Thursday 23 February 2023

Tracy-Ann Oberman in Conversation

Tracy-Ann Oberman in rehearsal

Opening next week at Watford Palace theatre is The Merchant of Venice 1936, a production that is the brainchild of actress Tracy-Ann Oberman who, for a number of years, has nurtured the idea of taking one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays and pivoting it into the 20th century.

I caught up with Tracy-Ann in the middle of rehearsals and we spoke about its conception and development. Describing The Merchant of Venice as a very difficult play, she does not think that the text is taught properly in schools today, observing that a lot of people argue for it to be removed from the syllabus. Oberman however wants to make the play accessible, offering a fuller understanding of antisemitism, as well as reclaiming aspects of the Jewish history of London’s East End, an area of the city long associated with poorer immigrant communities. Her own roots go back to the East End and she remains inspired by her great grandmother and the matriarchs of her family who all stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists at the Battle of Cable St in 1936.

She comments that Shakespeare wrote the The Merchant of Venice at a time of huge antisemitism, when the Jews had already been banished and the few that were left in England were frequently seen as devils. The emergence of mediaeval antisemitism was strongly fuelled by Jews often being the money collectors for the king.

Around this time the myths about Jews and blood libels were to emerge, myths that have never really left the English sub-conscience, Oberman wryly comments. And so the Jew, as a sort of evil villain she continues, was absolutely where Shakespeare wanted to place him, much like Marlowe had done with his creation of Barabas for The Jew of Malta. 

With all due humility, Oberman does credit Shakespeare as a very good writer. She acknowledges that in Shylock he has created aspects of humanity which are frequently absent from other portrayals of Jews in literature, notably The Jew of Malta where Barabas, in her opinion, is simply a cartoon villain. She comments that in The Merchant of Venice the “’hath not a Jew eyes” speech is brilliant, describing it as an absolute call to humanity to say that we are all the same, that we are all human.

Hannah Morrish as Portia

Oberman has long been fascinated by Britain’s history in the 1930s, a time that saw flirtations from the country’s aristocracy with the parties of fascism both at home and in continental Europe. It is no small coincidence that Mosley’s march of fascists that led to the Battle of Cable Street, occurred during the brief reign of Edward VIII, himself strongly suspected of harbouring fascist ideals. Oberman sees the play as shining a spotlight into some of this country’s darker crevices. 

She is also proud of having reinvented Shylock as a female role and in so doing, reclaiming a different aspect of the narrative. Referencing how within the text, that Shylock is referred to as a dog and Antonio, the merchant to whom Shylock has loaned money secured on a pound of flesh, kicks at her and spits at her, Oberman sees a clear link between misogyny and antisemitism. She is well qualified to make such an observation. Away from the stage Tracy-Ann Oberman is one of the UK’s leading campaigners in today’s fight against antisemitism, a role that has seen her subject to some of the vilest abuse imaginable. Oberman has seen all too clearly in her inbox and her social media streams the seamless link betwixt the hatred of Jews and a hatred of women.

On the subject of women I quiz Oberman on Shylock’s relationship with daughter Jessica. Penned by Shakespeare with a father/daughter perspective in mind, how is the mother/daughter dynamic evolving? The mother of a teenage daughter herself, Oberman observes that Jessica has the capacity to range from being her mother’s best friend to her worst enemy and she is relishing that parental aspect of the role. 

Exploring as to how this interpretation of the play may be received by people who don’t share Oberman's Jewish heritage, she comments that she’s already observed people who’ve seen the play in rehearsals, friends of hers from working class backgrounds or diverse immigrant backgrounds, who are are recognising aspects of her Shylock in their own heritage and also with Shylock as a matriarch, identifying strongly with the strong woman that Oberman portrays. 

The conversation would not be complete without an understanding of the supportive role that Watford Palace Theatre have played in bringing the play to fruition. Oberman speaks with an affection towards the venue that is almost tangible. Growing up in the London suburb of Stanmore, close to Watford, she would visit the theatre often as a child and it was there that her passion for acting was encouraged and nurtured. In later years and meeting up with Brigid Larmour, the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, it was Lamour who asked the actress what she was doing, to which Oberman replied that she was working on “this idea of a female Shylock”. From there the two of them took the idea forwards, receiving developmental support from the RSC, with Oberman reflecting warmly that Larmour has proved to be an incredible ally both creatively and politically.

In the first scene of The Merchant of Venice Antonio famously says the world is “A stage where every man must play a part”. On the Watford Palace stage Tracy-Ann Oberman will be upending Antonio’s words in what promises to be an exciting evening of Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 runs from 27th February to 11th March and then tours

The cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936

Rehearsal photos by: Marc Brenner

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Blood Brothers - Review

Richmond Theatre, Richmond


Music, lyrics and book by Willy Russell
Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson

Niki Colwell Evans and Richard Munday

The House Full signs were out at Richmond Theatre and notwithstanding that Blood Brothers is now a fixture on the GCSE syllabus leading to coachloads of schoolkids in the audience, to experience a show out-of-town and in a packed theatre was a pre-show treat in itself.

It is 40 years since the show first opened in the West End, with Willy Russell’s ingenious tale still packing a powerfully poignant punch. Niki Colwell Evans plays Mrs Johnstone, the poor young Liverpudlian mother who, on learning that she is pregnant with twins, signs a hellish pact with Paula Tappenden’s barren Mrs Lyons, to give her one of the newborn babies.

Richard Munday is the show’s grim Narrator (this Greek tragedy’s Chorus) steering the narrative, with panache, towards its infernal ending, while Sean Jones and Joe Sleight play respectively Mickey and Eddie, the hapless Johnstone twins whose lives will end so tragically. Olivia Sloyan completes the sextet of key players as Linda, the young girl who grows up as the best friend of the twins and who is to be so tragically connected to their deaths.

All six players are magnificent – with Colwell Evans proving outstanding in her take on the impoverished but loving Mrs Johnstone. Given some of the show’s best songs, she delivers them powerfully and in the finale of Tell Me It’s Not True, with heartbreaking pathos.

But it is not just the principals, it is their excellent supporting troupe that make this a grand night of theatre. The ensemble play an array of little more than two-dimensional characters, there to advance the story and it’s context and not much more. Each tiny vignette however, almost cliched in their creation, is a work of genius in itself such is Russell’s writing talent.

Russell not only captures the ghastly Johnstone/Lyons contract, he offers a chillingly perceptive dissection of English life that echoes with relevance today. Class and snobbery prevail, with the educated privileges that are showered upon Eddie, contrasting with Mickey’s far tougher journey. Eddie goes to university and becomes a city councillor, while Mickey feels the sharp end of deprivation alongside much harsher justice from the local policeman than middle-class Eddie receives.

Set in Liverpool during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the socio-economics of the time for the city’s working class were brutal. In Russell’s excruciatingly brilliant song Miss Jones the recession is cruelly juxtaposed against Mickey and Linda’s shotgun wedding, borne out of her unplanned pregnancy. And look closely at this musical, because there’s more than a nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel here too.

Throughout, Matt Malone’s six-piece band rise to the occasion with slick interpretations of Russell’s memorable melodies.

Quite simply, Blood Brothers remains sensational musical theatre. Catchy tunes, perfectly performed, and all framed around a book that is virtually flawless. This production tours for much of the year and when it comes to a town near you, don’t miss it!

Plays until 25th February, then continues on tour
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Medea - Review

Soho Place, London


Adapted by Robinson Jeffers from the play by Euripides
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Sophie Okonedo

Sophie Okonedo bestrides the Soho Place like a colossus such is the depth and power of her Medea. In Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides’ classic tale, hers indeed is “a bitter thing to be a woman”. Betrayed and dumped by husband Jason for the beautiful young daughter of Creon, her fury is palpable and in a 90 minute one-act telling of the old yarn, Okonedo burns at its core like a brilliant flaming torch.

But Medea’s infernal misandry towards Creon and Jason is matched only by that of director and co-producer Dominic Cooke, who lumps all of the play’s adult male roles onto the solo shoulders of the unquestionably talented Ben Daniels. We have been here before with Cooke’s mean spirted multi-role casting in his recent Good, a casting tendency that is not good. Daniels’ multi-faceted performance is a distraction, with his Aegeus proving annoyingly camp. Elsewhere Marion Bailey’s Nurse is a decent turn, however the Chorus of three women of Corinth, sprinkled amongst the stalls are a lacklustre trio.

It is when Okonedo speaks that the play becomes alive, such is her genius. But, save for Creon serving her with a Decree of Banishment that deliciously echoes Den Watts' 1986 serving of divorce papers on Angie, much of the other spoken parts are tedious.

As the horrific climax draws near, one is almost willing Medea to get on with it - such is the soggy  (yes, there’s water) melodrama that the cast make of the play’s endgame. And (spoiler alert), when she does slaughter her boys (great work from the ice-cream slurpingly duo of Ben Connor and Heath Gee-Burrowes on press night) even then the audience is shortchanged, with the murders frustratingly happening offstage and represented only by Okonedo’s outstanding acting and her arms drenched in blood. 

Okonedo is one of the most gifted actors of her generation. To have seen her murderous actions, rather than just her emotional reactions, could have made for a moment of outstanding theatre.

See this play for Okonedo’s work - she will be remembered as a magnificent Medea. Sadly, the production will not.

Monday 13 February 2023

Cirque Berserk - Review

Riverside Studios, London



Zippos bring their circus back to London and as ever in a punchy 90 minutes (+ half time interval) their acts are a display of supreme human strength and talent.

The acts on display are all traditional but, without a big-top tent to perform in, are scaled down to the dimensions of a traditional stage - on this occasion the versatile space of Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios.

What’s so enchanting (if Cirque Berserk can even be called enchanting!) about the show is the close-up intimacy of the performers. We hear their calls that co-ordinate their split-second synchronisations, we see their muscles flex and tremble, evidencing the power that underlies their graceful movement and we inhale the brutal aromas of their acts. The smoke from the flaming limbo bar, the haze of fireworks from the occasional bursts of pyro and the smell of the roaring motorcycle engines defying gravity as the bikes of the Lucius Team spin within the Globe of Death.

Above all Cirque Berserk perform acts that to our muggle minds are literally beyond belief. Be it trapeze work and aerialist magnificence, or pyramids of humanity that reach to the Riverside’s lighting rigs, or Elberel, a contortionist able to fire an arrow from a longbow - and score a bullseye! - and that’s without mentioning the juggling, knife and axe-throwing that had this reviewer looking away in terror!

And interspersed throughout is physical comedy led by the diminutive Paulo, who is not only a sublime clown in the most modern interpretation of that word, but also shows himself to be a breathtaking aerialist too.

This is not just brilliant circus,it is affordable and accessible circus too. For half-term family entertainment, Cirque Berserk is the best value show in town.

Runs until 12th March
Photo credit: Piet Hein-Out

Saturday 11 February 2023

Conversazione con Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone con Jonathan Baz


A 91 anni e con una carriera iniziata circa 65 anni fa, Ennio Morricone è uno dei più grandi compositori di musica da film del nostro tempo. Gran parte della sua musica è magnifica, in parte iconica, con la sua colonna sonora per lo "spaghetti western" di Sergio Leone del 1966 “Il buono, il brutto e il cattivo” che è diventata una delle melodie cinematografiche più riconosciute a livello mondiale di tutti i tempi.

I decenni più recenti hanno visto le colonne sonore di Morricone per The Mission di Roland Joffe e Cinema Paradiso di Giuseppe Tornatore (solo per citare due titoli) ottenere apprezzamenti critici praticamente universali e solo tre anni fa il compositore ha vinto il suo secondo Oscar e la sua sesta vittoria ai BAFTA, questa volta per “Hateful Eight” di Quentin Tarantino. Ovviamente oltre agli Oscar e ai BAFTA ci sono tantissimi altri premi nella bacheca dei trofei di Morricone. Innumerevoli riconoscimenti rendono omaggio a un uomo di eccezionale genio che, proprio mentre viene pubblicata questa intervista, è nel bel mezzo della composizione per il prossimo progetto di Tornatore.

E così è stato all'inizio di quest'anno che Ennio Morricone mi ha ricevuto a casa sua, un duplex squisitamente arredato situato in cima a un condominio di lusso in un elegante sobborgo di Roma. La residenza del Maestro è stata arredata e condivisa con Maria, sua moglie da più di 60 anni, ed è un luogo dove il calore dell'accoglienza è stato eguagliato solo dal buon caffè e dalla splendida vista sulla città.

L'impressione all'interno dell'appartamento dei Morricone non è stata solo di familiarità (Maria era in cucina a parlare via Skype con il figlio Giovanni a New York mentre io chiacchieravo con Ennio), ma anche di un luogo dedito alla cultura e alla bellezza con un pizzico di politica . L'arredamento e le opere d'arte potevano essere incredibilmente stupendi, ma l'etica del luogo non era quella della stravaganza, ma piuttosto quella del successo del talento e della modestia pacata e meravigliosamente assicurata.

Con Fabio Venturi, fonico di fiducia e braccio destro di Morricone come interprete, Morricone ha condiviso con me alcune osservazioni sulla sua vita e carriera e come ci si potrebbe aspettare da un uomo non solo così abile ma anche saggio, ha rappresentato l’essenza stessa della diplomazia. Non una volta un particolare individuo o film è stato evidenziato per elogi eccezionali, né scelto per critiche. 


L'ampia filmografia di Morricone lo ha visto firmare più di 500 film in una vasta gamma di generi che possono spaziare dall'amore ossessivamente appassionato, fino all'horror grafico. Numerosi compositori (tra cui Hans Zimmer e John Williams) insieme a vari "grandi" del mondo rock e pop ammettono di essere stati influenzati da Morricone, quindi la mia prima domanda è stata come lui stesso percepisse l'impronta culturale che la sua musica ha lasciato nel mondo negli ultimi 60 anni. In quello che doveva essere il primo di molti scorci della profonda modestia di Morricone, una virtù costante durante tutta la nostra conversazione, ha semplicemente affermato che si mette al servizio di qualsiasi film per il quale è impegnato a comporre. Con assoluta umiltà, ha affermato la sua semplice convinzione che è unicamente responsabilità del pubblico che ascolta la sua musica formarsi la propria opinione su quale segno possa aver lasciato nel mondo.


Il nostro dialogo si è spostato dall'impatto globale all'amata Italia,  patria di Morricone. Mentre ha lavorato per gli studi di Hollywood, spesso con grande successo, la produzione più prodigiosa di Morricone è stata al fianco dei suoi colleghi cineasti italiani. I sostenitori della cultura italiana sosterranno ferocemente che il compositore incarna L'italianità - un'aura indefinibile ma riconoscibile che imprime il "Made in Italy" su un'opera d'arte. Morricone però non era d'accordo: nonostante il suo immenso orgoglio nazionale, era appassionato nel definire la sua musica come internazionale piuttosto che campanilistica nella sua provenienza.


Molti dei film che Morricone ha composto nel corso degli anni hanno incluso scene di violenza esplicita ed ero curioso di sapere se fosse mai personalmente turbato o influenzato da alcune delle immagini che la sua musica aveva supportato. In un'affascinante risposta ha in primo luogo commentato che per la maggior parte del tempo si ritrova indifferente alla violenza del film, considerando la scena e la sua interazione con la colonna sonora semplicemente come parte del suo lavoro. Detto questo, quando ha lavorato per la prima volta con Dario Argento (il regista italiano, famoso per i suoi film horror e gialli) si è reso conto dell'importanza dell'atonalità nella musica che può accompagnare una violenza orribile. Morricone strappa via l'armonia da tali momenti, analogamente alla brutalità della scena che è di per sé una spogliazione dell'umanità. Tuttavia, in una nota a piè di pagina che definiva ulteriormente il suo genio esperto, Morricone aggiunse che laddove un film potesse essere stato destinato ad un mercato commerciale più popolare piuttosto che al consumo "d'essai", avrebbe tenuto conto di ciò nelle sue composizioni e avrebbe incluso più melodia accanto alla violenza.
E qual è stato, secondo lui, il film più raccapricciante che ha scritto? Il Maestro non esitò a dirmi che il film “Salò o Le 120 giornate di Sodoma” di Pier Paolo Pasolini del 1975 era stato un progetto che aveva trovato quasi impossibile da digerire.


Morricone ha vissuto un enorme cambiamento politico nella sua nativa Italia e una domanda che gli ho posto è stata se il cambiamento del panorama politico del suo paese negli ultimi nove decenni abbia avuto un impatto sulla sua musica? "Niente affatto" è stata la sua rapida risposta.


Gli ultimi decenni hanno visto cambiamenti sismici nel modo in cui i film vengono visti dal pubblico. All'inizio della carriera di Morricone, un cinema/teatro era l'unico modo per guardare un film. Da allora, le proiezioni più personali, siano esse via TV o sui vari dispositivi digitali di oggi, hanno superato il numero di persone che acquistano i biglietti del cinema. Ho chiesto al compositore come questo cambiamento nel modo in cui i film "vengono consumati" dal pubblico moderno, possa aver influito sul suo lavoro. Ancora una volta, e con un rinnovato impegno per la purezza artistica, Morricone ha commentato che la sua composizione è sempre guidata dal dramma, sia come sceneggiatura che come recitazione, e che non è distratto dai cambiamenti nel modo in cui un film alla fine verrà visto.

Detto questo, Morricone rimane profondamente consapevole dell'equilibrio sonoro finale di un film e del mix finale tra musica, rumore ambientale di sottofondo e dialoghi. Abbiamo discusso l'entità del suo coinvolgimento nella post-produzione del sonoro di un film, dove ha indicato che in linea di massima lascia tale decisione interamente nelle mani del regista. Tuttavia ha accennato in modo intrigante ad un particolare progetto di qualche anno fa (purtroppo non ha menzionato nessun nome) in cui ha appreso che il regista aveva trascorso solo un giorno (!) A mixare e finalizzare il suono per l'intero film. La sua opinione su quel progetto era aspra, e non sono riuscito a sapere altre informazioni.


Nel 1968 Morricone doveva scrivere la colonna sonora di “C'era una volta il West” di Sergio Leone, un film per il quale ha successivamente raccontato di aver composto due delle melodie più evocative - Il tema di Jill e L'uomo con l'armonica - basate esclusivamente sulla sceneggiatura e ben prima che le riprese principali fossero iniziate o fossero state create con lo storyboard. La colonna sonora, in particolare la memorabile linea di soprano in Jill's Theme, è diventata una delle composizioni più celebri di Morricone e ha parlato brevemente dei vincoli e delle libertà di scrivere musica per un film che esisteva solo sulla carta.

Ha spiegato che con pochi registi selezionati (incluso Leone ovviamente), è stato in grado di immaginare una visione molto chiara delle immagini di un film dalle discussioni e dalla pianificazione iniziale. Da queste discussioni, i temi critici della narrazione hanno sviluppato la loro forma musicale in modi che dovevano essere completati solo dal film finito.

La conversazione si è poi spostata sull'ispirazione a cui attinge per la "tavolozza musicale" di una particolare partitura? La sua risposta è stata che tipicamente una tale tavolozza emerge dal suo semplice seguire la storia filmata. Tuttavia penserà sempre attentamente a quanto potrebbe essere "scioccante" una partitura particolare. Ha anche parlato di trarre ispirazione dal suo ambiente e da ciò che lo circonda, raccontando come nel 1995 mentre stava scrivendo la colonna sonora di “Sostiene Pereira”, il dramma politico di Roberto Faenza sul fascismo portoghese, il rumore derivante da una manifestazione politica che si svolgeva in Piazza Venezia a Roma, fuori dalla sua casa di allora, gli avrebbe fornito l’ispirazione per la musica di quel film.


Cambiando rotta, la conversazione è tornata al catalogo di composizioni di Morricone. I registi moderni (in particolare Tarantino, in un certo numero di film negli ultimi 15 anni circa) hanno inserito le sue composizioni precedenti, incorporando la musica nelle loro immagini del 21° secolo. Ho chiesto a Morricone il grado di controllo editoriale (se presente) che ha cercato di esercitare su tale uso.

Morricone ha espresso un atteggiamento rilassato su come la sua musica potrebbe essere stata utilizzata nelle colonne sonore successive, ma ha offerto uno sguardo affascinante su uno "scambio" culturale attorno a The Hateful Eight. Il Maestro ha suggerito che mentre Tarantino era stato libero di selezionare melodie vintage nelle sue precedenti compilation di colonne sonore, a Morricone, a sua volta, era stata concessa una mano relativamente libera nella composizione della colonna sonora di quel film. Ho chiesto se il film segnasse il ritorno di Morricone ai western, e lui ha risposto che in realtà aveva cercato di porre maggiore enfasi sul lato drammatico della storia piuttosto che sul suo genere western. Era tuttavia fiducioso - una fiducia successivamente premiata sia dall'Accademia britannica che da quella americana - che il suo lavoro si adattasse sia alla sceneggiatura che alla fotografia.

Vale la pena notare che quando Morricone ha vinto l'Oscar del 2016, è diventato il più anziano vincitore di un Oscar a trionfare in una categoria competitiva. Ascolta la registrazione della colonna sonora e nota la traccia intitolata "Neve" che dura 12 minuti, un tempo sorprendente per una composizione cinematografica di questi tempi. Morricone ha parlato del suo personale orgoglio per la musica del film, descrivendo quel brano come dotato di una bellezza quasi sinfonica e di quanto apprezzasse la rara opportunità di comporre una colonna sonora del genere in questa era moderna del cinema.

Le Partiture dei film vengono suonate dal vivo

Man mano che il pubblico che impara ad apprezzare alcune delle colonne sonore più classiche del cinema cresce e con l'assistenza della tecno-stregoneria del 21° secolo, c'è una tendenza crescente per i film da proiettare con la colonna sonora originale cancellata digitalmente dalla stampa e sostituita da un'orchestra dal vivo che esegue simultaneamente la colonna sonora del film.

Morricone è stato, ancora una volta, succinto su questo. In ogni caso, ha detto, andare ad un concerto di una colonna sonora in cui potrebbero esserci state forse leggere ri-orchestrazioni dell'opera per gli scopi di quel particolare evento, quando il film viene proiettato, la musica per accompagnare quell'esperienza dovrebbe essere indiscutibilmente la colonna sonora originale come registrata - è stato chiaro che le sue partiture non dovrebbero mai essere suonate dal vivo per accompagnare una proiezione.


L'intervista si era svolta nel salotto dei Morricone, ma ero curioso di vedere meglio l'appartamento. Sfruttando il caloroso rapporto che si era instaurato tra il geniale compositore italiano e il curioso giornalista inglese, colsi l'attimo e chiesi al Maestro un di poter vedere un assaggio dei “suoi Oscar”. Raggiante di orgoglio, mi afferrò per un braccio, accompagnandomi ad una scala che conduceva al suo studio nell'attico. Raramente sono stato in una cabina di pilotaggio così profonda di creatività, in una stanza che è una testimonianza del talento. Le pareti erano tappezzate di prime edizioni incorniciate delle partiture di Morricone, insieme ad attestati di onore e riconoscimento che risalivano al suo diploma (di prima classe, naturalmente) da adolescente al Conservatorio Santa Cecilia di Roma. Lo scaffale dei trofei era assordante nel suo silenzioso tributo al loro proprietario, ma discutendo di quella stanza e della sua magnificenza con Morricone, tutto ciò che poteva dire era che era orgoglioso di tutte le sue composizioni, indipendentemente dalle dimensioni, dal budget o dalla natura di qualsiasi produzione.

Ennio Morricone - un uomo il cui genio è pari solo alla sua modestia.

Grazie mille a Nanni Civitenga per aver tradotto il mio articolo originale in italiano. JB

Friday 10 February 2023

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Gillian Lynne Theatre, London


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes

l-r Hadley Fraser, Nigel Lindsay, Michael Balogun

As a tour-de-force of theatrical skill, the National Theatre's The Lehman Trilogy, now revived at Covent Garden's Gillian Lynne Theatre has to remain one of London's highlights. The 3hr 20min opus, reflecting the transition of the american dream into a nightmare is a sublime presentation of acting skill and technical genius. Stepping into the roles of the three Lehman brothers are Nigel Lindsay as Henry, Hadley Fraser as Mayer and Michael Balogun as Emanuel.

And of course what makes this production quite such a Herculean effort for its actors is that not only are they playing the three immigrant brothers, setting up in Montgomery Alabama in the 1840s, but they are playing every other supporting role too.

Notwithstanding the actors’ excellence, matched by Es Devlin’s ingenious stage designs that have translated well to the Gillian Lynne Theatre together with Luke Halls' mesmerising video projections, the play is profoundly flawed both in its literary construct and even more so, in this particular iteration.

The Lehman Trilogy opens with scenery being constructed out of dozens of cardboard 'Bankers Boxes', items that are synonymous with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers merchant bank in the 2008 financial crisis, when news broadcasts streamed images of hundreds of the bank's employees pouring out of its offices in Canary Wharf and Wall Street carrying their personal belongings in those boxes, images that came to define the impact of the 2008 meltdown on the world's financial centres. Equally, the play’s opening presents us with the three leads, clearly dressed as observant patrician Jews, one by one getting off the boat and heading for Alabama. The three never leave the stage throughout, nor change their costumes as the years roll by. Likewise, the cardboard boxes are also on stage from start to finish.

The message is clear, an insidious antisemitic conflation permeating the entire play, that visually links Jews with sharp financial practice and corporate collapse. That this trope of an association is even then factually inaccurate, given that the Lehman brothers’ descendants lost their last familial connection with the bank in 1969 and therefore had no connection whatsoever with the Lehman corporation at the time of its collapse, is treated by Stefano Massini as little more than an inconvenient truth.

Where this production compounds racial insensitivity even further is in the casting of Michael Balogun as Emanuel Lehman. Alabama in 1844 was a slave state in the heart of America’s south. A place where, especially in the play's first act, Balogun plays a person of self-made privilege. This of course was an opportunity not afforded to Alabama’s black population at the time and in his casting, the production’s creatives and producers have shown scant acknowledgment of Alabama’s desperately troubling history of racial oppression.

The Lehman Trilogy’s 21st century stagecraft may well be state of the art and its performances, arguably, the best in town. Its ethics however, are mired in the Dark Ages.

Runs until 20th May 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Thursday 9 February 2023

Sir Tim Rice In Conversation

Sir Tim, with (l-r) his Emmy, an Oscar a Tony and a Grammy 

For this week only Sir Tim Rice is hitting the road, accompanied by 8 singers and musicians, touring England from Northampton to Newcastle on a trial of his show that offers an intimate glimpse into the style and process of his writing - An Evening With Sir Tim Rice - Circle of Words.

Having seen the first show of this mini tour I then caught up with Sir Tim at home the next day where I found him reflecting on how the gig had gone the night before and very happy to talk about aspects of his career and also, revealingly, his comments on the state of lyric writing in general today.

At first sight, one of the most surprising things about this brief tour (or as Rice with his hallmark, sardonic, self-deprecation calls it, his “World Tour”) is that it is happening at all. The man is only four weeks out of having had a hip replaced, and as he amiably strolled onto the stage at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre there was only the slightest trace of a limp, his walking stick wielded much like a cricket bat! Rice adds that in a funny way he thinks the stick almost added to the gig, feeling that he could have just about done it without it but would have been permanently panicking that he was going to fall!

Rice’s delivery through the evening, speaking between the songs, was as one might expect from his various media appearances fluid, witty and perceptive. His words were also found to be kind and compassionate, showing himself to be one of the most modest mega-stars in musical theatre today.  The man is unassuming and understated, but with an eye and an ear that picks out the details that go on around him, details which so often have found their way into an acerbically written lyric or two.

Rice, with his musical director Duncan Waugh, has done gigs like this before, often occasional events and frequently put on for charity. This however is the first occasion that he’s packaging himself up commercially with, by all accounts, the box office reports for the remaining performances being extremely encouraging. Hardly surprising when one considers what the evening’s programme will have in store.  

Sir Tim has chosen the set list himself. Waugh however, with whom he has worked for a long time and knows his music well, has worked closely with him proving a great assistance in compiling the songs and in setting out their order. The evening touches upon all of his performed work from the great Lloyd Webber and Disney collaborations through to Chess, From Here To Eternity and even an extract from Aida, another co-creation with Elton John that has yet to reach London, notwithstanding its cracking run on Broadway – Rice teasingly hints though that Aida is on its way to the West End possibly later in 2023, almost certainly in 2024.

Rice’s stage show not only includes his musical theatre creations, but also given an airing are David Essex’s signature hit, A Winter’s Tale and, incredibly, the last song recorded by Elvis Presley, It’s Easy For You.

Also included in the evening’s line-up is an acoustic take on All Time High, written for the James Bond movie Octopussy. Rice’s singers for the tour are Shonagh Daly, Laura Tebbutt, Ricardo Afonso and Dean Chisnall, all highly accomplished West End performers and their interpretation of the Bond song is a gorgeous acoustic version. Rice, the next day, commented that he preferred his quartet’s take on the number to that of Rita Coolidge who recorded it for the movie some 40 years ago!

Rice went on to praise his vocalists, observing that although they are all supremely talented but not yet stars in their own right, an understated feature that clearly appeals to the modestly presented composer. He observed that if he had possibly brought in one or two star names, who would no-doubt be great, to tour with him, he may possibly put a few more bums on seats to begin with, but may well have lost something of the tour’s team spirit. 

Waugh’s tour band comprises himself on keyboards, with Tim Maple on guitars, Stan White on bass and son Rob on drums. Keeping in the spirit of that aspect of the conversation, I mentioned to Sir Tim that notwithstanding his current travelling troupe of eight, that over the years his work has provided employment for literally thousands of performers, creatives and musicians. In typical modesty, Rice quietly commented “Well. I suppose that’s true”.

Our conversation moved on to the technique of writing a show, with Rice a firm believer in the strength of the underlying narrative, or “book” of a show being an essential component of a successful musical – albeit wryly acknowledging that the success of Cats arguably suggests otherwise! Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat of course came from one of the most famous stories of all time and Rice gave a tantalising glimpse as to how that very first successful collaboration took shape.

Initially commissioned as a school production Rice commented: “I would say [to Andrew Lloyd Webber] that I think we’ve got to have an opening song which sets the scene and then we need a song about Joseph’s coat. And obviously Andrew would chip in but I would say this is what the song should be and then Andrew would say well maybe we could make Pharaoh like Elvis or whatever, - I can’t actually remember who suggested that -, but then talking through the story then Andrew would be in a position to write tunes that would fit each aspect each scene each bit of the story and then I would put lyrics to the tune knowing that the tune had that scene in mind and were suitable for what the action was so when Andrew wrote the tune he knew whether he was writing a love song or a comic song or whatever, it was all crystal clear which was great!”

Speaking of Evita, another smash-hit musical (after Jesus Christ Superstar) penned with Lloyd-Webber, Rice explained the backstory to that show, improbably based upon the life of Eva Peron and inspired by a Radio 4 programme that he listened to while driving home one evening in the early 1970s.

Over the course of a year, he was to research the show at a time he says when there was “very little information about her. There have been hundreds of books about her ever since, I think largely inspired by the musical, none of which give any credit whatsoever to the musical!”

On his researching visits to Argentina, Rice was to learn about Eva Peron and travelled to Buenos Aires for a few days just to really get the atmosphere. When he wrote the song Buenos Aires, the location itself had written the lyrics for him. Rice comments: "Rio de la Plata, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio, I mean, if you just hear them in the song, you wouldn't know what they were, but they're all places in Buenos Aires or Argentina.

And a lot of Argentines who I met subsequently when the show was on, so many of them, especially the older ones, said that we really had got Eva Peron right. Which was very encouraging. I mean, some people said to us, "Oh, you've really been too nice to her." And other people said, "Oh, you've been far too unkind to her." So we thought, "Well, we probably got it about right," because if these people are too totally opposing views, both seem to react to it.”

We go on to talk about how new musical theatre writing is evolving, with Rice remaining characteristically modest and showering praise on both Hamilton and Six!, but on probing a little deeper Rice reveals more. While he praises two jukebox musicals A Beautiful Noise [framed around Neil Diamond’s discography]  and MJ The Musical [Michael Jackson] that he had recently seen on Broadway, it is notable that there is (obviously) no new lyricist credited with those shows’ creation, and he is scathing about much of what passes for new writing today.

He says that "90% of the songs are all about Me, me, me! And they're observing themselves and saying, I'm stressed or I'm emotionally disturbed, or I'm lost or whatever. And am I a man? Am I a woman? What am I?

And frankly, one is quite often the worst person to study and analyse oneself. By contrast, I always find it interesting to put myself in the position of somebody like Bobby Fischer or Freddy Trumper, or indeed many of the women I've written songs for. 

I've never stood on the balcony in Buenos Aires preaching to 10,000 peasants, I've never been involved in a Mary Magdalene scenario. But that doesn't stop you observing and imagining. And I think once you start imagining, your imagination can take you places where you never would've gone if you just used your own experience. Most things I've written about I've never experienced, and I think that often helps make them good, whereas if you only write about yourself and your deep emotional problems and you think I'm the centre of the universe, it's usually bloody boring!”
When I suggest to Rice that much new musical theatre writing comprises self-indulgent ballad-fests, he agrees. 

Evita came from a meticulously researched study into Argentina’s modern history and the life of Eva Peron. Similarly with Chess when Rice found himself in Reykjavik not long after the 1972 chess tournament between Fischer and Spassky had taken place with the Cold War raging, that the idea for the show came to him.

A serendipitous partnering with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA was brokered and the rest was to lead to Chess, a show that didn’t garner the critical success of Jesus Christ Superstar or of Evita but nonetheless contains some of Rice’s strongest and most perceptive writing. Aside from the musical’s hits of One Night In Bangkok and I Know Him So Well, Pity The Child a song in the show’s second act, act two that explores the American chess player’s troubled and traumatic childhood is one of the finest examples of Rice’s genius in translating the harshness of humanity into song. On the opening of Chess, Rice had to assure his mother that the song bore absolutely no reference whatsoever to his own idyllic childhood!

Having worked with many composers over the years, Rice is well placed to observe their differing styles. “With Andrew occasionally I’d say look this is a kind of dialogue between Eva and Magaldi or whatever so it’s probably best if I write it and you then set it, and you don’t have to set its syllable to syllable. Most of the work I do isn’t done when the composer’s in the room because you’re at home. Words take longer to write than tunes! Even I could write a bad tune in about 2 minutes but running a good one is a bit of a challenge!” 

I asked Rice if, when writing for Disney in particular, is there a specific formulaic structure that the studio required? “Not really, except Disney, the producers and the directors will say they want this scene, and sometimes you would've written a song in one scene or in one scenario, and then suddenly you come into the studio the next day and they say, "Oh, that scene is now no longer there." Which can happen in animation more than it can in regular filming, because giraffes or hippopotamus don't have an agent, and so there's no complaint if they get booted out of the film! Whereas, if you said to Brad Pitt, "Brad, we're cutting your part or cutting this scene." I think it wouldn't go down too well. So, you are slightly at the mercy of the directors, as indeed you should be, but they can be and have to be quite brutal at times.”

Rice’s introduction to writing for Disney came following the tragic death of Howard Ashman who had been Alan Menken’s lyricist on notable Disney and Broadway successes in preceding years. As one might expect, Rice speaks with nothing but the humblest of respect for what Ashman had achieved, as it fell to Rice to pick up the lyricist’s pen and conclude the writing for the half-completed Disney’s Aladdin.

Rice’s contribution to that movie was significant, with his song, A Whole New World winning in 1992 what was to be the first of his three Oscars. The other two being won for Can You Feel The Love Tonight (1994 – The Lion King with Elton John) and You Must Love Me (1996 – Evita with Andrew Lloyd-Webber). Rice tells a cracking yarn about the Evita win, with the Oscar only being awarded to new songs that are included in a movie in any given year. Evita of course had been around as an album long before Madonna ever stepped up to the role, and so the winning song was especially composed for the movie by the indefatigable pair, with half a canny eye on a possible Oscar win. Their gamble was to pay off!

Above all, in chatting with Sir Tim, what strikes one (aside from his passion for cricket, he was President of the MCC in 2002) is his overwhelming charm, grace and modesty. He may write with a sharp and perceptive wit, but in person he is the complete gentleman and a man whose stories can hold you spellbound for hours.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

An Evening With Sir Tim Rice - Review

Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton


Every now and then a show takes place that is unique, witty, exquisitely put together and quite simply unforgettable. So it is with An Evening With Sir Tim Rice, touring England for this week only, in which an all-encompassing medley of songs from Sir Tim’s shows is performed, interspersed with sparkling anecdotes from the man who is arguably musical theatre’s greatest living lyricist.

The evening kicked off with a couple of songs from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Rice’s first musical success, sung by the magnificently voiced quartet of Shonagh Daly, Laura Tebbutt, Ricardo Afonso and Dean Chisnall – all accompanied by the Duncan Waugh Band, a four-piece ensemble. All eight performers combined through the show to perform flawlessly. After the Joseph opener, Chisnall introduced Sir Tim who amiably sauntered onto the stage – aided by a stick and confessing to the crowd that it has only been 4 weeks since he had a hip replacement – immediately launching into the first of many, witty, fascinating reveals about the stories behind his songs and his shows.

Aside from his famed collaborations with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Rice reminded us that he has worked with musical giants that include Elton John, Alan Menken, the guys from ABBA, John Barry, with songs that include not only West End and Broadway classics, but also standalone pop numbers written for David Essex (A Winters Tale)and even Elvis Presley (It’s Easy For You).

Rice’s anecdotes through the evening were wry, witty and occasionally poignant, particularly as he referenced the tragic young death of lyricist Howard Ashman midway through writing Disney’s Aladdin with Menken. Rice was to step in and finish the movie, gaining an Oscar in so doing for penning A Whole New World, but his humility as he spoke of Ashman said much for Rice’s innate modesty and understatement – charms matched only by his lyrical genius.

A neat twist on the gig sees Rice proudly displaying his most spectacularly garnered gongs. Being one of the few EGOT winners (Emmy, Granny, Oscar and Tony) over the course of his career, Rice delights in displaying all four trophies (remember that even that is an understatement, he’s actually won three Oscars) complete with supporting anecdotes, with one of the evening’s closing arrangements being a medley of his three Oscar-winners: You Must Love Me, from Evita, Can You Feel The Love Tonight (The Lion King) and the aforementioned Aladdin number.

But it is not just his Broadway smash successes that delight Rice. He speaks with evident pride and love for Chess, a show that had a troubled critical outing and yet contains spectacular songs – indeed the interval is bookended (as is Chess’ interval) with the majestic Anthem (Chisnall) followed after the break by One Night In Bangkok (Afonso) . What is even more fascinating, with shows such as Chess (inspired by the Fischer and Spassky encounters) and Evita (inspired by the life of Eva Peron) is the glimpse that Rice gives us into his own thinking that sparked the inspiration of both shows. Such is Rice’s talent in wit, narrative and research – alongside meticulous human observation, that his songs are such a source of entertainment and intellectual stimulation.

Mercifully Rice lets the professionals do all the singing – he does however give us a moment of vocals on an early unpublished song, Kansas Morning that subsequently metamorphosed into the far more delightful I Don’t Know How To Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar, sung perfectly on the night by Tebbutt. Later, before the evening’s finale, it is Daly’s responsibility to deliver an equally stunning Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

The uniqueness of this evening is the opportunity to listen to an array of familiar numbers, songs that have, in part, formed the backdrop to most of our lives, not just performed to perfection, but all sung under the watchful eye of the songs’ creator. Such moments are not just rare, they are a priceless privilege. 

To take Rice’s Bond song from Octopussy – An Evening With Sir Tim Rice is an All Time High.

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