Sunday, 22 November 2020

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene - Review

Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene is an enchanting glimpse, not only of some of Marlene Dietrich’s most recognised numbers but also of her intriguing connection with Lemper, a singer from a new generation and yet who interprets Dietrich’s nuance with a breathtaking presence.

In a carefully created movie, Lemper curates a loving yet honestly delivered tribute to one of Europe’s most recognised divas of the 20th century. Drawn from an astonishing real-life event in 1989, when Dietrich, then 89 and resident in Paris, tracked down Lemper who was performing in the city – and in the ensuing conversation, only enriched the younger singer’s understanding of Dietrich’s life and her art.

The narrative plays out through a re-enacted phone conversation between Lemper and Dietrich (played by Lemper) that touches upon much of Dietrich’s remarkable journey through Germany in its Weimar, Nazi and latterly its post-war era. While the telephone conversation is rooted in fact, Lemper takes some artistic licence with the spoken detail – and yet the recollections are as fascinating as, at times they are chilling.

Musically, Lemper’s take on Dietrich’s gems are a delight with interpretations that are modern yet classic. 15 songs are woven into the recording that range from Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind  and Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? through to the gorgeous ratpack work of Johnny Mercer with One For My Baby (a sublime take) and of course Dietrich’s signature number, Lili Marleen. 

Lemper’s work is flawless and the movie is a revelation in its detail and its storytelling. But ultimately this is a cabaret-style gig filmed,  and that proves a distraction. For cinematic/streamed storytelling to work well visceral visuals are needed. The heavy hanging Gauloises smoke would work sublimely well in a late night basement cabaret venue – but in this streaming the relentless close-ups of alternating dialogue make for occasional heavy going. And furthermore, a real-life two hour cabaret set would likely include more numbers.

But for those who appreciate fine songs, beautifully sung – as well as an eye-opening glimpse into modern Europe’s history and society, then these autumn streams are not to be missed.

Produced by Alan Cumming and Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene’, filmed at Club Cumming in New York with Alan Cummin and Ute Lemper as producers, will be streamed globally on two evenings this month: Wednesday 25 November at 01.00 and Saturday, 5 December 2020 at 19.00 - All times GMT

Booking link:

Saturday, 5 September 2020

C.O.N.T.A.C.T - Review


Originally created by Samuel Sené and Gabrielle Jourdain
English adaptation by Quentin Bruno
Directed by Samuel Sené, associate director Bronagh Lagan.

It’s a typical wet and dreary slightly muggy evening in the capital. Sodden shoes, jeans damp already but you know what? As 6pm approached at the agreed meeting point, one would not wish to be anywhere else. Katy Lipson’s promenade production takes away "pre-show orders at the bar" offering instead a purer theatre: stripped down, bare and exposed in the streets of London. 

At just under an hour's duration, C-O-N-T-A-C-T consists of a cast of two and is playing out at various places across London. This reviewer saw Laura White and Max Gold taking on the double-hander at a location close to Monument tube station. As the play opens we find Sarah (White) sat alone on a bench from which we start to share her journey - a very personal expression of her thoughts from the pandemic that range from music, to work pressures, to stomach cramps. Such is the writer’s perception that there will be different moments within the narrative that will likely resonate with most of the audience. Sarah’s time remains private until she is interrupted by the arrival of a Raphael (Gold) a stranger who sits down next to her, socially distanced of course, with Sarah finding herself establishing a strange form of contact with this man whom she barely knows. 

Before delving into Sarah’s mind, the very first experience of C-O-N-T-A-C-T is the state of the art immersive sounds and music that play through each member of the audience’s personal headphones. Cyril Barbessol’s sound design is extraordinary, instantly taking the audience into another world of stereo soundscapes so carefully crafted that they could almost suggest a state of the art theme-park experience. Weaved into it this audio are the recordings of Aoife Kennan vocalising Sarah and Richard Heap as Raphael. Interestingly, while the layering of sounds, synth, music and voice is both innovative and transporting, there are moments in which the sfx or music overwhelms. If it were to be sometimes just the actors’ voices in their simplest, natural form this may well prove more effective. 

Sarah and Raphael may start the piece as strangers but they quickly form an incredibly open, and in many ways complex, relationship. Gold offers an initially slightly unnerving aloofness and detachment from Sarah, but nonetheless gives a well rounded performance in this new form of theatre where the audio track dictates every single moment, thought and action to the millisecond. White however takes the audience on the most personal of journeys, anxieties and revelations. Her natural instincts, intuition and honesty would be something to behold on a traditional stage and sat 30 rows back – but up close and some 5 meters away in the rain, her performance is little short of extraordinary. 

As joggers run by and tourists stop to gander there is something very refreshing about this piece of unconventional theatre that recently premiered in Paris. Sené’s direction is so intricate and versatile however that one suspects the piece could be picked up and played anywhere in the world. And so it should. At a time where the world for the most part has been without theatre for so long, C.O.N.T.A.C.T is an opportunity to reacquaint oneself and make contact with an art form so close to so many, on a whole new level.

Runs until 10th October 2020
Book via
Reviewed by Davide Davidssonn

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Siobhan Dillon - One Voice - Review


Siobhan Dillon

There is a touching, piercing beauty to Siobhan Dillon’s solo album One Voice, released last month. Dillon rose to public prominence in 2006, competing in TV’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and from there has gone on to leading roles in musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. Away from the greasepaint and spotlights however, recent years have seen the singer win her own very private and personal battle with cancer. Dillon has thus directed that the album's proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Haven charity as a mark of her own personal reflection upon her journey.

There is of course a poignant timeliness to the album too, for as theatres around the world lie dark amidst the lockdown, the haunting resonance of Dillon’s beautiful interpretations speaks to us all. Comprising 11 ballads, Dillon’s is an eclectic choice drawn from the greats of recent decades. The album carries only a modest nod to her musical theatre heritage, although her take on Sara Bareilles’ She Used To Be Mine from Waitress offers a spine-tingling interpretation of the number, revealing an even richer nuance to this showstopping heartbreaker.

Above all, it is Dillon’s interpretation of some of the most exquisite ballads of recent decades that gives her album such polish. Her cover of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face lifts the song away from the timelessness of Roberta Flack’s original, imbuing a new and haunting charm on the number. Likewise, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which Dillon refreshingly claims is a song that takes her straight back to her childhood, is makes for another treat.

Hearing Dillon rework Tears For Fears’ Mad World brings not only another burst of musical and vocal excellence, but as much, an almost sagelike sadness as a comment upon the world in which we find ourselves today. It is however in her final number Promise Me that Dillon dials down Beverley Craven’s passionate power, leaving instead a sweet and delicate performance that leaves one almost as if discovering the song for the first time.

Don’t just grab this album because it is raising funds for such a worthy cause. Rather, buy it as a work of beauty. Dillon’s melding of melody and voice is an album for today and for the future, while offering a stunning lookback at our musical past - simply gorgeous.

Available via Amazon, Apple Music and Spotify

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Identity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


Created and choreographed by Christopher Tendai
Co-created by Denzel Westley-Sanderson
Music by Sam. G
Original spoken word and live music by Caitlin Taylor

On for a short run at the Turbine Theatre in the last days of pre-lockdown live performance, Identity was a dance show themed around the challenges of mental health. Intriguing and unpredictable – and thus much like the soul of a dancer – the movement was accompanied by a mixture of a pre-recorded soundtrack alongside live music being played too.

This young group of performers achieved their aim of being honest both with themselves and with the audience. Their moves were self-founded, expressive and truthful, with much of the work proving to be both distinctive and excellent. Occasionally the company seemed to lack immersion in the dance, but this will no doubt be addressed over time with experience and tighter performances – when venues are allowed to re-open.

Mental health is a critical aspect of our modern lives, especially with the influence of social media platforms and there was brave imagination from the troupe in seeking to create a safe space, an environment where, as dancers, they could perform and express themselves safely and openly. In a post-show discussion between the audience and the company, the message was clear: that the issue of mental health demands more open discussion.

The performers set out to communicate that people in general should create a more supportive environment for each other, in order to be able to share more readily and to talk more with each other on a daily basis, recognising that everyone has life experiences that are both positive and negative. Their message to young people was ultimately that they should not be afraid to remove those masks that can so easily be used to hide behind - to encourage us all to show our weaknesses and acknowledge that, particularly under the cover of social media, people can appear to be strong whilst in reality that strength is nothing more than a façade.

Throughout, the dancers were able to display their identities along with their personalities as they tried to encourage young adults to follow the same path. Above all, this was an exciting evening of imaginative and moving movement.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Last Five Years - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Molly Lynch

In one of the show’s finest versions in recent years, Jonathan O’Boyle’s take on The Last Five Years makes for an evening of simply exquisite musical theatre in what has to be a definitive production of this complex and unusual work.

The narrative is simple but mind bending - Jason Robert Brown, the show’s creator projects a doomed five-year romance from two conflicting timelines. Jamie’s arc follows a natural timeline from first date right up to closing down the couple’s shared bank account. Cathy, by contrast, is introduced to us picking up the pieces of her shattered marriage and from there Brown plays with his audience. Cathy sings her life in reverse, ending on the excruciatingly painful number – to us at least - of her delirious joy following her first date with Jamie.

Oli Higginson

With its complex conceits, the show is not everyone’s cup of tea and indeed has yet to enjoy a run on Broadway. But at the Southwark Playhouse, O’Boyle much like an alchemist, fuses an array of brilliant base elements into a truly splendid show.

A grand piano sits on a revolve as the two performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson deliver the piece. The actors not only both play the instrument (and Lynch the ukulele and Higginson the guitar too) but dance upon and around the piano too. The magnificent Yamaha also proves a deceptively common denominator to the audience, cruelly appearing to unite these two out-of-lovers, when in reality there arms are only linked to perform some neatly arranged 4-handed interpretations of Brown’s slickly intuitive melodies.

Lynch’s performing skills have long been held in awe by this website and for a woman whose name sets ridiculously high levels of anticipation even before the curtain goes up, at the Southwark Playhouse she exceeds those expectations by a country mile. Capturing both passion and pathos, Lynch stuns us with her belt in A Summer In Ohio, yet breaks our hearts at both the show’s open and closing moments, as she so convincingly plays a woman who has either either seen, or is destined to see, love crumble and slip through her fingers. Elegant in white, Lynch is every inch the young out-of-towner transformed into a sassy yet vulnerable Manhattanite.

Barely graduated from the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, Higginson displays a maturity beyond his years in his inhabiting of Jewish Jamie’s crotch-driven persona. As Jamie’s deceit becomes apparent one is left wondering if the man is ever capable of sincere love, with Higginson capturing not only his passion and lies, but also that complex puppy-like charm that endears him to the audience in the show’s early numbers, but which starts to evaporate as soon as the wedding band is around his finger.

The range of musical styles that Brown has included within the 90minute one-act delight are a treat for all. This is not a show bogged down in introspective balladry, but rather a feast of melodies that range from rock and blues through to klezmer and with as much a sprinkling of humour as well as tragedy thrown in too. Complementing the two on-stage pianists, above the proceedings George Dyer, who has also orchestrated this revival, leads his 4 piece band immaculately.

O’Boyle’s direction is ingenious and economic. With both players on stage for almost the entire piece, every glance and nuance is perfectly posed to reflect their realtime non-interaction with each other, save for the show’s centrepiece, The Next Ten Minutes, that sees the pair marry in Central Park.

Lee Newby’s simple striking set is elegant and underplayed – slick and jazzy with a marquee of "L5Y" as a backdrop, but which seems to soften in the productions more melancholy moments. Likewise, Jamie Platt’s lighting plots are equally and as imaginatively, effective.

This take on The Last Five Years is one of the most gorgeously presented pieces of musical theatre to be found in London right now. Actors and creatives at the very top of their game, it is unmissable!

Runs until 28th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday, 2 March 2020

The Prince Of Egypt - A movie fan's perspective

Stephen Schwartz's musical The Prince of Egypt, a stage show based upon Dreamworks' acclaimed animation opened in London last week to mixed reviews.
The 1998 movie, the studios' first animated feature, had seen its Hans Zimmer score being Oscar nominated with Stephen Schwartz's song When You Believe, going on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Replete with its star-studded vocal cast, The Prince of Egypt movie has formed part of the backdrop of many childrens' formative years, commanding their love and adoration for a strong Bible story, beautifully told.
So what went wrong that has led to such a much-loved movie, being so slated by the critics on its transformation into a West End show?
I invited teenager Emmeline Liddle, a self-confessed fan of the film, to offer her thoughts...

Emmeline Liddle

If I had to choose one word to describe this production it would probably be “unnecessary”.

Unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary songs and unnecessary scenes manage to turn (in my opinion) one of the best animated films of all time into a boring biblical ‘bromance’. So much time is dedicated to the brothers’ relationship that the whole play drags and uncomfortably, feels ever so slightly homoerotic. We don’t need ten extra numbers depicting Moses’ frustration with and yet love for Ramses. In just a few minutes of dialogue the film manages to establish a powerful emotional connection between the two. There would be nothing wrong with this if a love story was what Schwartz had in mind - it might even have made for an interesting and original twist.

What is necessary, however, is a better set. Polystyrene blocks that wobble unsteadily and clip art of the Nile, or a sunset stock image projected onto the background just doesn’t cut it for a West End production. Having slaves portray water to carry the infant’s basket was a nice idea but looked rather clumsy at times, as was sadly often the case throughout the play. Moses almost slipped off his polystyrene seat, a ‘limestone’ block would be nudged out of place by a stray foot - it all felt amateur and cheap.

The costumes were also off. Moses would occasionally enter wearing what looked like a tank top and pajama bottoms, and I’m not sure what they were thinking dressing the Pharaoh as a Napoleonic admiral. An interesting choice, but I’m pretty sure white suits and epaulettes weren’t invented for a few thousand years.

The performance also lacked comedy. There were a few laughs, but only at the jokes which had been directly lifted from the film. In the animation the priests Hotep and Huy were an effective comedy duo, but Schwartz chose to make Hotep (Adam Pearce) the solo villain of the piece. It was also a mistake to excise the song You’re Playing With The Big Boys Now which functioned in the film to combine humour with villainy, whilst still invoking fear and awe. Despite this, Pearce was certainly the best of the male actors, bringing real malice to the stage and a welcome contrast with the overwhelmingly schmaltzy and tiresome discourse.

Overall, however, the women of the production easily outshone the men. Miriam (Alexia Khadime) was both believable and likeable - she sounded as though she meant what she said, not doing a turn at the local pantomime. Christine Allado played Tzipporah with passion, but was let down by a confused script and direction. Isn’t it rather contradictory to sing a song about how she is not an object to be owned or controlled by anyone, whilst performing an overtly sexual dance for the Pharaoh and his sons? In fact, the whole production felt confused, seemingly unable to decide whether aimed at kids, with bright colours, upbeat numbers and cartoonish backgrounds, or adults, with an overly contemplative script.

That said, Schwartz does well to address some hitherto unanswered questions. For example, we have a scene between Moses and Queen Tuya which acknowledges that if your adoptive child returned, destroyed your kingdom and killed your grandson, you’d probably be quite upset! There was probably a song about this, too. I can’t remember. Which is rather the problem. There is so much focus on having the songs be reminiscent of ancient Egypt that the same cadences are used throughout and meld into one another. The only memorable songs were the original ones.

No Power On Earth was an overused, weak new song. When the plagues descend, rather than use the original chorus Let My People Go - which drives home the main point of the story right at the climax - we have the mawkish new number instead, accompanied by cheap CGI fireballs. It has nowhere near the impact, but Schwartz has seemed set on making this song the theme of the entire production.

This brings me to my main gripe with the production. A powerful biblical tale of Hebrew emancipation is overshadowed by a preoccupation with the emotions of and relationship between two brothers. I suppose this brings the story up to date - reflecting our contemporary obsession with personal ‘journeys’. What a waste. If a story about God, betrayal, hope and miracles that has endured for millenia isn’t enough to make an exciting production out of, then I don’t know what is.

Written by Emmeline Liddle

Friday, 28 February 2020

The Prince of Egypt - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Philip LaZebnik
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Luke Brady

The Bible has not always had an easy relationship with musical theatre. Two notable exceptions being Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and that  perennial favourite Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Each of these casts a contemporary take on the scripture and features a through-sung score. A modern oratorio. At about the same time US composer Stephen Schwartz gave us Godspell, a whimsical take on the Gospels that proved just as successful and gave us memorable hits such as God Save The People and Day By Day. What Godspell lacked was staying power and major revivals have been few and far between. His musical Children Of Eden, also based on episodes from the Bible, failed to take off in 1991, despite development from the RSC.

A few years later, Schwartz scored a  hit with an animated version of the story of Moses from DreamWorks Animation, The Prince Of Egypt. It’s probably nowhere near the classic movie that the publicity would have you think, despite the noble line-up of actors providing the voices.  However Schwartz hit pay-dirt with the Academy-award winning anthem When You Believe, recorded for popular release by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Move forward another 20 years and Schwartz has shifted the story to the stage, adding further musical numbers to the score and a book by the author of the original screenplay Philip Lazebnik. All the familiar key points are in place. There are bulrushes, a baby in the basket and a burning bush. Lazebnik’s storytelling technique manages to cram many plot points into a relatively short running time. Yet for all this speed it still manages to drag, only ever really springing to life in the musical numbers. And boy, do we pray for some of the whimsy that made Godspell so appealing in its day. Instead we get a story that’s both too leaden for family audiences and too simplistic for adults.

Kevin Depinet’s set design works on certain levels, with the projections and variegated screens capturing the burning desert or the majestic temples of the Nile with some sense of scale. However bearing in mind that this is a story steeped in mysticism and miracles, there’s very little magic on show. Sean Cheesman’s relentless choreography offers us the Twelve Plagues of Egypt via interpretative dance, which would be fine if this was Sadler's Wells or the Union Theatre. I personally want a little spectacle from a West End production, especially as the hand of God was supposed to be behind it. Instead we get polystyrene building blocks and a couple of magic tricks that wouldn’t impress a ten-year old, let alone a Pharaoh. To add to the disconcerting simplicity of the special effects and set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes managed to look both cheap and unsettlingly anachronistic.

Schwartz has padded out the original with ten additional numbers, none of which really have the impact of When You Believe. The song Dance To The Day is given to Christine Allado's Tzipporah the captured Midian to establish her pride and independence. This turns out to be one of the best numbers in the show, proving a highlight for Allado and a shoo-in for this year’s Eurovision entry. Thankfully a woefully underused Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Allado do justice to When You Believe but it’s a long wait for this edifying anthem.

It’s good to see Gary Wilmot back in the West End in trousers, rather than his regular star turn as Dame at the Palladium panto. Wilmot has a natural warmth on stage and his musical number as Jethro, offers a little light relief from the rather worthy, soul-searching anthems that populate the score. The focus of Lazebnik’s story is, understandably, Moses played by Luke Brady and more pointedly his relationship with Rameses, the boy who would be Pharaoh, played by Liam Tamne. There’s oddly little chemistry between the two, although this may be down to Lazebnik’s script, which struggles to fashion a credible tone and ends up as conflicted bromance. Brady and Tamne each get to strut their stuff vocally, both proving they have quality singing voices but there’s little here to help establish them as West End leading men.

Schwartz appears to have added to his collection of problematic Bible-based musicals with The Prince Of Egypt, but director Scott Schwartz’s cheap and often confused looking production doesn’t actually help matters. It cuts too many corners, dumbs down Moses’ relationship with God and beefs up the one with Rameses. Who knows, in years to come a fringe theatre may manage to hit the right tone. In the meantime, this production could do with a little more creative flair and re-write.

Booking until 31st October
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Matt Crockett