Tuesday 31 October 2017

Clare Louise Connolly talks about playing Regan on stage in The Exorcist

Tonight, Halloween 2017, the stage play of William Peter Blatty’s apocryphal horror story The Exorcist opens in the West End at the Phoenix Theatre.
Directed by Sean Mathias, the story is all about 12 year old Regan MacNeil, a girl from Georgetown in Washington DC, whose becomes possessed by Devil. The play stars Jenny Seagrove as Regan’s mother Chrissy, and Peter Bowles as Father Merrin, the Jesuit priest whose mission is to exorcise the young girl of her demon.
I saw The Exorcist when it first played at Birmingham Rep (who alongside Bill Kenwright are co-producing this London transfer) last year. It was a great night at the theatre, but what struck me then, aside from the starry lead performers, was the fabulous work from Clare Louise Connolly who plays Regan.
The Exorcist play may well be dripping in world class special effects and illusions – but at the heart of this gruesome horror story is quite simply a breathtaking performance from one of the country’s finest young actresses. 
As rehearsals were ending, I caught up with Clare to talk about the show.

JB:    Tell me about the build up last year to your being cast as Regan. 

Clare:   I had, probably, about four auditions, and I did a lot of work to get the part. The story shows a really good character arc the story has such a cult following, that I wanted to make sure that I gave the part justice in the auditions.

We worked a few scenes during the audition run, including the iconic movie moment where Regan spins her head around. I made sure I told our director Sean Mathias that my neck was extremely flexible!

JB:    “Iconic” is a word that’s over-used today but it’s entirely appropriate in describing the impact that The Exorcist has made on movies and the horror genre in particular over the last 40 years. Did you use William Friedkin’s movie to prepare for the audition process?

Clare:    Good question. Not very much at all. I knew I'd watched the film years and years ago, but I didn't actually watch it again before I auditioned because I wanted to make the character my own.

When I read the scripts, I was really excited because it's written so well that I just wanted to bring my own truth to it, rather than be an imitation of Linda Blair who played Regan on screen.

JB:    Filming the movie famously took its toll on Linda Blair, with Friedkin demanding countess retakes of some of the most harrowing scenes. You, of course, are telling, the same story, but in a very different, live medium where, like all theatre professionals, you have to get it right, first time, every time. Having seen the show last year in Birmingham I can confirm that your performance is magnificent and convincing.

Do you enjoy horror as a genre?

Clare:    I do. I didn't used to but then I watched The Orphanage that I just thought was so beautifully done. I'm not a massive horror fan per se, I don't seek them out so much, but if there is a horror film that I think, "Oh, that looks interesting " then I’ll watch it.

The Ring is when I think horror movies turned and really started to get back in the public eye again. But, in preparation for The Exorcist I have watched more horror.

JB:    The biggest challenge of telling a horror story is to get the audience to suspend our disbelief....

Clare:    Yes, but it also needs truth. It has to make it real and I think that's the success of The Exorcist. It is such a domestic story, and you can really imagine how these events could potentially happen. 

There is also a strong focus on mental health in the narrative. Chris struggles with guilt and worries that her daughter feels abandoned. Father Damien(Adam Garcia) also struggles with guilt over abandoning his mother before she died. Uncle Burke (Tristram Wymark) is dealing with addiction, so there's a lot of themes that are relevant to today. 

JB:    Some people say that violent horror, when portrayed as entertainment, “sets a bad example”. Do you have a view on that?

Clare:    Yes - I do feel quite a responsibility to a story well and to take the audience on a journey. 

One thing The Exorcist does talk about is that where there's evil, there's also good. I think people like to have their dark side challenged and I know that the response of the audiences has been amazing.

Clare with Adam Garcia (l) & Peter Bowles (r)

JB:    Tell me about the audience responses - without giving too much away of course. 

Clare:    Well there are a couple of jump moments of course but it's not really about that. There is a moment where the audience get quite loud, and shocked that we can actually pull a particular effect off on stage - Ben Hart’s illusions are amazing. 

The audiences have been incredible and I think people are very excited that, actually, we go there on stage! They don't expect to see my head turn. They don't expect to see things fly across the room. They don't expect these things. And, although they know it all  happened in the movie with Hollywood’s special effects,  they don't expect that many things to happen in front of their eyes, so I think they are very excited that those things happen.

JB:    Do you enjoy hearing their screams?

Clare:    Actually, no! I have to really concentrate to not absorb that energy and that’s a big thing for me. As a person I'm quite empathic, so, if I hear somebody screaming, my feelings are that I want to protect them!

JB:    The show has opened on Halloween, which is very much nowadays a season that treats horror with a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek frivolity. But even though The Exorcist may well be "popcorn-theatre", it is not in any way a pantomime, or a show that can allow its cast to interact with the audience. 

Clare:    "Popcorn theatre" is a great description. We've actually had women come along to see the show dressed as Regan! So who knows - we might have the beginning of a cult show here.

What I do know though is the genius of John Pielmeier's adaptation that allows a lot of comedy in there too. There is the time for the audience to laugh, and it might be right before they’re meant to feel scared, so it really throws them back and forth. The Exorcist audiences have been the loudest I've ever experienced doing a play, in fact they probably are on a level with pantomime audiences. It’s a real experience for them and so far they all seem to be loving it, lapping it up and coming out afterwards really exuberant, bright eyed and with lots to say. 

Another key part of the show’s magic for me is the sound. When I landed the part, the first thing I wanted to find out was who was designing the sound, because, for me personally, it is the sound affects that complete the illusion. When I learned that it was Adam Cork - who I've worked with before on something else that was also very distressing and horrific -  I was like, "Brilliant. We're okay. He's fantastic." And, when you enter the theatre and you've got that haunting chanting sound, it just puts you on edge to begin with!

JB:    The possessed Regan literally looks horrific. How long does it take you in make up to get that face just right? 

Clare:    Make up is actually an amazing challenge, because it’s a gradual process throughout the show. I start clear faced, no make up, just as Regan starts off as a normal happy girl, who has a great relationship with her mother. So it’s a gradual build-up.

On the brief moments when I'm not on stage, there's a brilliant lady called Billie Sanger, who is adding make up to me, slowly, and that's how it happens.

JB:    And you are not off-stage for very long at all. 

Clare:    I know. Most of my changes are about 35 seconds. I think I might have one that's about a minute and a half. And they're very quick. And I do change my nightie a few times as well. Very quick changes.

JB:    Let’s talk about Ian McKellen and THAT voice. Last year in Birmingham it wasn’t announced that he was voicing the devil and in fact he didn't even get a programme credit. Now, with the London opening, his part in the show is well publicised.

 What’s it like to lip synch to Ian McKellen?

Clare:    Fantastic. An absolutely dream.There  are certain people you really want to work with in your career and he’s at the top of that list. Even though his voice is recorded, we did rehearse together so as to make sure that the cadence of what I was saying and rehearsing matched his cadence, rhythm and speed. 

I didn't actually know it was to be him voicing the Devil until the read through!  I met him about 10 minutes before we commenced and then started acting with him and it was just brilliant. He's such a legend and yet I immediately felt calm working with him.

What’s great about Ian's voice is that people recognise it. This in turn makes it all the more believable as to why Regan takes him on as a friend. If he’d been voiced as a gruff, mean sounding villain, she wouldn't have given him the time of day. Ian’s Devil however is smooth and he just entices her in.

And of course the rest of the cast are amazing to work with too. It's been such an ensemble piece with everybody throwing in ideas. Sean really likes to take a collaborative approach. 

JB:    Clare, thank you finding the time to talk. To you  and to the whole Exorcist company, break a leg with the run.

Clare:    Or break a neck!

The Exorcist is booking at the Phoenix Theatre until 10th March 2018

Sunday 29 October 2017

Imagine This - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Shuki Levy
Lyrics by David Goldsmith
Book by Glenn Berenbeim
Directed by Harry Blumenau

Set amidst a Jewish theatre company, in the hellish conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, during the Holocaust, Imagine This sees a cast of actors rehearse a telling of the story of Masada, ostensibly to appease the city’s Nazi occupiers by telling a tale where “all the Jews die at the end”. During their show’s rehearsals they provide sanctuary to a Ghetto resistance fighter, hiding him among themselves in plain sight as a cast member. 

The Warsaw Ghetto (like Masada) is famous in history as having been one of the few locations where Jews fought back at a regime that sought their destruction. However, not withstanding the epic backdrop to Imagine This, its previous incarnations in the West End and at Plymouth both failed to capture an audience. Harry Blumenau’s production at the Union however manages to shed the show’s previous blunders, succeeding in telling a harrowing and touching story with tenderness and care in a production that is filled with heart and trauma.

Watching a show within a show, it can be  easy to lose track of which plot you’re following and the book of Imagine This is found to be quite flawed. There isn’t enough character development in the main narrative, with the first act spending too much time on the story of Masada, rather than letting the audience get to the know the ghetto characters themselves.

Lauren James Ray and Shaun McCourt are a beautiful leading couple as Rebecca, an actress in the company and Adam the hidden resistance fighter, eager to find his younger brother whom he fears has been kidnapped by the Nazis. The two are stoic and strong in their performances, embracing a stillness that compliments the material. Shuki Levy’s stunning score does not require jazz hands or split leaps and the solemn feel of the piece is entirely respected within this, as the two give flawless vocal performances.

In contrast to this there is a welcome and needed comic relief in Robert Wilkes portrayal of, Pompey a Christian servant to a Roman general within the Masada story production – he offers a charming and much needed respite from the harrowing surroundings of the piece, with his comedy number in act one, No More, showing not only a talented actor but a much skilled singer. Joining Wilkes in this interjection of comedy is ensemble member Richard Dawes as Aaron, another Masada character. Dawes showcases a powerful and controlled voice and when he and Wilkes duet in the second half with Don’t Mind Me, we see just one example of Kevan Allen’s simple but beautiful choreography.

Though a smaller role and a character who is deeply conflicted throughout the piece, the most notable performance that must be given its dues is that of Abbey Adams who plays Naomi, one of the actors. Natural and effortless Her song I Am The Dove in act one is unexpected but showcases a stunning voice and wonderful presence as she comforts Daniel’s son. Similarly her performance at the show’s end, where the cast are faced with a terrifying decision, is deeply moving as the similarities between Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto are thrown into stark relief. Adams is very much the dark horse of the show. 

Blumenau’s helming of the show is well thought out and as a directorial debut he should be commended and feel justly proud. He has worked well with Justin Williams’ sparse but beautifully detailed set, that leaves the audience (in a deft nod to the show’s title) to imagine much in what they see. 

Probably not suitable for younger children, Imagine This is a beautifully moving piece of theatre.  Sensitively performed and emotionally exhausting.

Runs until 18th November
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Nick Brittain

Thursday 19 October 2017

Tryst - Review

Tabard Theatre, London


Written by Karoline Leach
Directed by Phoebe Barran

Natasha J Barnes and Fred Perry

Tryst is a play that cleverly and chillingly explores domestic abuse. A charming man may often be the most feared by women as there is a risk that through a subtle combination of power and control, he may both captivate and ensnare his victims, with it sometimes taking months or even years to uncover the hallmark characteristics of his terror.

Tryst, by contrast, is set over a few days. And, more importantly, the true colours of the man in question are proudly displayed to the audience from the get-go. 

Superficially, the premise is simple: boy meets girl. But it’s not so much that simplicity as rather ‘crook meets his mark.’ From the outset the play is completely transparent. The crook in question, George (Fred Perry), informs the audience of his plans for his next target, quickly revealed to be Adelaide (Natasha J Barnes). She is consigned to working in the back of a milliner’s shop, because, like the other girls forbidden from gracing the shop floor, there’s “something wrong” with her. This gaping chink in her self-esteem, along with her fiscal assets, makes her an ideal target for George.

The first half of the production weaves a tale of rapid courtship, told through a combination of rapidly changing separate monologues and interactions between the two characters. It’s a dynamic that is mirrored by the interplay between Matt Drury’s lighting design and Max Dorey’s set, serving to amplify the tension. 

As the story progresses, layers of Adelaide’s character are unwrapped, each revealing something even more endearing. George follows a similar trajectory but with one striking difference – he has laid out his modus operandi in his opening dialogue. Delivered in an authentically cold and calculating manner, it is difficult to forget this and consequently, to be entirely pulled into the transformation that he pulls off. The parallel that comes to mind is one of a magician revealing his tricks; once done, it is near impossible for the watchful viewer to truly forget them. 

In a two-character play, the audience needs to fully believe in both protagonists. Adelaide undertakes a journey of personal growth, peppered with a shrewd observations and self-awareness. She’s immensely likeable and in a magnificent performance Barnes’ portrayal of a complex young woman sees the actor continually digging into the depths of her emotional reserve to keep the audience fully vested in her story. George, on the other hand, never entirely crosses the bridge into believability – this is both a relief (for that would make it unbearably dark) and a shame, as it feels that this might have been always the intention. 

The script is beautifully crafted, moving at a pace that flits between thundering forward to reflect the fast passage of time and pulling back to uncover a multitude of truths. And it’s this concept of truth and reality – and by extension, trust – that lies at the heart of this play. 

It is impossible to view Tryst outside of the very current lens of sexual harassment and assault that are currently dominating the media; particularly the strand of debate about the situations that sit along this spectrum. It provides the play with a framework that makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing, especially given that this play is set in the Victorian era.

The newly-renovated Tabard Theatre, situated opposite a church and a park, is an ideal home for this production on a dark and windy October’s night. Tryst stays with the audience long after the end of its 90 minutes, as any great thriller should do. It pervades the mind and through the select questions it leaves unanswered, bequeaths a haunting legacy.

Runs until 5 November
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Alastair Hilton

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Young Frankenstein - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman

Hadley Fraser and Shuler Hensley

Not since the pairing of Bialystock and Bloom has there been a theatrical partnership to match that of Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman. He’s an irreverent comic genius who for 70 years has taken no prisoners in his mocking of life’s stereotypes and injustices while she is one of the most perceptive and assured director/choreographers of her generation. And so it is that their latest collaboration Young Frankenstein, recently arrived from Broadway to open at London’s Garrick Theatre, is another triumph.

Like The Producers before it, Young Frankenstein hails from a Brooks movie of some 40 years earlier with the veteran writer/director reframing the comedy-horror flick around his own composition of words and music. And much like Dr Frankenstein’s eponymous creature, Brooks (together with Stroman) has re-animated his story into exceptional musical theatre. If Sunset Boulevard is a sincere tribute to the romance of post-war Hollywood, then Young Frankenstein is an as-loving parody of the same time and place, but played for laughs. 

Snowflakes be warned, there are no “safe spaces” in this show as Brooks makes fun not only of cinematic genres, but also, and mercilessly, of men, women and for good measure exhumed corpses too. The jokes may be as corny as they are smutty, but Brooks knows just how far to dig in mining this rich and timeless seam of humour, throwing political correctness to the wind.

The plot (very) loosely follows the classic story, with Hadley Fraser as the fine-voiced young Dr Frankenstein leaving his slightly matriarchal fiancée Elizabeth played by Dianne Pilkington and setting off from New York (aboard the HMS Queen Mary Shelley, geddit?) to travel to his infamous grandfather’s castle in Transylvania.

Once there and in the heart of Europe, (and oh how Hollywood has, for decades, loved to view our continent as full of nightmarish monsters) the young Doctor meets a string of characters that are straight out of the 1950s B-Movie playbook

Ross Noble is Igor, the hunched assistant, Lesley Joseph plays Frau Blucher an older woman with a sinister past, while Summer Strallen is Inga whose character is largely a recreation of The Producers’ Ulla.

Noble’s talent lies in stand-up comedy - though he applies himself brilliantly to the scripted confines of Igor’s ineptness. Joseph however is quite simply an old-school comedy master. She works the room and with her big number He Vas My Boyfriend offers up a gloriously pastiche of Marlene Dietrich.

Strallen’s Inga sends the comedy straight back to the 1970s - gifted in song, dance and performance, her turn defines the cliché that Brooks has created for her.

There’s eye-watering stuff from Patrick Clancy who doubles up both as the village’s police Inspector as well as a Hermit who befriends the monster. Clancy is also a talented pro who’s worked with Brooks before - his timing is spot on, with slapstick that is as hilarious as it is offensive.

Notwithstanding the occasional lapse in pace, Stroman’s staging is inspired. Act 2 may contain some wittily brilliant tap routines that spoof Top Hat delightfully, but the first half’s number Hang Him Til He’s Dead sees the pitchfork-waving mob of villagers choreographed into an embarrassingly joyous hangman’s dance. And as for the horses that haul Dr Frankenstein’s cart to the castle, never has the equine form been staged or suggested with such ingenuity and comedy.

Perhaps the biggest accolade of the night is due to Shuler Hensley who plays The Monster. Only rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic (he was last in London in the 90s for an Olivier-winning turn as the monstrous Jud in the National Theatre’s Oklahoma) Hensley created The Monster on Broadway before touring with the show and he breathes a life into one of the canon’s most curious characters. His Monster has to evolve from being of virtually zero-intelligence, to a creature that’s far more sophisticated. To reveal any more would be to spoil - suffice to say that Hensley masters the transformation magnificently.

As this review is published, the producers have announced that the run is extending into late 2018. Hurrah! Young Frankenstein is a fabulous night out.

Booking until 29th September 2018
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

31 Hours - Review

Bunker Theatre, London


Written by Kieran Knowles
Directed by Abigail Graham

The cast

Bleak statistics show that a person commits suicide on Britain’s rail network every 31 hours and, as we learn in the play, for every fatality there are another three people who attempt to take their own lives. That number is a sad reflection on our time and forms the fabric of Kieran Knowles’ new play. 

We meet the cast of 4 men, clad throughout in standard issue hi-viz railway working suits, who are a team from Network Rail’s Specialist Cleaning Branch. One might typically think of a job on the railways as being a train driver, or a guard or a signalman. These particular teams however attend the sites of fatal incidents on the railway, their responsibility being to remove the human remains from the tracks with a mixture of speed and dignity. 

The play covers grim but important material, with Knowles’ text shifting his cast from workplace banter through to stepping out of their jobs and taking on various external roles ranging from suicidal individuals, through to HR and customer service personnel who speak in their trained, depersonalized corporate voices and even to speaking the words of delayed passengers, expressing frustration at their journey having been held up due to an inconsiderate, "selfish" person who’s chosen to kill themselves in front of a train. Death and suicide in particular, is a multi-faceted event that Knowles cleverly explores.

At times there is an air of Hamlet to the dialogue. The bleak inevitability of death catches up with us all and the gallows humour of the undertaker or gravedigger has long proved fertile ground for writers. But 31 Hours goes further, in contemplating graphically (but only through detailed verbal narrative) both the different paths to suicide and indeed the different ways that people die on the tracks. 

This all makes for harsh and humbling theatre as amongst the characters we encounter are an embezzling lawyer who’s been found out and kills himself, whilst next to die is quite simply a charming old couple whose savings have evaporated and whose pensions are tawdry and who see death as a “tidy” solution to their problems. The tragedy here is desperate.

Abdul Salis, James Wallwork, Salvatore D’Aquilla and Jack Sutherland make up the on-stage quartet, with the action played out upon a flat space. Long wooden sleepers are moved throughout by the cast, suggesting at one moment a platform edge and at another, a bridge. And underfoot, spread across the stage, are the familiar stones of railway track ballast. These provide a convincing backdrop to the narrative along with a hauntingly crunching sound as the cast walk about on them.

Sensitively directed by Abigail Graham, 31 Hours may not offer any solutions, but does portray a vivid and compassionate insight into some of the darkest corners of mental illness and depression, alongside the consequences of suicide. It is finely crafted theatre.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Monday 16 October 2017

King Lear (at Chichester) - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Munby

Ian McKellen and Tamara Lawrance

King Lear at the Minerva Theatre is the jewel in the crown of Daniel Evans’ opening season as Chichester’s Artistic Director. Ian McKellen is every inch a king in Jonathan Munby’s production that is currently playing a short, sold out season. Staged unpretentiously in modern dress, the court of this King Lear bears the accoutrements of the 21st century, yet still respects and celebrates the beauty of the mediaeval verse.

At 78, McKellen brings a credibility of age that only underscores this definitive interpretation, bringing a masterful touch to Lear’s mental decline - “Oh let me not be mad” has rarely carried so much pathos. It is however the strength of the company around McKellen that adds the lustre to this, the finest of recent King Lear productions. 

Dervla Kirwan’s Goneril flinches as her father curses her with sterility, in a performance of understated excellence. Modestly dressed (in contrast to her sister), Goneril’s murderous malevolence is masterful. Kirsty Bushell’s Regan, by contrast, is a sometimes scantily clad, Louboutin toting, femme fatale. The zest with which she accompanies Patrick Robinson’s Cornwall in ripping out Gloucester’s (Danny Webb) eyes with a butcher’s hook could be straight out of a grindhouse movie, but is never once overplayed. (Bravo to fight director Kate Waters for work that is, as ever, bloody good!) 

And that lack of overplay is the essence of this show’s class. Damien Molony’s Edmund is a role that is too often played to as a calculating pantomime villain. Here, Molony’s soft Irish brogue offers an Edmund imbued with an embellished evil that again comes with a classy credibility.

Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia creates a particularly distinctive magic with Lear in their Act 4 reconciliation. Her talent combined with McKellen’s aged genius offers a moment of tenderness that is, again, rarely achieved.

A highlight of the production - certainly for this reviewer - is to see Phil Daniels return to the role of Fool. Daniels last played the Fool at Exeter in 1980, a production that I had the privilege of seeing. He was 20 then and fresh out of the success of Franc Roddam’s Mod movie Quadrophenia, bringing a cheekily youthful mania to his nuncle-baiting. That boy has now grown up into a bespectacled, tank-top sporting man (think Ronnie Corbett, but taller) and in this coming of age, Daniels brings a level of nuance to the Fool that is rarely (if ever) seen. Daniels still sports his coxcomb magnificently, but now his mirth belies a profound and troubling worldly wisdom and in an inspired touch, Munby has him sing his (many) songs, self-accompanied on the ukulele. It's a music hall touch, juxtaposed onto a modern interpretation of a century's old play and it works perfectly.

Phil Daniels

The Fool’s exit from the play has long been a source of debate as Shakespeare famously leaves it vague in the text. Here however, Munby has had some fun, introducing his own little kicker just before the interval ice-creams.

And again, in one of the play’s smaller roles, Michael Matus delivers a pompously priggish Oswald, making more of the obsequious functionary than is typically encountered in the play.

This is also a King Lear that having freed itself from the constraints of racial and gender specific casting loses none of the play’s impact in the process. Indeed the modernity of Munby’s staging lends itself to a bonfire of traditional casting stereotypes. Most distinctive amongst these translations is Sinead Cusack’s Countess of Kent, in place of that county’s traditional Duke. Cusack brings a steely kindliness to the role which opens up a different and rather enchanting take upon the loving devotion she shows towards Lear. 

Notwithstanding the contemporary staging, Munby spares us any heavy-handed spin on the ancient yarn, allowing us space to draw our own contemporary political comparisons. 

“See better, Lear” is how Kent admonishes his King in Act 1. I doubt there'll be a better Lear to see, and for some time. 

Runs until 28th October (sold out)
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Lucky Stiff - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Paul Callen

Ian McCurrach

There’s a charming treatment of Ahrens & Flaherty’s Lucky Stiff, currently playing at the Union Theatre.

The musical is a short slight piece, set in a minimalist stage design, but with an imaginative and energetic choreography from Jamie Neale that efficiently uses the Union’s compact space.

The story? Don’t ask. Lucky Stiff is a ridiculous farce that follows Harry Witherspoon, a charmingly bumbling Englishman wheeling his uncle’s corpse around Monte Carlo, so as to comply with the terms of the dead man’s will and inherit a fortune. Throw in Annabel Glick, a delightfully honest and upright representative of the Brooklyn Dogs’ Home who stand to inherit the cash if Witherspoon doesn’t comply with the will to the letter, along with Rita La Porter the ultimate New Jersey broad whose eyes are fixed upon the cash and you start to get the picture.

Paul Callen puts on a well-constructed show. Tom Elliott Reade is Harry as Natasha Hoeberigs plays Annabel. They both capture the fresh faced naïveté demanded of them and are delightfully voiced.

Stealing the show however is Natalie Moore-Williams’ Rita, with both a vocal and stage presence that shamelessly (and delightfully) dominates each of her scenes magnificently. A nod too to the veteran Ian McCurrach, onstage almost throughout and literally corpsing with aplomb. 

Lucky Stiff offers a delightful evening on London’s fringe, as a polished cast make fine work of Ahrens & Flaherty’s first collaboration.

Runs until 21st October
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Thursday 12 October 2017

Hair - Review

The Vaults, London


Music by Galt MacDermot
Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni

Shekinah MacFarlane and the cast

Transferring down from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of Hair is an exciting revival of a show that was to define so much of the 1960s. Following a “tribe” of Manhattan hippies Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt Macdermot’s musical explored a range of modern music genres as a narrative evolves that focuses on racial integration and social and political challenge. The story plays out under an overarching theme of copious drug consumption in New York while on the other side of the world the much loathed Vietnam conflict rages. Hair blazed a trail for challengingly political musical theatre - indeed, swap the slaughter and sacrifice of Vietnam for the ravages of HIV and Hair becomes an arguable precursor to Rent.

While the show’s themes remain noble in intent, Hair is very much a museum piece. A Trump themed intro (and even a re-written song from Rado to reference POTUS #45) fail to convincingly shift the show’s message into the 21st century though perhaps this is not surprising with the nature of protest itself having changed over the decades. Fuelled by the internet and social media, the world has evolved into a far more cold and cynical place from the flower-powered idealism of 50 years ago.

That being said, Hair remains a cracking cultural milestone and while Ragni and Rado’s cooky storyline is probably best savoured under the influence of (modest) intoxication, it is clear that O’Boyle has assembled a stunning company for his revival of a show that is packed with iconic songs.

In what is very much an ensemble piece that demands a strong company throughout, the Tribe are led by close friends Berger and Claude. Berger remains committed to the peace-loving hippie cause as the show’s arc sees Claude ultimately enlist. Andy Coxon brings a commandingly lithe power to Berger as Robert Metson’s Claude presents a far more complex character (albeit one who can give a gorgeous Mancunian twang to Manchester, England!) While we may not understand Claude’s motive for enlisting, Metson ensures that at all times his character demands our sympathy.

The casting is excellent and at times, sensational. There is standout work from Shekinah Macfarlane whose Dionne kicks off proceedings with an ethereally energetic Aquarius. Laura Johnson's Sheila accompanies herself on guitar in a heartbreakingly gorgeous interpretation of Good Morning Starshine while in the first half, a white gloved Jammy Kasongo as Hud briefly electrifies with Colored Spade as Natalie Green puts in a tiny, perfect cameo as Mom.

Andy Coxon and the cast

The driving energy of this revival is powered by Gareth Bretheton’s 5 piece band and especially Tom Hutchison’s stunning work on drums. Macdermot’s melodies span a range and fusion of styles and in one of the most impressive bands to be seen in off West End theatre for quite some time, Bretherton gives the score and the show a pulsating, rock-based intensity.

As a venue The Vaults is potentially perfect. Draped in ribbons and yet, literally tucked under the rumbling tracks of Waterloo Station, it hints at the grimy squalor of a squat. Acoustically however, the challenges of a railway basement have been well addressed with the show’s sound design (Calum Robinson and Max Perryment) proving virtually perfect.   

For some in the audience Hair will offer nostalgia, for others chance to discover, or re-discover, a musical that was to break the cultural mould in so many ways, in the process giving rise to some modern yet timeless numbers. It’s a great night at the theatre.

Runs until 13th January 2018
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Monday 9 October 2017

Broadway Melodies - Review


It is a delight to review Dan Burton’s debut album Broadway Melodies. As choreographer Stephen Mear has long known, Burton is currently amongst the finest of musical theatre “triple threats” (defined as talented in all three skills of song, dance and acting) and a man who unassumingly provides an assured touch of class to all his roles, whether they be leading or support. Recent years alone having seen him give an assured Tulsa alongside Imelda Staunton’s Momma Rose in Gypsy, an immaculate Billy Lawlor in a Parisian 42nd Street, with Burton only recently having closed a flawless (and sold out) run as Jerry Travers in Top Hat at Kilworth House.

Those three shows on their own define Burton’s affinity with and affection for the classics from The Great White Way, so there is a true sense of belonging in listening to the singer’s choices – a selection that also bears a distinctly autobiographical touch too.

Burton opens the album with Singin’ In The Rain (he’d played Don Lockwood at Paris’ Chatelet a couple of years ago and keen fans may care to visit Paris this December where the show is soon to return) and gives the timeless number a warmly respectful treatment that drips with the comfort he feels in the role. The song is one that’s known by literally everyone and yet Burton still imbues it with a loving freshness - and there’s a cracking trumpet riff too from Gethin Liddington.

Chichester’s production of The Pajama Game from a few years back transferred, with Burton, to the West End and so it is little surprise that the show’s Hey There features among Burton's chosen ten songs, with his gorgeously mellifluous interpretation makes this number arguably the album’s highlight. Scaling Richard Adler’s and Jerry Ross’s intoxicating key changes with a charm and a confidence, Burton makes one want to set the track to ‘repeat’, to fully savour an enchanting three minutes of song.

There’s a delightful note of comedy as Burton teams up with Lee Mead for Well, Did You Evah. Crosby and Sinatra will always be a tough act to follow but there’s well-rehearsed nuance in this recording and one still cannot help but chuckle at Burton and Mead’s take on the tried and trusted gags.

The entire collection is a treat, with amongst the other songs included are a fabulously sonorous I Only Have Eyes For You and a perfectly pitched I’m In The Mood For Love. 

Sensitively produced by Mason Neely, Broadway Melodies is a must for anyone who loves exquisitely sung show tunes. The album is but a gorgeous glimpse of Dan Burton’s talent and with Xmas just around the corner, could well make a perfect gift.

Available to download from Amazon and iTunes

Wednesday 4 October 2017

David Bryan talks about The Toxic Avenger (and Bon Jovi)

David Bryan

As The Toxic Avenger returns to London's Arts Theatre, I spoke with composer and Bon Jovi keyboards ace, David Bryan

JB:     David , what attracted you to write The Toxic Avenger?

DB:     Joe DiPietro and I, my writing collaborator, we were working on Memphis - a big epic story about the birth of racism, and the birth of rock and roll. We had done some productions of it, and then we were waiting for it to come onto Broadway when Lloyd Kaufman, the man behind Troma Films, he came in and pitched the idea about doing a musical.

So Joe wrote a treatment for it and asked : “can we make it the way we want? Not, the story from the movie," and Lloyd agreed. So we set to work and it was a chance for Joe and I really to write comedy.

It's funny as hell, there's an underlying love story, and the moral of it, still, is about global warming. 

But, it's all set in comedy, and it was a blast. We did it really quickly, and it was great fun.

JB:     The Toxic Avenger is all about satire. What satire and humour appeals to you and who were your comic influences?

DB:     It's funny, Joe and I, we're the same age, we're from New Jersey, and grew up on the same comedians. When I grew up I had more comedy records than rock records!

Growing up it was Eddie Murphy. And then the Saturday Night Live crew was just funny as hell. But, I always loved the side of comedy that was just an intelligent way of looking at things from a different viewpoint. It's great, and it's a great thing to watch people laugh. Laughing is a great therapy.

JB:     The Toxic Avenger is very politically incorrect. How important is political incorrectness in modern comedy ?

DB:     What I think what we did with our piece, was that we mocked everybody. We took the piss out of everybody and everything that we could.

We mocked everything, so no one could accuse of us of bullying on any one angle. If you mock  everything, then it's funny.

JB:     Do you sense any trend in how comedy today is shifting? Do you feel that there is a greater sense of what can and cannot be laughed at in today's era?

DB:     The comedians are the ones that are supposed to push the envelope. All my favourite top comedians were the ones who did push that envelope, and say stuff that everybody thinks, but doesn't want to say. I don't have a problem with that as long as it's done in an intelligent way.

JB:     You’re famous for being the keyboards player in Bon Jovi. Tell me the difference between writing songs for a show and albums for a rock band.

DB:     Same thing. It's just writing a song.  I don't do any research. Joe and I sit down and go, "Okay, here's the character, here's the dilemma, or the journey, or what's the purpose of why this character needs to go from point A to point B, and what's driving him?" I think it's really a human story, if you will. I just put myself in the shoes of that character, and just write it, and let it all come out.

JB:     A good musical has a very clear book that the songs work around. How does the creative arc compare of writing songs for a show compare with the arc of writing songs for a Bon Jovi album?

DB:     Yeah, anytime we approach an album, it's always a beginning, middle, and end and there is a narrative.

In a musical, you have different characters and it’s a little more challenging writing for men, for women, for monsters (!) - it's a whole different world.

But the songs and the story keep evolving together. It's not like one's written in stone, and then the other isn't. We are the kind of writers that don’t just go, here's the story, and now we're going to step out of the side of the story, and here's a song. Our songs always push the characters ahead.

JB:     Within Bon Jovi do you contribute much to the composing?

DB:     Yes!  I classically trained for 15 years, so I understand music. It's really helped in that that is what really separates us from a guitar band, and then you add keyboards. All the big songs that we've had in records, with keyboards you can colour the emotion, really paint a picture. Even in the beginning ... A standout example would be, Wanted Dead or Alive. At the beginning you hear wind, and strings, and all of a sudden you're in a Western. That's what I bring to the table and I love it.

JB:     David, thank you and I wish The Toxic Avenger every success at the Arts Theatre.

The Toxic Avenger plays at The Arts Theatre until 3rd December 
Read my review of The Toxic Avenger here

Photo credit: Irina Chira