Monday 25 June 2018

A Musical Celebration of Andrew Lloyd Webber - Review

Royal Hospital Chelsea, London


Fireworks over the Royal Hospital Chelsea

As part of this year's open air concert line-up Live At Chelsea, some of the biggest names in musical theatre were joined by the Royal Symphonic Concert Orchestra to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the most influential musical theatre composers of all time. Compered by presenter Myleene Klass, the one-off concert was filled with gorgeous orchestral playing and staggering vocal performances across talent that ranged from recording artists such as Alfie Boe and Beverley Knight and stage stars Ben Forster and Jodie Prenger, as well as cast members from the noble Lord's current West End hits The Phantom of The Opera and School of Rock.

Taking place within the grounds of the magnificent Royal Hospital Chelsea, and running at just under 3 hours, the concert packed in 27 well-loved numbers, drawn from Lloyd Webber’s vast back catalogue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the song list yielded few surprises as it focused on his most adored musicals, but with such performances on display the evening felt delightfully fresh from beginning to end.

Olivier Award Winner Tyrone Huntley opened the evening with Superstar from Jesus Christ Superstar. Huntley was to return in Act 2 to thrill the audiences with another of that show's numbers. Heaven On Their Minds, effortlessly demonstrating why he is one of today's most exciting musical theatre performers.

Amid the cosmic cluster of West End stalwarts, Ria Jones reprised her award-winning Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. The show's timelessly cinematic score sounded sumptuous under John Rigby’s baton, with Jones’ take on As If We Never Said Goodbye probing magical, defining her deep and masterful connection to the show. Additionally, Michael Xavier who played Joe Gillis both at the Coliseum in the show’s 2016 revival and subsequently on Broadway, performed the musical’s title number to spine-tingling effect, rightly achieving one of the largest rounds of applause of the evening.

Headliners Boe and Knight were saved until after the interval, with Boe lending his rich tenor to an emotionally intense rendition of The Music of The Night from The Phantom of The Opera, while Knight brought the house down with Memory from Cats, her soulful vocals melding perfectly with the melancholy ballad.

After such an electrifying concert, it seemed only fitting that an explosion of fireworks brought the evening to a dazzling close, accompanied by the orchestra playing the audience out to a spirited version of Jellicle Cats. Featuring an abundance of striking performances, A Musical Celebration of Andrew Lloyd Webber was a grand spectacle of musical theatre greatness, and an appropriately lavish tribute to the impressive career of a man whose contribution to musical theatre not only on the West End but all around the world, is probably unparalleled.

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: Jack Clark

Saturday 23 June 2018

Guys and Dolls - Review

Kilworth House, Leicestershire


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed and choreographed by Nick Winston

Daniel Stockton and company

Not since 1982 at the National Theatre have the opening bars of Runyonland (the preamble / overture to Guys and Dolls) generated such a tingle of excitement as Philip Witcomb’s set design, built within Kilworth House’s ingeniously covered open-air space, captures the essence of New York complete with billboards, steam, and a glimpse of the Manhhattan Bridge.

Guys and Dolls was described by Kenneth Tynan as "the second greatest American play after Death of a Salesman". He's not wrong for the show is surely the most sparkling study on the human condition that has ever been set to song. The enduring love between Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide is as gritty, real and recognisable as it is hilarious – while the romance that evolves between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown is straight out of an everyday fairytale. The tunes and lyrics are both Broadway’s and Frank Loesser’s finest. For the show to soar, all that is needed is a faultless cast - thus the greatest plaudits in this production belong to director /choreographer Nick Winston and his casting director Anne Vosser for having assembled some of the nation's finest musical theatre talent to create this sensational revival.

Daniel Robinson and Holly Dale Spencer are the interminably engaged Nathan and Adelaide and if there is one (tiny) niggle, it is the inconsistency of their New York accents. Spencer pronounces person as “poysson” perfectly, whereas Robinson’s American twang is just a bit too mild and preppy. But ‘tis a minor flaw – because the chemistry between the pair, along with their solo energies too, is just non-stop pleasure, delivered with pinpoint timing. The “blossom time” scene, as Adelaide inadvertently interrupts the hoodlums assembling for their floating crap game is, in 10 seconds of exquisite drama, perhaps the finest example of musical theatre comedy to be found today.

Nathan Detroit as a role doesn’t demand vocal perfection – but it does require presence and nuance in spades and Robinson’s diminutive features see him rise to the challenge magnificently. Holly Dale Spencer however is a vocal powerhouse of raucous, raunchy excellence, Her Hot Box routines emphasising that venue’s sleazy burlesque in a way that few other productions have dared to portray so honestly.

As Sarah, Harriet Jones brings a soprano strength to the role that has rarely if ever been heard. In I'll Know, her first duet with Sky, she takes the roof (OK, the canvas awning) off of Kilworth House leaving this reviewer stunned in his seat. Jones sings with a power and perfection that makes spines tingle. Opposite her, Simon Thomas’ Sky Masterson is another delight. Authoritative, persistent and yet vulnerable, Thomas’ chiselled looks and majestic voice define this ultimate gambler. And as for the chemistry ( yeah,  chemistry, again) betwixt him and Jones, its flawless!

The supporting guys and dolls are equally entertaining. Adam Venus’ Benny Southstreet is a neat turn, while the crackingly corpulent Daniel Stockton makes fine, full work of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, stopping the show wonderfully in act two and arguably, well worthy of a mid-show encore too . Martin Neely’s Brannigan breathes life into the tiniest of roles, while Graham Hoadly’s Arvide Abernathy is a masterclass in avuncularity. Hoadly’s take on More I Cannot Wish You, again, another tiny song in the show, is similarly perhaps the best ever. A nod too for Will Kenning’s Big Jule who manages a marvellous mix of menace and mirth and for NeilMacDonald's 12 piece band, tucked away in their off-stage marquee, who make fine work of the timeless score.

It is also the inspired little touches that make this such a standout production. In what could be a nod to Follies, Winston has his mink-laden Hot Box Girls enter down staircases for their second act opener; Chris Whybrow’s sound design doesn’t just subtly overlay New York traffic sounds but in the romantic Cuban moments, listen carefully to waves lapping on the shore; and as Sarah and Adelaide rue the men in their lives with Marry the Man Today, we see the typically sober sergeant pull a bottle of Bacardi from her handbag. Genius!

Only on at Kilworth House for two more weeks – this is a truly fabulous fable.

Runs until 8th July

Thursday 21 June 2018

Kiss Me, Kate - Review

Coliseum, London


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack
Critical Edition by David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking
Directed by Jo Davies

Alan Burkitt and Zoe Rainey

With the World Cup tournament currently in play, football parlance seems appropriate in describing Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate, arriving this week for a short stay at London's Coliseum as a show with two halves. After a wonderful opening with Another Op’nin, Another Show, the first half slumps into a disappointing tedium that is not corrected until the curtain rises after half-time, heralding a well delivered and lively second act whirl through some Songbook treats.

Kiss Me, Kate is a curious show at the best of times, a meta-musical that weaves in and out of a touring company’s visit to Baltimore to perform (the musical of) The Taming Of The Shrew. This much acclaimed revival (of a piece often reviled for both its and Shakespeare’s misogyny) first opened in Leeds some three years ago, yet seeing it now, when the world’s sexual politics are still adjusting to a long overdue post-Weinstein correction, it appears at times more out-of-step and potentially offensive than ever. For sure, some of Cole Porter’s compositions deserve their place in the pantheon - but elsewhere, and particularly when Porter sets Shakespeare’s narrative to music, one is reminded more perhaps of Max Bialystock’s Funny Boy than of Broadway’s Golden Age. The plot also references a floating crap game and two comic hoodlums - but compared to the sparkle of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, the villainous capers here are enfeebled. 

Much of the show's song and dance is magnificent, largely due to Will Tuckett's delicious choreography and Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt who deliver the Lois Lane / Bianca and Bill Calhoun / Lucentio roles perfectly. Both actors are performers at the top of their game, bringing wit, flair and inspirational interpretation to their big numbers, Rainey in Always True To You In My Fashion, and Burkitt especially in his big number Bianca. Their performances alone justify a ticket and Too Darn Hot is too darn good too!

Headlining the show's cast are the operatic talents of Stephanie Corley as Lilli Vanessi / Kate and Quirijn de Lang assuming the Fred Graham / Petruchio responsibilities. Powerful in her un mic’d delivery, Corley’s vocals are masterful but yet there is something strangely Clinton-esque in her work that never finds her convincing in either role. de Lang too lacks electricity in a casting that yet again demonstrates how it is only a very rare opera singer that can make the transition from their world of vocal excellence to the very different challenge of musical theatre, and of being able to act through song. Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin make a fine job of the gunmen - but the Vaudevillian pastiche of their Brush Up Your Shakespeare only highlights the groan-inducing corniness of the song’s original construction. Porter’s rhyming of Shakespeare’s titles may once have dissolved American audiences into fits of laughter – today, the gags seem desperately dated.

There is a hint too of this show, that has been constructed for the road, being slightly lost in the Coliseum’s cavernous space. Colin Richmond and Ben Cracknell, both of whose set design and lighting work is usually top notch, fail to fill the vast stage as flapping flats, rickety staircases and sloppy lighting plots prove to be minor distractions.

Under James Holmes’ baton and David Charles Abell’s restorative orchestrations the Opera North orchestra make delicious work of the score. Porter aficionados will appreciate the care that has been lavished on the melodies.

Runs until 30th June, then continues on tour

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