Friday, 20 April 2018

The Last Ship - Review

Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool


****


Music and lyrics by Sting
Original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey
Direction and book by Lorne Campbell



Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick
For the most part, Sting’s The Last Ship is a thing of beauty. The Geordie songwriter / pop megastar has penned a well-crafted salute to the shipbuilders of his native Newcastle Upon Tyne and their industry that has long vanished.

Sting’s roots shine proudly throughout the show. The language is frequently and gloriously in the north eastern vernacular while the melodies, be they balladry or the more rousing ensemble numbers,  are anchored firmly in English folk heritage. Think of The Hired Man, fused with Blood Brothers alongside a hint of Auf Weidersehn Pet and you start to get close to the show’s heartbeat. 

It’s hard (nigh, impossible) to write of the plot and remain spoiler-free. Suffice to say, not only is there a solid industrial foundation to the narrative, there is also a cleverly crafted human interest too. Themes of love, ambition along with both a respect for and a challenge to the importance of family and tradition, are well woven into the narrative.

Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick lead the cast as Jackie and Peggy White, shipyard foreman and nurse respectively and both could not be more perfectly cast. Their singing voices may not be the finest, but McGann has a beautifully powerful presence that’s hewn from riveted granite. As he leads his workers in act one’s stirring Shipyard number, there is a believable wryness to his delivery that defines him, not only as a leader of men, but also as a shipbuilder with a deeply held a pride in his craft. Peggy is made of the same steel as her husband, but with the additional thread of a perceptively drawn woman’s compassion. We see her not only leading, but caring too. 

The story’s romantic theme derives from the school-love that blossomed between Gideon Fletcher and Med Dawson (Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee) and who we meet some 17 years later. Both actors are gifted with some of the show’s more heart-rending numbers, though McNamee leads the women in a gloriously tango-infused routine If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor.

The portrayal of the industry’s decline is as heartbreaking as it is recognisable. This review was written as the touring production played in Liverpool and there was a resonance to its message that was almost tangible sitting amongst the packed matinee audience in the Playhouse Theatre. Merseyside too has seen its docks and shipyards decimated.

But Sting and Lorne Campbell have pulled their punches with the villain of this piece. Mr Newlands (played by Sean Kearns) is the shipyard owner who, as his business crumbles, resorts to having to call in the police to clear the picketing workers, defiantly attempting to hold on to their livelihoods. He’s clearly the bad guy here, but the real "bad guy" was a far more complex machine of global and local politics and policies that crushed the shipyards along with many other of Britain’s heavy industries. Similarly, in a litany of current “issues” recited before the final bow, its hard to reconcile a reference to gun control in the USA, however fashionable that debate may currently be, with Newcastle shipbuilders stripped of their industrial pride and dignity. 

Creatively, the show is cutting-edge in its conception. 59 Productions’ set design makes for an ingenious use of simple girders and clever projections to create illusions that switch seamlessly from present day to backdrop to spiritualised suggestiveness. Lucy Hind has crafted clever and authentic dance work, while in the pit Richard John’s six-piece band makes Sting’s songs soar.

Whether the show will carry its charm into the metropolitan bubble of the M25 is hard to discern, with today's bloated Londoners being a world away from the harsh industrial axe that fell upon the North. Until then, the tour plays until July and it is well worth catching. 


The show tours until 7th July. Venues and dates can be found here.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Carousel - Review

Imperial Theatre, New York



*****


Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry

Music by Richard Rodgers 
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer
Directed by Jack O'Brien



There is a gloriously challenging intensity to Jack O’Brien’s Carousel that creeps up on one throughout the evening and draws us into this glimpse of humanity’s cruel underbelly. Supported by Justin Peck’s balletic choreography (and dance is a strong feature of this production), O’Brien has stripped away what little froth Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original might have once contained.

The nuclear reactor at the core of this show is the chemistry between Jessie Mueller’s Julie Jordan and Joshua Henry as fairground barker Billy Bigelow. Henry defines Bigelow’s tragedy in a way that has not been seen, on either side of the Atlantic, for decades. He exudes an irresistible masculinity that would have acted as a honeypot for the girls who swarmed over Mrs Mullin’s carousel. But more than that, he captures a blustering vulnerability. His Billy is not a bad man, but rather a good man who has done bad things. And rarely is that human characteristic so profoundly displayed as it is here. Vocally of course Henry is a dream. His reprise of If I Loved You is but a warm up for his masterful Soliloquy.

Jessie Mueller likewise is an outstanding Julie Jordan. Mueller’s interpretation of this complex, grounded woman is piercingly profound. Through this performance we can understand how Julie can walk away from the security of her life at the mill, how she can still love Billy even after he hits her. The precision of Mueller’s work is devastating. In the penultimate scene, as she realises in a moment that the star that her daughter has shown her has come from Billy, Mueller rips our hearts open with her craft. And of course, she too is magnificent in full song. If I Loved You is exquisite but when, with Nettie, she sings the portentous What’s the Use of Wond’rin?, she has our heartstrings firmly in her grasp.

Onstage excellence surrounds Mueller and Henry. Renee Fleming’s Nettie is a masterclass in compassion and understanding, her You’ll Never Walk Alone spine-tingling as she supports Julie in her grief. Likewise Lindsay Mendez offers a convincing and beautifully fleshed out friendly foil as Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge. 

O'Brien has cut the comic lift of Enoch Snow’s Geraniums in the Winder, along with Jigger Craigin’s There's Nothin' So Bad for a Woman, making it clear that this interpretation of the musical, albeit with its uplifting finale, is unrelenting in pursuing the story’s underlying tragedy. Both Amar Ramasar and Alexander Gemignani make fine work of Jigger and Craigin respectively notwithstanding that their roles have been trimmed by O’Brien’s scalpel. Setting the tone for the show, a neat touch from O'Brien sees The Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) is given a role of fundamental importance right from the get-go.

This is a heartbreakingly beautiful interpretation of probably the darkest musical to have emerged from Broadway’s Golden Years but, and not unlike The Starkeeper himself, Jack O’Brien has firmly fixed his Carousel in the firmament of 21st century musical theatre.


Booking until September 2018

Josefina Gabrielle talks about Chicago

Sarah Soetaert and Josefina Gabrielle

As Chicago returns to London, I spoke with Josefina Gabrielle who as Velma is sharing the show’s leading credits, about the piece and her career.

Josefina:    Well, it's the longest running American musical. It's been running for 21 years on Broadway and it is wonderful to have it back in the West End. Chicago holds a very dear place in my heart, because I've had so many wonderful experiences with it. And I also have to admit an obsession with it too! Before I’d even saw the show, the original cast album had been a favourite of mine. I love to watch it and I love being in it.

It also has a real international appeal. Not only do theatre lovers come to see the show, but it brings other audiences too. It makes me feel very proud, and Cuba Gooding Jr., by the way, is a diamond. We love him, an absolute superstar. He's a true star - a lovely, warm, funny man and an excellent company leader too. And of course, to work with Ruthie Henshall is a privilege and a dream. I've followed her for years and admired her and we've meet socially on occasions too, but to finally get to work together, and to sing Class with such a classy lady, is a thrill.

JB:    You’re playing Velma but when Chicago was last in town you played Roxie. Tell me about that contrast.

Josefina:    It is terribly interesting, because I played Roxie for the first time, 18 years ago. I went in and out of Chicago on various occasions during its run. I think the last time I was involved as 10 years ago. So now I am Velma watching Roxie, having been Roxie watching Velma.

I suppose, maybe because of who I am now, 18 years later, my Velma certainly feels very grown up. Looking back at Roxie, I felt more sort of twinkly and girlie then. Now I feel more calculating, more of a planner, whereas Roxie didn't really think about consequences. She sort of turns on a six pence and just cleans up as she goes along, whereas Velma is more calculating. 

JB:    You’ve played a number of phenomenal roles in recent years. What have you brought from your experience to date, to add to your take on Velma?

Josefina:    Interestingly and thinking of Merrily We Roll Along from four years ago, I've tapped into Gussie quite a few times. 

JB:    The sexual politics of Chicago take on a different hue post-Weinstein. This production’s publicity shots follow the tradition of presenting Roxie, Velma and here, Mama Morton too, clad in underwear, while Billy Flynn (and Amos) remain fully clothed. How can that styling be explained, today?

Josefina:    I feel that the entire company, men and women, with the exception of Billy and Amos maybe, are owning their life with sexuality and physicality. Fosse is such a very strong, wonderful style of choreography, and we are wearing outfits and costumes that represent that style of the show and its dance.

If you think of any ballet company, any dance company, it's no different. It is a dance and singing and acting show, so you're covering everything, really. I don't feel anyone is being exploited or feeling weak, because of what they're wearing. 

JB:    Tell me your thoughts on performing Kander and Ebb's work. 

Josefina:    My experience with Kander and Ebb and also Rodgers and Hammerstein are that the subjects that they pick are so fascinating and very often ahead of their times. How they portray those subjects, the structure of the shows and the music is just so wonderful, such brilliant numbers, that is it pure, pure entertainment that really sort of picks you up and makes you soar, soar as in fly to the sky.

But when you really think about the message that you're putting across, it is wonderful food for thought of the whole sensationalising criminal behaviour in Chicago. Cabaret with the rise of the Nazis in Berlin. They touch on such fascinating subjects, moving you. And then, when you explore what you've celebrated, it opens your eyes. It's wonderful. 

JB:    I'm glad that you touched upon Rodgers and Hammerstein because the first time that I came across your work was at the National Theatre 20 years ago in Trevor Nunn’s remarkable Oklahoma! What do you mean by those composers being "ahead of their time"?

Josefina:    Well I've done three Rodgers and Hammersteins now. Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I and every time it's an education. It's the birth of a nation in Oklahoma! as that state was just coming into existence. The musical is about the land rush, starting from scratch and setting up communities. That's an entire education on the history of the birth of a state.

The King and I is all about cultural differences. Where you believe yourself to be superior, because you think you know better, but then another culture opens your eyes to your ignorance and you learn from each other. It's always been a wonderful education, and a sort of sense of coming home to, every time I've done a Rodgers and Hammerstein – the material is just so rich. 

JB:    And of course you are one of the few West End leading ladies to have played opposite Hugh Jackman!

Josefina:    Yes. I mean on stage, it's just me, isn't it?

JB:    And now, together with Ruthie Henshall and Sarah Soetaert, you can add Cuba Gooding Jnr to that tally too!


Chicago plays at the Phoenix Theatre and is booking until 6th October.


Photo credit: Tristram Kenton


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

42nd Street - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London


*****


Music by Harry Warren
Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed by Mark Bramble


Clare Halse leads the 42nd Street company

Revisiting 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – and it still remains the finest spectacle of dance to be found in the West End.

Lulu takes over the role of Dorothy Brock, crock, from Sheena Easton – and the show displays one of those rare moments of art imitating life. Wikipedia may disclose Lulu’s age but this review will not. Suffice to say that her days of being a chart-topping pop star were many decades ago – and indeed her last venture onto a West End stage was back in the ‘80s. But actually, that’s what Dorothy Brock is all about. She’s a faded star, long past her best. Lulu’s vocal magic may have slightly faded, but she still has star quality by the bucket load, alongwith a name that’s recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. Producers, Michaels Grade and Linnit are no fools – Lulu will put bums on seats.

And then, of course, there’s that 50-strong(!) company wowing the crowds with their dance. Ashley Day takes over as Billy Lawlor, but while Lulu may top the bill, it is unquestionably Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer who leads the show, with tap-dancing feet that become a blur of brilliance.

42nd Street was fabulous when it opened a year ago. It still is.



Booking until 20th October


Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Wizard of Oz - Review

London Palladium, London



*****


Conducted by Anthony Gabriele





Nearly 80 years after its release, there is not a lot left to say about the wonderful The Wizard Of Oz. A classic movie, beautifully crafted from script through to performance, design, photography, choreography and a legendary score.

Until, that is, one has the privilege of watching the movie on the big screen with the score played live by a 64 strong orchestra under the baton of Anthony Gabriele and Leader Susan Bowran in a screening produced by Ollie Rosenblatt for Senbla, in association with IMG.

We all know the story with its strongly fabled morality and lyrics that are literally enchanting. Gabriele has studied the film meticulously and his conducting his spot on to the frame. A skilled Musical Director will be able to harness live musicians to live actors with a seamless fluidity. But where the action is on screen however, the scope for fluid flexibility and the odd filler-bar here or there is not an option. For 2 hours and 400 pages, Gabriele has to hit his mark with pinpoint precision. And he does. Connecting us with our pasts and our heritage and offering a timeless link to a beautiful history.

Judy Garland et al may be captured, beautifully, in that flickering light beam and one may know the movie thoroughly, but Gabriele truly takes this score over the rainbow. If the gig comes around again, don’t miss it!

Twang!! - Review

Union Theatre, London


***


Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart
Book by Julian Woolford
Directed by Bryan Hodgson


Peter Noden and Kweeva Garvey

Lionel Bart’s Twang!! first aired in London in 1965. The composer who, with his Oliver! had become the first British composer to win a Broadway Tony, died virtually penniless in 1999 and it was some ten years ago that his Estate approached Julian Woolford to work on revising the show’s book, prior to a try-out the Guildford School of Acting where Woolford still teaches.

One of the reasons Bart was to die broke was that he had invested a vast chunk of his fortune into the 1965 show that was to quickly garner the reputation of “the most expensive flop” in West End history and on close inspection it’s hard to discern quite what Woolford has added that might enhance the show’s standing. Loosely based around the story of Robin Hood (played by Peter Noden) and his Merry Men et al, Twang!!’s current iteration threads Bart’s numbers into a story that is as cliched and dated in its style as a Carry On movie - but which lacks the comic genius of the actors who made that particular style of humour a success. 

That being said, there are enough moments here to make for a mildly entertaining evening. Bart’s songs have an infectious Sixties charm that it is almost impossible to trash, while Mitchell Harper’s choreography is impressive and ambitious for the Union’s compact space. There are standout performances from Kweeva Garvey’s Marian (her singing of Bart’s Dream Child and later, Plant A Kiss is exquisite) and also Ed Court, a man who has long impressed as a musician but here delivers a cracking nasty Sir Guy.

For the most part the cast offer up a skilled, enthusiastic set of turns - though they are again hampered by the Union’s singular failure to mic their players.  Notwithstanding any current contentious issues surrounding the “Professionally Made, Professionally Paid’ debate (and this reviewer remains blissfully unaware of how the Union tends to pay their actors) one might nonetheless hope that some of their show's budgets could be deployed on some decent amplification. Maybe one day....

Woolford has scattered references to other famous musicals throughout his rewrite, and West End Wendies in the audience will enjoy playing spot-the-show in the throwaway references. And Twang!! is worth a visit if only if only for a chance to revisit some of Bart’s gems.


Runs until 5th May
Photo credit: Anton Belmonte

Thursday, 12 April 2018

I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical - Review

Live at Zedel, London



***



Written by Alexander S. Bermange
Directed by Paul Foster





For anyone who has sat through the drawn-out spectacle of a musical that just seemed to miss the mark completely, Alexander S. Bermange sympathises with you. From the opening number which promises so much, through to the second half that might feel as though it is dragging on just a bit too long, the audience’s plight is fully acknowledged in this spirited production.

What’s also apparent is that this is a decidedly un-rosy experience for the performers too. For all the contrived joviality and tightly directed cohesion on stage, the polar opposite is going on behind the scenes.

I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical is a satirical exposé of the life of a musical theatre performer, which poking fun at all those involved in a musical (the audience included) while the performers themselves also come to terms with why they endure such an ordeal.

The life of a musical theatre star is not an easy one. Auditioning is a gruelling and thankless task (beautifully communicated by Diana Vickers in her finest moment of the show), but even after getting a part, you could be resigned to waiting in the wings as an understudy to the star who will never willingly relinquish a show. Or you could be forced to contend with an unbearable star, as exquisitely portrayed by Suzie Mathers in The Diva Is Here. You may even end up with a stalker, before eventually becoming a teacher. The stories are all grounded in reality but layered with a healthy dose of comedy.

The cast of five - which includes Bermange on the piano, acting as narrator and an ensemble actor who longs to be recognised in his own right - is well assembled, with Oliver Savile and Liam Tamne rounding out the group. Strong vocals and on-stage chemistry means they are a delight to watch. Mathers and Savile are outstanding in their own rights, but even better together and no doubt this comes as a result of being reunited in their third production together.

Throughout however, it is apparent that rehearsal time was lacking; while the songs are broadly on point, the dialogue between numbers is rushed and often delivered off cue cards. This is a shame, since the material is sharp, creative and fiery and appropriately mirroring the energy levels that exist across a performer’s career, which gradually peters out.

Hopefully with time, the delivery will do the piece justice. Until then it remains a highly enjoyable evening and one which will no doubt give the audience a new perspective on the next musical they see.


Runs until 15 April, and then 19 April
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

An Evening With Jason Robert Brown - Review

London Palladium



****

Jason Robert Brown

A packed Palladium saw Jason Robert Brown, supported by the lush BBC Concert Orchestra and the composer’s own rhythm section record a Friday Night Is Music Night show for future broadcast. The music was grand and with the stunning talents of Betsy Wolfe and Norm Lewis also flown in specially from Broadway to join the British Isle’s very own Rachel Tucker, the vocal talent was top notch too.

The evening was a pot-pourri drawn from across a range of Brown’s shows - and whilst he may have amassed a couple of Tonys to date, it was with a self-deprecating charm that Brown introduced Tucker’s take on Stars And The Moon from the Songs For A New World song-cycle, as a “medley of my greatest hit”, a wry acknowledgement of the Broadway commercial success that has so far eluded him.

Wolfe and Lewis were the evening’s vocal stars, Lewis wowing the crowd with his Elvis-infused Higher Love (from Honeymoon In Vegas, a show that carries whispers of a possible West End stint) and Wolfe bringing the audience to their feet in rapturous applause with her unsurpassed interpretation of I Can Do Better Than That from The Last Five Years. It remains an interesting comment that both that number and Stars And The Moon, both of which are quite possibly Brown’s most famous songs are singularly about, even if not drawn from the writer’s experience, female aspiration. From this reviewer’s perspective one cannot comment upon the perception of Brown’s writing - other than to mark this tiny trend and the remarkable popularity of both songs.

Brown’s first modestly major Broadway show, Parade, got a look in with the writer himself singing The Old Red Hills Of Home and commenting to the audience how much he relished the opportunity to return to the production’s original lavish, Broadway orchestrations. Having seen numerous Parades, each staged in a modestly-budgeted fringe venue, that score in particular works best when delivered away from the luxury of a fully stringed 60 piece ensemble, the beautiful brutality of Brown’s work remaining best played by a small, tightly structured band, with the striking, punching percussive staccato of the opening drum-beat lending itself to the chilling echoes of the Conferederate marching band it suggests. The Palladium gig may have offered up a useful comparison for sure. But a fully orchestrated Parade? No thanks.

The music was perfect throughout under Larry Blank’s baton. Brown added a suite of suites to the set list for good measure and with Tucker spectacularly flying home to Flying Home at the close, the Radio 2 audience are unlikely to be disappointed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Sunset Boulevard - Review

New Wimbledon Theatre, London


*****


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Nikolai Foster



Ria Jones
It is a delight to return to this award-winning production of Sunset Boulevard as its week-long residency in Wimbledon brings it the closest to central London that its touring licence (which has already included venues in Italy and Holland) will allow.

Directed by the Curve’s Nikolai Foster, at its Leicester launch last September (for my review of that opening night see the foot of this page) the show was nigh-on perfect. Seeing the production some seven months on reveals that not only have this outstanding company gelled, but also how some of the cast have matured into their roles.

A packed house at the New Wimbledon Theatre rose as one to salute Ria Jones’ bow and with good reason. Jones remains magnificent, her definitive, decaying diva capturing Norma Desmond’s long-faded Hollywood majesty. Notwithstanding her remarkable association with the role (remember that she created it for Lloyd-Webber as he trialled the show, nearly ten-thousand midnights ago, at his Sydmonton Festival) Jones’ performance now reveals a greater depth to Desmond’s tragedy. Free of the distractions of movie mega-stardom that surrounded the show’s most recent Norma in both London and on Broadway, Jones’ portrayal of Desmond’s shattered mind stands only on its sheer artistic beauty. Her voice thrills, while her acting breaks our hearts. Ria Jones’ Norma Desmond has to be one of the finest musical theatre creations of the decade.

As Joe Gillis, Danny Mac now brings a fully formed wry, sardonic swagger to the part that completes his character. Billy Wilder’s original story (and if you haven’t yet watched the 1950 movie, it’s a must see) was a noir-satire, driven by Gillis’ narration. William Holden nailed the caustic hack on screen and Mac, now, displays a craft that truly inhabits Wilder’s writer. Gillis’ is a complex journey, with Mac convincing us of his ultimately irresistible charm to the young script editor Betty Schaefer and indeed, his love for her in return. 

On an interesting side issue, since September the #MeToo issue has exploded into our collective conscience. In a perceptive interview published late last year in her native Ireland, Molly Lynch (Schaefer in the show) referenced her understanding of the role to comment on an entertainment industry that had remained “toxic, negative and very difficult for women”. Considering the sexual politics that drive the show’s undercurrent - that of a 50 year old star desperately seeking the desirable glamour that she possessed some 30 years previously – one has to acknowledge that the industry’s ugliness and moral vacuity, only now in the headlines, has actually existed since the cameras first turned.

Thankfully Lynch’s vocal and stage presence is as en-pointe as her analysis. Wilder may have created Schaefer with an essential, if simple, 2-dimensionality. Lynch however, as reviewed back in September, delivers the role in a perfect support to the story.

Adam Pearce’s Max, the keeper not only of the flame, but also, perhaps, of one of the tale’s darkest secrets likewise retains his beautifully sonorous boom. As the audience still gasps at his devastating revelation late into the second half, there is a heartbreaking sensitivity to the devotion Pearce’s manservant shows to Norma.

The creatives here have always been top-notch. Lee Proud’s choreography lends an ingenious slickness to the onstage movement. Not just in the exciting ensemble numbers, but also in a gorgeous tango performed by Jones and Mac to The Perfect Year.

My September review omitted referencing Douglas O’Connell’s imaginative projection work that well supports Colin Richmond’s ingenious design. Likewise Ben Cracknell’s lighting work. Above all, a nod to Adrian Kirk in the pit, whose 14 piece orchestra brings a symphonic texture to Lloyd-Webber’s sumptuous score.

The tour is entering its final weeks and there’s only a few days left to catch it here in south west London. As Norma says to Joe: Now Go!


Runs at New Wimbledon Theatre until 14th April, then touring to the end of the month

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan





Sunset Boulevard at Leicester - First published in September 2017

There is a magic that pervades Nikolai Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard and it flows from leading lady Ria Jones. 26 years after creating the role of Norma Desmond for Andrew Lloyd Webber at the composer’s Sydmonton Festival, Jones now leads the show and never has a casting been more perfect.

Some might argue that a quarter of a century ago she was too young to play Billy Wilder’s middle aged silent movie starlet. A 1920s screen goddess who with the arrival of the “talkies” was to lose first, her 30-million strong fan base and then, her mind. What is beyond question however is that Jones now owns the role, bringing a vocal excellence and power to Norma Desmond that has not been seen for decades. 

Rarely is a character created that is as magnificent, terrifying and ultimately tragic as Desmond and in playing her Jones, who has spent years preparing for the role, delivers what has to be one of the most sensational performances to be seen this year. Her take on With One Look, early on in the show as the narrative starts to unfold, drips with a thrilling energy, alongside pathos that reduces the audience to tears. Jones’ second half stunner, As If We Never Said Goodbye, proves another spine-tingler, wowing the packed Curve auditorium as she defines Desmond’s devastating decline. And in the finale, when it has all gone so horribly wrong and Jones, grotesquely made up, advances on a newsreel camera “ready for her close up”, the audience is floored. 

Several relationships flow through the show. Danny Mac plays writer Joe Gillis, over whom Desmond becomes dangerously obsessed. Mac delivers a powerful presence and style in the role. Elsewhere, Wilder sketched out love from Desmond’s devoted butler Max Von Meyerling and, on the Paramount lot, from the youthful script editor Betty Schaefer who finds herself falling for Gillis.

Adam Pearce’s Von Meyerling is a bald-headed booming monolith, bearing the most complex, tortuous and yet sensitive of loves. Pearce brings a vocal resonance that is as imposing as it is delicate – his take on The Greatest Star Of All is just gorgeous.

As Schaefer, Molly Lynch makes fine work of a delicious Billy Wilder creation. Her love for Gillis is pure film- noir, with Lynch bringing a gorgeously all American cliché to her performance, aspects of her work suggesting the vitality of a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. Lovely stuff and so beautifully sung too, Lynch’s career is already on an impressive trajectory.

If there’s a minor niggle it’s that the two old hands at Paramount (Jonesey and Hog Eye) who recognise Desmond on her return to the studios, should ideally be played by men in their fifties rather than Foster’s two youthful (albeit very able) lads from his ensemble. Carl Sanderson however as Cecil B. De Mille is spot on in his cameo of the old and wise director who must sensitively grapple with Desmond’s mental decline.

Planned to tour from the outset, all credit to the Curve’s co-producers Michael Harrison and David Ian for boldly creating such a lavish experience, and to the show’s creatives for their ingeniously transportable work. Lee Proud’s choreography is enchanting, while Colin Richmond’s design work, (enhanced by Ben Cracknell’s lighting) makes fine use of projections, screens and the hangar doors of a Paramount sound stage to convincingly create a 1950s Hollywood.

Adrian Kirk's lavish 17 piece orchestra give Lloyd Webber's score a sumptuous treatment, but understand this. In 2017, it is Ria Jones who is making Sunset Boulevard unmissable.  Back as Norma Desmond, it’s as if she never said goodbye.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Devil With The Blue Dress - Review

The Bunker, London



***


Written by Kevin Armento 
Directed by Joshua McTaggart


Daniella Isaacs and Flora Montgomery

All too frequently, political scandals have the ingredients of a telenovela - heroes, villains, power, sex, blackmail and a healthy dose of the incredulous. Even more commonly, they are named for the men at their centre. That is, with the exception of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the namesake of which - in this dramatisation of the affair and its surrounding cause and effects – accuses Hillary Clinton, America’s First Lady and wife of the then US President Bill Clinton, of making sure that everyone knew Lewinsky’s name, in the hope of minimising the political damage to the Clinton moniker and ultimately, her career. 

There are two things of particular note. Firstly, in this interpretation, Hillary (Flora Montgomery) is placed firmly at the centre, simultaneously acting as a by-stander, a victim and a shrewd political operator and questions the real value of her gamble. Secondly, while this is an all-female play that explores the characters’ complexities through their relationships with the President and with each other, it misses the mark on its examination, arguably providing very few authentic insights into the way women really work. Alongside this, the audience will find it very difficult to dismiss a comparison with the current Administration and its extraordinary ability to swerve any blow of this dimension or potentially, even larger.

The setup is, in principle, very clever. Set in Hillary’s memories of that time, we see five characters expose their different relationships with Bill.  Four of them know him personally: the wife; daughter; mistress and the long-serving secretary, Betty. The fifth is an observer from a Republican standpoint but is revealed to be more than that as Lewinsky’s friend and confidante Linda Tripp. 

Bill makes regular appearances, with the actors playing Chelsea (Kristy Philipps), Betty (Dawn Hope) and Linda (Emma Handy) taking on this role in turn. They make a great cast who execute a fast-paced script very well. Monica (Daniella Isaacs) is magnetic but it is Philipps’ ability to flit between playing Chelsea and Bill with astonishing believability that makes for a standout performance. Special mention too to saxophonist Tashomi Balfour, who succeeds in amplifying the murky, seedy and fiery emotions played out on stage.

Devil With The Blue Dress promises a deconstruction of the societal response to women seeking power and the men that abuse their trust, but instead feels more like a commentary on the fallibility of people as witnesses. Is anyone’s testimony truly evidence? How much more weight is given to the hard evidence, such as titular blue dress?

While the play’s premise may be ambitious, it rarely manages to pack a punch. The source material and melodramatic tendencies are all there - indeed it comes across as a very well-researched piece - but it feels as though emphasis is being erroneously placed on the execution, rather than upon the story itself. 

Yet the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal - as this reviewer is now describing it - has a pressing relevance for today’s audience and with its talented cast, Devil With The Blue Dress will no doubt have a good run.


Runs until 28th April
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Pressure - Review

Park Theatre, London


*****


Written by David Haig
Directed by John Dove


David Haig

First seen in Edinburgh and Chichester in 2014, David Haig’s acclaimed Pressure finally arrives at London’s Park Theatre where it runs for a month or so before heading in to the West End for a well deserved transfer. Haig leads the cast too, in a magnificent performance as Group Captain James Stagg, the meteorologist responsible for forecasting the June 1944 weather in the days leading up to D-Day.

Rarely is a drama so ingeniously titled. Not only is the audience on the edge of their seats as they learn the rudiments of isobars, millibars and anticyclones, the play also reflects the human pressures that pound the cast, much like the unseasonably fierce storm that Stagg predicted would hit the English Channel on June 4th and 5th and which led to, on his advice, the postponement of D-Day to the (now memorialised) date of June 6th.

Haig’s scripts have already displayed an uncanny ability to depict the humanity in our history and he does it again here. Stagg is a dour Scot, principled and meticulous and beautifully contrasted with his US counterpart, Philip Cairns’ Colonel Krick. The Yank is a slickly greased all-American quarter-back who’s brash and arrogant and, every inch, ‘over here’. The contrast between Jock and jock could not be more pronounced. 

The dialogue is so sweetly crafted too. When Stagg is being pressed for his forecast he exclaims “I’m a scientist, not a gambler!” – a powerful comparison, only heightened by the stakes that surrounded the Normandy landings being nothing short of existential. Stagg’s personal pressures are compounded by a concern for his (off-stage) pregnant wife who faces a risky and complicated confinement, while he too is confined to his weather room by the War Office.

But it is more than Stagg’s battles that make this such a stunning piece of writing. In close support of Haig are Malcolm Sinclair’s General Eisenhower and Laura Rogers’ Kay Summersby, the British adjutant assigned to Ike during his posting in Britain to plan Operation Overlord. Both Sinclair and Rogers created their roles back in 2014 and it shows.

Where Stagg (before this play) was one of history’s unsung heroes, Eisenhower has long been famed as a legendary General - and Sinclair’s interpretation of the man is one of the finest supporting performances to be found. Together with Haig (and director John Dove) Sinclair unlocks the enigma of military greatness, showing not only the pragmatism and steely resolve required in a leader, but also a heart capable of the most profound compassion. When Eisenhower speaks of having quietly visited the 101st Airborne Division the night before the landings, to wish “his boys” good luck in the face of possible death, the emotion in his words is as tangible as it is sincere. Beautiful stuff.

And then there’s Summersby who’s support and devotion for Eisenhower has clearly crossed the parameters of the military covenant, leading her to become the General’s lover and rarely is love defined so exquisitely (think perhaps of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter). This pair’s passions may have been consummated, but Summersby’s devastation on being ruthlessly discarded by Ike, as he leaves Britain to continue his military campaign on the continent, is a work of magnificence from Rogers.

Colin Richmond’s subtle yet brilliant set, all Bakelite phones and massive weather charts depicting the Atlantic storms, alongside Philip Pinsky’s sound design, serve perfectly to create the play’s time and place. 

There is something magical about Haig’s carefully researched script, with a text that could almost be a paean to the British climate. Stagg’s description of a typical summer’s day on a south coast beach, in which all four seasons can easily expect to be encountered, and which leaves the incredulous Krick dumbfounded, had the audience chuckling at its recognisable familiarity.

Pressure is an unmissably beautiful piece of theatre.


Runs until 28th April
Then plays at the Ambassadors Theatre, London from  6th June to 1st September

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Ruthless! - Review

Arts Theatre, London


***


Music by Marvin Laird
Lyrics and book by Joel Paley
Directed by Richard Fitch


Kim Maresca and Tracie Bennett

Ruthless! is a satirical take on the vicious and blood thirsty showbusiness world of musical theatre. Premiering off-Broadway back in 1992, its earliest production was to kick-start the careers (as understudies) of both Natalie Portman and Britney Spears.

The story tells of eight-year-old Tina Denmark aspiring to stardom and dreaming of Broadway, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, even if that means taking out the competition completely in a tale that becomes a camped-up, hammed-up combination of plot twists and melodrama. The book is undoubtedly clunky and occasional one liners miss the mark, but in a piece where reality is so warped, nothing ever really seems quite normal. Richard Fitch's direction however serves to highlight Joel Paley's exaggerated text and allows the actors room to play with their oversized characters. 

Kim Maresca is Judy, Tina's mother, offering up the perfect depiction of a 1950's housewife. Mareca’s comic timing is impeccable and her soprano that occasionally creeps in, despite proclaiming repeatedly that she’s talentless, is stunning.  Regardless of her having played the role before off-Broadway, this portrayal feels fresh and makes Maresca the star of the show. 

With only a handful of appearances Tracie Bennett retains her scene-stealing knack. Her interpretation of Lita, the show-tune hating theatre critic is a gem, while her number I Hate Musicals, incorporating endless references to shows of days gone by is a scream. Jason Gardiner delivers a pleasant surprise as Tina's success hungry agent, Sylvia St Croix. In drag and and rocking a fair few pairs of heels, Gardiner unveils a rich sounding baritone and a sassy Liza Minelli-esque persona on stage that blends perfectly with the story’s insanity.

Of the four child performers cast as Tina, Anya Evans was in the role on the night of this review. Experienced already, Evans is a young actress with a control to her voice that is well beyond her years. She’s also a gifted dancer and, much like her on stage mother, has excellent comic timing alongside an ability to gauge audience reaction.

Musical direction from Simon Beck adds colour to the piece with a "big Broadway" feel to Marvin Laird's numbers making the score exciting. The show has been impressively cast, with a company whose voices and performances are well suited to the style.

Ruthless! will be best savoured with a large gin alongside a generous pinch of salt. Excellently performed, it makes for a fun night at the theatre.


Runs until 23rd June
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Friday, 23 March 2018

Assassins - Review

Pleasance Theatre, London


**


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Louise Bakker

UPDATE - Since this review was published, Louise Bakker has made a change to the show's finale that significantly reduces the political skew referred to below



The cast in rehearsal
Done well, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a work of political beauty, offering up a delirium of perspectives upon the assassins and would-be assassins who over the USA’s recent centuries have fixed a serving President in their sights.

Done badly, however and it becomes an interval-free tedium. Notwithstanding some occasional strong performances from its cast of ten (many of whom are badly let down by appalling sound balancing), Louise Bakker’s production values are shoddy from the outset, with her politically skewed finale proving a nadir of naive and clumsy disappointment.

Jordan Clarke’s band however are outstanding, and the 2 stars awarded by this review are for his quintet. See this show if you enjoy listening to Sondheim’s music played superbly. Otherwise, avoid.


Runs until 8th April

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Macbeth at the RSC - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


****

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay


Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack lead a stylishly novel Macbeth that is likely to divide opinions. Set in modern times, Eccleston’s troubled Thane is palpably bewitched by the thought of gaining Scotland’s crown from the moment he first encounters the weird sisters. Eccleston captures the self-doubt and vacillation that ebbs away at Macbeth’s journeys both to and on the throne, delivering a clear interpretation of the fundamental flaws that corrode his character, from the moment he commits regicide until he in turn falls victim to it. The theme of time and moments is a strong pulse through the story of Macbeth and in this show, from Duncan's slaughter, an onstage digital clock counts the seconds down over a precisely measured two hours until Macbeth's death.

Eccleston may be good, but Cusack is sensational. Unsexed perhaps, early in Act One, but Cusack oozes a provocative, venomous sensuality throughout the first half that reminds one of a young Helen Mirren. Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies are amongst the play’s most powerful and Cusack dances through the verse. She is a joy to watch throughout – with her decline towards insanity sensitively and convincingly played out. A nod too for Fly Davis’ costume work on Lady M. Her couture (again, in the first half) is stunning and as a real life royal wedding looms, Davis’ dresses model a gorgeous contemporary chic, befitting British royalty in the 21st century.

Stanley Kubrick never made a film of Macbeth, but there are suggestions that Polly Findlay is doffing her cap firmly in the direction of Kubrick’s The Shining with this Stratford production. Remember those spooky twin girls in the Overlook Hotel’s elevator? Findlay has three primary school girls play her Witches and it’s an inspired decision. The lucky trio who scored the show’s press night were Elizabeth Kaleniuk, Aleksandra Penlington and Abigail Walter, all bringing a chilling sense of evil innocence to the plot’s infernal complexity. And then there’s the Porter, who’s usually confined to moments of comic relief after Duncan’s death. Here Findlay has him on stage virtually throughout, with Michael Hodgson imbuing this minor character with a further degree of supernatural wickedness and bearing an uncanny presence to Lloyd, The Shining’s bartender.

For the most part there is sound work in Findlay’s company, but some arrows fail to hit their mark. Edward Bennett’s Macduff offers a well crafted glance into grief as he learns of his family’s slaughter, but is too patrician and plummy to convince of his capacity for earthy, bloody vengeance. Likewise, more could be made of Raphael Sowole’s Banquo.

This is a modern, minimalist Macbeth (and one in which Lady M brilliantly uses a water cooler to help remove the damned spot). A glassed in raised platform offers glimpses of Glamis' privileged chatterati that could be straight out of The Ivy’s private dining room – while for those in the audience who may be struggling to keep up with the play’s themes. Findlay/Davis quirkily project key quotes from the text onto a screen above the performance space. The chosen words are not so much surtitles as potential essay titles, but with the text again forming a part of GCSE syllabi, there are likely to be many (secondary) school children in future audiences who will appreciate the gesture.

An imaginatively staged take on “the Scottish play” which, in its leading roles, is stunningly performed. All in all a bloody, good, Macbeth.


Where you can see Macbeth
Runs in Stratford upon Avon until 18th September 2018
Runs at the Barbican Theatre, London from 15th October 2018 until 18th January 2019
Broadcast live in cinemas on 11th April 2018

Photo credit Paul Stuart (c) RSC