Wednesday 23 August 2023

The Effect - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 7th October
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 22 August 2023

The Arc - Review

Soho Theatre, London


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

Abigail Weinstock

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

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

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

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

Bollocks indeed.

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

Thursday 10 August 2023

La Cage Aux Folles - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


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

Carl Mullaney

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 23rd September
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Saturday 5 August 2023

Romeo + Juliet - Review

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London


Music by Prokofiev
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne

Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 3 August 2023

The SpongeBob Musical - Review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


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

The company of The SpongeBob Musical

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Mark Senior 

Wednesday 2 August 2023

The Choir of Man - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay
Directed by Nic Doodson

The cast of The Choir Of Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 18 February 2024

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Rock Follies - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


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

Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst and Carly Bawden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The script may creak, but the production values are gorgeous and the performances sensational. A well curated tribute to the 1970s, 

Runs until 26th August
Photo credit: Johan Persson