Monday, 18 June 2018

Accidental Feminist - Review

Above The Arts, London


Kira Morsley

At London’s Above the Arts Theatre and for one night only, Kira Morsley was on top form during her solo cabaret show, telling a packed audience of how she accidentally became a feminist.

The Offie-nominated vocal powerhouse took to the stage for over an hour, delighting with anecdotes from her childhood growing up in Australia, of being bullied, working in an industry where image is important, and her experiences of being a woman. Now she’s a feminist who takes pride in her appearance, who loved both My Little Pony and Transformers as a child and didn’t realise there were differences between men and women (besides the obvious) until she was in her teens.

Accompanied by musical director Rhiannon Drake on keyboard, Morsley’s song choices neatly accompanied her tales and featured a number of showtunes including There Are Worse Things I Could Do from Grease; Little Known Facts from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (used to describe “mansplaining”) and amusingly The Internet Is For Porn from Avenue Q, to reinforce how the media defines what is considered sexy. She also took inspiration from Sara Bareilles, performing King Of Anything and the inspiring Brave.

A highlight of the evening was Waving Through a Window from Dear Evan Hansen, performed so beautifully and emotively that the audience were in need of the interval that followed to compose themselves. Morsley was pitch perfect throughout the show and it is clear to see that she belongs on stage.

“Women are speaking out and we’re actually getting heard,” Morsley said towards the end of her performance. And while the show was for the most part very well directed by Geri Allen, it might perhaps have benefited from a few more anecdotes from Morsley's life and her actual experiences with feminism. 

The evening was inspirational, seeing a successful production from a woman who is clearly comfortable in her own skin.Having once wanted to be a surgeon, Morsley admitted that that choice would have led her into a predominantly male profession. Thankfully, what might have been the world of medicine’s loss has been musical theatre’s gain.

Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington

Sunday, 17 June 2018

It's Only Life - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by John Bucchino
Conceived by Daisy Prince and John Bucchino
Directed by Tania Azevedo

The cast of It's Only Life

What happens if you throw together 23 songs, five musical theatre performers, a pianist, and tons of colour? The answer is It’s Only Life, a musical review based on several ‘orphan songs’ (John Bucchino’s own description) interwoven to create a fun production about love and life. With the American songwriter’s work having been performed by numerous stars of stage and screen, including Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli and Art Garfunkel, It’s Only Life was assembled in 2004 to tie this collection of music and lyrics together within a framework that provides context and a semblance of narrative.

The result is a firmly entertaining showcase put on through excellent casting and an outstanding ensemble. The cast of five have a genuine chemistry that shines through a polished veneer. Tight choreography and blended vocals are coupled well with complementary set and lighting design. As the cast weave in and out of different characters and dynamics, emotions and energy levels, with each number bringing a distinct identify to the stage, the Union Theatre’s compact railway arch location amplifies the sense of intimacy created by the score.

Under Nick Barstow’s direction, the music is beautifully delivered, but more impressive is his ability to deliver on the piano throughout the performance with increasing fervour and bite. The score is challenging, and the influence of Sondheim (cited on several occasions throughout) is more than evident. Bucchino’s compositions are demanding, fast paced and smart, holding the performers to a high level of accountability, which they achieve admirably. 

Yet it takes a while to get going. While the first half is enjoyable, the quality and energy of deliver is noticeably supercharged after the interval, bringing the production to a roaring crescendo. The most memorable numbers either have heart or humour - or in some cases both - such as On My Bedside Table (Will Carey), This Moment (Sammy Graham) and I’ve Learned To Let Things Go (Jennifer Harding).

It’s all very sweet, if not just a tad too sickly towards the end, when the message about simply enjoying life gets laid on a bit too enthusiastically, free of any subtleties. There’s also a bit of audience participation which, despite its best intentions, feels slightly disjointed and overall unnecessary.

Nonetheless, this remains a delightfully poignant evening that imbues a buoyancy and zest for life.

Runs until 7th July
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday, 11 June 2018

Julie - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Polly Stenham after Strindberg
Directed by Carrie Cracknell

Eric Kofi Abrefa and Vanessa Kirby

Polly Stenham’s Strindberg straddles the centuries as she translates Miss Julie from 1800s Scandinavia to a modern-day mansion on the fringes of Hampstead Heath. Retaining the original's core themes, this iteration finds the eponymous Julie as the privileged, entitled daughter of an ever-absent millionaire father and a mother who committed suicide during her childhood. The show opened in London last week, not long after the tragic news had been reported of two millionaire celebrities apparently taking their own lives - Strindberg’s commentary on the depressive loneliness that can reach into the elite’s gilded cages is resonant and timely. 

Vanessa Kirby is Julie. Deemed as irresponsible - her personal fortune locked away in trust funds – she is a woman in her 30s who has never been allowed to mature. She glitters on the surface but there is a gaping hole in her deserted soul and like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, her parties are attended by nameless people whose connections are devoid of care or compassion for their hostess.

Jean is Julie’s father’s chauffeur who’s also on duty as the hired muscle to keep the house free from being trashed during Julie's birthday celebrations. Eric Kofi Abrefa's Jean drives the play’s tragic arc as he smoulders with a credible, irresistible  attractiveness.

Completing the triangle of devastation is Thalissa Teixeira’s Kristina, Jean’s fiancee. Her finely nuanced grief, upon discovering her betrayal by her betrothed, is truly heartbreaking. 

The one act play runs just short of ninety minutes, brevity, as it transpires, that is much appreciated. As director Carrie Cracknell opts for style over substance, her production could well set the august Strindberg spinning in his grave. In an almost mirror image of the amorality of Julie’s casual affluence, the play drips with theatrical opulence that smaller theatre companies will only look at and marvel. The National Theatre have cast 20 (20!)  non-speaking partygoers in addition to the trio of protagonists, actors who spend nearly all of the show offstage. Likewise designer Tom Scutt’s trompe-l’oeil in the final scene is so lavish as to detract from Strindberg’s originally conceived harrowing denouement.

There is a very gory moment late on involving a food processor. Such is the extent of that violent incident (clearly and evidently a special effect) that many of the audience are moved to laugh out loud at its gratuitous excess - and in an instant the tragic drama of the moment is lost. If ever there was a production that proves “less is more” then this is it, such is the opportunity squandered amidst such budgetary extravagance.

But the tenets of the tale remain, as Stenham assuredly illustrates the complexities of power, wealth, race and gender. Julie may well be far from a definitive interpretation of Strindberg's classic, but nonetheless makes for an evening of thought-provoking theatre.

Runs until 8th September
Photo credit: Richard H Smith

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Return To The Forbidden Planet - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Music and lyrics by various artists
Book by Bob Carlton
Directed by John Plews

Simon Oskarsson and company

In what is the first staging of Return To The Forbidden Planet since the death of its creator Bob Carlton, John Plews has put together a production that captures the show’s irreverent spirit. It was Carlton who on watching the 1950s B-Movie Forbidden Planet, first spied the potential to create a trinity of cultural fusion – blending cliched Hollywood not only with Shakespeare, but with rock and roll too. 

In a story that is (very, very) loosely connected to The Tempest, Carlton threw into the pot every hackneyed Shakespearean quote, and then some more, together with some of the strongest songs from 50 and 60 years ago, resulting in an evening of unpretentious fun delivered by a company of actor-musicians.

With the Gatehouse configured in its compact traverse arrangement, simple scenic constructions suggest the spaceship Albatross upon which the action plays out. The plot is beyond credible description, though in all honesty no-one really cares as the corny links serve only as filler between each eagerly awaited number.

Plews’ cast is, for the most part, youthful - and it shows. For Return To The Forbidden Planet to really work, every vocal soloist needs to step out of their musical theatre training and immerse themselves in the persona of a guitar-smashing rock star. These songs were written for rock gigs, not seated sedentary sexagenarians – so when health and safety (and quite possibly a few doctors’ orders too) keep the Highgate audience firmly seated, it becomes beholden upon the cast to make the songs soar. To be fair, there are some glimpses of excellence amongst Plews’ company: Edward Hole’s Cookie gives a blistering take on She’s Not There complete with awesome guitar riff; Ellie Ann Lowe’s entrance and vocals as Gloria (and wow, those boots too!) are a cracker, while third year Arts Ed student Simon Oskarsson offers up a robotic Ariel that has to be seen to be believed, such is this young man’s impressive talent. (Has Arts Ed lecturer Mark Shenton been teaching him the moves?) A nod too for David Persiva's powerful percussion delivered from a lofty drum kit, that drives the show's tempo.

Its grins and tapping feet throughout, as Return To The Forbidden Planet’s return to the Gatehouse makes for a grand night out.

Runs until 17th June
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Killer Joe - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Simon Evans

Orlando Bloom

Arguably, the revival of a 25 year-old script is done for one of two reasons; either its excellent writing simply entertains, or it is pertinent to today’s societal trends. With Killer Joe, the rationale is unclear. Billed as a blackly comic thriller, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing at times, before switching into an almost farce that can surely not be the intended effect.

The titular Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom) is a detective by day and contract killer by night. Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) and his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) hatch a scheme to hire Joe to shoot Adele (Chris’ mother and Ansel’s ex-wife) and then cash in on her life insurance. Texan to his core and complete with cowboy hat, Joe wreaks havoc within the Smith family before even stepping inside their home.

Although it is Joe who sets the course for the tale, the story’s real focus is Chris’ sister Dottie (Sophie Cookson), an innocent twenty year old taken by the hitman as a retainer pending the life insurance payout. Ownership, agency and inequality are the dominant themes in the play, with the three intersecting most powerfully in the pawn-like Dottie. Cookson is found to be consistently captivating as she captures a young woman transitioning into adulthood.

Bloom unquestionably brings star power to the stage but it appears to takes him some time to get comfortable as Joe. During the second half however he comes more into his own, unleashing the dreadful power that has been quietly simmering below the surface. Elsewhere, Rhodri quietly shines, oscillating seamlessly between disinterest, flippancy and pain.

The other star of the show is its formidable creative trinity as sound, lighting and set designers conjoin to great effect. As a trailer park is neatly transposed on to the stage, the focal point of Grace Smart’s spectacular set is the Smith family home with an impressive depth and attention to detail that suggests authenticity throughout. Edward Lewis’ score and sound design complements the other elements of this production, despite its very occasional tendency to veer towards melodrama. Richard Howell’s lighting design is flashy (often quite literally) and precise.

Yet for all of this production's technical excellence Tracy Letts’ message remains unclear, with the onstage abuse of power proving to be as discomforting as it sounds. Even more jarring is the audience's laughter at such abuse. As today's headlines focus on morality and exploitation, it is hard to reconcile a truly menacing threat (even in dramatic fiction) being viewed as humour - and it is equally difficult to couch Killer Joe as either entertainment or art.

Runs until 18th August
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Translations - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ian Rickson

Colin Morgan

The National Theatre presents a gorgeous revival of Brian Friel’s Translations, a sweet play set in the wee parish of Baile Beag, Ireland, in 1830, just before the infamous potato famine and during the Anglicisation on the country. The plentiful foresight and the vibrant exploration of the beauty and challenges of language make it a play to catch this summer. Ian Rickson directs, with language quite rightly at the forefront, as Irish and English characters come to wordy blows with Colin Morgan’s Owen translating between the tongues. With most of the spoken Irish translated, it is left to the performers to make it abundantly clear just who has understood what, and to drive the play’s plentiful humour home. 

Owen, a worldly character for the time having lived six years in Dublin, returns home to a village that quite simply has not changed at all.  (Itself a sensation shared, quite possibly,  by every Londoner in the audience who heads “home” to rural parts every few months). He brings with him two British military cartographers, the uptight Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) and the more fanciful Lieutenant George Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Yolland is the typical Englishman abroad - incapable of handling his drink and immediately setting his sights on the local female talent, going on to create an unlikely corner of a love triangle with Owen’s lame brother Manus (a gentle portrayal from Seamus O’Hara) and the impressively ambitious Maire, played by Judith Roddy. With eyes on a boat across the Atlantic, Maire's wish is to escape calloused hands at the next harvest.

The two officers have come to survey the land for the six-inch-to-the-mile map being drawn up, and in so doing to Anglicise the renaming of local landmarks and disrupting the blissful peace of the locale. The brothers’ father is the drunken scholar and teacher Hugh, portrayed gruffly by CiarĂ¡n Hinds, who spends most of the play trading Greek poetry and myths with Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack Cassie who steals the show with a tearful confession towards the end of the second act.

Translations’ designs are by Rae Smith, herself theatre’s go-to rural scenescape guru of the moment, having only just created the shattered idyll for the Bridge Theatre’s Nightfall a mile or so down the Thames. Smith's designs clearly evoke the countryside's delightful chaos, suggesting  world that is akin to intruding upon a remote local pub in the middle of nowhere. A place where there are in-jokes and relationships only born out of  those who’ve known each other throughout their lives. Uplit lighting by National regular Neil Austin and violin filled morose sound by Ian Dickinson complete the eerie, mist-filled staging. 

It is rare to find a show so good-natured and yet ominous and academic, all at the same time. Come for the raucous humour by the comedy pairings of Aoife Duffin’s Bridget and Laurence Kinlan’s Doalty. Stay for the dramatic, dirty colonialism and the lesson in the pros and cons of multilingualism. Beautiful and daring, go see it.

Runs until 11th August
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

The Rink - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Adam Lenson

Gemma Sutton and Caroline O'Connor

To read my fascinating interview with Caroline O'Connor, in which she talks about leaving Broadway to return to The Rink after 30 years, click here

The Rink, now on at the Southwark Playhouse for a month, is one of those shows that defines the beautiful potential of London’s off-West End theatre scene. A little known musical from giants Kander and Ebb, its first outing in the capital some thirty years ago was to be sadly short-lived. Here however, amidst Southwark’s humble thrust and away from the multi-million pound expectations of the mainstream commercial sector, there is an opportunity for this glitter-ball of a show to spin and sparkle.

With faint echoes of Sondheim’s Follies and just a hint of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel too, the action plays out in a dilapidated roller coaster rink somewhere on America’s eastern seaboard. Anna Antonelli is selling the place that has been a family heirloom for generations and as the removals team arrive to clear away the decades of detritus amassed over the years, so too does daughter Angel, estranged from her mother for the past 7 years. Kander and Ebb are masters of applying perceptive wit to life’s humdrum highs and lows that define the human condition, and over the course of just one day The Rink’s narrative explores, through a series of flashbacked vignettes, these two women’s stories.

Skating across the decades, Caroline O’Connor and Gemma Sutton are mother and daughter respectively. Both performers at the top of their game, the pair bring vocal magnificence combined with an acting ability in both word and song, that can convey the subtlest of messages, with the finely nuanced denouement of the final act proving a masterclass from both. O’Connor’s casting adds a further sparkle to the show. Thirty years ago she was one of London’s earliest Angels and this return across the Atlantic, from Broadway’s Anastasia to the modesty of London’s fringe, is an artistic commitment not often seen in today’s hardened money-driven world. O’Connor has a personal heritage that draws on Ireland, England and Australia - but witness her Anna Antonelli and one could swear she’s got Italian DNA too, such is her mastery of the passion and quick one-liners that define her character’s robust resilience.

Six men make up a supporting ensemble - dipping in and out of roles as needed. They are all magnificent and convincing. Stewart Clarke shines as Anna’s long lost husband Dino and there are equally gorgeous turns from a patriarchal Ross Dawes and Ben Redfern as Lenny, a kindly nebbish who’s held a candle for Anna since they were both kids.

Producers Jack Maple and Brian Zeilinger have imbued the highest standards in The Rink. Adam Lenson’s direction is carefully observed, in what is unquestionably his finest work to date while the choreography from Fabian Aloise is breathtakingly audacious. What Aloise achieves in a tiny space, with six guys on skates has to be seen to believed, with the audience’s grins dissolving into whoops of delight. Likewise Bec Chippendale’s set design - complete with panelled floor is another marvel. Rarely is decrepitude so perfectly portrayed with Matt Daw’s ingenious lighting, Tardis-like, transporting this boardwalk fun palace back and forth through the years.

Jason Winter, Michael Lin & Ross Dawes

Sat hidden above the action, Joe Bunker’s band make fine work of this all too rarely heard score. Indeed, from this critic’s personal perspective, it has been a long, long while since seeing a show for the very first time has led to its tunes still being compulsively hummed the next morning!

Yet again, Southwark Playhouse are delivering an outstanding musical for a fraction of the price of a West End ticket. If you love the genre, it's unmissable.

Runs until 23rd June 2018
Photo credit: Darren Bell

To read my fascinating interview with Caroline O'Connor, in which she talks about leaving Broadway to return to The Rink after 30 years, click here

Friday, 25 May 2018

Caroline O'Connor talks about returning to The Rink after 30 years

Gemma Sutton and Caroline O'Connor in rehearsal for The Rink

Commencing performances this week at the Southwark Playhouse, The Rink is a musical set in an American boardwalk-located roller skating rink that has long since seen better days. The show examines the relationship between the rink’s owner, Anna and her daughter Angel, two women who have grown apart over the years and written by Kander and Ebb, from Terrence McNally’s book, it is the rich complexity of human relationships that drives the narrative.
What makes this particular musical on London's fringe quite so mouthwatering however is its casting of Caroline O'Connor to play Anna. Thirty years ago, when the show first played in the West End, at London’s Cambridge Theatre,  a young O'Connor appeared as Angel.
O'Connor is making an incredibly bold and confident move in stepping back from an acclaimed Broadway run of Anastasia and heading instead to the humble surrounds of the Elephant and Castle. Over a beautifully sunny weekend during the show’s rehearsals, I caught up with O'Connor to talk not only about the show, but also her remarkable career.

JB:    Lets start with The Rink first time around. Tell me all about it....

Caroline:    Well, it was an amazing opportunity really. I'd been in the Me and My Girl original company and then Cabaret with the Gillian Lynne production and also A Chorus Line on national tour, playing Cassie, when the chance came along to cover Angel in the West End. Additionally, with a lot of leading ladies liking to take a show off of their schedule, (I was understudying Diane Langton) I was guaranteed one performance a week which seemed like a pretty good deal in those days.

Fred Ebb came over. John Kander was there so I had the two writers sitting in the auditorium on the day I did my first understudy call on stage, which was quite terrifying! But of course it was also thrilling for me, as a girl who grew up in Australia and just having arrived in England for a few years, to have the actual composers there in the room, along with Terrence McNally too.

Sadly the production did not last for very long and you could feel a great sense of loss amongst the theatre community. But now I feel like it's full circle. Perhaps, I was meant to come back and revisit this beautiful show and get to play the role of Anna. I'm the biggest fan in the world of Chita Rivera (who created the role of Anna on Broadway), she's such an inspiration to me. This show is huge.

JB:    Explain more, please, about the story and the themes of The Rink.

Caroline:    Well, it's a mother/daughter relationship. Angel is a young spirit, and she's gone away, like young people did at that period in the Woodstock kind of finding themselves and having more freedom. Anna however is this poor woman who’s  been left with this business to run, this rink, and her daughter's gone and she's kind of kept this thing going.

The rink belonged to her husband's family, for many years. And, suddenly, she's thinking, "You know what? I think I need some time for myself." And, as soon as she makes that decision, in walks the daughter again. And so kicks off an amazing story of: Will they connect or will they always have this fractious relationship?

It's not just us of course. There are six other men in the show who are brilliantly versatile and extremely talented. They play the show’s other roles, the wreckers, but they also play very important characters in the story, like husband, grandfather, love interest. Just terrific, beautiful voices, great talent.

Adam Lenson our director is rejigging it a little here and there and we have a brilliant choreographer too, Fabian Aloise, who did Working recently. I did West Side Story with him years ago, so we have a connection already. There is a young team around me, which is kind of exciting because of this energy that they bring, and they're all so excited and keen, and it's a lovely feeling in the room.

And Gemma Sutton who plays Angel in the show is just so very talented. I mean, from the moment we met, we just clicked and that's always a blessing when you're doing something where you have to work so closely. And, especially a relationship where it's not exactly a love fest!

JB:    The last time that I heard you sing in London was at The Kings Of Broadway concert at the Palace Theatre. You sang Time Heals Everything from Mack and Mabel that was just gorgeous. You of course played (an Olivier nominated) Mabel when the show opened in the West End in 1995.

Caroline:    Thank you. The most wonderful time I've probably ever had was doing that show. Of course I have loved pretty much everything I've ever done, but I loved Mack and Mabel because although it's a difficult show #I never found it as difficult as a lot of people who would always say, "Oh, the book's not that good."

I never found that a problem, because I felt like we told the truth about Mabel Normand’s life, and I thought she was worth celebrating. She was such an incredible person, not only as an actress, but she was the first female director, and there were so many elements and she just wore here heart on her sleeve.

I had a lot of help too. I met Mabel’s great- nephew and we discussed a lot about her, I saw photos, and he actually gave me a couple of gifts, of items that had belonged to her. So, I felt very fortunate that I had that real insight into her through that contact.

JB:    Tell me a little about your work in Kander & Ebb's Chicago – a show that you’ve played around the world: on Broadway and in Australia, as well as over here. 

Caroline:    I played Velma in Australia and on Broadway, I played Roxie at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre as well as in Lebanon. I've done the show quite a few times and actually I did Chicago twice in Australia, 11 years apart, would you believe! You have to get yourself incredibly fit for Velma, which I quite enjoy too when it's necessary. I was torn the last time, because I was very tempted to do Roxie again, but I’m lucky that I've been able to get to play both those roles. And, now, here with The Rink, this is kind of weird, because now I'm playing both of those roles too.

JB:    And what about your own story?

My parents were Irish so I got sent to Irish dancing classes. The school I went to taught ballet so I auditioned and got into the Royal Ballet School when I was 17. That brought me to London, so that's when I fell in love with London. When I went back to Australia at 19, I was like, "Do I keep going with the ballet or not?" I wasn't like, "Oh, I want to be a big star." That wasn't my mentality. It was always that I wanted to work in theatre. I wanted to learn and to work with great directors and choreographers and people. So, I'm glad that it happened that way, and I'm glad that my success came even if it was a little later, because I had such great training up until then. 

JB:    So, where is home for you now? 

Caroline:    I have homes in Surrey and Sydney and I am lucky enough to have worked all over the world and create a pretty amazing lifestyle and also a pretty amazing, understanding husband too. 

I met him when I was doing Cabaret here in London so, we've been together for 32 years and not everybody in the industry has that kind of support system. You know those sad, tragic stories you hear about people who're in theatre and they have a great career but they have nobody at home, or they have a bit of sadness, I feel really blessed that I've had this amazing, constant love and support in my life. Without sounding too corny, it's true. And, he also just loves what we do. He loves that we travel and that we're both very passionate about music and about theatre.

JB:    You walked away from Anastasia on Broadway to do The Rink. What lay behind that decision? 

Caroline:    People say to me, "why did you come back from New York to do a show at the Southwark Playhouse?” and my reply is because this is what I do. This is my work." I'm still in a black box. I'm still in a theatre. I'm still doing what I love to do, and I would've kicked myself if I hadn't done this. As hard as it is, I really would have kicked myself.

I could have stayed in Anastasia. I was invited to stay on in the show, and I was like, "No, I think I have to do this. I just feel in my heart I have to do it." And, now, some days I'm like, "oh, my God. This is huge. This is a huge" ... When I was playing Angel, I suppose I didn't appreciate how much Josephine Blake (London's original Anna) was doing in the role, and now I look at this mammoth script and mammoth emotional journey and the vocal demands of it. And, there's dancing, and there's a little skating, in brackets. A little. So, yeah, I just think, "Wow! But, my favourite thing is a challenge."

The Rink runs until 23rd June at the Southwark Playhouse
Photo credit: Darren Bell 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Cuba Gooding Jnr speaks about playing Billy Flynn in Chicago

As Cuba Gooding Jnr settles into the role of Chicago's Billy Flynn at the Phoenix Theatre, he briefly spoke with contributor Josh Kemp about the challenge of the West End stage.

Many celebrity stars in recent years have taken on the role of Billy Flynn, the most esteemed defence lawyer in Illinois’ showbiz history. From the likes of Jerry Springer who’s neither a stranger to showbiz or politics (aren’t they the same nowadays anyway?) to David Hasselhoff!

This time around the man filling Flynn’s shoes is none other than Hollywood's Oscar-winner,  Cuba Gooding Jr. Fresh from playing the notorious defendant in television's The People vs O.J.Simpson, Cuba is no stranger to sensational court-room drama - albeit that the Cook County courthouse does come with a little more razzle dazzle. And Gooding Jnr. brings a fresh energy to the role that works perfectly. 

Showered and robed after the show, Cuba spoke to me about how the contrast he’s experiencing between the West End’s live theatre and appearing before a camera. He summed it up perfectly:

 “In TV & film there’s a few takes and then its on to the next scene and there isn’t really time to connect with what you’re doing in the moment as you quickly move on to the next part. On stage every night is different, how your fellow cast perform, the energy from the crowd, everything is different and this adds to your performance and makes every night a challenge that’s new and engaging”

Chicago remains a fun and enjoyable night out, right through from the first number to the final curtain. To catch up with my review of this revival, click here. To read my interview with Josefina Gabrielle, currently playing Velma, have a read here.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Red - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage

Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch

There’s a chapel in a suburb of Houston, Texas, whose hexagonal walls each carry a black or nearly-black canvas by the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. It’s a lonely, eerie space that can be meditative or depressing, depending upon your mood.

Rothko was an unknown abstract expressionist until 1959 when the architects of New York’s prestigious Four Seasons restaurant asked him to provide large scale paintings for decoration. The $35,000 that was paid to Rothko marked the highest value commission of an artist in America.

Having begun the paintings, Rothko dined at the restaurant one evening to “scope it out”. On finding the clientele pretentious, arrogant and at odds with everything in his Ukranian Jewish heritage, he tore up his contract, returned the money and eventually gifted eight of the pieces to the Tate Modern in London. They’re still there in room 3, and worth a look.

John Logan’s play focuses on Rothko in the throes of creating these masterworks.  In Michael Grandage’s tight, revived production (that first played at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009) all the technical elements serve to surround Alfred Molina, as Rothko, with excellence.

The replica canvases themselves, strung up in an enormous atelier as part of Christopher Oram‘s finely detailed scenic design, are variously dull and dark or glow mysteriously under Neil Austin’s bravura lighting design.  Music from Chet Baker to Gluck to opera attends the artist’s musings as Adam Cork’s sound design punctuates both the action and the scene changes with style.

Rothko is voiced with authority by Alfred Molina, a meticulously well-observed characterization as he shares his internal dialogue with Ken, a fictitious assistant played tautly - and possibly better than the original Eddie Redmayne - by Alfred Enoch whose own ‘story’ is neatly, if slightly melodramatically, linked to the dried blood colours of Rothko’s paintings.

Molina grows visibly both as a character and an actor during the performance: sarcasm, pain, pathos and anger all feel real, and the hints at future despair and suicide are as subtle as sighs.

There’s a stupendous scene in which the two work as a team to ‘size’ a canvas, filling the panel and spattering themselves with gore.  It’s physically thrilling: part ballet, part competition, part fight, played by the actors facing entirely away from the audience in one of the best wordless two-person scenes you could hope to encounter.

This is not Yasmin Reza’s Art, - a jejune 1990’s comedy vehicle for three luvvies off the telly to make cheap jibes about modern painting – rather, it’s an intense, well-written and tightly directed drama that in ninety minutes provides a rare insight into a man whose work seems baffling to the untutored eye.

Tutor yourselves, go and see it.  Then go to the Tate.

Booking until 28th July
Reviewed by Johnny Fox
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Whale - Review

Ustinov Studio - Theatre Royal Bath


Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Laurence Boswell

Teresa Banham and Shuler Hensley

Charlie weighs 40 stone (or 250kg) and his blood pressure is 238/134. He’s not just morbidly obese, this play finds him on the very precipice of death – confined by his bulk to his Idaho apartment, where he earns a modest living teaching English Literature to students via internet audio broadcast.

The two-hour (no interval) play never leaves Charlie’s sometimes squalid front room. He can move, just, from his sofa, but his bulk has him beached in what is perhaps the most obtuse reference to the play’s title, though we learn more of his fascination with the poetry of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as the cetacean references emerge in Samuel D. Hunter’s text.

A massive man in a tiny town, Charlie is literally eking out his existence, breath by gasping breath. However, it is in Shuler Hensley’s portrayal of desperately damaged humanity that we catch a glimpse of acting greatness. Simply put, Hensley’s achievement is as enormous as the character he portrays. Hensley starts by being naturally of large frame and readers may recall his Olivier-winning turn as the hulking, menacing Jud in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma at the National Theatre 20 years ago, while only last year he returned to London to reprise his creation of The Monster in Young Frankenstein. Here however, with the help of well crafted prosthetics, he is brilliantly, tragically ballooned.

But it is so much more than the costuming that convinces us of Charlie’s plight. Hensley captures the essence of a man who is as desperate for human company as he is for the very air he breathes. He fights to move, to breathe – even picking up his cell phone is beyond him without the help of a littler-picker’s extended claw such is his immobility. In a role that sees him actively onstage for virtually the entire production, Hensley’s heartbreakingly perceptive interpretation of a living nightmare is a tour de force.

Hunter’s narrative introduces us to Charlie’s daughter Ellie, his friend and unpaid carer Liz, along with his ex-wife Mary. Intriguingly, there’s a strong Mormon theme to the story too, Idaho being a state where that faith’s influence is pervasive and strong. Oscar Batterham puts in a well-constructed turn as Elder Thomas, but this is no musical-comedy Book Of Mormon. Avoiding spoilers, the final act quite simply crucifies the central tenets of the Mormon’s interpretation of Christian values.

The cast’s women are all excellent in the parts they play in Charlie’s tragedy. Ruth Gemmell’s Liz showing an almost unconditional love for Charlie and despairing at the inexorable, inevitable path he is choosing towards his own demise. Teresa Banham is Mary, a woman who is everything that Charlie isn’t: tanned, coiffed, assured – and also present in Ellie’s life. Hers is a no-nonsense ex-spouse, who in experiencing the end of her marriage some 15 years earlier when Charlie revealed his homosexuality, has grown the carapace of a woman who has seen, and lived through, it all.

But perhaps some of the most scorching supporting work on stage comes from Rosie Sheehy as Ellie. Savvy, whip-sharp and disaffected – we learn that her online postings are vitriolic - she returns to her estranged father for help with the essays that she is flunking at school and is persuaded to remain in contact with him in the expectation of inheriting his bank balance of $100,000. King Lear famously said “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” and when Ellie says to Charlie that “just being around you is disgusting”, our hearts break for her father. Late in the narrative however, there is a moment when Charlie discerns through Ellie’s actions that rather than being hateful, she has in fact bestowed a deep kindness upon the troubled Elder Thomas. Hensley and Hunter create an instant that is achingly perceptive in its understanding of Charlie’s love for his daughter.

There’s a lot to process in The Whale, sometimes too much, and a half-way respite for a gin and tonic would be appreciated (even Arthur Miller gave his plays an interval). But make no mistake – this is masterful modern drama. The UK Theatre Awards need to head to Bath pronto, for Shuler Hensley giving what is likely to be the most outstanding performance to be seen in this country this year.

Runs until 2nd June
Photo credit: Simon Annand

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Shuler Hensley - An Outstanding Actor Who Brings Humanity To Dysfunctionality

Shuler Hensley in The Whale

Shuler Hensley is an American actor who, outside of the theatre world and especially the musical theatre world, is little known in the UK.
Currently he can currently be found in the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio in the modern tragedy The Whale, in which he plays the morbidly obese Charlie, an Idaho man who is close to death. Critics have raved about the play (my own review is here), but The Whale is only the most recent of Hensley’s achievements on these shores. 
Twenty years ago (and the only American playing in that South Bank cast) he won the Best Supporting Actor Olivier Award for his portrayal of Jud in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! at the National Theatre. That production was one of the few American shows ever to have enjoyed a fresh UK revival that itself was then shipped back across the Atlantic to become a hit in New York too. On Broadway in 2002, reprising the National Theatre production, Hensley’s Jud earned him not only that year’s Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics’ Award, he scooped the Tony too! For those of us lucky enough to have seen the show (I was one) Hensley’s work was unforgettable. 
Nunn's Oklahoma! was choreographed by Susan Stroman – who went on to work closely with Mel Brooks in transferring his Young Frankenstein from a hit comedy movie onto the stage. Stroman didn’t hesitate in proposing Hensley to create The Monster when the show opened on Broadway in 2007. Ten years later Brooks and Stroman brought the show to London, where Hensley was again the only American actor employed, going on to magnificently (and far from monstrously) recreate his Monster for the West End. 
After The Whale's opening night in Bath last week I caught up with Hensley to learn a little more about him and his career.

JB:    Jud, The Monster, and now Charlie. What draws you to playing such dysfunctional individuals? 

Shuler:    That's a very interesting question. I think as a character/actor, I guess I'm just drawn to characters who we (by which I mean the general public or society) think we know based on our initial impression. Usually it's a visual impression. He's the dirty farm hand. Or he's the morbidly obese guy who can't get out of his apartment. It could be anything. Then , understanding that, and sort of as an actor, just trying to figure it all out. People don't go into life wanting to be labelled. I think we want to fit in. We want to be a part of everyone else's journey.  

That's the interesting thing about these characters - finding something that I think we all can recognise in a person, and then sort of flip it and say, "Well, wait a minute. Actually, I can relate to that." 

And once you're able to do that with an audience, and you're able to take a stereotypical character and make people start questioning that, then I think it's really powerful and interesting for the viewer to say, "Wow. Maybe there is some worthiness to these people."  

I mean, I play a lot of villains. I play a lot of darker characters. But with my research and with my knowledge of these people, in reality I have found that these dark souls don’t thinks of themselves as psychopaths or a villains. They often think, "Well, I'm right and everyone else is wrong, so it's not like I'm evil." And once you can figure that out then you can really portray someone who is deeply believing in what they're saying. Does that make sense? 

JB:    It makes perfect sense. In The Whale, where you have to endure a particularly spiteful daughter – there is a moment when you, her scorned and obese father, realise the good that lies within her. It’s a heartbreaking, powerful moment that you perform beautifully.  

Moving on, what sympathy do you think we can or should feel for Jud in Oklahoma!? 

Shuler Hensley's Jud Fry

Shuler:    Well, Jud's an interesting character. When Oklahoma! first came out especially the film, I think there was a necessity to draw a line between who's good and who's bad. But what I find fascinating about Rodgers and Hammerstein is that actually they don't write that way. 

If you look at things like South Pacific and you look at Oklahoma!, there's a lot of good and bad in everyone. And Curly, although he may be all fluffed up in the movie, he's got a dark side. He's got a very vengeful side. In the song Lonely Room for Jud, which incredibly was cut from the movie, that's a vitally important moment to get inside Jud’s head.  

Listen to the lyrics of Lonely Room - it's a love poem. It's a wanting to belong. It's a wanting to get a bride and fit in, and be loved, and to love someone. I mean, we all can relate to that, but what's interesting about Richard Rodgers' music is that underneath that love poem is dissonance. 

I talked to Mary Rodgers about this, his daughter before she passed, and she said that he considered Lonely Room to be one of his greatest compositions ever because it so well contained the emotion in what's happening within the song. Jud is a perfect example of somebody who doesn't think of themselves as being a villain, but for whatever reason has been put into that situation and is defensive. 

Think of “Poor Jud Is Daid”. If you take that out of being a comedic duet and saw what Curly was doing, he’s being horrible to Jud. 

JB:    It's horrendous bullying. 

Shuler:    Quite. People laugh and scoff in that song, but if you can create moments where the audience - and I mean Oklahoma! is the quintessential American musical – if you can get them to hear a song for the first time in a way that makes them start to question their judgement, THAT is what live theatre is all about. 

I've worked with Hugh Jackman (who played Curly in the Nunn production). That was his first thing here. I've worked on films and movies and people like Hugh and a lot of these guys like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart who've made success in movies and TV come back to theatre. 

And the reason is that you can't re-create a live audience or a live experience because you're in it with the audience. And so when you create a touching moment for a villain like Jud or a touching moment for a morbidly obese gay man like Charlie, there's a palpable connection with the audience in a live environment that can't be re-created. 

JB:    You just mentioned Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. You recently played alongside them in the Broadway production of No Man's Land. Tell me about working with those two theatrical knights, on Pinter.   

Shuler:    It reminds me of like a Sunday Times crossword puzzle. It's very cerebral on the surface, but if you go along with that then you realise that there's a lot of stuff going on that's beyond the words or underneath the words, or between the lines. And that's what was so fascinating with it. We actually worked with the neurologist Oliver Sacks who Patrick invited into to our rehearsal process.  

He helped us with the fascinating aspect of the whole play being about false memory. I think we all have it. I mean, if you have a sibling, you can both remember in great detail sometimes different versions of the same event. Both versions cannot be true because they don't line up. It's just a fascinating journey in false memory with Pinter dialogue. 

JB:    Let's move on to Mel Brooks and Young Frankenstein.

Hensley as The Monster

Shuler:    Well, where to begin? I consider Mel Brooks to be a dear friend of mine. I talk to him on a regular basis. He's nearly 92 and he couldn't be a younger soul. I think it's the throwback to when he started as a comedy writer to Sid Caesar's show of shows. I believe that's what it's called. In the writing room was Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, a very young Woody Allen. Those types of guys who had to come up with a weekly comedy line – No, I think Mel said there were about 70 shows a year. 

The idea of coming up with something funny and throwing it like a spaghetti, throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks. That's Mel's mentality with everything. He didn't want to re-create the movie. He wanted it the musical of Young Frankenstein to be an original experience even though everyone can relate to the lines and the scenes that everyone remembers from the film.  

Having him say that from the beginning was such a relief because I didn't want to try to create or re-create the version of The Monster from the film because there's just no way to do that. 

We had the Broadway run and then I did it on tour because I wanted to experience what that was like for the American audience, which was amazing because everyone loves Mel Brooks.

So after 10 years probably Mel just called me up. I talked to him occasionally within that gap, and he kept saying, "Shuler, I'm getting this to London. I'm telling you. It's going to go to London." And Susan Stroman and I would laugh about it because I've worked with Susan Stroman on a number of projects and we do readings. I'd say to Susan, "Have you heard from Mel?" And she's like, "Oh yeah." And lo and behold, he got it here.  

I said, "I'm going to do it. I'll do whatever you want me to do."

And then when we got here, he came in and completely re-designed it, re-thought it, let a lot of the leads and people experiment with lines. He was here for five, six weeks. I mean, he's very hands on, and super energised. I can't even begin to tell you how amazing that man is, and he's constantly thinking. 

JB:    The Whale – tell me about your journey with this astonishing piece.

Shuler Hensley and Ruth Gemmell in The Whale

Shuler:    It started six years ago. They had a reading of this play called The Whale and they said, "We'd be interested in Shuler reading this." So, they sent me a copy of it, and when I read it my jaw dropped. I just felt such a connection to not only the characters, but the style of writing and the rhythm of the writing, and the use of pauses and things not said that should be. It was all contained within the script. That was just reading it. 

And then you get to the actual table read. A lot of times the things you think are going to happen just don't, but pretty much everything that I was hoping for just naturally happened within the table read. I think we all went away from that thinking, "This is something really amazing to be a part of." 

And then the writer, Sam Hunter, is just one of those people that's just an old soul and a wonderful human being. He sets all his plays in Idaho, which is where he's from. And it's sort of autobiographical in some aspects, but in others it's hints of people he knows and has entered his life. The storyline of Mormonism reflects how prolific that creed is that part of the country.  

Idaho’s up in the north west corner. It's sort of a No Man's Land (not to bring another play into it of course!) but it really is. I mean, if you ask a typical American about what would a normal person from Idaho be like? They'd have no clue. No clue. 

JB:    And in the politics of modern America, Where would you say Idaho sits? 

Shuler:    I don't know. I think it's a mystery. It's just like a frontier. I have been to Moscow, Idaho once. I drove down from Seattle, Washington because there was a wedding that I was a part of. The bachelor party was in Moscow, Idaho. It feels like you're in the middle of outer space because there were no street lights at the time, so you're driving through these massive national parks in the dark. You can just see as far as your headlights are, and then all of a sudden there's this town. It's a big town but it's sort of surrounded by wilderness, so very isolated. It's just a really interesting area. I wouldn't know what the politics are because it's its own world. 

JB:    Is there a hope that The Whale may come into London? 

Shuler:    That is our hope! 

Whenever there's something I'm doing in the States that I really believe in, I always think of how we can get it to England because I think the theatre community here is very knowledgeable. The British are very supportive of theatre and I've just loved working here.

The Whale plays at the Ustinov Studio until 2nd June
Photo credits for The Whale images: Simon Annand