Saturday, 16 March 2019

Jasper Britton In Conversation

Jasper Britton

Witness For The Prosecution, Agatha Christie's murder thriller is playing very successfully at London's ingeniously converted County Hall venue. RSC leading man, Jasper Britton heads the latest cast change and as he took over the role of defence barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts he and I chatted about the play and his career... 

Jonathan:    Jasper, tell me about your journey into Witness For The Prosecution?

Jasper:    Well I was doing A Pack of Lies at the Menier and then Lucy Bailey (the director of Witness For The Prosecution) called me. This is the fourth time I've worked with Lucy. She usually phones me at midnight and asks me to start rehearsing the next morning, telling me that she’s “made a terrible mistake casting!”. I'm forever meeting her in bars and in theatres and she says, "Oh I'm directing such and such, and there's a marvellous part for you, you'd be brilliant in it." So she phoned up and said, "Look I'm doing this thing. And we're recasting and it's great fun”

And so we went in one afternoon and she showed me round the whole place. Downstairs at County Hall the company has kind of created a whole backstage area out of nothing and there's a real sense of fun and I just thought this is a happy place to be, a happy fun place and "Well, why not?". And it was a six month contract too which is sort of rare in this day and age.

And then my agent said, "Don't do it, it'll kill you, you'll be performing (at the Menier) while you're rehearsing Witness." And I said, "Well I've done that before at Stratford."  And  she said, "Yes but you're normally in rep and you're… you know…."

And of course she wasn't far off. By the time we got to finishing Pack of Lies and starting Witness, I really was on my knees. I turned up for a photo shoot, I can't even remember it. I look at the photograph, I look like the tiredest man in the world. That period of performing and rehearsing was a month without a day off and 70 to 80 hour weeks. Luckily we were rehearsing at the Jerwood which is only round the corner from the Menier, so it literally was a three minute walk to and from each venue. But bloody hell!

Jonathan:    Was the entire cast replaced for this change over in Witness?

Jasper:    More or less. There are a couple of people in the smaller roles who stayed on, who've been there for a while. And yeah, they are a fantastic bunch. Some of them it's only their first job, but you'd never know it. Their range of skills is absolutely astonishing. And there is a wonderful work ethic. Everybody pulls their weight, even down to the smallest parts.

Jonathan:    In my recent review of the play I noted that there are four of the show’s players who are making their West End debuts and how this speaks volumes for the excellent standard of the current cohort of actors currently entering the profession.

Jasper:    Quite right too and it's very nice of you to big them up like that, because they really do deserve it. And they are all very kind to me and patient with me. It took me a while because I was so tired!

Jonathan:    What strikes me about the play, is that It's the sort of show that the tourist who's not well versed in English literature could go to and thoroughly enjoy as top notch theatre. How does Witness compare with say Shakespeare where there's more potential for interpretation in the verse?

Jasper:    That’s a really good question. I would say that this is absolutely a piece of popular theatre and that's reflected in the breadth of the audience that we get. We get very young people, we get very old people. We get foreign people, we get English people. We get a very different audience to the one that I'm used to working with in what I would describe as subsidised British theatre. The attraction of it, is that it is a popular piece of theatre. And that you don't have to engage your brain too much. But of course people do because they're trying to work out who done it, all the way through.

The challenge of any piece really is that after you've finished rehearsing as it were, I always feel that's when the real work begins. Because the audience teach you so much about the play. And they teach you about what works and what works less well. And they teach you about when they get bored, and they teach you about what they don't believe, and they teach you about what they do believe.

And so the process of performing for me, is always a continuous process of reconsidering, and reworking and finding new inspirations. So I really wanted to find the maverick, like Lucy is a maverick. I wanted to find the maverick in my barrister. And of course it's different to Shakespeare because Shakespeare does all of the work for you.

I remember doing a Simon Gray play in the West End. - Simon taught me so much about acting.- And he said, "Look, it's okay for you to just sit on the sofa and talk. Don't forget, the writer has done the work for you."And those were golden words of advice.

Jonathan:    The last thing that I'd caught you in before this show, (I didn't see you at the Menier) was Scrooge The Musical at Leicester’s Curve in 2017. Before then I hadn't associated you with musical theatre. Where does that heritage comes from?

Jasper:    Right, well, there's a tale!

My dad was the first person to tour Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in this country from 1964 to 66 (and I was born in 1962).

Jonathan:    Your father is Tony Britton

Jasper:    Yes – and he’s enjoyed an extraordinary career.Being Higgins, touring for two years. And then being a household name on television. I mean he is brilliant. He can do anything really. So as I was growing up, my recollection is, that the record of that was always on the record player.

And then in 1972 he was in a musical called No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane and he used to give me his scripts to draw on the back of because in the old days, before we were green, they would only be printed on one side so you could write notes on the facing side. And he'd just give them to me and I'd draw pictures of ships and God knows what.

But one day I took this script with me to school. I've no idea why. But I put it in my bag and I took it with me and in a history lesson ... I was terrible at history, I found it intensely boring. I took the script out and I started to read it. And very early on in that show is a song called Too Many Rings Around Rosie. And it was sung by Annie Rogers and Teddy Green. And Annie Rogers wore a 1920's flapper dress, green sequined flapper dress with a big feather in her hair, and Teddy Green was wearing a very stylish cream linen suit and a straw boater.

And I'd seen the show, obviously, but what struck me was the lyrics on the page, when I got to the page. There was just the lyrics in block capitals. There were no stage directions, nothing. And as I read the lyrics, I could see in my minds eye, and hear in my minds ear, Teddy and Annie singing and dancing the song. And I loved it. It was my favourite song in the show. And it's actually the thing that made me want to be an actor. It was that moment, reading those lyrics.

A few years later I found myself at a different school, and a man called Jeremy James Taylor turned up. He'd been at university with my English teacher. And they decided, because the school play had been defunct for some years, they decided, "Hey why don't we do a school play."

Jeremy was an associate director at the Young Vic at the time and he’d had this idea about a boy player in Elizabethan times in London called Salomon Pavey who had sadly died when he was only 12 years old. But he was very famous for playing old men, oddly. So they thought, "Right, why don't we explore that." So over nine months they wrote for us, this musical which is now called The Ballad of Salomon Pavey - what they described as a ballad opera.

We performed it in a vast marquee, I mean a really big marquee, on the lawn at my prep school and it was magical. And then we took it to the Edinburgh Festival that summer and we won a Fringe First! The following year we did it at the Young Vic for a fortnight to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and that production turned out to be the first from what is now known as The National Youth Music Theatre that Jeremy subsequently set up.

As time went on I became an actor and I went to the RSC in 1992 where they put me in The Beggars Opera which had 74 songs in that version with the brilliant Ilona Sekacz having done the arrangements. It was mega.

The thing though that I really want to do, is to play Henry Higgins. And I'm going to drop a card to Cameron Macintosh and say, "Next time you do it, would you just put my name in your hat." I only have two ambitions really in my life. One is to play Henry Higgins. And the other is to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I played Willy at the age of 17 at school, and I love that play!

Witness For The Prosecution is booking until March 2020

Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Rip It Up - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Directed & choreographed by Gareth Walker

Harry Judd, Louis Smith, Jay McGuiness and Aston Merrygold

Rip It Up does exactly that to the conventional West End tried and tested juke box musical. In part a Reality TV show and in part a showcase, the evening encapsulates a musical time-machine that will have you tapping your feet and smiling from cheek to cheek despite your best attempts to resist.

In a show that will please Boomers and Millennials alike, the show covers the cherished pop hits of the 60’s. Harry Judd, Louis Smith, Jay McGuiness and Aston Merrygold whirl through the decade’s differeing music scenes ranging from the Swinging 60s all the way through to the Mods. Much in the spirit of A Hard Days Night, this fab four clearly enjoy their West End debut.

Merrygold delivers some show stopping vocals, well and truly stepped up when hitting the high notes of Frankie Valli as Smith pleases the crowd with some physical feats that are almost Olympian, such is his show biz finesse. 

Full of energy from start to finish the show does a great job of reliving some of the era’s most cherished music, with the power of female vocalist Jill Marie Cooper alongside the onstage band adding the show’s TV studio feel. There’s an unexpected treat in the second half where Harry Judd’s dance is a joy to behold – one can see that his time on Strictly has certainly paid off.

Not for those seeking a quite night of passive theatre, but if you are up for some mash potato plus a little bit of twist and a sprinkling of shout then this show will most definitely have you singing these classic records all day and all of the night. Rip up your plans and get yourself a ticket – it’s nostalgic, cheesy and delightfully good fun.

Booking until 2nd June
Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Sara Kobayashi - Review

Wigmore Hall, London


Sara Kobayashi

Sara Kobayashi’s recent concert  at London’s Wigmore Hall hinted at a promising afternoon of entertainment. But while the diva’s piano accompaniment was flawless throughout, the vocal offerings proved to be a curious and sometimes disappointing selection. 

The first act saw Koyabashi offering a number of songs from a range of European languages. The singer’s linguistic skills are not in question however the ability to translate cadence and rhythm across tongues is a craft in itself. As Koyabashi came to sing an English number, the jarring delivery was an unwelcome distraction from her otherwise gorgeous voice. 

Sung in Koyabashi’s native Japanese the second act was much more of the expected treat, albeit with the opening number Ki I Te (literally, “Listen”) proving lyrically to be little more than that, the titular phrase being repeated incessantly - and eccentrically.

The gig’s saving grace rested with the exquisite piano accompaniment from Ayaka Niwano, three pieces in particular proving sensational: Takemitsu’s Small Sky, Roger Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy and Green by Claude Debussy.

Waitress - Review

Adelphi Theatre


Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus

Katharine McPhee

Of all the new musicals that Broadway has shipped to London in recent years, Waitress is quite possibly the greatest as Sara Bareillles takes an unflinching look at 21st century America through the eyes of waitress Jenna and her two best friends and workmates, Becky and Dawn. But what makes this transatlantic transfer quite such a success, is that while the musical is set in a nameless small-town, somewhere, anywhere, in the States – and Scott Pask’s set design is terrific, all disappearing telegraph lines and ingeniously sliding interior locations – Bareilles’ tale drawn from Adrienne Shelly’s movie, is a celebration of modern womanhood that transcends all borders.

Katharine McPhee crosses the pond from the Broadway production to open the Adelphi run and she is wonderful. Unhappily married to the abusive - albeit not without his own complex history - Earl, she is a hard working woman with a gift for making inventive pies who finds herself early in the show with an unplanned pregnancy. One of the show’s gritty strengths is its ability to upend traditional trends. Devastated at her pregnancy, Jenna nonetheless vows to remain strong, making the most of hers and her baby's future, and it is this grasp of verité that places Waitress firmly within the sphere of most of its audiences. That of course, and its songs. Bareilles acute eye for life and rhythm serves up a collection of glorious numbers that range from country, to rock, to Jenna’s scorchingly tender solo ballad She Used To Be Mine.

Bareilles and Jessie Nelson sweeten their tale with liberal amounts of comedy. Marisha Wallace’s Becky is recognisably wonderful as the much put upon spouse of a disabled husband, who while she loves him deeply, seeks her sexual satisfaction elsewhere. And Laura Baldwin is the wonderfully gauche and cooky Dawn, who discovers an unlikely online soulmate in Ogie, and who steals the show in her first half big number When He Sees Me.

Waitress’ men are no more than supporting roles in this celebration of womanhood – but they are neatly fleshed out turns. Peter Hannah is a convincingly unpleasant Earl as Jack McBrayer joins McPhee as a well placed American import. McBrayer’s physical presence and comic timing as Ogie is a work of genius. In the most complex of male supports, David Hunter plays Dr Pomatter, Jenner’s (married) gynaecologist, with whom she strikes up a brief but passionate affair . Hunter captures the awkward fusion of an unethical love (complete with in-flagrante comedy) together with a sincerely credible pathos.

The modest supporting roles are all perfectly delivered. Shaun Prendergast as the wise and saintly diner owner Joe is an occasional charming diversion, while Stephen Leask’s diner chef Cal and Kelly Agbowu’s Nurse Norma are both brilliantly observed characters.

Katharine Woolley’s 6 piece on stage band make fine work of Bareilles’ score and credit to director Diane Paulus, who must truly be one of the most visionary helmswomen on Broadway today. Credit too to producers Barry and Fran Weissler who, on seeing the movie some years back, had the vision to assemble Bareilles, Paulus and Nelson and create the finest deep-dish screen to stage transition in decades.

Booking until 19th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Nine to Five The Musical - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Dolly Parton
Book by Patricia Resnick
Directed by Jeff Calhoun

Natalie McQueen, Caroline Sheen , Amber Davies
Musical theatre comedy done well is a blissful way to spend an evening. So it is with Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, currently playing to packed houses at the Savoy Theatre.

Set in 1980s corporate America the plot is an unbelievable humbug that sees three focused, driven women kidnap their boorish, mysogninyst boss with everything leading to a deliriously happy ending. But while the story may be a fictional fable, the show’s themes are sadly timeless - and to that end, while Parton my have set Patricia Resnick’s book to music nearly 40 years ago, the show’s themes of workplace inequality and sexual harassment are as true today as they ever were.

So what turns this potentially grim scenario into quite such a banging night at the theatre? Parton’s cracking songs, delivered by a perfect cast. Caroline Sheen leads the line, as Violet, an overlooked female executive. In a tough role that doesn’t offer much comical caricature potential, Sheen is magnificent. Beautifully voiced as ever, she drives the story’s narrative.

Dolly Parton is as famous for her physique as for her country & western singer/songwriter talents - and it falls to Natalie McQueen as Doralee to capture the legendary statuesque Parton persona. McQueen rises to the challenge fabulously, never better than in her poignant solo Backwoods Barbie.

Third in the lineup is Amber Davies’ Judy playing a young dumped bride finding her way in the workplace. Both Davies and McQueen capture the comic essentials of their characters with an impressive avoidance of cliche - top work from all three.

The supporting roles are equally flawless in their delivery of cracking comedy. Brian Conley is the women’s monstrous employer turning in an assured performance as a man with no redeeming features whatsoever other than an awesome stage presence and impeccable comic timing. Opposite Conley, Bonnie Langford plays Roz, his harridan henchperson.  Langford’s talent is breathtaking as she transitions from brusque, bunned busybody to basque-clad temtptress in her sensational solo piece Heart To Hart, with an elegant litheness that has to be seen to be believed.

And all credit to the show’s creatives. Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Lisa Stevens pack the piece with colour and movement, while Howard Hudson’s lighting and Nina Dunn’s video projections make the stage itself as entertaining as the perfomances. Under Andrew Hilton’s baton, the eight piece band are an equal delight.

9 to 5 is perfectly played, unpretentious fun and one of the funniest feel-good shows in town.

Booking until 31st August

Monday, 4 March 2019

Waitress' director Diane Paulus talks to me about the show

Marisha Wallace, Katharine McPhee and Laura Baldwin
Waitress opens in the West End this week and I grabbed a rare, brief opportunity to chat with the musical's Tony-winning director Diane Paulus about the show.

JB:    Diane - With Waitress now such a Broadway success, what was it that drew you to the story being translated from screen to stage? 

Diane:    Well, when I watched the film, the Adrienne Shelly film, I was struck by, first of all, how theatrical it is. It's almost like a unit set in the way it's filmed, it's just in the diner. It's in a doctors office, it's at Jenna's house. Adrienne purposefully didn't really get into, you know, what town are we in? What does it look like on main street? 

It's really almost like a fairy tale and it's very quirky and the characters have a lot of personality and then you get this like sock to the gut, emotional punch of this woman's crisis of her life. And when I watched it, I saw that character and I thought, I know who that woman is because I know people who go through that.

And what struck me was quite a personal experience. One of my dearest friends growing up, is not a working class person. She's actually a woman of enormous privilege, but she had been in a terrible relationship where she had been made to feel small and made to feel like she didn't deserve: her feelings or her self.

And so I thought this thing of what happens when we lose our sense of self with really wrong things happening, like having an affair with your gynaecologist. Like, let's just say that's sort of wrong! But life is messy and that's what the show is also about. 

You know, the other thing that I loved about the story was, so she gets pregnant and she is not excited about being pregnant. So I'm a mom with two kids and I really related to that. However, I had read when Adrienne Shelly wrote the movie's screenplay, she was pregnant and she was terrified, like terrified. Like: “What if I don't love the baby?” Every other mother is going crazy, like on cloud nine pregnant. And, and so this feeling again, that’s not quite politically correct to say: “I'm pregnant and I'm like, you know, not as happy as I should be.” But, this idea of the journey of what it means to become a mother and the journey of learning to love yourself. So it's a universal story. So it was that character, the complexity of that character that interests me.

Diane Paulus

JB:    Jenna is a strong, well fleshed out character, however the three key guys in the story’s arc are, by comparison, quite thinly sketched: One, her abusive husband, is a bastard; Another, her doctor, has really questionable professional ethics; and the third one's a guy who's 100% heart and yet 100% geek. So why are Waitress' men such caricatures?

Diane:    I'm going to push back on that question because this is a story about Jenna as the central character and the next most important people around her are her sister-waitress friends.

You need to understand that the men are simply the supporting roles in this show. And when you're a supporting role, you're not given as much real estate and time as your protagonists. So we should just say that first. Right?

Now I think Sara (Bareilles) and Jessie (Nelson) and I always felt we never wanted the men to be caricatures. So you know, when you look at the film and you see Earl and you understand the decline of Earl and the humiliation he suffered by being fired and how he breaks down.

And as for the doctor’s questionable ethics, when you study the show, and we were very deliberate about this, it is Jenna who makes every first move on that doctor. That really was also quite deliberate.

JB:    Finally I want to ask you about Pippin, which I saw on Broadway and loved. When will you bring your production of Pippin over here?

Diane:    Thank you. I'll go tap Barry Weissler (producer of Waitress and Pippin) and say come on now!

Waitress is currently in previews and opens at the Adelphi Theatre on 7th March

Photo credit (London cast): Johan Persson

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Follies - Review

National Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Eighteen months on and with a couple of well placed casting changes Stephen Sondheim’s Follies returns to the National Theatre with the excellence of this devastating musical a breath of fresh air amidst a slew of disappointing recent openings in the capital. What sets Follies apart from so many other current shows is the meticulous detail that Sondheim weaves into his lyrics and melodies. There is an almost Shakespearean genius to the man, such is his ability to pare the essence of love, lovelessness and the human condition down to the barest, bleakest of bones.

Of Follies’ two leading ladies Janie Dee reprises Phyllis, as Joanna Riding takes over as Sally for this revival. Dee has had time to both sharpen Phyllis’ talons and harden her carapace, her every nuance carefully honed by Cooke’s perceptive direction. Dee’s delivery of Sondheim’s words wield a merciless scalpel into the failures of husband Ben. Phyllis’ big solo Could I Leave You? Proving almost bloody in its brutal dissection of her marriage. Dee savours the wit that Sondheim has bestowed upon her character. Acting through song does not get better than this.

Alexander Hanson, Janie Dee and Christine Tucker

Follies was already a five star show back in 2017. With Riding onboard however and with the elegant fragility that she brings to Sally, a level of credible characterisation that was missing on this production’s first outing, the whole piece is lifted to a higher plane. Sally is one of the toughest gigs in the canon, a faded beauty decayed into a desperate housewife, glamorously bewigged and yet ultimately a woman who on the inside, is crumbing as much as the derelict theatre around her. Serving up pathos without a hint of maudlin sentimentality Riding's heartbreaking rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes is a lament to a love that has long since dwindled - while the mental devastation of Losing My Mind scorches in its revelation of her pain. And as she rips the wig from her head during that song’s closing bars, we gasp at the brute ugliness of her depression.

Ian McIntosh, Joanna Riding and Gemma Sutton

Peter Forbes’ Buddy Plummer has grown too. There is a sleazy mania to his performance that is as abhorrent as it is compelling, especially in his Willy Loman-esque take on The Right Girl.  Alexander Hanson’s Ben offers up a brief glance into the rise and, more pronouncedly, the fall of an oleaginous statesman. Hanson performs well, but there is a tad more bedding into the role that is needed to fully convince.

The show’s supporting roles are all individual treats. Tracie Bennett, ‘still here’ from 2017 as Carlotta, remains perhaps the most diminutive of powerhouse voices to be found in the West End. Oozing classy, sassy cynicism Bennett comes close to stopping the show. She is matched though by her colleagues. Claire Moore is every inch, the most believable Broadway Baby; Felicity Lott and Alison Langer enchant with One More Kiss; Dawn Hope leads the most phenomenal tap line (and credit here to Bill Deamer’s immaculately conceived and drilled choreography throughout) in Who’s That Woman - and a further nod to Bennett who, in a display of sheer bloody stamina segues seamlessly from that number into the demands of I’m Still Here. 

Dawn Hope leads the line
The ghost quartet of the leading roles are marvellous with the ever-excellent Gemma Sutton, together with Christine Tucker, Ian McIntosh and Harry Hepple all offering the necessary passion, scorn and incredulity to make their ghost roles take flight.

It is not just Follies’ writing, but also the National’s lavish production values that define this show as a gem. Vicki Mortimer’s designs deftly blend the decay of the Weismann Theatre into the glamour of the ghosted numbers, with the subtle magnificence of the Olivier’s drum revolve taking the show through both the battered Broadway building as well as the decades, almost imperceptibly. Nigel Lilley's 20-piece orchestra is a soaring delight throughout.

A musical can be judged on narrative, music, song and dance, with Follies scoring top marks across the board. This revival offers an unmissable glimpse into the heaven and hell of humanity.

Runs until 11th May
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Monday, 18 February 2019

Come From Away - Review

Phoenix Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Amidst the horrors of 9/11, there were pockets of human kindness and charity. So it was for the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander who when the United States' airspace was shut down after the four aircraft-based terrorist attacks, found itself having to accommodate 38 unexpected jetloads of passengers, comprising some 6,000+ souls (or “Come From Aways” as the locals call outsiders), for the best part of a week.

Such a flood of humanity was bound to throw up all sorts of issues ripe for a musical theatre treatment – and so it follows in Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s composition. Numerous threads emerge, including a love that evolves between two passengers and a neat little tale of a Gander local who realises that there were likely to have been animals travelling in the planes’ cargo holds and rescues as many as she can. Throughout the one-act show (that runs for under two hours) there’s much to warm the cockles of most of the hearts in the audience.

But for all the bitter-sweet vignettes, punches have been pulled. None of the grimmer or more tawdry aspects of what might have unfolded between 6,000 folk thrown together for 6 days (and nights) are explored and while the musical rightly highlights the shameful “othering” that one of the Come From Aways, a Muslim chef was subject to, it offers no comment whatsoever upon the ideology of hate that brought the 9/11 nightmare into being in the first place.

A sung-through piece, the numbers for the most part are tuneful yet forgettable – though that should not detract from the onstage excellence of both cast and band. A truly ensemble show, with no featured actors and all the performers listed alphabetically, standout work comes from Rachel Tucker as an airline pilot and the ever reliable Clive Carter playing all manner of wise and elderly characters. Noteworthy that all of the cast interchange between various roles throughout the evening, doing so convincingly and instantaneously in a flawless set of performances.

Flawless performances however do not necessarily make for a stimulating night. For while Gander’s generosity was unhesitating and generous, one might perhaps have expected the same response from any kind-hearted community around the world. One only has to witness the communal response say, to London’s recent Grenfell Tower tragedy or the outpourings of support that flood in for other disasters, to realise that the Newfoundland folk are not alone in their selflessness. And rallying to support the requirements of (even a few thousand) disoriented travellers, albeit from around the globe, doesn’t quite match up to the heroism say, of New York’s firefighters – many of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice on that most horrendous of days. 

Come From Away is unquestionably wonderfully performed, but its schmaltzy set pieces fail to move.

Now booking until 14th September
Photo credit:Matthew Murphy

The Winter's Tale - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Justin Audibert
Firected by Ruth Mary Johnson

The cast of The Winter's Tale

For a half-term offering, the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage hosts the return of The Winter’s Tale, in a production that is stripped down and recommended for children of 8 and over. 

And indeed there is much that should commend this tale to a younger audience.  A wicked father, an idyllic love story, and an enchanted happy ending. But Justin Audibert’s adaptation fillets too much of the prose. The early deaths of Hermione and Mamillius are but barely explained footnotes to the Audibert narrative - and whilst occasional moments of puppetry grab the attention of the kids in the audience, there's a massive opportunity that is missed. Shakespeare’s (and perhaps the entire English canon's) most famous stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear”, presaging Antigonus’ grisly demise, is reduced here to little more than an offstage sound effect - heck, there’s more of a bear on the show’s promotional material that teasingly invites the audience to "watch out for pursuing bears". Watch out? There's not a grizzly to be seen and any youngsters who may have been led to expect more of an ursine treat will feel understandably cheated

While most of the performances are charming, director Ruth Mary Johnson should have made more of Joseph Adelakun’s Leontes. The king’s cruelty and misogyny are complex themes meriting more careful exploration, even in a show for a younger audience, than are afforded here.

The stagecraft in the round is imaginative, the music (if not the disco beat), a delight and, to be fair, at only an hour in length the timing is spot-on too. Layla, my 8 yo co-reviewer rated The Winter’s Tale as good.

Runs until 21st February
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Friday, 15 February 2019

Beautiful Noise - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Fisher Stevens

The producers of Thriller Live - now in its tenth year - presented the soulful and hearty vocals of Fisher Stevens as Neil Diamond in Beautiful Noise, on the West End stage for the first in a series of occasional future performances. This sweet gig however is strictly for Diamond fans who want to celebrate the life and music of the infamous solitary man, in the company of a live band and as much nostalgia as they can muster.

Telling the story of Neil Diamond’s rise to fame amid the birth of rock n roll and the glory of New York’s Brill Building, Stevens recounts countless Neil Diamond hits including ‘Cherry, Cherry’, ‘You’ll Be A Woman, Soon’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’ - arguably the one that everyone was waiting for. It’s not hard to see how Diamond became one of the best songwriters in America, recognised to this day. Lyrically stunning but lesser known songs ‘I am... I said’ and ‘Play Me’ further reminded the audience just what a talent he is, in case there was any questioning… probably not given that Stevens recognised most of the front few rows of the audience from his tours up north! 

Despite the incredible repertoire, the show’s accompanying presentation of stock footage and photographs ultimately gave Beautiful Noise the feel of a wet evening at Butlins. This sensation is only re-inforced by it taking place amidst Shaftesbury Avenue's starry line up of hit shows, to say nothing of being performed on the stage of (the electrifying) Thriller Live on its night off. There is no doubting Diamond’s talent, nor Stevens’ prowess as a tribute singer too, (complete with shiny shirts and growling filler anecdotes) but there’s simply not enough substance here to warrant the ticket price to anyone other than die-hard fans.

A lacklustre night, albeit of gorgeous music and strictly for those who prefer both their jeans and their songs sung, blue.

Future performances on Mondays 10th June and 8th July and on tour
Reviewed by Heather Deacon

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Dracula - Review

The London Library, London


Adapted by Kate Kerrow
Directed by Helen Tennison

Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert

It may well have been a bloody good idea to stage Dracula in the London Library, amidst the very books and shelves that more than likely inspired Bram Stoker as he composed his Gothic horror classic. But much like the blood that the infamous Count sucked from his victims, so has Creation Theatre’s take on the tale drained nearly every drop of passion from Stoker’s beautifully penned original.

Helen Tennison’s  production assumes an audience familiarity with Stoker’s tale and characters and notwithstanding an overly detailed synopsis included in the pricey (£4) programme, it is left to the play’s two actors, Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert to assume a variety of roles and costumes as they attempt a curiously retrospective interpretation of the story. Unfortunately, their numerous characters are barely introduced, let alone (pun alert) fleshed out, and whilst the play’s setting within the Library’s grand Reading Room is unquestionably magnificent, the show itself proves a tedious and mediocre melodrama. 

No blood can obviously be splashed upon the hallowed walls of the St James’s Square building and so the special effects, such as they are, are conveyed by way of video projections onto the room’s curtains and pillars. The videos however have an insipidly low luminescence. This, combined with a directorial blandness that ignores for example the (very different) geniuses of a Werner Herzog or John Landis, means that these mini movies fail to frighten. Hell, even a spot of Hammer Films’ kitsch would not have gone amiss in a bid to give the evening even the faintest hint of a pulse. All the while Greenham and Lambert’s performances waver between deadly earnest and parody in a contrast that just doesn't work.

This website has long argued that good horror demands the suspension of the audience’s disbelief, ideally from a great height. Dracula at the London Library, albeit well intentioned, makes for anaemic theatre.

Runs until 1st March
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Monday, 11 February 2019

Greyscale - Review

The Vaults, London


Written by Joel Samuels and Madeline Gould
Directed by Roann McCloske

Tom Campion and Edie Newman
In the #MeToo era Madeleine Gould and Joel Samuels have written what could have been an interesting take on the subject of consent. A too short two-hander immerses the small audience into monologues from both actors, before they then meet on their first date.

Greyscale takes a relevant and unquestionably important topic as its theme, but its mechanism is at best unfinished, and at times a little troubling. There are moments during the 30-minute piece when the audience are invited to voice questions to the performers upon the issues raised. In the interests of anonymity, are all requested to keep their eyes closed while questions are being asked but there are nonetheless inherent risks here of rogue audience members “sneaking a peek” when eyes should be closed. How can an effective bond of trust, between disparate members of the public, be established in such a short window of time? And while questions were requested three times in the half hour, ultimately, for what purpose? For whilst questions may have been asked for, no answers or analysis were provided in response

The casts, and their respective genders and sexualities, alternate throughout the run - so the gig reviewed here could well be very different in its interpretation to audiences on other nights – performing on the night of this review were Tom Campion and Edie Newman. Timely perhaps, but in its current unsatisfying iteration, Greyscale lacks colour.

Runs until 17th March
Reviewed by Eris
Photo credit: Ali Wright

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Notre Dame de Paris - Review

London Coliseum, London


Music by Richard Cocciante
Lyrics by Luc Plamondon
Directed by Gilles Maheu

Richard Charest

They say context is key and thus two things are paramount prior to watching Notre Dame de Paris. Firstly, the show is firmly of its time: with Victor Hugo’s original work having been published in 1831 and taking place in 1482, equality of any sort is lacking; the second consideration is that this is a thoroughly French production and that any comparison with its West End contemporaries is moot. The emphasis here is on the "spectacular", rather than on the musical and the distinction cannot be underestimated. 

The narrative famously charts the arc of bell-ringer Quasimodo and his love for Esmerelda; a Romany who takes a poet as a husband, falls in love with a soldier and is herself the obsession of the (celibate) Archdeacon of Notre Dame. It’s quite the love rectangle, and that’s before the soldier’s betrothed comes into play. Needless to say, it does not end well - a happy ending would be difficult to achieve and at odds with Gothic literature.

In what proves to be a curious evening There are stellar vocal performances across the board; both earnest and powerful. Gringoire (Richard Charest) sets the bar high with the first number, an ode to cathedrals that firmly channels Hugo’s original objective of persuading French society to treat these architectural masterpieces with the respect he believed them to be deserving of (Le Temps des Cathédrales). This is swiftly followed by an introduction to Clopin (a commanding Jay) and, thereafter, the dynamic between Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) and Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio).

Before she even steps to the front of the stage, eyes are drawn instantly to Esmerelda (a role played expertly by Hiba Tawaji). With a headset microphone and green dress Tawaji stalks the stage in a manner reminiscent of Britney Spears’ iconic I’m A Slave 4 U 2001 MTV VMA performance. All that is missing is a Burmese python.

That’s not a bad thing, however. This is more like a concert, after all - one which takes influence from Italian opera and French pop music and the effect is at once melodramatic, rousing and bold.

The principals are supported by a troupe of acrobats and dancers, bursting with energy and colour throughout, once again making this production feel more like a concert. However there is more than one occasion during which the stage feels too big for this grand vision, and challenges the decision to put this on at one of the West End's largest venues.  

Despite the lead vocals being sung live, they sit atop a prerecorded and heavily produced backing track and while the musical support from English National Opera’s orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Brind, is a nice touch, it feels token. Ultimately it is nigh-on impossible to tell what is being performed live and what is not. Performed entirely in French, the production is localised for the British audience with surtitles set atop the stage. Given that each number’s substance is thin, the need for the textual assistance slowly wears off; watching the performers is enough to grasp the storyline. 

Ultimately this is what hinders the production from packing a punch. This is a show built on a series of songs that fail to carry a narrative thread effectively. But for a musical spectacle, perhaps that’s not necessarily too important after all.

Runs until 27th January
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Alessandro Dobici

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Thriller Live West End 10th Anniversary - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Casts, both old and new, on stage for the 10th Anniversary of Thriller Live

Celebrating 10 years at the Lyric Theatre, a memorable production of Thriller Live played to a full house last night. The show has been reviewed here in the past, consistently achieving outstanding  standards.

Adrian Grant’s vision, breathed into life by Gary Lloyd’s direction and choreography, together with John Maher’s intuitive understanding of Michael Jackson’s rock, pop and soul classics has created a fusion of excellence.

Lloyd’s genius sees him craft Jackson’s music into the human form, the cast’s non-stop movement proving an immaculately drilled display of modern dance, with the timeless songs’ lyrics and harmonies only being enhanced by Lloyd’s slick, perceptive routines.

The video displays remain breathtaking in both their ingenuity and, at times, stunning simplicity, as Maher’s 5 piece on-stage band faithfully recreate the Jackson sound.

The magic of the show’s anniversary night was made all the more special by a horde of ex-company members filling the stage half way through the second act, and causing  an impromptu standing ovation , together with post show speeches from the producers as well as Grant and Lloyd, with Grant in particular referencing his own personal connection  to Michael Jackson.

Thriller Live remains the most consistently outstanding show in town. There are no moments of tedium nor, unlike nearly every other big musical in the West End, any weak songs whatsoever. Each moment is carefully crafted perfection in a production that is world-class entertainment.

Booking until 29th September
Photo credit: Betty Zapata