Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Review


***



Music by Ben Morales Frost
Lyrics and story by Richard Hough
Directed by Charlotte Westenra




Marc Pickering and company


Credit to the producers, cast and creatives of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for having the sheer professional optimism and commitment to launch a brand new musical in the midst of a locked-pandemic.

However, notwithstanding the team’s noble intentions and hard graft, for the most part the show is tedious and uninspiring. Tantalisingly trailed with hints of Paul Dukas’ famous 1897 composition (itself made even more of a worldwide sensation in Disney’s Fantasia), Richard Hough’s story fuses Norse mythology with Goethe’s Dukas-inspiring poem, arriving at a modern day analogy that celebrates all sorts of wokery and anti-capitalism. Unfortunately, once Hough's new-age politics are stripped away, his narrative seems more akin to that of the Emperor’s New Clothes than any other classic fable.

Charlotte Westenra’s cast drips with talent. David Thaxton is Johan the eponymous sorcerer, here reduced to an angst-ridden father with a secret, and environmentalist pledged to protect the Northern Lights. Newcomer Mary Moore makes a decently-voiced job of his daughter Eva who is also the titular apprentice. Disappointingly, other than some novel balletics with a handful of brooms and some teasing musical motifs drawn from Dukas, faintly woven into Ben Morales Frost’s score, that’s it for any connection to the much-loved symphony. Thaxton’s award-winning ability to act through song is squandered, as both his role and his lyrics have been created with such lack of depth that there is little beyond politically-correct cliché for him to sink his teeth into.

There are redeeming moments of genuine theatrical excellence, notably those from Marc Pickering as the evil refinery owner and bad-guy of the tale. Pickering’s gift for comedic impact and timing is arguably unsurpassed and he breathes delightful moments of hilarity into his (justifiably) two-dimensional character. Pickering is matched by the equally outstanding Dawn Hope as his mother. Hope’s delivery of a number that explains one of Hough’s tortuous plot twists, Damn You, proves to be the standout turn of the show. There is also, as ever, top-notch work from the much underused Vicki Lee Taylor in a number of modest supporting roles.

If only Hough’s songs and story were wittier and Morales Frost had placed Dukas’ melodies more centre stage, then this could yet have the potential for a great show. As it stands while some may find this musical theatre treatment of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice an enchanting tale, it desperately needs some magic.


Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Songs For A New World - Review


*****



Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Séimí Campbell




Rachel Tucker takes Just One Step in Songs For A New World


The opening image of Séimí Campbell’s streamed production of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle is profound. Staring out to an empty auditorium, a theatre’s ghost light, placed centre stage, defines the new world that has befallen the theatre community.  Amidst a global pandemic, with nations vowing to build back better, this Songs For A New World is a timely production – made all the more technically and poignantly excellent through having been vocally recorded by each of the cast, isolated in their homes, on their smartphones.

The Opening Sequence: The New World, has Campbell intercutting his performers with a montage of darkened West End and Broadway venues, now dark as newsreel voiceovers tell of the blow that the Coronavirus has levelled at the theatre industry. The contrast between this bleak, current, reality – and the majestic power of the singer’s voices is devastating.

Campbell’s company comprises a quartet of the industry’s finest, with Rachel John, Ramin Karimloo, Cedric Neal and Rachel Tucker, each offering a cross between a masterclass and an episode of TV’s Through The Keyhole, as their respective performances display not only their musical theatre excellence, but also whirlwind tours of their respective residences.

But as an escape from lockdown, the show is glorious. Highlights of the cast’s excellence within such difficult circumstances (principal photography having taken place during Lockdown 1) are provided by all four leads. Tucker’s soaring, swooping take on Stars And The Moon (as well as a wonderfully provocative Surabaya Santa) is an honest, scorching take on life. Karimloo’s She Cries is exhilarating. John touches our hearts with her gorgeous Christmas Lullaby, while Neal’s King Of The World offers perception and power in his interpretation. A mention too for Shem Omari James, fittingly cast to lead Steam Train, a number all about young, raw talent making a name for themselves in adversity.

The creative crew are impressive too. Joshua Winstone and Adam Hoskins have made fine work of Brown's score, while Matt Ide and Danny Kaan deliver digital and audio wizardry in pulling the whole show together.  

Above all though and as a paean to showbusiness, the production is ultimately a beacon of hope. To those artists in the industry that are tired of waiting, Brown’s lyrics are uplifting: “Hold on, hold fast”, and for any individual who is struggling emotionally or mentally “Listen to the song that I sing, you’ll be fine”.


Saturday, 20 February 2021

Butchers - Review

****

Written by Adrian Langley and Daniel Weissenberger
Directed by Adrian Langley


Simon Phillips as Owen Watson, one of the titular butchers

With a DVD release on March 8, timed to coincide with the UK's National Butchers Week, Adrian Langley's Butchers is a fantastic example of the vision and ingenuity of today’s independent film makers.

In a storyline that sees Wrong Turn meeting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Butchers offers up a string of bright young North Americans who one by one fall victim to a backwards back-woods clan, somewhere out in Canada's mid-west. As might be expected from the title, the formulaic plot sees cleavers, axes and cleverly shot offal featuring heavily amongst the props and effects.

Langley, who not only directs but has co-written, photographed, edited and scored the picture too, throws in some novel twists. There is infidelity amongst our heroes, as well as a number of amusingly unexpected Shakespearean references with Hamlet, King Lear and of course, that greatest butcher of them all, Titus Andronicus getting a nod.

The cast do a fine job of telling this overly familiar nightmare, but notwithstanding their performances, this movie’s standout feature is its attention to technical detail. Not only is the cinematography exciting and well lit, but Langley’s music is brilliantly balanced while throughout Howard Sonnenburg’s sound mixing – be it with the score or the sound effect of metal through flesh  - is equally precise. The story may be corny and predictable, but it is a credit to Langley’s cast and crew that they make it so compelling and suspenseful, exactly what good horror should be. What’s more, there appears to be little if any digital contribution to the story’s visuals with the SFX duo of Jonathan Largy and Alina Suave delivering the gore in its authentic physicality, their gruesome work only enhanced by Sonnenburg’s sound.

Largy himself is rewarded with the corniest of cameos in the finale – but to be honest he’s earned it.


Available on digital download from 22 February and on DVD release from March 8th.

Friday, 19 February 2021

The Color Purple At Home - Review

*****


Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by Tinuke Craig



T'Shan Williams


In a stunning fusion of musical theatre and ingenious photography, Curve Leicester together with Birmingham Hippodrome have revived their 2019 production of The Color Purple, re-imagining the show not only for a cast that must now be socially distanced, but for a remote audience confined to a digital stream.

A couple of months ago Curve streamed their gorgeous Sunset Boulevard, in so doing giving the locked-down theatre world new ways to dream. Building on the success of that show, The Color Purple proves to be close to flawless in director Tinuke Craig’s streamed screen translation. Simply staged, deploying the Curve’s revolve, minimal props and a handful of superimposed scene-setters,  Craig relieves her actors and musicians free any supportive gimmickry, letting her company that has been cast to perfection, tell the story with their talents.

T’Shan Williams leads as Celie, making this most complex of roles, her own. Essentially a modest and unglamorous character, Celie has to thrive in the show based solely on her performer's ability to act and sing (and briefly, deliciously, dance). And in Craig's take on the show, Williams delivers her Celie with a heart-breaking strength and perception. Where typically, a musical theatre performer has to deliver to a large, distant (albeit live and present) audience, in a streamed show, much like in the movies, it's also about the close-ups too. Williams' acting – through speech, song and movement, hits the mark every time. 

Carly Mercedes Dyer

Vocally, Williams is a class act – not just in Celie’s powerful final solo I’m Here, but perfectly duetting with Carly Mercedes Dyer’s Shug Avery in What About Love. Dyer herself is but one of a cast that drips with performers chosen solely for their ability. Avery is another enigmatic woman, with Dyer capturing her magnetism and vulnerability. Also outstanding in their supporting roles are Karen Mavundukure’s tragi-comic Sofia and Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie.

Danielle Fiamanya and Ako Mitchell


Amongst the men, Ako Mitchell delivers one of the finest interpretations of Mister. Another complex character, initially the most vile and misogynistic of men who by the finale is transformed via a heroic redemption,  Mitchell brings both menace and pathos to his performance in equal measure. And credit where it is due - alongside the few individuals named in this review, there is excellence everywhere from all the performers on stage.

Craig’s creative crew are equally talented. Mark Smith's choreography is inventive and inspired, recognising the challenges of our times with movement across the show that is both thrilling and immaculately nuanced. Alex Parker musically directs the 7 piece band with his usual flair. Their interpretation of the score is a delight with a particular mention to Ben Fletcher’s work on guitars. Ben Cracknell lights the massive Curve space with a mixture of both intimacy and passion, while the video crew from Crosscut Media are fast becoming experts in this  niche field of taking live work and re-engineering it for transmission. 

Hopefully the Curve – along with the rest of the nation’s theatres – will be welcoming the return of live audiences in the not too distant future. Until then, streamed productions such as The Color Purple At Home are the pinnacle of outstanding musical theatre.


The production streams until 7 March - Tickets available via www.curveonline.co.uk
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday, 12 February 2021

Good Grief - Review

***


Nikesh Patel and Sian Clifford


Written by Lorien Haynes
Directed by Natalie Abrahami

Lorien Haynes’ two-hander, originally written for the stage, has been given a filmic treatment as a consequence of the pandemic and will shortly be released now as globally available stream.

Spanning the few months immediately following the death from cancer of Liv, Good Grief is about the dynamic that evolves between Liv’s partner Adam and their mutual good friend Cat. There are moments in Haynes’ narrative that show a powerful perception and an empathy towards the bereaved that will resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one. But there are also times when her dialog is unbearably trite and simplistic, stretching credibility to a point where the viewers’ suspended disbelief comes crashing down. And this is even before the distracting speculation of wondering whether Cat and Adam will jump into bed together.

Sian Clifford and Nikesh Patel play the grieving pair with Clifford putting in a well nuanced turn. Patel however struggles to convince. The play’s closing scene of his reading aloud a letter from Liv, penned shortly before her death, should be poignant – but it just doesn’t work. Perhaps live on stage, with the compelling intimacy of a theatre, the script may have delivered more of a punch than Natalie Abrahami has coaxed for her camera.

Credit though to the production’s assembled creatives and technicians. The 45-minute long piece has been smartly put together and with a charming score from Isobel Waller-Bridge too. Not only that, but when you stream Good Grief, a very kind and generous gesture from the producers will see a donation from every ticket sold going to the NHS and Macmillan Cancer Care.


Streaming from 15th February until 15th April
Tickets are available through:

Monday, 4 January 2021

That Dinner of '67 - Review

****





Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy





Written by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Produced by Liz Anstee



Every cloud has a silver lining. So it is that amidst the ghastliness of the current pandemic and its impact upon the acting profession, Tracy-Ann Oberman has been able to assemble a cast of remarkable pedigree to breathe life into her her fascinating 45 minute drama examining the background to Stanley Kramer’s 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Kramer’s groundbreaking picture sought through both irony and carefully crafted characters, to comment upon inter-racial love in the USA at a time when, in some states and with civil rights still a burning American issue, marriage between black and white people was illegal.

It was a brave motion picture to film, only enhanced by Kramer’s stellar company. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn played the parents of Joanna (Joey in the story), while playing Joey’s fiancé Dr John Price  was Sidney Poitier, a gifted actor who only some three years prior, had become the first black American to win the Oscar for Best Actor. In Oberman’s fictionalised glimpse behind-the-scenes, Kenneth Branagh plays Tracy, Daisy Ridley is Katherine Houghton (the actress who played Joey in the movie), and Adrian Lester is Poitier. David Morrisey takes on Kramer, while the writer herself steps up to the plate as Hepburn. As a radio play, everything hinges on the phonics – and amidst an array of stunning accents and impersonations, Lester’s take on Sidney Poitier is breathtaking in its pitch-perfect accuracy.

The story behind the movie itself is almost as remarkable as its on-screen narrative. The picture marked Hepburn and Tracy’s ninth and final collaboration, with the bond forged between these two consummate professionals clearly defined in Oberman’s script. Even more than this love however, was the fact that Spencer Tracy, riddled with disease, was close to death throughout the shoot, tragically passing away barely two weeks after wrapping his own principal photography. Such was the concern of his health, that the producers were unable to obtain completion insurance – with Hepburn and Kramer going on to stake their own salaries as a bond to guarantee that filming could continue. Rarely has a movie’s plot so piercingly captured the heart of a nation’s struggles – defined by the fact that just after Tracy died, the country’s anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.

But it is not so much these remarkable details that the play highlights, as much as its ability to capture the pulse of both Hollywood and the wider USA in the 1960. In a happy coincidence, this reviewer revisited the movie just before listening to Oberman's play - and if one is not familiar with the Kramer picture, then it's well worth a stream or rental. 

Oberman has delivered a cracking piece of writing.


That Dinner of '67 is available to download from the BBC throughout 2021

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is currently available to watch on Sky, iTunes and Amazon Prime

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Ria Jones In Conversation


Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve, 2017

 

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Nikolai Foster and starring Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, is currently available to stream until January 9th 2021 and my review of this remarkable re-imagining of Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood tale can be found here.

But while the show, recorded at Leicester's Curve Theatre, may be remarkable, Ria Jones' association with Sunset Boulevard is even more incredible. In 1992, Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled the show at his Sydmonton Festival, with Jones playing Norma. It was to be some 24 years before Jones was to return to the role, this time at London's Coliseum where she played in standby to Glenn Close.

Fate intervened, and Jones was gifted the chance to lead the Coliseum's show for a series of performances while Close was unwell - and such was the strength of her performance that the Curve, together with producer Michael Harrison, created a touring production of Sunset Boulevard that opened to critical acclaim one year later in 2017.

Now, in the pandemic, it is that touring production that has been revived for streaming.

This week Ria Jones and I discussed Norma and her. Read on.....


JB:     Ria, you have returned to Sunset Boulevard in the midst of a pandemic – tell me how this current, streamed production evolved. 

RJ:     To be honest, when Nikolai Foster, the show’s director first asked me, I literally thought it would be a concert performance with me in a nice dress walking on in front of a microphone and, with the cast, simply singing the songs. But then I thought, how can we do that? Because if you just take the songs, that's not going to last for even an hour!

Then the more I learned about the production, and that there was a revolve that had been donated by Cameron Mackintosh to the theatre, and I thought, okay, that's going to be a bit different to a normal concert. Then I heard we were in costume. And then more and more, and it just sounded more as if it was going to be like the production - although it couldn't be because there were no sets! And then when I heard it was with the 16 piece orchestra, I thought, I'm in! Sadly, a lot of shows can't afford to have that many musicians, but this score begs for that cinematic sound. From that first chord that you hear in the overture, that big, low bellowing sound, it's just fabulous. And I thought, definitely. I think it's a great time to do it because of all the shows I've done, this one is so special for so many reasons. Of all the shows I'd love to sing this year, of all years, would be Sunset, would be Norma.

And then as you know, Leicester went into Tier Three. So, we thought “that would be it, that's it!” and then Nikolai said, "We're thinking of filming it....." 

To be honest, I wished I'd had a few months’ notice and could have gone on a diet because of the lockdown weight I’d put on. HD is cruel at the best of times, let alone after COVID for 10 months! I'm sorry to say this, but HD is not kind unless you're Danny Mac and you wake up perfect like that. 10o'clock in the morning and he would look just as good as at anytime of day! 

As the streamed production came together, the lovely thing about Nikolai was that he allowed us all to put our own ideas in the mix. And he genuinely meant it. This take on the musical was so new and so groundbreaking that we were all able to contribute to its creation. Dan came up with the idea of Betty and Joe underneath the stage with all the scaffolding for that scene in act two, a moment that I thought was just gorgeous. It was a learning curve for us all.

As the tech went on, we got more and more excited because we could feel and see how good it felt and as soon as we heard the orchestra play, it was like sitzprobe all over again. Actually, it was like a sitzprobe each time they played as they were in the room with us throughout, rather than hidden away in a rehearsal room upstairs. That worked especially well, helping us to connect with the musicians and we needed that even more so with there being no audience to relate the story to. 

I think for me playing Norma to an empty auditorium was just amazing because, for her, she was still in a silent world, looking out to the empty seats, the empty auditorium. Tragic in a way, but also quite beautiful because it summed up her whole world, the silent world.

Since the first streams have been broadcast I have had people say that they found my singing "With One Look" or, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," to an auditorium with empty seats was quite moving, especially today. 


JB:     Indeed – the poignancy of the empty Curve is striking. Within the show, the most moving moment for me remains when Hogeye, a Paramount lighting operator who remembers Norma from her glory days, shines a spotlight on her – sending her mind back through the decades. 

RJ:     Yeah, me too. And the music, the way the music is written for that moment is stunning, because the climax of the light hitting her on that with one look moment, that it's just absolutely glorious to play.


"I can say anything I want, with my eyes!"


JB:     It is a heartbreaking piece of humanity, tied to brilliant visuals and brilliant music.

RJ:     Yes, exactly, exactly, exactly. Because in an ideal world, on a film set, it would be those huge empty studios, and with just that one beam of light smacking her in the face. And whether I did it at the Coliseum, even when I first did it at Sydmonton, I remember that, the build-up. It's all the build-up to that moment, isn't it, for her? And it's just so beautifully written and timed.

And of course in her head, and she's just completely in her own world. Nobody else exists. Even though she sings “I don't know why I'm frightened”, it’s as if she's telling them, she's not. She's in her own little world remembering the fairy tale. It's the fairy tales, and the laughter and the joy and the nervousness of it all. She's a teenager, she's 17, again. She's 17. And that beam of light is that smacking her in the face. She's 17 and she’s just met Mr. DeMille who made her a star.

I bawl my eyes out every time, because that's the age I was when I started in the business. I was 16 doing the tour for Bill Kenwright of Joseph. During the tour, I became 17. And then I really got going when I was 17. So when he says that, "If you could have seen her at 17, beautiful and strong, before it all went wrong. She doesn't know that she never knew the meaning of surrender." And you just think, "Oh, there but the grace of God, go I!"


Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve Streamed Performance, 2020

JB:     How did social distancing impact upon your performance?

Social distancing has imposed some strange and unfamiliar working practices upon the company. We couldn't have wigs. We couldn't have dressers. We had to dress ourselves and I had to do my own hair. I always do my own makeup anyway, but of course again under the scrutiny of HD cameras, you've got to think and I've got to be a makeup artist all of a sudden; I've got to be a hairdresser. Previously I’d have had three dressers. Literally, I would come off stage, and have three dressers around me to get me dressed quickly for the next scene. So that was strange. 

Luckily for me though, I could wear turbans for most of the stream. Also, luckily, I'd grown my hair through lockdown, for no other reason than just change really. And so that's why I was able to use my hair for the last scene. On tour, Colin Richmond had designed two wigs for me. The glamorous one, when she's the ingenue, trying to flirt with Joe and the hair has to be perfect. And then one for her breakdown in Act Two, that was much thinner and going grey and everything.

So I thought, how can I do that this time? And I decided to use my own hair and make that look a bit mad, so that the streaming audience see that Norma is real underneath the turban. 

All of those things were tricky, because as well as thinking about what I was singing, I was also thinking about my quick changes, doing my own hair and makeup, all while we were in the real-time of a show. It was not like we were doing a film with the luxury of stopping for an hour while I did a complete makeup change and hair change. I had five, 10 minutes to do all that in, before I was back on camera. So that was scary.


JB:      Your association with Sunset Boulevard has been remarkable, given that you workshopped the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber before performing as Norma Desmond in its first outing at Lloyd Webber’s  Sydmonton Festival in 1990. Please tell me about that journey. 

RJ:     From the outset I adored the songs, they really suited my voice. And it was lovely to work closely with Andrew on them. I mean, I remember sitting next to him at the piano, in his home in Belgrave, literally while he was writing the end of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," And he was like, do you think it is up or down? I said, no, I think it should go up at the end of “goodbye”, which it does – and then of course he added "we taught the world, new ways to dream" And I thought, yes, that's a lovely touch to the song. 

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Sydmonton, 1992

At first I thought I really understood why it was there. So then when I played Norma again – fast forward to the Coliseum 26 years later or whatever - oh my gosh, had I learned a lot more, because I had lived a lot more, and by then (in 2016) I was the right age. And having been in the business then for 30 odd years, and having experienced tragedy, loneliness and fear of being on my own at times all helped me get into the bones of Norma Desmond, because the one thing I didn't want was to become a caricature of her. 

Even now, in the two and a half years from doing it on tour to filming it last week, I've experienced more layers to her. 

And also, I am grateful to Norma. For many reasons, she's been a big part of my life. When I was standby to Glenn Close, Norma got me back out there into the world after my illness and that was great.

 

JB – Tell me more about the Coliseum production

RJ:     Because I wasn't actually in the show as an understudy, I was standing by in the wings literally every night. It's not every day you get to watch a Hollywood A-Listers rehearse and create and everything and that was fascinating for me. Also it was a way of me dipping my toe back into the business, but not with all the pressure of eight shows a week or everything. It was a nice way for me to just slowly get back into it and by gosh, it worked out.

Of course I was booked as Glenn's standby – so when the time came to step up to the role one had to remember that the reason you're going on is because somebody else is poorly. So as much as you can celebrate it, you have to also be respectful of that.


Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, London Coliseum, 2016


JB:     Kevin Wilson (Theatre PR)  had a ticket in the audience for your first night on at the Coliseum as Norma and he penned a 5* rave review of your performance

RJ:     He did. And it went viral, I think! It was amazing and as someone wrote, "It took 36 years to be an overnight success." But it's a case of being at the right place, the right time, the right musical and the right age and the right style for me.

Everything, all the stars aligned and I swear it was Victoria Wood’s heavenly influence too! She had sadly passed away the day before I got the call to play Norma at the Coliseum  and she was a good friend of mine. At the time I said to Steven Mear: "You know what? She's gone up there and thought, right. It's about time for Ria!." I swear it was Victoria.

We all know that unless you make it on TV, you could be a jobbing performer for 40 odd years. I'd rather be a jobbing actress respected by my peers any day than just being a star for the sake of it.

The sad reality of course is that stars do put bums on seats and you do lose out sometimes on jobs you should maybe get, simply because you're not famous. But I'm happy with my lot more than, more than, and so lucky to have been able to have done Sunset Boulevard at the end of what has been an awfully dark year for theatre.

But you know, we're such survivors. We really will come back better than ever after all this. And I'm just thrilled that we had the chance to do this and it's been done and received really well. Yeah!


Sunset Boulevard In Concert - At Home is available to be streamed until 9th January 2021. For tickets, click here