Friday, 29 September 2023

Close Up - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London



****


Written & directed by Ben Elton


Elena Skye

It’s a tad ambitious for Close Up to be described as a ‘musical’ written by Ben Elton. It is indeed a cutely observed biopic of Lesley Lawson aka Twiggy, Neasden’s most famous daughter and the world’s first supermodel - but in reality it’s an Elton playlist drawn from the 1940s through to the 80s, with the writer interjecting short bursts of dialogue to link the numbers.

But credit to the man - Twiggy’s story is a fascinating one and set against Elton’s choice of songs, the end result is an evening of slick and polished entertainment. More than that, Elton must have had his dreams come true in directing the show, for not only is his show’s playlist a banging complication, the cast that he has assembled are simply outstanding.

Elena Skye leads the line as Twiggy, capturing the woman from gauche teenager through to her global (albeit troubled) stardom. Shamefully there’s no songlist printed in the programme so there’ll be few song specific credits in this review. Suffice to say Skye takes the role and makes it her own, with her act one closer of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me proving a moment in the show that is as moving and poignant as it is powerfully performed.

As her working-class parents (and Elton deftly comments on Britain’s class system) Norman and Nell, Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox are a treat - Serlin capturing the humility of the man, while Fox mastering the complexities of Nell who suffered PTSD following the 1940 Blitz of London and post-natal depression some 9 years later with Lesley’s birth. Serlin also turns in some cracking cameos of David Frost, Woody Allen and Melvyn Bragg.

There is equally fine work from Matt Corner and Darren Day. Corner  as Justin de Villeneuve, Twiggy’s first love and the Svengali-influence who managed and manipulated the early years of her career, while Day plays Michael Witney, the American actor who Twiggy married, presaging his slow descent into alcoholism. 

All of the cast sing flawlessly, accompanied by Stuart Morley’s 7-piece orchestra. The acoustics of the Menier can sometimes prove unforgiving but Gregory Clarke’s sound design works magic from his talented singers and musicians. Similarly Jonathan Lipman’s costumes catch the zeitgeist of the Swinging Sixties with Jacob Fearey’s choreography making fine work of the Menier’s space.

In a show that’s most likely to appeal to Twiggy and Ben Elton’s age groups, Close Up is an unpretentiously fabulous evening of musical theatre.


Runs until 18th November
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Frank and Percy - Review

The Other Palace, London



***



Written by Ben Weatherill
Directed by Sean Mathias



Ian McKellen and Roger Allam


It is said that Ian McKellen could enchant an audience if he simply ready a telephone directory aloud. The man’s physical and vocal presence is unmatched, as is his versatility and good job too, for without McKellen’s finely honed craft Frank and Percy would make for a far less entertaining night in the theatre.

Frank (played by Roger Allam) and Percy (McKellen) are two men in their third-age who meet by chance encounter while walking their dogs on Hampstead Heath. Allam, another fine performer, proving the perfect foil to McKellen’s razor sharp timing and wit. There’s a spark of interest between them that blossoms into a tender love and as a study of latter-years romance, Ben Weatherill’s drama had the potential to be quite the power-play.

That chance is squandered however as notwithstanding some episodes of finely nuanced pathos - Percy describing the angst of being outed in his youth, or his fragile vulnerability as he awaits a frightening medical appointment - too much of the dialogue comprises moments of maudlin mediocrity, seasoned with a skimming of contemporary hot-topics so shallow it almost insults the talent on stage delivering the script. There is some well observed comment on the importance of dog ownership to a person’s emotional well-being, sentiments that will fall warmly on the dog-lovers in the audience.

See it if only to catch that rarest of masterclasses, in which McKellen and Allam breathe life into a well-intentioned but surprisingly flawed text.


Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Friday, 22 September 2023

Forgiveness - Review

White Bear Theatre, London



***



Written by Tyna Taskila
Directed by Sam Edmunds


Tyna Taskila

Drawn from personal experience, Forgiveness is a story of the generational trauma experienced by a daughter from her abusive mother. Unable to let go of the memories and childhood experiences that still haunt her adult life, Tessa highlights how hard it can be to move on. 

Tessa shares the pain of her own mother seeking to have pursued her personal dreams through Tessa's youth - particularly her mum's gymnastic aspirations - and she also recognises the importance and as now a mother herself, the challenge of not transmitting her lived trauma onto her own young daughter Lily.

Written and performed Tyna Taskila, Forgiveness is a thoughtful and harrowing work on the physical and psychological harm that can be inflicted upon a child. As a play however, coming in at just under the hour, the pace feeels rushed. This is not helped by Taskila's frequent changes of character that interrupt the flow of the narrative, reducing the drama's suspense.

When it's all over Taskila asks for donations to the NSPCC, a 5-star idea.


Runs until 23rd September
Photo credit: Ali Wright

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Pygmalion - Review

Old Vic, London


*****


Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Richard Jones


Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel

George Bernard Shaw may have written Pygmalion for the England of 1913, but in Richard Jones’ production that fuses Shaw’s original script along with his 1938 screenplay, this classic tale proves timeless. Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran are Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in what has to be one of the finest pairings to be found on stage.

Carvel’s ability to capture Higgins’ absolute genius in the world of phonetics,yet a bumbling, stifled fool when it comes to expressing his passion is sublime. It’s not just his pathos though, for, much like Higgins himself, Carvel exudes excellence in every word he annunciates - and look closely in act one, for there’s the occasional hint of his Miss Trunchbull on show too.

Ferran’s Eliza is more than a match for Carvel. Her transformation from a ‘deliciously low guttersnipe’ to a refined young woman is a masterclass of both talent and assured femininity, defining strength and independence in a world where the odds were (are?) so heavily weighted against her sex. 

The curious chemistry between Eliza and Higgins is one of theatre’s most delicate relationships, requiring actors of profound talent to capture Shaw’s delicately nuanced interplay. To witness these two performers at work is to capture a rare moment of on-stage excellence.

The supporting cast are top-notch too. Michael Gould as Colonel Pickering and Sylvestra Le Touzel as an inspired, wise and withering Mrs Higgins, are both wonderful.  John Marquez as the play’s other inspired creation Alfred Doolittle, a man who “can’t afford morals, guvnor” deftly mixes humour with satirical social comment in his outstanding cameo. A neat touch sees the play’s background music taken from the 1938 movie.

Pygmalion is drama at its finest. Perfect writing, perfectly performed.


Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

The Father And The Assassin - Review

National Theatre, London



***



Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar 
Directed byIndhu Rubasingham



Hiran Abeysekera


The Father And The Assassin is a well researched look at Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Ghandi. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play charts Godse’s life, exploring what may have sparked his right-wing nationalist Hindu beliefs that were to set him so fatally at odds with Ghandi. On stage throughout, Hiran Abeysekera turns in a top-notch performance as Godse. 

But 10/10 for history doesn’t translate to 5-star drama. Chandrasekhar’s narrative plays out more like a shallow Godse biopic rather than an engaging dramatic analysis. 

History’s lesser known characters have often proved good meat for skilled dramatists - think what Peter Shaffer made of Salieri in Amadeus, or the makeover that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber afforded to Eva Peron in Evita, both A* studies of B-grade people. Chandrasekhar's work is not in the same league, with The Father And The Assassin proving a very lengthy 2 1/2 hours in the Olivier. Compounding matters, Indhu Rubasingham’s direction focusses more on her actors’ shouting than on having them explore their characters’ depth. The script’s frequent fourth-wall breakouts prove to be a lazy gimmick. The 1940s partitioning of the subcontinent is respectfully played out, however the bashing of the colonising Brits is a tired, expected cliché.

A good history lesson but a dull night at the theatre.


Runs until 14th October
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Saturday, 16 September 2023

Police Cops The Musical - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London



****


Music by Ben Adams
Lyrics, book and direction by Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson and Tom Roe


The cast of Police Cops The Musical


A banging fusion of music, movement and scorching satire, Police Cops The Musical is just down from Edinburgh to take up a month-long residency at the Southwark Playhouse.

The inspired creation of Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson and Tom Roe who have not only written the book, the lyrics and co-directed piece, they also play the three male roles. Brilliantly. The trio have a long history with the Police Cops brand of humour but this year’s musical marks their first collaboration with composer Ben Adam. 

A pastiche on 1980s American TV cop shows and action-hero movies, the 2-hour long show lampoons kitsch Americana, set to a kooky plot that ranges from mid-town USA to a Mexican orphanage amidst rookie cops, corrupt police chiefs, Latin American drug chiefs and frustrated nursery nurses. Melinda Orengo and Natassia Bustamente complete the quintet of players - with all 5 zipping their way through numerous changes of character.

The gags are slick and ingenious – look out for some inspired moments with a floating gingham tablecloth and a hilarious Mexican wrestling match. The evening is tightly written and slickly rehearsed with Matt Cole’s choreography only enhancing the show with his immaculately drilled dance routines.

Police Cops The Musical is fringe theatre at its finest.


Runs until 14th October
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday, 7 September 2023

Macbeth - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London



**



Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Abigail Graham


Max Bennett

There’s a moment just before the (long-awaited) interval in Macbeth when Banquo’s  ghost stalks the stage. To be honest it’s a miracle that Banquo’s spirit is not accompanied by that of the great Sam Wanamaker (whose legacy is this magnificent theatre) or even Shakespeare himself, such is the artistic travesty of much of Abigail Graham’s production.

Where to begin? The script has been tinkered with and for no apparent reason Duncan and the three witches have been gender-swapped, although quite why Duncan is referred to as the Queen, but the three hags, played here by beefy men, are still referred to in the script as the Weird Sisters is beyond me. And inexplicably, hospital gurneys are solemnly wheeled on and off the stage at times when there are no bodies to be borne.

By all means set the piece in modern dress. The witches’ cauldron being replaced by an electric blender was a nice touch. (Fenny-snake frappucino anyone?) But don’t play fast and loose with the basic constructs. With Macbeth a hardy perennial on school syllabuses across the land the Globe was mobbed with pupils, all eyewitnesses to the slaughter of a classic.

Amidst the evening’s cultural carnage there were a handful of standout performances. Max Bennett’s Macbeth will not be remembered as one of the greats but credit to the man, he soldiered on like a trouper nursing a recently broken finger, with only the swordplay reduced (I guess) to dagger fighting. Fine work too from Matti Houghton as Lady Macbeth whose descent into madness was harrowing to see. Equally, the howls of grief from Aaron Anthony’s Macduff were heart rending and convincing. And to be fair the production's blood and gore was fun.

Sleep no more - The Globe hath done a far better job of murdering Macbeth than Macduff could ever dream of.


Runs to 28th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson


Sunday, 3 September 2023

My Radio Broadcasts - A collected anthology





Since July 2023 I have presented a fortnightly radio slot on The Daily Show, presented by Russ Kane and Phil Dave on www.mensradiostation.com (alternate Fridays at 12noon)

Listed below are all the recordings to date, together with a listing of those shows that were discussed along with links to my original reviews of those shows.

Have a listen and enjoy!


September 29th 2023

Starlight Express


September 15th 2023

Shows discussed:
Back To The Future - The Musical


September 1st 2023

Shows discussed:
A Strange Loop







Wednesday, 23 August 2023

The Effect - Review

National Theatre, London



*****



Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Jamie Lloyd


Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell

After a gap of some 11 years, the National Theatre’s revival of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect is as timely as it is brilliant.

In this ingenious four-hander Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell are Tristan and Connie, two volunteers trialling an anti-depressant over a 4 week period in a secure residential facility. Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith are the clinicians Lorna and Toby, overseeing the trial, with Lorna being responsible for the trial’s execution, while Toby is from the drug company who have developed the medicine that’s being tested. In a tight single act that lasts 100 minutes, Prebble immerses us into the intensity of an improbable love that evolves between Tristan and Connie, while also exploring the doctors’ dynamics too.

Director Jamie Lloyd delivers electrifying theatre. Essiedu kicks off as the opportunistic chancer - eager to make a sexual conquest out of Connie, his swagger and machismo almost predatory in the play’s opening scenes. Russell’s Connie is an equally stunning performance as she explores her own responses to Tristan - and as the play unfolds, with one of them on the trialled medication and one on a placebo, the drama deepens to a level of human pain and passion that is at times unbearable to watch such is it’s intensity. In their own predatory sub-plot, the two medics are equally compelling.

As ever, designer Soutra Gilmour provides the staging for Lloyd’s vision, in this instance boldly transforming the Lyttleton’s proscenium stage into a traverse space with racks of seating upstage with the action playing out centrally. The colour scheme is a harsh black and white that Jon Clark’s brutal lighting plots enhance magnificently.

There’s so much to chew over in The Effect - not just the grief and humanity that is played out on stage, but also a wider contemplation of the manipulative powers of Big Pharma. In this post-pandemic world that Prebble could barely have contemplated when she penned her script, the world’s physiological reactions to both Covid and its panoply of speedily rolled-out vaccines, offer up some unexpectedly troubling analogies too.

The Effect is modern writing at its best and again, spectacularly, our National Theatre at its very best too. In Jamie Lloyd’s hands this makes for a night of outstanding, unforgettable theatre.


Runs until 7th October
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday, 22 August 2023

The Arc - Review

Soho Theatre, London


**


Written by Amy Rosenthal, Alexis Zegerman and Ryan Craig
Directed by Kayla Feldman


Abigail Weinstock

It’s not often that a play writes its own review, but when Nigel Planer’s Michael, a retired  obstetrician, refers early on in The Arc to “a shimmering platter of bollocks on toast” he could have been describing The Arc itself.

A trilogy of new short plays by three different writers, The Arc strives to give an alternative Jewish perspective on Birth, Marriage and Death (also the titles of each drama). On for a short run at Soho Theatre’s Upstairs house, the venue was packed for this mid-run performance.

A well drilled and high-performing cast deliver the pieces, but aside from some neatly observed pathos in Alexis Zegerman’s Marriage that focusses on some of the finely nuanced complexities of dating, there’s more Jewish life-cycle substance to found in the Social and Personal columns of the JC.

All of the actors are great, notably Nigel Planer in Amy Rosenthal’s Birth and equally Abigail Weinstock in Marriage. But notwithstanding the performances that Kayla Feldman coaxes from her company in this mercifully short (hour-long) production, what The Arc lacks in credibility it makes up for in groaning cliche.

Bollocks indeed.


Runs until 26th August
Photo credit: Danny with a camera

Thursday, 10 August 2023

La Cage Aux Folles - Review

Open Air Theatre, London



****


Music & lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
Directed by Timothy Sheader


Carl Mullaney


In a beautifully created revival, Jerry Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles played under a (thankfully) balmy summer’s evening at Regents Park.

Billy Carter plays Georges and Carl Mullaney, Albin, in the famed story of family, identity, sexuality and love. Harvey Fierstein’s book is given an intelligent treatment by Timothy Sheader in his swansong at the Open Air Theatre. The comedy is immaculately timed and the moments of powerful pathos, sensitively handled. As the evening’s twilight darkens across the stage, Colin Richmonds’ evocative set is brought into a gorgeous relief by Howard Hudson’s lighting plots. Equally, Ryan Dawson Laight’s costumery of both the dancers at the La Cage Aux Folles nightspot, and the surrounding characters is delightful.

The strengths of this show however lie in its outstanding performances. Carter and Mullaney are magnificent in their middle-aged, decades long romance, with the act one treats of Carter’s Song On The Sand and Mullaney’s I Am What I Am proving sensational. Both men imbue their numbers with sensitivity, in the case of Mullaney’s first-half closer, a perfectly weighted power too. As the (albeit implausible) plot plays out, there is an outstanding turn from Debbie Kurup as restaurateur Jacqueline.

Aside from the show’s magnificent vocal work, Stephen Mear again turns in a marvellously choreographed dance creation. The imaginative moves, perfectly drilled, are a joy to behold. Craig Armstrong was called upon on press night to cover the role of Edward Dindon and did so with finesse. Ben van Tienen conducts Herman’s score with verve, his 9-piece upstage band offering a musical treat to accompany the evening.

There is much to enjoy in La Cage Aux Folles, one of London’s most enchanting nights of musical theatre.


Runs until 23rd September
Photo credit: Mark Senior
 

Saturday, 5 August 2023

Romeo + Juliet - Review

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London



*****



Music by Prokofiev
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne


Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick


Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet returns to Sadler’s Wells, reminding London of this brilliant, bloody interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tale.

Set in the dystopian Verona Institute in the ‘not too distant future’, this is a Romeo + Juliet that sees the Bard’s narrative fused to Prokofiev’s classic score and staged with more than a nod to Lindsay Anderson’s If... Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and maybe just a hint of Alan Clarke's Scum for good measure.

Bourne’s action never leaves the white tiles of the institution, harshly lit and policed by armed guards. This is a bold and distinctive Romeo + Juliet that where necessary plays fast and loose with the familiar plotlines to enable the narrative to reach its tragic climax while still maintaining the rudiments of the story.

Where everyone bar the guards and Romeo’s patrician parents are clad in white, it’s a challenge for the humble punters to discern the Montagues from the Capulets - but that is but a minor quibble. The flawless standard of Bourne’s New Adventures company’s dance is breathtaking. Their movement so apparently effortless and immaculately drilled, is sensational.

In the pit Brett Morris conducts a scaled down orchestra of 15 players. But as those famous opening bars of Act One play out so magnificently and chillingly, one quickly realises that not only is Prokofiev’s composition in very safe hands, but also how appropriate Bourne’s vision is for the music.

Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite dance the leading roles bringing athleticism, passion and a profound vulnerability to their characters. There’s a wickedly fine turn from Danny Reubens’ Tybalt too.

Yet again Lez Brotherston partners with Bourne to deliver a stunningly evocative stage set, complete with a domed ceiling to the Verona Institute that rises and falls like ET's mother ship.

The production values are immaculate throughout, with New Adventures proving a fine example of Arts Council England’s money that is being well spent. And while Matthew Bourne may have teasingly juggled with one of the oldest love stories in the canon, his blood-soaked finale concludes a truly ripping yarn.


Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 3 August 2023

The SpongeBob Musical - Review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


**

Based on the series by Stephen Hillenburg
Book by Kyle Jarrow
Directed by Tara Overfield Wilkinson


The company of The SpongeBob Musical

There are some great moments in The SpongeBob Musical - but they’re not enough to make a great musical.

The denizens of Stephen Hillenburg’s anarchic, aquatic Bikini Bottom made for one of television’s finest creations in recent decades. But where Nickelodeon’s cartoons brilliantly mirrored the shallow fallibilities of humanity with their sharply written satire that ingeniously appealed to both kids and adults, this onstage treatment is left floundering.

Lewis Cornay in the title role puts in an adequate caricature of the pineapple-dwelling lead. But it is left to Tom Read Wilson’s inspired, tap-dancing(!) 4-legged Squidward, Chrissie Bhima’s Texan squirrel Sandy Cheeks and Richard J Hunt’s Eugene Krabs to take the honours for lifting the show to occasional bursts of finely crafted wit.

As for Irfan Damani’s Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s closest friend and a critically important featured role in any take on Bikini Bottom, producers take note: a T-shirt and a beanie cap do not a starfish make. And for tickets that can cost up to £99, the scenery is shambolic. With no playlist in the programme individual songs are hard to credit, although to be fair the onstage band put in a decent shift.

There's barely enough entertainment for the children here and nowhere near enough classy dialog for the grown-ups. Soggy.


Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Mark Senior 

Wednesday, 2 August 2023

The Choir of Man - Review

Arts Theatre, London



****


Created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay
Directed by Nic Doodson



The cast of The Choir Of Man


In an evening that sees the Arts Theatre’s stage transformed into the Jungle Pub, The Choir of Man is an immaculately delivered tribute to glorious masculinity (yes, you read that correctly) and the importance of friendship, talking and, for the single-act ninety minutes of this show at least, the power of song.

More of a playlist than a jukebox musical, The Choir of Man incorporates bangers from across decades, bands and both sides of the Atlantic, performed by 9 actors accompanied by a 4-piece band. The cast’s air of folksy camaraderie is convincing, but look closely and the evening is (as a West End show should be) immaculately rehearsed and drilled. Before the show the audience can buy pints from the onstage bar and with frequent moments of in-show audience participation, the ale flows liberally throughout.

From ballads to rock classics and anthems, you have to hand it to Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay for seeing the potential of fusing The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father and Queen’s Somebody To Love into the same setlist. The evening’s compilations are inspired - and hats off to any show that includes Rupert Holmes’s Escape (The Pina Colada Song), albeit that number went down very well with an audience mostly comprised of women having a great night out.

The actors are all pitch perfect quadruple-threats but a nod to Ben Goffe who not only pulls off a stunning tap routine to Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, but offers up a brilliant trumpet riff to the Pina Colada song too.

There are moments of narrative betwixt some of the songs that very occasionally stray into schmaltz - but these monologues albeit rehearsed, are sincerely researched and there’s a heartfelt plea from the stage to support CALM, a charity that seeks to reduce UK suicides, 75% of which are men.

Amidst blinding talent that includes some jaw-dropping acapella work, a refreshing message and sensational craic, The Choir of Man makes for a cracking night out.


Runs until 18 February 2024

Tuesday, 1 August 2023

Rock Follies - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


****


Songs by Howard Schuman and Andy Mackay
Based on the television series written by Howard Schuman
Book by Chloë Moss


Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst and Carly Bawden

Chichester is fast becoming the rock capital of West Sussex, First with Assassins and now with Rock Follies, yet another show is getting its audience into the vibe with a mise-en-scene backing track of pre-show rock classics. 

Howard Schuman and Andy Mackay’s Rock Follies, their new musical is drawn from Schuman’s 1976 TV series of the same name. In its day the Thames TV production was groundbreaking following an all-girl band, the Little Ladies, from its creation through to the intoxicating highs and the devastating lows of the music business. The stories pulled no punches in displaying the sexist misogyny of the era alongside the sheer ruthless commercialism of pop and rock. The drama was compelling and today, framed around Chloë Moss’ book, Rock Follies makes for a night of theatre containing some blistering performances.

Zizi Strallen, Carly Bawden and Angela Marie Hurst are Q, Anna and Dee the three performers flung together by fate and whose fictional fusion created a band that was ahead of its time, predating and by some years the real life Bananarama and the Spice Girls. All three women are sensational in their roles – and while some of Schuman and Mackay’s lyrics may stray into banality, their melodies are stunning. And when delivered by these three leading ladies, lead to performances that take the roof of the Minerva.

It is re-assuring to see Dominic Cooke’s perceptive flair, recently missed, return to his directing. Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography, honed on Six's female cast, is found to be just as exciting with half the number of leads!

Rock Follies was brilliant in its time, delivering punchy hour-long stories that in those heady pre-streaming days, created narratives that were the UK's water-cooler conversations. Running for 12 episodes, Schuman's incisive teleplays allowed enough time to fully define the characters and their interactions. Here, that 12 hours of telly is condensed into nigh-on three hours of musical, a compression that is far from flawless. The show’s unwieldy second act grapples with an untidy narrative and needs a trim, while elsewhere and far too often the supporting characters are portrayed as little more than 2-dimensional caricatures.

The wonder of this show however lies in Strallen Hurst and Bawden. As an ensemble their harmonies are delicious and in solo work, each woman sings with a unique clarity and timbre that is spine-tingling in its beauty. Indeed, with The Sound Of Music playing just across the driveway in the Festival Theatre it is likely that right now Chichester home to some of the finest performances in the country. 

Credit too to Nigel Lilley and Toby Higgins whose musical arrangements of the score that, as well as including mostly new material, also offers up a couple of juke-box gems along the way, is inspired and their 5-piece band is sensational. Equal credit to Ian Dickinson’s sound design that not only captures the sounds of the 70s – that noise of a 10p piece being pushed into a payphone’s coinbox will go straight over the heads of anyone under 50 - but also brilliantly captures the acoustics of the three singers' public performances, whether the venue being portrayed on stage is a dingy London pub or New York’s Madison Square Gardens.

The script may creak, but the production values are gorgeous and the performances sensational. If you’re looking for a well curated tribute to the 1970s, then this is the finest piece of musical theatre around!


Runs until 26th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 18 July 2023

The Sound of Music - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester



****



Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Adam Penford



Gina Beck


Chichester’s regular audience will enjoy Adam Penford’s take on The Sound of Music. Following hard on the heels of the venue’s production of Sondheim’s Assassins, a show that is likely to have made an uncomfortable or even incomprehensible impression upon many of the south coast’s venerable gentlefolk, this hardy perennial from Rodgers & Hammerstein and set in 1938 Austria delivers, for the most part, an evening of absolute delight.

Gina Beck takes on the role of Maria, the local nunnery’s wobbling wimpled postulant who learns that her heart’s desire is to be found not within the convent, but rather beyond the abbey walls and in the arms of local hero and father of 7, the widowered Captain von Trapp.

Beck is quite simply the sound of musical magnificence. Rodgers & Hammerstein wisely gave her character the lion’s share of the show's (many) big numbers, and from the moment Beck rises from a trap door, sprawled across a local mountain top and singing the title number, she sets spines a’tingling. Whether partnering the show’s (excellent) company of kids or Janis Kelly’s equally wonderful Mother Abbess, Beck’s singing is a dream and her casting is an inspired choice.

Kelly of course has the responsibility for the act one closer of Climb Ev'ry Mountain which she delivers flawlessly. Study the programme notes and gasp at Kelly’s operatic credentials, for to hear her and Beck alone is worth the price of a ticket! Equally entertaining are the wonderful Emma Williams as the Captain’s briefly-engaged fiancée Elsa Schraeder and Ako Mitchell as Austrian impresario Max Detweiler. 

If there are flaws in the show they are that Edward Harrison’s von Trapp never quite matches Beck’s excellence and equally that the production’s casting seems clumsy. When Nazis and their sympathisers are played by performers of colour, what should be the horrifically racist impact of the swastikas that adorn the show’s post-Anschluss final act, is muted. The creative team should have thought longer and harder in this regard.

Designer Robert Jones works his usual magic on the Festival Theatre’s wondrous space, his work ingeniously transforming the stage from abbey to mountain top to the von Trapp residence. Likewise, Matt Samer and his 14-piece orchestra offer up a gorgeous interpretation of Rodgers’ timeless melodies. Audiences will not be disappointed.


Runs until 3rd September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 14 July 2023

Miss Saigon - Review

Crucible Theatre, Sheffield



****



Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil
Directed by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau


Joanna Ampil

A daring, bold yet incredibly exciting recipe for musical theatre. Take an iconic piece world renowned and adored, make some bold changes compared to previous versions and take it off the traditional proscenium stage and place it an intimate thrust style. Robert Hastie and Anthony Laus’ gamble has paid off as they bring Miss Saigon back to the stage in a new production by special arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh.

With 30+ musical numbers it is no wonder that at times Schönberg and Boublil’s piece feels more like an opera, but the cast’s ensemble work is strong, driving the piece from city to city as we follow Kim’s journey, fleeing the Vietnam conflict. Jade Hackett's choreography is a treat and the company deliver the big numbers and transitions with great precision.

Ben Stones’ mostly minimal set leaves a bare stage, allowing a blank canvas for a combination of exquisite lighting and projection from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Andrzej Goulding respectively. Stones however vividly captures the contrast of between the dark and damp streets outside the bars of Saigon with the bright neon lights of Bangkok. The second act’s famed evacuation from the American embassy is a wonder to behold and a treat in itself. 

That said, the biggest treat in the show comes from the duo that is Joanna Ampil as The Engineer and Jessica Lee as Kim. Ampil is no stranger to Miss Saigon but in this production brings a new take on The Engineer. Her rendition of The American Dream towards the end of Act 2 is a tragic celebration of what could have been, exposing all sides and shades of The Engineer in one number, a performance that would be a marathon for many but seemingly effortless for Ampil and immensely gripping. This new interpretation of The Engineer offers a whole new chemistry between her and Kim with some darker moments seeming all the more sinister in contrast, but with also occasional moments of surprising tenderness.

Lee gave a performance that reached every single corner of The Crucible. With an intensity that never wavered, vocal dexterity that never wobbled and a presence and sometimes vulnerability that was incredibly powerful to watch. Her rendition of ‘Id Give My Life For You’ at the end of Act 1 was faultless as was ‘I Still Believe’ where Lee was joined by Christian Maynard who plays Chris, the young American soldier along with Shanay Holmes who plays Ellen. A nod too to the sumptuous performance of the score from Chris Poon and the 15 piece orchestra.

War is sadly a tragedy that seems to rip through the hearts of so many and this production places us, the audience right in the thick of it. At a time when travel and London ticket prices make a trip to the West End simply unaffordable for many it’s incredibly encouraging that regional theatres such as The Crucible are able to offer such a landmark production as this to their audiences.


Runs until 19th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday, 7 July 2023

Dear England - Review

Olivier Theatre, London



****



Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold


Joseph Fiennes

In 1981 Bill Shankly the legendary manager of Liverpool football club famously said:  “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

Bear that quote in mind when seeing James Graham's new play Dear England which is based around England manager Gareth Southgate and takes its title from the letter that Southgate, the manager of the England football team, addressed to the country in 2021 on the eve of that year’s European Championship Finals. In the same tournament some 25 years previously, Southgate had (in)famously missed his kick in the penalty shootout against Germany. But when country called in 2016 he returned to the national team as manager, coaching his players to greater achievement than previous international squads had accomplished in decades.

Graham’s ability to spot the dramatic potential of this nation’s highs and lows is unsurpassed, and this play, with his commentary on England and its relationship with the beautiful game, makes for an evening of mostly sparkling, funny and well observed entertainment. 

Joseph Fiennes steps up to the spot as Southgate, visually capturing the essence of the man. Vocally however, he never quite nails his character’s Crawley twang and early in the first act (for this is a play with two halves) he sounds a little too much like Michael Crawford’s comic creation Frank Spencer. Fiennes is however compelling as we see him batting his post-1996 inner demons and channelling that energy into motivating his young players.

There are some outstanding supporting performances on offer. For a show that sports a cast list packed with recognisable characters, Gunnar Cauthery’s take on BBC pundit Gary Lineker hits the back of the net. Likewise Will Close scores an absolute blinder with his awkward and gangly England captain, Harry Kane. We laugh at the brilliance of Close’s work, his performance capturing Kane’s apparent inarticulacy as a man to whom words do not come easy and whose gift lies in his ability to kick a ball. It is a mildly shaming moment for the audience when later on in the second half Kane reveals that he is aware that people laugh at how he speaks. On moments such as these is great drama constructed, where not only the great and the good are lampooned, but also those who have paid to buy a ticket to the theatre are themselves the subject of its wrath. 

Yet again, Es Devlin stuns a National audience with her visionary stage design. Devlin’s inspired use of concentric revolves, rotating  underneath Ash J Woodward’s projections that themselves  range from  displaying the world’s stadia to penalty shootout scores has to be seen to be believed. In a production of such world class stagecraft however, some of the wigs and hair coverings are frankly appalling. With the level of creative talent available to the National, some of the wig work (those of Sven-Göran Eriksson and Gianni Infantino in particular) is disgraceful.

Graham’s writing ranges from profoundly perceptive to occasional bursts of politics that belie a shallow bias. His dialogue lauds the players’ taking of the knee in the 2022 Qatar World Cup, but is silent on the slavery and hundreds of worker deaths that went into the construction of that tournament’s venues, a myopia that detracts from the play’s otherwise overarching brilliance.

Always with an eye to what will make a fine theatrical event, Graham has chosen an impressive backdrop of football anthems as his soundtrack. Listen out for The Verve, Fat Les and even Neil Diamond and dream of Dear England, The Musical.

No doubt producers and writers are already hard at work, transforming Dear England for its inevitable transition to the screen and when that happens, with a few edits here and there, it will make a great movie. Until then, catch it if you can at the National.

Football as a matter of life and death? It is much more serious than that.


Runs until 11th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner