Wednesday 22 January 2020

Les Misérables - Review

Sondheim Theatre, London


Concept, book and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil
Book and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell

Bradley Jaden and Jon Robyns

Arriving in London following a toured and international try-out, Les Misérables (or rather Les Mis 2.0 as the programme affectionately describes it) opens at Cameron Mackintosh’s newly revamped Sondheim (formerly the Queens) Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For nearly 35 years this behemoth of show has dominated the global musical theatre scene, spawning a movie treatment along the way and for one simple reason. For not only are Claude-Michel Schönberg’s melodies as stirring as they are heart-rending in equal measure, with Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics skewering the very essence of humanity with wit and tenderness, but at the core of Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s classic novel that is possibly unmatched in its ability to drive a musical. For however smart the words or snappy the tunes, a good show demands to be constructed upon a sound book and Hugo’s is the best. It may be set at least two centuries ago, but this epic tale of humanity, redemption, forgiveness, envy and greed still packs a relevant and oh-so timely punch, particularly as cries for the recognition of democracy have only recently been heard echoing around these isles. Did we hear the people sing (or vote)?

There are some modest, subtle changes to Kretzmer’s prose, but the tunes are still the same and the narrative still gorgeous. The Queens’ revolve has been rolled away and in its place are Matt Kinley's automated scenery trucks married to Finn Ross' ingenious projections. It is no wonder that this production has achieved such acclaim on tour with a technical portability that the original show never could match. For the most part the new designs generally deliver an innovative take on their predecessor, but it has not been a perfect transition. The tragic impact of the second half's Final Battle, where back in the day and with one half-turn the old revolve revealed the massacred students’ bodies, is not lived up to in v 2.0. The projections and techno-wizardry are fun though, as pyrotechnically enhanced fusillades ricochet around the auditorium (credit to Mick Potter's sound design). reminiscent of the audio brilliance of Saving Private Ryan’s opening battle scene.

[SPOILER ALERT] Javert’s Suicide is a (visual) treat. In place of the bridge’s balustrade being whisked up to the flies, the eponymous cop himself joins the flying squad. Indeed, so spectacular is Javert’s death that one is only left hoping for something even more celestially impressive for Jean Valjean’s last gasp. Sadly, when our hero does eventually expire, the moment is nowhere near as visually thrilling as Javert’s demise.

Vocally the piece remains a classy gathering of talent. Jon Robyns ages majestically through the piece as Valjean, his dramatic tenor tones catching the full range of his heroic character’s power and sensitivity. Opposite Robyn and hunting him across the years, Bradley Jaden captures Javert’s flawed but principled complexities.

Carrie Hope Fletcher sees a sideward promotion (to the Green Room for most of the show) as she takes over Fantine. Fletcher’s vocal talent and presence remains is amongst the finest of her generation and her singing exquisite. But is she a Fantine? Although this reviewer is unconvinced, Fletcher’s 500K Twitter followers may well have a different view. 

Hauled back in from the touring production, Ian Hughes’ Thénardier is in fine form capturing the show’s comic moments with perfect timing and delivery. Opposite him, the always outstanding Josefina Gabrielle’s Mme Thénardier is equally brilliant. But to take a step back for one moment, times have moved on since the 1980s. In this #MeToo era is it really right to be laughing so whole-heartedly at such a couple of child-abusers as the Thénardiers? The pair are actually terrifying monsters, rather than clowns. Elsewhere, the eternal triangle of Marius, Eponine, and Cosette is played well by Harry Apps, Shan Ako and Lily Kerhoas respectively. There is vocal talent here a ‘plenty but the true and passionate chemistry that these roles demand has yet to fully emerge.

Above all it is Kretzmer’s stunning lyrical treatment of those soaring French melodies (on press night, immaculately delivered under Steve Moss’ baton) woven around a story that is breathtaking in its scope that still define Les Misérables as a night of world class musical theatre.

Booking until 27th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday 19 January 2020

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Directed by Marc Bruni

It’s rare to get a glimpse into the magic of the songwriting process. From idea to creating initial elements, to arrangement and recording, before finally arriving at the final product, each song progresses through an alchemy of talent, collaboration and, quite often, a dash of luck. Beautiful provides a window exceptionally well, often beginning with flashes of inspiration, sketching out the skeleton on the piano before transitioning into the final version as performed by the recording artist themselves. However this is just one of the qualities that contributes to truly memorable music.

Carole King’s remarkable journey is reflected in this delightful jukebox musical. From writing songs throughout childhood, to joining the Brill Building and Aldon Music, Don Kirshner’s publishing “hit factory” (with fellow writers and friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and which also included Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka), having two children with then husband Gerry Goffin and moving from New York to Los Angeles - all before turning 30 - it’s quite the adventure.

Of King’s marriages, this story focuses exclusively on the first with Gerry Goffin; partner in life and work. The two churn out an impressive  discography, writing hits for The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Monkees, with many songs taking on a life of their own with recordings made over the years by various artists, some of the more recent covers being; Will You Love Me Tomorrow (Amy Winehouse), The Loco-Motion (Kylie Minogue) and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin). It is all as educational as much as it is entertaining, providing ample reasons to support King’s numerous accolades, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, alongside Goffin.

Douglas McGrath’s book is snappy, funny and moving. And with words and music by King, Goffin, Mann and Weil, each song is nothing short of exceptional. These are, after all, pop masterpieces. With these foundations in place, a stellar cast in possession of strong vocals and personality is required – delivered impressively in this iteration of the show.

Helmed by Daisy Wood-Davis’ Carole, the bar is set high. Wood-Davis manages to be sweet and driven, while being phenomenally talented. Her vocal performances are outstanding, particularly when in higher registers. Yet what’s most enjoyable is her characters interactions with her peers; Laura Baldwin’s sharp Cynthia Weil, Cameron Sharp’s Barry Mann and Adam Gillian’s Gerry Goffin. Special mention too to Oliver Boot, playing impresario Donnie Kirshner in a warm and engaging mentor-like role. 

For a touring production, one of the greatest challenges is a flexible set design and on this front, Derek McLane manages to have created something that fits comfortably on stage. Certain visuals are stunning; the backdrop of the Brill Building for example. Yet on occasion, a more simple approach might possibly have been more effective - at times the supposed grandeur of backdrops doesn’t have quite the desired effect. Alejo Vietti’s costumes are peppy and each costume change leads with an element of anticipation.

This is obviously a show for fans of Carole King but more than that, it is a show for lovers of great music. Simultaneously an homage to talent, love and friendship - with others and oneself - and a masterclass in musical theatre.

Currently touring until 29th August - Details here
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

JEW...ish - Review

Kings Head Theatre, London


Written by Saul Boyer and Poppy Damon
Directed by Kennedy Bloomer

Edie Newman and Saul Boyer

After a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, JEW...ish has just completed a short run at the Kings Head Theatre. The brainchild of co-creators, Poppy Damon and Saul Boyer, the play is centred around the relationship between Max, played by Boyer, and TJ, Edie Newman who are trying to navigate their way through their difficulties beyond the comfort of their university’s polyamorous society. Fraught with all the problems of an inter-religious couple, TJ is determined in her opinion that Max’s overbearing family not only cannot accept her because she isn’t Jewish but also accuse her of leading Max to becoming a ‘self-hating Jew’. 

Finding most of its comedy through the pastiche of millennial culture, the script also cuts across a broad range of themes including grief, therapy, the complexities of polyamory and of course, the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis. Newman nails the woke, sexually explorative, university graduate even down to her intonation which makes everything out as a question, as though she is questioning society at every turn. This is perfectly offset by Boyer’s unflappable comedic timing, presenting Max as the recognisable male archetype who is completely lost without the direction of a woman, whether that be his overbearing Jewish mother or TJ. The chemistry between the two is visceral and believable making the audience root for these two easily dislikeable characters and want to continue on their love-hate journey. 

Georgia Cusworth’s simplistic set only adds to the atmosphere, making sure the actors’ relationship stays as the main focus and allows for an incredibly creative car ride. Working within an awkward space with the audience sat at three different angles, Kennedy Bloomer and Toby Hampton’s direction ensures that the whole audience feels involved and invested in the story throughout. 

JEW…ish plays out as a Semitic Richard Curtis-esque romp through the struggles of 21st century dating with all its pitfalls and absurdity and is well worth a watch.

Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh
Photo credit: Samuel Kirkman

Thursday 16 January 2020

Rags - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Joseph Stein
Revised book by David Thompson
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Carolyn Maitland

Rags from Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse is a show that is set in New York City’s Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th century. Seen through the eyes of Rebecca, a penniless seamstress straight off the boat together with her young son David, the tale largely of Manhattan’s impoverished Jewish community, but with enough references to the Jews’ Italian migrant neighbours to define it as a non-denominational commentary upon immigration.

The book is by Joseph Stein and it has long been suggested that Rags represents a sequel to his earlier Fiddler On The Roof. But where that show achieved it’s punch through simple human challenges, beautifully told, Rags is more of a melting pot of issues that, combined, lack the same emotional heft. There is a narrative here that veers too easily into cliche and this perhaps is the reason behind the show’s failure to achieve lasting Broadway success.

That being said, director Bronagh Lagan has assembled some gifted talent in her Park Theatre company with Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca driving the show. Maitland is never less than magnificent in all her work and here she both captures and stirs our hearts in her take on the beautiful, driven young mother that she plays - her solo delivery of the closing number Children Of The Wind is stunning.

Dave Willetts puts in a strong turn as the kindly Avram who takes Rebecca into his home. There is a confidence in Willetts’ performance that captures moments of complex nuance. Opposite him, is Rachel Izen’s Rachel in another genius delivery that masterfully displays understated humour finely contrasted with the wry and wise experience of a long life, fully lived. The pair’s duet of Three Sunny Rooms is a highlight.

In charge of Strouse’s compositions is musical director Joe Bunker, who not only manages half of his 8-piece band from across two lofty corners of the stage but also conducts 4 onstage actor-musos too. Credit to all the musicians - the score straddles a multitude of genres with Bunker’s band deftly delivering across the evening.

Rags may be more schmaltz than substance but in this, its London premiere as a fully staged production, it is still a fine example of off-West End musical theatre.

Runs until 8th February
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Luzia - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca

A moment in Luzia

Cirque du Soleil’s latest show Luzia is currently playing in the company’s seasonal London home of the Royal Albert Hall. Drawn from Mexican inspirations, the show provides a homage to this Latin American nation that reflects much of the country’s culture.

Mexican history, its climate, its art and its dance are all woven into Cirque du Soleil’s imaginative interpretation. Daniele Finzi Pasca has written and directed the spectacle with the programme including a touching tribute to Julie Hamelin who co-concieved Luzia with Finzi Pasca in 2016 but sadly died before this premiere. Much of the visual majesty of the show is also due to Patricia Ruel, its director of creation.

As is to be expected with Cirque du Soleil the skills on display are breathtaking – the aerial work on ropes and trapezes defies gravity almost heart-stoppingly, while the animal puppetry completely convinced in its depictions of horses and leopards – the talents of course extending to the clowning, achieving a hilarious performance solely through the use of outstanding physical theatre.

Moments of exquisite beauty arose in a balletic performance in which the ballerina was so perfectly poised she could have resembled a music-box figurine, matched only by a reptilian performer who displayed a snake-like ability to contort his frame that shocked and enthralled simultaneously.

And throughout, the live music and vocals alongside the design of the show - that include torrential Mexican rains pouring down inside the Royal Albert Hall - never ceases to amaze.

It is barely possible to capture the detailed, magical excellence of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Luzia maintains the company’s exceptional standards, and offers an unmissable evening of world class entertainment.

Runs until 1st March
Photo credit: Matt Beard
Guest reviewer: Kirsty Herrington

Thursday 9 January 2020

Lexicon - Review

The Roundhouse, London


Auteur / Directed by Firenza Guidi

Lexicon from No Fit State is a circus show that opens with a row of antiquated school desks set out on the stage - but no sooner have this talented company appeared then the desks, complete with their riotous pupils are hoisted aloft, soaring into The Roundhouse's cavernous space. The desks may be Hogwarts, but there's no fancy CGI that makes this furniture fly. This is classic steampunk, with the flying and stunning visuals of the evening created simply by pure human talent. Skills that show a mastery of strength, agility, and precisely rehearsed movements, defying gravity amidst a flurry of lights, ropes and counterbalancing performers who rise and fall alongside the the shows steel frame.

Traditional circus but with a defiantly modern, cutting edge, Lexicon's live music sets a stunning pulse to the evening, with a backing that ranges from folk, to rock to balladry. And the acts are just so imaginative, this is circus without any boring bits! The clowning is crazy, the fire play fabulous and the high wire and aerial work, breathtaking. Imaginatively and simply costumed throughout, as a Double Rope artiste sheds her gown from aloft (no nudity at all) the show also defines itself as provocatively, if subtly, sexual too.

Lexicon's final act sees a gothic human mobile - think of the toy suspended over a baby's cot - only magnified x 100 to human proportions. The imagery and the effect are unforgettable.

And it is that combination of visual extravagance alongside ingenious subtlety that makes this an event for all ages and outstanding entertainment.

Runs until January 18th
Photo credit: David Levene