2017
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Friday, 15 September 2017

Parade (at Frogmore Paper Mill) - Review

Frogmore Paper Mill, Apsley



****


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Dan Cowtan


Tré Copeland-Williams

To stage Parade at the Frogmore Paper Mill, a preserved factory that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, was an inspired idea from director Dan Cowtan. The crumbling floors, machinery and warehouses that this immersive production takes its audience through add a profound sense of both time and bleakness to Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winner.

Parade is a carefully woven fabric of despair, made all the more desperate by the fact that Alfred Uhry’s book is a well crafted historical narrative. When 13 year old Mary Phagan was brutally murdered in the factory where she worked, her employer's Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank, was swiftly arrested and charged with the crime. A trumped up trial of fabricated evidence saw Frank convicted, with Brown's musical proceeding to a tragic conclusion.

The backdrop to these events? A bruised Confederate South, still smarting from losing the American Civil War and for whom racial prejudice was a way of life; the complex love between Frank and his (also Jewish) wife Lucille as he struggled to assimilate into the South; and the opportunistic demagoguery of extremist hate preachers and how the politicians of the day reacted to the world around them.

Connor Dyer and Sherelle Kelleher respectively play Leo and Lucille with Dyer cleverly capturing the complicated, principled man. It’s Hard To Speak My Heart is sung with gorgeous nuance and in one of Brown’s finest duets, All The Wasted Years, the vocal and emotional harmony between the pair is tangible. For actors with as yet little professional exposure, their performances are remarkable and in her solo moments Kelleher is equally impressive, offering up a moving interpretation of You Don’t Know This Man.

To be fair, the cast are all in fine form, with no weak links. Some however, are outstanding. Thomas Isherwood’s Hugh Dorsey offers a resonance that fills the space and commands our attention. Dorsey is a nasty piece of work and Isherwood conveys the man’s amorality to a tee, with his take on Somethin’ Aint Right proving one of the best of recent years. Other plaudits go to some of the (myriad of) modest parts, with Jacob Yolland’s Newt Lee, Tré Copeland-Williams’ Jim Conley, Elise Allanson’s Mrs Phagan and Beaux Harris’ Sally Slaton all making their small but crucial roles credible and believable. As the audience wander from scene to scene, the ghostly presence of Mary Phagan remains throughout and Philippa Rose not only plays Mary’s scripted work convincingly, but her very being on the fringes of each scene, adds a unique atmosphere to this particular production.

The music for this show presents a remarkable challenge. The band are located in a remote (and warm!) room, away from the mill itself, with their playing relayed around the venue via speakers. The cast are denied the usual comfort of monitors displaying the conductor’s baton but nonetheless all rise magnificently to the challenge. They are helped by the fact that the show’s musical director is Erika Gundesen, a woman who for some years now has shown a thorough understanding of this sweeping and varied score. Gundesen gets under the skin of Brown’s range of melodies, motifs and styles, coaxing perfection from her five piece band.

Credit too to Christian Ashby’s sound design. The Frogmore site is a complex complex and Ashby, for the most part, has mastered the most daunting range of challenges. There are times however that lyrics get lost in the mix, especially in multi-part harmonies when the ensemble are in full voice. Brown’s lyrics have all been carefully considered and none should be squandered.

While the use of the mill offers up some wonderful opportunities for imaginative staging, there were moments when short folk in the audience were crowded out of seeing some of the action. Likewise, if one is not quick off the mark in hopping from scene to scene, it can be easy to miss out on the quality vantage points. That being said, it's not often that one can witness The Glory being sung from a genuine riverbank, nor Blues: Feel The Rain Fall being performed by a chain gang literally knee deep, in wellies and dredging a muddy stream. And the prosecco and canapes for the milling audience during Pretty Music are a stroke of genius!

Only on for a week, one wishes the run were longer - Parade at the Mill is a well-deserved sell out.


Runs until 16th September

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Oslo - Review

National Theatre, London


***



Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher


The company of Oslo

Oslo, a new play from J.T. Rogers is evidently meticulously researched. It tells the story of the channel of communication brokered by Norwegians, that culminated in the 1993 handshake and peace accord between Yasser Arafat, chairman  of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel. It is a tale of diplomacy and negotiation and as a history lesson it offers moments that are fascinating.

It is also, for the most part, very well acted. Toby Stephens is Terje Rød-Larsen, a Norwegian whose time spent in Gaza suggested to him that there could well be a path to peace to be explored. Rød-Larsen opens the narrative and as the evening unfolds, holds the process together as tempers fray, although there's more than a hint of a Scandinavian Hugh Grant in Stephens’ work, which detracts from his overall impact. Other neat turns in the production come from Peter Polycarpou’s Palestinian Ahmed Qurie, Philip Arditti as an Israeli Foreign Ministry official and Paul Herzberg who who delivers a cracking take on Shimon Peres.

But research and acting do not a great play make - and quite how Oslo scooped its Tony is hard to fathom. At three hours, the play could easily lose 45 minutes – it lacks the wit to justify such a long haul, with Rogers resorting far too often to the cop-out of having his characters just shout at each other. Ultimately Oslo is a stitched together series of "behind the scenes" anecdotes with little dramatic analysis and a heavy sprinkling of bias.

There is also an underlying sadness to the whole piece - there may well have been that momentous handshake in the Rose Garden (24 years ago today), but so what? Fast forward to 2017 and it appears that little has changed . 


Runs until 23rd September
Then at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2nd October to 30th December

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Knowledge - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


****


Written by Jack Rosenthal
Adapted for the stage by Simon Block
Directed by Maureen Lipman


Steven Pacey and Fabian Frankel

Jack Rosenthal’s BAFTA-nominated  screenplay of The Knowledge was a gem of a 1970’s television movie. The most routine facets of life, in Rosenthal’s hands, could become perfectly portrayed vignettes, as he transformed the recognisable into the bitter-sweet hilarious.

The titular knowledge is famously what is required to become a licensed London black-cab driver, a process so demanding that 70% of hopeful candidates fail to make the grade. This is hardly surprising as those who pass will, over a period of a year or two (that is, for the fast learners) have committed to memory the nigh on 15,000 streets that sit within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross. Of equal importance, they will also have convinced their examiner that they have the patience and strength of character to deal with the full range of humanity that could, at any point in time, end up in the back of their cab. Rosenthal’s genius lay in not only recognising that “doing” the knowledge was a massive feat of memory, but that it also impacted upon the would-be cabbies’ domestic lives.

Above all, within his cast, Rosenthal created the most brilliantly tyrannical of examiners in Mr Burgess. A finely scripted, complex character, capable of the most sadistic of pedantries yet also, ultimately, caring for the overall good of the taxi trade. Mr Burgess ranks alongside some of that decade's finest dramatic creations.  

Remember too that the original screenplay was written at a time when the internet (let alone Uber) was barely heard of. There is much talk today of the cheaper and far less regulated online service threatening the licensed cab trade. Those fears are probably valid and with this adaptation, The Knowledge does a fine job in reminding us of the asset London has in it’s black-cab drivers.

The play is directed by Maureen Lipman who not only featured in the 1979 film, but was married to Rosenthal until his untimely death in 2004 and rarely has a task been undertaken that is such a labour of love. Lipman makes a decent job of her late-husband’s material, supported by a strong cast of well fleshed out caricatures. James Alexandreou puts in a strong turn as a feckless womanizer, caring as little for wife Brenda (Celine Abrahams, in the role played on TV by Lipman) as he does for his taxi studies. Fabian Frankel is a well acted Chris – an intellectually challenged young lad who struggles with the gargantuan task of mastering London’s geography.

Famously, Rosenthal had an innate understanding of the Jewish community, many of whom work in the taxi trade. Ben Caplan’s Ted , a third generation cabby captures both the man’s passion as well as his nebbish qualities in equal measure – though it is Jenna Augen as his wife Val, who so brilliantly nails the angst-ridden Jewish mother and wife. Lipman played a memorably interfering Jewish matriarch “Beattie”, in a 1980s ad campaign for BT. With Rosenthal’s creation of Val, one can see from where she may have drawn her inspiration.

The finest contribution of the night comes from Steven Pacey’s Burgess. It was Nigel Hawthorne who played the role in 1979 (with ITV’s The Knowledge just preceding the BBC’s Yes, Minister onto the nation’s TV screens). Pacey thus has massive shoes to fill and he makes the role his own. Onstage throughout – on a raised platform representing his office, a device that proves surprisingly effective - he delivers a vocal wit and physical presence that convinces us at all times of his compassionate power over the fledgling drivers.

For the most part the evening is a warm and entertaining night out. The politics may be mild and dated, but the fondness that Rosenthal (a Mancunian by birth) felt towards his capital city is there in every line. The Knowledge is a gorgeous period piece with a lavish programme (highly recommended) that is chock full of recollections and current day comparisons.


If you love Seventies culture, you’ll love this show.


Runs until November 11th
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Follies - Review

National Theatre, London


*****


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Dominic Cooke





It’s been a while since the National Theatre last revived a great song and dance extravaganza and a Sondheim one at that. But with Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies the NT’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest creators of musical theatre is restored.

Goldman’s book and Sondheims’s songs build a boulevard of broken dreams and flawed humanity that is as harrowing as it is magnificent. The show’s premise is simple: amidst the rubble of Dimitri Weismann’s once grand Broadway stage, the ageing impresario has invited back the stars of his Follies show from some 30 years ago, for one last hurrah before the building is demolished. As the evening unwinds and the champagne flows old loves, desires and the most excruciating of betrayals are re-kindled and confronted.

The show is first and foremost an ensemble piece - there are at least four stories being told here - but it’s the galaxy of stars that Cooke has assembled, that make this Follies such finely crafted theatre. Sally and husband Buddy (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) re-connect with Phyllis and Ben (Janie Dee and Philip Quast) re-igniting friendships and rivalries that have lain dormant for decades. Storytellers however don’t come any finer than Sondheim and Goldman, with the narrative playing out through an exquisitely mirrored time bend that sees the young, pre-married quartet of lovers simultaneously portrayed by a younger foursome of actors. The National have not only skimmed the cream of British musical theatre in casting the 4 senior roles, their ghostly younger personae are also drawn from the nation’s finest, with Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles weaving the story in and out of the years.

Life has dealt both Sally and Phyllis more misery than they may have deserved, but it is the two women’s responses to their empty marriages and duplicitous husbands that drives the bittersweet essence of this show. Staunton’s Sally is literally crumpled as Buddy’s work flies him around the country in perpetual infidelity. Dee’s Phyllis however is a far more sassy character who’s grown an emotional carapace over the years, enabling her to tolerate Ben’s eminent statesman, yet continually philandering, lifestyle - a man who craves money and recognition above all else and with a vacuum for a soul.

Both marriages seethe with frustration and resentment and yet the show’s dissection of the most complex of loves reveals, in its finale, the couples’ ultimate co-dependency. Rarely is a musical so brutally perceptive and so beautifully performed.

The production’s songs are famous and in this outing, flawlessly sung. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta delivers an I’m Still Here that comes close to stopping the show. Likewise Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby brilliantly captures a song that defines showbusiness. Stunning too is the soprano duet of One More Kiss, hauntingly handled by Dame Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer.

The four leads have the lion’s share of the numbers. Quast is immaculate throughout, singing a powerful take on The Road You Didn't Take. Could I Leave You from Dee defines her mastery of Sondheim’s inflicted irony, while Forbes’ Buddy’s Blues is a jazz-hands analysis of a man in a tailspin. Staunton is tasked with arguably the show’s biggest challenge and one of the finest 11 o’clock numbers ever in Losing My Mind. Rising to the challenge, she makes the song soar in a tragically understated display of pitch perfect poignancy.

Staunton, Dee and Quast have all amassed a fine pedigree of musical theatre work at the National - and for some of us in the audience, there is an added piquancy of seeing Staunton’s magnificent Sally today, yet also recalling her on the same stage as a Hot Box Girl in Richard Eyre’s 1982 production of Guys and Dolls, a show that boldly launched the National as a musical production house of the finest calibre.

That calibre permeates the show. Bill Deamer’s choreography delivers fabulous footwork from across the wide range of ages (and disciplines) of his gifted company. Upstage, Nigel Lilley deftly directs his 21 piece orchestra to deliciously deliver Sondheim’s classic melodies.

Vicki Mortimer’s designs effectively create the crumbling Weismann theatre, making ample use (overuse?) use of the Olivier’s massive revolve. The show's costumes are a similar treat, well cut to the eras in question and enhanced with some outstanding millinery from Sean Barrett.

Like Weismann’s eponymous show, it’s taken 30 years for London to witness the return of a full scale Follies. The National have a fine history of releasing cast recordings of their major musical productions - let's hope that this show too is recorded for posterity. Follies is as beautiful as it is eviscerating - a masterclass in musical theatre.


Booking until 3rd January 2018. Follies will also screen via NT Live at cinemas nationwide on 16th November 2017

Photo credit: Johan Persson


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Deadline Day - Review

Theatre N16, London


***


Written by John Hickman and Steve Robertson
Directed by James Callas Ball




Deadline Day is a delightful spin on the world of football that takes place, intriguingly, in the back of the limo that’s taking (Newcastle) United’s gifted young striker Danny south to sign for Chelsea. To the un-initiated (and if you need this explained then the play is quite possible not for you) deadline day marks the end of the twice-yearly transfer windows, during which football clubs buy and sell players. Frenetically fevered, deadline days traditionally generate extensive news coverage, along with wonderfully fanciful rumours that can clog the channels of both mainstream and social media. The day typically fuels debate and discussion across the land as deals are closed.

Hickman and Robertson’s writing is, for the most part, well observed. Through the eyes of Danny, his agent Rachel and their driver Trevor, many of the issues that surround the modern day game are touched upon. Aside from frequent jibes aimed at Mike Ashley (United’s real-life owner), the play references the obscene salaries paid to footballers contrasting them with the humble earnings of the hard-working stadium filling fans for whom supporting their club is a way of life. And while Deadline Day manages a deft nod in the direction of gender politics it also remains refreshingly free of those cumbersome issues of sexuality that have so often dogged football-themed plays of recent years. This is a play written by fans, for fans.

A climactic event half way through the narrative, albeit helpfully allowing the script's arguments to be aired, stretches the plot’s plausibility perhaps just a little too thin - but throughout, it is the assured performances of Victoria Gibson’s Rachel and Mike Yeaman’s Trevor that hit the back of the net and which make the play eminently watchable.

Gibson comes from fine footballing stock - an understanding of the game is in her blood - and she puts in a canny turn as the feisty dealmaker. Tradition has long seen football be treated as a both a man’s game and a man’s world. Gibson is on top form as she throws into vivid relief the challenges women face, trying to assail the beautiful game’s chauvinist enclave.

Yeaman brings a wise, lugubrious interpretation to a man who’s supported United for nigh on 50 years. Ultimately a caring loving man, committed to both his club and his family, Yeaman’s definition of a man struggling to comprehend the evolution of women in the game, is a well crafted performance. Completing the trio, Tevye Mattheson puts in a well meaning if sometimes stilted shift as Danny - capturing the bewildering whirl of the day from the player’s perspective.

For anyone who loves football, this is a fun night at the theatre - and with the play lasting barely an hour it's an early bath for everyone too. Recommended.


Runs until 16th September

Friday, 25 August 2017

Late Company – Review

Trafalgar Studios, London



****


Written by Jordan Tannahill
Directed by Michael Yale



Lucy Robinson, Lisa Stevenson and David Leopold

The stage is set for a dinner party in Late Company, a play that is making a rare and well deserved transfer across town from the fringe's Finborough to the West End's Trafalgar Studios. The opening dialogue is packed with wit and humour and yet, as the audience quickly discovers, this is not a happy occasion; rather it’s quite the opposite. This is a dinner that much like Titus Andronicus' endgame, is a meal that not one person around the table wishes to attend.

Joel Shaun-Hastings – the only child of Debora and Michael – has recently taken his own life and one of his bullying peers is Curtis Dermot. A child tormented by guilt that is, for a large part, compounded by an external narrative and gossip, Dermot is invited to this dinner of penance with his parents. The evening could almost be simultaneously billed as a cure both for the Shaun-Hastings’ grief as well as for the Curtis’ individual and familial demons – a very tall order.

Over guacamole, pasta and wine, the tale unravels. New facts come to light throughout the evening, each adding a new layer of complexity to the story and ultimately serving to cloud assignment of blame.

And the blame is spread in many different directions. Both sets of parents face scrutiny about their parenting styles. Attitudes to sexuality within the room and in society are examined, while mental health, bullying, perception and social media usage are also examined. It’s clear that there are many factors at play here, explored in a tight 75 minutes by a sterling cast.

Todd Boyce and Alex Lowe play the fathers and Lucy Robinson and Lisa Stevenson the mothers. Robinson is excellent in her ability to capture the dual tension of Debora’s grief. Her bereaved mother not only has a need to grieve but also to find closure. Stevenson provides a complex emotional ballast to her counterpart, in a majestic performance.

Arguably, the most striking character on the stage is David Leopold’s Curtis. The weight of his guilt appears to flit between being negligible and crushing – and it is this that sits at the crux of the problem in Debora’s eyes. Tough questions are raised about the nature of remorse and how it should be demonstrated, or indeed even recognised, in the most appropriate manner.

Most gripping is the fact that Curtis is a child, or at least he was. When offered a drink, he asks for a glass of milk and taps away on his phone as expected of a regular teenager. Yet although the milk is soon forgotten, replaced by a cigarette outside, it remains in plain sight; a constant reminder that he is straddling that perilous transition from childhood to adulthood. As the evening progresses, his growth is alternately impressive and heart-breaking.

75% of suicides are male, as information from Campaign Against Living Miserably in the programme informs us. And as the play aptly illustrates, it is a deeply complex issue that can be unpacked to some extent on stage, but leaves a plethora of further questions unanswered.

Under Michael Yale’s capable direction, Late Company is a high-calibre, punchy production with excellence running through every strand. After launching from an intriguing premise, it runs rapidly through a series of highly pertinent themes, sparking thoughts that continue well after the figurative curtain falls.


Runs until 16 September
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

Lulu's Back In Town - Review

Live at Zedel, London


***


Lucy Dixon

For one night only jazz artiste Lucy Dixon brought her eclectic taste in 20th century music to the Crazy Coqs’ art deco basement.

Notwithstanding a distinctly Parisian twist to her act, her routine defiantly straddled the Atlantic with a set-list that dated deliciously back, nigh on 100 years.

As a performer Dixon is blessed with exceptional technical skills – her voice is pitch perfect (an a cappella take on When I Get Low I Get High in her encore was stunning) and she liberally dilutes her vocal turns with perfectly syncopated tap routines throughout the gig.

But as a cabaret gig at the Crazy Coqs Dixon misses the mark, rarely crossing the “fourth wall” to reach out to her intimately placed audience.  Her perfectly harmonised trio are a delight in support, but Dixon loses herself in too many flights of self-indulgency, including a mangling of Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm, mashing the lyrics into a barely audible blur.

There were times when the talented, gamine and oh so chic performer resembled more of a marionette or even worse, an animated background singer providing “live muzak” rather than the shared personal narrative that can truly make for a fulfilling cabaret gig.

With a bit more self-revelation, an evening with Dixon could yet prove to be stunning.

As Hamlet’s Gertrude might have said, more patter with less tap.


Photo credit: Louis Burrows

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Top Hat - Review

Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire



*****


Music & lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Matthew White & Howard Jacques
Directed & choreographed by Stephen Mear



Lauren Stroud and  Dan Burton

Stephen Mear’s take on Top Hat, just opened at Leicestershire’s Kilworth House Theatre is further proof that for this summer at least, the very best musical theatre openings are all taking place outside of London. 

Top Hat is one of those shows that feels like it should have been around forever, but is in fact a relatively new arrival to the stage. The show premiered in London only a few years ago with a new book from Matthew White and Howard Jacques that was lovingly based upon the RKO film of the same name. Fans of both dance and Hollywood will of course know that Top Hat (the movie) is arguably the partnership pinnacle of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

So in putting on his Top Hat, Mear has extremely large shoes to fill – and he fills them magnificently. The story behind the show is the most ridiculously light-hearted piece of froth – theres’s farce, dropped trousers, mistaken identity and a multitude of malapropisms. It’s as corny as heck, but as the comedy greats of years gone by have demonstrated, this type of comedy is the toughest to master.

Mear and his cast however don’t just master the gags – they make them soar. The timing is spot on throughout and aside from the song and dance, the contributions from Ashley Knight as the much put upon valet Bates and Stephane Anelli as Alberto Beddini, an Italian fashion designer / Lothario, are a masterclass in  comedy cameos.



But of course Top Hat is all about hearing those beautiful Irving Berlin songs and seeing them danced to perfection. The lead role of Jerry Travers is taken by Dan Burton – a performer who has much history with Mear – and the director knows just how to coax magic from this talented man. On stage virtually throughout the first half (and much of the second) Burton brings his mellifluous tenor voice to the show's classic songs in a way that earlier productions just haven’t been able to reach. As the show opens with Puttin’ On The Ritz, from the number's very first bars the evening’s standard of song and dance is defined. And as is Mear’s way, the ensemble have been drilled to ruthless perfection – to watch these routines is to float away in an ethereal delight.

Opposite Burton, Lauren Stroud plays the feisty Dale Tremont. Stroud mirrors Burton’s dance talent from the outset, and when we eventually hear her sing (well into act one with You’re Easy To Dance With) it’s a delight that has been well worth the wait. The two lead the show perfectly.


In close support as the lead comic protagonists, Charles Brunton and Nia Jermin are wonderfully cast as Horace and Madge Hardwick. Their overstated comic lampoonery (and Brunton’s buffoonery) is perfectly weighted, making  the narrative flow effortlessly. When they finally get their chance to sing in the deliciously anti-romantic, Outside of That, I Love You, its yet another barrel of (beautifully sung and danced) laughs.

There is excellence elsewhere, nestling in the show’s company with barely a programme credit to show for it. Daisy Boyles puts in a fabulous turn leading the delightful What Is Love? routine, while the footwork from the enchanting Chantel Bellew, dancing opposite Burton in an early routine, is another of the many gems that encrust this production.


Berlin’s melodies demand a strong band and Michael England’s 11 piece ensemble, tucked just off stage in a marquee, immaculately capture the elegance of the era and its melodies, with toes set tapping from the overture. The show's songs are massive and England’s orchestra rise magnificently to the challenge.

The open-air setting of Kilworth House is skilfully tackled by the show’s team. Morgan Large’s set offers an Art Deco vision that is as ingeniously multi-functional as it is dreamily elegant, never overshadowing the performers, merely enhancing their work. Similarly Chris Whybrow’s sound design works well with the venue’s unconventional acoustics – not a word or note is missed, while Jason Taylor’s lighting work takes on an increasingly subtle beauty as the sun slowly sets.

There's no finer finer tribute to the American Songbook in the land, but only a very privileged few will get a chance to savour this masterpiece of musical theatre - the run is completely sold out!


Runs until 17th September
Photo credit: Jems Photography

Friday, 18 August 2017

Sunday In The Park With George - Review

The Other Palace, London


****


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Hannah Chissick



The Company

Sunday In The Park With George is probably the most mind-bending, time-bending poly-mesmeric musical of recent decades. Stephen Sondheim (again working his fruitful partnership with book-writer James Lapine) has ingeniously fashioned the show around a study on George Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 

Act One revolves around Seurat himself, in 1884 Paris. The pointillist painting is taking shape, consuming the artist’s attention as Dot, his mistress and sometime model, endures the rigours of both posing for him and competing for his attention over the emerging picture. The true genius of Sondheim’s work in this half of the show is to build characters and songs around the people that Seurat includes in the picture. As more and more faces and images become defined, the act builds towards a stunning crescendo.

The second half shoots forward 100 years to New York. Georges’ great-grandson – also named George – is an artist, working like his predecessor with color and light. This however is the late 20th century and in place of a canvas, George’s creation is the electronic “Chromolume”. His elderly grandmother Marie (the daughter of Georges and Dot) provides a link through the generations, and as George is invited to France to make a presentation on the eponymous Parisian island, time and characters merge into a whirl, with Sondheim weaving the complex themes of love and art into a tapestry of the human condition.

It says much for the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) that they have amongst their young company the talent and resource to deliver what is unquestionably an impressive take on this most adult of musicals. The narrative demands that Georges / George and Dot / Marie are played by the same performers and Thomas Josling and Laura Barnard make fine work of leading their troupe. 

Barnard has form with the NYMT having grown with them over the last couple of years. Josling however is a newcomer and together they create a compelling chemistry. Their duetted numbers are magnificent throughout, with Color and Light proving a particular treat. Amongst their solo responsibilities Josling’s Finishing The Hat is a classy turn, while Barnard’s careful interpretation of Children And Art, captures a special sensitivity.

Chissick has fashioned some gorgeous work from her cast who are all in their teens or early twenties, with the full company numbers proving a delight. Sunday, the pre-interval song (reprised at the finale) is spine-tingling in its intensity. This cast are at their best in the second half, where Sondheim’s dialog allows them a more comfortable immersion into the modern idiom.

Technically, as ever, the NYMT offer creative excellence. Alex Aitken intuitively directs his chamber-sized 6 piece band (also all young players) to deliver Sondheim’s complex melodies, while Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography, Matt Kinley’s set design and Jason Denvir’s costuming go a long way to creating firstly the illusion of Seurat’s 19th century Paris and then after the break, the cliched pretensions of New York’s modern art community.

The themes of Sunday In The Park With George are immense and complex and Chissick, alongside the NYMT should be rightfully proud of what this company has achieved. It's only on for one more night in what is deservedly a sold-out success. 


Runs until 19th August
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A Spoonful of Sherman - Review

Live at Zedel, London



****


Daniel Boys and Helena Blackman


It’s a surefire treat after a hard day of toil or tourism, to slip into the comfort of an collection of songs from the Sherman dynasty. In a show last seen at what is now The Other Palace, Robert J. Sherman (Robbie)  4th generation tunesmith and son/nephew of the legendary Sherman Brothers (Richard M. and Robert B.) has brought his carefully curated compilation across London for a two week residence in the Art Deco charm of the Crazy Coqs’, Live at Zedel.

The gig is badged as The Songbook Of Your Childhood – and the description is spot on. Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, two of Walt Disney’s biggest hits of the 1960s were scored by the Sherman Brothers and if one then throws in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from James Bond’s Ian Fleming, the place of the pair in songwriting’s pantheon is assured.

50 songs are referenced in a 90 minute whirl as  Sherman offers fascinating glimpses of narrative into the lives of his antecedents. That the set list also includes such pop hits as You’re Sixteen and Let’s Get Together only evidences the breadth of the Sherman Brothers’ careers.

As one would expect, performers Helena Blackman and Daniel Boys bring a crisp technical skill to the numbers, with glimpses of the songs’ original magic occasionally shining through. Boys positively relishes every moment of Wind’s In The East, giving a passionate enthusiasm to his performance that would more than match any of the stage Berts that have preceded him. Christopher Hamilton accompanies the pair on the piano, with a turn that spills into a celebration of irreverent excellence, including a stunning take on The Ugly Bug Ball.

Robbie’s recent offering of Bumblescratch makes up a pleasing portion of the second half, but for all the family’s multi-generational talent, this show lives and breathes the genius of the Sherman Brothers. Love, laughter and history – it’s all here in a charming evening’s entertainment.


Runs until 20th August