Friday, 24 May 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley

Amidst the financial crash of 2007/08, one of the most memorable images was that of the summarily fired employees of Lehman Brothers investment bank streaming out of their offices in New York and London’s Canary Wharf, their personal possessions unceremoniously borne in those ubiquitous cardboard Bankers Boxes.

Those branded boxes form a scenic mainstay throughout Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy and in this opus of a play, that spans from the middle of the 19th century through to the early years of the 21st, the writer’s suggestions are clear. Not only were the seeds of the bank’s downfall planted at its very inception, but also that much of the responsibility for this most recent of financial calamities, lies at the feet of the three Lehman brothers who had arrived on the USA’s eastern seaboard as penniless Jewish immigrants some 160 years before.

This is an unpleasant even if unsurprising conflation, for the last surviving member of the Lehman dynasty to have actually served on the bank’s board was Bobby Lehman, a grandson of the founders and who himself had died in 1969, some 40 years prior to the bank’s collapse and hence well distanced from the decisions that led to its demise. This lapse of time however has not troubled Massini. Much as was sung in Monty Python’s Spamalot: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you dont have any Jews”, so Massini switches Broadway for Wall Street and, like an East End mural, subtly fuels a troubling trope. 

The stagecraft on display in this 3.5 hours epic is breathtaking. Assuming all roles, genders, and ages, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are a tour de force of a trio. With accents that are never too laboured and Sam Mendes having focused on the tiniest of nuances in each man’s work, their performances have to be amongst the finest in town. Es Devlin’s staging is ingeniously and suggestively slick - a simple minimally furnished revolve (complete with said boxes) enveloped by Luke Halls’ wraparound video screen - but it is the three actors who convincingly convey time, place and characters as they drive the narrative from the brothers’ humble beginning as Alabama cotton traders through to their dominance of New York’s financial district.

Massini keeps the three brothers clad in European/Victorian tailcoats throughout, reflecting the costume and time of their arrival on the eastern seaboard. But while this simplicity of clothing places a dramatic requirement upon the three men to enact their respective characters through their performances - a challenge that they not only rise to, but emphatically smash - its continual presence throughout the piece only heightens the play’s subliminally uncomfortable associations. 

Taking a step back from the production’s breath-taking technical brilliance - opening now in the West End having only just returned from an acclaimed, brief, New York transfer - the quality of the writing does not match the standards of Mendes’ cast and crew. While the story revolves around (and not entirely incorrectly) the brute avarice of capitalism with the horrors of the 1929 Wall Street crash featuring heavily in the second act, the argument is one-sided and there is little if any respect paid to the positive aspects of capital markets.

For sure the markets are imperfect, often profoundly so, but it was and remains risked capital that often created national as well as private wealth and much mass employment too. But for Massini it seems that these are inconvenient truths. Similarly, the story’s vast timeline is managed well until the third act’s endgame, when the four decades following Bobby Lehman’s demise are telescoped into a barely fleshed-out finale.

Notwithstanding its flawed message, in these times of unparalleled political polarisation The Lehman Trilogy will be lapped up by eager audiences. And for sheer technical theatrical genius, the play is in a class of its own.

Runs until 31st August. To be screened via NTLive on 25 July 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Carousel - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer

To read my recent interview with Janie Dee and Jo Riding, click here

Image may contain: one or more people and indoor
The company of Carousel
Every now and then theatrical magic descends...

So it was at the Cadogan Hall this week where Alex Parker had assembled a starry cast and a magnificent 30-strong orchestra to perform, for one night only, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. But this cast had something even more special, setting it apart from the throng of musicals currently playing in the West End and on Broadway. For back in 1992 Carousel had been staged at London's National Theatre in a production that featured Jo Riding and Janie Dee as female leads Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge. Such was the excellence of director Nicholas Hytner’s show that not only did his revival win the Olivier for Best Musical Revival and Best Director, but Riding and Dee won the Oliviers for Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Performer (both for in a Musical), respectively.

Riding and Dee had been recently reunited at the National as the leads in a revival of Follies and so it was an act of sheer vision that prompted Parker to invite the duo to reprise their Carousel magnificence in a concert performance of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.

Janie Dee and Jo Riding in Carousel, 1992

The pair’s contribution to the evening was a display, not only of continuing musical theatre excellence – but also of a sheer unbridled love for the show that they were singing. As the cast remained seated on stage when not called upon to perform, Dee’s passion for the piece was almost palpabke. When not performing herself she was absorbing the detail of the music and the occasion, almost in disbelief - not dissimilar to Billy Bigelow being granted the chance to descend from Heaven for a one day visit to Earth - that she had been granted a chance to reprise this heavenly score. Riding too was both entranced and enchanting and yet, in full keeping with the incredibly complex character that Julie is, maintained a sobriety that in no way diminished her evident love for the occasion.

Parker had rehearsed his musicians impeccably. From the opening bars of The Carousel Waltz, through to the closing strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone – not to mention the sheer brilliance of the demanding Act 2 Ballet, the music was a profound delight, accompanied by a vocal chorus of students from the Guildford School of Acting.

Alongside Riding and Dee, Hadley Fraser was  compelling and convincing as the violently troubled Billy Bigelow. Another character of deep complexity, Fraser imbued the errant husband with as much sympathy as could be afforded to his abusive nature. He also delivered a sensational Soliloquy.

Gavin Spokes captured Mr Snow’s comic pomposity perfectly, as Stewart Clarke’s Jigger was another deft turn from this talented young man, Clarke picking out his character’s malign opportunistic wickedness. Both men were vocally outstanding, with Matthew Kelly and Chizzy Akudolu complementing the set of supporting roles as The Starkeeper and Mrs Mullins respectively

As Nettie Fowler, Lucy Schaufer’s operatic background led to her spine-tingling take on You’ll Never Walk Alone. But back in 1992 it had been Patricia Routledge (not yet then a Dame) who played Nettie. Incredibly, and at the age of 90!, Routledge returned to this production as the narrator. For those in the audience who remembered the 1992 show, to see Dame Patricia singing along in the finale of the show’s totemic anthem was unforgettable.

Photo credit: Take Two Theatricals (2019) and Clive Barda (1992)

Friday, 10 May 2019

Amour - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Michel Legrand
Libretto by Didier Van Cauwelaert
English adaptation by Jeremy Sams
Adapted from Le Passe-Muraille by Marcel Aymé

The company

Michel Legrand’s Amour is a curious show, first seen in Paris in 1997 and then five years later, on Broadway where it was to run for a month or so. Curious for sure, but yet this whimsical tale of a Parisian clerk who finds himself temporarily gifted with a superhuman ability to walk through walls,lends itself perfectly to London’s Off West End theatre scene.

The tale may be implausible and Jeremy Sams’ translation of the original libretto occasionally creaks with a predictable, schoolboy simlplicity. But in the hands of Danielle Tarento’s cast and creative team, Legrand’s show is imbued with a classy charm that, like the most delicate of a French pâtissier’s mille-feuilles, is a delight to savour.

On stage virtually throughout, Gary Tushaw is the magically transformed Dusoleil, bestowing a plausible ordinariness upon his literally unbelievable character and bringing a vocal delight to the role in this sung-through piece. The object of his desire is Anna O’Byrne’s Isabelle, with the actress’ pedigree shining through every time she sings. O’Byrne brings a quality to her performance that is most usually associated with West End productions costing far more than a Charing Cross ticket, as her poise, presence and vocal delivery prove enchanting. 

To be fair all of the cast are close to flawless, with some of the ensemble's close harmony work proving sensational as they glide through Legrand’s cascading melodies. There is a fine turn from Alasdair Harvey as the jealously possessive Prosecutor and husband of Isabelle, while Claire Machin’s Whore brings the house down with her perfectly nuanced caricature. A nod too on the night of this review to Jack Reitman, understudying three minor roles brilliantly, and delivering the Doctor with an assured comedic confidence.

Tarento’s hallmarks of outstanding production values abound. Hannah Chissick’s direction is perceptive and intuitive, Adrian Gee's costumes are a treat, and in a venue where sound design can often disappoint, Andrew Johnson’s work is outstanding. Every word is crystal clear, easily heard alongside the immaculately balanced sound of Jordan Li-Smith’s also excellent 6 piece band.

While the narrative and argument may be slight, the charm of this show makes it a musical highlight of the capital's 2019 fringe scene. For lovers of quality musical theatre production, Amour is unmissable.

Runs until 20th July 2019
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 3 May 2019

Man Of La Mancha - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Written by Dale Wasserman
Directed by Lonny Price

Kelsey Grammer and Danielle De Niese

It has been 50 years since Man Of La Mancha last played in London’s West End and based upon this year’s offering from the ENO and co-producers Grade-Linnitt it is easy to see why. This curious tale of romance, chivalry and ageing, drawn from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, demands production values that are nothing short of excellent if its hidden but cheesy charms are to truly suspend an audience’s disbelief.

Here however, celebrity stunt casting has stripped what could have been a majestic musical of its Iberian magic. Kelsey Grammer leads as Cervantes / Quixote and while Grammer’s ability to carry off the close-ups of a carefully scripted TV sitcom is unmatched, he fails to fill the demanding chasm that is London’s Coliseum. Compared to the West End’s finest Grammer can sing, just. But he cannot act through his song and for a show that is built around one absolute money-shot of a number, the first act's closer The Impossible Dream, one is left wandering out for an ice cream and feeling distinctly short-changed even before the rip-off prices of a vanilla tub.

There’s mediocrity elsewhere too - Nicholas Lyndhurst (another gem of the smaller screen) puts in a throughly average turn as the Governor / Innkeeper and even Peter Polycarpou as Sancho Panza, a man who usually delivers musical theatre genius, is burdened  by director Price with a cod Spanish accent that reduces his part to little more than a Spanish waiter. Polycarpou is so much better than this.

There are some moments to the production that imbue quality. Danielle De Niese is magnificent as Aldonza / Dulcinea - her voice, particularly in the closing act, breaking hearts as she sings of her love for the dying old man. And the music is rather wonderful too with the ENO Orchestra under David White’s baton proving an absolute delight. For anyone who loves Mitch Leigh’s sumptuous score, you will never hear it played live any finer than this.

Runs until 8th June

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Ain't Misbehavin' - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Fats Waller
Based on an idea by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr
Directed by Tyrone Huntley

The cast of Ain't Misbehavin'

Not seen on a London stage for 40 years, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is gloriously revived at Southwark Playhouse in a co-production with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre.

More of a revue than a musical - there’s no narrative thread outside of each individual song’s arc - the show’s beautifully voiced quintet whirl through thirty or so Fats Waller numbers in an evening that captures the Jazz Age in New York’s Harlem.

The songs are a selection of American Songbook favourites together with the less well-known and it is a credit to director Tyrone Huntley, in his first stint at helming a production, that he extracts not only humour, but also pathos and passion from his talented cast. 

The five performers work impressively as a well drilled troupe - and credit here to  Oti Mabuse’s slick and imaginative choreography that makes fine use of the Southwark’s tight thrust space. But more than just an ensemble, Huntley finds room for each performer to deliver powerful solo turns too.

takis’s ingenious set has travelled well from Essex. A glitzy, archy, tunnelled trompe l’oeil that sits atop a gold burnished floor. Unquestionably brash, yet takis has fashioned a design that complements the piece perfectly, suggesting a nightclub that could have been a magical escape from the poverty of Harlem.

The music is great too. On piano, Alex Cockle conducts his 6 piece combo with nuanced gusto, the non-stop music proving an absolute delight.

With Ain’t Misbehavin' Southwark Playhouse again proves itself as a venue for top-notch Off West End entertainment.

Runs until 1st June
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Night Of The Living Dead - Review

Pleasance Theatre, London


Written by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin
Created by Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison
Directed by Benji Sperring

Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering

George A Romero’s 1968 movie Night Of The Living Dead not only unleashed zombies upon an unsuspecting world, but was also one of the first movies to fuse horrific gore with political allegory and just a spattering of satire. The film rapidly garnered cult status and it was a bold move from the 5 (predominantly Canadian) minds behind the stage show’s inception to translate the picture from stage to screen.

Holed up in a remote farmhouse and surrounded by hordes of the rapacious undead, 5 survivors seek to avoid the gruesome demise that inevitably awaits them. Aspects of the movie’s plot surface throughout the narrative, and it is a tribute to Diego Pitarch’s outstanding set design and costume theme, that the era and location (including frequent switches between the farmhouse’s ground floor and basement) are delivered so convincingly. Reflecting the original black & white photography of the story, Pitarch deploys an effective monochrome throughout.

But the narrative depends on the people and co-producer Katy Lipson has chosen wisely in engaging Benji Sperring to helm the show. As seen with The Toxic Avenger a couple of years ago at the Southwark Playhouse, Sperring is an accomplished director of comic ghastliness and he has chosen two of his Southwark stalwarts, Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels to drive the evening’s morbid irony. A seminal 60s work, Romero ensured (and the play repeatedly acknowledges) that the issues of the Cold War, civil rights and sexual inequalities that were riving America’s psyche at the time fuelled his satire.

Mari McGinlay plays the eponymous Barbara while Jennifer Harding doubles up for Helen and Judy – with their respective interactions being as deliciously nuanced as a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. The sound (Samuel West, James Nicholson and Paul Gavin) and lighting (Nic Farman) are top notch too, enhancing the shock comedy horror and providing the perfect complement to Pitarch’s designs.

The tropes and familiar plot lines play out well, though a re-run scene between a cop and his assistant (Mike Bodie and Tama Phethean respectively) proves a little tiresome. Nonetheless a quality and innovative piece of theatre that offers up a neat tribute to Romero’s original.

Runs until 8th June
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Marvellous Wonderettes - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written & created by Roger Bean
Directed by Joseph Hodges

The Marvellous Wonderettes

The Marvellous Wonderettes makes its UK debut at London’s Upstairs At The Gatehouse, a juke-box musical that first played Milwaukee in 1999, before its off-Broadway arrival in New York some 9 years later.

Canny casting directors would do well to make the trip to Highgate and catch the quartet of Sophie Camble, Rosie Needham, Louise Young and Kara Taylor Alberts. In a set list (for the evening is more akin to a revue than a musical) that spans the 1950s and 60s, the four women capture the era’s vocals magnificently.

But this all-American show is served heavy on the cheese - and American cheese doesn’t easily cross the  Atlantic. The gleeful High School patter (shifted 10 years on for the second act) that links the songs could barely have entertain a modern US audience let alone a house (full, to be fair) of cynical Brits. And playing at the Gatehouse to an audience who appeared to be predominantly sexa and septuagenarians the, songs could not come quickly enough.

Lauren Ronan’s band put in sound work throughout the evening - but stronger work on the reeds would have been appreciated. Many of the numbers had glorious saxophone lines when released all those decades ago but much of the melodies’ original magic is muted here. And while the cast is unquestionably magnificent, performer(s) of colour would not have gone amiss, particularly given that one of the second half’s big moments is a cover of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. 

Hey - the audience loved the songs though, brilliantly sung as they are, and at times there was something close to a zombie awakening as Stupid Cupid and You Don’t Own Me stirred the crowd into a foot-tapping frenzy.

And when the Wonderettes sing, the show is marvellous.

Runs until 12th May
Photo credit: Kevin Ralph