Friday, 6 September 2019

Falsettos - Review

The Other Palace, London


****


Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson


Daniel Boys

When the patriarchal Marvin leaves his wife and young son for another man his family life is thrown into disarray. Trina, his frazzled spouse hooks up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, Marvin’s lover Whizzer is reluctantly inducted into the family’s day-to-day activities for the sake of maintaining some sense of normalcy as 10 year old Jason find himself caught in the middle of the pandemonium. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, originally envisioned as a pair of one act chamber musicals, really is a show of two halves. Act one, while slightly disjointed, is a fairly breezy affair, filled with pithy recitatives interspersed with zippy ensemble numbers. It’s all good fun, but while the show is funny, cutting and witty, as the interval arrives it also seems a little bit directionless. 

Not so in the second half. Picking up two years later and introducing Marvin’s delightful next door neighbours, caterer Cordelia and doctor Charlotte (‘the lesbians next door’), Falsettos delves into the confusion and chaos of the AIDS crisis. It’s a gut-wrenching decent – the darkening tone jarring uncomfortably with production designer PJ McEvoy’s kitschy set, with its cartoonish colour palette washed over with blinding bright primary coloured lighting. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson directs the turn from mayhem to tragedy perfectly, seamlessly balancing the laughs and the tears.

And, of course, the production is elevated by an outrageously good ensemble cast. Daniel Boys gives a masterfully complex performance as Marvin, a man who is constantly in the middle of a precarious balancing act with Oliver Savile charming as Marvin’s sardonic and seemingly self-absorbed boyfriend. Meanwhile Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Trina is as brilliant as ever, the jilted wife putting on a happy face for the sake of her family. 

Having picked up a cult following amongst UK musical theatre lovers after its well-received 2016 Broadway revival, the UK premiere of Falsettos was massively anticipated, and this production goes a long way to showing just why. It’s a shame though that it has been marred by controversy, with some in the UK’s Jewish community  calling out the lack of Jewish representation within the production’s cast and creative team. As the story centres closely upon the Jewish experience, including a touching subplot that centres on young Jason’s looming Bar Mitzvah, it remains essential that the show never dips into distasteful parody. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here for future iterations of this show and indeed, others. 

Judging the production at face-value though, Falsettos is well sung, ultra-smart and ultimately gutting. Those who buy a ticket will have plenty to look forward to.


Runs until 23rd November
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: The Standout Company

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Anything Goes - Review

The Other Palace, London


****


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by Alex Sutton


Olivia Hallett and the company of Anything Goes

Continuing the National Youth Music Theatre’s summer residence at The Other Palace sees this formidable company stage Cole Porter’s satirical musical Anything Goes. Comedy is a tough gig for even the most experienced of performers and it is a credit to NYMT that they deliver a show that, for the most part, hits the mark and captures Porter’s piercing wit.

Packed with songbook classics, any production of Anything Goes will always stir great expectations from its audience that are more than exceeded here, the enormous cast proving spectacular in their ensemble numbers.

Throughout, the song and dance work is performed to such a high standard that it is almost invidious to single out specific performers. However Olivia Hallett as Reno Sweeney leads the line with some sensational solo numbers and she is equally supported by Lulu-Mae Pears, Milo Hallett, Daniel Gray, Spike Maxwell, Toby Turpin, Miguel Rivilla and Sarah Dare in the show’s other key and featured roles. Vocal work is spot on throughout with Porter’s moments of comedy and irony - that are at times ridiculously silly - all being delivered with aplomb, confidence and above all, perfect timing.

The young company are supported by an outstanding creative team drawn from industry professionals. Jordan Li-Smith is, as ever, a masterful musical director. Lee Proud and Adam Haigh’s choreography, drawn from the 1987 Broadway revival is breathtaking - the full company tap numbers are a particular delight - while Diego Pitarch’s designs neatly suggest the SS American and all cleverly helmed by Alex Sutton.

Anything Goes doesn’t come around that often and this one’s a treat. Only on for three more dates, it makes for a great evening in the theatre.


Runs until 24th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Evita - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


*****

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Jamie Lloyd


Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre, albeit staged in its intended 1940s style, proves to be a masterclass of contemporary political theatre. In a production that is as much rally as world class musical, Lloyd transforms the piece into a commentary on recent times as well as a showcase of some of the finest performing talent to be found on both sides of the pond.

Lloyd, with his regular design partner Soutra Gilmour and choreographer Fabian Aloise, takes the story of Eva Duarte (subsequently, Peron) and charts her rise and fall in a stark brutal staging that is unashamedly sexual and politically brutal. The stage is bare and tiered – save for a rusting and distressed “EVITA”, fashioned in stark iron letters, that hangs over the space. The costumes are evocative of time and place, but it is the lithe writhing movement of the ensemble that define Argentina’s betrayed poor, from whose ranks Eva was to rise to become the wife of President Juan Peron. The occasional use of hand-held cabled mics adds a touch of campaigning urgency to the piece

But it is not just Lloyd’s visualisation of the piece that defines its political punch – although show’s smoking flares and confetti cannon do add to the impact. Rather, the political wit of Tim Rice’s lyrics proves as timeless today as when they were first sung in 1976. There is a veritably cruel incisiveness to Rice’s words that resonate as metaphors for the 21st century. Lloyd offers us hints of Farage and Trump in his contexting, while Rice’s merciless exposition of socialism in And The Money Kept Rolling In makes Jeremy Corbyn’s contemporary canards promising free-stuff to the impressionable seem ruthlessly resonant.

The production values of this show are close to flawless. In the title role, Samantha Pauly is the first of the show’s three trans-Atlantic imports. Pauly perfectly captures Evita’s curious fusion of strength and vulnerability, with a grace in movement and a vocal presence that are spine-tingling. Amidst the darkening trees of Regents Park, Pauly’s big number Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is imbued with a rare beauty.

Another Yank in the show is Trent Saunders as Che. Lloyd has fun with Che, defining him very much as the voice of the Argentinian people as well as the role of questioning chorus to which he had originally been created. Saunders provides the usual amount of deprecating irony towards Evita – but splashed with paint in the final act, he very much represents the spent and abused populace. 

The final American on stage is Ektor Rivera’s Peron. Aside from bringing the production a Latin authenticity, Rivera captures Peron’s sexual irresistibility as well as a convincing, uncaring, fascist governance to his leadership.

There is excellence in the key supporting roles too, with the wonderfully voiced Adam Pearce giving a thuggish sleaze to Augustin Magaldi, while Frances Mayli McCann enchants with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. Placed to the rear of the action and slightly above the stage Alan Williams' orchestra handle Lloyd Webber's South American melodies immaculately - with a particular mention to Ollie Hannifan's exquisite guitar playing. 

Tickets are still on sale, but at the time of this review availability is limited. Rush to see this show – it makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.


Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Parade - Review

The Other Palace, London


*****


Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter

This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.

Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.

Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.

Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.

There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.

Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.

It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever. 

The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.

Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.

Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!


Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Equus - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


***


Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai

Equus remains a fascinating, if dated, piece of writing from Peter Schaffer. Exploring the psycho-sexual complexities of the adolescent Alan Strang, a boy who has just, horrifically, blinded six horses, Shaffer contexts the young man’s mental turmoil against the emotional and sexual failings of his psychiatrist Richard Dysart.

Done well, the play should offer a well crafted glimpse into teenage angst, parental frailties together with the numbing realities of mid-life disappointment. In Ned Bennett's production however, that arrives at the Trafalgar Studios from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a strange fusion of magnificence and mediocrity permeates the evening.

Ethan Kai plays the troubled Strang and while he may appear perhaps a little too old to portray his teenage character, his performance nonetheless convinces. Kai captures Strang’s awkward dysfunctionality - a boy who is more at ease with horses than with people - delivering a performance of intensity and energy.

Opposite Kai is Zubin Varla’s Dysart in a turn that fails to deliver the gravitas that the role demands. Varla is unable to carry us along with his revelations of the demons that surround his infertility and failing marriage. On stage virtually throughout, in what is unquestionably a demanding role Varla’s work is of a standard that is little more than “average” and for Shaffer’s prose that’s just not good enough. 

The supporting roles are likewise workmanlike in their execution. With the exception of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Jill, Strang’s peer who befriends him, all the other characters prove too tedious as they flesh out Strang’s back story, making the 2hr 40min piece seem even longer.

To their credit however, and with the exception of Varla and Kai, all the cast double up in their portrayal of the horses that Strang is to ultimately mutilate and under Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction, their equine interpretations are sensational. The immaculately sculpted Ira Mandela Siobhan plays Nugget, the “lead” horse in the stables in a masterclass of physical theatre. Maxwell delivers genius in her suggestions of the horses’ movement, that her company deliver immaculately.


Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: The Other Richard

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Rodgers & Hammerstein (& Me Too)

Bread & Roses Theatre, London


***

Directed by Edward Goggin


Molly Lynch in rehearsal
For this week only, the capital can again savour the vocal excellence of Molly Lynch in her one-woman show Rodgers and Hammerstein & Me Too. The titular pun is deliberate as the accomplished Lynch takes her audience through a dozen or so R&H classics, interspersed with verbatim references to a selected choice of recent years' headline stories.

Lynch is a magnificent performer with the tightly packed hour long show demonstrating not only her ability to sing - but also a perfectly nuanced knack to act through song too. And for some of the evening the emotional punch of the stories she relates are painful and poignant. The interweaving of Kyle Stephens’ testimonies - a woman who as a young child was horrendously abused by America’s notorious paedophile Larry Nassar - with the lyrics of My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music proves powerful and heartbreaking. But there are moments when the counterpoint is clumsy. Contexting Rose McGowan’s description of Harvey Weinstein’s vile behaviour to a backdrop of the comparatively sugary sweetness of That’s The Way It Happens from Me And Juliet is an intended irony that misses the mark

Save for a brief reference to Jimmy Savile, Lynch's politicking is aimed squarely (and disappointingly, politically correctly) at the USA. This being the "woke" 2019, her failure to reference either the numerous misogynist regimes around the world that see women treated appallingly or, closer to home, the thousands of young girls in the UK that are and have been preyed upon by grooming gangs, are glaring omissions. 

Most fine musical theatre songs are best left unadulterated and, above all, uninterrupted. Good songwriting should tell its story and pack its punch through melody and lyric and it takes a fine and subtle hand to meddle with a masterpiece effectively. If Lynch returns to the intimacy of a cabaret venue - and one sincerely hope she does - the politics could perhaps be parked in favour of an evening that breaks the fourth wall and shines some light on the genius that underlies this young woman who is surely one of Ireland’s most talented exports.

When Katherine Jenkins played Julie Jordan in the Coliseum's Carousel a couple of years ago, Lynch was her acclaimed understudy and it remains a source of regret to many (Jonathan Baz included) that they missed those rare occasions that saw her step up to the leading role. This concert however offered some solace, with Lynch including What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’ in her set list. Her take on the song is exquisite, showcasing one of the finest voices to be found in London.


Runs until 3rd August

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Night Of The Iguana - Review

Noël Coward Theatre, London


*****

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald


The play's company
Set in a rundown hotel in 1940, atop the cliffs of Mexico’s Pacific coast ,  Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana offers up a glimpse of troubled lives in a dramatic cocktail that proves as intoxicating as a well mixed rum coco. The play was inspired by Williams’ own 1940 Mexican travels and his evident love for both time and place – and all set in a period before America had been sucked into the maelstrom of World War 2 – are evident. 

Clive Owen plays the Rev Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister now banished from the USA and reduced to leading guided tours around the world’s less glamorous regions. Shannon has led a reluctant party of Texan schoolgirls and their teacher (Finty Williams as a wonderfully Southern Baptist Judith Fellowes) to the hotel - a stop not included on the published itinerary - and their apparent entrapment at the remote location only heightens aspects of the story’s tension. We learn that Shannon has committed statutory rape (sex with minors) and as the evening unfolds we witness this priapic priest barely able to control his lust. Owen (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson) is on stage throughout most of the play, and his delivery of this strangely, vilely, complex role is a tour de force.

Playing Maxine Faulk, the wise and recently widowed hotelier, is Anna Gunn. There is evidently a complex history to Faulk and Shannon. She knows him inside out, replete with all his failings and yet is passionately drawn to the deeply damaged man. Gunn’s work is masterful – sassy yet vulnerable, and hinting at an absolutely fascinating back story.

And then arriving at the hotel are the penniless Hannah Jelkes played by Lia Williams, a middle-aged (con) artist accompanied by her nonagenarian poet grandfather, delightfully fleshed out by Julian Glover. Williams lays down yet further sadness as Jelkes outlines her back story of a woman who has seen love pass her by, save for two seedy encounters over many decades - and a childhood that she hints at as having been traumatised by profound emotional and sexual abuse. 

This being 1940, (and the play having been written in 1961) Williams also cheekily lobs in a family of raucous Germans to his “Mexican Berchtesgaden”, Nazis fleeing Europe and using Mexico either as a gateway to South America or a back-door to the States. 

The play’s themes are as complex as they are ultimately simple - but what stands out from this three hour opus is that it was written at a time when literary craftsmanship was at its finest. Williams touches upon some of the most painful and intimate aspects of humanity - sex, love, loneliness and abuse – but does so throughout with a beautiful and carefully worded prose that displays a complete absence of profanity. The strength of The Night Of The Iguana rests upon a sensational cast bringing the most sensitive of images into relief, via their spoken word. As they perform, the most moving and painful vignettes play out in our minds’ eyes - and it makes for a truly rare event to see theatre that is so richly created and performed.

James Macdonald has assembled a masterful team of creatives. Rae Smith’s mountainous Latin mountaintop convinces on its own – but accompanied by Max Pappenheim’s exquisite soundscape, the suspension of our disbelief is complete. The Night Of The Iguana is world class theatre.


Runs until 28th September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Oklahoma! - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Directed by Jeremy Sams


Emmanuel Kojo and members of the company

With Jeremy Sams’ production of Oklahoma! Chichester Festival Theatre are back producing some of the country’s most exciting musical theatre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, set amongst the prairies and cattle ranches of what was known at the turn of the 20th Century as Indian Territory (the state of Oklahoma only being formed in 1907), takes a story of love, action and passion set to some of the finest tunes in the canon. But for all the genius in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s writing, Oklahoma! is a desperately dated piece. It was a time when unmarried daughters were seen as very much their fathers’ property, while the biased frontier justice that is meted out in the show’s final act makes one realise just quite how sugar-coated the Broadway audiences of 1943 needed their stories to be.

But amidst this dated glimpse of a post-Civil War America, Sams and his creative team have delivered theatrical magic. In a bold casting move the two leading roles are given to relative industry newcomers. Hyoie O’Grady plays the cowboy Curly, smitten with a (mutual) love for Amara Okereke’s Laurey. O’Grady is a vocal delight, his opening bars of Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ stirring the Chichester audience into a foot-tapping frenzy. He needs to find a touch more gravitas to truly weight the role – but this will likely emerge during the run. As for Okereke, this blog has long followed her youthful genius and she makes a fabulous Laurey, capturing the fierce independence of the orphaned farmer alongside the fears and vulnerabilities of a young woman. Her singing is a delight – and her dance, especially in the Dream Ballet routine, sensational.

It is in the supporting roles that Sams lays on the heavyweight talent. Josie Lawrence as the matriarchal Aunt Eller brings a wryness and compassion to the role, with a raucous wit and perfect timing that captures the older woman’s wisdom, as well as some moments of cracking comedy. The biggest plaudits of the night though rest with Emmanuel Kojo’s Jud Fry, perhaps one of the most complex characters ever penned during Broadway’s Golden Age. Fry is a damaged lonely man, cruelly mocked by Curly in their duet Pore Jud Is Daid. That number however serves as but a warm up to Fry’s Lonely Room, a song in which Kojo delivers a bass baritone performance that is as moving as it is thrilling and ultimately terrifying. Daniel Evans (Chichester’s Artistic Director) unlocked Kojo’s craft in his 2015 Showboat at Sheffield (the actor’s Ol’ Man River still resonates) and it is hard to think of any other UK actor that could have delivered such a perfect interpretation of this challenging part.

Comic support was well delivered by Scott Karim as pedlar Ali Hakim. Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie can sure sing 'purdy' but her acting through song needs a little more time – her character's lines drip with carefully crafted gags, too many of which are wasted on the night. Neat work too from Isaac Gryn whose dance routine in Kansas City was flawless.

Indeed – the dance work throughout was magnificent and ingenious. Matt Cole has drilled his company immaculately with the previously mentioned big dance numbers being breathtaking in their ambition – and Cole produces further fine work in The Farmer And The Cowman.

Robert Jones’s set design makes fine work of the Festival Theatre’s deep jaws as Mark Henderson’s lighting segues seamlessly between the dustbowl of the farmlands and the vividness of Laurey’s nightmare.

This production delivers a Broadway treat that is rarely seen over here. While the show’s politics and nuances may be from a different era, its songs and commentary upon love and the human condition are timeless - and high above the stage Nigel Lilley's 15-piece band makes splendid work of Richard Rodgers' glorious melodies. Well worth a trip to the South Coast, Oklahoma! is one of the finest musicals around.


Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Bitter Wheat - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


****

Written and directed by David Mamet


John Malkovich

Bitter Wheat introduces us to Barney Fein, an obesely mysogynist movie mogul who, drunk on money and power, views women as little more than his playthings. It is no coincidence that post autumn 2017 and in the #MeToo era, the assonance of the name and the description of the man sound troublingly familiar. 

Fein is an ugly man - inside and out, with an ugliness that is matched only by Mamet’s writing. For this is a play of two halves - a first act that builds towards an explosive exploitation of sexual violation, and a second half that rapidly disintegrates into implausibility. And yet - for all of Mamet’s madness, the chaos of his writing still holds a withering mirror to Hollywood’s vile, vacuous and timelessly rapacious culture. While recent scandals may have rightly pushed Tinseltown’s casting couch into the spotlight - that toxic masculinity and mindset has riven the movie industry for as long as cameras have been turning. 

John Malkovich is a fine Fein. Padded up he is as massive the role that sees him onstage throughout the two hour piece. There is satire here but without the slapstick - Malkovich marvels in a role that, like Pravda's Lambert Le Roux in Pravda or The Producers' Max Bialystock, takes recognisable caricatures, magnifying them into a driving force. Mamet takes no prisoners in his writing, with Fein’s Jewish ancestry proving an uncomfortable butt for some of the venom he receives. However, Mamet is to be applauded in recognising the close and long-established ties between his anti-hero and America’s Democrat Party - a recognition that will not sit easily amongst the liberal literati on either side of the Atlantic.

Malkovich is well served by his fellow ensemble who, to differing degrees, are there merely as foils to his monstrous nature. Doon Mackichan is his much put-upon assistant Sondra, a woman of questionable ethics and evident complicity and who, rat-like, flees Fein's sinking ship. Making her West End debut, Ioanna Kimbook plays the South Korean movie star Yung Kim Li who finds herself the subject of Fein's abusive lust. The writer has allowed little room for nuance in the part, but Kimbook turns in a neatly measured performance.

There may be a whiff of sensationalised cliché to this world premiere, but no matter. Mamet's subject is timely and relevant and Malkovich's performance is electrifying.


Booking until 21st September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London



*****


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn


Maria Friedman and Andy Nyman

With its first major cast change since opening - as well as a shift across the Thames - Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler On The Roof remains one of London’s musical theatre jewels. The intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory's original treatment is not quite replicated in the Playhouse’s transformation, that sees "shtetl-lite" timber cladding dotted around the auditorium, but with a winding pathway built through the stalls there's enough enhancement to draw the audience into Russia's Pale of Settlement and away from the show's traditional West End proscenium treatment.

Some six months into the role sees Andy Nyman sit ever more comfortably as Tevye. There is a wise youthfulness to both Nyman’s timbre and gait and even though the show is set at the turn of the last century, Nyman brings a perceptible modernity to his performance. His Tevye is a man witnessing the very tenets of his faith being tested as his three grown up daughters each explore their different paths towards emancipation and he remains convincing throughout. It helps that Nyman's voice is glorious too – resonant and thrilling in If I Were A Rich Man, yet deeply tender in Do You Love Me.

In a canny casting move by the producers, Maria Friedman and Anita Dobson make the move from Albert Square to Anatevka. Friedman’s Golde defines the Jewish matriarch, loving and compassionate, yet with a resoluteness that permeates her delivery. Friedman has long been recognised as a gifted musical theatre leading lady and it is only a shame that the show does not allow Golde more centre stage moments. Some in the audience may recall Friedman’s turn at the National Theatre some thirty years ago in Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto, a role that is today only enhanced as she displays a strength and resilience in portraying the timeless persecution of the Jews. At all times though Friedman acts with an artistic beauty that shuns mawkish schmaltz.

Dobson steps up to the role of the ageing, widowed Yente the village matchmaker. There is an unquestionable sparkle to Dobson’s work – in a role that Sheldon Harnick imbued with more than its fair share of the show’s witticisms – but currently she is more battleaxe than busybody and misses a hint of Yente's nuance. The criticism here  slight but subtle. Yiddishkeit is not easy to master, but given time and an exposure to Friedman and Nyman’s onstage chemistry, Dobson can only grow into the role.

Most of Nunn’s staging has transferred well – the wedding scene in particular – though amidst the lofty heights of a full London stage, Tevye’s Dream loses a little of the wit that worked so wonderfully within the Chocolate Factory’s intimacy.

Excellence continues to abound throughout the show – with Nunn eliciting every moment of Harnick’s wry, self-deprecating pathos. The show's song and dance is wonderful - sadly the message of Fiddler On The Roof and the agelessness of antisemitism remains as depressing as ever.


Booking until 2nd November
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Light in the Piazza - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


****


Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Daniel Evans


Renée Fleming

Crossing the Atlantic, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza deploys some of the finest musical theatre talent in town to tell its curiously enchanting love story in a plot that upends one of society’s most deeply rooted taboos and prejudices.

The young and beautiful Clara Johnson together with her mother Margaret are American tourists footloose in Florence. A chance encounter with Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine, ignites a youthful, passionate love - and as Margaret anxiously frets over her daughter's emotions, a carefully nuanced story unfolds.

To say much more of the plot would spoil. Suffice to say that the unexpected twists offer a touching and unconventional portrayal of love, affection and the challenges of honesty that make for a rare and wonderful evening.

Making their professional debuts on this side of the pond are Broadway and opera’s leading lady Renée Fleming as Margaret, alongside Instagram and Hollywood star Dove Cameron playing Clara. Fleming’s classical voice stands out as a beacon of aural magnificence, effortlessly filling the Royal Festival Hall and notwithstanding the excellence that surrounds her on stage, Fleming’s powerfully poignant performance is worth the ticket price on its own. Cameron's Clara is an unexpectedly complex piece to deliver - and as the tale unfolds, she turns in an act of remarkably measured and touching sensitivity.

These two American women are the only players on stage allowed to perform in their native tongue. Everyone else has to masquerade in cod Italian - and if there is but one niggle of the piece it is the irritation of massed, cliched Latin dialects. The singing however is top notch. Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio captures the combination of Houchen’s physical and vocal beauty - the love that sparks between him and Cameron is delightfully plausible and convincing.

Alex Jennings is Fabrizio’s father - a man who we learn has never lost his admiration for the fairer sex, while Liam Tamne and Celinde Schoenmaker play his son and daughter-in-law. Guettel has liberally sprinkled his libretto with narrative-advancing solo turns throughout his cast, and under Daniel Evans’ perceptive direction the musical theatre treats are frequent.

For a simply presented semi-staged show, the highly spec’d creative work only enhances the production. Mark Henderson’s lighting offers an enchanting brilliance to Robert Jones’ delightfully suggestive set - as, sat above the action, Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Opera North orchestra in a lavish treatment of Guettel’s score.

Only on until July 4th before an international tour, The Light In The Piazza is a must see for all who appreciate modern writing and quality musical theatre.


Runs until July 4th

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Starry Messenger - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London


***


Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Sam Yates


Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern

As a love letter to New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger serves a purpose. Matthew Broderick is Mark, a professor of astronomy who teaches an evening class in the introductory basics of his subject, with an aspect of the play forming an  autobiographical nod to classes actually taken by Lonergan and Broderick in their youth at the Planetarium, before it was demolished in 1997.

Lonergan’s story however takes our disbelief and suspends it by the slenderest of threads. Amidst a string of weak constructs, we observe Mark being tested by a mid life crisis that stresses his long standing marriage to Ann (Elizabeth McGovern). Along the way Lonergan offers up a glimpse of many recognisable facets of modern living, his text enveloping love, lovelessness, deceit, jealousy, grief and ageing - together with a smattering of hope too. But ultimately there is little in this piece that grabs the audience to take them on much of a dramatic journey. For the price of a West End ticket Lonergan serves up a slice of life which, and for a fraction of the cost, many of the show’s audiences may well be experiencing day in, day out. The message of the piece may well be that sh*t happens but life goes on, but this is far too skimpy an argument to drive three hours of troubled text. There’s perception in the writing that offers up a sequence of meticulously observed mundanities, but too much of Lonergan's fiction is just implausible. 

Broderick does what he does best - this is Leo Bloom, thirty years on only without Mel Brooks writing the comedy. And as drama The Starry Messenger falls way short of Albee’s barbed acerbity that made George and Martha such a horrendously compelling mid-life, middle-aged, monstrous couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Overall, Lonergan’s Mark misses the mark. 

The acting is fine throughout. Alongside Broderick, McGovern captures an inner angst as Rosalind Eleazar's trainee nurse Angela puts in another well defined turn. Jim Norton's curmudgeonly Norman, an elderly cancer patient who drives one of the show's subplots is also spot-on in depicting the emotional onslaught of his disease and its impact on daughter Doris (great work from Sinead Matthews). 

There are momentary gasps and occasional laughs but ultimately this is a stretched out evening at the theatre, albeit one with a starry cast.


Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Vincent River - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


**


Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by Robert Chevara


Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahey

Philip Ridley as a playwright is a theatre producer’s. The vivid scenes-capes that he creates tend not to require lavish casting nor expensive sets, being instead fleshed out by way of lengthy, descriptive monologues - windows onto the dysfunctional dystopia that Ridley perceives around him. The disappointment to the audience however is that when you’ve heard one Ridley monologue, it can feel like you’ve heard them all.

Vincent River is a two-hander that revolves around Anita, grieving for her dead son Vincent and Davey, a young man who, we come to discover, was connected to the dead young man. Lasting 90 minutes, the one-act piece never leaves Anita's flat.

Louise Jameson is magnificent as the mourning mother, with a subtlety of nuance and tone in her performance that sits alongside the raging howls of her unimaginable grief. Notwithstanding the tortuous convolutions that Anita is subject to through Ridley’s prurient projections, Jameson remains masterful throughout. Thomas Mahy’s Davey however, even this long into the role (the production has transferred from a run last year at the Park Theatre) is too stilted, too often.  Contrasted with Jameson's genius, Mahy is found to lack credibility and heft in delivering his complex and occasionally unpleasant character.

The circumstances of Vincent’s death were a brutal homophobic hate crime, with the show’s programme notes making  worthy reference to the prescience of Ridley's writing (the play premiered in 2000) amidst the "otherings" of today, and the violence of prejudice that exists across the world. Sadly however such hateful violence is nothing new to mankind, with history telling us that it has been here forever. Ridley’s tawdry words, at times offering little more than a virtual peep show into graphic descriptions of verbally violent torture porn, tell us nothing new.


Runs until 22nd June
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


****


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


Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley

Amidst the financial crash of 2007/08, one of the most memorable images was that of the summarily fired employees of Lehman Brothers investment bank streaming out of their offices in New York and London’s Canary Wharf, their personal possessions unceremoniously borne in those ubiquitous cardboard Bankers Boxes.

Those branded boxes form a scenic mainstay throughout Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy and in this opus of a play, that spans from the middle of the 19th century through to the early years of the 21st, the writer’s suggestions are clear. Not only were the seeds of the bank’s downfall planted at its very inception, but also that much of the responsibility for this most recent of financial calamities, lies at the feet of the three Lehman brothers who had arrived on the USA’s eastern seaboard as penniless Jewish immigrants some 160 years before.

This is an unpleasant even if unsurprising conflation, for the last surviving member of the Lehman dynasty to have actually served on the bank’s board was Bobby Lehman, a grandson of the founders and who himself had died in 1969, some 40 years prior to the bank’s collapse and hence well distanced from the decisions that led to its demise. This lapse of time however has not troubled Massini. Much as was sung in Monty Python’s Spamalot: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you dont have any Jews”, so Massini switches Broadway for Wall Street and, like an East End mural, subtly fuels a troubling trope. 

The stagecraft on display in this 3.5 hours epic is breathtaking. Assuming all roles, genders, and ages, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are a tour de force of a trio. With accents that are never too laboured and Sam Mendes having focused on the tiniest of nuances in each man’s work, their performances have to be amongst the finest in town. Es Devlin’s staging is ingeniously and suggestively slick - a simple minimally furnished revolve (complete with said boxes) enveloped by Luke Halls’ wraparound video screen - but it is the three actors who convincingly convey time, place and characters as they drive the narrative from the brothers’ humble beginning as Alabama cotton traders through to their dominance of New York’s financial district.

Massini keeps the three brothers clad in European/Victorian tailcoats throughout, reflecting the costume and time of their arrival on the eastern seaboard. But while this simplicity of clothing places a dramatic requirement upon the three men to enact their respective characters through their performances - a challenge that they not only rise to, but emphatically smash - its continual presence throughout the piece only heightens the play’s subliminally uncomfortable associations. 

Taking a step back from the production’s breath-taking technical brilliance - opening now in the West End having only just returned from an acclaimed, brief, New York transfer - the quality of the writing does not match the standards of Mendes’ cast and crew. While the story revolves around (and not entirely incorrectly) the brute avarice of capitalism with the horrors of the 1929 Wall Street crash featuring heavily in the second act, the argument is one-sided and there is little if any respect paid to the positive aspects of capital markets.

For sure the markets are imperfect, often profoundly so, but it was and remains risked capital that often created national as well as private wealth and much mass employment too. But for Massini it seems that these are inconvenient truths. Similarly, the story’s vast timeline is managed well until the third act’s endgame, when the four decades following Bobby Lehman’s demise are telescoped into a barely fleshed-out finale.

Notwithstanding its flawed message, in these times of unparalleled political polarisation The Lehman Trilogy will be lapped up by eager audiences. And for sheer technical theatrical genius, the play is in a class of its own.


Runs until 31st August. To be screened via NTLive on 25 July 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Carousel - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


*****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer

To read my recent interview with Janie Dee and Jo Riding, click here




Image may contain: one or more people and indoor
The company of Carousel
Every now and then theatrical magic descends...

So it was at the Cadogan Hall this week where Alex Parker had assembled a starry cast and a magnificent 30-strong orchestra to perform, for one night only, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. But this cast had something even more special, setting it apart from the throng of musicals currently playing in the West End and on Broadway. For back in 1992 Carousel had been staged at London's National Theatre in a production that featured Jo Riding and Janie Dee as female leads Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge. Such was the excellence of director Nicholas Hytner’s show that not only did his revival win the Olivier for Best Musical Revival and Best Director, but Riding and Dee won the Oliviers for Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Performer (both for in a Musical), respectively.

Riding and Dee had been recently reunited at the National as the leads in a revival of Follies and so it was an act of sheer vision that prompted Parker to invite the duo to reprise their Carousel magnificence in a concert performance of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.

Janie Dee and Jo Riding in Carousel, 1992

The pair’s contribution to the evening was a display, not only of continuing musical theatre excellence – but also of a sheer unbridled love for the show that they were singing. As the cast remained seated on stage when not called upon to perform, Dee’s passion for the piece was almost palpabke. When not performing herself she was absorbing the detail of the music and the occasion, almost in disbelief - not dissimilar to Billy Bigelow being granted the chance to descend from Heaven for a one day visit to Earth - that she had been granted a chance to reprise this heavenly score. Riding too was both entranced and enchanting and yet, in full keeping with the incredibly complex character that Julie is, maintained a sobriety that in no way diminished her evident love for the occasion.

Parker had rehearsed his musicians impeccably. From the opening bars of The Carousel Waltz, through to the closing strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone – not to mention the sheer brilliance of the demanding Act 2 Ballet, the music was a profound delight, accompanied by a vocal chorus of students from the Guildford School of Acting.

Alongside Riding and Dee, Hadley Fraser was  compelling and convincing as the violently troubled Billy Bigelow. Another character of deep complexity, Fraser imbued the errant husband with as much sympathy as could be afforded to his abusive nature. He also delivered a sensational Soliloquy.

Gavin Spokes captured Mr Snow’s comic pomposity perfectly, as Stewart Clarke’s Jigger was another deft turn from this talented young man, Clarke picking out his character’s malign opportunistic wickedness. Both men were vocally outstanding, with Matthew Kelly and Chizzy Akudolu complementing the set of supporting roles as The Starkeeper and Mrs Mullins respectively

As Nettie Fowler, Lucy Schaufer’s operatic background led to her spine-tingling take on You’ll Never Walk Alone. But back in 1992 it had been Patricia Routledge (not yet then a Dame) who played Nettie. Incredibly, and at the age of 90!, Routledge returned to this production as the narrator. For those in the audience who remembered the 1992 show, to see Dame Patricia singing along in the finale of the show’s totemic anthem was unforgettable.


Photo credit: Take Two Theatricals (2019) and Clive Barda (1992)