Tuesday, 17 July 2018

King The Musical - Review

Hackney Empire, London


****


Music and lyrics by Martin Smith
Directed by Susie McKenna



Cedric Neal and Debbie Kurup

30 years after its premiere, Martin Smith’s affecting musical biography of legendary civil rights movement leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr was revived for just two performances, in a co-production between the Hackney Empire and London Musical Theatre Orchestra directed by Susie McKenna and which marked 50 years since Dr King’s assassination.

Opening with a brief, shocking re-enactment of the assassination, the scene was accompanied by the hauntingly mournful vocals of the full cast, shrouded in shadows on stage. Slowly, Debbie Kurup’s Coretta, Dr King’s widow, stepped out of the darkness to sing a few painful lines in memory of her late husband, a moment that was totally engrossing, but extremely brief.  Quickly, the story flashes to the younger Kings as a courting couple, a change of pace that immediately humanised Dr King’s almost mythical figure, inviting the audience to step his life and his journey.

Cedric Neal was mightily impressive in the title role. Wearing a look of perpetual apprehension which slowly melted into defiance as his story progressed, he had the audience in the palm of his hand from his very first introduction all the way through to his sudden and tragic demise. Particularly powerful was his interpretation of the iconic I Have A dream speech, which closed Act 1. 

Accompanied by the orchestra’s slow build to a powerful crescendo alongside the full cast with additional vocal support from Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Gospel Essence Choir. Neal wisely chose not to impersonate King’s intonations, bringing his own heart and charisma to the scene. The staging of the speech was a testament to the intelligent direction of Susie McKenna, and the impassioned performances of the entire cast and orchestra. 

Under Freddie Tapner’s baton the 22-piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra were perfection throughout. The particularly impressive brass section emphasised the triumphant power of Simon Nathan’s new orchestrations, whilst the strings brought a sense of dreamlike nostalgia to the story that only foreshadowed the painful finale. 

But for all of King’s heart wrenching musical moments, the story occasionally lacked depth, opting to cover the most significant and well-known moments in broad strokes, rather than drill down into the psyche of its characters and their relationships. As such, Debbie Kurup as Doctor King’s dignified and supportive wife Coretta, and Sharon D Clarke as his loving mother Alberta, were sadly side-lined as the story progressed. 

As a reminder of Martin Luther King's immutable legacy Smith’s compelling musical, forgotten for 30 years, deserves a full staging soon, especially off the back of such a striking production.


Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney

End Of The Pier - Review

Park Theatre, London


****


Written by Danny Robins
Directed by Hannah Price


Les Dennis

Casting Les Dennis in End Of The Pier gives Danny Robins’ new play a slice of incisive credibility. In a play that is all about stand-up comics, comedy and, ultimately, racism, Dennis - whose career as a nationally beloved entertainer stretches back decades - offers up a performance that is believable and complex, especially at those points in the evening when Robins’ play strikes comedy gold.

Dennis is Bobby a has-been celebrity comedian who once drew TV audiences of 20 million with his double act Chalk and Cheese (think Cannon and Ball and you’re close). Mike is his (almost) estranged son, a celebrity comedian in his own right - albeit in the modern world, where a broadcast audience of 4 million is an achievement. 

To say much more about the plot would be to spoil, as its twists and sucker-punches hit the audience from early on in the drama. Better perhaps to focus on the play’s finest moments which emerge as Dennis reflects upon the changing nature of British comedy over the years and his contemplation of the toll that his dated, racist and sexist routines took upon his close family.

Dennis’ work is first class as he truly inhabits the character of a man who has been broken by life and ultimately changed his ways. There is fine work too from Tala Gouveia as Mike’s mixed-race wife Jenna, a woman ultimately unable to forgive Bobby for the pain she suffered as a child from his racist gags, irrespective of his own personal redemption. And then there’s Nitin Ganatra’s Mohammad - who only appears towards the end of the second half but steals the show with a sensational monologue. 

But for all this play’s many strengths, it is profoundly flawed, muddled and ultimately untidy and unbelievable, with the pressure falling on Blake Harrison’s Michael to deliver most if not all of the belief-defying moments. The pressure upon Harrison to make these implausible twists work on stage is a massive ask, if not a poisoned chalice and perhaps, through no fault of his own, he ends up delivering a performance that falls short of the mark. 

But whilst End Of The Pier may have its imperfections, it is far from a comedy of errors. Offering two hours of compelling and arguably unmissable drama combining humor and cliche together with many unpalatable home truths, it is one of the most stimulating new plays this year. And as the nation’s theatre audiences remain predominantly white, Robins makes it clear: the joke’s on them.


Runs until 11th August
Photo credit: Hannah Price

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice - Review

Barn Theatre, Cirencester



***


Written by Jim Cartwright
Directed by Michael Strassen

Sarah Louise Hughes
A first and long overdue trip to Cirencester’s Barn Theatre where one finds an imaginative conversion of historic buildings into a modern theatre, whose facilities are bright and attractive. If there is one complaint it is that the seating rake is only applied to alternate rows - and thus there exists a distinct possibility of being seated behind a visually obstructive person in front. No doubt though that this is a problem that can relatively easily be remedied. What is clear is that a beautiful venue has been created in a beautiful town and it deserves artistic success.

That artistic success however is hard to spot in the Barn’s current production of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, where Jim Cartwright’s play, which should be a scorching contrast of the highs and lows of the human condition falls short of the target. To summarise, Little Voice (LV) is the teenage daughter of Mari Hoff - a neglectful mother. Known as LV because she barely speaks, the young girl has withdrawn into a world in which she has learned to sing, perfectly, the recordings of Cilla Black, Shirley Bassett, Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf etc etc, having played them incessantly from her late father’s vinyl collection. When Mari comes home drunk one night accompanied by sleazy music manager Ray Say, in pursuit of a sordid sofa fumble, Say happens to overhear LV singing. Recognising her commercial potential as a singer, a painful tale of differing hopes, aspirations and brutal disappointment unfolds.

The strengths in this show  will always flow from the young woman playing LV and in Sarah Louise Hughes, director Michael Strassen has unearthed a gem. Fresh out of Italia Conti and a NYMT alumna to boot, Hughes offers a depth and wisdom to her portrayal of the damaged daughter that belies her age. Dramatically convincing and vocally perfect, she captures LV’s complexities while offering a sensational take on some of the last century’s greatest songs.

Unfortunately the excellence stops there. Gillian McCafferty plays Mari who, while managing to display much maternal misery, mangles most of Cartwright’s carefully crafted text. There is wry, bittersweet humour written into her role which should leave the audience, certainly for much of the first half, chuckling uncomfortably. All too often however, Mari’s wit is swept away in a garble of rushed prose. McCafferty makes a decent fist of a couple of monologues, and in both acts too, but they are too little too late.

Gary Richards is Ray Say - and again Strassen has let what could be a critically acidic and nasty character be fleshed out in little more than cardboard. Richards lacks passion and credibility and while his stumbling over lines could be forgiven, when set against an overall lacklustre delivery he sails perilously close to bringing the audience’s delicately suspended disbelief crashing to the ground.. The second act demands that he sings Roy Orbison’s classic It’s Over. Done well, this should be a moment of theatrical electricity - the swan song of a rat, gasping for air at the bottom of life’s barrel. In this show, the song is rendered dull and devoid of passion. 

There are other moments of redemption - Say’s exchanges with local club owner Mr Boo (Stephen Omer) are sleazily credible as the men plot their exploitation of LV’s innocent potential. Hadley Brown puts in a turn of some credible kindness as the telephone engineer who forges a real emotional connection with LV. Likewise Larissa Hunter’s Sadie, Mari’s much put upon best friend is another modest role, performed with care and craft.

But aside from Hughes’ magical touch, this show is an opportunity squandered. Strassen, usually a master in portraying the grit of hard Northern lives, is better than this.


Runs until 4th August
Photo credit: Benjamin Collins

Friday, 13 July 2018

It Happened In Key West - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London



***



Music, lyrics and book by Jill Santoriello
Additional Lyrics and book by Jason Huza
Book and Original Concept by Jeremiah James
Directed and choreographed by Marc Robin


Wade McCollum and Alyssa Martyn

After washing up from a shipwreck on the beaches of Florida’s Key West, German radiology technician Carl Tanzler (going by the name Count Carl Von Cosel) becomes besotted with a young local woman named Elena, believing her to be the true love he foresaw in a dream many years ago. Unfortunately for Carl, not only is Elena married, but after examining her he discovers that she has tuberculosis, a death sentence in the mid-1900s. Despite his best efforts, Carl was unable to save Elena, but in a bizarre act of devotion he removed her body from its final resting place, continuing to care for her corpse, in his own home, for 7 years!

While that plot may sound too far-fetched to believe, it is in based on a true story that inspired book writer Jill Santoriello and collaborators Jason Huza and Jeremiah James enough to create this gothic-comedy musical adaptation. 

In the hands of other creatives, the show could very well have ended up as rather more disturbing. A crank aspirant doctor experimenting on a trusting young women using untested electrotherapy, falling in love with her to the point of all-consuming infatuation and then stealing her cadaver is chilling stuff. But instead the story very much takes Tanzler’s side, portraying him as a well-meaning eccentric who is defending the woman he believes is destined to be his bride. And so despite the story’s inescapable morbidity Carl and Elena’s love story ends up as rather sweet and touching, at least for the most part.

American actor Wade McCollum leads the musical as the oddball Count. With unrelenting buoyancy, he easily sells Carl’s peculiar manifestation of love-sickness. Fantastic too, is Alyssa Martyn’s Elena. Although severely underwritten (perhaps to emphasise the possibility that Elena is a blank slate onto which Carl is projecting the woman of his dreams), Martyn is an enchanting presence on stage, conveying Elena’s sweetness and naiveté. Meanwhile in role of Mario, Elena’s brother-in-law, Johan Munir provides great support, his strained earnestness helping to ground the otherwise breezy outré romance. 

The success of this musical lives or dies on the ability of the audience to buy into Carl’s belief that he and Elena are divine soulmates. Whilst the first act sees them both embark on a sweeping arc, with the rousing tear-jerking act one closing number Undying Love acting as a tragic yet fitting ending to both characters’ journeys, the grisly novelty of Carl’s obsession with his love’s decaying cadaver, which act two relies so heavily upon, is harder to invest in. After the interval Carl comes across as less of an ardent romantic in mourning, and more the disturbed fanatic. Even though Santoriello’s witty book supports the second act with plenty of saturnine humour and Marc Robin’s direction is full of dark moments of physical comedy, there’s no escaping the fact that the second half lacks the pacing, stakes and congeniality of the first. The story’s uniqueness thus fizzles out long before the show comes to an end. 

Despite these shortcomings, It Happened In Key West takes risks which more often than not, pay off. As beguiling as it is macabre, this morbid musical comedy needs to be seen to be believed.


Runs until 18th August
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: Darren Bell

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

National Theatre, London



*****


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes


Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley

The creation, rise and ultimate fall of one of the largest investment firms in the USA might not seem like the most interesting subject matter to embrace for three and a half hours, but with The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre Sam Mendes directs an epic and engrossing tale of three brothers over three centuries, forever foreshadowed by our knowledge of the 2008 financial crash.

The trilogy opens with ‘Part 1: Three Brothers’, with each Lehmann brother arriving on the shores of the newly prosperous USA from Rimpar in Germany and settling among the cotton plantations of Montgomery, Alabama. The impeccable Simon Russell Beale plays Henry Lehman, the oldest of the three and the chief decision maker much to the chagrin of second brother Emanuel Lehman (Ben Miles). Adam Godley completes the trio as Mayer Lehman, affectionately (and less affectionately) referred to as ‘the potato’ and the intermediary between his older brothers. The three narrate the tale and, between them, bring to life the wives, classmates, colleagues and children required to take us through their journey of growth and multiple rebrands thanks to the invention of that ineluctable staple of today’s business world: the middlemen. From cotton to coffee to Wall Street, the three performers are a masterclass in storytelling. Es Devlin’s design, a surprisingly unpretentious square, rotating, glass-laden stage; video backdrop from Luke Halls; and live tinkled ivories played by Candida Caldicot drive the action from light business banter to massive loss.

In ‘Part 2: Fathers & Sons’ the second generation of American Lehmans take the helm, with the scarily strategic Philip (Beale) pushing the business into the industrial age in much the same way he chooses a wife (marks out of 100, obviously, with Godley hilariously embodying each candidate). In this Act, the play really embraces its “The Big Short”- esque style, informing the audience as much as entertaining them, as Philip’s own son (Robert, played suavely by Godley) describes the impending shift of fortune from industry to entertainment at the beginning of the 20th Century. This style is further highlighted with the delicate balance of the ever present but unseen and fictitious tightrope walker Caprinsky as a masterly metaphor, together with the continuous comic candour that Mendes directs so well.

‘Part 3: The Immortal’ sees an interesting female finally but briefly enter the fold with the introduction of the brash Ruth Lamar from Illinois (Beale, charming), who is Bobby Lehman’s wife and partner through the crash of 1929 where Lehman Brothers’ hangs on by the skin of its teeth. The imminent downfall of the company at the beginning of the next century is underscored by the repetitive script, which is as deafening as the quite purposeful shift into consumerism which firmly earns the bank its “evil corporation” crown.

The Lehman Trilogy is an intelligent look behind the scenes of the American Dream and the smoke and mirrors of the corporate world, brought to light by Mendes’ astute direction and a stellar cast. 3.5 hours well spent.


Runs until 20th October
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Me And My Girl - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester


****


Music by Noel Gay
Book and lyrics by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book revised by Stephen Fry with contributions by Mike Ockrent
Directed by Daniel Evans


Alex Young, Ryan Pidgen and company

A showbiz dream came true at Chichester this week when Matt Lucas, the starring lead of Me And My Girl, had to pull out of the show on doctor’s orders and company member Ryan Pidgen stepped up to the plate to take on the role of Bill Snibson. With barely a couple of hours to rehearse, Pidgen who was warmly received by the Chichester audience, was magnificent delivering an opening night performance that could have been a moment straight out of 42nd Street.

Pidgen may have been the unexpected star of the evening, but in Daniel Evans’ cast he was surrounded by the cream of British musical theatre talent. Opposite him, and in her first major leading role, Alex Young was a convincing and vocally charming Sally Smith. Interestingly, for a leading lady, the show does not give Sally too many singing highlights – but in her one stunning solo of the night, Once You Lose Your Heart, Young proved (yet again, for this website has long been in awe of her talents) why she is one of the finest performers of her generation.

The plot of Me And My Girl is a far-fetched hokum that sees the cockney working-class Snibson discover that he is a landed peer. His newly-realised upper-crust family are horrified by Snibson’s cultural roots and the narrative plays out as Snibson learns to mingle with the aristocracy, while at the same time holding onto his London heritage. There are shades of My Fair Lady in the story, (and even a couple of nods to that musical too in the second half) but where Lerner and Loewe’s foundations lay in a wondrous book, Me And My Girl sits on a far flakier fable. Snibson’s journey is all about old fashioned class and sexual prejudice and while the love between him and Sally is unquestionably deep and sincere, she is reduced to little more than a woman who has to change her role in life to win her man. Elsewhere the excellent Siubhan Harrison is reduced to playing (wonderfully) Lady Jacqueline Carstone, a beautiful aristocrat but a woman with no depth whatsoever. Take a step back and this show is a dated cornucopia of corny cliché and caricature. It is hard to believe that the modern era has seen Stephen Fry (no less) revise the book.

And yet for all its moral flaws, Daniel Evans has fashioned a thing of beauty here, drawn solely from the excellent company that he’s assembled. In supporting roles, Caroline Quentin is the dowager Duchess of Dene, while the venerable Clive Rowe plays Sir John Tremayne – another bumbling toff and the two are simply perfection. Much of the show’s momentum is carried by crass puns and double-entendres which should, by rights, have the audience groaning. Here however they are hilarious, with Evans having drilled his cast to deliver the comedy with split second timing and perfect delivery. There’s a gorgeous twist of role reversal too, as Jennie Dale takes on the role of Parchester, the landed family’s solicitor. Dale (also, always brilliant) shines like a diamond as she tap dances her way through moments of sensational hilarity.

In the pit Gareth Valentine (who not only conducts but has also arranged the show’s score) has taken familiar melodies and revitalised them, as alongside Evans, Alistair David’s choreography is slick, imaginative and impressive.

Me And My Girl’s politics may be of the dark ages – but its ability to put grins on faces and set toes tapping is the mark of a modern show that knows how to please its audience. The talent on stage here is unmatched, and for a seaside festival of song and dance, there’s nothing finer in the country.


Runs until 25th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The King and I - Review

London Palladium, London



****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Bartlett Sher


Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe
The latest revival of The King and I has a lot to live up to in this the musical’s third iteration to be staged at the London Palladium. Notwithstanding high expectations together with the show’s difficult issues that are made even more complex in a modern world of evolving values, this transfer of the 2015 Broadway revival does not disappoint.   

Staying mostly true to the 1956 Oscar-winning film that starred Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, the story is of 1860s Siam (now Thailand), where English widow Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) has arrived in Bangkok with her son to serve as governess to the many children of the polygamous King (Ken Watanabe). Chauvinistic and stubborn, the King is prone to temper tantrums  when he doesn’t get his own way, while Anna is a respectful, warm but headstrong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. While the two inevitably clash at first they soon reach an understanding, a friendship forms and an attraction develops. But The King and I is more than just a love story; it’s a tale of East meets West, of two cultures colliding as a woman who’s ahead of her time tries to educate a King who’s living in the past.

O’Hara is the flawless gem of this production. The angelic-voiced soprano exudes warmth and grace and shines throughout – her performance of Hello Young Lovers in particular is simply mesmerising.  Her chemistry with Watanabe comes into play more in the second act, notably during the musical’s highlight, Shall We Dance? which proves a joy to watch. At times Watanabe struggles with his enunciation, particularly during his performance of A Puzzlement, however he puts in a commanding performance as the King. His monarch is charismatic and playful (particularly during the scene where he dictates a letter to President Lincoln), yet fearsome when angry.

At times the musical is not an easy watch, notably with the implication that ‘West is best’ but also with the King's old-fashioned views of women and later, when he discovers the betrayal of clandestine lovers Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon) and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson). But while there may be troubling issues, moments of humour are dotted throughout. The children’s parade, as the King’s adorable offspring are introduced to their new teacher, is a delight. The ensemble are a classy bunch too with Naoko Mori wonderfully cast as Lady Thiang. Mori's take on Something Wonderful is one of the evening’s highlights. 

If there is a lull at all, it is during the ballet of The Small House of Uncle Thomas which drags, however it is a routine essential to the plot, giving concubine Tuptim the courage she needs to speak out. It also allows the audience to admire Catherine Zuber’s colourful costumes and the dazzling choreography from Christopher Gattelli.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, the evening makes for fine theatre, brought to life by orchestrations from Robert Russell Bennett, music direction by Stephen Ridley with impressive set designs from Michael Yeargan. With infectious songs, stunning performances and splendid costumes, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, The King and I is something wonderful indeed.


Booking until September 29th
Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Swimming With Men - Review

****



Screenplayby Aschlin Ditta
Directed by Oliver Parker
97 minutes


In what must surely be the feel-good movie of the summer, Swimming With Men mixes up a quirky storywith a sprinkling of fairy-tale fantasy, but bases its charm on a rock solid core of friendship and camaraderie.

Rob Brydon is Eric is a disillusioned 40-something accountant, convinced that his newly elected Councillor wife Heather (great supporting work from Jane Horrocks) is cheating on him, and struggling to communicate with his teenage son. Eric’s escape is to the local swimming pool where quite by chance he stumbles across a suburban, aquatic and quintessentially British take on Fight Club (to use a cinematic analogy). Half a dozen men from a range of ages and backgrounds meet once a week as an amateur synchronised swimming group - and it all goes swimmingly from there

The storyline may be delightfully improbable - but what slices through this movie’s choppy waves of incredulity are the back-stories that the six pals bring to the pool. There’s Tom played by the young Thomas Turgoose, a chancer who’s forever dodging the local cops, Rupert Graves is is the once-suave Luke, now divorced and missing his daughters, while the venerable and always excellent Jim Carter is Ted, the elder statesman of the group and perhaps the wisest too. Each man has his own personal tragedy that for one blissful hour each week, is left in the changing room with their clothes.

When Susan (Charlotte Riley), a swimming instructor at the pool engineers an encounter with a member of the Swedish Men’s Synchronised Swimming team, the plucky Brits are spurred on, trained by Susan, to enter the international amateur synchro-swimming finals in Milan. The story’s ability to upend common sense is matched only by its all consuming charm, sensational acting, and ingenious photography. And in a world thats increasingly dominated by CGI and special effects, see this movie if only to marvel at Jim Carter, aged nigh on 70, performing real underwater loops in the synchro-swimming routines!

With a gorgeous score from Charlie Mole that occasionally doffs its (swimming) cap at Ennio Morricone and David Raedeker’s stunning underwater photography, Swimming With Men is British film-making at its eccentrically beautiful best.


At cinemas across the country

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

For King And Country - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London



**


Written by John WIlson
Directed by Paul Tomlinson



Lloyd Everitt, Peter Ellis and Henry Proffit

In the final tragic year of the Great War’s centenary, and 102 years (almost to the day) since the commencement of the Battle of the Somme, For King And Country reminds us of the mental devastation that war can wreak upon its combatants. 

When Private Hamp, a British infantryman who’s served in the trenches for 4 years, deserts his battalion he is arrested and brought before a court martial. A firing squad represents the ultimate penalty he potentially faces and it is down to Lieutenant Hargreaves (Hamp’s defending officer) to argue to the military court that the young soldier was unfit for combat, suffering from shell shock (PTSD in today’s terms), and as such should be spared a death sentence. Opposite Hargreaves is Lieutenant Webb, the prosecuting officer (and, should capital punishment be decided upon, the leader of the firing squad too) to put to the court that Hamp is nothing more than a deserter who should be executed accordingly - not only for the purposes of punishing his wrongdoing, but also to serve as a disciplinary example to the ranks.

It’s a noble story - made all the more resonant in that it was not to be until 2006 that the British Government would posthumously pardon all of the 300+ young men who had been shot for desertion during the 1914-18 conflict. The tragedy at the Southwark Playhouse however is that the production’s potential pathos and nobility is squandered by its three leading performances all who fail to achieve meaningful depth in their work. 

Adam Lawrence as Hamp should hold our hearts in his hands, much like the court martial holds his fate. But he doesn’t - and Lawrence needs to dig deeper to deliver the subtle complexities of his tragedy. There is disappointment too from Lloyd Everitt’s Hargreaves in a performance that veers between bluster and incredulity, but never truly convinces as a compassionate yet clipped British Army officer in the early 20th century. Likewise, Henry Proffit’s Webb, who all too often descends into caricature. Where one should be moved by this harrowing saga, all too often the episodes of two-handed dialogue feel tedious.

There are moments of stunning talent that shine through the gloom. Peter Ellis as the President of the Court (effectively judge and jury) brings a perfectly weighted gravitas to the role, as Andrew Cullum’s Medical Officer O’Sullivan offers a perfect depiction of the distressingly dismissive “pull yourself together mentality” so prevalent then (and now) in avoiding the complexities of mental health. Eugene Simon’s Padre convinces too.

But for too much of the evening, director Paul Tomlinson is found to have deserted his post, allowing his leading trio’s talent to go AWOL.


Runs until 21st July
Photo credit: Richard Strnad