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
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