Friday 24 November 2023

The Witches - Review

National Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy
Book and lyrics by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Katherine Kingsley and the Witches

Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a famously fabulous children’s tale, exploring the nightmarish conceit that witches walk among us. In a new staging, Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy have taken Dahl’s wickedly inventive story and fashioned it into a musical. Fresh from the challenge of successfully directing the National’s recent production of The Crucible, a facts-based tale of fictitious witches, Lyndsey Turner now turns her hand to helming this fictional yarn about real life sorceresses.

The show follows young Luke, orphaned early on and his journey to battle a coven of everyday women who are really witches and who wish to rid the world of all children by turning them into mice. The story is Dahl at his most devilishly imaginative and yet the Kirkwood and Malloy collaboration, whilst good in parts, blunts a lot of Dahl’s pointed genius.

Turner’s cast are terrific with Sally Ann Triplett and Katherine Kingsley up against each other as Luke’s elderly Gran vs the Grand High Witch respectively. Both women are brilliant, belting their solo numbers magnificently, it’s just a shame that the lyrics are so wan and the two womens’ backstory that should explain their decades-old enmity, so poorly explained.

Both Dahl and witchcraft have been served brilliantly by musical theatre in recent decades with Tim Minchin’s Matilda and Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked both being shows with masses of heart and real humanity generated through classy melodies and perceptively penned lyrics. Kirkwood and Malloy are not in the same league - and while their visuals are imaginative, (kids will likely love the show) there’s not enough meat in this adaptation to satisfy a more discerning audience.

Aside from the two adult leads, a trio of child actors are equally brilliant (Luke played by Frankie Keita on the night of this review, alongside George Menezes Cutts and Asanda Abbie Masike in two complementing featured roles) with confident and beautifully voiced performances. Equally Stephen Mear’s choreography is as ever a treat, going so far as to include a line-up of perfectly tap dancing, mostly middle-aged witches. that would not be out of place performing Who’s That Woman from Follies.

The National is a world-class theatre with its Olivier auditorium arguably the nation’s premier stage. For a venue where technical wizardry and breathtaking design are the norm, it is a disappointment that much of the show’s visuals and magic are clunky. While the human talent in Turner’s company is unquestionably outstanding, the occasionally malfunctioning mechanical mice together with what can best be described as amateurish children’s costumes in the finale, suggest a production that has failed to reach its ambitions. Cat Beveridge directs her lavishly furnished 13-piece band with aplomb – it's just a shame that Malloy’s melodies are quickly forgettable.

There is fun to be had with The Witches – but there could have been so much more.

Runs until 27th January 2024
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 21 November 2023

The Ayes Have It, The Ayes Have It - Review

Leicester Square Theatre, London


Directed by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh

Alex Salmond, John Bercow and David Davis in Edinburgh

Transferring to London from the Edinburgh Fringe for one night only The Ayes Have It, The Ayes Have It is probably best described as the mother of all parliaments' bastard child. 

Director and producer Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh assembled a line-up of politicians and pundits to debate the motion “Brexit has been a disaster and now must be reversed” with the venerable Alex Salmond leading the proponents against David Davis’ team opposing.

Amidst what can only be described as a partisan audience - hardly surprising for a show staged in London’s city centre, the capital being fairly described on the night by opposer and broadcaster Mike Graham as “the 27th star on the EU flag” - the discussions were feisty, but served well in what a cross-panel consensus broadly agreed was the importance of taking debate outside of the confines of Westminster.

It spoke much for the flaws of the proposing team - that also included Gina Miller and Andrew Marr - that no serving parliamentarians could be found to support the motion. Baroness Claire Fox proved an eloquent and above all informed opposer, able to cite not only facts, but also argue powerfully that the Rejoin camp is populated largely by those with a “misty-eyed view of the EU” matched only by “their self-loathing of the UK”.

John Bercow chaired the proceedings from an uncharacteristically unbiased perspective, with the whole gig being enhanced by two spirited contributions on either side of the motion from Cora and Dominic, two sixth-formers from the Chestnut Grove Academy. A curious interjection post-interval came from talented impressionist Lewis MacLeod. Whilst his vocals were spot on, MacLeod's content was a tad trite.

The Ayes were always going to have it in a Leicester Square venue. But who knows? Perhaps if Sheikh’s show is taken on the road the evening’s outcomes may be different.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Merchant of Venice 1936 - The Oldest Hatred Is Back

Tracy-Ann Oberman and the cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936

Theatregoers have long been used to bag-checks as they arrive for a show. What they will be less familiar with are uniformed security guards, there to protect the show’s cast, crew and audience and who have now become a routine feature of performances of Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Merchant of Venice 1936.

When the production opened in February this year at Watford’s Palace Theatre there was no overt security presence, with Oberman winning critical plaudits both for her tackling of Shakespeare’s study on antisemitism as well as her re-interpretation and re-gendering of Shylock. Rather than sixteenth century Venice, this take on the play is set in 1930s London against the attempted rise of British fascism and the Battle of Cable Street. Oberman describes The Merchant Of Venice 1936, with its focus on a female Shylock and the East End of London’s response to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, as “the project of her life”.

But in the midst of a (long pre-planned) tour, the context of this production was radically shifted. Barely 7 months after the Watford press night, on October 7th, the terrorist organization Hamas launched an attack on Israel that in one day saw 1,200 people murdered, countless others raped and brutalised, and more than 200 hostages taken captive into Gaza. While the victims of that infamous day came from a range of countries, the vast majority of them were Jewish Israeli citizens, with the antisemitism that motivated the attack being the most horrendous assault on Jews since the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s.

What gives an even more shocking angle to Oberman’s Merchant of Venice is that within days of the October 7th attack, some of Britain’s streets were filled with supporters of Hamas celebrating the terrorists’ horrific deeds. Those celebrations continue to this day, with London and other cities around the world now seeing weekly marches calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, “from the river to the sea”.

It is this outpouring of vile antisemitic rage that offers such a grotesquely chilling parallel to the London of 1936 as presented in Oberman’s interpretation of the play. And sadly it is the risk presented by those potentially violent antisemites that now demands the presence of uniformed security guards as part of the show’s travelling entourage. 

The play itself has matured on the road. Speaking with Oberman as the London run at Wilton’s Music Hall (a venue poignantly situated just off Cable Street) ended and with the show about to head up to York, she commented on the play’s impact following the Hamas attacks and the ensuing torrent of antisemitic hatred onto the streets:
“I’m overwhelmed by how powerful people are finding this production, particularly with a huge rise of antisemitism in the United Kingdom And globally, I think people are aware that during times of unrest the Jewish community is often the first group to be targeted. As we know what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews”
Edmund Burke famously said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. In 1936 as London’s antisemites wearing the red and black armbands of the fascist movement and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police attempted to march through the very heart of London’s Jewish community, it was the actions of thousands of Burke’s “good men”, decent Londoners from all communities who stood side by side with the capital’s Jews in the Battle of Cable Street to defeat the evil. Today, rather than armbands, the antisemites are wearing the green and black headbands of Hamas and as they march down Park Lane and onwards, streaming across the Thames, they are terrifyingly cheered on by thousands.

That Oberman’s Merchant of Venice continues to play to packed houses across the country reminds us of England’s underlying decency. Let us pray that that decency can triumph.

With Tracy-Ann Oberman at Wilton's Music Hall

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is on tour playing in York, Chichester and Manchester. In the new year it returns to the RSC in Stratford on Avon. To book tickets, click here

Wednesday 8 November 2023

The Interview - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Jonathan Maitland
Directed by Michael Fentiman

Yolanda Kettle and Tibu Fortes

There is already a vast amount of information surrounding the interview that BBC journalist Martin Bashir conducted with Diana, Princess of Wales in 1995. The interview itself was watched, and has been recorded, by millions and in 2021 the Dyson inquiry into the interview’s background found that Bashir had acted deceitfully in his gaining access to, as well as the trust of, the Princess.

And it is against that background that one looks to Jonathan Maitland’s play to deliver some analysis or comment that may enhance our understanding of this sad and troublesome chapter of the Royal Family’s history. Sadly, no fresh analysis or research is offered at all, save for a whimsical endgame that sees Diana’s ghost bemoaning the fact that Prince William effectively banned any future broadcast of the interview in the wake of the Dyson report. And while Maitland clearly “sides” with the Princess, he shows no sympathy whatsoever to the distress that Bashir’s deceit has caused for Diana’s children and his play is the weaker for this lack of balance. 

The acting however is superb. Yolanda Kettle’s Diana captures the iconic stance of the late Princess in both her voice and physical presence with full credit due to Mary Howland’s vocal coaching and Susanna Peretz’s astonishing wig creation. Equally, Tibu Fortes as Bashir builds a credibly unsympathetic character, immediately recognisable from how the BBC man was portrayed in the media.

Michael Fentiman has directed his company with a perceptive accuracy and whilst the script may lack meat, all the characters are well fleshed out. This is certainly an evening of brilliant caricature, but at two hours including interval the play feels long for what is little more than a collection of soundbites.

Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Mandy Patinkin Live In Concert - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Mandy Patinkin

Here for a brief 8-gig London residency, Mandy Patinkin Live in Concert is a 90-minute audience with one of musical theatre’s most gifted and versatile performers.

Accompanied by the equally talented Adam Ben-David on piano, Patinkin took his audience on a whirl around the American Songbook that included a delicious detour through Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody too.

The evening’s setlist was an ingenious series of segues that saw numbers from writers including Loesser, Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein fused into medleys that Patinkin’s perfectly weighted baritone delivered deliciously.

Patinkin’s interpretations and acting through song was on point throughout - not least in Marc Anthony Thompson's heartbreaking composition My Mom and a thrilling Soliloquy from Carousel. His partnership with Ben-David is clearly well grounded, the musical synergy between singer and pianist being one of complete connection and the evening's penultimate number Being Alive proving sensational.

In a gig peppered with anecdotes, Patinkin spoke in equal measure of both his glittering Broadway career and his deeply valued Jewish heritage. Nothing however could have prepared the audience for Patinkin’s encore that he introduced simply as a song with a tragic background, written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. While such a build-up may well have led the packed Lyric Theatre to not unreasonably expect Somewhere Over The Rainbow, to hear the Homeland star perform the song in Yiddish, a mournful yet brave and proud celebration of his Jewish identity, was a moment in theatre that will live forever. Unmissable.

In concert until 19th November
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday 2 November 2023

King Lear - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh and Jessica Revell

Kenneth Branagh’s take on King Lear is an intelligent interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies. Branagh’s treatment of the text is bold creating an amalgam of the play’s first published Folio and Quarto versions, then filleting out the narrative he considers superfluous. Not quite a King Lear Lite, but Branagh shaves a fair hour off the typical running time, bringing the show in at just under two hours with no interval.

For the most part the edits work. Amongst other clippings the courtroom scene in the hovel is chopped as is Lear’s comment on Cordelia’s quietly-spoken voice being “an excellent thing in woman”. But to be fair Branagh has trimmed wisely, maintaining the integrity of the narrative around Lear and his daughters, together with the sub-plot surrounding Gloucester and his sons. The play’s most famous quotes are (mostly) all there and in a time that has frequently seen the Bard’s prose butchered at Shakespeare’s Globe, Branagh treats the original with respect. 

On stage, Branagh is an excellent King Lear. There is weight and pathos to his words, with his curse of sterility on Goneril together with his grief in the final act, being fine examples of a well considered interpretation. His daughters are fun too. Melanie-Joyce Bermudez is a vicious Regan and Deborah Alli is an equally Ugly Sister as Goneril. There is a fine interpretation of Cordelia from Jessica Revell also doubling up as the Fool, who catches the complex sentiments of both her roles with a delightful accuracy. Doug Colling and Corey Mylchreest put in sound turns as Edgar and Edmund respectively, while Joseph Kloska’s Gloucester is deliciously done, vile jellies bouncing across the stage as his eyes are plucked out.

Jon Bausor’s designs together with Nina Dunn’s projections offer an original view of the Neolithic era in which the production is set, though the dancing and battling with staves is perhaps a little overplayed given the otherwise ruthless editing of the script.

Virtually sold out for the run, Branagh has delivered a King Lear for our times. 

Runs until 9th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson