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