Wednesday 30 December 2020

Ria Jones In Conversation

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve, 2017


Sunset Boulevard, directed by Nikolai Foster and starring Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, is currently available to stream until January 9th 2021 and my review of this remarkable re-imagining of Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood tale can be found here.

But while the show, recorded at Leicester's Curve Theatre, may be remarkable, Ria Jones' association with Sunset Boulevard is even more incredible. In 1992, Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled the show at his Sydmonton Festival, with Jones playing Norma. It was to be some 24 years before Jones was to return to the role, this time at London's Coliseum where she played in standby to Glenn Close.

Fate intervened, and Jones was gifted the chance to lead the Coliseum's show for a series of performances while Close was unwell - and such was the strength of her performance that the Curve, together with producer Michael Harrison, created a touring production of Sunset Boulevard that opened to critical acclaim one year later in 2017.

Now, in the pandemic, it is that touring production that has been revived for streaming.

This week Ria Jones and I discussed Norma and her. Read on.....

JB:     Ria, you have returned to Sunset Boulevard in the midst of a pandemic – tell me how this current, streamed production evolved. 

RJ:     To be honest, when Nikolai Foster, the show’s director first asked me, I literally thought it would be a concert performance with me in a nice dress walking on in front of a microphone and, with the cast, simply singing the songs. But then I thought, how can we do that? Because if you just take the songs, that's not going to last for even an hour!

Then the more I learned about the production, and that there was a revolve that had been donated by Cameron Mackintosh to the theatre, and I thought, okay, that's going to be a bit different to a normal concert. Then I heard we were in costume. And then more and more, and it just sounded more as if it was going to be like the production - although it couldn't be because there were no sets! And then when I heard it was with the 16 piece orchestra, I thought, I'm in! Sadly, a lot of shows can't afford to have that many musicians, but this score begs for that cinematic sound. From that first chord that you hear in the overture, that big, low bellowing sound, it's just fabulous. And I thought, definitely. I think it's a great time to do it because of all the shows I've done, this one is so special for so many reasons. Of all the shows I'd love to sing this year, of all years, would be Sunset, would be Norma.

And then as you know, Leicester went into Tier Three. So, we thought “that would be it, that's it!” and then Nikolai said, "We're thinking of filming it....." 

To be honest, I wished I'd had a few months’ notice and could have gone on a diet because of the lockdown weight I’d put on. HD is cruel at the best of times, let alone after COVID for 10 months! I'm sorry to say this, but HD is not kind unless you're Danny Mac and you wake up perfect like that. 10o'clock in the morning and he would look just as good as at anytime of day! 

As the streamed production came together, the lovely thing about Nikolai was that he allowed us all to put our own ideas in the mix. And he genuinely meant it. This take on the musical was so new and so groundbreaking that we were all able to contribute to its creation. Dan came up with the idea of Betty and Joe underneath the stage with all the scaffolding for that scene in act two, a moment that I thought was just gorgeous. It was a learning curve for us all.

As the tech went on, we got more and more excited because we could feel and see how good it felt and as soon as we heard the orchestra play, it was like sitzprobe all over again. Actually, it was like a sitzprobe each time they played as they were in the room with us throughout, rather than hidden away in a rehearsal room upstairs. That worked especially well, helping us to connect with the musicians and we needed that even more so with there being no audience to relate the story to. 

I think for me playing Norma to an empty auditorium was just amazing because, for her, she was still in a silent world, looking out to the empty seats, the empty auditorium. Tragic in a way, but also quite beautiful because it summed up her whole world, the silent world.

Since the first streams have been broadcast I have had people say that they found my singing "With One Look" or, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," to an auditorium with empty seats was quite moving, especially today. 

JB:     Indeed – the poignancy of the empty Curve is striking. Within the show, the most moving moment for me remains when Hogeye, a Paramount lighting operator who remembers Norma from her glory days, shines a spotlight on her – sending her mind back through the decades. 

RJ:     Yeah, me too. And the music, the way the music is written for that moment is stunning, because the climax of the light hitting her on that with one look moment, that it's just absolutely glorious to play.

"I can say anything I want, with my eyes!"

JB:     It is a heartbreaking piece of humanity, tied to brilliant visuals and brilliant music.

RJ:     Yes, exactly, exactly, exactly. Because in an ideal world, on a film set, it would be those huge empty studios, and with just that one beam of light smacking her in the face. And whether I did it at the Coliseum, even when I first did it at Sydmonton, I remember that, the build-up. It's all the build-up to that moment, isn't it, for her? And it's just so beautifully written and timed.

And of course in her head, and she's just completely in her own world. Nobody else exists. Even though she sings “I don't know why I'm frightened”, it’s as if she's telling them, she's not. She's in her own little world remembering the fairy tale. It's the fairy tales, and the laughter and the joy and the nervousness of it all. She's a teenager, she's 17, again. She's 17. And that beam of light is that smacking her in the face. She's 17 and she’s just met Mr. DeMille who made her a star.

I bawl my eyes out every time, because that's the age I was when I started in the business. I was 16 doing the tour for Bill Kenwright of Joseph. During the tour, I became 17. And then I really got going when I was 17. So when he says that, "If you could have seen her at 17, beautiful and strong, before it all went wrong. She doesn't know that she never knew the meaning of surrender." And you just think, "Oh, there but the grace of God, go I!"

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve Streamed Performance, 2020

JB:     How did social distancing impact upon your performance?

Social distancing has imposed some strange and unfamiliar working practices upon the company. We couldn't have wigs. We couldn't have dressers. We had to dress ourselves and I had to do my own hair. I always do my own makeup anyway, but of course again under the scrutiny of HD cameras, you've got to think and I've got to be a makeup artist all of a sudden; I've got to be a hairdresser. Previously I’d have had three dressers. Literally, I would come off stage, and have three dressers around me to get me dressed quickly for the next scene. So that was strange. 

Luckily for me though, I could wear turbans for most of the stream. Also, luckily, I'd grown my hair through lockdown, for no other reason than just change really. And so that's why I was able to use my hair for the last scene. On tour, Colin Richmond had designed two wigs for me. The glamorous one, when she's the ingenue, trying to flirt with Joe and the hair has to be perfect. And then one for her breakdown in Act Two, that was much thinner and going grey and everything.

So I thought, how can I do that this time? And I decided to use my own hair and make that look a bit mad, so that the streaming audience see that Norma is real underneath the turban. 

All of those things were tricky, because as well as thinking about what I was singing, I was also thinking about my quick changes, doing my own hair and makeup, all while we were in the real-time of a show. It was not like we were doing a film with the luxury of stopping for an hour while I did a complete makeup change and hair change. I had five, 10 minutes to do all that in, before I was back on camera. So that was scary.

JB:      Your association with Sunset Boulevard has been remarkable, given that you workshopped the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber before performing as Norma Desmond in its first outing at Lloyd Webber’s  Sydmonton Festival in 1990. Please tell me about that journey. 

RJ:     From the outset I adored the songs, they really suited my voice. And it was lovely to work closely with Andrew on them. I mean, I remember sitting next to him at the piano, in his home in Belgrave, literally while he was writing the end of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," And he was like, do you think it is up or down? I said, no, I think it should go up at the end of “goodbye”, which it does – and then of course he added "we taught the world, new ways to dream" And I thought, yes, that's a lovely touch to the song. 

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Sydmonton, 1992

At first I thought I really understood why it was there. So then when I played Norma again – fast forward to the Coliseum 26 years later or whatever - oh my gosh, had I learned a lot more, because I had lived a lot more, and by then (in 2016) I was the right age. And having been in the business then for 30 odd years, and having experienced tragedy, loneliness and fear of being on my own at times all helped me get into the bones of Norma Desmond, because the one thing I didn't want was to become a caricature of her. 

Even now, in the two and a half years from doing it on tour to filming it last week, I've experienced more layers to her. 

And also, I am grateful to Norma. For many reasons, she's been a big part of my life. When I was standby to Glenn Close, Norma got me back out there into the world after my illness and that was great.


JB – Tell me more about the Coliseum production

RJ:     Because I wasn't actually in the show as an understudy, I was standing by in the wings literally every night. It's not every day you get to watch a Hollywood A-Listers rehearse and create and everything and that was fascinating for me. Also it was a way of me dipping my toe back into the business, but not with all the pressure of eight shows a week or everything. It was a nice way for me to just slowly get back into it and by gosh, it worked out.

Of course I was booked as Glenn's standby – so when the time came to step up to the role one had to remember that the reason you're going on is because somebody else is poorly. So as much as you can celebrate it, you have to also be respectful of that.

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, London Coliseum, 2016

JB:     Kevin Wilson (Theatre PR)  had a ticket in the audience for your first night on at the Coliseum as Norma and he penned a 5* rave review of your performance

RJ:     He did. And it went viral, I think! It was amazing and as someone wrote, "It took 36 years to be an overnight success." But it's a case of being at the right place, the right time, the right musical and the right age and the right style for me.

Everything, all the stars aligned and I swear it was Victoria Wood’s heavenly influence too! She had sadly passed away the day before I got the call to play Norma at the Coliseum  and she was a good friend of mine. At the time I said to Steven Mear: "You know what? She's gone up there and thought, right. It's about time for Ria!." I swear it was Victoria.

We all know that unless you make it on TV, you could be a jobbing performer for 40 odd years. I'd rather be a jobbing actress respected by my peers any day than just being a star for the sake of it.

The sad reality of course is that stars do put bums on seats and you do lose out sometimes on jobs you should maybe get, simply because you're not famous. But I'm happy with my lot more than, more than, and so lucky to have been able to have done Sunset Boulevard at the end of what has been an awfully dark year for theatre.

But you know, we're such survivors. We really will come back better than ever after all this. And I'm just thrilled that we had the chance to do this and it's been done and received really well. Yeah!

Sunset Boulevard In Concert - At Home is available to be streamed until 9th January 2021. For tickets, click here

Sunday 27 December 2020

Sunset Boulevard in Concert - at Home - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Ria Jones

Art can have a curious and fascinating evolution. In 1950, Billy Wilder’s noir movie, Sunset Boulevard scooped three Oscars, including the award for Best Story. Some forty years later Andrew Lloyd Webber together with Don Black and Christopher Hampton gave Wilder’s picture a Tony-winning musical theatre makeover. Now, driven by the pandemic and with the vision of director Nikolai Foster, that musical production has itself been helmed back to the screen.

The story is a cinema classic - of Norma Desmond, a reclusive Hollywood star of the long since faded Silent Movies era, who fate throws together with Joe Gillis, a hack screenwriter down on his luck.

At his Curve Theatre in Leicester, Foster directed a critically acclaimed touring version of the show in 2017 - and it was that production that in these restricted times was scheduled to be reprised in a concert format, live at the Curve over the 2020 festive season. Heightened rules intervened to forbid live performances in front of an audience, leading to the production being re-imagined for cameras and for streaming.

What makes this particular stream so delicious, is that the videographers are not just capturing the image of a show staged for the benefit of a live audience with the cameras as an “add-on”. Here, Foster has taken his company and his venue and then carefully and thoughtfully, blended classy camera work into the mix. The result is a fresh interpretation of this musical that makes for a glorious two-act entertainment.

This website reviewed Foster’s original take on the musical when it first opened - It was stunning then with an imaginative use of projections that conveyed not only Hollywood, but also served well as settings for a show designed to be taken on the road. These projections have been neatly woven into the streamed musical, giving a further aspect of authenticity to a tale that is so deeply rooted in Tinseltown’s Golden Age. But even more than the show’s vision, projections and use of the Curve’s adaptable cavernous space, what makes this musical such a gorgeous experience remains Foster’s carefully assembled cast, originally brought together in 2017 and who return, almost in the company’s entirety, to create this revival.

Much praise has deservedly been showered upon Ria Jones’ take on Norma Desmond, a woman driven by a fatal combination of narcissism and depression, unable to grasp that the arrival of the “talkies” had extinguished the flame of her stardom and such praise remains as true today. Jones, here finally in close-up, is compelling in her take on Desmond’s slide into insanity. Vocally magnificent - live, her versions of With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye were spine-tingling - she condenses the energy previously projected into auditoria, and focusses it squarely at the cameras, with a compelling intensity.

Danny Mac’s Joe Gillis is equally at ease, performing for the cameras as in the theatre. Mac’s grasp of Joe Gillis’ wry cynicism - a man who understands his circumstances with a compelling immediacy - remains as sharp as ever, with a combination of both strength and tenderness in his vocals.

The sub-plot between Gillis and studio script editor Betty Schaefer is beautifully nuanced between Mac and Molly Lynch’s Schaefer. Lynch captures both fire and fragility in her turn and in the show’s final act - as she realises the tragedy that’s unfolding before her eyes - in close up, offers a glimpse of her character’s scorching pain that only adds further shading to Schaefer's complexity. Alongside Lynch as a featured role, Adam Pearce’s Max, Desmond’s long-time butler, remains a treat, with Pearce’s resonant baritones delivering some of the narrative’s most pathos fuelled moments.

This streamed take would be virtually perfect were it not for a couple of minor snags in Foster’s direction. When, in his second act reprise of New Ways To Dream, Max delivers a shocking revelation about Desmond’s past, it would have added value to have seen Joe Gillis’ face as he learns this fact rather than having the cameras trained on Pearce. This of course will always be a flaw of a screened show - that one can only see in any scene what the director chooses to show us, rather than allowing one's vision an unfettered view of the tableau as played live on stage. Likewise, and also in act two, there are moments of dialog spoken by Carl Sanderson’s (excellent) Cecil B. DeMille that should add a profound pathos and understanding to Desmond’s plight. Foster has allowed these lines to be spoken far too freely with the result that a degree of depth and nuance that deserved to have been tapped, is missed.

Above all, this re-translation of Sunset Boulevard, back to its filmic origins, is to be celebrated. The vision of Foster and his team at Curve, together with his top-notch creative and musical collaborators - now including the wizardry of Crosscut Media - have taken the cruel contemporary (and hopefully, short-lived)  imposition of social distancing and have worked around these legislative and safety-driven necessities to deliver a show that is as fresh and as moving as ever.

Traditionally, in the story’s final scene, Norma Desmond speaks her final words to the gathered press cameras assembled at her Sunset Boulevard mansion, mistaking them in her madness for a DeMille film crew. Here, amongst the deserted balcony of the Curve, and with only a (deliberately visible) Crosscut camera operator up close, the tragedy both of Norma's time and of our own is palpable and heart-breaking.

Go watch this show!

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Monday 21 December 2020

Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? - Review

Eagle, London


Written by Gareth Joyner
Directed by Robert McWhir

It is grim to have to publish the a review of a show that has currently had to dim its lights, firstly due to the imposition of Tier 3 restrictions upon London and which now languishes under the quasi-lockdown of Tier 4.

But rather than mourn the closure of Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? this review will celebrate the show’s genius and look forward to its intended revival and return to Vauxhall’s Eagle, when lockdown is lifted. 

There are few finer, sassier, wittier, nor more perceptive directors on London’s fringe than Robert McWhir, who crafts Gareth Joyners filthily yet lovingly created script into an eye-wateringly funny two hour whirlwind of adult-focused Disney-esque spoof.

The deliciously camp plot centres upon the evil Demon Frostbite (Nathan Taylor) and his attempts to lure Dame Herda Gerda (Dereck Walker) from her life of purity and chastity, to become his sidekick. Joyner’s story proves as wonderfully fairytale as the season demands – and is only enhanced by a McWhir’s stunning company who deliver pantomime perfection. Immaculate timing, audience interaction (to the extent that masked social-distancing permits) executed with pinpoint perception and moments of excruciatingly hilarious embarrassment, all make for an evening of entertainment that is absolute succour to a world that has been denied much to laugh at for the last 9 months. Not just Taylor and Walker, but their five fellow performers are all at the top of their game, with special mention to Bessy Ewa’s Greta who as dance captain, makes sure that William Spencer’s imaginative choreography is drilled to perfection in the tiny performing space.

Definitely not for children, Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? Is quite simply a theatrical treat whose careful crafting has transformed gloriously filthy lowball comedy into high-class entertainment. When it returns to the Eagle’s back garden, it will be unmissable!

Friday 11 December 2020

House of Burlesque - Saturday Salon - Review

Century Club, London


With lockdown lifted across the country there is much to commend the twirling bravura of Tempest Rose, in thrusting her company’s short season of burlesque onto a performance-starved and entertainment-craving capital city.

Socially distanced, Shaftesbury Avenue’s Century Club (which later that same evening was to prove the venue for Sky News’ Kay Burley’s undoing) accommodated some 30 souls for an eclectic set. But in a number of ways, it was the requirements of our times that led to the evening failing to reach the potential to which Rose aspired. Intimately performed burlesque playing to an audience of tens, rather than, say, hundreds demands not only a cabaret-style setting, but an audience lubricated by cocktail-fuelled libation. With current regulations demanding that alcoholic beverages only be served alongside a “substantial meal” leaves the audience required to choose from the Century’s disappointing food menu, if they are to lose some of their inhibition to the demon drink. And with such imposed restrictions, much of the noir-esque intimacy that this artform demands, is lost.

That being said – there were moments of talent in the House Of Burlesque set, with the women displaying not only sex-appeal (an integral feature of a burlesque show), but also classy vocal tone and gorgeous movement. There was wit to the routine too – most notably a reverse strip that saw the scantily clad performers don their clothes to the music, rather than the expected traditional take (off).

The show moves to the South Bank’s Bridge Theatre for a brief late-night residency, where theatre style, the artistes’ talented charms may have more effect. But for burlesque as well as for Burley – last Saturday evening at the Century Club failed to enthral.

11th – 12th  & 18th – 19th December

11th and 12th Dec
Socially distanced theatre seating

Sunday 22 November 2020

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene - Review

Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene is an enchanting glimpse, not only of some of Marlene Dietrich’s most recognised numbers but also of her intriguing connection with Lemper, a singer from a new generation and yet who interprets Dietrich’s nuance with a breathtaking presence.

In a carefully created movie, Lemper curates a loving yet honestly delivered tribute to one of Europe’s most recognised divas of the 20th century. Drawn from an astonishing real-life event in 1989, when Dietrich, then 89 and resident in Paris, tracked down Lemper who was performing in the city – and in the ensuing conversation, only enriched the younger singer’s understanding of Dietrich’s life and her art.

The narrative plays out through a re-enacted phone conversation between Lemper and Dietrich (played by Lemper) that touches upon much of Dietrich’s remarkable journey through Germany in its Weimar, Nazi and latterly its post-war era. While the telephone conversation is rooted in fact, Lemper takes some artistic licence with the spoken detail – and yet the recollections are as fascinating as, at times they are chilling.

Musically, Lemper’s take on Dietrich’s gems are a delight with interpretations that are modern yet classic. 15 songs are woven into the recording that range from Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind  and Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? through to the gorgeous ratpack work of Johnny Mercer with One For My Baby (a sublime take) and of course Dietrich’s signature number, Lili Marleen. 

Lemper’s work is flawless and the movie is a revelation in its detail and its storytelling. But ultimately this is a cabaret-style gig filmed,  and that proves a distraction. For cinematic/streamed storytelling to work well visceral visuals are needed. The heavy hanging Gauloises smoke would work sublimely well in a late night basement cabaret venue – but in this streaming the relentless close-ups of alternating dialogue make for occasional heavy going. And furthermore, a real-life two hour cabaret set would likely include more numbers.

But for those who appreciate fine songs, beautifully sung – as well as an eye-opening glimpse into modern Europe’s history and society, then these autumn streams are not to be missed.

Produced by Alan Cumming and Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene’, filmed at Club Cumming in New York with Alan Cummin and Ute Lemper as producers, will be streamed globally on two evenings this month: Wednesday 25 November at 01.00 and Saturday, 5 December 2020 at 19.00 - All times GMT

Booking link:

Saturday 5 September 2020

C.O.N.T.A.C.T - Review


Originally created by Samuel Sené and Gabrielle Jourdain
English adaptation by Quentin Bruno
Directed by Samuel Sené, associate director Bronagh Lagan.

It’s a typical wet and dreary slightly muggy evening in the capital. Sodden shoes, jeans damp already but you know what? As 6pm approached at the agreed meeting point, one would not wish to be anywhere else. Katy Lipson’s promenade production takes away "pre-show orders at the bar" offering instead a purer theatre: stripped down, bare and exposed in the streets of London. 

At just under an hour's duration, C-O-N-T-A-C-T consists of a cast of two and is playing out at various places across London. This reviewer saw Laura White and Max Gold taking on the double-hander at a location close to Monument tube station. As the play opens we find Sarah (White) sat alone on a bench from which we start to share her journey - a very personal expression of her thoughts from the pandemic that range from music, to work pressures, to stomach cramps. Such is the writer’s perception that there will be different moments within the narrative that will likely resonate with most of the audience. Sarah’s time remains private until she is interrupted by the arrival of a Raphael (Gold) a stranger who sits down next to her, socially distanced of course, with Sarah finding herself establishing a strange form of contact with this man whom she barely knows. 

Before delving into Sarah’s mind, the very first experience of C-O-N-T-A-C-T is the state of the art immersive sounds and music that play through each member of the audience’s personal headphones. Cyril Barbessol’s sound design is extraordinary, instantly taking the audience into another world of stereo soundscapes so carefully crafted that they could almost suggest a state of the art theme-park experience. Weaved into it this audio are the recordings of Aoife Kennan vocalising Sarah and Richard Heap as Raphael. Interestingly, while the layering of sounds, synth, music and voice is both innovative and transporting, there are moments in which the sfx or music overwhelms. If it were to be sometimes just the actors’ voices in their simplest, natural form this may well prove more effective. 

Sarah and Raphael may start the piece as strangers but they quickly form an incredibly open, and in many ways complex, relationship. Gold offers an initially slightly unnerving aloofness and detachment from Sarah, but nonetheless gives a well rounded performance in this new form of theatre where the audio track dictates every single moment, thought and action to the millisecond. White however takes the audience on the most personal of journeys, anxieties and revelations. Her natural instincts, intuition and honesty would be something to behold on a traditional stage and sat 30 rows back – but up close and some 5 meters away in the rain, her performance is little short of extraordinary. 

As joggers run by and tourists stop to gander there is something very refreshing about this piece of unconventional theatre that recently premiered in Paris. Sené’s direction is so intricate and versatile however that one suspects the piece could be picked up and played anywhere in the world. And so it should. At a time where the world for the most part has been without theatre for so long, C.O.N.T.A.C.T is an opportunity to reacquaint oneself and make contact with an art form so close to so many, on a whole new level.

Runs until 10th October 2020
Book via
Reviewed by Davide Davidssonn

Thursday 21 May 2020

Siobhan Dillon - One Voice - Review


Siobhan Dillon

There is a touching, piercing beauty to Siobhan Dillon’s solo album One Voice, released last month. Dillon rose to public prominence in 2006, competing in TV’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and from there has gone on to leading roles in musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. Away from the greasepaint and spotlights however, recent years have seen the singer win her own very private and personal battle with cancer. Dillon has thus directed that the album's proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Haven charity as a mark of her own personal reflection upon her journey.

There is of course a poignant timeliness to the album too, for as theatres around the world lie dark amidst the lockdown, the haunting resonance of Dillon’s beautiful interpretations speaks to us all. Comprising 11 ballads, Dillon’s is an eclectic choice drawn from the greats of recent decades. The album carries only a modest nod to her musical theatre heritage, although her take on Sara Bareilles’ She Used To Be Mine from Waitress offers a spine-tingling interpretation of the number, revealing an even richer nuance to this showstopping heartbreaker.

Above all, it is Dillon’s interpretation of some of the most exquisite ballads of recent decades that gives her album such polish. Her cover of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face lifts the song away from the timelessness of Roberta Flack’s original, imbuing a new and haunting charm on the number. Likewise, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which Dillon refreshingly claims is a song that takes her straight back to her childhood, is makes for another treat.

Hearing Dillon rework Tears For Fears’ Mad World brings not only another burst of musical and vocal excellence, but as much, an almost sagelike sadness as a comment upon the world in which we find ourselves today. It is however in her final number Promise Me that Dillon dials down Beverley Craven’s passionate power, leaving instead a sweet and delicate performance that leaves one almost as if discovering the song for the first time.

Don’t just grab this album because it is raising funds for such a worthy cause. Rather, buy it as a work of beauty. Dillon’s melding of melody and voice is an album for today and for the future, while offering a stunning lookback at our musical past - simply gorgeous.

Available via Amazon, Apple Music and Spotify

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Identity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


Created and choreographed by Christopher Tendai
Co-created by Denzel Westley-Sanderson
Music by Sam. G
Original spoken word and live music by Caitlin Taylor

On for a short run at the Turbine Theatre in the last days of pre-lockdown live performance, Identity was a dance show themed around the challenges of mental health. Intriguing and unpredictable – and thus much like the soul of a dancer – the movement was accompanied by a mixture of a pre-recorded soundtrack alongside live music being played too.

This young group of performers achieved their aim of being honest both with themselves and with the audience. Their moves were self-founded, expressive and truthful, with much of the work proving to be both distinctive and excellent. Occasionally the company seemed to lack immersion in the dance, but this will no doubt be addressed over time with experience and tighter performances – when venues are allowed to re-open.

Mental health is a critical aspect of our modern lives, especially with the influence of social media platforms and there was brave imagination from the troupe in seeking to create a safe space, an environment where, as dancers, they could perform and express themselves safely and openly. In a post-show discussion between the audience and the company, the message was clear: that the issue of mental health demands more open discussion.

The performers set out to communicate that people in general should create a more supportive environment for each other, in order to be able to share more readily and to talk more with each other on a daily basis, recognising that everyone has life experiences that are both positive and negative. Their message to young people was ultimately that they should not be afraid to remove those masks that can so easily be used to hide behind - to encourage us all to show our weaknesses and acknowledge that, particularly under the cover of social media, people can appear to be strong whilst in reality that strength is nothing more than a façade.

Throughout, the dancers were able to display their identities along with their personalities as they tried to encourage young adults to follow the same path. Above all, this was an exciting evening of imaginative and moving movement.

Thursday 5 March 2020

The Last Five Years - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Molly Lynch

In one of the show’s finest versions in recent years, Jonathan O’Boyle’s take on The Last Five Years makes for an evening of simply exquisite musical theatre in what has to be a definitive production of this complex and unusual work.

The narrative is simple but mind bending - Jason Robert Brown, the show’s creator projects a doomed five-year romance from two conflicting timelines. Jamie’s arc follows a natural timeline from first date right up to closing down the couple’s shared bank account. Cathy, by contrast, is introduced to us picking up the pieces of her shattered marriage and from there Brown plays with his audience. Cathy sings her life in reverse, ending on the excruciatingly painful number – to us at least - of her delirious joy following her first date with Jamie.

Oli Higginson

With its complex conceits, the show is not everyone’s cup of tea and indeed has yet to enjoy a run on Broadway. But at the Southwark Playhouse, O’Boyle much like an alchemist, fuses an array of brilliant base elements into a truly splendid show.

A grand piano sits on a revolve as the two performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson deliver the piece. The actors not only both play the instrument (and Lynch the ukulele and Higginson the guitar too) but dance upon and around the piano too. The magnificent Yamaha also proves a deceptively common denominator to the audience, cruelly appearing to unite these two out-of-lovers, when in reality there arms are only linked to perform some neatly arranged 4-handed interpretations of Brown’s slickly intuitive melodies.

Lynch’s performing skills have long been held in awe by this website and for a woman whose name sets ridiculously high levels of anticipation even before the curtain goes up, at the Southwark Playhouse she exceeds those expectations by a country mile. Capturing both passion and pathos, Lynch stuns us with her belt in A Summer In Ohio, yet breaks our hearts at both the show’s open and closing moments, as she so convincingly plays a woman who has either either seen, or is destined to see, love crumble and slip through her fingers. Elegant in white, Lynch is every inch the young out-of-towner transformed into a sassy yet vulnerable Manhattanite.

Barely graduated from the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, Higginson displays a maturity beyond his years in his inhabiting of Jewish Jamie’s crotch-driven persona. As Jamie’s deceit becomes apparent one is left wondering if the man is ever capable of sincere love, with Higginson capturing not only his passion and lies, but also that complex puppy-like charm that endears him to the audience in the show’s early numbers, but which starts to evaporate as soon as the wedding band is around his finger.

The range of musical styles that Brown has included within the 90minute one-act delight are a treat for all. This is not a show bogged down in introspective balladry, but rather a feast of melodies that range from rock and blues through to klezmer and with as much a sprinkling of humour as well as tragedy thrown in too. Complementing the two on-stage pianists, above the proceedings George Dyer, who has also orchestrated this revival, leads his 4 piece band immaculately.

O’Boyle’s direction is ingenious and economic. With both players on stage for almost the entire piece, every glance and nuance is perfectly posed to reflect their realtime non-interaction with each other, save for the show’s centrepiece, The Next Ten Minutes, that sees the pair marry in Central Park.

Lee Newby’s simple striking set is elegant and underplayed – slick and jazzy with a marquee of "L5Y" as a backdrop, but which seems to soften in the productions more melancholy moments. Likewise, Jamie Platt’s lighting plots are equally and as imaginatively, effective.

This take on The Last Five Years is one of the most gorgeously presented pieces of musical theatre to be found in London right now. Actors and creatives at the very top of their game, it is unmissable!

Runs until 28th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday 2 March 2020

The Prince Of Egypt - A movie fan's perspective

Stephen Schwartz's musical The Prince of Egypt, a stage show based upon Dreamworks' acclaimed animation opened in London last week to mixed reviews.
The 1998 movie, the studios' first animated feature, had seen its Hans Zimmer score being Oscar nominated with Stephen Schwartz's song When You Believe, going on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Replete with its star-studded vocal cast, The Prince of Egypt movie has formed part of the backdrop of many childrens' formative years, commanding their love and adoration for a strong Bible story, beautifully told.
So what went wrong that has led to such a much-loved movie, being so slated by the critics on its transformation into a West End show?
I invited teenager Emmeline Liddle, a self-confessed fan of the film, to offer her thoughts...

Emmeline Liddle

If I had to choose one word to describe this production it would probably be “unnecessary”.

Unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary songs and unnecessary scenes manage to turn (in my opinion) one of the best animated films of all time into a boring biblical ‘bromance’. So much time is dedicated to the brothers’ relationship that the whole play drags and uncomfortably, feels ever so slightly homoerotic. We don’t need ten extra numbers depicting Moses’ frustration with and yet love for Ramses. In just a few minutes of dialogue the film manages to establish a powerful emotional connection between the two. There would be nothing wrong with this if a love story was what Schwartz had in mind - it might even have made for an interesting and original twist.

What is necessary, however, is a better set. Polystyrene blocks that wobble unsteadily and clip art of the Nile, or a sunset stock image projected onto the background just doesn’t cut it for a West End production. Having slaves portray water to carry the infant’s basket was a nice idea but looked rather clumsy at times, as was sadly often the case throughout the play. Moses almost slipped off his polystyrene seat, a ‘limestone’ block would be nudged out of place by a stray foot - it all felt amateur and cheap.

The costumes were also off. Moses would occasionally enter wearing what looked like a tank top and pajama bottoms, and I’m not sure what they were thinking dressing the Pharaoh as a Napoleonic admiral. An interesting choice, but I’m pretty sure white suits and epaulettes weren’t invented for a few thousand years.

The performance also lacked comedy. There were a few laughs, but only at the jokes which had been directly lifted from the film. In the animation the priests Hotep and Huy were an effective comedy duo, but Schwartz chose to make Hotep (Adam Pearce) the solo villain of the piece. It was also a mistake to excise the song You’re Playing With The Big Boys Now which functioned in the film to combine humour with villainy, whilst still invoking fear and awe. Despite this, Pearce was certainly the best of the male actors, bringing real malice to the stage and a welcome contrast with the overwhelmingly schmaltzy and tiresome discourse.

Overall, however, the women of the production easily outshone the men. Miriam (Alexia Khadime) was both believable and likeable - she sounded as though she meant what she said, not doing a turn at the local pantomime. Christine Allado played Tzipporah with passion, but was let down by a confused script and direction. Isn’t it rather contradictory to sing a song about how she is not an object to be owned or controlled by anyone, whilst performing an overtly sexual dance for the Pharaoh and his sons? In fact, the whole production felt confused, seemingly unable to decide whether aimed at kids, with bright colours, upbeat numbers and cartoonish backgrounds, or adults, with an overly contemplative script.

That said, Schwartz does well to address some hitherto unanswered questions. For example, we have a scene between Moses and Queen Tuya which acknowledges that if your adoptive child returned, destroyed your kingdom and killed your grandson, you’d probably be quite upset! There was probably a song about this, too. I can’t remember. Which is rather the problem. There is so much focus on having the songs be reminiscent of ancient Egypt that the same cadences are used throughout and meld into one another. The only memorable songs were the original ones.

No Power On Earth was an overused, weak new song. When the plagues descend, rather than use the original chorus Let My People Go - which drives home the main point of the story right at the climax - we have the mawkish new number instead, accompanied by cheap CGI fireballs. It has nowhere near the impact, but Schwartz has seemed set on making this song the theme of the entire production.

This brings me to my main gripe with the production. A powerful biblical tale of Hebrew emancipation is overshadowed by a preoccupation with the emotions of and relationship between two brothers. I suppose this brings the story up to date - reflecting our contemporary obsession with personal ‘journeys’. What a waste. If a story about God, betrayal, hope and miracles that has endured for millenia isn’t enough to make an exciting production out of, then I don’t know what is.

Written by Emmeline Liddle

Friday 28 February 2020

The Prince of Egypt - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Philip LaZebnik
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Luke Brady

The Bible has not always had an easy relationship with musical theatre. Two notable exceptions being Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and that  perennial favourite Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Each of these casts a contemporary take on the scripture and features a through-sung score. A modern oratorio. At about the same time US composer Stephen Schwartz gave us Godspell, a whimsical take on the Gospels that proved just as successful and gave us memorable hits such as God Save The People and Day By Day. What Godspell lacked was staying power and major revivals have been few and far between. His musical Children Of Eden, also based on episodes from the Bible, failed to take off in 1991, despite development from the RSC.

A few years later, Schwartz scored a  hit with an animated version of the story of Moses from DreamWorks Animation, The Prince Of Egypt. It’s probably nowhere near the classic movie that the publicity would have you think, despite the noble line-up of actors providing the voices.  However Schwartz hit pay-dirt with the Academy-award winning anthem When You Believe, recorded for popular release by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Move forward another 20 years and Schwartz has shifted the story to the stage, adding further musical numbers to the score and a book by the author of the original screenplay Philip Lazebnik. All the familiar key points are in place. There are bulrushes, a baby in the basket and a burning bush. Lazebnik’s storytelling technique manages to cram many plot points into a relatively short running time. Yet for all this speed it still manages to drag, only ever really springing to life in the musical numbers. And boy, do we pray for some of the whimsy that made Godspell so appealing in its day. Instead we get a story that’s both too leaden for family audiences and too simplistic for adults.

Kevin Depinet’s set design works on certain levels, with the projections and variegated screens capturing the burning desert or the majestic temples of the Nile with some sense of scale. However bearing in mind that this is a story steeped in mysticism and miracles, there’s very little magic on show. Sean Cheesman’s relentless choreography offers us the Twelve Plagues of Egypt via interpretative dance, which would be fine if this was Sadler's Wells or the Union Theatre. I personally want a little spectacle from a West End production, especially as the hand of God was supposed to be behind it. Instead we get polystyrene building blocks and a couple of magic tricks that wouldn’t impress a ten-year old, let alone a Pharaoh. To add to the disconcerting simplicity of the special effects and set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes managed to look both cheap and unsettlingly anachronistic.

Schwartz has padded out the original with ten additional numbers, none of which really have the impact of When You Believe. The song Dance To The Day is given to Christine Allado's Tzipporah the captured Midian to establish her pride and independence. This turns out to be one of the best numbers in the show, proving a highlight for Allado and a shoo-in for this year’s Eurovision entry. Thankfully a woefully underused Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Allado do justice to When You Believe but it’s a long wait for this edifying anthem.

It’s good to see Gary Wilmot back in the West End in trousers, rather than his regular star turn as Dame at the Palladium panto. Wilmot has a natural warmth on stage and his musical number as Jethro, offers a little light relief from the rather worthy, soul-searching anthems that populate the score. The focus of Lazebnik’s story is, understandably, Moses played by Luke Brady and more pointedly his relationship with Rameses, the boy who would be Pharaoh, played by Liam Tamne. There’s oddly little chemistry between the two, although this may be down to Lazebnik’s script, which struggles to fashion a credible tone and ends up as conflicted bromance. Brady and Tamne each get to strut their stuff vocally, both proving they have quality singing voices but there’s little here to help establish them as West End leading men.

Schwartz appears to have added to his collection of problematic Bible-based musicals with The Prince Of Egypt, but director Scott Schwartz’s cheap and often confused looking production doesn’t actually help matters. It cuts too many corners, dumbs down Moses’ relationship with God and beefs up the one with Rameses. Who knows, in years to come a fringe theatre may manage to hit the right tone. In the meantime, this production could do with a little more creative flair and re-write.

Booking until 31st October
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

Saturday 22 February 2020

Elton John It's A Little Bit Funny - Review

Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Musical arrangements by Andy Collyer

Martin Kaye

Martin Kaye enthrals his audience at Upstairs at the Gatehouse as he spins the tale of Elton John’s ascendance into global super stardom, complete with pitfalls along the way. Kaye’s enthusiasm for Elton is infectious, weaving in his own autobiographical detail into his recantation of the singer’s journey from the lonely Reginald Dwight in grey flannel trousers through to the sensational Elton John in spangled hot pants. 

The show is centred around a night in Las Vegas where Kaye, during his time performing in Million Dollar Quartet, bumps into his ultimate hero Elton John in a hotel lobby where the two then spent an eventful, confessional, evening together. The evening’s narrative however seems minimal, especially when contrasted with Kaye’s excellent singing talent and with the Rocketman movie having only recently graced our screens, there is not much here that we do not already know. But the songs are great and undoubtedly the best part of the performance is a finale that sees Kaye getting the whole audience to sing along with Crocodile Rock.

Ben M Rogers’ set is striking, with huge illuminated lettering and the piano being put front and centre (literally with some incredibly inventive live projection of Kaye’s finger work), giving the feel of being front row at an actual Elton John concert. The lighting was effective, helping to create atmosphere and tone, as the sparse set and limited props allowed Kaye’s showmanship, with his odd socks and wild piano playing, to be the main focus of the event. 

Clever and entertaining, the show is a musically brilliant tribute to one of our greatest showmen.

Runs until 1st March
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh
Photo credit: Ben Hewis

Message In A Bottle - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


Choreographed by Kate Prince
Based on the songs of Sting

In a display of sensational dancing, Message In A Bottle takes the songs of Sting and The Police fusing them into a performance, under Kate Prince’s choreography, that focusses on love, resilience and above all, a desire for freedom. 

The evening is a display of inclusiveness and freedom of expression in different ways: both physical and emotional with the first act starting through the telling the story of a strong supportive community, where people are friendly and look after each other. As the simple narrative unfolds it becomes heart-wrenching to see the challenges of tougher times – the separation of a married couple and a community experiencing hardship.

Throughout, the performances are sensational. Nafisah Baba in particular is a mesmerisingly strong and talented dancer.  Baba’s moves are animalistic, full of grace and intrigue and it is a delight to watch her dance. To the backing of The Police’s classic number Roxanne she flourished in a dance of spice and passion.

While Baba stood out it has to be said that all of Prince’s talented troupe are fantastic. Their moves are filled with physics, energy and mutual connection, communicating brilliantly the concepts of teamwork, friendship, family, community and love. If there is but one small flaw, it is the space constraint of the stage which seems to restrict the dancers’ movement.

A dance of love between two male dancers is impressively performed to Sting’s Shape Of My Heart, with the audience exploding into applause. One can see the dancers not only holding the line of the dance, but also transferring their feelings to the audience. 

Message In A Bottle is an inspiring show filled with energy, joy, love and expression and a must see for lovers of modern dance.

Runs until 21st March
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks