Thursday, 2 February 2023

Titus Andronicus - Review

Wanamaker Playhouse, London


*


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jude Christian



Katy Stephens and Kibong Tanji


Mel Brooks’ The Producers opens with Max Bialystok, King of the Broadway flop, reading the dismal reviews of his latest show Funny Boy, a musical take on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet.  As the lights went down for the opening of Titus Andronicus and the cast burst into song, for a moment one may have feared that the evening was likely to be a reprisal of Bialystok’s Funny Boy. Sadly, those fears were confirmed. All that was missing from the confected balladry was the all-female cast singing All The Nice Girls Love A Candle.


Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his most viciously violent play. Done well, it can blend horror, humour and pathos into an evening of troubling yet moving entertainment. Jude Christian’s production however at the Wanamaker Playhouse (that theatre’s first Titus) is a pretentious attempt to sanitise the fabled gore, replacing blood and injuries with dumbed-down interpretation and chopped-up candles, playing for laughs at times when none are required and reducing the Bard’s brilliance to banality.


The now standard trigger-warning in the programme warns of the vast array of troubling themes in the play. The warning however fails to mention the extreme boredom and confusion that await the audience once the lights go down and the Wanamaker Playhouse’s famed candelabras descend...


Titus Andronicus is a play that demands the audience be shocked as a part of its structure. Typically this involves classy stagecraft, brilliant acting and, frequently, litres of stage blood, all combining to create the illusion of horrific human suffering. In Christian’s production the stagecraft is childish and trite, where rather than suspending our disbelief at the ghastliness we are supposed to be witnessing, Christian abuses it. The actors may be working hard on stage, but their direction has been lazy.


The classically trained Katy Stephens (reviewed as Tamora at Stratford on Avon in 2013) actually makes a decent fist of Titus and she’s matched by the similarly talented Kibong Tanji as Aaron the malevolent Moor. But that's it. 


There is virtually nothing to redeem this take on Titus Andronicus, and compared to Lucy Bailey’s magnificent version of the play that last graced the neighbouring Globe's stage in 2014, it is hard to believe these two productions emanated from the same company. The Globe fail to promote the author of the lyrics that bookend the show’s two halves, which is hardly a surprise - the lyricist should be ashamed of them.


Bloody awful!



Runs until 15th April

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Railway Children A Musical - Review

Electric Theatre, Guildford



***



Music by Alex Parker
Lyrics & book by Katie Lam
Based on the novel by E.Nesbit
Directed by Deborah Crowe


(L-R) Darren Street, Cassius Hackforth, Anna Vardy, Charlotte Fleming, Laura Sillett


It is a delight to encounter new musical theatre writing that’s based around a strong book and all credit to Alex Parker and Katie Lam for their take on E. Nesbit’s classic.

Their’s is an adaptation however, that albeit grounded in the much filmed yarn, plays fast and loose with the original plot. The narrative's focus is moved away from both the titular railway and children and onto their tireless mother. A bold shift of perspective that doesn’t quite work. Notwithstanding some fine work from Anna Vardy as Mother, her first solo number, a patronising The Best You Can fades into shallow platitudes, while her song to the kids at bedtime, Tell Me A Story, nearly sent this reviewer to sleep! Credit where it’s due however, the second act’s Here Is A Girl, duetted by Mother and Father (Darren Street) is an absolute cracker.

Above all, what this iteration of The Railway Children lacks, is trains! There’s plenty of haze and sound effects and while one may not be expecting a Starlight Express extravaganza of on-stage rolling stock, a glimpse of a steam engine or two, perhaps through some cannily projected videos at the very least, wouldn’t have gone amiss.

This is a community theatre project - so there’s nothing but praise for the hard working and talented cast, with special mention for stand out excellence from Elliott Griffiths and Clare Salter as Perks and his wife.

Parker’s music is a treat - and although he doesn’t come close to matching Richard Rodney Bennett’s magnificent translation of steam into music in his 1974 Murder On The Orient Express soundtrack, he delivers musical splendour that for the most part is vibrant and exciting to listen to - even if his band did lack a percussionist! Ears may have been mistaken, but there's also more than a plagiaristic nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Waltz For Eva and Che from Evita lurking late into act two. 

There is undoubtedly the essence of something good here though. Lam may need more wit in her lyrics and less wokery in her adaptation, but hey, everyone knows the story and the writers have had the sense to keep Bobbie's (Laura Sillett) “Daddy, my daddy!” as the show’s money shot that definitely hits the spot. Above all, a nod to designer Rebecca Pitt whose artwork on the programme cover is sensational.

Rebecca Pitt's artwork

Much like HS2, this latest take on The Railway Children needs work. But if your train or rail replacement bus is taking you through Guildford over the next few days, you’ll have some fun!


Runs until 5th February 

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Renegades - Review

****



Screenplay by Tom Jolliffe and Jonathan Sothcott
Directed by Daniel Zirilli





Set in London, Daniel Zirilli’s Renegades is a tightly told story of Goram (Louis Mandylor), an evil gang boss, biting off more than he can chew when he comes up against a band of fiercely loyal, battle-hardened, special forces veterans.

It all kicks off when an American vet, Major Carver (played by Lee Majors – yes, the Six Million Dollar Man) is brutally murdered, stumbling across Goram’s patch. Carver had led a self-help group of vets, working their way through civvy-street with varying degrees of success. Some of the old soldiers are battling PTSD and the love and respect that they feel for the Major is tangible. Without getting sentimental, Sothcott and Jolliffe’s storyline picks out some fine aspects of camaraderie and friendship.

When this ageing band of brothers get to learn of Carver’s gruesome fate they galvanise themselves into action, dredging up whatever weaponry (crossbow anyone?) they’ve held onto over the years, and cooking up a wonderful piece of deliciously vicious hokum that sees Goram’s gang dismantled, mainly through the use of well aimed head-shots.

That the actors playing the veteran good-guys include Sothcott’s (who also produces) hardy perennials of Nick Moran, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray only adds to the fun. Jeanine Nerissa Sothcott puts in a fine turn as a cop, while stealing every scene he’s given is the ridiculously brilliant Paul Barber whose cynical, gnarled Scouser marks him out as one of the finest character actors around. There’s even room on the cast list for Patsy Kensit as Carver’s daughter and keep your eyes peeled for the briefest of cameos from Michael Brandon in the finale.

A great night in, Renegades is 90 minutes of bloody brilliant entertainment.


Streaming from 30th January and available on DVD from 13th February

Friday, 27 January 2023

Dirty Dancing On Stage - Review

Dominion Theatre, London



****


Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by Federico Bellone



Michael O'Reilly, Kira Malou and the company of Dirty Dancing


For the next 3 months the staged take of the 1987 classic movie plays at London’s Dominion Theatre.

The story is a latter day fable that in all honesty doesn’t translate perfectly to the stage. As much as the movie was about Patrick Swayze’s perfectly formed Johnny teaching Jennifer Grey’s Baby the moves through a 1963 summer in the Catskill Mountains, along with its shallow commentary on society's attitudes and politics of the time, it was also all about the close-ups. Up there on the big screen, Swayze melted hearts and moistened panties. On stage however, Michael O’Reilly’s impressive Johnny is dwarfed in the Dominion’s vastness - and stripped of the magic and glitz of the Hollywood movie treatment, the Kellerman’s Resort doesn’t convincingly translate to a rainy West End.

But the packed audience are there for the song and dance as well as the storyline’s corny cheese and this show does not disappoint. O’Reilly, (100% beefcake) and Kira Malou as Baby are sensational, with movement and poise that is as well-drilled as it is passionate. Their supporting company make a fine job of driving the movie's narrative, virtually scene by scene, seamlessly.

The music is a curious juke-box assembly of American rock and pop gems, delivered as a combo of original recording and some live performance work from the onstage 6-piece band. Its a neat idea that delivers a gorgeous sound. 

Fans of the movie will surely have the time of their life.


Runs until 29th April, then tours
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Cirque du Soleil - Kurios - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


*****






Kurios at the Royal Albert Hall sees the inspirational Cirque du Soleil company make a welcome return to an evening built around the quirks of life, demonstrated through the excellence of human talent. In a show first presented in 2014 there’s no environmental homily or sanctimonious preaching  on offer here. Kurios - The Cabinet of Curiosities is a montage of unashamedly gritty Victoriana.

Strip away the steampunk however and the traditional circus skills on display are breathtaking. The Banquine troupe offer up a jaw- dropping construct of human pyramids the strengths and heights of which are just a joy to behold. Studying the cast list one learns that the troupe all hail from the former Soviet Union, including Russian and Ukrainian athletes. In this show these men are trusting each other with their lives. One can but weep at the beauty that this act represents. 

Also from Ukraine, Andrii Bondarenko handbalances his way from the stage to the ceiling - leaving a dinner party down below and encountering a mirror image ensemble suspended upside down from the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic flying saucers! The act has to be seen to be believed.

Of course there are acts of juggling and contortion that defy our sense of belief with moments of comedy thrown in - almost all through mime - that provide the foundation for a fabulous family show.

Some of the theming may be a tad obscure for the little ones - but they’ll still be stunned by the human wizardry on display here. The ropes and pulleys may be sophisticated and state of the art - but the talent that uses them to soar around the hall’s cavernous interior is traditional human genius at its best.


Runs until 5th March

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

George Takei's Allegiance - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


*****


Music & Lyrics by Jay Kuo
Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo & Lorenzo Thione
Directed & Choreographed by Tara Overfield Wilkinson


Aynrand Ferrer

Making its London premiere, George Takei’s Allegiance is an inspired story that blends history and humanity together with some cracking tunes into an evening of powerful entertainment.

Takei was a young child when along with another 120,000 American citizens of Japanese heritage, he was interned as an enemy alien following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Allegiance explores the period through the eyes of a fictional family of Japanese Americans, with Takei taking a sidelined but critical role as Sam the family elder, looking back at his wartime experience.

If the show’s lyrics are occasionally simplistic they are more than made up for by the cleverly crafted narrative that weaves two love stories into a backdrop of honour and pride, alongside the incredulity and horror of patriotic Americans being interned for no other reason than their heritage. With a respectful acknowledgment to the slaughter of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the show outlines a carefully-crafted observation on the United States’ complex wartime relationship with Japan.

Telly Leung plays the young Sam, magnificently convincing both in his patriotism and his love for the WASP nurse Hannah, played by Megan Gardiner. The standout performance of the night however is delivered by Aynrand Ferrer as Sam’s sister Kei. Her character is given some of the story’s most painful arcs that she absolutely smashes - alongside a singing performance that ranges from taking the Charing Cross roof off with its power, through to a softer heartbreaking intensity. Credit too to Gardiner who is as strong, albeit in a smaller but nonetheless essential role.

Jay Kuo’s melodies are an astonishing combination of styles that range from Japanese themed numbers through to dance-hall swing and which provide an ingenious snapshot of the time through its music. Delivered by Beth Jerem’s six-piece band, the compositions are a delight.

It is not often that Charing Cross stages such a gem - but Tara Overfield Wilkinson has helmed and choreographed just that. See it if you can, George Takei’s Allegiance is an outstanding work of musical theatre.


Runs until 8th April
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Swan Lake - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


*


Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky




Swan Lake, like any classic work of art, stimulates a lot of expectation. Sadly however, on this showing, the International Classic Ballet Theatre fail to deliver.

The sloppy lack of co-ordination between the Swan maidens gave an air of hectic chaos rather than elegant beauty, with Prince Siegfried struggling to lift his Swan Princess. Even then, Odette's performance failed to stand out against her corps de ballet.

The most impressive performance on the night came from the Jester, whose movement was graceful and precise.

Elsewhere the costumes seemed amateur, the scenery was uninspiring lacking even a fog machine to create the illusion of the enchanted lake. There was barely any contrast between the settings of the lake and the palace, with a desperately disappointing climax to the tale.

The printed programme failed to name either the (rather good) orchestra or the dancers.

All in all, a lame duck.


Runs until 14th January, then tours