Sunday, 26 March 2017

Yank! - Review

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester


***

Music by Joseph Zellnik
Directed by James Baker
Lyrics and book by David Zellnik


The Ensemble

Manchester’s Hope Mill theatre yet again presents another powerful show with their energetic and touching production of Yank!, a show first brought to life off-Broadway in 2010.

The Zellnik brothers’ World War Two love story focuses on shy and unsure new Army recruit, Stu (Scott Hunter) and his forbidden, blossoming romance with the ever charming - and typical G.I Joe stereotype - Mitch (Barnaby Hughes).

Hunter’s performance is excellent. Despite some flaws in the book his ability to portray the journey from an unconfident and naïve teen, growing into a haunted, hardened young man through his harrowing war experiences is breathtakingly honest. His numbers are beautifully sung, but much like most of the show’s material, lack variety or range; it was clearly a choice of the composer to make an honorable tribute to the music of the era, but all the numbers sadly bleed into one another. 

Similarly, Hughes performance is strong, evidence of a deeply charismatic actor. Mitch’s inner turmoil, battling his feelings inside a highly homophobic and patriarchal society is incredibly convincing. He is the embodiment of a typical Golden Age actor, and while his character may not be as as particularly well written as Stu, his performance complements Hunter’s.

As an ensemble the company are vocally very strong, blending with ease into the space and for a cast of essentially all men, bar the ever outstanding Sarah-Louise Young, they succeed in creating a very rich and full sound.  The choreography however is inconsistent. While steps be correct, the finish is sloppy specifically in a number such as Click. This is a full company tap routine where the overall impression still remains quite rough (and this nearly a week after the opening press night) and probably nowhere near as effective as choreographer Chris Cuming might have envisioned.

A particularly memorable member of of the company is Kris Marc-Joseph as the boisterous and loveable Czechowski. Though an ensemble number, his comic timing is impeccable and what moments he does have, in numbers such as Betty and Your Squad Is Your Squad are hilarious. 

Overall Yank! is a moving story that touches its audience’s heart. Notwithstanding its flaws, the show is enjoyable, with James Baker again highlighting some beautiful talent currently to be found in the British theatre Scene.


Runs until April 8th
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Anthony Robling

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

T'Shan Williams talks about The Life at Southwark Playhouse

T'Shan Williams

Set in and around the sleaze of Times Square in the 1980s, Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s The Life garnered Tony and Drama Desk awards when Michael Blakemore directed its opening on Broadway in 1997. Twenty years later and with Blakemore again at the helm, the gritty musical crosses the Atlantic to open at the Southwark Playhouse next week.
The story focusses on Queen, a young woman of proud, principled intention who let down by the man she loves finds herself drawn into the complex criminality of prostitution. Sonja, an older and wiser hooker takes her under her wing… 
T’Shan Williams plays Queen and we spoke during a break in rehearsals. 

JB:     Tell me first of all - What excites you about playing this role?

TW: Oh, the fact that Queen is not born into life that you see in the show. She's come from out of town, from a different area in the States and she’s moved to New York with dreams and aspirations. She's quite optimistic about what her life could be.

It just so happens that in the part that you see in the show, she has had to put her dreams on hold as she is sucked in to a mess that she didn't agree to.

JB:      What are the complexities of your character that you're having to explore and discover?

TW:     She has a certain sense of naivete because she didn't expect this to happen. She kind of got herself into a relationship where it just didn't work out right, so, it's basically I guess, her trying to be independent.

She's got a drive to be a better person, yet she's in a relationship where her partner is just quite happy with the situation they've ended up in.

So she is forced to choose between wrong and right, between love and a better life, that kind of thing, which is really quite hard for her.

What makes her such an appealing character though is the continuous optimism that she has, which is actually so inspiring and uplifting.

JB:     I was lucky enough to be invited to your rehearsal last week and see a glimpse of the show up close, in particular duetting with Sharon D. Clarke who plays Sonja. What is it like working alongside Sharon?

TW: Oh, absolute pleasure. She's so amazingly talented, and Cornell S.John too. I'm learning new things from them everyday.

Sharon’s like a big sister. She's got such a powerful energy in the rehearsal space. It's such a lovely time working with her. The whole cast too, they're all just so talented.



Sharon D. Clarke and T'shan Williams

JB:     Tell me about working with and being directed by Michael Blakemore.

TW: He's just such a gent, a charming man. And, I've never worked with such a director before that's just so detailed. He doesn't miss a beat. Of course, this is kind of his baby, because obviously he directed it originally on Broadway. The show really has a place in his heart and it's just such a pleasure to be in the room with him.

JB:     You are coming to The Life after a year in Book of Mormon. Have you worked in any off-West End productions before this?

TW: Yeah....ish! I did a season at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square over Christmas and Ive toured But, that's kind of where my journey has been so far.

I only graduated in 2015 from drama school, so it has all been quite recent. But I've been lucky and had a good run in contracts so far. I love fringe theatre and I've always wanted to perform at the Southwark Playhouse because it's so intimate.

JB:     That's great to hear. The rehearsal that I saw was electric - I'm looking forward to your press night next week.



The Life will run at the Southwark Playhouse from 25th March until 29th April.
Photo credit: Simon Turtle

Monday, 20 March 2017

I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard - Review

Finborough Theatre, London



***


Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Jake Smith


Adrian Lukis and Jill Winternitz

At first glance, I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard appears to be a somewhat self-indulgent glance into the life of David, an egotistical celebrated playwright complaining about a ‘hard done by’ life, whilst surrounded by a lavish and modern apartment, with a long standing marriage and a loving daughter. However, it quickly transpires that years of poor choices in his childhood and career have instilled in David a highly damaged and addictive persona that, in a single night, whilst waiting to read his daughters off Broadway play review, destroys his comfortable, conceited lifestyle and brings his world crashing own around him.

Adrian Lukis is David, in a role spans a great deal of emotional intensity, varying from playful, fatherly pride and affection, to spiteful and egotistical aggression within the space of seconds. Lukis portrays each state with great intelligence and depth. His is the standout performance of the two hander and his clear understanding and depiction of David’s destructive personality and ingrained sense of self-loathing is heart wrenching and ultimately, praiseworthy. In spite of this, the juxtaposition of David’s apparent obsession with leaving himself a more positive legacy than that left by his own father and his near violent mistreatment of Ella (whether intentional or not) creates some confusion within the character. A fault not in the acting but in the writing and direction of the play.

It is clear that Ella (Jill Winternitz) has an almost obsessive admiration for her father and hangs on his every word, even going so far as to mirror not only his drinking and drug habits but his use of language as well. Winternitz’s performance feels underwhelming against the performance given by Lukis. What she lacks in subtlety however is made up for in passion creating a performance that seems almost surreal in such an intimate space giving credence to the adage “less is more”.

Despite its flaws Halley Feiffer’s play is a harrowing yet interesting story that genuinely makes one care for the characters. Jake Smith creates a piece that both moves and distresses the audience, touching upon a number of sensitive topics.


Runs until March 25th 
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A Dark Night In Dalston - Review

Park Theatre, London


**


By Stewart Permutt
Directed by Tim Stark


Michelle Collins


Stewart Permutt's new play is billed as a comedy and indeed director Tim Stark, interviewed in the programme notes as, describes the work as "very, very funny" The trouble is, it isn’t very funny at all.

Michelle Collins is Gina - a warm-hearted woman who offers sanctuary in her Dalston flat to Joe Coen's much younger Gideon who's just been the victim of a violent assault. He's Jewish, she isn’t and with the sun having just set on a Friday evening and the Sabbath commenced, Gideon's religious commitment prevents him from using mechanised transport to get home, across town, to Stanmore.

There are the makings here of an intriguing drama - and to be fair, Collins' gentle gentile Gina is one of the finest performances to be found on London's fringe. But Permutt's script, that reveals both characters to be struggling with mental health issues, alongside Gideon realising that there's more to life than suburbia and accountancy (and Mel Brooks explored that journey so much better with his creation of Leo Bloom) loses itself in a mass of cliché and un-believability.

Coen makes the best of a terribly written role, while Collins delivers a superbly performed passion to her pain that is, on occasions, heartbreaking.

As a one hour radio play and with some serious work still to be done, there could be some great potential to this yarn. But at just under two hours it’s too long and too underdeveloped.


Runs until 1st April
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Monday, 13 March 2017

Honeymoon In Vegas - Review

London Palladium, London


*****


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Andrew Bergman
Directed by Shaun Kerrison


Jason Robert Brown celebrates the show's reception at  the Palladium

Showbiz, entertainment and glamour are three things one expects on a trip to Las Vegas. Well for one night only, courtesy of the London Music Theatre Orchestra; Vegas came to London – with showbiz, entertainment and sheer musical class in abundance. It took 20 years for Andrew Bergman’s 1992 movie to be given a musical theatre treatment – but in the hands of Jason Robert Brown, arguably one of the most incisive songwriters for the stage after Sondheim, the show opened on Broadway for a brief run in 2015. For one night only and under the inspired baton of Brown himself, the show has just played the London Palladium in a polished concert performance delivered by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and a star-studded cast.

Bergman’s is a tale that’s pure Hollywood fantasy. Jack and Betsy are young lovers who after a convoluted back story, decide to get married in Vegas. On arriving in Nevada however, the beautiful Betsy catches the eye of Tommy, a nefarious but shrewd veteran gambler who sees in the young woman, the image of his late wife. Thrashing Jack in a rigged card game, Tommy strikes a deal to relieve Jack of his poker debt, in exchange for the older man being able to spend a weekend with Betsy. The unfolding narrative is as unbelievable as it is hilarious, with the tale stretching to Hawaii and including a troupe of Flying Elvises before its ultimate, happy resolution.

As Jack and Betsy, Arthur Darvill and Samantha Barks drove the performing excellence at the core of this concert-staged piece, with Darvill giving a wonderfully charismatic performance, matched by stunning vocals that were best exemplified in the opening number I Love Betsy. Barks was equally flawless, but what made these two so watchable was the chemistry and comedy in their connection. Despite delivering almost all of the text out front, including referencing scripts where needed, they offered a masterclass in delivering a staged concert performance. Alongside Barks and Darvill, Maxwell Caulfield’s Tommy was similarly magnificent in voice and character.

To be fair, there wasn’t a weak link within the entire company, but stand out performances came from Rosemary Ashe as Jacks possessive, crazed mother Bea and Nicholas Colicos playing the comically clumsy and conniving Johnny Sandwich.

It is rare to find a one-off concert staging delivered to such an impeccable standard throughout cast and orchestra. Introducing the evening, Freddie Tapner the LMTO’s founder, invited the audience to allow the music to fill the scene changes and dance breaks and warned that the flying Elvises would have be left to the imagination! Bravo to Shaun Kerrison’s direction - with disbelief suitably suspended, the evening’s magic simply soared.

Brown’s score combined with Bergman’s script is a driving force to be reckoned with in musical theatre. The gags and jazzy tunes come thick and fast as the plot's twists and turns unfold. The saying is that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – well it was great to see the secrets of this story spilled in London. The show’s creatives took a gamble that came up trumps, their ambitious production playing to a full house. Flush with their success, let’s hope it’s back here soon.


Reviewed by Joe Sharpe
Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? - Review

Harold Pinter Theatre


*****

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Macdonald



Imelda Staunton

There's a dark and barely speakable void at the core of George and Martha's relationship. Middle-aged and married for twenty odd years, he's an Assistant Professor at the University of New Carthage who's not going to rise any further, while she is the daughter of the University's President, both of them brutally aware that the chance to achieve the dreams and aspirations of their youth has long since passed them by. (British TV in the 1970s had a sitcom fuelled by marital frustrations entitled George and Mildred - older readers may well recognise a resonance...)

The shared vacuum of George and Martha's lives is filled by bitter sniping, infidelity and alcohol, the pain of their desperate mutual neediness broken late one evening by a drunken and impromptu invitation to Nick and Honey, a much younger married couple, newly employed on the college's staff. 

Over one long and boozy night, the action never leaves George and Martha's lounge which slowly evolves into the cruellest of emotional bear-pits. Much like a cat will tease a mouse before pouncing, so too here do the old toy with the young. The cruelty of George and Martha is magnificent - they've worked this routine before as Get The Guest, becomes Hump The Hostess, culminating in a devastating endgame of Bringing Up Baby. Spite, betrayal and humiliation are constant themes with even the perfectly preppy Nick revealed to be a swine - necessary, as George tells him, "to show you where the truffles are".

Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton
The three-hour, three act show is gruelling, but driven by James Macdonald's gifted foursome, the pain that Albee subjects us to  is always bearable, sometimes witty and constantly poignant. Conleth Hill plays George - always an ultimately a step ahead of Martha even when she is at her most devastating and also with a gimlet eye, speaking witheringly of the youngsters with a comment that could so easily apply to today's young people craving their safe spaces - "the social malignancy of youth who cannot take a joke". Clearly little has changed since Albee's 1965.

The engine room of the play however is Imelda Staunton's Martha. Profoundly sexual yet emotionally devastated, from Momma Rose to Martha (and maybe throw in Mrs Lovett too) Staunton's recent West End outings have defined domestic dysfunctionality. Throwing everything at George that she can lay her hands on - including cuckoldry - she takes our breath away with her energy and breaks our hearts as, almost Clinton-esque, she herself is broken at the finale. 

Imogen Poots is the "slender-hipped" Honey, slight in both physique and nature - Albee doesn’t pull any punches in seeing both women come off worst by the end of the play. Opposite her, Luke Treadaway captures his own youthful insincerity as the ultimately shallow yet muscular Nick. 

James Macdonald delivers a perfectly weighted take on a 20th century classic. The 1965 allegories are as true today as they ever were - and in the hands of this stellar cast, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf ? makes for unmissable theatre.


Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots


Rns until 27th May
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


*


Adapted by Marielle Heller
From the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner 
Directed by Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank


Rona Morison

Southwark Playhouse's website describes The Diary Of A Teenage Girl as "a coming of age adventure of a San Francisco teenager who begins a secret affair with her mother's boyfriend". Rarely has a show's blurb been quite so cynically exploitative. A truer description would have been "a brilliantly performed study of how a 15 year old girl, vulnerable and impressionable, is preyed upon by the the child-abuser who's dating her mom." But that's not quite as catchy, huh?

A stunning troupe of actors capture Marielle Heller's interpretation of Phoebe Gloeckner's original work. But just because a graphic novel translates a human journey into a comic-book narrative doesn't make the story comical.

Try explaining that to the Southwark Playhouse audience, whose chuckles early on as Rona Morison's juvenile Minnie is penetrated by Monroe, her mother's adult boyfriend, are simply nauseating. Kookie kids discovering sexuality amongst their peers is one thing - and Heller/Morison's exposition of the highs and lows of teenage angst are, quite possibly accurate. But it's no laughing matter when a drama portrays an emotionally neglected girl being exploited by a predatory paedophile.

All the performances are flawless. Morison, who is onstage throughout, offers up a consummate performance that is as tragic as it is brilliant. She not only captures the transient shallowness of adolescence, but also manages to convince us of Minnie's need and desperation for love. Everyone else plays carefully crafted caricatures that support the young girl's arc. The recently Olivier-nominated Rebecca Trehearn gives a scorchingly powerful turn as Minnie's distant, dysfunctional mother, confronted with the unspeakable and confusing horror of discovering her lover has been abusing her daughter. Jamie Wilkes' Monroe is chillingly and believably ordinary in his portrayal of a domesticated monster.

This production of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl takes a 5-star cast and bundles them into a 1-star vehicle. (Not surprisingly, Heller's 2015 movie version of the tale bombed at the box office too.) While being a 15 year old girl who is Bowie-focussed and sexually curious may well be normal, to describe the relationship between Minnie and Monroe as an "affair" sees the producers stray dangerously close to bestowing Monroe's criminality with an acceptable facade of normality too. Powerfully performed for sure, but in the hands of directors Parker and Ewbank, the story is reduced to little more than a prurient peep-show into the devastation of child sexual abuse.


Runs until 25th March
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Friday, 3 March 2017

Funny Girl - Review

Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes


*****


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer


Sheridan Smith

Revisiting Funny Girl, now on tour after its tumultuous (but always impressive) London run that had started at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it’s almost impossible to believe how Michael Mayer had managed to stage it in that tiny space south of the river. Now, watching it in a venue several times the size, the touring production looks absolutely fabulous - cast, set and costumes with the show sounding sparkling, new and exuberant.

This timeless, true life, rags-to-riches story of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant’s talented but quirky daughter certainly captivated the midweek full house at Milton Keynes and no doubt will do so on the rest of the tour. Sheridan Smith is vibrant and happy, back on top form and absolutely owning the character of Fanny Brice that she created at the Menier. She was born to play this role!

Opposite her is Chris Peluso who the gods have blessed with a glorious voice and as gorgeous a presence.  Peluso’s Nick Arnstein is a little more serious than Darius Campbell’s London performance and isn't quite (yet) the match for Smith’s on-stage majesty. But these are very early days for this national tour, and there is every likelihood that Peluso will dig just a little deeper to more than rise to the role.

The supporting cast are fabulous with no weak links. There’s fine work (and tap dancing)from Joshua Lay’s ‘disappointed in love’ Eddie. Rachel Izen, Myra Sands and  Zoe Ann Bown are a hoot as Fanny’s mother and her friends, ladies of a certain age delighting in life and gossip. Throughout, the Ziegfeld girls look and sound stunning and alongside the ensemble boys, all dance with style and panache.

Jule Styne’s score sounds tremendous, wonderfully arranged by Alan Willams and superbly orchestrated by Chris Walker. It’s a tribute to the band to see so many of the audience stay and listen to the very end of the play out and deservedly applaud.

Credit too to Smith (and at certain future performances, her famously sensational London understudy Natasha J Barnes too) for having the gumption to go on the road with the show. All too often, a show’s headline stars can tend to drift away come tour-time, replaced by leads who whilst unquestionably excellent, lack star quality. Not so here, where Smith will be toughing out like a trouper. Brava!

Funny Girl on tour is a chance to glimpse the West End’s finest, up close. We’re all people who need people and amidst a marvellous company, Sheridan Smith continues to make this show unmissable.


Runs until 4th March - Then tours. For schedule click here. 
Reviewed by Catherine Françoise
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Lizzie - Review

Greenwich Theatre, London


***


Music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner
Book by Tim Maner
Directed by Victoria Bussert


Bjorg Gamst and Eden Espinosa


Staging Lizzie in central Greenwich, one wonders if the Danish co-producers had been led to believe that they were headed for North Greenwich and the O2, rather than the more homely intimacy of the town's theatre. For it turns out that their show, based around the true tale of the allegedly patricidal Lizzie Borden, is more akin to rock concert than musical. From the stadium-inspired lighting rig, through to the gig-style hand-held mics (are they really necessary when everyone’s wearing a headset?), through to a score that's more Axel Rose than axe-fuelled slaughter, Lizzie's European tour seems somewhat stifled staged in anything less than an arena.

The energy of the piece comes from its powerful music - the six piece (predominantly Danish) onstage band are sensational and notwithstanding an overly zealous bass line, some of the guitar work is exquisite.

Lyrically it's uninspiring, rarely getting any better than the infamous kiddies’ nursery rhyme and the whole thing is very heavy on exposition. But hey, Guns N' Roses weren't Shakespeare either. What's beyond doubt is that the cast of four, all supremely talented women, make the best of the minimalist direction that Bussert foists upon them.

Bjorg Gamst plays the title character in an unsettling and unquestionably electrically charged performance, but which only sometimes hints at the used, abused and confused woman. Borden was a damaged 32 year old at the time of the killings, yet Gamst plays her as a gamine teen.

The evening does however have moments of magic from the exquisite vocal presence of Broadway's Eden Espinosa, making a rare appearance on this side of the pond as Lizzie's sister Emma Leonora. Espinosa's duetting in two numbers in particular, Burn The Old Thing Up and Watchman For The Morning justify the ticket price. 

Yet again, London is seeing the curiosity of a show that seems like more like the staging of a concept album and not a fully developed musical. And all in all Greenwich's theatre seats are just too restricting - Lizzie is a show that's gonna be best savoured stoned, and from the mosh pit.


Runs until 12th March
Photo credit: Soren Malmose