Friday, 15 November 2019

Touching The Void - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Based on the book by Joe Simpson
Adapted by David Greig
Directed by Tom Morris

Josh Williams and Angus Yellowlees

The true story behind Touching The Void and the endeavours and trials that befell mountaineer Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates on the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes has been recognised in both Simpson’s 1985 bestseller and Film Four’s acclaimed docu-drama released some 18 years later. However, in its translation to the stage, the epic arc of humanity underlying this remarkable tale is matched only by the dramatical ineptitude manifest in its ham-staged adaptation now playing in the West End’s proscenium-arched Duke of York’s Theatre.

Perhaps in a modern amphitheatre-style auditorium and with better managed sound, this show might, just might, make for an evening’s entertainment. But for an audience member seated at the end of a mid stalls row, too much of what occurs on stage is simply invisible - even to a reviewer who is 6 foot tall! Anyone shorter sat in these mid-priced seats (face value £55 - £60) will have paid a lot of money for an equal amount of disappointment.

David Greig has adapted Simpson’s heroic passage to survival by translating the action into the climber’s own hallucination of his wake, at which his sister Sarah becomes a fantastic apparition accompanying him through his ordeal. The could have made for an intriguing conceit, with Fiona Hampton as Sarah putting in a well measured performance as a sibling on the verge of grief. Josh Williams’ Joe however, who for much of the evening is restricted to crawling across the stage as he manages his horrifically shattered leg, loses our sympathy - his acting is just not deep enough to convince us of his profound desperation. Likewise, Angus Yellowlees’ Simon lacks credibility.

There’s some automated steelwork in Ti Green’s set that the two men, carabiner-clipped, clamber over for much of the first half’s climbing action - but the accompanying music suggests that composer Jon Nicholls perhaps saw himself scoring a Hollywood action thriller rather than a taut psychological drama. At times not only were the cast invisible, they were also inaudible too.

If only this play were to have suspended our disbelief as effectively as it sometimes suspends its actors. 

Runs until 29th February 2020
Photo credit: Michael Wharley

Monday, 11 November 2019

Maria Friedman: From The Heart - Review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


Maria Friedman

Maria Friedman’s new one woman show is titled From The Heart and thank heavens for that, as during this evening’s gig at a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall it appeared that her songs were emanating from anywhere but her usually sensational voice. 

One of the most gifted musical theatre performers of her generation, Friedman battled a singing problem throughout the evening and while her acting through song was flawless, her vocals were scratched and strained. If ever there was a night for stepping back from the microphone, this was it, With a set list including numbers as massive as Sondheim's Being Alive, Losing My Mind, Send In The Clowns and even The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, there was nowhere to hide her fractured pipes.

To be fair, there were occasional moments of sublime talent. Theo Jamieson’s piano accompaniment was perfect throughout and in a recent nod to her Golde in Fiddler On The Roof, Darius Luke Thompson, that show’s eponymous fiddler, popped up for a virtuoso violin take on the show’s key melodies that was breathtaking in its genius.

As an encore, Friedman reprised her comic take on West Side Story’s Officer Krupke, a number that this blog last reviewed at her Pheasantry cabaret some 6 years ago. Back then she was brilliant and hilarious - here, the shtick was clumsy. 

We all know Friedman is way better than tonight’s performance - Fane Productions should ensure that she is well rested before the show is aired again.

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

Saturday, 9 November 2019

The Taming Of The Shrew - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Justin Audibert 

Claire Price and Joseph Arkley

The RSC continues their inclusive season with a gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew that goes some way to highlight and parody just how messed up and old fashioned this play of an absurd and abusive patriarchy really is. All too self-aware but still imperfect, this production is nonetheless perfectly timed for a Handmaiden’s Tale world, with director Justin Audibert’s innovative inspiration shining through.

So it goes Baptista Minola announces to  all of Padua that no one shall marry her much-desired son Bianco (a flamboyant James Clooney) until her outspoken, outburst-prone shrew of a son Katherine (Joseph Arkley) is married off. With an array of overtly keen suitors vying for a chance at Bianco’s hand, fortune seeker Petruchia soon finds herself well paid for her wooing services in a bid to pin down, and tame, the elusive Katherine. 

Joseph Arkley clearly relishes this opportunity to reap the irony of his lines, unchanged but for the pronouns. He plays the role many a feminist critic would deem to be “where we are heading”, starved and mentally tortured into losing all his traditionally male qualities by Claire Price’s, Petruchia. It is interesting to note that while most male performers took the opportunity to play a traditionally female character by camping it up, Arkley as the exception, Price’s Petruchia is the only masculine played traditionally male character. There are many an example of when it really shouldn’t have been funny but absolutely is, such as with Sophie Stanton’s Gremia’s lustfulness. If an older male character had practically drooled whenever he thought of a young woman, it would have been the opposite of charming. Stanton’s sight gags are the comic relief in a play laden with it, with Gremia echoing Mars Attacks’ lady spy alien silently floating across the stage to much audience guffaw. 

But while undoubtedly thought-provoking, Audibert's production fails to hit the mark, unable to shake off its other-worldliness. There remains a pervading sense that the characters just aren’t quite right and this in turn prevents our disbelief from being truly suspended. Nonetheless it remains an undoubtedly stimulating evening and well worth a visit, if only to witness the script re-imagined and reinterpreted - a pleasing rarity.

Runs until 18th January 2020
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Ikin Yum

Thursday, 7 November 2019

High Fidelity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


Music by Tom Kitts
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Book by David Lindsay-Abaire
Lyrics and book adapted by Vikki Stone
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby

Oliver Ormson
In a transatlantic shuffle that was to first see Nick Hornby’s novel cross the Atlantic for an American themed film and subsequent musical theatre treatment, in a feat of skilled creative collaboration the narrative is dragged back to its North London roots. In the show’s opening return to Blighty this re-iteration proves to be a glorious night at the theatre.

The show premiered on the USA stage in 2006. This production, itself the first musical to be staged at Battersea’s new Turbine Theatre, has been lyrically adapted to reflect a London setting. Much credit is due to Vikki Stone for delivering a text that fits both time and place.

Taking its plot from Hornby’s 1995 novel, the show revolves around Rob, the owner of a small vinyl record shop on the Holloway Road at a time when the digital march of CDs had rendered vinyl pressings into obsolete collectors’ items.  Rob is a louche lothario, yet to discover emotional fidelity and notching up sexual conquests yet failing to grasp the concept of committed love. Laura is his most recent girlfriend and the show opens with their splitting up. Through a series of clever vignettes and occasional flashbacks we not only glimpse their relationship’s decline but also, as an uplift, see Rob’s redemption to a state of decency too. It all makes for a tight and clever journey.

The strengths of this production are many. Kitts’ melodies are inspired, drawn from across the spectrum of the rock and pop scene, with tunes that set out to pay homage to various music stars across the years with the nod to Bruce Springsteen proving particularly well observed. Likewise, the unexpected lyrical partnership of Green and Stone offer moments of carefully drawn pathos along with well observed hilarity. David Shield’s stage design captures the geeky, sweaty, “unwashed single male” ethos of a specialist record shop, while Andrew Exeter’s lighting plots neatly and imaginatively enhance the Turbine’s compact space.

Leading the show and on stage virtually throughout, Oliver Ormson is Rob. There is a steady voice to Ormson’s work as he also brings the right level of smouldering good looks to the role to justify his tally of past sexual relationships. Ormson also captures the role’s complex combination of testosterone fuelled lust and envy together with, ultimately, compassion. As Laura, Shanay Holmes brings vocal strength to an emotionally demanding role that sees her weather a number of credible misfortunes in the course of the show’s arc.

Memorable too are Robert Tripolino’s incense-fuelled Ian, Eleanor Kane’s Marie, an American country singer who finds herself washed up in London’s N7, together with a brilliant pastiche of The Boss (aka Springsteen, see above) from Joshua Dever.

Tom Jackson Greaves directs and choreographs with an ambitious flair. The dance numbers are fun and detailed, with the inspired excellence that underlies the second act’s Conflict Resolution having to be seen to be believed. The precision movement and design of that song’s delivery is quite possibly the funniest ever delivered on London’s fringe musical scene. Up above the action, Paul Schofield’s 4 piece band are a polished treat.

High Fidelity marks the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre venue to contribute to the capital’s railway arch theatre scene. It is well worth a visit.

Runs until 7th December
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke

Death Of A Salesman is Arthur Miller’s post-war homily to the bleak brutality of the American Dream. A timeless tragedy of the dashed hopes and aspirations of husbands and wives, parents and children, all ground out through the crushingly recognisable reality of salesman Willy Loman, his wife Linda and their two adult sons Happy and Biff.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have framed their production that has transferred across the river from the Young Vic, within a distinctly racial context. Their Lomans are African Americans, subject to injustices from both their employers and their would-be employers, who here are all white. In this production's world, both power and employability (and, to be fair, the saintly kindness of neighbour Charlie) are with the white folk - while it is the blacks whose dreams are shattered. While this may be a noble conceit in its artistic intention, Miller’s text does not yield unquestioningly to such interpretation. Willy’s older brother Ben - whose spirit appears throughout the play- ventured into Alaska and Africa to make his fortune. But would a colonial exploiter of Africa’s diamonds really have been black? And would Miller's humble waiter Stanley really be a white man in such a world? The directors’ cultural misappropriation undermines Miller’s opus for in truth, Willy Loman is everyman.

Flown in from the USA, Wendell Pierce plays the eponymous salesman. While there is unquestionable power and consummate energy in Pierce’s Willy, his is not a tour-de-force. Miller writes that Loman is tired but for much of his time on stage Pierce’s delivery is frenetic. We know that Willy is manically depressed, but rather than allow Miller’s beautiful prose to portray his terminal decline, Pierce mangles manic with maniac, all too often garbling his words when a slower pace would inexorably bring the audience with him. Pierce’s work sits in sharp contrast with, by way of example, Sope Dirisu’s immaculately nuanced Biff, never finer than in the second act’s hotel room scene when he discovers his father’s devastating secret.

It is in Linda Loman, played here by Sharon D. Clarke, that we discover the production’s greatest strength. Clarke’s is perhaps the finest interpretation of this complex role, for decades, displaying a fierce protective love for Willy, while convincing us of her wise and weathered life. Magnificent in her matriarchy, Clarke’s Linda is desperate to be the glue within her family with a devotion to her husband that is as heartbreakingly supportive as it is deeply recognisable. Buy a ticket for this show if for no other reason than Clarke - hers is quite possibly a once in a generation turn.

Drama moves with the times and perhaps audiences have dumbed down or perhaps, more likely, Elliott and Cromwell know what pleases the modern-day crowd. But the strength of Miller’s tragedy has always lain in the razor sharp brilliance of his words. There is no need to reduce his work to a play with songs, no matter how relevant either the spiritual or american songbook numbers may appear. Equally, there are moments when Aideen Malone's staccato lighting bursts suggest a production that's more akin to The Curious Incident Of The Car Crash In The Nighttime. Credit though to Anna Fleischle’s set, an ingenious reflection of the timebends of Willy’s fractured mind.

Kenneth Tynan famously described Death Of A Salesman as “the greatest American play”. Elliott and Cromwell deliver an interpretation that demands to be seen.

Runs until 4th January 2020
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

Thursday, 31 October 2019

As You Like It - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kimberley Sykes

Lucy Phelps

The first of three new Royal Shakespeare Company productions kicks off this week with a delightful and especially woke performance of gender-bending romantic comedy As You Like It. Director Kimberley Sykes embraces the playful text with a diverse and tuneful cast so at ease with the text that off-the-cuff moments and audience interaction are plentiful.

The story goes that Duke Senior is exiled to the Forest of Arden by his usurper brother, Duke Frederick. Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, stays behind thanks to her bond with Frederick’s daughter, Celia… that is before Frederick flips out and banishes her after all. Celia joins her, as does their fool Touchstone, but not before disguising themselves. Rosalind becomes Ganymede, the brother to Aliena, Celia’s disguise. Throw in Rosalind’s love Orlando also escaping to the forest to avoid further persecution by his brother, Oliver... farce doth ensue.

Lucy Phelps is farce-in-chief as Rosalind/Ganymede, a bundle of eccentricity and energy as she encourages Orlando to prove his love to Rosalind by wooing Ganymede, all the while struggling to maintain her guise. David Ajao is a brawny Orlando, as passionate as any lovesick youth would be, with a dash of the jovial cheek ( a common youthful trait ) . The infamous melancholy Jacques, who’s gifted many of the play’s most quoted gems, from “All the world’s a stage” to “A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest!” is played with the perfect amount of wise whimsy by Sophie Stanton. Antony Byrne as both Dukes is another absolute tour de force as are Emily Johnstone’s beautiful vocals as Amiens and Le Beau.

The diverse cast of eighteen reflects not only age and race but also disabilities, to say nothing of a range of accents that seems to reflect nearly all of the British Isles. It’s a gorgeous way of presenting one of the Bard’s most quoted plays, adding a depth not often achieved in productions drawn from received pronunciation. 

The wooden staging seems sparse for most of the first half, with just a patch of grass and a balcony to set the scene, but is soon becomes more of a forest setting. Scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis puts his biggest creative stamp on it however in a collaboration with puppetry designer Mervyn Millar producing a disconcertingly overbearing giant puppet of the Goddess Hymen for the final scene.

This is an appropriately enjoyable and charming production of one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming up in the next few weeks.

In repertory at the Barbican until 18 January 2020, then on tour
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Monday, 14 October 2019

Up Pompeii; A 50th Anniversary Audio Revival - Review


Adapted from the stage play by Miles Tredinnick that was based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell
Audio adaptation written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin
Directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones

David Benson (in toga) with the cast of Up Pompeii

Titter ye not, and especially not amongst today’s woke folk, but a 1960s comedy classic centred around a captive slave has just been revived for the 21st century with a double CD due for release next month, just in time for Christmas.

Up Pompeii was a popular BBC TV comedy that went on to spawn two feature films in the mid Seventies, and which featured the comedy genius of Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, a slave in  Ancient Rome. The series revolved around Lurcio who would guide the show's viewers through the salacious activities going on within the household of his patrician owner Ludicrus Sextus. Much of the success of the original was down to Howerd, his camp, saucy, and titillatingly sexist gags, puns and irreverent comments that were often delivered straight to camera gave the show its energy, with his surrounding characters inevitably falling to be the butt of his seaside-postcard humour, laden with risque puns and double-entendres.

Working from the original scripts and more recent play adaptation, Barnaby Eaton-Jones has done well to capture the essence of the brilliant original, but the strength of this recording is provided by David Benson’s Lurcio. Benson’s mimicry of Howerd is uncanny and as one closes one’s eyes to listen, the transformation could be complete.

While the style of this politically incorrect curiosity has been maintained by Eaton-Jones, the recording's plotline is as creaky as a dilapidated Roman handcart. The (good) gags come aplenty early on in the piece, but as the story plays out - a yarn to do with runaway slaves and love potions, all mixed in with the day to day lechery of Ludicrus’ villa - the narrative wears dangerously thin. And while some aspects of the script have been updated to reflect 2019 - Ludicrus’ daughter Erotica “slates” (rather than “texts”) to her friend in a nod to modern day social media, complete with aubergine emojis - there is a disappointing hint of pulled-punch hypocrisy in the writing: Up Pompeii's comedy ultimately rests upon Rome’s barbaric slavery. That Eaton-Jones' script displays a complete absence of any comment whatsoever upon the various and august institutions that today are hand-wringingly addressing their guilt at having been built on slave trade wealth, seems to suggests that the slavery imposed by the Romans BCE is more acceptable than that imposed by the English speaking nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, many centuries later. 

Benson is well supported by a talented company whose highlights include a blustering Fraser Hines as Ludicrus alongside the always delightful Madeleine Smith - whose career saw her appear in the original movie alongside Howerd - who sparkles as his wife Ammonia. Cleo Rocos plays Suspenda, the nymphomaniac object of Ludicrus’ lust, while Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up as the evil slave trader Captain Treacherus.

For sure, much of the corny humour of Up Pompeii demands to be as dated as it has been written - this was the Carry On era of the 1960s/70s after all - but this script really needed to have been sharper to have truly stood the test of time. Nonetheless this CD of David Benson and his brilliant cast will offer a nostalgic stocking-filler of a gift for most of the nation’s over-50s.

To order the 2-CD recording, visit this link: