Tuesday 24 October 2023

Antisemitism: {{{ A Musical }}}

Camden People's Theatre, London


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

Maya Kristal Tenenbaum

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

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

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

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

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Cam Harle

Monday 23 October 2023

Dear England - Review

Prince Edward Theatre, London


Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold

The cast of Dear England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 October 2023

The Score - Review

Theatre Royal, Bath


Written by Oliver Cotton
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Brian Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Sunset Boulevard - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


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

Nicole Scherzinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 12 October 2023

Old Friends - Review

 Gielgud Theatre, London


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

The company of Old Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 6th January 2023
Photo credit: Danny Kaan

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


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

Millie Hikasa and Keir Ogilvy

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Friday 6 October 2023

Flowers For Mrs Harris - Review

Riverside Studios, London


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

Jenna Russell

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Kennedy

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

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

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

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith