Sunday 30 June 2024

Starlight Express - Review

Troubadour Theatre, London



****



Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
Directed by Luke Sheppard



Jeevan Braich (Rusty) and the cast of Starlight Express


Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express arrives at Wembley Park’s Troubadour Theatre transformed from its 1980s opening into a show for the 21st century. Much of the composer’s magic remains, with that modulation half-way through the title song being up there among the best of Lloyd-Webber’s melodies. Families taking their kids to see this enchanting tale of a set of toy trains that come to life in a child’s imagination will not be disappointed.

The story’s narrative is that classic tale of growth and self-discovery, of strength and self-belief over adversity as Rusty (played by Jeevan Braich), the battered old toy steam engine seeks to prove himself against the newer rival locomotives, Greaseball (Al Knott) the diesel and Electra (Tom Pigram) the electric train.

The show offers a robust musical theatre experience. With the lead characters and ensemble all on roller-skates, the speed and visuals of the performances are literally breathtaking with the show's creative credits proving impressive. Tim Hatley’s designs make use of most of the Troubadour’s cavernous interior alongside Howard Hudson's sensational lighting and laser work (the technology allowing the remote follow spots to track the skaters is astounding). Andrzej Goulding’s video designs, Gabriella Slade’s costumes and Jackie Saundercock’s make-up work are equally stunning, even if their creations resemble Marvel Comics' Transformers rather than trains!

If one has younger family members or friends who will enjoy the show, or is even just a devotee of the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber or musical theatre then a trip to Wembley is well worth the effort and expense.

However…for those that saw the show some 40-odd years ago it is worth pondering: If the machine wasn't broken, then why did Lloyd Webber and his equally gifted lead producer Michael Harrison seek to meddle with it? Too many songs from the brilliant original have been chopped, including A Lotta Locomotion, Only He and Only You. Hatley’s skating tracks, while unquestionably exciting at the Troubadour do not match the thrill one felt in the Apollo Victoria, where the skaters soared from the stage up and out to the very rim of the theatre's dress circle before returning to traverse John Napier's mesmerising bridge that flew and spun above the stage.

The show’s re-imagined casting is also flawed. While it is a fine idea to now have a real child as Control (on the night of this review the delightful Shaniyah Abrahams was in charge of the trainset), the writers have transitioned Poppa into Momma. Jade Marvin in this role has a beautiful voice and presence, but she lacks the baritone heft that back in the day would have inspired the creation of Poppa's vocals. This is much missed, most notably in two of her critical numbers, Momma’s Blues and the Starlight Sequence.

And whoever thought of casting Greaseball as a female character needs to take a short walk from the theatre and spend some time (safely) by the West Coast Main Line. Here, diesel freight trains frequently rumble by with a booming bass pulse that could register on the Richter Scale! Having driven a diesel train I can vouch that they throb with a guttural, metaphorical testosterone. For all Al Knott’s fiercely fit and fabulously menacing skating, she may well make an outstanding pantomime villain, but a diesel engine she ain’t!

Of the show’s principal characters, too many of them are professional debutantes. Skating of course requires the enviable fitness and stamina of their youth, however the very best musical theatre also demands the skill of being able to act through song, a craft typically honed by an actor’s years of experience. With many of director Luke Sheppard’s leads fresh out of drama school, their roller-skating may well be energetically en-pointe but they do not always deliver emotionally convincing characters. Richard Stilgoe’s U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D. sung by Dinah the Dining Car (Eve Humphrey) and a pastiched tribute to country-music legend Tammy Wynette, should be one of the wittiest songs in the canon. Here, it fails to land.

A shout-out however for Skate Marshals Charlie Russell, Jamie Addison and Dante Hutchison whose scooter skills (including scooted 360-degree somersaults) are out of this world.

Technically state-of the-art, Starlight Express looks and sounds like the multi-million pound extravaganza that the producers and creatives have fashioned. The kids will love it!


Booking until 16th February 2025
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Next to Normal - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London



*****


Music by Tom Kitt
Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Longhurst


Caissie Levy


There are moments when new writing touches the very essence of humanity. So it is with Next to Normal that has now opened in the West End following an acclaimed run at the Donmar Warehouse last year.

Caissie Levy is Diana, a woman who we learn early on in the show is grappling with significantly impaired mental health. Jamie Parker is her husband Dan, battling to support her, while there are perfectly nuanced performances from Eleanor Worthington-Cox as daughter Natalie and Jack Wolfe as son Gabe. To say much more about the plot would be to spoil the story’s reveals, as Levy and her three co-stars take Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s inspired songs and narrative, delivering harrowing entertainment punctuated with moments of perfectly weighted ironic humor.

In support are Trevor Dion Nicholas as the story’s two doctors, and Jack Ofrecio as Natalie’s would-be suitor Henry.

The words and music are fast-flowing with credit to Nick Barstow’s six-piece ensemble perched atop Chloe Lamford’s ingeniously designed set.

Ultimately uplifting, the two-act show plumbs the depths of grief and suffering and it makes for an inspirational evening that is probably not suited to those who are emotionally fragile. That being said, Next to Normal is exquisitely crafted musical theatre.


Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday 13 June 2024

The Caretaker - Review

Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester



*****


Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Justin Audibert


Ian McDiarmid and Adam Gillen

In what was to be Harold Pinter’s first significant commercial success, The Caretaker has proved one of his most performed and studied works. So Justin Audibert – recently appointed Chichester's Artistic Director - sets a high bar for this production.

Audibert delivers spectacularly. In this curious tragicomedy, part theatre of the absurd, part realism (the dialogue at times is like a whirl through the capital’s A-Z Street Map) Pinter has the capacity to make us laugh and cry at this dissection of a bizarre glimpse of West London life. Ian McDiarmid leads as Davies, a tramp, brought in off the streets by Aston (played by Adam Gillen) into his dingy bedsit. Completing the trio of players is Jack Riddiford’s Mick, Aston’s brother.

This interpretation of Pinter’s dialogue is sublime. McDiarmid’s Davies, forever journeying to Sidcup for his papers, captures the quick-wittedness of the old man – a quickness and a devious nastiness that is matched only by his physical frailty and weakness. McDiarmid savours every word and his Davies is a masterclass in Pinter.

Gillen has possibly the toughest role – having to capture a man whose mental energy was truncated in his youth by an insensitive and brutal application of ECT. His tragedy is of a life cut down and of a man imprisoned inside his permanently damaged mind. That Davies sees and exploits that weakness offers up a moment of on-stage cruelty that is heartbreaking. Aston’s famous monologue at the end of the first half in which we learn of the unspeakable cruelty that he was subject to, is Gillen’s tour de force.

Mick is one of Pinter’s enigmas. A menacing wide-boy, yet who reacts with a fierce sibling loyalty when Davies mocks his brother’s mental disabilities. Riddiford perfectly captures Mick’s complex violent undertone.

All three characters have profound vulnerabilities and it is to this cast’s credit that they exploit Pinter’s writing immaculately, allowing us to watch an emotional bear-pit of human suffering.

And then there is the simple, brilliant wit of Pinter’s writing. Listen closely and reflect that when The Caretaker opened in 1960, that Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son (also set off the Goldhawk Road) was to air on the BBC barely two years later. Pinter’s influence on those brilliant TV scripts is clear and there is more than a hint of Albert Steptoe in McDiarmid’s Davies. Pinter’s absurd use of the London vernacular was later echoed by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek and Clive recordings.

The Caretaker’s words and oh, those pauses, are a joy to encounter. This is Pinter done to perfection.


Runs to 13th July
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Accolade - Review

Theatre Royal, Windsor



****



Written by Emlyn Williams
Directed by Sean Mathias


Honeysuckle Weeks and Ayden Callaghan

A fusion of chauvinism, corruption, compromise and complicity, Accolade is an intriguing piece of period British drama from 75 years ago.

Ayden Callaghan plays Will Trenting, an acclaimed writer whose knighthood has just been announced. We learn early on however that Trenting frequents suburban orgies, and is drawn to sexual promiscuity like a moth to a flame. Honeysuckle Weeks is his wife Rona, another complex character who is aware of her husband's conduct. To say much more of the narrative would be to spoil, save for the arrival of Narinder Samra as Daker who it transpires is in a position to expose Trenting's conduct, some of which has been criminal.

Emlyn Williams's script is a pastiche of an observation of England's class system - almost like a diluted Pygmalion - and there is fine work across the company, notably from Jamie Hogarth as the Trentings's butler/driver, Sara Crowe as Rona's friend Marian and Gavin Fowler and Sarah Twomey as the roguish Harold and Phyllis. For the most part the dialogue sparkles, but seen from our more cynical 21st-century perspective, Williams' ending is perhaps a little flawed.

Sean Mathias has coaxed well nuanced interpretations from his company and Julie Godfrey's set and costume designs are a glorious tribute to 1950. Shortly to tour England's southern counties, Accolade makes for an evening of charming provocative theatre.


Runs until 15th June and then on tour 
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Sunday 9 June 2024

The Music of Ennio Morricone - Review

National Concert Hall, Dublin



****


Conducted by Anthony Gabriele


Anthony Gabriele and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra

Accomplished conductor Anthony Gabriele took to the podium of Dublin’s National Concert Hall to conduct the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in an evening of The Music of Ennio Morricone. The concert marked the first occasion that both orchestra and conductor had performed Morricone’s work and the event proved sublime.

The great scores were all acknowledged, with the Main Theme from The Untouchables getting proceedings underway, with Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly following soon after – that film’s iconic Main Theme leading into Ecstasy of Gold with an exquisite soprano contribution from Muirgen O’Mahony. The choral backdrop to the piece came from the Mornington Singers’ ensemble who had been well rehearsed by their chorus master Orla Flanagan. O’Mahony was also to shine magnificently with her vocal work in the Main Theme from Once Upon a Time in the West and in Deborah’s Theme from Once Upon a Time in America, both movies again of course directed by Leone. If there was but one small flaw in the evening, it was in the sound design supporting the choir. Sat aloft in the hall’s gallery, the 30-strong singing company sometimes needed more amplification to be heard in balance against the strong music emanating from the orchestra below them.  

Maestro Gabriele’s passion for the works that he was conducting was almost tangible. Between occasional numbers he spoke reverentially yet knowingly of Morricone’s work, referencing the quintessential quality found throughout the composer’s work, that of l’italianità. 

The first half of the evening went on to include the rarely heard theme from La Califfa, a piece that highlighted some gorgeous oboe work from James Hulme. Morricone’s only competitively-won Oscar was earned in 2016 for his score for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and it was that movie’s stunning L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock that led into the interval.

The second half of the show kicked off with the Main Theme followed by the Love Theme from Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso – allowing the orchestra’s Leader and solo violinist Mia Cooper to offer up an enchanting take on Morricone’s haunting melodies. Chi Mai from Le Professionnel (but forever associated in these isles with the BBC’s Life & Times of David Lloyd George) was to be included in the following selections, together with two of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, A Fistful of Dynamite and A Fistful of Dollars adding to the evening’s delight.

Two numbers from Roland Joffe’s The Mission, sparklingly introduced by Gabriele led towards the concert’s conclusion as James Hulme was again fabulous with Gabriel’s Oboe, as flautist Silvija Ščerbavičiūtė excelled in The Falls.

All credit to Gabriele, the orchestra and the singers – their performances were a marvellous tribute to the work of Ennio Morricone.


Photo credit: Chris Mason

Marie Curie - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London



**


Music by Jongyoon Choi
Book & lyrics by Seeun Choun
English book adaptation by Tom Ramsay
English lyrics, new musical arrangements & ensemble arrangements by Emma Fraser
Directed by Sarah Meadows


Ailsa Davidson

The international credentials of Marie Curie The Musical are remarkable. This is a show about a Pole, Marie Skłodowska (she only became Curie once married) who moved to France, that has been written by two Koreans and is now being staged in England. Not only is the show’s pedigree remarkable, so of course is its subject. Curie was a genius. A woman who battled sexism and anti-Polish racism, who discovered Polonium and Radium and who was to win two Nobel Prizes in her lifetime. While Curie’s studies into the use of radiation for cancer treatment was groundbreaking, her exposure to radium, along with countless others who handled the radioactive substance without protection, was to tragically cause her death together with many other workers who unknowingly succumbed to the lethality of those elements.

And so much like those elusive elements that Curie extracted from hard-wom ores, there are rich seams of romantic and dramatic potential to be mined in writing a musical about her life's journey. But in a show that may well have achieved acclaim across  south east Asia, nearly all of what lyrical cleverness there may have been in the Korean original has been lost in translation. 22 songs are squeezed into this one-act, 100-minute production which would be fine, just, if they were strong numbers. Musicals with a strong human arc demand verse that can combine wit, or at the very least irony given this story’s grim structure, to make them soar and stimulate an audience. Marie Curie lacks both. 

Two songs stand out, Radium Paradise, a song and dance number that parodies the impending grim potential of the newly found element, and You Are The Reason a pathos-steeped duet in the show's endgame beautifully sung by Curie (Ailsa Davidson) and her friend and compatriot Anna (Chrissie Bhima).

The show’s musical director Emma Fraser directs her seven-piece band with finesse, creating fabulous music. However Fraser's contribution to the show extends beyond the orchestral work, to include the translation of the show’s lyrics into English. Quite why the producers decided to engage Fraser for this task when the show's programme suggests that she has no previous theatre-writing credits to her name, is a mystery. The consequence of their decision is a show with lyrics that are for the most part shallow and performative, riddled with melodramatic mediocrity and which for all the hard work of the production’s talented cast, result in a dull evening.

Like a handful of the audience members around me, Marie Curie at least in its English iteration, should be quietly put to sleep with dignity.


Runs until 28th July
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience – Review

56 Leadenhall Street, London


****





No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that H. G. Wells’ novel, The War Of The Worlds written in the 1890s would be translated into an album musical that would achieve global recognition.  Now, in a long established residence in the heart of the City of London, the immersive experience of Jeff Wayne’s musical creation allows audiences not only to listen to, but to witness the Martians’ assault on Planet Earth.

In groups of 12 (pre-booking is highly recommended) and with a minimum age of 10, visitors are taken through 24 interactive scenes tracing the narrative of Wayne’s album, played out via a few still tableaux, live actors, projections, VR (virtual reality) headsets, and the requirement for participants to get physical, clambering through windows and sliding down an escape chute when necessary!

Wayne’s iconic album provides the backdrop to the experience with the big songs presented over the course of three ingenious VR sessions – allowing Wayne’s lyrical take on Wells’ narrative to be savoured as the Martian Fighting Machines stalk the world until they are finally… (nope – no spoilers here – if you want to know how the war of the worlds ends you need to see the show!).

Nostalgia freaks will still enjoy the way the album has been trimmed to fit the requirements of the experience – but those sensational songs including Forever Autumn, Thunder Child, Brave New World remain a joy to encounter. The original recording artistes (Julie Covington, David Essex, Justin Hayward – hells bells even Richard Burton was the narrator in that 1978 opus!)  are not heard in the experience but their replacements make fine vocal work of the numbers.

There are a couple of jump-scares (so possibly not for the too faint-hearted) and very occasional moments of creaky scenery – but Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience is a two-hour blast of brilliantly imagined fun.


Booking and information at https://thewaroftheworldsimmersive.com/
The experience is not suitable for those with significantly impaired mobility 

Saturday 1 June 2024

Boys from the Blackstuff - Review

National Theatre, London



*



Written by Alan Bleasdale
Play written by James Graham
Directed by Kate Wasserberg


Barry Sloane

Recent weeks have seen the stage translations of two television classics from the late 20th century open in London. John Cleese’s adaptation of Fawlty Towers has been a delight - taking his claustrophobic Torquay hotel and literally transporting its set, characters and storylines across both miles and decades to create theatrical magic. James Graham’s attempt at transitioning Alan Bleasdale’s bleakly brilliant Boys from the Blackstuff however marks a departure from Graham’s typically trademark genius and proves a depressing disappointment.

In the 1980’s Bleasdale’s six teleplays, each exquisitely photographed and acted around Liverpool, spoke with wit, tenderness and tragedy as they told of the challenges faced by the city in those times. The desperation and desolation of a group of men who’d previously earned their living laying tarmac (the titular blackstuff) won the nation’s hearts. Back in the day when there were only (just) four UK TV channels, Boys from the Blackstuff, with the late Bernard Hill’s remarkable interpretation of the defiantly damaged Yosser Hughes made for sensational viewing.

Indeed, the 1980s were fertile years in which the performing arts captured Liverpool’s pain with Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers emerging to be a timeless gem, still packing out theatres to this day. With hindsight, James Graham should have left the era well alone. Bleasdale’s original, skilfully directed by Philip Saville, took an hour-long episode to graphically flesh out each of the series’ characters. Today’s iteration sees Graham snatch vignettes from each of those original storylines and attempt to mould them into a two-hour blob of drama. The result is shallow, crass and un-engaging, with the tragic pathos of Bleasdale’s original, sacrificed on an altar of pseudo-relevant scenery, projections and a distracting (and on this press-night, technically disastrous) soundscape. 

The play has moments of a fine portrayal of human suffering from Barry Sloane’s Yosser, but otherwise - and this is a disgrace for a show that stems from such an outstanding pedigree - the evening is a bore.

Music from the 1980s is piped into the auditorium before and after the show. The Special’s Ghost Town, playing before curtain-up, could have been foretelling the post-interval gaps that were to emerge in the audience. And indeed when the somewhat depleted throng did return to their seats after half-time, it was Paul Weller coming through the Olivier’s sound system with The Jam’s song That’s Entertainment. If only.


Runs at the National Theatre until 8th June
Then at the Garrick Theatre from 13th June - 3rd August
Photo credit: Andrew AB Photography

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Hamlet - Review

Riverside Studios, London



**


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Selina Cadell


Eddie Izzard

With earrings, acrylics, heels and skin-tight leather trousers it is clear that Eddie Izzard’s take on the Prince of Denmark is at least as much about asserting the actor’s femininity as it is about an interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.

As a solo turn that lasts for two and a half hours incl interval this Hamlet is undoubtedly a display of remarkable stamina and fortitude but Izzard’s performance comes across as more about ticking the boxes of ‘doing a Hamlet’ rather than offering any new comment on the play. The clumsily truncated dialogue is frequently rushed and disappointingly for a press night, often stumbled over, and for those not familiar with Shakespeare’s carefully crafted verse the evening will have offered little insight into the nuanced classic yarn. 

Izzard's background in stand-up serves the performance well in the gravedigger scene which is genuinely funny - elsewhere however there needed to have been more matter with less Commedia dell'arte. Playing the final act’s swordfight for laughs, be they intended or not, detracts from the story’s tragedy.

Strip away Izzard’s celebrity status and it is hard to imagine this Hamlet commanding much box office success. As Shakespeare himself wrote (in a speech that Izzard's adapter, brother Mark Izzard, has chosen to excise from this production) “it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags.” Izzard and director Selina Cadell should have heeded those words.


Runs until 30th June
Photo credit: Amanda Searle

Friday 24 May 2024

Jerry's Girls - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London




****



Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Concepts by Larry Alford, Wayne Cilento and Jerry Herman
Directed by Hannah Chissick


Jessica Martin, Cassidy Janson, Julie Yammanee


A showcase of Jerry Herman’s most acclaimed compositions, Jerry’s Girls is an evening of a sung-through medley of numbers in a compilation that allows the songs to speak for themselves. Cassidy Janson, Julie Yammanee and Jessica Martin share the singing honours that sees Herman’s compositions either maintained as solo numbers or rearranged into duets or three-handlers. 

For the most part the evening is a delight, requiring little of the audience other than to sit back and enjoy the melodies, either free of the narrative that accompanied them in their original musical theatre outings or alternatively pricking our collective memories, inviting us to recall Herman’s marvellous shows and his gift for translating the human condition into song.

As always, Janson is fabulous, handling the big solos of I Won’t Send Roses and Time Heals Everything from Mack And Mabel with finesse. From the same show, Yammanee offers up a deli-cious Look What Happened to Mabel. Martin grabs the spotlight wonderfully in the comedy routine from Take It All Off. 

As would be expected Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles feature heavily in the revue’s setlist as Janson powerfully closes act one with The Best Of Times. The second half goes on to include a gorgeous arrangement for three voices of I Am What I Am.

Hannah Chissick’s direction makes good use of the Menier’s compact space, but Matt Cole’s choreography could have been tighter. Some of his routines lacked precision and to replace the tap-dance of Tap Your Troubles Away with tapping typewriters rather than a short, but what could have been impressive, tap routine from his talented leading ladies was an opportunity missed.

Sarah Travis leads her 6-piece all-female band magnificently and her arrangements of Herman’s tunes are fabulous. If you’re looking for an evening of mellifluous musical pleasure, Travis’s music alone is worth the ticket!


Runs until 29th June
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Thursday 16 May 2024

People, Places & Things - Review

Trafalgar Theatre, London



*****


Written by Duncan Macmillan
Directed by Jeremy Herrin


Denise Gough

The titular people, places and things are those that a recovering addict should steer clear of on their post-rehab journey if they are to maximise their chances of avoiding relapse. Duncan Macmillan’s play for the most part explores the journey in rehab as Emma, an actress, played by Denise Gough first has to acknowledge her addiction to alcohol and substances, before undergoing the clinical process of breaking her addictions.

Gough’s performance is stellar, her 2016 Olivier Award clearly justified in a brilliant interpretation of agony and human dereliction. On stage throughout and aided by Bunny Christie’s ingenious set designs and a talented company we witness the hallucinogenic nightmares and pain of Emma’s addiction, before a nirvana-esque second act that sees her receptive to group therapy and her ultimate return to her parents’ home. 

The production is as uncomfortable to watch as it is brilliant. There is a macabre credibility to Jeremy Herrin’s direction of this revived production that chills in its depiction of Emma’s agonies during her therapy followed by a tragic endgame that explores the impact of her addiction on her parents, who with Emma grieve their son and her brother. This nutshell glimpse of the impact of bereavement and familial resentments is acutely perceptive, recognisable and heartbreaking.

Sinead Cusack offers a masterclass in supporting acting, delivering a memorable double-act over the course of the evening, firstly as the clinician/therapist leading Emma’s recovery and then later as her deeply damaged mother.

Gough has taken her Emma from the National Theatre, to the West End, to Broadway and now returned to London. She is magnificent - and for those that can handle her interpretation of human suffering, People, Places & Things is unmissable.


Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Fawlty Towers - The Play - Review

Apollo Theatre, London



*****



Written by John Cleese
Based on the TV series Fawlty Towers written by John Cleese & Connie Booth
Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger


The cast of Fawlty Towers - The Play

Written for television some 50 years ago and almost immediately entering the pantheon of comedy, Fawlty Towers was a work of scriptwriting genius by John Cleese and his (then) wife Connie Booth. 

Cleese himself has now adapted three of the (only 12) original TV episodes into a tightly paced show that runs for two hours including interval. The adaptation itself is a work of art, Cleese fusing those famous plotlines and gags into an ingenious confection designed to appeal to both fans and newcomers alike.

Of course the writing credentials of Fawlty Towers The Play were never in doubt. The challenge was always going to lie in the effectiveness of the on-stage resurrections of the beleaguered hotel’s iconically comic characters.

Anna-Jane Casey and Adam Jackson-Smith

Simply put, director Caroline Jay Ranger’s cast are sensational. Adam Jackson-Smith is the lugubrious hotelier Basil Fawlty, a role that many may have considered unplayable. In an immaculate combination of voice, nuance and sublime physical comedy, Jackson-Smith nails the performance with far greater skill than he manages to fix a moose’s head to a hotel wall. 

Alongside him, Anna-Jane Casey takes on the mantle of Sybil Fawlty, the other half of one of comedy’s most celebrated loveless marriages. Casey’s tone is magnificent and as the evening plays out, her portrayal of a woman who is as equally monstrous as her husband, only becomes more acid. Hemi Yeroham takes up the role of the much put-upon Manuel, the hotel’s Spanish waiter with Victoria Fox playing the maid Polly. Both recreate their characters to a tee.

But aside from those big four rocks of the Fawlty Towers series, what pushes this stage show into the stratosphere of excellence is the inspired casting of the supporting roles. It’s a breath of fresh air in these politically-correct times that Paul Nicholas’s interpretation of The Major, clearly suffering with the onset of dementia, is given such a beautifully weighted and perfectly pitched performance. Equally, Rachel Izen’s hard of hearing and cantankerous Mrs Richards (“What?”) is another comedy gem.

Paul Nicholas

Creative credits are due to Liz Ascroft’s set that cleverly captures the essence of the Torquay original, along with Kate Waters’ fight direction that has the physical slapstick honed to perfection. And Campbell Young Associates’ wig design for Sybil deserves its own Olivier Award just for looking so bloody brilliant!

This critic sat down with scepticism and left the theatre with eyes and cheeks wet from laughter. Quality comedy demands a holy trinity of first-class writing, acting genius and pinpoint timing. Fawlty Towers has all three - it’s the funniest show in town.


Runs until September 28th
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

A Song of Songs - Review

Park Theatre, London


**


Written and directed by Ofra Daniel


Ofra Daniel and the cast of A Song of Songs


Written and directed by Ofra Daniel, A Song of Songs is an adaptation of the biblical poetry, originally ascribed to King Solomon. Whereas the in the original text, the poetry is framed as a dialogue between two lovers, Daniel hones in on just the female voice, centring the show around the character of Tirzah who recites the tale of her romance with an anonymous stranger in the streets of Jerusalem.

Drawing heavily on the poetry of the base text which, while beautiful in its recitation, creates a stark contrast with the newly written additions to the script, Daniel fails to match the original in both style and tone. Similarly, Hebrew language songs such as Elecha and Od Yishama were beautifully evocative, compared to many of the songs sung in the English narrative that felt muted and amateurish. Occasionally leaning into overacting at times, the seven main cast members remain on stage for almost the entirety of the show. The intimate nature of the Park Theatre demands more subtlety in performance which, at times during the evening felt like an enthusiastic school play. 

Daniel as Tirzah is a mesmerising lead, managing to keep the audience captivated even through some of the awkwardness of the on-stage costume and set readjustments. What really makes the show however, is the live band, led by clarinettist Daniel Gouly, whose backing music could almost be a show in and of itself. 

Marina Paz’s costuming was simple yet creatively constructed with scarves and shawls being used to convey different characters and a pleasing Spanish nod to music’s blend of flamenco and klezmer. The lighting however was sporadic with projections that often seemed out of place and which could have been toned down for the smaller space of the Park Theatre. 

With sound intentions no doubt, A Song of Songs could have been a fascinating spin on a very, very old classic. In this iteration however, Daniel disappoints.


Runs until 15th June
Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh

Thursday 9 May 2024

Opera Locos - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


***



Opera Locos, conceived by the Spanish Yllana theatre company, comes to the Peacock Theatre following its successful Edinburgh Fringe run last summer. The show is a bizarre carnivalesque romp through opera’s greatest hits performed by a troupe of five avant-garde opera singers. The performers weave through a veritable top of the pops of opera from Verdi’s La Traviata to Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria, interspersed with some more modern hits, and isloosely centred on emerging romances between the performers. The plot lines feel merely incidental to the music and are, at times, difficult to follow as they are swallowed by exaggerated comedy. The show also takes a surprisingly darker turn with one of the performers struggling with alcoholism and suicidal contemplation, a plot choice that, while potentially nodding to the tragedy of opera, seemed stark and out of place in such an eccentrically comedic show. The operatic performances are brilliant with truly high class singing, most notably a breathtaking Nessun Dorma, performed by Jesus Alvarez. However, the performers voices surprisingly failed to carry the modern classics, not quite awarding the same power to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You as was given to Bizet’s Carmen.


The ‘jukebox opera’ style of Opera Locos is formatted to make opera more accessible for non-opera goers by veering away from the long and involved classics and providing recognisable tunes to get the whole audience on board. While this goal is largely successful, with the showreel of best hits keeping up a constant tempo, the ‘all over the place’ approach lacked the normal pathos and commitment to story from a regular opera. The high degree of forced audience participation, while fun, could also be off putting for those who might not be as familiar with La donne e mobile yet find themselves being encouraged to sing it into a microphone.


The staging was simple with limited use of set or props which allowed the performers to really take the fore. Tatiana De Sarabia’s costuming gave a fun hint to the Spanish origins of the group however, did also give the impression of a child who had gotten overexcited playing dress-up.


Audiences should still expect to be delighted by this outlandish opera-come-pantomime although should be advised to thoroughly suspend their expectations of reality or the normal running of a theatre show with regular spurts of lights on audience interaction and one (hopefully willing) audience member even being taken on stage for the final curtain call.


Runs until 11th May
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh

Wednesday 8 May 2024

London Tide - Review

National Theatre, London



*



Based on Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend
Adapted by Ben Power
Songs by Ben Power and PJ Harvey


The cast of London Tide

Like an incoming tide of the River Thames, so has London Tide, PJ Harvey and Ben Power’s musical adaptation of Our Mutual Friend, washed over Charles Dickens’ original reducing the 19th century classic to a slurry of mediocre melodrama that runs for more than a mind-numbing three hours. 

Alongside the writers, Ian Rickson’s direction is equally to blame for such an uninspiring evening. Rickson reduces the Thames’s majesty to a figment of our imagination, treating the Lyttleton’s massive proscenium space as a virtual warehouse, albeit one that has a floor that rises and falls along with undulating rows of lighting gantries - suggesting the river’s tidal flows.

Of the acting company Jake Wood is woefully underused as Gaffer Hexham a muscular, menacing Thames Boatman. Elsewhere, the actors try to make the best of this ghastly script, in a show that is not helped by Harvey’s monotonous melodies being poorly sung. The modern songs are grim and lazily written. By way of example, “London is not England, England is not London” must surely rank as one of the most inane lyrics ever to have been sung on stage.

It’s not just the wilful damage that Power and Harvey have wrought on Dickens’ writing - it’s that a sizeable slice of the National Theatre’s all too precious budget will have been consumed in this deluge of pretentious moralising.

London life has been far better served by Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and Barrie Keefe’s The Long Good Friday, both of which portrayed the city’s gritty contrasts. When it comes to musical interpretations of Dickens, the capital can consider itself well in to be seeing the return of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! later this year.


Runs until 22nd June
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Sunday 5 May 2024

Making Marilyn - Review

Horatio’s Bar, Brighton


***


Written by Julie Burchill & Dan Raven
Directed by Carole Todd



Making Marilyn that played for three nights at the Brighton Fringe this week, is the fusion of some remarkable writing combined with one of the more outstanding performances to have been seen this year.

Suzie Kennedy is Marilyn Monroe in Julie Burchill and Dan Raven’s play that gives a voice to one of the most enigmatic women of the 20th century.

The plot projects Marilyn into a dialogue set in the modern era and through Burchill’s incisive analysis, offers us the chance to hear Monroe give her take on her tragically short life, reflecting on her achievements and her experience of exploitation. Set against what the #MeToo movement has highlighted about Hollywood, Monroe’s words offer much to contemplate - and Kennedy’s performance in both sound and appearance, is astonishing. As the star remarks that she was “better at being a personality than a person” there is much to reflect upon, and her coruscating critique of Elton John’s Candle In The Wind is brilliant.

The play’s underlying vehicle however is creaky. Two time-travellers from 2024 (Josh and Candy, played by Luke O’Dell and Kirsty Brewster-Brown) are sent back to the 1960s to collect a sample of Monroe’s DNA to bring back to the future so that replicant Marilyns can be cloned for today’s rich and powerful. Candy is perhaps the more interesting of the pair with Josh’s character proving ham-fisted, weighed down with too many clumsy references to his onanistic adulation of Monroe.

Think H.G.Wells meets Back To The Future, combined with The Boys From Brazil but lacking that trio’s carefully crafted approach to science fiction. The evening offers an overly ambitious storyline that ultimately defies credibility, letting our suspended disbelief crash to the floor as the narrative cries out for the nuclear-powered intensity of Doc Brown’s flux capacitor.

The play needs a lot of work. But Burchill and Raven’s interpretation of Monroe is little short of genius and in Suzie Kennedy’s voicing of the star, all three have truly been making Marilyn.

Thursday 2 May 2024

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) - Review

Criterion Theatre, London



****



Written by Jim Barne & Kit Buchan
Directed & choreographed by Tim Jackson


Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) is inspirational new musical theatre. Jim Barne & Kit Buchan’s two-hander takes the wildly inventive plot of a young Brit, Dougal (played by Sam Tutty), flying in to New York’s JFK to attend the wedding of his father who he’s never met and being met at the airport by Robin (Dujonna Gift), the sister of his father’s fiancée. 

This bold rom-com requires a steely narrative to sustain two acts and sixteen songs, but Barne and Buchan pull it off with an ingenious story that exposes both characters’ vulnerabilities and dreams, revealing credible plot twists and turns that are as surprising as they are both witty, shocking and ultimately moving.

Tutty and Gift are perfectly cast. He as the gauche young Englishman and her as the brash New Yorker, with both singing to perfection and giving immaculately nuanced interpretations of their respective complex characters.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is cleverly built around suitcases - some deliciously oversized - on two concentric revolves that define the brief transitory nature of the friendship that evolves between the pair. Tamara Saringer with only a 4-piece band under her baton makes fine work of the writers’ compositions.

A fine romance with today's zeitgeist baked-in!


Runs until 31st August
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Pippin - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London



****


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle


Patricia Hodge

In what was quite possibly the finest vocal interpretation of this show to be heard on this side of the Atlantic, Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin played to a packed Theatre Royal Drury Lane for two nights only.

Written in the 1970s as part-allegory against the Vietnam War, Pippin is a curious work that was never to achieve commercial success in the West End. Unquestionably a show of two-halves, act one is a magnificent pastiche of the medieval court of Charlemagne with grand romance, intrigue and glamour and some of Schwartz’s finest compositions. The second half in contrast tails off into a quirky domestic love story that lacks voltage and excitement. One can understand how, outside musical theatre enthusiasts, the show has failed to gain traction in front of large-scale British audiences.

All that being said, the cast that Jonathan O’Boyle has assembled for this concert production were sensational. Jac Yarrow stepped up to the title role and from his sublime handling of Corner Of The Sky early in the show, his credentials were defined. Alex Newell is flown in from the USA to take on the challenging role of Leading Player. Newell brings charisma and strength to a part that demands pinpoint timing alongside strong vocal presence and delivers magnificently. Zizi Strallen plays Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother. Strallen only knows world-class performance values and her balletic take on the evil queen is sensational. She also knocks her big solo, Spread A Little Sunshine straight out of the park.

The evening’s biggest delight however is in Patricia Hodge’s take on Berthe, Pippin’s elderly grandmother. Her number No Time At All is perhaps the most glorious celebration of life to be found in the entire musical theatre canon. Hodge delivers the song and its singalong chorus to note-perfect precision, with a power that belies her years. Lucie Jones is given the spotlight after the interval as Catherine, Pippin’s love interest. Jones of course is flawless in her singing but she’s battling against a storyline that defies credibility.

The production’s choreography was ambitious in its Fosse-tribute intentions - but while the dancers’ talents were unquestioned, they needed far more rehearsal time to pull off Fosse, well. 

Never say never, but it is unlikely that Pippin will ever sound as good in London as what O’Boyle has achieved at Drury Lane this week. A neat touch saw a 50-strong choir of ArtsEd’s finest adding impressive vocal heft throughout the evening. Equally Chris Ma’s directing of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra was spot-on throughout.

Pippin’s 50th anniversary concert production was a memorable musical theatre treat.


Photo credit: Pamela Raith