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

Friday 16 March 2018

Old Fools - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written by Tristan Bernays
Directed by Sharon Burrell

Frances Grey and Mark Arends

Old Fools from Tristan Bernays is a perceptive portrayal of the debilitation that Alzheimer’s disease is wreaking upon an ever growing number of our elderly. A well crafted script that weaves its arc across the decades of Tom and Viv’s marriage, Bernays cleverly plays with time in a way that echoes Alzheimer’s corrosions of the brains synapses and connections.

A two hander that lasts little more than an hour, we meet Tom and Viv in their youth, dancing to the 1930s classic (and subsequently covered by everyone from Sinatra to Bublé) The Way You Look Tonight. A neat twist from Bernays sees the melody, refrained as a motif, poignantly re-appearing as the links between distorted memories and the ever-crumbling present become increasingly pronounced.

Mark Arends and Frances Grey tackle their roles magnificently - both with distinctly different challenges. Arends has to convince us (and he does) that he can morph instantly from carefree young lover, to a decaying geriatric, while Grey, who retains her sanity throughout, plays not only the loving Viv, but also occasionally their daughter Alice too, capturing the child from her infancy through to adulthood.

Bernays is brutal in his dissected devastation of the condition. In their later years, as Viv is providing Tom’s personal care, the pain etched on her face as he confuses her for his mother is tangible. In a flash backed moment we learn too of Tom’s marital infidelity in years long past. While their marriage may have healed the scars remain making the loving support from wife to husband even more heartbreakingly acute. The play is as much a study upon love as it is about dementia. 

Sharon Burrell directs with a profound delicacy – ably assisted by Lucie Pankhurst’s movement and choreography. Played in the round, if there is but one niggle, it is the (rare) moments when the actors’ work can be briefly hard to see. Peter Small’s lighting work is sharply effective too, transporting us through the years in a heartbeat.

Many in the audience will recognise either a nuance or, perhaps, a reality in the world that Bernays and his company create. And for those who to date have been spared the tragedy of Alzheimer’s affecting a loved one, its menace looms large to us all and to our families.

Old Fools is brilliant devastating theatre, marking Bernays out as an outstanding talent amongst his generation. It deserves a life beyond this stunning premiere – until then, it is an unmissable production at the Southwark Playhouse.

Runs until 7th April
Photo credit: Nat James Photography

Lock and Key - Review

The Vaults, London


Music and orchestrations by Bella Barlow
Book and lyrics by A.C. Smith
Directed by Adam Lenson

Evelyn Hoskins and Tiffany Graves

Lock and Key is a new musical horror story playing at the Vaults Festival, against the ominous rumbling of trains of Waterloo overhead. 

In a tale that attempts to be a modern day nightmare, Jess is ambitious junior working out her probationary period at a publishing company and keen to get on in a media career. She’s hardworking but also bullied and exploited, with the show’s action playing out as she’s working late, at 10pm, on her birthday. Her boss Samantha is a monstrous employer with no care whatsoever for Jess. There’s an office filing cabinet with a dark and grisly secret that Jess is expressly forbidden from opening. Oh, and there’s a talking  teddy bear too.

If that all sounds rather corny that’s because it is. Barlow and Smith have created cardboard clichéd characters, in a musical that’s quite possibly turned out to be more horrific than its creative team might ever have intended. Horror is a tricky genre which this blog has been keen to support over the years. Handled well, it can make us laugh, scream and be moved. Done badly, and it appears as little more than kids playing around with the dressing-up box, or to put it more succintly, like the disgusting brown substance (draw your own conclusions) that Jess discovers in the filing cabinet drawer.  

That being said Tiffany Graves as Samantha (Tiffany is also the bear’s puppeteer ) together with Evelyn Hoskins’ Jess both deliver their usual level of excellence, with performances that are far finer than the script deserves. Likewise, Tamara Saringer puts in a strong shift, ably directing her four piece band through a collection of forgettable melodies.

If a successful future is to be unlocked for Lock and Key then much work is needed on its book. The show is crying out for credible characters who engage in plausible human interaction, and horror that truly suspends our disbelief. And as for the final scene – it’s sensational, implausible and gratuitously violent. Like the contents of that mysterious filing cabinet, Lock and Key is a bloody mess.

Runs until 18th March
Photo credit: Nick Brittain Photography

Thursday 15 March 2018

Janie Dee - Review

Live At Zedel, London


Janie Dee

Janie Dee’s brief residency at Live At Zedel this week is a chance to glimpse a performance of understated excellence.

A two time Olivier winner - and only last week, nominated for a third following her devastating turn as Phyllis in the National Theatre’s Follies - Dee drew from inspiration from across the spectrum of song in an enchanting yet eclectic set.

Glamorously clad in a leopard-print catsuit, diva Dee slipped into the low-lit venue purring a lyric from Sondheim’s The Glamorous Life, a nod to her Desiree in the concert productions of A Little Night Music that MD Alex Parker had staged in recent years. With a consummate confidence in scaling cabaret’s daunting fourth wall, Dee went on to work the room beautifully, her patter including throwaway references to having worked with the greats - and not just the likes of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, her recollection of a conversation with Harold Pinter reminding the packed room that Dee’s talent stretches way beyond musical theatre and into powerful, often dark, drama.

A fascinating chapter of the evening was Janie's insight into years past that she’d romantically spent working in Italy. Singing two Italian numbers (whose titles escaped this reviewer) what made the moment particularly charming was that as Dee regaled the room with tales of la dolce vita, Parker was gently, subtly and oh so sweetly picking out Ennio Morricone’s theme to Cinema Paradiso as she spoke.

It is always a treat to stumble unexpectedly across some Tom Lehrer and Dee made mouthwatering work of Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, relishing the American’s caustic satire. Elsewhere on the programme her oldest childhood friend Kay Summers was in the Zedel audience celebrating her birthday and in an act of glorious warmth and appreciation, Dee invited Summers on stage to sing ABBA’s Thank You For The Music. The moment was both unpretentious and lovely as Dee, sat amongst the Zedel crowd, applauded her pal. Returning to the mic Dee wrapped up the first half with a sensational nod to Follies, teasingly asking the audience Could I Leave You?

It wasn’t just established songs though. In a celebration of artistic inclusion Dee performed new writing from Tim Connor, from Parker (and his writing partner Katie Lam) as well as a composition from her local church organist. Her selections proving to be a breath of fresh (songwriting) air. 

The evening's highlight however was Dee's return to A Little Night Music for a scorching take on Send In The Clowns. Well into the second half and now clad in an elegant black 2-piece outift, Dee gave an eleven o’clock rendering of the Sondheim classic that was as heartbreaking as it was spine-tingling.  

Only on for two more concerts this week - catch her if you can!

Janie Dee performs Live At Zedel on March 16th and 17th at 7pm

Sunday 11 March 2018

Hamlet - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin

Paapa Essiedu

Life is imitating art with the RSC having sent their company of travelling players on the road to tour Hamlet around England, a journey that ends at north London’s Hackney Empire where the show runs through March. Thereafter, this bold and innovative production crosses the Atlantic to be staged in the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.

Godwin ensures that the play is set up clearly, opening unusually at the university in Mecklenburg to witness Hamlet’s graduation before shifting location to reconnect with the traditional narrative – albeit African styled. Not only does this offer a swift start to the tale, but it also allows for that continent’s  distinctive themes to take centre stage. A cacophony of colour, costume and music fills the stage allowing Paul Wills’ design together with Sola Akingbola's rhythmic pulsating score to define this extraordinary take on arguably one of the canon’s most famous plays.

While occasionally finding comedy where it may not have been needed Paapa Essiedu delivers a modern, raw take on the title role, catching Hamlet’s innocence while also making fine work of the soliloquies. All too often, Hamlet can be played by slightly older actors – it is refreshing here to see a truly young actor playing the role as a passionate, over excitable and at times confused young man.

Mimi Ndiweni's Ophelia initial calmness proves deceptive, as her descent into despair during Act Four leaves the Empire’s audience stunned.  Memorable elsewhere, Joseph Mydell as Polonius delivers a wonderful performance as the king's loyal advisor, causing much hilarity with his proverbial pomposity. 

The culture that goes with African heritage is not only vibrant, but is rhythmic, raw and honest and this intriguing context of the tale take allows the RSC a prism to deliver a Hamlet that is a bold reflection of the modern world.

The onstage percussion from Akingbola alongside Sidiki Dembele defines the continent, while the collaboration between between Godwin and Wills presents Hamlet as a painter. With spray cans at hand both to liberally graffiti family portraits as well as to literally taint the fair Ophelia, the visuals serve well as a guide through the text.

In a bold and daring interpretation, Essiedu's Hamlet is likely to be remembered and talked about in years to come. To more seasoned Shakespearian audiences the production is occasionally frustrating, with moments of Shakespeare’s finely crafted subtlety being flagged and highlighted. Godwin’s Hamlet however is neither performed by, nor targeted at, society’s elite. It’s a beautifully accessible performance of a perfect play.

Reviewed by Josh Adams
Runs until 31st March, then at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, 2nd - 6th May
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan © RSC

Macbeth at the National Theatre - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rufus Norris

Rory Kinnear
The themes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are timeless. Avaricious envy, revenge, and the consequences of guilt have driven humanity’s darker side for centuries and in the hands of a talented cast, Macbeth’s journey makes for compelling theatre.

On the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, Rufus Norris has assembled just such a cast. Once the weird sisters have him under their spell Rory Kinnear's Macbeth convincingly topples from dutiful Thane to treacherous subject - his own frailties steeled by Ann-Marie Duff as his purposeful wife. Macbeth will always be a character imbued with his own late-dawning, if misguided, sense of immortality. In this production Kinnear, who is a joy to watch throughout especially in making the classic soliloquies his own, is never finer than in his endgame of realisation, learning of MacDuff’s untimely ripping from his mother’s womb. 

Duff is pure, if fatally flawed, evil. We believe in her capacity to dash her suckling baby’s brains out, with Duff then making Lady Macbeth’s descent into a suicidal insanity, entirely plausible. With any semblance of a moral compass long since vanished, hers truly is a lost soul. 

But it’s not just Rufus Norris’ starry leads that drive this production. The play reunites (in Shakespearean terms) Stephen Boxer’s sage Duncan with Kevin Harvey’s energised Banquo, last seen together when Boxer was Titus to Harvey’s Aaron. Both men are English theatre gems. It is only a shame that Banquo’s ghostly re-appearances carry no dialogue. Harvey’s mellifluous Scouse twang is a delight and one longs for his future Othello. Elsewhere, as a passionate yet cynical MacDuff, Patrick O’Kane defines burning vengeance.

Here however, the Bard’s beautiful prose is overburdened by Norris and designer Rae Smith’s contemporary interpretations. The setting is “now, after a civil war”, with the accompanying programme essays making throwaway comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Brexit. A curious set design comprising a steeply raked ramp, poles and drapes made from (what appear to be) bin-liners seems to have been constructed with more of an eye for the demands of a touring production (Macbeth takes to the road in the autumn) rather than using the full potential of the Olivier's gaping jaws.

The politics may be clumsy but the acting is beautiful. Make no mistake, Rory Kinnear is a magnificent Macbeth.

Runs until 23rd June in repertory - Screened via NTLive on 10th May at cinemas across the country.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Thursday 1 March 2018

Pippin - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Jonathan Carlton and Genevieve Nicole



Transferring down from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of Pippin, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse, has lost none of the pizzazz and poignancy that marked it out as one of the nation's finest fringe productions of last year.

One of Stephen Schwartz’s early compositions, the show is loosely based around a group of travelling players who tell a fictionalised story of Pippin, the (real life) younger son of the emperor Charlemagne who conquered much of continental Europe many centuries ago. To describe any more of the plot would only confuse readers - suffice to say that Schwartz spices his tale with themes of politics, war, love and above all, self-discovery.

In Pippin however it is not so much what Schwartz is saying, but rather the way he says it that makes the musical such a stand out sensation. His songs are, for the most part, perfectly structured harmonies while the Bob Fosse inspired choreography was to showcase Fosse's stylish and distinctive class well in advance of his more famous Cabaret and Chicago outings.

O’Boyle has transferred virtually his entire Manchester cast to London*, with Genevieve Nicole heading the lineup as the Leading Player and bringing a powerful Mephistophelean nuance to the part. Statuesque, Nicole bestrides the sage with stunning song and dance.

The title role presents an interesting challenge. Pippin’s journey through the show is from privileged prince to commoner - travelling an arc that includes love, murder and power, along with a fair measure of bungling haplessness. Jonathan Carlton is perfectly cast, rising to his part’s musical challenges with a particularly gorgeous take on the act one closer of Morning Glow. 

In a glorious moment of (scripted) self-indulgence Mairi Barclay is Pippin’s incorrigible grandmother Berthe. As this most glorious of grannies celebrates her wisdom and old age in No Time At All, the number evolves into an audience singalong, with Barclay hilariously bringing the fourth wall crashing down around her. Barclay also offers a neat double-up as Pippin’s cunningly seductive stepmother Fastrada.

Fine work too from Tessa Kadler as Catherine, a widowed commoner who after the interval guides Pippin in the ways of love. Kadler’s interpretations of Schwartz's Kind of Woman and Love Song are particularly delicate turns, serving to contrast the realities of everyday humanity with the bombast of Pippin’s earlier life.

But above all it is the music and dance that drive a successful Pippin, lifting its (sometimes tortuous) narrative to a higher plane. Maeve Black’s set is an ingenious use of Southwark’s space, the concepts behind her designs proving simple yet striking and with footlights around the thrust's perimeter, the vaudeville suggestion is convincing. 

William Whelton’s choreography is audacious, breathtaking and sexy and yet incorporating beautifully executed nods to Fosse - the Manson Trio routine in act one proving especially fine. Above the stage Zach Flis’ band captures Schwartz’s complex melodies perfectly.

This Pippin is one of those productions rarely seen on the fringe. It captures the sparkle of Broadway, transporting it to south London in a whirl of unmissable musical theatre.

Magic to do? Not half!

Runs until 24th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith