Thursday 28 December 2023

The Motive And The Cue - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Written by Jack Thorne
Directed by Sam Mendes

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn

The National Theatre production has just decamped from the South Bank to the West End and on seeing this play for the third time, like a fine wine it has only improved with the passing of time.

Jack Thorne’s writing is beyond flawless. The perceptive sensitivity with which he pinpoints the passionate, complex relationship between Sir John Gielgud and his direction of Richard Burton in Broadway’s 1964 Hamlet is modern writing at its finest. A carefully curated confection of nuance, rage and pathos sees these two giants subject Shakespeare’s finest play to moments of the most intelligent analysis, with just a twist of heartbreaking humanity too.

Thorne’s words are brought to life by Mark Gatiss as Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Burton, the same actors who created the roles. They were brilliant when the show opened 8 months ago and are even better now, the chemistry between the two men proving electric. Tuppence Middleton as Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor has equally grown into her pivotal role.

Es Devlin’s intriguing set design has transferred well from the Lyttleton - however its automation at the Noel Coward is a tad noisy, that at times is a small distraction.

The Motive And The Cue remains essential drama, exquisitely performed. Unmissable.

Runs until 23rd March 2024
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig - Review

JW3, London


Written by Nick Cassenbaum
Directed by Abi Anderson

Debbie Chazen

London’s Jewish cultural centre JW3 makes its first foray into the seasonal (and traditionally secular) world of pantomime with a schmaltzified take on the classic yarn of Little Red Riding Hood. Taking an obscure connection into the evil world of corporate greed (ergo the Big Bad Pig) and an even more obscure connection involving the dame’s flatulence, a curious tale emerges that revolves around saving the Jewish festival of Chanukah.

This is a story that the little-ones will enjoy for sure, but if a pantomime is to truly be family entertainment then there needs to be some comedy meat (and sauce) for the grown-ups to laugh at too. Debbie Chazen puts in a game performance as dame Mother Hoodman, but she lacks both the heft and the cojones to make her character soar. A decent dame needs (ideally) to be played by a bloke with the recognised gravitas that enables us to laugh both at, and with, his drag-festooned character. It’s a tough, complex, role to fulfil and one can understand the producer’s casting challenge: Who is there in the Jewish acting world that can fit that bill?

Elsewhere the company all put in a fine shift, Tiago Fonseca’s Bubbah being a classy display of physical comedy in particular. Josh Middleton (who has also arranged the show’s excellent musical accompaniment) directs his 3-piece band from on high.

This is a noble effort from JW3, albeit more purimspiel than pantomime. If there are future plans for a seasonal panto to play here then their script and casting needs a lot more work if they are to succeed in delivering festive fun for all the family.

Runs until 7th January 2024
Photo credit: Jane Hobson

Thursday 14 December 2023

Macbeth - Review

The Depot, Liverpool


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes

In a dynamic touring production Simon Godwin’s Macbeth offers a delicious take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular and bloody classics. Ralph Fiennes steps up to play the doomed Thane, bringing a refreshing degree of perception and vigour to Scotland’s legendary warrior. 

Godwin’s stage is mostly left uncluttered with an ingenious immersive style to the drama, allowing the audience to walk amongst a battle-ravaged set as a mise-en-scene. This minimalism works well, adding particular impact to the moment when on seeing Banquo’s ghost (fine work from Steffan Rhodri), real soup is spilled by Macbeth in his shock.

Indira Varma is Lady Macbeth and while she could perhaps have explored her wicked ambition with a hint more depth, she proved the perfect foil to her husband’s hesitation on contemplating regicide.

Among the witches Danielle Fiamanya stands out, with Ben Turner’s Macduff another powerful and heartbreaking performance. Turner’s grief on learning of the murder of Macduff’s wife and children is palpable, leading to a passionate and convincing sword fight with machetes as he and Macbeth battle to the story’s tragic conclusion. Credit too to designer Frankie Bradshaw, the blood and gore factor of this production is refreshingly high.

One of the nation’s most frequently performed tragedies, it has been easy in recent years for productions of Macbeth to lack emotional heft. This one delivers. If you’re lucky enough to have secured a ticket for its tour to Edinburgh, London and Washington DC in the new year you’re in for a treat.

Runs to 20 December and then on tour
Photo credit: Matt Humphrey

Hold The Line, Challenge The Narrative - Review

In their first foray into a staged political discussion, David Vance and Peter Mcilvenna presented Hold The Line - Challenge The Narrative, an evening of political conversation and discussion featuring Carl Benjamin and Andrew Bridgen MP.

Kensington Temple’s hall was pleasingly full for the event that was kicked off by Benjamin (he of the Lotus Eaters podcast), eloquently expressing his cynicism upon today’s political world that, in his opinion, has broadly seen all the major political parties share identical agendas to the extent that Westminster is run by a “uniparty” that will remain in power, whoever may be Prime Minister.

Benjamin’s comments were well argued - going on to suggest that the historic role of the civil service that for decades had been that of a safe hand, a steady steering of government policies, had been usurped. He went on to outline that we now have a civil service that is acting outside of government as it seeks to roll out its own policies of social change.

Proving an excellent warm up to Andrew Bridgen’s arrival on stage (the MP having been delayed by the House of Commons’ vote on the Rwanda bill) the evening took a sharper turn with Bridgen’s contribution.

Much has been made of Andrew Bridgen’s outlying stance on and research into, the harms caused by the Covid vaccines. What made Bridgen’s contribution to the evening so fascinating however was his description of the obstructions, stumbling blocks and ostracism that he was exposed to from across the political spectrum, including from those who suggested to him that “he may well be right” but that now is “not the right time” to be raising his issues. Bridgen spoke as a wise and battle-weary warrior and it was fascinating to hear his thoughts. He also lobbed in his prediction that the 2024 General Election would be held on Thursday May 2nd.

At more than two hours in length with no break – the evening seemed daunting. It is a credit to both the organisers and their guests that the evening proved to be a remarkable political discourse. One looks forward to Vance and Mcilvenna’s next event.

The Homecoming - Review

Young Vic Theatre, London


Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Jared Harris

Matthew Dunster’s revival of The Homecoming is one of the most entertaining interpretations of Pinter to have graced a London stage in years.  In this definitively dysfunctional family, a cracking cast offer up a monstrous quintet of generation-spanning brothers and the one woman who is wife/in-law/niece to them all.

Harold Pinter’s dialogue is genius. Written in 1964, he captures the essence of London banter. Listen closely to hear how Pinter influenced the likes of Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son, Leon Griffiths’ Arthur Daley and Barrie Keefe’s Harold Shand. His are the words and style of Hackney and of Soho, refracted through this family’s amoral prism.

The elder generation is neatly portrayed by the Arthur Lowe-esque Nicholas Tennant as chauffeur Sam, with his brother Max (Jared Harris) a retired butcher and the father of the three younger brothers, attempting to play the patriarch of the household.

Among the next generation Joe Cole is pimp Lenny, David Angland is the brain-dulled boxer Joey, as Robert Emms plays Teddy, the PhD of this fraternal trio who has flown home from America with wife Ruth (Lisa Diveney)

All six are magnificent, shifting us from laughter to gasps of horror as the men attempt to impose their macabre misogyny upon Ruth - who in turn proves to be an equally devious foil to their vile intentions. 

Throughout the evening, Sally Ferguson’s lighting plots enhance the drama on Moi Tran’s simply suggested set.

The Homecoming is a finely crafted glimpse into a household of grotesques, making an evening of fabulous theatre. 

Runs until 27th January 2024
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 24 November 2023

The Witches - Review

National Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy
Book and lyrics by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Katherine Kingsley and the Witches

Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a famously fabulous children’s tale, exploring the nightmarish conceit that witches walk among us. In a new staging, Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy have taken Dahl’s wickedly inventive story and fashioned it into a musical. Fresh from the challenge of successfully directing the National’s recent production of The Crucible, a facts-based tale of fictitious witches, Lyndsey Turner now turns her hand to helming this fictional yarn about real life sorceresses.

The show follows young Luke, orphaned early on and his journey to battle a coven of everyday women who are really witches and who wish to rid the world of all children by turning them into mice. The story is Dahl at his most devilishly imaginative and yet the Kirkwood and Malloy collaboration, whilst good in parts, blunts a lot of Dahl’s pointed genius.

Turner’s cast are terrific with Sally Ann Triplett and Katherine Kingsley up against each other as Luke’s elderly Gran vs the Grand High Witch respectively. Both women are brilliant, belting their solo numbers magnificently, it’s just a shame that the lyrics are so wan and the two womens’ backstory that should explain their decades-old enmity, so poorly explained.

Both Dahl and witchcraft have been served brilliantly by musical theatre in recent decades with Tim Minchin’s Matilda and Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked both being shows with masses of heart and real humanity generated through classy melodies and perceptively penned lyrics. Kirkwood and Malloy are not in the same league - and while their visuals are imaginative, (kids will likely love the show) there’s not enough meat in this adaptation to satisfy a more discerning audience.

Aside from the two adult leads, a trio of child actors are equally brilliant (Luke played by Frankie Keita on the night of this review, alongside George Menezes Cutts and Asanda Abbie Masike in two complementing featured roles) with confident and beautifully voiced performances. Equally Stephen Mear’s choreography is as ever a treat, going so far as to include a line-up of perfectly tap dancing, mostly middle-aged witches. that would not be out of place performing Who’s That Woman from Follies.

The National is a world-class theatre with its Olivier auditorium arguably the nation’s premier stage. For a venue where technical wizardry and breathtaking design are the norm, it is a disappointment that much of the show’s visuals and magic are clunky. While the human talent in Turner’s company is unquestionably outstanding, the occasionally malfunctioning mechanical mice together with what can best be described as amateurish children’s costumes in the finale, suggest a production that has failed to reach its ambitions. Cat Beveridge directs her lavishly furnished 13-piece band with aplomb – it's just a shame that Malloy’s melodies are quickly forgettable.

There is fun to be had with The Witches – but there could have been so much more.

Runs until 27th January 2024
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 21 November 2023

The Ayes Have It, The Ayes Have It - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


Directed by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh

Alex Salmond, John Bercow and David Davis in Edinburgh

Transferring to London from the Edinburgh Fringe for one night only The Ayes Have It, The Ayes Have It is probably best described as the mother of all parliaments' bastard child. 

Director and producer Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh assembled a line-up of politicians and pundits to debate the motion “Brexit has been a disaster and now must be reversed” with the venerable Alex Salmond leading the proponents against David Davis’ team opposing.

Amidst what can only be described as a partisan audience - hardly surprising for a show staged in London’s city centre, the capital being fairly described on the night by opposer and broadcaster Mike Graham as “the 27th star on the EU flag” - the discussions were feisty, but served well in what a cross-panel consensus broadly agreed was the importance of taking debate outside of the confines of Westminster.

It spoke much for the flaws of the proposing team - that also included Gina Miller and Andrew Marr - that no serving parliamentarians could be found to support the motion. Baroness Claire Fox proved an eloquent and above all informed opposer, able to cite not only facts, but also argue powerfully that the Rejoin camp is populated largely by those with a “misty-eyed view of the EU” matched only by “their self-loathing of the UK”.

John Bercow chaired the proceedings from an uncharacteristically unbiased perspective, with the whole gig being enhanced by two spirited contributions on either side of the motion from Cora and Dominic, two sixth-formers from the Chestnut Grove Academy. A curious interjection post-interval came from talented impressionist Lewis MacLeod. Whilst his vocals were spot on, MacLeod's content was a tad trite.

The Ayes were always going to have it in a Leicester Square venue. But who knows? Perhaps if Sheikh’s show is taken on the road the evening’s outcomes may be different.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Merchant of Venice 1936 - The Oldest Hatred Is Back

Tracy-Ann Oberman and the cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936

Theatregoers have long been used to bag-checks as they arrive for a show. What they will be less familiar with are uniformed security guards, there to protect the show’s cast, crew and audience and who have now become a routine feature of performances of Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Merchant of Venice 1936.

When the production opened in February this year at Watford’s Palace Theatre there was no overt security presence, with Oberman winning critical plaudits both for her tackling of Shakespeare’s study on antisemitism as well as her re-interpretation and re-gendering of Shylock. Rather than sixteenth century Venice, this take on the play is set in 1930s London against the attempted rise of British fascism and the Battle of Cable Street. Oberman describes The Merchant Of Venice 1936, with its focus on a female Shylock and the East End of London’s response to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, as “the project of her life”.

But in the midst of a (long pre-planned) tour, the context of this production was radically shifted. Barely 7 months after the Watford press night, on October 7th, the terrorist organization Hamas launched an attack on Israel that in one day saw 1,200 people murdered, countless others raped and brutalised, and more than 200 hostages taken captive into Gaza. While the victims of that infamous day came from a range of countries, the vast majority of them were Jewish Israeli citizens, with the antisemitism that motivated the attack being the most horrendous assault on Jews since the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s.

What gives an even more shocking angle to Oberman’s Merchant of Venice is that within days of the October 7th attack, some of Britain’s streets were filled with supporters of Hamas celebrating the terrorists’ horrific deeds. Those celebrations continue to this day, with London and other cities around the world now seeing weekly marches calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, “from the river to the sea”.

It is this outpouring of vile antisemitic rage that offers such a grotesquely chilling parallel to the London of 1936 as presented in Oberman’s interpretation of the play. And sadly it is the risk presented by those potentially violent antisemites that now demands the presence of uniformed security guards as part of the show’s travelling entourage. 

The play itself has matured on the road. Speaking with Oberman as the London run at Wilton’s Music Hall (a venue poignantly situated just off Cable Street) ended and with the show about to head up to York, she commented on the play’s impact following the Hamas attacks and the ensuing torrent of antisemitic hatred onto the streets:
“I’m overwhelmed by how powerful people are finding this production, particularly with a huge rise of antisemitism in the United Kingdom And globally, I think people are aware that during times of unrest the Jewish community is often the first group to be targeted. As we know what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews”
Edmund Burke famously said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. In 1936 as London’s antisemites wearing the red and black armbands of the fascist movement and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police attempted to march through the very heart of London’s Jewish community, it was the actions of thousands of Burke’s “good men”, decent Londoners from all communities who stood side by side with the capital’s Jews in the Battle of Cable Street to defeat the evil. Today, rather than armbands, the antisemites are wearing the green and black headbands of Hamas and as they march down Park Lane and onwards, streaming across the Thames, they are terrifyingly cheered on by thousands.

That Oberman’s Merchant of Venice continues to play to packed houses across the country reminds us of England’s underlying decency. Let us pray that that decency can triumph.

With Tracy-Ann Oberman at Wilton's Music Hall

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is on tour playing in York, Chichester and Manchester. In the new year it returns to the RSC in Stratford on Avon. To book tickets, click here

Wednesday 8 November 2023

The Interview - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Jonathan Maitland
Directed by Michael Fentiman

Yolanda Kettle and Tibu Fortes

There is already a vast amount of information surrounding the interview that BBC journalist Martin Bashir conducted with Diana, Princess of Wales in 1995. The interview itself was watched, and has been recorded, by millions and in 2021 the Dyson inquiry into the interview’s background found that Bashir had acted deceitfully in his gaining access to, as well as the trust of, the Princess.

And it is against that background that one looks to Jonathan Maitland’s play to deliver some analysis or comment that may enhance our understanding of this sad and troublesome chapter of the Royal Family’s history. Sadly, no fresh analysis or research is offered at all, save for a whimsical endgame that sees Diana’s ghost bemoaning the fact that Prince William effectively banned any future broadcast of the interview in the wake of the Dyson report. And while Maitland clearly “sides” with the Princess, he shows no sympathy whatsoever to the distress that Bashir’s deceit has caused for Diana’s children and his play is the weaker for this lack of balance. 

The acting however is superb. Yolanda Kettle’s Diana captures the iconic stance of the late Princess in both her voice and physical presence with full credit due to Mary Howland’s vocal coaching and Susanna Peretz’s astonishing wig creation. Equally, Tibu Fortes as Bashir builds a credibly unsympathetic character, immediately recognisable from how the BBC man was portrayed in the media.

Michael Fentiman has directed his company with a perceptive accuracy and whilst the script may lack meat, all the characters are well fleshed out. This is certainly an evening of brilliant caricature, but at two hours including interval the play feels long for what is little more than a collection of soundbites.

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Mandy Patinkin Live In Concert - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Mandy Patinkin

Here for a brief 8-gig London residency, Mandy Patinkin Live in Concert is a 90-minute audience with one of musical theatre’s most gifted and versatile performers.

Accompanied by the equally talented Adam Ben-David on piano, Patinkin took his audience on a whirl around the American Songbook that included a delicious detour through Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody too.

The evening’s setlist was an ingenious series of segues that saw numbers from writers including Loesser, Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein fused into medleys that Patinkin’s perfectly weighted baritone delivered deliciously.

Patinkin’s interpretations and acting through song was on point throughout - not least in Marc Anthony Thompson's heartbreaking composition My Mom and a thrilling Soliloquy from Carousel. His partnership with Ben-David is clearly well grounded, the musical synergy between singer and pianist being one of complete connection and the evening's penultimate number Being Alive proving sensational.

In a gig peppered with anecdotes, Patinkin spoke in equal measure of both his glittering Broadway career and his deeply valued Jewish heritage. Nothing however could have prepared the audience for Patinkin’s encore that he introduced simply as a song with a tragic background, written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. While such a build-up may well have led the packed Lyric Theatre to not unreasonably expect Somewhere Over The Rainbow, to hear the Homeland star perform the song in Yiddish, a mournful yet brave and proud celebration of his Jewish identity, was a moment in theatre that will live forever. Unmissable.

In concert until 19th November
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday 2 November 2023

King Lear - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh and Jessica Revell

Kenneth Branagh’s take on King Lear is an intelligent interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies. Branagh’s treatment of the text is bold creating an amalgam of the play’s first published Folio and Quarto versions, then filleting out the narrative he considers superfluous. Not quite a King Lear Lite, but Branagh shaves a fair hour off the typical running time, bringing the show in at just under two hours with no interval.

For the most part the edits work. Amongst other clippings the courtroom scene in the hovel is chopped as is Lear’s comment on Cordelia’s quietly-spoken voice being “an excellent thing in woman”. But to be fair Branagh has trimmed wisely, maintaining the integrity of the narrative around Lear and his daughters, together with the sub-plot surrounding Gloucester and his sons. The play’s most famous quotes are (mostly) all there and in a time that has frequently seen the Bard’s prose butchered at Shakespeare’s Globe, Branagh treats the original with respect. 

On stage, Branagh is an excellent King Lear. There is weight and pathos to his words, with his curse of sterility on Goneril together with his grief in the final act, being fine examples of a well considered interpretation. His daughters are fun too. Melanie-Joyce Bermudez is a vicious Regan and Deborah Alli is an equally Ugly Sister as Goneril. There is a fine interpretation of Cordelia from Jessica Revell also doubling up as the Fool, who catches the complex sentiments of both her roles with a delightful accuracy. Doug Colling and Corey Mylchreest put in sound turns as Edgar and Edmund respectively, while Joseph Kloska’s Gloucester is deliciously done, vile jellies bouncing across the stage as his eyes are plucked out.

Jon Bausor’s designs together with Nina Dunn’s projections offer an original view of the Neolithic era in which the production is set, though the dancing and battling with staves is perhaps a little overplayed given the otherwise ruthless editing of the script.

Virtually sold out for the run, Branagh has delivered a King Lear for our times. 

Runs until 9th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Antisemitism: {{{ A Musical }}}

Camden People's Theatre, London


Writer and composer: Uri Agnon
Directed by: Emma Jude Harris

Maya Kristal Tenenbaum

There are times when life does not so much imitate art, as swamp it in a ghastly tsunami. So it is with Antisemitism: A {{{Musical}}} that plays its fiction against the horrific real-life/real-death backdrop of a pogrom that has seen hundreds of Jews tortured, raped and slaughtered in southern Israel, antisemitism being openly celebrated across the Western world and the United Nations’ Secretary General today pronouncing that Hamas' murderous rampage against Jews, barely two weeks ago, “did not happen in a vacuum”.

There may well be a sound moral underscore to this show, but the evening itself falls far short of expectations. Written by Uri Agnon, the 75 minute piece is drawn from the antisemitism experienced by Agnon on moving to London from his native Israel. Maya Kristal Tenenbaum plays Agnon's Protagonist and whilst her performance is excellent, her reference points aren’t so much explained to the audience as force-fed, and then at breakneck speed. Much of the dialogue is too niche and too much of the plot, ridiculous. David Merriman’s musical direction is spot on, but the sound balancing is awful and in the first twenty minutes or so, much of what’s being sung or spoken is hard to discern. Hannah Bristow and Amy Parker as the show’s two narrators are as good as Tenenbaum, but they have also been given disappointing material to work with.

Elsewhere there are occasional projected and narrated tweets, drawn from the real life cesspit of social media, that appear to be a low-budget imitation of last year’s Jews In Their Own Words, seen at the Royal Court.

There is possibly a fine show struggling to emerge from this musical - but this ain’t it.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Cam Harle

Monday 23 October 2023

Dear England - Review

Prince Edward Theatre, London


Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold

The cast of Dear England

When the National Theatre staged James Graham’s Dear England in the Olivier earlier this year, it appeared to herald a flood of stage plays about the beautiful game. Had the drama on the pitch become fair game for the dramatist’s pen? Not exactly. In fact the wealth of dramas at the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond seemed to document the seismic shift in how soccer is managed, supported and perceived in this country. The seeds of this change are explored in Graham’s play, which observes the first years of Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager, which following universal critical acclaim now transfers to the Prince Edward in the West End.

Perennial nice-guy, Southgate is given the impossible role of manager following a shake-up at executive level. He is haunted and constantly reminded of his penalty failure at the Euros quarter final in 1996 but accepts the role on the condition that some changes are brought in with the training. Southgate has realised that despite excellent talented players through the decades, England had yet triumph on the world stage since 1966. In searching for a different approach, he enlists Dr Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan taking over from Gina McKee in this transfer), a successful psychotherapist who endeavours to help the young team face up to their fears and feelings. Most people are sceptical at this point, but gradually Grange breaks through and nurtures trust and comradeship within the team. What is more important is that England becomes more and more successful, albeit without actually winning a match. But Southgate is playing the long game. Before England can win, they need to learn how to lose.

Graham's drama, while ostensibly about football, is in fact a state-of-the-nation play. Its backdrop shows a country struggling with its identity, suffering governmental chaos and desperately in need of unification. Woven through with comic moments and the high drama on the pitch, there are episodes of soul-searching poignancy, as the young players address their fears and learn to bond.  At the centre of all this is Southgate, played by a revelatory Joseph Fiennes, whose post-Covid open letter to the nation - Dear England - called upon the supporters to remember that the players are fans too, and that there is no place for racism when we are all aiming for the same result.

Directed by Rupert Goold, Dear England takes on an epic status. Es Devlin's clever set design, dominated by a giant illuminated stadium halo, is a rhapsody of digital projection and old-school scenery shifting. It's the first time in recent memory that the Prince Edward has played host to a straight play, but Goold's production has all the drama, choreography and spectacle of major musical - just no songs - save for snatches of Bittersweet Symphony, Vindaloo and Sweet Caroline.

Movement directors Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf add to the drama by creating gripping physical scenes that represent everything from training to penalty shoot-outs with a remarkably limber cast playing the team. Part of the joy in this production is watching the characters unfold, whether it's Darragh Hand as Marcus Rashford, embracing this opportunity to give something back to the community or Will Close as an adorably hesitant Harry Kane, gradually learning to accept his role as team captain. There's excellent support too from Paul Thornley as coach Mike Webster, who primarily stands against Southgate's 'touchy-feely' approach but reluctantly warms to the burgeoning team spirit it engenders.

Dear England is a sharply designed, feel-good production that captures the spirit of reform that Southgate has initiated. There's no doubt it will likely attract - and rightly so - a whole new audience to the West End. As such, this might be one of the most important London transfers since Declan Rice moved from West Ham to Arsenal.

Reviewed by Paul Vale
Booking until 13th January 2024
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday 20 October 2023

The Score - Review

Theatre Royal, Bath


Written by Oliver Cotton
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Brian Cox

The Score is a bold historical tale that makes for some exceptional drama. Brian Cox plays Johann Sebastian Bach who not only was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period but was also a deeply spiritual man, fiercely proud of his native Silesia (now a part of Germany) and especially his home city of Leipzig. 

Set over a short period of time in Bach’s latter years, a time when the enlightened expansionist Frederick The Great ruled neighbouring Prussia and subsequently conquered Silesia, the play crafts an ingenious narrative around an actual visit that the 62 year-old Bach paid to Frederick in Potsdam, Prussia in 1747, some 3 years before the composer’s death. The play’s first half largely sets the scene and establishes the history of the time. Oliver Cotton has a lot to cram in to his story and there are times when act one drags, making the interval a much appreciated respite. 

The second half however, that opens in the economically but magnificently created Potsdam Palace, sizzles with a gripping dramatic intensity. Matthew Burns plays Bach’s son Carl a composer in Frederick’s court, who finds himself at the heart of an intriguing wager as to whether his father will be able to fashion a 3-part fugue drawn from a theme of Frederick’s creation. No spoilers here, but Cotton crafts a dramatic counterpoint between composer, court and monarch that has to rank amongst the best writing seen this year. Not only is there this nail-biting bet being played out, but when the music is done and dusted the elderly Bach takes the king to task for the appalling conduct of his Prussian troops in the composer’s beloved Silesia.

There are timeless echoes in Cotton’s narrative. As Bach describes the rape of a blind teenage girl in Leipzig by a trio of Frederick’s soldiers, the barbarity chimes with the horrific atrocities in Israel that have grabbed our recent headlines. And as Frederick speaks of the rights of Prussia to reclaim its neighbouring territories, there is a chilling foresight as to the expansionist supremacy that underlay Weimar and then Nazi Germany in the 20th century. 

Cox is magnificent in his role, capturing not only Bach’s genius and pride in his faith and in his homeland, but also his succumbing to the frailties of his later years. His is a virtuoso performance of nuance, perception and perfectly pitched rage that sees the actor on stage for virtually all of the first half and most of the second.

Trevor Nunn has assembled a fine company around his leading man. Cox’s real life missus, Nicole Ansari-Cox plays Bach’s wife Anna, Stephen Hagan’s Frederick channels a far shrewder (and more vicious) take on the bumbling monarchs that Hugh Laurie captured so cleverly in the various Blackadder TV series of yesteryear. 

Robert Jones has designed the piece as ever, immaculately, helped in no small measure by Karen Large’s costume work and Campbell Young’s wig work. A nod too to Sophie Cotton whose contribution to the evening’s sound design and music is exquisite.

This is a brave and bold piece from Cotton that in its style makes a fine tilt at the honours garnered by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Only on for a ridiculously short run, it demands a transfer to London and a wider audience.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Sunset Boulevard - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Nicole Scherzinger

The essence of this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is in its advertised titling, 'Sunset Blvd.' The 'Blvd.' a staccato spelling, stripped back, laid bare – Jamie Lloyd stamping his imprimatur not just upon the staging of the show, but on its publicity too. It is disappointing to note however that the credits for this production make no reference whatsoever to Billy Wilder who directed and co-wrote the 1950 Oscar-winner that was to spawn the musical. How fickle creatives can be.

Nicole Scherzinger steps up to play Norma Desmond, the famously faded Hollywood idol, an actress who decades after her heyday insists that she is still “big, it’s the pictures that got small”. Make no mistake – Scherzinger has a voice of anthemic, stadium-filling power and in some of Fabian Aloise’s dance routines, a sublime athleticism that unhelpfully belies her age. Considering that Desmond is meant to be the ultimate Hollywood has-been, for Scherzinger to move so amazingly across the stage suggests a woman close to the peak of her career, rather than in its deepest trough. She makes fine work of Desmond’s early solo number With One Look, but is found wanting in the second-act’s blockbuster As If We Never Said Goodbye. This latter number has the potential to leave an audience broken, such is its insight into the deluded Desmond’s return to Paramount Studios. Here however, whilst Scherzinger’s vocals are again magnificent it is hard to connect her performance with Desmond’s disconnected despair.

The final act’s lyrics have been changed to fit the leading lady – Black and Hampton wrote “nothing's wrong with being fifty, unless you're acting twenty.” In this show, the “fifty” is changed to “forty”, that only highlights the weakness in having cast Scherzinger (who in close-up looks fabulous in her forties) as the ageing diva. Much like Desmond's futile dream of playing Salome, has Lloyd cast Scherzinger in a role that is ultimately beyond her? 

Distinctly minimalist, and under designer Soutra Gilmour’s vision, Lloyd’s actors are given no props to work with while on stage. The costuming and the staging is completely monochrome, a nod to the early days of Hollywood and there is some ingenious live video close-up work that reflects the show’s cinematic foundation. The black and white colour scheme works and makes for an exciting visual treat.

For no apparent reason the second half opens up backstage with a live video broadcast tracking the story's Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by Tom Francis) as he zips through the cast’s dressing rooms before exiting out onto The Strand and back in to the Savoy Theatre, all while singing the title song. Impressive work for sure – but no explanation is offered for this brief movie-in-a show. And why, when Norma tells Joe that she’s got herself a revolver, are we shown a semi-automatic handgun placed on Scherzinger’s backstage dressing table? Sloppy detailing that undermines Lloyd's approach. 

In keeping with Lloyd’s harsh interpretation the two songs that offer a touch of comedy amidst the noir (the ensemble numbers The Lady’s Paying and  Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering) have been dropped. These excisions however don’t sit well alongside some of the the corny moments that have been incorporated into the video work. Down in the pit Alan Williams’ musical direction is magnificent, delivering a gorgeous interpretation of Lloyd Webber’s melodies.

This production of Sunset Boulevard will be remembered for its casting and its distinctive style. It’s a flawed interpretation for sure – but very entertaining. You won’t be bored.

Runs until 6th January 2024. Rachel Tucker plays the role of Norma Desmond on Mondays.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday 12 October 2023

Old Friends - Review

 Gielgud Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Devised by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Matthew Bourne and Julia McKenzie

The company of Old Friends

Much of Old Friends, Cameron Mackintosh’s lovingly curated tribute to Stephen Sondheim is a masterclass in musical theatre. Over 2 1/2 hours and 40 songs, some of the West End’s finest sing a selection of Sondheim’s compositions that spans decades.

Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga have been flown in from the USA to headline the show. Salonga of course won numerous awards creating the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in London back in 1989 and later in New York. Since then however, her impact over here has been muted. Peters, albeit a Broadway legend and arguably Sondheim’s one-time muse, is less well known in the UK outside of musical cognoscenti and other than as a sincere and profound tribute to the composer it is hard to understand her bill-topping status. There are moments in the evening that leave one reflecting that some of Peters’ numbers could perhaps have been better delivered by other members of this star-studded ensemble.

If Arthur Miller was America’s leading light in late twentieth-century drama, mercilessly exploring and exposing the human condition, then Sondheim was his match in musical theatre. Interestingly and notwithstanding Sondheim’s genius, he never created (nor possibly may have never sought to create) a show of the juggernaut, franchisable or (as Stephen Schwartz may have called it) “popular” status garnered by say Cats, Phantom of The Opera, Les Misérables or Wicked. That being said, when Old Friends is at its best it offers magical moments of perfect performance. 

Highlights of the evening include: a gorgeous pairing of Salonga with Jeremy Secomb as Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd for a selection of that show’s favourites; an outstanding ensemble take on A Weekend In The Country with a shout-out for Janie Dee’s brilliant interpretation of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, nailing the comic potential of her few lyrics perfectly. Joanna Riding, with superb support from Damian Humbley cynically sparkles in Getting Married Today as does Bonnie Langford’s in a breathtaking I’m Still Here. Clare Burt, a late arrival to the cast, gives a magnificent irascibility to The Ladies Who Lunch. The first half ends with an uplifting full-ensemble delivery of Sunday from Sunday In The Park With George, with Peters assuming the position of the parasol-bearing Dot. Considering that Sondheim possibly created that role with Peters in mind, the moment and the staging is one of a rare and special theatrical beauty.

Kicking off the second half, the overture from Merrily We Roll Along offers another glimpse of Sondheim’s musical talent, while a seamless segue into a small medley from West Side Story reminds us of his skill way back as a much younger writer. The Gypsy inclusions of You Gotta Getta Gimmick and Everything’s Coming Up Roses are also delightful.

Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear direct and choreograph respectively, coaxing immaculately presented iterations of each song. Julia McKenzie, another of Sondheim’s close and wise associates is co-credited as director. The whole affair is staged with a smart simplicity, Alfonso Casado Trigo’s orchestra elegantly placed upstage.

Opportunities to see a company of this calibre do not come along often. Go see Old Friends!

Runs until 6th January 2023
Photo credit: Danny Kaan

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Based on the book by Neil Gaiman
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Directed by Katy Rudd

Millie Hikasa and Keir Ogilvy

A wonderful exploration of childhood, imagination and memory, the National Theatre production of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane returns from a UK tour to take up a brief residence at the Noel Coward Theatre. 

Making a remarkable West End debut, Keir Ogilvy plays the 12 year-old Boy growing up in England’s rural Sussex. He has struggled to make friends, his mother is no longer around and his family home is shared with Dad (Trevor Fox) and Sis (Laurie Ogden). It’s a neat touch denying these roles any individual names for in that depersonalisation they become us all and as Boy explores his fantasies and nightmares along with complex family relationships, there are moments (in the sometimes lengthy 2½ hours) that will resonate across the audience.

The fantasy of the story is brought to life beautifully on stage by the characters that the Boy encounters in his youth. Millie Hikasa is Lettie, Boy’s magical pal who Is not quite what she seems and who guides and protects him on his journey of discovery. There is charming work from Finty Williams as Lettie’s grandmother and the inspired creation of Ursula, played by Charlie Brooks, who is the nemesis of all things good and the villain of the piece who also meddles with some psycho-sexual manipulation of the Boy (nothing too provocative mind you) that cleverly explores the susceptible curiosity of a child’s mind.

The acting is top-notch throughout, but above all it is the ingenuity of the show’s puppetry, lighting and outstanding physical theatre that gives the evening its breathtaking charm. It is left to a black clad ensemble of four to deliver the production’s heavy lifting and it is the visual beauty of these effects, free of any modern electronic trickery or CGI that give the story an ethereal honesty. What you see is what you get. The illusions are outstanding.

An evening of exciting theatre that will appeal to all adults and kids who can lose themselves in a thrilling story, beautifully told.

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Friday 6 October 2023

Flowers For Mrs Harris - Review

Riverside Studios, London


Music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Jenna Russell

Flowers For Mrs Harris is a carefully constructed fairytale for the 20th century that’s all about class, love and coping with bereavement.

Set in the rationed aftermath of World War Two, Ada Harris and Violet Butterfield are two working-class cleaning ladies from Battersea, both widowed in the Great War some 30 years previously. In a time of “make-do and mend” a chance swapping of the women’s wealthy clients sees Ada fall in love with a stunning Christian Dior dress and what follows is a whimsical, magical tale that sees her scrimp and save to travel to Paris to buy her own Dior frock.

The story is as charming as it is improbable, but what makes this revival of Richard Taylor & Rachel Wagstaff’s show is the stunning company that Bronagh Lagan has assembled. Jenna Russell is Ada Harris in a role that could have been written for her. Russell’s Ada is the most perfectly nuanced take on a woman whose character is strong and perceptive yet delicately fragile, a middle-aged cockney concocting heartbreak and humour faultlessly. The show’s tunes may not be memorable, but in the hands of Russell and her supporting cast, they form an exquisite and perceptive take on the human condition.

Not only is Jenna Russell magnificent, she is surrounded by a stunning ensemble. Without giving too much away, all of the actors who play characters from Ada’s Battersea life, pop up again in Paris subtly mirroring their previous incarnations. All are excellent, but worthy of mention are Hal Fowler who plays the spirit of Ada’s dead husband Albert in act one. As down-to-earth as his missus, Fowler’s turn is one of magnificent sensitivity.

Charlotte Kennedy

Equally brilliant is Charlotte Kennedy, who in the second half stuns as Parisian model Natasha. Kennedy breathes humanity into the mannequin of her character with a vocal and physical presence that are both breathtaking. Annie Wensak’s Violet is another carefully weighted performance that skilfully mines the script’s comic seams.

The setting of the show is a little squashed at the Riverside, with perhaps budgetary constraints seeing Nik Corrall’s designs not doing justice to the actors’ flawless work. A nod though to Lez Brotherston’s Dior gowns, first and breathtakingly created for the show’s Sheffield premiere in 2016 and which have been generously loaned to this production, and also to Jonathan Gill's 6-piece band who are a delight.

But the evening belongs to Russell who delivers arguably the finest take on Ada Harris yet seen in this country. Flowers For Mrs Harris is gorgeous modern writing and an enchanting evening’s entertainment.

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith