Saturday 27 February 2021

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London - Streamed


Music by Ben Morales Frost
Lyrics and story by Richard Hough
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Marc Pickering and company

Credit to the producers, cast and creatives of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for having the sheer professional optimism and commitment to launch a brand new musical in the midst of a locked-pandemic.

However, notwithstanding the team’s noble intentions and hard graft, for the most part the show is tedious and uninspiring. Tantalisingly trailed with hints of Paul Dukas’ famous 1897 composition (itself made even more of a worldwide sensation in Disney’s Fantasia), Richard Hough’s story fuses Norse mythology with Goethe’s Dukas-inspiring poem, arriving at a modern day analogy that celebrates all sorts of wokery and anti-capitalism. Unfortunately, once Hough's new-age politics are stripped away, his narrative seems more akin to that of the Emperor’s New Clothes than any other classic fable.

Charlotte Westenra’s cast drips with talent. David Thaxton is Johan the eponymous sorcerer, here reduced to an angst-ridden father with a secret, and environmentalist pledged to protect the Northern Lights. Newcomer Mary Moore makes a decently-voiced job of his daughter Eva who is also the titular apprentice. Disappointingly, other than some novel balletics with a handful of brooms and some teasing musical motifs drawn from Dukas, faintly woven into Ben Morales Frost’s score, that’s it for any connection to the much-loved symphony. Thaxton’s award-winning ability to act through song is squandered, as both his role and his lyrics have been created with such lack of depth that there is little beyond politically-correct cliché for him to sink his teeth into.

There are redeeming moments of genuine theatrical excellence, notably those from Marc Pickering as the evil refinery owner and bad-guy of the tale. Pickering’s gift for comedic impact and timing is arguably unsurpassed and he breathes delightful moments of hilarity into his (justifiably) two-dimensional character. Pickering is matched by the equally outstanding Dawn Hope as his mother. Hope’s delivery of a number that explains one of Hough’s tortuous plot twists, Damn You, proves to be the standout turn of the show. There is also, as ever, top-notch work from the much underused Vicki Lee Taylor in a number of modest supporting roles.

If only Hough’s songs and story were wittier and Morales Frost had placed Dukas’ melodies more centre stage, then this could yet have the potential for a great show. As it stands while some may find this musical theatre treatment of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice an enchanting tale, it desperately needs some magic.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Songs For A New World - Review


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Séimí Campbell

Rachel Tucker takes Just One Step in Songs For A New World

The opening image of Séimí Campbell’s streamed production of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle is profound. Staring out to an empty auditorium, a theatre’s ghost light, placed centre stage, defines the new world that has befallen the theatre community.  Amidst a global pandemic, with nations vowing to build back better, this Songs For A New World is a timely production – made all the more technically and poignantly excellent through having been vocally recorded by each of the cast, isolated in their homes, on their smartphones.

The Opening Sequence: The New World, has Campbell intercutting his performers with a montage of darkened West End and Broadway venues, now dark as newsreel voiceovers tell of the blow that the Coronavirus has levelled at the theatre industry. The contrast between this bleak, current, reality – and the majestic power of the singer’s voices is devastating.

Campbell’s company comprises a quartet of the industry’s finest, with Rachel John, Ramin Karimloo, Cedric Neal and Rachel Tucker, each offering a cross between a masterclass and an episode of TV’s Through The Keyhole, as their respective performances display not only their musical theatre excellence, but also whirlwind tours of their respective residences.

But as an escape from lockdown, the show is glorious. Highlights of the cast’s excellence within such difficult circumstances (principal photography having taken place during Lockdown 1) are provided by all four leads. Tucker’s soaring, swooping take on Stars And The Moon (as well as a wonderfully provocative Surabaya Santa) is an honest, scorching take on life. Karimloo’s She Cries is exhilarating. John touches our hearts with her gorgeous Christmas Lullaby, while Neal’s King Of The World offers perception and power in his interpretation. A mention too for Shem Omari James, fittingly cast to lead Steam Train, a number all about young, raw talent making a name for themselves in adversity.

The creative crew are impressive too. Joshua Winstone and Adam Hoskins have made fine work of Brown's score, while Matt Ide and Danny Kaan deliver digital and audio wizardry in pulling the whole show together.  

Above all though and as a paean to showbusiness, the production is ultimately a beacon of hope. To those artists in the industry that are tired of waiting, Brown’s lyrics are uplifting: “Hold on, hold fast”, and for any individual who is struggling emotionally or mentally “Listen to the song that I sing, you’ll be fine”.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Butchers - Review


Written by Adrian Langley and Daniel Weissenberger
Directed by Adrian Langley

Simon Phillips as Owen Watson, one of the titular butchers

With a DVD release on March 8, timed to coincide with the UK's National Butchers Week, Adrian Langley's Butchers is a fantastic example of the vision and ingenuity of today’s independent film makers.

In a storyline that sees Wrong Turn meeting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Butchers offers up a string of bright young North Americans who one by one fall victim to a backwards back-woods clan, somewhere out in Canada's mid-west. As might be expected from the title, the formulaic plot sees cleavers, axes and cleverly shot offal featuring heavily amongst the props and effects.

Langley, who not only directs but has co-written, photographed, edited and scored the picture too, throws in some novel twists. There is infidelity amongst our heroes, as well as a number of amusingly unexpected Shakespearean references with Hamlet, King Lear and of course, that greatest butcher of them all, Titus Andronicus getting a nod.

The cast do a fine job of telling this overly familiar nightmare, but notwithstanding their performances, this movie’s standout feature is its attention to technical detail. Not only is the cinematography exciting and well lit, but Langley’s music is brilliantly balanced while throughout Howard Sonnenburg’s sound mixing – be it with the score or the sound effect of metal through flesh  - is equally precise. The story may be corny and predictable, but it is a credit to Langley’s cast and crew that they make it so compelling and suspenseful, exactly what good horror should be. What’s more, there appears to be little if any digital contribution to the story’s visuals with the SFX duo of Jonathan Largy and Alina Suave delivering the gore in its authentic physicality, their gruesome work only enhanced by Sonnenburg’s sound.

Largy himself is rewarded with the corniest of cameos in the finale – but to be honest he’s earned it.

Available on digital download from 22 February and on DVD release from March 8th.

Friday 19 February 2021

The Color Purple At Home - Review


Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by Tinuke Craig

T'Shan Williams

In a stunning fusion of musical theatre and ingenious photography, Curve Leicester together with Birmingham Hippodrome have revived their 2019 production of The Color Purple, re-imagining the show not only for a cast that must now be socially distanced, but for a remote audience confined to a digital stream.

A couple of months ago Curve streamed their gorgeous Sunset Boulevard, in so doing giving the locked-down theatre world new ways to dream. Building on the success of that show, The Color Purple proves to be close to flawless in director Tinuke Craig’s streamed screen translation. Simply staged, deploying the Curve’s revolve, minimal props and a handful of superimposed scene-setters,  Craig relieves her actors and musicians free any supportive gimmickry, letting her company that has been cast to perfection, tell the story with their talents.

T’Shan Williams leads as Celie, making this most complex of roles, her own. Essentially a modest and unglamorous character, Celie has to thrive in the show based solely on her performer's ability to act and sing (and briefly, deliciously, dance). And in Craig's take on the show, Williams delivers her Celie with a heart-breaking strength and perception. Where typically, a musical theatre performer has to deliver to a large, distant (albeit live and present) audience, in a streamed show, much like in the movies, it's also about the close-ups too. Williams' acting – through speech, song and movement, hits the mark every time. 

Carly Mercedes Dyer

Vocally, Williams is a class act – not just in Celie’s powerful final solo I’m Here, but perfectly duetting with Carly Mercedes Dyer’s Shug Avery in What About Love. Dyer herself is but one of a cast that drips with performers chosen solely for their ability. Avery is another enigmatic woman, with Dyer capturing her magnetism and vulnerability. Also outstanding in their supporting roles are Karen Mavundukure’s tragi-comic Sofia and Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie.

Danielle Fiamanya and Ako Mitchell

Amongst the men, Ako Mitchell delivers one of the finest interpretations of Mister. Another complex character, initially the most vile and misogynistic of men who by the finale is transformed via a heroic redemption,  Mitchell brings both menace and pathos to his performance in equal measure. And credit where it is due - alongside the few individuals named in this review, there is excellence everywhere from all the performers on stage.

Craig’s creative crew are equally talented. Mark Smith's choreography is inventive and inspired, recognising the challenges of our times with movement across the show that is both thrilling and immaculately nuanced. Alex Parker musically directs the 7 piece band with his usual flair. Their interpretation of the score is a delight with a particular mention to Ben Fletcher’s work on guitars. Ben Cracknell lights the massive Curve space with a mixture of both intimacy and passion, while the video crew from Crosscut Media are fast becoming experts in this  niche field of taking live work and re-engineering it for transmission. 

Hopefully the Curve – along with the rest of the nation’s theatres – will be welcoming the return of live audiences in the not too distant future. Until then, streamed productions such as The Color Purple At Home are the pinnacle of outstanding musical theatre.

The production streams until 7 March - Tickets available via
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday 12 February 2021

Good Grief - Review


Nikesh Patel and Sian Clifford

Written by Lorien Haynes
Directed by Natalie Abrahami

Lorien Haynes’ two-hander, originally written for the stage, has been given a filmic treatment as a consequence of the pandemic and will shortly be released now as globally available stream.

Spanning the few months immediately following the death from cancer of Liv, Good Grief is about the dynamic that evolves between Liv’s partner Adam and their mutual good friend Cat. There are moments in Haynes’ narrative that show a powerful perception and an empathy towards the bereaved that will resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one. But there are also times when her dialog is unbearably trite and simplistic, stretching credibility to a point where the viewers’ suspended disbelief comes crashing down. And this is even before the distracting speculation of wondering whether Cat and Adam will jump into bed together.

Sian Clifford and Nikesh Patel play the grieving pair with Clifford putting in a well nuanced turn. Patel however struggles to convince. The play’s closing scene of his reading aloud a letter from Liv, penned shortly before her death, should be poignant – but it just doesn’t work. Perhaps live on stage, with the compelling intimacy of a theatre, the script may have delivered more of a punch than Natalie Abrahami has coaxed for her camera.

Credit though to the production’s assembled creatives and technicians. The 45-minute long piece has been smartly put together and with a charming score from Isobel Waller-Bridge too. Not only that, but when you stream Good Grief, a very kind and generous gesture from the producers will see a donation from every ticket sold going to the NHS and Macmillan Cancer Care.

Streaming from 15th February until 15th April
Tickets are available through: