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)

Friday, 10 May 2019

Amour - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London



****


Music by Michel Legrand
Libretto by Didier Van Cauwelaert
English adaptation by Jeremy Sams
Adapted from Le Passe-Muraille by Marcel Aymé

The company

Michel Legrand’s Amour is a curious show, first seen in Paris in 1997 and then five years later, on Broadway where it was to run for a month or so. Curious for sure, but yet this whimsical tale of a Parisian clerk who finds himself temporarily gifted with a superhuman ability to walk through walls,lends itself perfectly to London’s Off West End theatre scene.

The tale may be implausible and Jeremy Sams’ translation of the original libretto occasionally creaks with a predictable, schoolboy simlplicity. But in the hands of Danielle Tarento’s cast and creative team, Legrand’s show is imbued with a classy charm that, like the most delicate of a French pâtissier’s mille-feuilles, is a delight to savour.

On stage virtually throughout, Gary Tushaw is the magically transformed Dusoleil, bestowing a plausible ordinariness upon his literally unbelievable character and bringing a vocal delight to the role in this sung-through piece. The object of his desire is Anna O’Byrne’s Isabelle, with the actress’ pedigree shining through every time she sings. O’Byrne brings a quality to her performance that is most usually associated with West End productions costing far more than a Charing Cross ticket, as her poise, presence and vocal delivery prove enchanting. 

To be fair all of the cast are close to flawless, with some of the ensemble's close harmony work proving sensational as they glide through Legrand’s cascading melodies. There is a fine turn from Alasdair Harvey as the jealously possessive Prosecutor and husband of Isabelle, while Claire Machin’s Whore brings the house down with her perfectly nuanced caricature. A nod too on the night of this review to Jack Reitman, understudying three minor roles brilliantly, and delivering the Doctor with an assured comedic confidence.

Tarento’s hallmarks of outstanding production values abound. Hannah Chissick’s direction is perceptive and intuitive, Adrian Gee's costumes are a treat, and in a venue where sound design can often disappoint, Andrew Johnson’s work is outstanding. Every word is crystal clear, easily heard alongside the immaculately balanced sound of Jordan Li-Smith’s also excellent 6 piece band.

While the narrative and argument may be slight, the charm of this show makes it a musical highlight of the capital's 2019 fringe scene. For lovers of quality musical theatre production, Amour is unmissable.


Runs until 20th July 2019
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 3 May 2019

Man Of La Mancha - Review


Coliseum, London


***


Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Written by Dale Wasserman
Directed by Lonny Price


Kelsey Grammer and Danielle De Niese

It has been 50 years since Man Of La Mancha last played in London’s West End and based upon this year’s offering from the ENO and co-producers Grade-Linnitt it is easy to see why. This curious tale of romance, chivalry and ageing, drawn from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, demands production values that are nothing short of excellent if its hidden but cheesy charms are to truly suspend an audience’s disbelief.

Here however, celebrity stunt casting has stripped what could have been a majestic musical of its Iberian magic. Kelsey Grammer leads as Cervantes / Quixote and while Grammer’s ability to carry off the close-ups of a carefully scripted TV sitcom is unmatched, he fails to fill the demanding chasm that is London’s Coliseum. Compared to the West End’s finest Grammer can sing, just. But he cannot act through his song and for a show that is built around one absolute money-shot of a number, the first act's closer The Impossible Dream, one is left wandering out for an ice cream and feeling distinctly short-changed even before the rip-off prices of a vanilla tub.

There’s mediocrity elsewhere too - Nicholas Lyndhurst (another gem of the smaller screen) puts in a throughly average turn as the Governor / Innkeeper and even Peter Polycarpou as Sancho Panza, a man who usually delivers musical theatre genius, is burdened  by director Price with a cod Spanish accent that reduces his part to little more than a Spanish waiter. Polycarpou is so much better than this.

There are some moments to the production that imbue quality. Danielle De Niese is magnificent as Aldonza / Dulcinea - her voice, particularly in the closing act, breaking hearts as she sings of her love for the dying old man. And the music is rather wonderful too with the ENO Orchestra under David White’s baton proving an absolute delight. For anyone who loves Mitch Leigh’s sumptuous score, you will never hear it played live any finer than this.


Runs until 8th June

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Ain't Misbehavin' - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


****


Music by Fats Waller
Based on an idea by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr
Directed by Tyrone Huntley


The cast of Ain't Misbehavin'

Not seen on a London stage for 40 years, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is gloriously revived at Southwark Playhouse in a co-production with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre.

More of a revue than a musical - there’s no narrative thread outside of each individual song’s arc - the show’s beautifully voiced quintet whirl through thirty or so Fats Waller numbers in an evening that captures the Jazz Age in New York’s Harlem.

The songs are a selection of American Songbook favourites together with the less well-known and it is a credit to director Tyrone Huntley, in his first stint at helming a production, that he extracts not only humour, but also pathos and passion from his talented cast. 

The five performers work impressively as a well drilled troupe - and credit here to  Oti Mabuse’s slick and imaginative choreography that makes fine use of the Southwark’s tight thrust space. But more than just an ensemble, Huntley finds room for each performer to deliver powerful solo turns too.

takis’s ingenious set has travelled well from Essex. A glitzy, archy, tunnelled trompe l’oeil that sits atop a gold burnished floor. Unquestionably brash, yet takis has fashioned a design that complements the piece perfectly, suggesting a nightclub that could have been a magical escape from the poverty of Harlem.

The music is great too. On piano, Alex Cockle conducts his 6 piece combo with nuanced gusto, the non-stop music proving an absolute delight.

With Ain’t Misbehavin' Southwark Playhouse again proves itself as a venue for top-notch Off West End entertainment.


Runs until 1st June
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Night Of The Living Dead - Review

Pleasance Theatre, London


****


Written by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin
Created by Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison
Directed by Benji Sperring


Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering

George A Romero’s 1968 movie Night Of The Living Dead not only unleashed zombies upon an unsuspecting world, but was also one of the first movies to fuse horrific gore with political allegory and just a spattering of satire. The film rapidly garnered cult status and it was a bold move from the 5 (predominantly Canadian) minds behind the stage show’s inception to translate the picture from stage to screen.

Holed up in a remote farmhouse and surrounded by hordes of the rapacious undead, 5 survivors seek to avoid the gruesome demise that inevitably awaits them. Aspects of the movie’s plot surface throughout the narrative, and it is a tribute to Diego Pitarch’s outstanding set design and costume theme, that the era and location (including frequent switches between the farmhouse’s ground floor and basement) are delivered so convincingly. Reflecting the original black & white photography of the story, Pitarch deploys an effective monochrome throughout.

But the narrative depends on the people and co-producer Katy Lipson has chosen wisely in engaging Benji Sperring to helm the show. As seen with The Toxic Avenger a couple of years ago at the Southwark Playhouse, Sperring is an accomplished director of comic ghastliness and he has chosen two of his Southwark stalwarts, Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels to drive the evening’s morbid irony. A seminal 60s work, Romero ensured (and the play repeatedly acknowledges) that the issues of the Cold War, civil rights and sexual inequalities that were riving America’s psyche at the time fuelled his satire.

Mari McGinlay plays the eponymous Barbara while Jennifer Harding doubles up for Helen and Judy – with their respective interactions being as deliciously nuanced as a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. The sound (Samuel West, James Nicholson and Paul Gavin) and lighting (Nic Farman) are top notch too, enhancing the shock comedy horror and providing the perfect complement to Pitarch’s designs.

The tropes and familiar plot lines play out well, though a re-run scene between a cop and his assistant (Mike Bodie and Tama Phethean respectively) proves a little tiresome. Nonetheless a quality and innovative piece of theatre that offers up a neat tribute to Romero’s original.


Runs until 8th June
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Marvellous Wonderettes - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London



***


Written & created by Roger Bean
Directed by Joseph Hodges


The Marvellous Wonderettes

The Marvellous Wonderettes makes its UK debut at London’s Upstairs At The Gatehouse, a juke-box musical that first played Milwaukee in 1999, before its off-Broadway arrival in New York some 9 years later.


Canny casting directors would do well to make the trip to Highgate and catch the quartet of Sophie Camble, Rosie Needham, Louise Young and Kara Taylor Alberts. In a set list (for the evening is more akin to a revue than a musical) that spans the 1950s and 60s, the four women capture the era’s vocals magnificently.

But this all-American show is served heavy on the cheese - and American cheese doesn’t easily cross the  Atlantic. The gleeful High School patter (shifted 10 years on for the second act) that links the songs could barely have entertain a modern US audience let alone a house (full, to be fair) of cynical Brits. And playing at the Gatehouse to an audience who appeared to be predominantly sexa and septuagenarians the, songs could not come quickly enough.

Lauren Ronan’s band put in sound work throughout the evening - but stronger work on the reeds would have been appreciated. Many of the numbers had glorious saxophone lines when released all those decades ago but much of the melodies’ original magic is muted here. And while the cast is unquestionably magnificent, performer(s) of colour would not have gone amiss, particularly given that one of the second half’s big moments is a cover of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. 

Hey - the audience loved the songs though, brilliantly sung as they are, and at times there was something close to a zombie awakening as Stupid Cupid and You Don’t Own Me stirred the crowd into a foot-tapping frenzy.

And when the Wonderettes sing, the show is marvellous.


Runs until 12th May
Photo credit: Kevin Ralph

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Tony's Last Tape - Review

Omnibus Theatre


****


Written by Andy Barrett
Directed by Giles Croft


Philip Bretherton
Tony’s Last Tape arrives at Clapham’Omnibus, four years after Andy Barrett’s perceptive work first played at the Nottingham Playhouse. A one-act monologue that lasts a little over an hour, Philip Bretherton plays an 87 year old Tony Benn, surrounded by gadgets and looking back upon aspects of his life.

A cleverly written piece, fictional in its detail yet drawn from and inspired by Benn’s diaries and speeches, it is a credit to Barrett (as he explains in a programme forward) that snatches of his playtext are now being mistakenly attributed as actual quotes from Benn himself.

The work will appeal most to those who recall the man and remember his politics. With pipe sometimes gripped between his teeth, Bretherton offers up a portrait of one of the nation’s most distinguished post-war politicians. While his acting is sometimes more caricature than cameo, is nonetheless instantly recognisable. There is much to ponder on in Barrett’s narrative. We see Benn’s commitment not only to workers’ rights, but also a profound sense of patriotic national pride too. Some argue today that socialism and nationalism are mutually exclusive – but Benn brings us back to a time when the country’s Left at least purported to be built on decency – a far cry from the shambles of today’s Labour movement.

Barrett tells us that Benn nailed the quasi-fascist, non-elected bureaucrats of the European Union too – and as one listens to his philosophies amidst the current shambles of a Brexit negotiation that Theresa May continues to flounder in, we weep at how the wisdom of Benn and his ilk has been so roundly ignored by a Prime Minister’s embarrassing prostrations before Brussels.

Tony’s Last Tape is brilliant theatre for its time – but deeply depressing too.


Runs until 20th April
Photo credit: Robert Day

Monday, 8 April 2019

Jo Riding & Janie Dee talk Carousel, Follies and friendship

Janie and Jo on London's South Bank, 2019
Janie Dee and Jo Riding are two of the UK's finest musical theatre performers. At the National Theatre the return of Dominic Cooke’s acclaimed production of Follies currently stars the two actresses. 
Dee continues magnificently as Phyllis (could she ever leave this wonderful show?) however Cooke has re-cast his Sally and Riding (or rather Joanna Riding as she is listed in the programme) is now taking the role to even greater heights. The pairing of these two women has made for one of London's most sensational casting decisions in years. 
Cognoscenti of London's theatre however will know that the two have shared a National stage before. In 1992 they led Nicholas Hytners’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as Julie Jordan (Riding) and Carrie Pipperidge (Dee) and such was their excellence then that they BOTH(!) won well-deserved Olivier Awards in '93 for their work.
So, while this time hop of 27 years to 2019 isn’t quite the 30-year gap that Dimitri Weismann marks at the reunion of his fabled Follies, there's the slightest, almost whimsical hint, of life imitating art as these two wonderful women work their magic on Sondheim’s sensational show. 
Making this casting even more exciting is the news just announced, as this interview is published, that on Sunday May 19th, Riding and Dee will return to the capital's Cadogan Hall for one night only in a concert production of Carousel, that will see them reprise their award winning performances!
My own memories of Hytner’s Carousel production are wonderfully vivid and so it was both joy and privilege to spend an afternoon in the company of these two fabulous performers. Amidst a rare burst of some South Bank springtime sunshine, we sat by the River Thames and talked of Follies, Carousel, friendship and musical theatre....

JB:    Janie and Jo -  Follies was outstanding in 2017. This time around, it's even  better. Tell me about the chemistry between the two of you that is so very palpable!

Jo:    That chemistry of Carousel... Well what was happening on stage with those two was kind of happening off stage as well, because I think that Carrie looks after Julie. She looks out for her. "You're a queer one, Julie Jordan, but I kind of like you, and I'm going to look after you." And that was exactly what was going in the rehearsal room.

I was very green and wet behind the ears, and I was having a bit of a hard time and Janie sort of came to my rescue and took me under her wing. A couple of little meetings in the dressing room just to have a nice chat saying "Are you alright? Don't take any notice."

Back then I'd never worked at the National. I'd done very little and a lot less than Janie and with her I just felt looked after in her very, very good hands and I've adored for that ever since. And yeah, it's kind of strange now that we're playing these old friends in Follies, with the sort of little crappy one looking up to the big glamorous one!


Janie:    Just before this interview Jo and I were looking at some Carousel pictures and there was one of Jo at the sewing machine, in a scene in which she had been required to age up (during the show) say 20 years and I also had to turn up with these ten children or something that I'd had with Mr. Snow and it was a lovely photo of us – as Jo said, it was almost like Sally and Phyllis!


Jo in Carousel, 1992
Jo:    One at her wits' end, and the other looking ever so glamorous, despite the fact that she'd spat out ten kids. You did look incredibly fabulous for having spat out so many!

Janie:    Julie and Carrie in Carousel, were very, very good friends and we kind of felt that friendship very truly whilst we were in the show. And we have stayed friends all through our lives until now. I've seen a lot of Jo's work. I went to see her in stuff and always thought she was amazing and I've got to know her various boyfriends over the years too. I don't know her husband so well -

Jo:    My boyfriends before the husband, that is.  Make sure you add that!

Janie:    Before the husband, of course! What I mean is that on and off stage we've kept in touch. And then, recently, we were brought back together, which was really wonderful, by Alex Parker to do A Little Night Music. And so that again kind of gave us a bit of a jolt, didn't it?

JB:    Julie and Carrie were friends. Are Sally and Phyllis friends, in 1971, at the Weismann’s Follies reunion party?

Janie:    No, I think they've grown apart. But I think what Phyllis is dealing with is not unlike Pinter's play, Betrayal. The betrayal isn't just of the people who had sex, it's the betrayal of the friendship as well, that obviously was the kernel of it all.

It was a good friendship between these two girls. And was it 30 years before that? So in 1941, it was Sally who took Phyllis under her wing and said "You can come and stay with me, and I know somebody. My boyfriend can bring an extra man for you," who ends up being Ben who ends up being her husband. And then we see what happens 30 years later when they return for the party, the reunion.

Jo:    It was quite a brief time, wasn't it? We worked out that they were probably working at the Follies for not much more than a year to 18 months before the war hit the USA, so we didn't get that long together, did we?

Janie:    It's trust, it's when you trust somebody. It's to do with trust, I guess. And forgiveness. But with Phyllis, I feel she's coming to the reunion party for a few reasons. Not only to get things clear, but also to try and move on somehow in one way or another. It's almost like she dares it all to happen, I don't know. I’m still trying to work it out!

JB:    Janie - How have you felt the show evolve from its first time around?

Janie:    Watching it this time? Well I've noticed that Dominic Cooke definitely has revisited his own production from last time and thought, "Hm, I'll change this and I'll change that - because the show could be better or more profound."

And the fact that we as the two main players are so different has shifted it into a slightly different place. You know, having enjoyed last year's production so much, it's hard to make comparisons and I don't want to make comparisons. But what I would say is that there's something about the relationship between Sally and Ben now that just feels more dangerous to Phyllis. And that's a big shift that's actually made it, I think, different for me as a performer, different for me as the character Phyllis. Our pairing has sort of shifted the show into darker territory.

Jo:    Quite astonishing, isn't it, that Dominic hasn't rested on his laurels? He had a five-star hit on his hands, so he could have just brought a couple of people back. "Yeah, you do your thing, walk it on." But he hasn't. The fact that he has gone where he's gone with it and he has decided to fiddle with a five-star show. That's brave.

Janie:    I said to him at the end of the last one, "Oh, I'm so sorry that we're finishing. I still haven't finished my work on this." And he said, "Good, 'cause I would like to try it again." And he knew then, and I think-

Jo:    Did you know then that you'd come back?

Janie:    I then knew that I wanted to come back, because I really didn't feel like I'd finished

JB:    Jo, your songs very much define Sally's vulnerability. What, over the years, do you think has seen Sally crumble - we know that she has attempted suicide at least once - while at the same time Phyllis has hardened?

Jo:    Oh. I guess a lot depends on personality in the first place. How one person copes with shit compared to another. I don't know. I think ... It was a different start out, wasn't it? I (Sally) was in love with someone who rejected me. Phyllis is in love with someone, believed that that person was in love with them, stayed with them, but then learned over the years, actually, he didn't love anyone, really, other than himself.

Janie:    Not even. Definitely not himself!

Jo:    No. Actually incapable of love. So I don't know why they've both turned out the way they've turned out. I can't answer that. If Mr. Sondheim was here....


Janie with Alexander Hanson as Ben in Follies, 2019
Janie:    I think working on our backstories has been great. I worked on my backstory with both of the women playing Young Phyllis (Christine Tucker in the 2019 revival) and we’ve got some nice stuff in, but there’s more this time.

Christine was new to it, and she’d gone mad on her backstory - some wonderful stuff that we had come over from Ireland to get to Philadelphia, and Phyllis’ father was killed.

So I'm not going to tell you, because that's my secret, but I now know why Phyllis is the way she is. Or at least I know why I think she's the way she is!

But the thing about theatre is that I don't think actors should ever tell the audience what they should think. Nor should writers for that matter!

One of the beautiful things about theatre is that you interpret it for yourself. So whatever you think was the reason that Sally crumbles and Phyllis stays strong, whatever that reason is, it is for you to work that out, not for us to tell you. That spoils it!

Jo:    I think that through Sally Sondheim does tell us a little clue, and that's when she's talking to Ben and she said, "You don't know how to feel things. I feel things. I feel things." And I think she is, she's a bleeder. And it all comes out. She's a very emotional creature, she's not reserved. And I think that, perhaps, could even be her undoing. I mean, it's good to get your feelings out, but I think to feel things so acutely that they become unbearable...

Janie:    I thought, "Ben’s trained Phyllis not to cry." I think he just has wanted the wife that he's got, and now he's got the wife that he's got, and he doesn't want her anymore, or he doesn't think he wants her anymore. But he actually trained her to be the person she is, and that's to push down the stuff. She's pushing down all the emotion. Whereas Sally has never been told, "Don't be who you are."

And I don't know, it's interesting that we don't know what happens after the end of this. The end is not the end, is it? Nobody dies. It's not the end. It's ... You don't know, you make up your own mind.

JB:    I picked up on your use of the word forgiveness, earlier on in this conversation, which is not a word that I've often associated with Follies’ message. Can you expand on that?

Janie:    I'm not saying that forgiveness actually happens, but I am saying that it's up for grabs. You know, it's a good take on humanity, actually, in a world that is crumbling around us, and how we are trying to hold on to some kind of value somewhere which we might want to call love.

But maybe love is not it. Maybe respect is more it, or something. I don't know, it's asking lots of questions, but I wonder if love is the answer? Because love ... If you look at what happens to most relationships that start with love, it takes a very special pair of people to keep that love alive for ever and ever and ever and not let it divert into boredom or hate or the worst, indifference.

JB:    Between you, aside from Follies, you've played many of Sondheim's great female characters. Desiree, Anne, Countess Charlotte Malcolm. What are your thoughts on how Sondheim writes for women?

Janie:    Not unlike Shakespeare, he seems to understand profoundly what it is to be a woman. The pain of a woman and the joy and the sexuality. And how does he know? I understand that he had a difficult relationship with his mother.

Jo:    I think perhaps, he doesn't necessarily understand women, per se. I think he understand what it is to be the kind of person that has been oppressed and repressed over the decades, over the centuries. I think he understands that. I think he understands the battle to be heard, to be seen, to survive against the odds. Maybe he understands that, which happens to be part of a woman's story, but not exclusively. And I think maybe that's it.

JB:    Jo - with  Every Day a Little Death in A Little Night Music and Follies’ Losing My Mind, you have sung two of Sondheim’s most painfully poignant numbers. How perceptive is he as a writer?

Jo:    Well again and again, he nails it, doesn't he? He tears into your soul. I don't know how he does it. I don't know how he manages to get the knob of something and turn it into song. I wish I did. I am just the conveyor of his material. I'm the medium. All I can do is interpret it the best way I can do that by finding little dark corners in me and interpreting the best I can. But I find him incredibly perceptive.

But again, it's very subjective, isn't it? There are those that don't like Sondheim, that don't get Sondheim, my mother included. And for her, that's not what musical theatre ought to be. It's too dark, it's too complex. It's ... I think it takes her somewhere she doesn't want to be taken to in a musical.

Janie:    Jo, do you remember? Sondheim came to see us in Carousel and the reason he came to see us in Carousel was partly because he probably wanted to see it and he was here, but also because he was sort of brought up with Richard Rodgers, who was almost like the godfather or something of his talent. So he had Rodgers and Hammerstein, I believe, bringing him up, and others.

And Bernstein who he worked with on West Side Story. He had these greats kind of running alongside him, and whilst he was picking up some of their talent or influence or musicality, he was bringing himself up as well.

But I think when he came to see us, he really loved Carousel, and I'd love him to see this with us again. I think he'd be really happy. 

Jo:    I wonder if even he knows why he's so perceptive and why he can write like he can write. I just find often, incredibly talented people, just the way they can put something down on paper, whether it's music or it's words or what have you. They just have this gift for getting to the knob and turning a screw on something. I don't even think they know how they do it.


JB:    I had never described Sondheim as Shakespearean, prior to this 2019 review of Follies.

Janie:    Did you? Because Dominic Cooke has described Follies as a bit Shakespearean.


Jo in Follies, 2019
At this point the wind turned breezy and we moved back into the National Theatre itself. The blustery weather reminded Jo of the National's 1998 touring production of Oh! What A Lovely War that had been staged in a tent. 
Jo:    Fiona Laird was the director - who had been one of the staff directors here during Carousel and I had one of the most incredible moments I've ever had on a stage in that show.

It's a phenomenal piece, anyways,  course, we're talking back in the 1990s, and there were still some First World War veterans who could come to the show - and often they would be seated at the front of the apron. And I'd play this character, where I had to come right to the front of the apron in a sort of a nurses outfit and sing Keep the Home Fires Burning.

And there was this little old man, and he looked about 204, and he was curled up. We thought he was asleep, we were sort of joking that he'd gone to sleep right at the beginning of the show, and we just thought just like this throughout the whole show. Except at that moment, he lifted up his head, and he sang the entire song with me. I don't know how I held it together. Every word, perfect. Sang it with me. Gorgeous, gorgeous.

Where that must have taken him and what it must have meant to him in that moment?

Janie:    How did you cope? How did you keep singing?

Jo:    Well, it's the hardest thing to sing with a lump in your throat, isn't it? But you have to. You think, "It'd be so easy for me just to go now, but I've got a job to do. And I'm just gonna steel myself. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it." And then as soon as I sat down, I was in a flood. You kind of hold it in, don't you? Because if you lose it, the moment's gone.


Janie and Jo in Carousel (1992)
JB:    Returning to Carousel, and powerful moments on stage, the first time that I saw Gemma Sutton (currently playing Young Sally in Follies) on stage was at the Arcola five years ago in Carousel where she was an outstanding Julie Jordan. Since then London has seen the Coliseum production in 2017 and then last year there was a Broadway revival with Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. I recall discussing that Broadway show with the other Baz (Bamigboye), we both agreeing that it was the first Carousel since 1993 that had come close to replicating the magic you two had created at the Lyttelton.

Jo:    My dad was such a mess when he came to see Carousel. He said it broke his heart to see his girl, his little girl so old and so sad. He said, "I don't ever want to see it." He couldn't separate the two, bless him. I'm not from a theatrical background, and Mum and Dad at that point really hadn't seen very much theatre at all, so I think when they did see stuff like that it affected them so profoundly.


Janie with Clive Rowe as Mr Snow - Carousel, 1992
Janie:    Yeah, my dad was like that because of you. We all were. I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch Jo every night when she felt Billy Bigelow. It's awful in the thing, 'cause he hits her and she says to her little girl-

Jo:    "It is possible for a man to hit you hard and it not hurt at all."

Janie:    That's right.

Jo:    What a line to have to say. But I had to find a truth in it. And actually, it comes from that dark side of Julie, I think. There's a dark side to Julie who was drawn to the dark side in Billy, and there is an element of the fact that, "He can hit me and I can still love him because the idea of being without him is darker and bleaker than being with him. I cam come to terms with that. I can ..." It's a question of self esteem, isn't it? I mean, you could talk about battered wives of course, but there's something steelier in Julie.

Janie:    I think also it's an understanding of where the abusive person has been as a child. You know, this isn't to say it's condoning any kind of abuse, absolutely not. But it seemed to me that Julie was profoundly at one with Billy. They really found each other in that. And he did really love Julie, and he didn't mean to hit her, that's the point. His anger was something ... It was his problem. His anger management was bad, and why it was bad, you can only guess at. And only the actor will know what his backstory will be for that. But the guess is that he's been hit around when he was a little boy, right?

Jo:    So there's an understanding, and there's, I guess, a forgiveness from that coming from her because there is that understanding, and acceptance of him and everything. That she knew what she was taking on. She knew. And loved every part of it, the bad and the good, which is real love, isn't it?

Janie:    But never the less, you would still get gasps from the audience with that line from time to time. As if to say "How can you even say such a line?"

Jo:    I know, I know. But you as the actor, you can't be thinking that. You have to find justification for it. In you, you have to find a reason where it's acceptable to say that. You have to get underneath something in that character that makes it a truth for her. And that's the best you can do, isn't it?




Follies plays in repertory at the Olivier Theatre until May 11th
Carousel plays for one night only at the Cadogan Hall on May 19th

Photo credits:
Carousel 1992 - Clive Barda
Follies 2019 - Johan Perssson
South Bank 2019 - Michael Curtis 

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