Thursday 31 October 2019

As You Like It - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kimberley Sykes

Lucy Phelps

The first of three new Royal Shakespeare Company productions kicks off this week with a delightful and especially woke performance of gender-bending romantic comedy As You Like It. Director Kimberley Sykes embraces the playful text with a diverse and tuneful cast so at ease with the text that off-the-cuff moments and audience interaction are plentiful.

The story goes that Duke Senior is exiled to the Forest of Arden by his usurper brother, Duke Frederick. Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, stays behind thanks to her bond with Frederick’s daughter, Celia… that is before Frederick flips out and banishes her after all. Celia joins her, as does their fool Touchstone, but not before disguising themselves. Rosalind becomes Ganymede, the brother to Aliena, Celia’s disguise. Throw in Rosalind’s love Orlando also escaping to the forest to avoid further persecution by his brother, Oliver... farce doth ensue.

Lucy Phelps is farce-in-chief as Rosalind/Ganymede, a bundle of eccentricity and energy as she encourages Orlando to prove his love to Rosalind by wooing Ganymede, all the while struggling to maintain her guise. David Ajao is a brawny Orlando, as passionate as any lovesick youth would be, with a dash of the jovial cheek ( a common youthful trait ) . The infamous melancholy Jacques, who’s gifted many of the play’s most quoted gems, from “All the world’s a stage” to “A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest!” is played with the perfect amount of wise whimsy by Sophie Stanton. Antony Byrne as both Dukes is another absolute tour de force as are Emily Johnstone’s beautiful vocals as Amiens and Le Beau.

The diverse cast of eighteen reflects not only age and race but also disabilities, to say nothing of a range of accents that seems to reflect nearly all of the British Isles. It’s a gorgeous way of presenting one of the Bard’s most quoted plays, adding a depth not often achieved in productions drawn from received pronunciation. 

The wooden staging seems sparse for most of the first half, with just a patch of grass and a balcony to set the scene, but is soon becomes more of a forest setting. Scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis puts his biggest creative stamp on it however in a collaboration with puppetry designer Mervyn Millar producing a disconcertingly overbearing giant puppet of the Goddess Hymen for the final scene.

This is an appropriately enjoyable and charming production of one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming up in the next few weeks.

In repertory at the Barbican until 18 January 2020, then on tour
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Monday 14 October 2019

Up Pompeii; A 50th Anniversary Audio Revival - Review


Adapted from the stage play by Miles Tredinnick that was based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell
Audio adaptation written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin
Directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones

David Benson (in toga) with the cast of Up Pompeii

Titter ye not, and especially not amongst today’s woke folk, but a 1960s comedy classic centred around a captive slave has just been revived for the 21st century with a double CD due for release next month, just in time for Christmas.

Up Pompeii was a popular BBC TV comedy that went on to spawn two feature films in the mid Seventies, and which featured the comedy genius of Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, a slave in  Ancient Rome. The series revolved around Lurcio who would guide the show's viewers through the salacious activities going on within the household of his patrician owner Ludicrus Sextus. Much of the success of the original was down to Howerd, his camp, saucy, and titillatingly sexist gags, puns and irreverent comments that were often delivered straight to camera gave the show its energy, with his surrounding characters inevitably falling to be the butt of his seaside-postcard humour, laden with risque puns and double-entendres.

Working from the original scripts and more recent play adaptation, Barnaby Eaton-Jones has done well to capture the essence of the brilliant original, but the strength of this recording is provided by David Benson’s Lurcio. Benson’s mimicry of Howerd is uncanny and as one closes one’s eyes to listen, the transformation could be complete.

While the style of this politically incorrect curiosity has been maintained by Eaton-Jones, the recording's plotline is as creaky as a dilapidated Roman handcart. The (good) gags come aplenty early on in the piece, but as the story plays out - a yarn to do with runaway slaves and love potions, all mixed in with the day to day lechery of Ludicrus’ villa - the narrative wears dangerously thin. And while some aspects of the script have been updated to reflect 2019 - Ludicrus’ daughter Erotica “slates” (rather than “texts”) to her friend in a nod to modern day social media, complete with aubergine emojis - there is a disappointing hint of pulled-punch hypocrisy in the writing: Up Pompeii's comedy ultimately rests upon Rome’s barbaric slavery. That Eaton-Jones' script displays a complete absence of any comment whatsoever upon the various and august institutions that today are hand-wringingly addressing their guilt at having been built on slave trade wealth, seems to suggests that the slavery imposed by the Romans BCE is more acceptable than that imposed by the English speaking nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, many centuries later. 

Benson is well supported by a talented company whose highlights include a blustering Fraser Hines as Ludicrus alongside the always delightful Madeleine Smith - whose career saw her appear in the original movie alongside Howerd - who sparkles as his wife Ammonia. Cleo Rocos plays Suspenda, the nymphomaniac object of Ludicrus’ lust, while Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up as the evil slave trader Captain Treacherus.

For sure, much of the corny humour of Up Pompeii demands to be as dated as it has been written - this was the Carry On era of the 1960s/70s after all - but this script really needed to have been sharper to have truly stood the test of time. Nonetheless this CD of David Benson and his brilliant cast will offer a nostalgic stocking-filler of a gift for most of the nation’s over-50s.

To order the 2-CD recording, visit this link:

Friday 11 October 2019

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Leo Robin
Book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields

Abigayle Honeywill and company

Sasha Regan’s revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the finest musical theatre productions in town. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell gave the 1953 movie its diamond-encrusted panache, but it was the 1949 Broadway show that came first - and with songs penned by the genius of  Jule Styne and Leo Robin, its credentials are impeccable. The story is a confection of romantic whimsy and caricature, set in an era when sexual politics were a world apart from today’s identity driven issues, a contrast that makes Regan’s decision to stage the piece all the more bold and brave.

The strengths of the evening lie in the excellent song, dance and acting that are on display. Stepping into Monroe’s shoes is Abigayle Honeywill as Lorelei Lee, the titular blonde. Whip smart, Lorelei is a woman well aware of the siren-like power of her charms, with Honeywill channelling her remarkable talent and experience into the role. Her songs are riddled with a wry ironic comedy and she makes fine work of classics including Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and I’m Just  A Little Girl From Little Rock.

As Lorelei’s chaperone Eleanor Lakin who plays Dorothy Shaw is every match for her charge. Lakin also possesses the voice of an angel that is at all times powerful, controlled and a wonderful medium for her acting. Opening the solo singing with It’s High Time, Lakin sets an equally high bar that is never bettered than in Keeping Cool With Coolidge in which her vocal work is simply sensational.

Styne and Robin’s libretto’s liberally sprinkled with Songbook gems and it says much for Regan’s cast that they all step up to the plate magnificently – capturing each number's rhythm and cadence, but also and this is critically important, unlocking the comedy in the lyrics and delivering the gags with pinpoint timing. Tom Murphy as the womanising Sir Francis Beekman plays a character who modern writers would baulk at creating. Murphy's turn however is a hilarious delight, with his take on It's Delightful Down In Chile proving a cracker. Similarly Virge Gilchrist as the alcoholic American aristocrat Ella Spofford is another delightful vignette.

Choreographer Zak Nemorin has drilled his cast with flair and precision, the dance numbers being ambitiously conceived and thrillingly delivered in the Union's compact space. Sat at a baby grand, Henry Brennan musically directs with his small band making fine work of some of the 20th century's most entertaining melodies.

This is a carefully crafted musical. Classy, sassy and perfectly performed.

Runs until 26th October
Photo credit: Mark Senior