Friday, 6 September 2019

Falsettos - Review

The Other Palace, London


****


Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson


Daniel Boys

When the patriarchal Marvin leaves his wife and young son for another man his family life is thrown into disarray. Trina, his frazzled spouse hooks up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, Marvin’s lover Whizzer is reluctantly inducted into the family’s day-to-day activities for the sake of maintaining some sense of normalcy as 10 year old Jason find himself caught in the middle of the pandemonium. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, originally envisioned as a pair of one act chamber musicals, really is a show of two halves. Act one, while slightly disjointed, is a fairly breezy affair, filled with pithy recitatives interspersed with zippy ensemble numbers. It’s all good fun, but while the show is funny, cutting and witty, as the interval arrives it also seems a little bit directionless. 

Not so in the second half. Picking up two years later and introducing Marvin’s delightful next door neighbours, caterer Cordelia and doctor Charlotte (‘the lesbians next door’), Falsettos delves into the confusion and chaos of the AIDS crisis. It’s a gut-wrenching decent – the darkening tone jarring uncomfortably with production designer PJ McEvoy’s kitschy set, with its cartoonish colour palette washed over with blinding bright primary coloured lighting. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson directs the turn from mayhem to tragedy perfectly, seamlessly balancing the laughs and the tears.

And, of course, the production is elevated by an outrageously good ensemble cast. Daniel Boys gives a masterfully complex performance as Marvin, a man who is constantly in the middle of a precarious balancing act with Oliver Savile charming as Marvin’s sardonic and seemingly self-absorbed boyfriend. Meanwhile Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Trina is as brilliant as ever, the jilted wife putting on a happy face for the sake of her family. 

Having picked up a cult following amongst UK musical theatre lovers after its well-received 2016 Broadway revival, the UK premiere of Falsettos was massively anticipated, and this production goes a long way to showing just why. It’s a shame though that it has been marred by controversy, with some in the UK’s Jewish community  calling out the lack of Jewish representation within the production’s cast and creative team. As the story centres closely upon the Jewish experience, including a touching subplot that centres on young Jason’s looming Bar Mitzvah, it remains essential that the show never dips into distasteful parody. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here for future iterations of this show and indeed, others. 

Judging the production at face-value though, Falsettos is well sung, ultra-smart and ultimately gutting. Those who buy a ticket will have plenty to look forward to.


Runs until 23rd November
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: The Standout Company

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Anything Goes - Review

The Other Palace, London


****


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by Alex Sutton


Olivia Hallett and the company of Anything Goes

Continuing the National Youth Music Theatre’s summer residence at The Other Palace sees this formidable company stage Cole Porter’s satirical musical Anything Goes. Comedy is a tough gig for even the most experienced of performers and it is a credit to NYMT that they deliver a show that, for the most part, hits the mark and captures Porter’s piercing wit.

Packed with songbook classics, any production of Anything Goes will always stir great expectations from its audience that are more than exceeded here, the enormous cast proving spectacular in their ensemble numbers.

Throughout, the song and dance work is performed to such a high standard that it is almost invidious to single out specific performers. However Olivia Hallett as Reno Sweeney leads the line with some sensational solo numbers and she is equally supported by Lulu-Mae Pears, Milo Hallett, Daniel Gray, Spike Maxwell, Toby Turpin, Miguel Rivilla and Sarah Dare in the show’s other key and featured roles. Vocal work is spot on throughout with Porter’s moments of comedy and irony - that are at times ridiculously silly - all being delivered with aplomb, confidence and above all, perfect timing.

The young company are supported by an outstanding creative team drawn from industry professionals. Jordan Li-Smith is, as ever, a masterful musical director. Lee Proud and Adam Haigh’s choreography, drawn from the 1987 Broadway revival is breathtaking - the full company tap numbers are a particular delight - while Diego Pitarch’s designs neatly suggest the SS American and all cleverly helmed by Alex Sutton.

Anything Goes doesn’t come around that often and this one’s a treat. Only on for three more dates, it makes for a great evening in the theatre.


Runs until 24th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Evita - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


*****

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Jamie Lloyd


Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre, albeit staged in its intended 1940s style, proves to be a masterclass of contemporary political theatre. In a production that is as much rally as world class musical, Lloyd transforms the piece into a commentary on recent times as well as a showcase of some of the finest performing talent to be found on both sides of the pond.

Lloyd, with his regular design partner Soutra Gilmour and choreographer Fabian Aloise, takes the story of Eva Duarte (subsequently, Peron) and charts her rise and fall in a stark brutal staging that is unashamedly sexual and politically brutal. The stage is bare and tiered – save for a rusting and distressed “EVITA”, fashioned in stark iron letters, that hangs over the space. The costumes are evocative of time and place, but it is the lithe writhing movement of the ensemble that define Argentina’s betrayed poor, from whose ranks Eva was to rise to become the wife of President Juan Peron. The occasional use of hand-held cabled mics adds a touch of campaigning urgency to the piece

But it is not just Lloyd’s visualisation of the piece that defines its political punch – although show’s smoking flares and confetti cannon do add to the impact. Rather, the political wit of Tim Rice’s lyrics proves as timeless today as when they were first sung in 1976. There is a veritably cruel incisiveness to Rice’s words that resonate as metaphors for the 21st century. Lloyd offers us hints of Farage and Trump in his contexting, while Rice’s merciless exposition of socialism in And The Money Kept Rolling In makes Jeremy Corbyn’s contemporary canards promising free-stuff to the impressionable seem ruthlessly resonant.

The production values of this show are close to flawless. In the title role, Samantha Pauly is the first of the show’s three trans-Atlantic imports. Pauly perfectly captures Evita’s curious fusion of strength and vulnerability, with a grace in movement and a vocal presence that are spine-tingling. Amidst the darkening trees of Regents Park, Pauly’s big number Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is imbued with a rare beauty.

Another Yank in the show is Trent Saunders as Che. Lloyd has fun with Che, defining him very much as the voice of the Argentinian people as well as the role of questioning chorus to which he had originally been created. Saunders provides the usual amount of deprecating irony towards Evita – but splashed with paint in the final act, he very much represents the spent and abused populace. 

The final American on stage is Ektor Rivera’s Peron. Aside from bringing the production a Latin authenticity, Rivera captures Peron’s sexual irresistibility as well as a convincing, uncaring, fascist governance to his leadership.

There is excellence in the key supporting roles too, with the wonderfully voiced Adam Pearce giving a thuggish sleaze to Augustin Magaldi, while Frances Mayli McCann enchants with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. Placed to the rear of the action and slightly above the stage Alan Williams' orchestra handle Lloyd Webber's South American melodies immaculately - with a particular mention to Ollie Hannifan's exquisite guitar playing. 

Tickets are still on sale, but at the time of this review availability is limited. Rush to see this show – it makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.


Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Parade - Review

The Other Palace, London


*****


Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter

This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.

Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.

Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.

Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.

There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.

Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.

It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever. 

The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.

Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.

Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!


Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Equus - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


***


Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai

Equus remains a fascinating, if dated, piece of writing from Peter Schaffer. Exploring the psycho-sexual complexities of the adolescent Alan Strang, a boy who has just, horrifically, blinded six horses, Shaffer contexts the young man’s mental turmoil against the emotional and sexual failings of his psychiatrist Richard Dysart.

Done well, the play should offer a well crafted glimpse into teenage angst, parental frailties together with the numbing realities of mid-life disappointment. In Ned Bennett's production however, that arrives at the Trafalgar Studios from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a strange fusion of magnificence and mediocrity permeates the evening.

Ethan Kai plays the troubled Strang and while he may appear perhaps a little too old to portray his teenage character, his performance nonetheless convinces. Kai captures Strang’s awkward dysfunctionality - a boy who is more at ease with horses than with people - delivering a performance of intensity and energy.

Opposite Kai is Zubin Varla’s Dysart in a turn that fails to deliver the gravitas that the role demands. Varla is unable to carry us along with his revelations of the demons that surround his infertility and failing marriage. On stage virtually throughout, in what is unquestionably a demanding role Varla’s work is of a standard that is little more than “average” and for Shaffer’s prose that’s just not good enough. 

The supporting roles are likewise workmanlike in their execution. With the exception of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Jill, Strang’s peer who befriends him, all the other characters prove too tedious as they flesh out Strang’s back story, making the 2hr 40min piece seem even longer.

To their credit however, and with the exception of Varla and Kai, all the cast double up in their portrayal of the horses that Strang is to ultimately mutilate and under Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction, their equine interpretations are sensational. The immaculately sculpted Ira Mandela Siobhan plays Nugget, the “lead” horse in the stables in a masterclass of physical theatre. Maxwell delivers genius in her suggestions of the horses’ movement, that her company deliver immaculately.


Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: The Other Richard

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Rodgers & Hammerstein (& Me Too)

Bread & Roses Theatre, London


***

Directed by Edward Goggin


Molly Lynch in rehearsal
For this week only, the capital can again savour the vocal excellence of Molly Lynch in her one-woman show Rodgers and Hammerstein & Me Too. The titular pun is deliberate as the accomplished Lynch takes her audience through a dozen or so R&H classics, interspersed with verbatim references to a selected choice of recent years' headline stories.

Lynch is a magnificent performer with the tightly packed hour long show demonstrating not only her ability to sing - but also a perfectly nuanced knack to act through song too. And for some of the evening the emotional punch of the stories she relates are painful and poignant. The interweaving of Kyle Stephens’ testimonies - a woman who as a young child was horrendously abused by America’s notorious paedophile Larry Nassar - with the lyrics of My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music proves powerful and heartbreaking. But there are moments when the counterpoint is clumsy. Contexting Rose McGowan’s description of Harvey Weinstein’s vile behaviour to a backdrop of the comparatively sugary sweetness of That’s The Way It Happens from Me And Juliet is an intended irony that misses the mark

Save for a brief reference to Jimmy Savile, Lynch's politicking is aimed squarely (and disappointingly, politically correctly) at the USA. This being the "woke" 2019, her failure to reference either the numerous misogynist regimes around the world that see women treated appallingly or, closer to home, the thousands of young girls in the UK that are and have been preyed upon by grooming gangs, are glaring omissions. 

Most fine musical theatre songs are best left unadulterated and, above all, uninterrupted. Good songwriting should tell its story and pack its punch through melody and lyric and it takes a fine and subtle hand to meddle with a masterpiece effectively. If Lynch returns to the intimacy of a cabaret venue - and one sincerely hope she does - the politics could perhaps be parked in favour of an evening that breaks the fourth wall and shines some light on the genius that underlies this young woman who is surely one of Ireland’s most talented exports.

When Katherine Jenkins played Julie Jordan in the Coliseum's Carousel a couple of years ago, Lynch was her acclaimed understudy and it remains a source of regret to many (Jonathan Baz included) that they missed those rare occasions that saw her step up to the leading role. This concert however offered some solace, with Lynch including What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’ in her set list. Her take on the song is exquisite, showcasing one of the finest voices to be found in London.


Runs until 3rd August

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Night Of The Iguana - Review

Noël Coward Theatre, London


*****

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald


The play's company
Set in a rundown hotel in 1940, atop the cliffs of Mexico’s Pacific coast ,  Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana offers up a glimpse of troubled lives in a dramatic cocktail that proves as intoxicating as a well mixed rum coco. The play was inspired by Williams’ own 1940 Mexican travels and his evident love for both time and place – and all set in a period before America had been sucked into the maelstrom of World War 2 – are evident. 

Clive Owen plays the Rev Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister now banished from the USA and reduced to leading guided tours around the world’s less glamorous regions. Shannon has led a reluctant party of Texan schoolgirls and their teacher (Finty Williams as a wonderfully Southern Baptist Judith Fellowes) to the hotel - a stop not included on the published itinerary - and their apparent entrapment at the remote location only heightens aspects of the story’s tension. We learn that Shannon has committed statutory rape (sex with minors) and as the evening unfolds we witness this priapic priest barely able to control his lust. Owen (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson) is on stage throughout most of the play, and his delivery of this strangely, vilely, complex role is a tour de force.

Playing Maxine Faulk, the wise and recently widowed hotelier, is Anna Gunn. There is evidently a complex history to Faulk and Shannon. She knows him inside out, replete with all his failings and yet is passionately drawn to the deeply damaged man. Gunn’s work is masterful – sassy yet vulnerable, and hinting at an absolutely fascinating back story.

And then arriving at the hotel are the penniless Hannah Jelkes played by Lia Williams, a middle-aged (con) artist accompanied by her nonagenarian poet grandfather, delightfully fleshed out by Julian Glover. Williams lays down yet further sadness as Jelkes outlines her back story of a woman who has seen love pass her by, save for two seedy encounters over many decades - and a childhood that she hints at as having been traumatised by profound emotional and sexual abuse. 

This being 1940, (and the play having been written in 1961) Williams also cheekily lobs in a family of raucous Germans to his “Mexican Berchtesgaden”, Nazis fleeing Europe and using Mexico either as a gateway to South America or a back-door to the States. 

The play’s themes are as complex as they are ultimately simple - but what stands out from this three hour opus is that it was written at a time when literary craftsmanship was at its finest. Williams touches upon some of the most painful and intimate aspects of humanity - sex, love, loneliness and abuse – but does so throughout with a beautiful and carefully worded prose that displays a complete absence of profanity. The strength of The Night Of The Iguana rests upon a sensational cast bringing the most sensitive of images into relief, via their spoken word. As they perform, the most moving and painful vignettes play out in our minds’ eyes - and it makes for a truly rare event to see theatre that is so richly created and performed.

James Macdonald has assembled a masterful team of creatives. Rae Smith’s mountainous Latin mountaintop convinces on its own – but accompanied by Max Pappenheim’s exquisite soundscape, the suspension of our disbelief is complete. The Night Of The Iguana is world class theatre.


Runs until 28th September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg