Thursday, 18 October 2018

Company - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Patti Lupone

Written by a New Yorker about fellow New Yorkers, Stephen Sondheim's Company is arguably best played to New Yorkers too. The songs are legendary, but amidst Marianne Elliott’s company’s well-rehearsed accents (Patti Lupone excluded, she oozes Americana) there’s something missing from this slice of Big Apple life. Perfectly polished for sure, but it’s a tough gig to convincingly recreate Manhattan’s milieu on Shaftesbury Avenue.

In a much heralded gender swap this revival sees Rosalie Craig plays the angst-fuelled Bobbie, celebrating her 35th birthday amidst the alarm of her coterie of married buddies that she is still unmarried. Sondheim’s song cycle of a show charts her odyssey through a cityscape of dating and domestic dysfunctionality - and if the writer’s barbed observations on life veer from the cliched to the piercingly perceptive, this production delivers his songs and score magnificently.

Elliott stages the piece well as Bobbie flits from couple to couple through Bunny Christie’s ingenious set tableaux that glide across the stage, capturing the monolithic greyness of the city’s apartment blocks perfectly. Above the stage, Joel Fram's orchestra are sublime.

WIth a cast drawn mostly from the British industry's finest, the show is lavishly staged with high production values. A male trio sings and dances divinely through You Could Drive A Person Crazy, evidencing Liam Steel’s classy choreography which is magnificent again in the second half opener of Side By Side By SIde.

The red-maned Craig is gifted the lion’s share of the songs and as her Bobbie lurches through a nightmare of neuroses, Craig’s take on Sondheim’s classics is flawless. Indeed, sung by a woman both Marry Me A Little and Being Alive are gifted an intriguingly fresh nuance.

But for all the re-casted and re-scripted ingenuity on display, it is down to Broadway legend Patti Lupone's Joanne to deliver the evening’s unmissable moment. There’s probably no finer solo to be found in the West End as she drawls and drinks her way through the tour de force that is The Ladies Who Lunch. Lupone’s devastating delivery proves a caustic cocktail and rarely is a role so immaculately tailored to the performer.

An evening at Company is unquestionably fine theatre. Everybody rise.

Booking until 30th March 2019
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Camelot - Review

London Palladium, London


Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe

Freddie Tapner conducting the LMTO

Camelot in Concert, a one night only delight at the London Palladium, celebrated lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s would-be 100th birthday with a musical not seen on the West End for some thirty years but, as noted with the large turn-out and standing ovation, one which has certainly not been forgotten. To be expected for the winner of four Tony Awards!

The simple set up for the wonderful London Musical Theatre Orchestra and podiums for the cast of ten allowed the music, story and classic but often naughty lyrics to really shine in the Palladium. As with Lerner’s classics Brigadoon and Gigi, the script for Camelot paints a picture without the need for elaborate set and costume, a testament to the rarely heard show and making it perfect for a concert arrangement.

Olivier Award winner David Thaxton is brilliant as the unexpected King Arthur, a jack the lad with a heart of gold and wholesome ambition for Camelot thanks to Merlin’s fortune-telling advice and shape-shifting lessons. As Arthur grows into the king who envisions and implements the legendary Knights of the Roundtable, Merlin loses his powers thanks to the spellbinding song and spell ‘Follow Me’ from Nimue, enchantingly sung by Dutch singer Celinde Schoenmaker. This early exit - and vital plot point - seemed to be a waste as Clive Carter’s Merlin certainly brought the humour home (“and Wort… remember to think!”) but thankfully Carter continued to milk the quirks of his characters as King Pellinore, the ever gleeful and unwittingly wise member of the roundtable. Savannah Stevenson brings Arthur’s Queen (Ginny) Guenevere’s naivety, sweetness and sass to life with ‘The Simple Joys of Maidenhood’ and ‘The Lusty Month of May’, driving the drama from hopeful to tragic thanks to her ill-advised affair with Lancelot. The booming Charles Rice is that Sir Lancelot du Lac, who brought laughter with the très cocky ‘C’est Moi’ and, in Act Two, tears with the exquisite ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’. Matthew McKenna (aka Bananaman) is a highlight from the rest of the table as ever so Scottish, kilt-wearing Sir Sagramore and the concert was solidified by the ensemble who appeared downstage for crowd scenes, each offering an enthusiastic and energetic performance.

Bravo to Freddie Tapner and his remarkable LMTO. Events like this one highlight the enduring nature of a stand-out show like Camelot. A rather flat and undefined performance from the antagonist didn’t detract from the joy of the piece and there was very much the hope a full revival is forthcoming.

Reviewed by Heather Deacon

The Inheritance - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Stephen Daldry

The Company

When Mathew Lopez's play The Inheritance opened at the Young Vic earlier this year it immediately caused a stir. This wasn't just another epic piece of theatre, running in two parts over seven hours, it was another epic gay themed play and comparisons to the National's recent production of Tony Kushner's Angels In America were inevitable. In truth, the two plays may have similar themes but otherwise there is little in common save the running time.

Lopez's play reworks the story of E.M.Forster's Howards End, setting the action in New York more than 30 years after the major events of Kushner's groundbreaking opus. In a shrewd theatrical device, Forster appears to a group of aspiring writers to assist them out of their writers' block. In the process, we are introduced to liberal lawyer Eric Glass and his partner of seven years Toby Darling, who has just gained celebrity as an author and is currently bashing out a stage script.

By chance they meet and befriend the bookish Leo, who aspires to an acting career but needs a leg up, which Toby is more than happy to offer as his script is optioned by a producer. In the meantime the self-deprecating Eric entertains the ailing Walter, who has moved in upstairs while his townhouse is being renovated. The pair share common philosophies and Walter enlightens Eric to the realities of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged New York in the Eighties and Nineties.

The joy of this play is found in the rise and fall in the temperature of Lopez's writing. His characters are painstakingly crafted, without appearing heavy handed and they move the story on in sizable but absorbing chunks. There is no slavish attempt to ape Forster's written style, which simply wouldn't work, but he does credit the author with an overwhelming sense of humanity. It's this trait of Forster's writing that Lopez draws on and despite the numerous socio-political themes that ricochet throughout the play, it is this that gives the play its emotional strength.

Despite a quality creative team including Stephen Daldry as director and Bob Crowley as designer, this is very much the author's night. Scenes of great humour and occasionally even eroticism sit easily beside political debate and it's deeply satisfying to note that the author doesn't pander to the vanity of the current POTUS by mentioning his name. There is balance however, as Walter's Republican partner  Henry - a swaggering John Benjamin Hickey - supremely tears a strip off an over-zealous armchair liberal pointedly trying to undermine him. Walter's epic monologue, delivered so earnestly by a sublime Paul Hilton, hammers home the devastating effect of AIDS and more pointedly, the country that deserted its citizens as they suffered and died.

It is the beauty of Lopez's writing that allows him, at least partially, to get away with such a long play. Part One could quite easily pass for a complete full-length piece, albeit one with loose ends to tie up. It is in tying up those strands of the story for Part Two that Lopez begins to repeat himself, drawinging moments out unnecessarily.  The character of Forster long abandoned, reappears to explain why he wrote Maurice and in a nod to the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howards End, Vanessa Redgrave steals focus as a mother who stayed on at Walter's home, long after her son had died. In fact, Redgrave never made the second press night and the role was admirably undertaken by Amanda Reed.

The Inheritance has been rightly lauded as a major piece of 21st century theatre and Lopez has a gift for crafting argument and dialogue with sensitivity and innate understanding. Does it need to be seven hours long? Hell no, but it's a gripping story, eloquently reminding us that unless we have a conversation with our past, we will never be able to understand the future.

Runs until 19th January 2019
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday, 5 October 2018

People Like Us - Review

Union Theatre, London


Written by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins
Directed by Ben De Wynter

Sarah Toogood and Gemma-Germaine

Like a long overdue gust of fresh air blown into the stale politicised bubble that has become London’s arts scene, People Like Us, a debut play from the writing partnership of Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, upends the politically correct canards that have stifled decent debate in the capital for years.

Set around an Islington book group of five friends, most of whose relationships date back to their Oxford years, the fault lines are very quickly exposed between the trio who with varying degrees of passion support Remain and their two Leave believing buddies.

Ralph, with a house in Provence and a younger (second) French wife Clemence are, unsurprisingly, Remainers and upping the ante even further, Clemence is employed by an EU agency. And then there’s Will, a nice enough novelist who, while he canvases for Remain, espousing the intellectual virtues of a London liberal, is still socially, if not politically, impaled on his very personal fence post. 

Leading the charge of democracy are Stacey and Frances whose belief in the Brexit cause appalls Clemence and Ralph. Where Robins has constructed the play’s skeleton, it is Burchill who has fleshed out most of the dialogue and lashing out at London's litterati and chatterati, she takes no prisoners. Ralph’s liberal tolerance is mocked by Frances, while Clemence argues tellingly and, on reflection chillingly, that it is “morally better to silence dissent”. There’s an interesting nod from Frances to Islamic complexities too, an angle that may have the more sensitive critics throwing their hands up in horror, but her sentiments, when viewed through the prism of Rochdale and Rotherham carry more of a resonance than many would be comfortable admitting.

Kamaal Hussain captures Ralph’s privileged entitlement as Marine Andre makes her impassioned UK debut as Clemence. The intensity behind Andre’s performance is sincere and credible - but there are moments when her strong and natural accent renders some of the text inaudible. Gemma-Germaine and Sarah Toogood capture the indignity of their position, ostracised by Ralph and Clemence - and while, for the sake of artistic licence all the character’s arguments are slightly lampooned and exaggerated by the writers, the two Leavers make a powerfully cogent case. Paul Giddings’ Will is a cracking turn that could easily have been inspired by Chicago’s Mr Cellophane.

The silencing and politically dehumanising of Leavers in London has been a recognisable trait of the last three years - and whilst the play is unquestionably a rough diamond that still needs work on both script and aspects of the staging too - for the most part the writers and producers are to be commended for taking their argument to the capital, the ideological heartland of the nation’s Remain constituency.

This is unquestionably a courageous, partisan show for the Union to stage - and there is as much thought put into the production as there is heart, with the programme alone containing more than six pages of essay and comment on Brexit. And if ever there was an example of fortune favouring the brave then this is it: the show has sold out for its entire run and deservedly so.

While People Like Us may be unusual fodder for a West End transfer, there is already talk of a run being staged in the nation’s North East. It would sit well in a TV treatment too.

Runs until 20th October - SOLD OUT
Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke