Friday, 30 September 2022

Jews. In Their Own Words - Review

Royal Court Theatre, London


**


Written by Jonathan Freedland
From an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Co-created by Vicky Featherstone, Tracy-Ann Oberman & Audrey Sheffield
Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone & Audrey Sheffield



The company of Jews.In Their Own Words

Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play Jews. In Their Own Words sees a company of seven actors perform a hundred minute one-act verbatim drama that has been drawn from the words of twelve British Jews interviewed by Freedland earlier this year. It is their true stories that form the framework for much of this play that seeks to examine the history and present state of antisemitism.

The play is born from from the Royal Court’s own troubled relationship with Jews. Smarting from being caught out over the stereotypical naming of a villainous billionaire in the Court’s 2021 production of Rare Earth Mettle (a non-Jewish character curiously named Hershel Fink, an admitted lapse that the Court blamed on “unconscious bias” before renaming the character as Henry Finn) Freedland was swiftly hired by the theatre to expiate their sins, taking Tracy Ann-Oberman’s original idea and setting it to paper.

The dozen interviewees who include politicians Dame Margaret Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) all brought sound testimony, some of it terrifyingly mundane in the racism they spoke of and much of it harrowing. What these individuals have suffered and endured is not to be criticised at all. It is however Freedland’s stitching together of their stories that has created a flawed play.

The flaws lie in the structure of the piece that at times relies too heavily on exposition, lacking dramatic initiative. The historical depictions of the tragedies of York and Lincoln are treated with a patronizing simplicity that diminishes their horror and equally, a musical number that pops up half-way through the work is both incongruous and childish. If one is going to satirise Jews on stage and in song then recognise that both Monty Python and Mel Brooks have done it before, to perfection. Freedland’s verse pales in comparison.

And then there are the glaring omissions and bias of Freedland’s work in a play that may have been better titled Some Jews. In Their Own Words. Those of his original twelve whose political stance was known, were all from the Left. It may well be the Labour Party that has had to challenge its own problems with antisemitism, but in excluding Jews from the other shades of our political spectrum, where was the balance? The clumsy and dangerous impression that has been created here is that political antisemitism only exists on the Left.

Where was the reference to the ghastly, commonplace antisemitism that so many Jewish students face on campus today? And where was any reference at all to the vile antisemitism that sees frequent calls for the destruction of the State Of Israel and which was so clearly thrown into relief last year, with calls in London for the murder of Jews and the rape of Jewish women? 

Notwithstanding Hodge’s remarkable and tragic personal history, where was there any argument to counter her harsh criticism of modern Israel. By all means let Dame Margaret have her opinion, but for Freedland to have omitted any balanced debate on current Israeli policies simply letting Hodge’s criticisms stand as an unquestioned truth, could be charitably described as his own unconscious bias. Others may call it a useful idiocy.

There has to be a good play waiting to emerge from Oberman’s original idea. This isn’t it.


Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Rehab The Musical - Review

Playground Theatre, London



*****


Music & lyrics by Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young
Book by Elliot Davis
Directed & choreographed by Gary Lloyd


Keith Allen


Rehab is one of those rare finds in the world of new musical theatre writing. A strong story, supporting stunning songs, brilliantly performed and all expertly directed.

In a story that’s drawn from writers Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young’s personal mental health journeys, Jonny Labey plays Kid Pop, a rock star at the height of fame who gets papped doing a line of coke and is promptly sentenced to 60 days rehab at The Glade. Pop’s journey from denial to recovery is subtly yet brilliantly defined, alongside 3 other patients, with songs defining their respective addictions and flaws that capture a wryness of wit, honesty and humour and which show sensitive perception from both writers and performers.

The Glade of course is a supposedly safe and therapeutic place. Outside the clinic’s confines blows the cruel winds of the paparazzi and the media, with the villain of the piece, PR guru Malcolm Stone wonderfully defined by Keith Allen, delivering what has to be the greatest tribute act to Max Clifford ever. Pop is Stone’s client, with the PR man concocting vile and corrupt manipulations (no spoilers here) to keep his client in the headlines. As part of Stone’s deviousness he recruits Lucy Blake, a young mum who’s down on her luck (played wonderfully by Gloria Onitiri), as a honey-trap, paying her to check herself into The Glade. Onitiri has a magnificent presence and she takes the roof of the Playground with her second act number Museum of Loss

There are moments of musical theatre magic - and literal cheesiness - in the story that evolves, but such is the talent on display that the pathos evoked by the story is both credible and at times, deeply moving.

Supporting the story’s three principals are a cast that seamlessly segue in and out of various roles. John Barr as patient Barry Bronze, a man addicted to tanning is, as always, outstanding.  Phil Sealey as obsessive eater Phil Newman is equally compelling, while slightly more thinly-sketched is Annabel Giles’ Jane Killy. All of these three deliver top-notch musical theatre work, not least in their introductory number At The Glade. There is also a fine turn from Dawn Buckland in two modest cameos, firstly as Phil’s wife, singing the haunting Still Here and later with a comic masterpiece as an oligarch’s wife.

Jodie Steele is another of the evening’s treats as Stone’s assistant Beth. With her number Die At Twenty Seven And You’ll Live Forever, Steele steals the show (almost) with her breathtaking power and passion.

Above all, Rehab displays a bold, brave verve and vigour. With songs that range from first-class duetted balladry in Two Broken People through to the stadium-powered Everyone’s Taking Cocaine, slick lyrics are melded with Gary Lloyd’s pinpoint choreography and precise direction. This is a show that has invested as much in its production values as in its libretto (take a bow designers for set, light and sound Andrew Exeter and Chris Whybrow respectively) with Simon Lee’s 4-piece band, hidden atop the stage, making gorgeous work of the exciting score.

Rehab is destined for a larger future. With its brave narrative, exciting score and a company that define musical theatre excellence, catch it in The Playground for an outstanding night out.


Runs until 17th September
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Friday, 2 September 2022

I, Joan - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London


**


Written by Charlie Josephine
Directed by Ilinca Radulian

Reviewed by Isla Beckett


Isobel Thom and company

What would Shakespeare think? He wouldn’t, for that is the level of detail afforded by this play. Fancy that. Shakespeare stunned into silence in his very own theatre. O brave new world that has such mockery in it.

I, Joan is based on Joan of Arc’s life, one of the earliest documented feminists. Born in 1412 into poverty, she grew up possessed by a belief that she was channelling God. Convinced of her singularity, she requested a meeting with Charles VII of France, and the rest is history. Joan of Arc helped lead France to triumph against England, motivating a demoralised army and providing strategic input. She was later caught by the enemy and burned at the stake for heresy. Why? Joan reportedly had visions and experienced didactic voices in her head. The same as those that elevated her to the highest ranks of politics. In today’s world, she may have been classed as schizophrenic. In her era, she was deemed a witch. Adding fuel to the fire, she also wore men’s clothes in a defiant act of blasphemy. 

For all intents and purposes, Joan was unusual. Her history is rich and colourful, providing a wealth of material for an adaptation of her life. What a thrilling woman to explore. A walking contradiction. A fighter. A rebel. The skin of a lady with the heart of a man. Her vulnerabilities must’ve been fascinating. What a shame, then, that I, Joan deems it more appropriate to use this woman’s voice as a crass political megaphone. The fourth wall is frequently broken by Isobel Thom's Joan, with what follows being almost always a diatribe against pronouns and patriarchy. After a certain point this becomes tiresome, repetitive and pointless. In the unspoken background, Joan of Arc’s story is screaming to be told. We could learn more from her about gender equality than we ever could by being preached to here.

I, Joan crowbars the present into the past, forcing Joan’s narrative to be what it is not. Her tale is not one of complaint but of courage. Not one of bombastic opinion, but devotion to a cause. Joan did not proclaim herself a feminist, she lived the reality and died for it. So focused is the play on the narrator’s own personal beef with society that it falls flat in its depiction of a hero. For just under three hours, the play literally and metaphorically limps along. One has to admire the writer’s audacity for the constant gender-identity outbursts, couched in a plot that spends much of its time focused on a bunch of actors jiggling around the stage to simulate a 15th century war. A messy and uneven work, I, Joan suffers beneath the weight of two competing points of view. Ultimately, it is rendered characterless. Joan is a vessel for protest, but protest is not Joan. Protest does not stir the mind or the emotions. It does not have the capacity to haunt. As in life, in Charlie Josephine's play Joan does not get the justice she deserves.


Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Monday, 29 August 2022

Tomorrow Morning - Review

***


Music, lyrics and screenplay by Laurence Mark Wythe
Directed by Nick Winston

Certificate -   12

104 minutes, 2022



Samantha Barks 

Last seen on a London stage some 12 years ago and having amassed a number of productions off-Broadway and elsewhere around the globe Tomorrow Morning, Laurence Mark Wythe’s musical about a couple’s falling into love, marriage, parenthood and subsequent break-up makes it onto the big screen.

Charting the doomed relationship's ten-year lifespan, Wythe’s tale is in many respects a fusion of The Last Five Years melded with Kramer vs Kramer, albeit based in London rather than New York City. But it is not just the Atlantic Ocean that separates these anti-love stories. Both of the American plotlines offered far greater emotional heft in their narratives together with wittier and more perceptive writing in screenplay and lyrics. Wythe’s songs are heavy on exposition, demanding little intellectual connection from the viewer and too often revert to cliché.

The film’s production values however are gorgeous. Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks are Will and Cat, the ill-fated lovers and both make fabulous vocal work of Wythe’s compositions. There is also a strong debut from Oliver Clayton as the couple’s young son Zachary who gets caught in his parents’ crossfire.

Nick Winston has helmed a beautifully filmed love letter to London, and to Wapping in particular. There are even cameos from Omid Djalili (in the bath) as Will's dad and the incorrigibly scene-stealing Joan Collins (in full The Bitch mode) as Cat’s protective grandmother Anna.

Crack open the prosecco and chocolates and you’ll be in for an evening of finely sung entertainment.


In UK cinemas from 9th September and on DVD from 17th October

Friday, 26 August 2022

Ragtime - Review

Alleyn's School, London



****


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Hannah Chissick


Zaya Tserenbat and company

In a bold production that encompasses moments of musical theatre genius, the National Youth Music Theatre is staging Ragtime for three days only at London’s Alleyn's School. Flaherty and Ahrens' canvas of the United States at the turn of the 20th century is a cleverly constructed fusion of social icons (that includes the likes of Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T Washington and Henry Ford) blended in with nameless or fictional protagonists, all of whose various stories depict the turbulence of the times of America’s famed melting pot.

Simply staged before a shredded American flag and with only suitcases for scenery to emphasise the immigrant make-up of the country’s population, Hannah Chissick allows her cast to expand the narrative based solely on their ability to sing, dance and act through song. The themes of the show are complex and its arc is broad and it is a testament to this young company that they tackle the ugliness of the tale’s racism alongside the beauty of some of its characters’ tenderness with perceptive and measured depth.

At 23, Lucy Carter who plays Mother is an NYMT veteran and her years of experience are clearly evident. Carter’s stage presence is electrifying, not just in her moments of profound compassion, but also in the steel she shows in challenging her husband’s innate racism. Carter is also gifted the show’s solo high-spot with the second act’s Back To Before, smashing it out of the park and bringing power, passion and profound emotion to the song. 

Zolani Dube plays Coalhouse Walker Jr, an African American ragtime musician whose journey drives the show’s narrative. Dube brings commitment to the role, together with masses of potential. Opposite Dube is Sarah, the woman he loves, played by Katlo Masole. In a role that is largely understated, Masole offers up a turn of assured excellence and vocal beauty as she plays her tragic character.

There are other diamonds in this cast. 12yo Laurie Jones as the Little Boy is confident and compelling, with pinpoint timing too – a rare craft to have mastered so young. Equally Sam Sayan’s Tateh and Zaya Tserenbat’s Evelyn Nesbit are very strong in their supporting roles. Tserenbat in particular, whose take on The Crime Of The Century is a joy to behold.

David Randall conducts his 22 piece orchestra with aplomb, ensuring that Stephen Flaherty’s score, itself a blend of so many different musical genres is delivered delightfully.

The NYMT has a knack of unearthing future West End stars as the list of its illustrious alumni proves. But more than just that teaching young people how to star, above all the NYMT allows its companies to discover the sheer beauty of acting together, through song. Ragtime’s first act closes with Till We Reach That Day, an absolute banger of a number that is written for a show's entire cast to perform. To see and hear this fabulous company singing as one, with power, pathos and passion is spine-tingling and stunning.


Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski


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Monday, 8 August 2022

Hamlet : After-Show Cabaret - Review

St Stephens, Edinburgh



****


Richard Lewis

After the cast of Hamlet take their bow and for those in the audience with post-show tickets, there’s a cabaret in the Lower Hall at St Stephens.

Each evening, accompanied by various members of the Hamlet cast, Richard Lewis hosts an eclectic soirée with song selections that range from the cheesy (albeit cheese that makes a pleasant accompaniment to a glass of Malbec) to the downright inspired. Not only is Lewis’ patter quick-fire and knowledgable, but his piano playing is sublime with selections that range from The Lion King (Disney’s Hamlet) and Pulp, through to Kander & Ebb and Beethoven. His Shakespearean links and connections can be corny, but the lyrics are genius and the singing is gorgeous with slick and well rehearsed backing vocals. On the night of this review cast members Rebekah Grace Summerhill and Katie Ayton were performing alongside Lewis, delivering delicious vocals.

It’s a high-brow to low-brow transition as one descends the St Stephens staircase, but this cabaret is a immaculately rehearsed glimpse of the fringe’s diverse entertainment. If you’re not rushing off to another show, it’s well worth checking out.

South Pacific - Review

Sadler's Wells, London



*****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Directed by Daniel Evans


Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck

Transferring from its acclaimed revival at Chichester last year and returning to the London stage a decade after the Barbican last staged it in 2011, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has opened for a month’s glorious residency at Sadler’s Wells. 

Daniel Evans has retained his lead performers from a year ago, with the chemistry between Julian Ovenden’s Emil de Becque and Gina Beck’s Ensign Nellie Forbush still vibrant and vocally stunning. Likewise, the love that grows between Lt Joe Cable (Rob Houchen) and the Polynesian Liat (Sera Maehara) is equally well defined. Of course, what sets this show apart is the United States’ racist culture that Rodgers and Hammerstein sought to challenge in their musical adaptation of James A. Michener’s original story.

75 years on from when the show premiered on Broadway many will find its handling of the racism of America’s Southerners and WASPS, problematic. Equally, the comparative youthfulness of Liat’s character does not stand up to close scrutiny in the post-MeToo era of the 21st century. It is however important that from a cultural perspective, the show should be recognised as a wonderfully curated museum piece. It was written for its time and should be enjoyed in that context.

Musically this production of the show is as wonderful as it was by the seaside last year! The songs are classics and to hear them sung, in a venue as acoustically fine as Sadler’s Wells and by voices such as these is a delight. The surprisingly powerful and unexpected melancholy that Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings to Happy Talk is one of the production’s more haunting highlights.  Another notable performance comes from Douggie McMeekin as the loveable Luther Billis, providing excellently timed comic relief.

Peter McKintosh’s set, paired with Howard Harrison’s lighting, are incredibly imaginative and make you feel as though you are right there on a sunny Pacific island. This alone is worth the visit to Sadler’s Wells as well as to regale in the show’s beautiful music and dance. It really will be some enchanted evening.


Runs until August 28th
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Hamlet - Review

St Stephens, Edinburgh


****


Written by William Shakespeare
Performance conceived by Peter Schaufuss and Ian McKellen
Directed and choreographed by Peter Schaufuss


Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen

If a picture can speak a thousand words, then Peter Schaufuss’ balletic take on Hamlet is the dance equivalent. Boldy stripping out 95% of Shakespeare’s prose and replacing it with ballet, Schaufuss offers up a fresh take on the essence of the Hamlet story that is both captivating and at times surprisingly moving. Where Shakespeare used the beauty of language to describe tableaux for the audience to imagine – think for example of Hamlet’s act one description of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding celebrations – Schaufuss choreographs that wedding as his opening scene. It is an effective prologue but as with all ballet, it helps to have a good understanding or at least to have read a synopsis of the underlying story.

A typically staged Hamlet will take between 3 and 4 hours to perform. Schaufuss’ interpretation lasts a mere 75 minutes with ruthless excisions. No character speaks other than Hamlet (apart from Claudius’ guilt-ridden demand for “light” after the Players’ performance) and even then, Hamlet’s words are edited to extracts of only the most profound, recognisable soliloquies or conversations. For the most part, the editing works – and it makes a pleasant change to have no gauche contemporary political spin is applied to the story. This Hamlet is all about revenge with the ballet's music, a charming composition from Ethan Lewis Maltby, complementing the story perfectly.

The title role is dual-cast, with Johan Christensen dancing  as Ian McKellen voices those snippets of the text that have survived Schaufuss’ scalpel. When he is not speaking, McKellen's presence suggests an almost spiritual realisation of Hamlet’s soul or conscience as he moves and interacts. This is an intriguing combination of performances that merge almost seamlessly. McKellen’s Shakespearean speech of course is sublime and when he speaks of the “undiscovered country” there is a moving melancholy underscored by his 83 years. The dance is clever and suggestive, effectively delivering the narrative's basics. Katie Rose as Ophelia is a standout performer with her mime and movement delivering a disturbing insight into Ophelia's struggles and descent into madness. The endgame, here a wrestling match rather than the traditional swordplay, is thrilling. 

The production however is flawed. For the Player's performance, Schaufuss seats Claudius and Gertrude amongst the audience to watch. An upstage location would have served the show better, allowing the audience to not only watch the Players’ dumbshow, but also to observe Claudius’ reaction to the unfolding drama. Equally, the cutting of the gravediggers’ scene not only robs the story of a delightful interlude of comic relief, it also leaves Hamlet delivering the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech with no dramatic context whatsoever to explain why he his holding the court jester's skull.

While it will no doubt peeve the purists, this Hamlet remains one of the finest re-inventions of the classic yarn of recent years. For those who love the story, ballet, or who simply wish to see up close one of the greatest actors of our time it is a must-see production.


Runs until 28th August
Photo credit: Devin de Vil

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Sister Act - Review

 Eventim Apollo, London


****


Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Bill Buckhurst


Beverley Knight and Company


Beverley Knight leads a cracking cast as the pandemic-delayed production of Sister Act finally arrives at the Eventim Apollo. In a glitter-ball enthused celebration of kitsch, Knight is on top form as singer Deloris Van Cartier, hiding for her life from her gangster boyfriend Curtis amidst the nuns of Philadelphia’s Church of Perpetual Sorrow convent.

The story is a Hollywood confection that taps into the joy of the human condition as Deloris brings sunshine and singing to the downtrodden sisters. Jennifer Saunders is perfectly cast as Mother Superior, catching her character’s nuances of disapproval with immaculate comic timing. Stunt-casting maybe, for Saunders cannot sing, but in a show that’s as much fun as this that’s no big deal. Elsewhere in the convent Leslie Joseph and Keala Settle are on fine form, but the standout turn amongst the nuns is Lizzie Bea’s Sister Mary Robert, displaying a vocal strength that is simply breathtaking.

Jeremy Secomb as Curtis is a delicious baddy and his take on When I Get My Baby is the best one-man tribute act to the 1970s that you are likely to see. It is Clive Rowe however as veteran cop Eddie whose soul number I Could Be That Guy offers up the standout male performance of the night.

Bill Buckhurst directs effectively within the shallow confines of the Eventim stage - ably assisted by Morgan Large’s designs and Alistair David’s choreography. Alan Menken’s score is a disco-driven collection of tunes, which while not being memorable are nonetheless gorgeously delivered by Jae Alexander’s 12 piece band.

For a night of slick West End entertainment that’s wonderfully performed, Sister Act is a delightful evening of musical theatre.


Runs until 28th August and then on tour
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 21 July 2022

Fashion Freak Show - Review

Roundhouse, London


****


Written, costumes designed and directed by Jean Paul Gaultier
Co-directed by Tonie Marshall


The company of Fashion Freak Show


From the myth to the mania to the man. Jean Paul Gaultier’s new revue - a cabaret extravaganza time-lining his life - is a vision to behold. A childhood dream revived by an adult, Gaultier’s imagination knows no bounds. From prancing teddy bears in conical bras to psychedelic stage sets, this is a show like no other. 

The spectacle starts simply. Nine-year-old Gaultier is an outcast at school, repeatedly scolded for drawing over listening, until the teacher peers closer and asks to keep a creation and thus the enfant terrible begins. What was at first a movie projection shatters into a million glittering pieces as dancers thrust onto the stage, breasts and all. Gaultier has arrived. Before long, he has his own fashion show, a scene physically divided into light and dark where the catwalk shines against a turbulent backstage.

Then there is the sex, metaphorically played out across a BDSM wheel. Two sets of dancers appear, entwined in oversized garments that stretch to fit them both. One pair is male, the other female. The same-sex couples intimately share their clothes, their space, their skin. Passion finds its home in this show, as Gaultier expresses himself with such conviction that at times it is the audience, rather than the performers, that looks mad. 

The show’s focus wanders after the interval, but is regained with the advent of Gaultier’s fame, projecting media headlines onto the cyclorama and reclaiming a sense of narrative. Powerfully and bathed in red, a dancer moves across the stage, straining against gravity. He is Francis Menuge, Gaultier’s long-time companion, dying from AIDS. 'I’ve got you', comes a song, 'deep in the heart of me', as an an actor playing Gaultier dances with his oversized garment, alone.

True to form, the show ends with a clothes-defying collection. Feathers sprout from heads, wires encase bodies, and ruffles adorn buttocks. We must use fashion, says Gaultier on a screen, not be used by it. Fashion Freak Show is an electrifying retrospective of Gaultier’s unique achievements. More so, it is a homage to fearlessness.


Runs until 28th August
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Crazy For You - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


*****


Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman



The company of Crazy For You

Crazy For You is a modern musical created around much older Gershwin classic songs. Ken Ludwig’s 1992 book is framed around musical numbers that were by then already 60 years old and the songs are as great as much as the narrative is corny. Corny maybe - but the Festival Theatre have flown in Susan Stroman to direct and choregraph and the result is platinum-plated popcorn. Never has a Chichester audience been as electrified by a show as they witnessed, quite possibly for the first time in the theatre’s 60-year history, Stroman delivering Broadway to Chichester.

The story is delicious 1930s froth that hops between New York and the tumbledown town of Deadrock, Nevada, focussing on reluctant banker from the city Bobby Child and the improbable love that grows between him and country gal Polly Baker. Along the way (spoiler alert) to a happy ending there are rivalries and mistaken identities, all showcased amongst routines that display shimmering ballgown brilliance in one number and eye-popping bar-room shenanigans in the next. Stroman's creative genius sees her stun the audience not just with the bravado and talent of her company, but with her vision that can turn coils of rope and pickaxes into integral parts of her dancework.

Beowulf Borritt’s sets blazingly take the narrative to criss-cross the North American continent, while Ken Billington’s lighting design takes musical theatre illumination to a new level for the Sussex venue. The ensemble numbers are bathed in a brightness of light that only adds to the magic created by the performers.

Stroman is helped by having one of the finest companies in the land. Charlie Stemp leads as Bobby, the quadruple-threat wunderkind who makes his first return to musical theatre in Chichester since being launching his stellar trajectory six years ago in Half a Sixpence. Stemp has powered his way to stardom in both London and New York in those intervening years and the rapturous welcome that the locals showed to him last night defined the town's pride at having unearthed Stemp’s starring genius. His footwork is flawless and when scenes of intricate physical comedy were played out between him and Tom Edden (as impresario Bela Zangler), to witness Stemp and Edden side by side is to see probably two of the most talented physical performers of their generation.

Carly Anderson is Polly Baker. Another faultless musical theatre talent, Anderson is gifted some of the evening’s most poignant solos and her handling of both Someone To Watch Over Me and But Not For Me is sublime. Stroman’s deployment of her company in the large numbers is simply exhilarating, with Slap That Bass and Stiff Upper Lip proving to be choreographed confections of wit and talent in equal measure. Standing ovations in Chichester are rare, yet I Got Rhythm had the audience on their feet cheering as the first act ended. Equally, the spectacle of the show’s Finale was just pure Broadway perfection. Above the stage Alan Williams conducted his 16-piece orchestra immaculately, with Gershwin’s unforgettable melodies wonderfully delivered.

Cameron Mackintosh was in the audience on press night. One can only hope that when his Prince Edward Theatre in the West End becomes available next year, that Crazy For You returns to the theatre where it first played in  London. Until then, get to Chichester - musical theatre does not get better than this.


Runs until 4th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday, 16 July 2022

Anything Goes - Review

Barbican Theatre, London



*****


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Original book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse
New book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall




Kerry Ellis and the cast of Anything Goes

It says much for the quality of writing in the 1930s that nearly some 90 years after it opened on Broadway, Anything Goes can still pack a hilariously powerful punch with its heady cocktail of song and script. This is a show that lampoons (harpoons even) much of both British and American cultures and many of today’s emerging writers (with only a few exceptions) would do well to get themselves to the Barbican to see what good musical theatre – book, lyrics and score - really is.

Meanwhile, having completed its UK tour, the SS America returns to tie up in London, offering the capital another chance to wallow in the unabashed joyous glory of Kathleen Marshall’s Anything Goes. The big four names from last year’s outing of this revival are gone – replaced by Kerry Ellis as Reno Sweeney, Simon Callow as Elisha Whitney, Bonnie Langford as Evangeline Harcourt and Denis Lawson as gangster Moonface Martin and for the most part this quartet are excellent.

What also drives this show immeasurably is the featured artistes who have remained onboard from 2021. Samuel Edwards as Billy Crocker, Nicole-Lily Baisden as Hope Harcourt and the deliciously named Haydn Oakley playing Lord Evelyn Oakleigh are all as magnificent now as they were then – with this whole crazy pot-pourri of a show giving rise to one of the most fantastic evenings of entertainment to be found anywhere in town.

The show’s songs and plot are the stuff of legend – this cast however take them to another level. Ellis captures the insouciant brilliance of Sweeney, not just in her perfectly pitched vocals and footwork, but in her delivery of the rapid-fire gags too. Good comedy requires not only a finely tuned script, but split-second delivery and Ellis (and her troupe) truly are the tops.

Callow was born to play crusty aristocrats, not least this Yale-educated captain of industry and he adds comic heft to an already inspired creation. The writers knew how to mock stereotypes and Callow milks every precious moment that he is granted on stage with sublime precision. Callow's singing nor his footwork may not be the best – but the matured genius of his stage presence more than compensates. Bonnie Langford equally has a role that is paper-thin in its perfectly structured two-dimensionality and yet again, every second of her performance is exquisitely on the money.

Baisden is handed the tough role of being almost completely non-comedic – yet she handles the critically important role of Hope flawlessly. Carly Mercedes Dyer as Erma remains an absolute scream, while Oakley’s Oakleigh is truly one of the most inspired comic turns around. Even if you’ve seen the show countless times before, this iteration will have you moist-eyed with its whip-sharp delivery. And then there’s the dancing - Ellis leads her company through a demanding range of numbers with none surpassing the title number that closes the first act and which seems, breathtakingly, to go on forever.

For a production built for the road the sets are ingeniously lavish as doors and decks slide away, revealing the ship’s cabin interiors. Derek McLane’s designs enhanced by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting plots are simply top-notch. In the pit Mark Aspinall makes de-lovely work of Porter’s score, his 16-piece band delivering a lavish sound.

This production stunned London in 2021 as the city was beginning to emerge from the pandemic and one year on, its return is equally welcomed. In a song and dance show that is drilled to perfection, this is musical theatre at its glorious, frivolous finest.


Runs until 3rd September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Gypsy - Review

Buxton Opera House, Buxton


*****


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by Paul Kerryson



Joanna Riding


In a joint production between the Buxton International Festival and the Buxton Opera House and for a ridiculously short run of 8 performances only, Gypsy’s caravan has pulled up in the Peak District’s spa town of Buxton. Drawn from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Arthur Laurents’ book is meticulously created, much as his West Side Story was an inspired interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Add in a young Stephen Sondheim penning the lyrics to Jule Styne’s magnificent score and the components were all there to create one of the 20th century’s finest musicals.

While Gypsy Rose may have been the stage name adopted by Louise, the younger daughter of Rose, this musical is all about the maniacally matriarchal Rose, with Sondheim and Laurents combining to create perhaps the most deliciously flawed woman in the canon. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, deserted by two husbands and with two young daughters in tow, Rose is determined to offer her girls – and older daughter June in particular – a career amidst the bright lights of showbiz. But this is 1920’s America, the Great Depression is biting and vaudeville is dying. The world is dog eat dog and Rose is eating dogfood so that her kids may at least enjoy cold leftovers. Is she a self-sacrificial stage-mum? Possibly. But halfway through the first act, as Louise on her birthday sings the solo number Little Lamb, revealing to the audience that as an evidently teenage girl she does not know her own age, we get a glimpse into the infernal cauldron of emotions that define her damaged mother.

Luxury casting sees Joanna Riding play Rose. There is little glamour to the role, rather the interpretation of a middle-age woman railing against the demons of desertion via song after song after song – and each one, in Riding’s interpretation, an absolute banger! From the energy of Some People, straight into the sublimely soft nuances of Small World, Riding grasps Rose’s reins, driving her character through life’s challenges and glimpsed opportunities. On stage for most of the show, Riding’s (like Rose’s) energy appears indefatigable with the actress masterfully controlling Rose’s descent into the facing of reality and recognising the impossibility of her own dream just as Louise emerges to discover her own.

Rose famously closes both acts of the show with massive solos. Riding’s take on Everything’s Coming Up Roses blithely sends the audience off for their interval gin and tonics. She ends the show however with the jaw-droppingly frantic Rose’s Turn. It is gripping to watch Riding perform and if Hamlet is famous for subjecting its leading performer to a draining swordfight in the endgame, so too did the creatives of this show make almost unreasonable demands of their leading lady when they wrote this final number and Riding is breath-taking in her portrayal of decline. 

Monique Young makes sensitive work of Louise's emergence from overlooked younger sibling to the glamour of burlesque and ultimately international stardom. There is a wry cruel wisdom to Louise’s signature song, Let Me Entertain You. The number is sung initially in the show by the young Baby June  as a novelty child-performer in a vaudeville routine.  (Credit here to Sienna May as Baby June and also to Lucy McLoughlin as Baby Louise.) By the end of the show however the lyrics are an acknowledgement of the sleazy allure of the striptease, deftly handled by Young. If there is one small criticism of the production it is that director Paul Kerryson could have made more of the young Louise’s unrequited crush on Tulsa (a young man in Rose’s performing troupe).

In another complex supporting role David Leonard is Herbie, the middle-aged, ex-agent turned candy salesman who holds a torch for Rose throughout, until he clearly sees that Rose can truly love no-one beyond herself. Leonard’s work is sensitive and well-voiced.

The second act’s brief comic respite comes from the three worldy-weary strippers that Rose and Louise encounter as burlesque beckons. Tiffany Graves (Tessa Tura), Aleisha Naomi Pease (Electra), and Rebecca Lisewski (Mazeppa) are each wonderful in their modest cameos in You Gotta Get a Gimmick. Hannah Everest puts in a fine turn as Dainty June, with Liam Dean’s footwork (alongside that of Young too, to be fair) in All I Need Is The Girl proving another treat from choreographer David Needham.

Ben Atkinson’s 13-piece orchestra make delicious work of Jule Styne’s compositions. From the opening bars of the Overture – itself one of the finest ever – their playing is lush and lavish. There is equally strong work from Phil R Daniels’ set design and Charles Cusick Smith’s costumes.

Buxton's Gypsy is one of the finest pieces of musical theatre to open in England this year. It is unmissable!


Runs until 24th July
Photo credit: Genevieve Girling

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Ken Ludwig In Conversation


Ken Ludwig

Crazy For You opens this month at Chichester Festival Theatre. The musical delivers a fine evening of song and dance and drawn from the composing genius of George and Ira Gershwin, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show is a classic hailing from Broadway’s Golden Age. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While the songs are in part drawn from the Gershwin’s 1930 show Girl Crazy, it fell to Ken Ludwig (who co-conceived the musical with director Mike Ockrent) to create the book for Crazy for You some 60 years later. The show's Broadway opening in 1992 garnered 3 Tony Awards including Best Musical, with similar honours in the Oliviers a year later on its West End transfer.

Ludwig has been very busy at Chichester recently. His adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express has only recently closed at the Festival Theatre after achieving a slew of rave reviews from across the national press. He is back in Sussex again for Crazy For You and I caught up with him in a break from rehearsals to talk about these remarkable productions.


Charlie Stemp and Carly Anderson rehearsing Crazy For You at Chichester


Ludwig told me how Crazy For You was created. “Back in the early 1990s, a businessman called Roger Horchow called me out of the blue. He had invested in a couple of Broadway shows, but had always wanted to do Gershwin. He called me because I had a show on Broadway at the time called Lend Me A Tenor that was the only real comedy on Broadway at the time and he had really loved it. He told me that he had acquired the rights from the Gershwin Estate and would I write an adaptation of Girl Crazy? 

I told him that I couldn't! Girl Crazy has a terrible book. In fact it’s hardly a book at all, more a bunch of blackout sketches with some glorious songs in it: Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, But Not For Me. So it had an amazing score, but it was hardly a story at all.

Girl Crazy was loosely about an East Coast guy heading West. Well, I ended up keeping that bit of the story so that I could use a couple of the songs as book songs, like Biding My Time and Could You Use Me, but otherwise I threw it all out and started from scratch. I came up with a story, not entirely unlike Lend Me A Tenor, if you think about it, which is someone who in their heart wants to be in show business, but can't quite make the leap. In the case of Lend Me A Tenor, it’s somebody who is an assistant to a producer. In the case of Crazy For You, he comes from a banking family. His parents force him to be a banker, but he just wants to tap dance and that's Bobby in Crazy For You. So, I wrote the idea, came up with the story, and then Mike Ockrent joined in, we found Susan Stroman to choregraph and we built the musical.”

The company rehearsing Crazy For You at Chichester



I asked Ken to tell me more about Susan Stroman. “Well, Stroman is remarkable. She started out as a choreographer, and was rightly acclaimed for Crazy For You and went onto do other Broadway shows. And then, late in the day, she started directing. She and Mike Ockrent who directed Crazy For You got married and they were doing some shows together, and in fact were hired to do The Producers together, when Mike contracted leukaemia and tragically died so young. And then she took over The Producers and directed that on her own.”

And of course it is Stroman who will be making her much anticipated debut at Chichester this year, as she directs and choreographs this revival of Crazy For You!

Chichester hosted the UK premiere of Murder On The Orient Express earlier this year before a planned transfer to Bath. I asked Ken about his ingenious adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic.

“The Christie Estate came to me and said, "We'd like you to take any one of her novels and put it on stage.  I was very flattered and I said, "Of course I'd be honoured to do it." I chose Murder On The Orient Express without rereading it. I hadn't read it in years. I'd seen the great (1974) Albert Finney movie, but I knew the title was such an iconic title. And I thought, well, in itself it's so romantic, the title's romantic and it's exotic and ought to translate to the stage well.

Then I read the novel soup to nuts and realized this is going to be tricky. It's all virtually, all on the train. So to dramatise it, to make it fun to watch on stage and exciting, and a cliff hanger, I changed two things from the novel.

Firstly, I made the murder happen a great deal later in the piece than it is in the book. If you think in a way that's counterintuitive, as it's the murder that gets the story started, but it's really not. As a dramatist I wanted us to meet the characters and get invested in all those characters on the train, so that we cared about who did it, because until the very end w don't know who did it. Jonathan Church, who directed it so superbly, turned to me at one point and said, "Ken, the murder isn't happening till 45 minutes into the play, are we going to be okay?" And I said, "Well, just hold tight. I think we'll be all right." And it ends up being just that and it works.

The other major change I made is that in the book there are 12 suspects and someone even makes a remark about that and says, "Oh 12, like a British jury." I cut that down to eight suspects because there were just too many people to get to know in the compressed stage time.”

One of the standout features of the play was the set design, and I asked Ken for his thoughts on seeing a play that is, for the most part, set on a train stranded in the Alps, physically brought to the stage.

“When the play first ran in the States there was a beautiful set by Beowulf Boritt who in fact I've worked with several times since, and he's doing Crazy For You here at Chichester now. For the play here, a whole different concept emerged between the two geniuses that I had to work with, who were Jonathan Church and his designer Rob Jones. 

Rob had conceived a whole imaginative way to view the train with the locomotive at the back of the stage and pallets that came on and danced around the stage. And, as you saw, they formed the dining car and then formed the car with all the bedrooms. And so we had to imagine ourselves into the setting in a different way. 

It was all in our mind seeing the pieces of it come together and it was, I have to say, the most beautiful, dramatic set I think I'll ever have in my life. And it helped spur me on to write the new pieces, parts of it that I did, because it was so glorious. Rob’s design, from the early design-box stage, made me think about how that would affect Poirot and the big entrances for Mrs. Hubbard, who is very flamboyant American, and all the characters, little Greta Olson, who's afraid of her own shadow. And it inspired me to rethink the dramatic way to tell the story.

Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot

And of course Henry Goodman (as Hercule Poirot) was a delight. I have known of Henry’s work for a long while and I find his attention to detail is remarkable. He thinks through the character in depth from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. So when we start working, even when we started on the first day and he was practising the first scene, he knows where he wants to end up emotionally, because he's thought about it so much. He's a real intellect. And his skillset is incredible. So he brings both this remarkable intelligence to every role he does and then is able to embody it, because he has such a great set of acting skills and such a good voice too.”

Crazy For You commences previews in the Chichester Festival Theatre on 11th July, where it runs until 4th September. For tickets click here.  

Sunday, 3 July 2022

King Lear - Review

Shakespeare's Globe


***


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson



Kathryn Hunter and Michelle Terry


Returning to the title role after 25 years (and back then in a production also directed by Helena Kaut-Howson), Kathryn Hunter leads in King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe. That she is a woman in a man’s role, proves to be of little impediment to her delivery, and there is an authenticity to her take on the aged, dementia-raddled monarch that works well. The flaw in Hunter’s performance turns out to be not her sex, but rather her ability to master Shakespeare’s verse. Some of Lear’s words are amongst the most profound in the canon yet especially in the evening’s first half, Hunter races through her speeches offering two-dimensional deliveries too often rather than thoughtful interpretations of the prose. There is an Alf Garnett / Mel Brooks-like mania to her Lear that sees her play the role unnecessarily, inappropriately (and quite possibly, unintentionally) for laughs. And her howls at the death of Cordelia, surely one of the most gut-wrenching moments ever penned, lack pathos.  

Michelle Terry, the venue’s artistic director lands herself the curious casting combination of Cordelia and the Fool. To her credit, she makes a decent job of both, even if Kaut-Howson has decided the Fool’s departure from the story should be elevated to a moment of melodramatic death. Other than Lear’s penultimate lament that his “poor fool is hanged”, or reasons of economy, there is little to justify the fusion of these two roles into the same performer.

Some of the acting is fine and gripping. Ryan Donaldson as Edmund, Marianne Oldham’s Reagan and especially Diego Matamoros as Gloucester turn in fine performances. Matamoros in particular is deeply moving after his blinding. Elsewhere however there is under-performance and, too often, tedium. At 200 minutes including interval, weak performances make the narrative drag, and that's even without the addition of a great stage of fools as the entire cast rise from the dead to give an unnecessary post-finale display of country dancing.

Kaut-Howson was sadly caught up in a car accident that kept her away from the play’s final two weeks of rehearsals. Whether this absence contributed to the production’s lack of lustre one may never know, but this is not one of London's great King Lears.


Runs until 24th July
Photo credit: Johan Persson