Tuesday 18 July 2023

The Sound of Music - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


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

Gina Beck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 3rd September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 14 July 2023

Miss Saigon - Review

Crucible Theatre, Sheffield


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

Joanna Ampil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 19th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday 7 July 2023

Dear England - Review

Olivier Theatre, London


Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold

Joseph Fiennes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 11th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Crazy For You - Review

Gillian LynneTheatre, London


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

The company of Crazy For You

Susan Stroman’s Crazy For You was sensational when it opened at Chichester last year. Incredibly, her production has matured with time and on its opening night at the Gilllian Lynne Theatre proves itself as without question the finest musical in town.

This fabulous fusion of the Gershwins’ songs, Stroman’s vision (what that woman can conjure out of rope, pickaxes and corrugated iron defies description!) and a cast led by Charlie Stemp and Carly Anderson creates an evening of flawless musical comedy.

Ken Ludwig’s story, co-created with the late, great Mike Ockrent is a confection of whimsy and fairytale that crisscrosses the United States, defying both rhyme and reason. But fairytales and fantasy are the cornerstones of musical theatre, with Stemp’s Bobby and Anderson’s Polly playing the star-crossed lovers who against all the odds fall for each other, and who are perhaps the most perfectly cast lovers to be found on stage today.

The tunes are the American Songbook’s finest, with classic after classic cascading down from Alan Williams’ loftily perched 17 piece orchestra. Embraceable You, Slap That Bass and But Not For Me are just a handful of the gems on offer, with the jewel in this production’s crown being the first-act closer of I Got Rhythm, which leaves the crowd open-jawed at Stroman’s inspired choreography that reaches new heights with each repeated verse of the song. As at Chichester, the show’s first half ended with a spontaneous standing ovation, such is the overwhelming joy that this show elicits from its audience.

Ludwig’s script is packed with zippy one-liners that all hit the spot - with Tom Edden’s reprisal of his hilarious take on Broadway impresario Bella Zangler proving the evening’s comedy highlight. There’s not a weak link in the cast, with unexpected treats such as Natalie Kassanga’s Naughty Baby defining the depths of talent that Stroman has had to work with.

Beowulf Boritt’s original designs have translated well to the West End and a nod too to Ken Billington’s Broadway-infused lighting, that bathes the production in a rare, rich illumination.

On until January - musical theatre does not get better than this.

Booking until 20th January 2024
Photo credit: Johan Persson