Sunday, 18 July 2021

South Pacific - Review

 Festival Theatre, Chichester


*****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan


Sera Maehara

“Most people live on a lonely island
Lost in the middle of a foggy sea
Most people long for another island
One where they know they will like to be…”
In his haunting lyrics to Bali Ha’i, Oscar Hammerstein II could have been writing of our world today, tenatively seeking to emerge from the pandemic and longing to re-ignite its cultural heartbeat, so cruelly suspended in springtime last year. So it is that Daniel Evans’ take on South Pacific offers an evening of classic musical theatre, staged to perfection.

Much has been made of the show’s political narrative resonating with our times. In some ways this is true and in seeking to avoid spoilers, it is unquestionably uplifting to see Ensign Nellie Forbush (stunningly played by Gina Beck) achieve moral redemption as she spurns the racist foundations of her Little Rock upbringing. Likewise, as we witness Lt Joe Cable’s (Rob Houchen) inner turmoil as he battles his love for the Polynesian Liat, against his knowledge that she will never be accepted within his Princeton-steeped heritage, we can see that Rodgers and Hammerstein were brave in recognising the racial intolerances of their USA. The sadder reality of course is that nearly 70 years later, many of the show’s themes are as relevant today as they were then.

But on close inspection, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s moral compass is flawed. While planter Emil de Becque (Julian Ovenden) will happily reject the requests of the US Navy to go on a spying mission for them in enemy territory while Nellie Forbush is in his life, the moment he realises that she could be leaving his island, he signs up for Uncle Sam with barely a thought at all for his two young children who he risks making orphans should the mission fail. Hypocrite or what? Maybe de Becque’s ultimate vacuity as a responsible parent is an inconvenient truth - but it is sufficient to cast a significant fault line across this classic show’s conscience.

This criticism however is to be levelled at the show’s book alone, for what is unquestionable at Chichester is that Evans has assembled an outstanding company who deliver musical theatre excellence. The famous numbers are legendary making spines tingle and amidst an immaculately socially distanced audience in the Festival Theatre, toes tap too.

Ovenden’s de Becque makes glorious work of Some Enchanted Evening, so frequently reprised that it becomes the  show’s signature motif. Smouldering with a chiselled gravitas, it is simply a delight to listen to him coax the song’s passion and majesty into the limelight.

As regards Gina Beck, Evans has previous form in coaxing flawless magnificence from his leading lady. This website was wowed in 2015 with Beck’s turn in Evans’ Sheffield Showboat and there is a clear chemistry between the/ pair that sees her glide through songbook classics with an assured brilliance that makes the songs seem as new as they are familiar. Evans doesn’t disappoint with the show’s stock numbers either. I’m Gonna Wash That Man right out of my hair - second only to to Hitchcock’s Psycho for a cracking shower scene - is led magnificently by Beck, while her solo moments elsewhere in the production fill the auditorium with vocal gorgeousness.

Elsewhere, the cast are gems. Keir Charles as Luther Billis captures his character’s comic complexities to a tee - no easy task - while Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary is another stunner. Ampil’s role also comes with some challenging moral ambiguities that are mastered by this talented woman. She takes Happy Talk into a troubling lament, discovering hidden depths to the song.

Likewise Houchen masters Younger Than Springtime and the cautionary duet of You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught - itself another number that resonates alarmingly with the present day.

Production values are magnificent throughout with Evans and designer Peter McKintosh making fine use of Chichester's massive revolve. Ann Yee’s dance routines, including some inspiring solo balletic routines from Sera Maehara’s Liat are just divine, while high above the stage Cat Beveridge’s luxuriously furnished 16-piece band makes fine work of David Cullen’s new orchestrations of Rodgers’ classic score.

Some enchanted evening? Not ‘arf!


Runs until 5th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Starting Here, Starting Now - Review

Waterloo East Theatre, London


***


Music by David Shire
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr
Directed by Gerald Armin


Gina Murray, Noel Sullivan and Nikki Bentley


As London’s fringe theatre emerges from lockdown into the current limbo-world of partial freedoms, any venue summoning up the cojones to put a show deserves praise and recognition. That they can muster a stunning array of onstage talent such as can be found at Waterloo East right now, only adds to the occasion.

So it is with the cast of Starting Here, Starting Now, a one-act, 80 minute three hander that stars Gina Murray, Nikki Bentley and Noel Sullivan and sees all three actors deliver five-star turns that take their vocal and acting skills to the limit, with even a smattering of carefully choreographed movement too. The trio offer up a cracking display of West End excellence. It is only a shame that the producers failed to deliver neither programme nor song-list for the evening - and thus individuals cannot easily be credited for their own moments of particular excellence. Accompanying the talented trio, Inga Davis-Rutter puts in a non-stop shift of flawless delight at her keyboard.

The flaw however is this vintage revue’s material, a self-indulgent arc of a song cycle that only offers up an occasionally perceptive snipe at our modern world. Maltby Jr. is no Sondheim and it shows.  Too many songs and not enough narrative make for an 80-minute haul that seems to drag far longer than the performers deserve.

That being said, for those who have longed for months to hear a cast of the country’s finest sing their hearts out in an array of perfectly weighted pathos and spine-tingling belts, then the evening offers enthralling entertainment.


Runs until July 18th
Photo credit: Gareth McCleod

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Hairspray - Review

London Coliseum, London


*****


Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Directed by Jack O'Brien


Lizzie Bea, Michael Ball and Les Dennis



A cast comprising both stalwarts and debutantes of the West End make Jack O’Brien’s revival of his original take on Hairspray a must-see for anyone who has craved musical theatre during lockdown’s cultural drought.

Hairspray is of course all about the power of well-integrated diversity, where life’s typical outsiders become the heroes and the bigots are the baddies. In a socially distanced London Coliseum, where the covid-compliant capacity has been shrunk from 3,000 to 1,000 it was Michael Ball who summed up the audience’s roars of rapture, by saying at the curtain-call that they had cheered like 10,000, such was the throng’s pent-up passion.

Making her West End debut – albeit with a string of regional work to her credit – Lizzie Bea  leads with a stunning Tracy Turnblad. From the moment she bursts from her vertically transposed bed, straight into Good Morning Baltimore, Bea sets the evening’s pulsating tone. Confident and charismatic, Bea wins her audience and without ever resorting to kitsch or mawkishness, she masterfully enacts Tracy’s story, winning love and empathy as she hurtles towards the show’s sublimely happy ending.

Opposite Tracy is of course her domineering mother Edna and yet again for a London Hairspray, it is Michael Ball who returns to the padded suit to reprise what must surely (after Les Miserables’ Marius) be his second signature role. The years have seen Ball age disgracefully into his Edna with him proving all the more delectably monstrous for it too. The show’s eye-wateringly brilliant comedy highlight remains Ball and Les Dennis (as hapless hubby Wilbur) duetting (You’re) Timeless To Me. The song demands perfection in its timing and nuance for its shtick to work – with the seasoned professionalism of Ball and Dennis providing a masterclass in hilarity.

The always excellent Marisha Wallace delivers a magnificent Motormouth, with a performance that both rouses and enraptures the Coliseum’s crowd. Her take on the show’s eleven o’clock number I Know Where I’ve Been sending the audience into a spontaneous standing ovation, such was her power of performance and emotion.

Rita Simons brings her 2-dimensisional character of arch-baddie Velma Von Tussle into wonderfully comic relief, while squaring the circle of the show’s key love arc, Jonny Amies (another West End newbie) offers an assuredly chiselled performance as TV show host Link Larkin.

O’Brien and his choreographer Jerry Mitchell, know Hairspray intimately and yet they still infuse a freshness and vitality into the production that makes it as relevant a comment for today as for its original target of 1960s civil rights torn Baltimore.

Outstanding musical theatre!


Runs until 29th September
Photo credit: Tristan Kenton

Saturday, 26 June 2021

A Cold Supper Behind Harrods - Review

****


Written by David Morley
Directed by Philip Franks




With a live performance staged at the Oxford Playhouse by the Original Theatre Company in association with Perfectly Normal Productions and screened for one night only, A Cold Supper Behind Harrods, was originally broadcast as a radio play in 2012. Fast forward nine years and the play has now been staged. streaming until September, with the original leads of Stephanie Cole, David Jason and Anton Lesser returning to their roles.

David Morley’s complex storyline, sees the three principals as SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents meeting up again some fifty years after the World War Two to be interviewed for a television documentary investigating the wartime murder by the Gestapo of their late female and much-loved colleague.

Initial pleasantries between the three-give way to more disturbing issues as a web of lies and deceptions emerges, leading at last to the real truth.  Inspired by real life characters and events, it makes for gripping entertainment, made even better by an outstanding cast and Adrian Linford’s deceptively simple set.

The venerable David Jason is agent John Harrison, proving once again that age is no barrier when it comes to sheer brilliance. As Harrison crumbles beneath the weight of knowledge revealed, Jason is utterly believable.

As the female agent Vera, Stephanie Cole is at her irascible best, her roguish smile shining through at odd moments, while Anton Lesser projects a cool calm that later erupts into menace.

Adhering to Morley’s original script, which was inspired by the playwright’s meeting with two WWII veterans, the story is fictional, with love, revenge and feelings of guilt at its core.   

Finely written and superbly performed, this is a play that will pull you in from start to finish.



Streaming until 22nd September 2021 via this link 

Reviewed by Barbara Michaels

Monday, 15 March 2021

Nemesis - Review

****


Screenplay by Adam Stephen Kelly
Story by Jonathan Sothcott and Adam Stephen Kelly
Directed by James Crow



Billy Murray


Nemesis is the latest offering from producer Jonathan Sothcott. Evidencing his canny eye for today’s zeitgeist, Sothcott’s picture delivers 90 minutes of unpretentious, thinly-plotted movie brilliance that’s guaranteed to cheer-up a locked down evening!

Character hardman Billy Murray, he of The Bill and EastEnders fame but with a string of cockney credits in TV and film stretching back to the 1960s, is London gangster John Morgan, recently exiled to Turkey. Flying in from his sun-drenched villa accompanied by moll/wife Sadie (ably performed by Sothcott’s real-life missus, Jeanine Nerissa), Morgan’s trip to London is ostensibly for he and Sadie to be introduced to Zoe (played by Lucy Aarden), the girlfriend of their daughter Kate (newcomer Ambra Moore). Of course as the plot spins out one learns that there is much more to this long-term villain, together with his nearest and dearest, than meets the eye.

Sothcott has assembled a cracking cast to flesh out his story’s deliciously two-dimensional characters, with family vengeances proving to be a recurrent theme. Nick Moran plays second-generation copper Frank Conway, an alcoholic who blames Morgan for his father’s death. And giving what turns out to be a very brutal twist on sibling rivalry, Frank Harper puts in a grisly performance as Morgan’s brother Richard, transforming a family get together around the dinner table into a charnel house of slaughter that would make Titus Andronicus blush. James Crow deftly directs and with a hint of 21st century noir thrown in, the story makes for a ripping (literally at times) yarn.  

Some of Nemesis' photography captures London in those heady pre-pandemic days (was it barely a year ago?) when the city’s streets teemed with activity, double-decker buses bustled and London was just, well, London. One can only pray for those days to return….

Until then, Nemesis will have to remain a home-viewed thrill. And with pop up cameos from the venerable and always classy Julian Glover, together with the Capital’s original Flying Eye Russ Kane, what’s not to love about this blood-drenched treat of a movie.


Available on DVD and digital download from 29th March

Saturday, 6 March 2021

The Stylist - Review

*****


Story by Jill Gevargizian
Written by Jill Gevargizian, Eric Havens and Eric Stolze
Directed by Jill Gevargizian



Najarra Townsend


The Stylist marks a stunning first full-length feature from Jill Gevargizian. A meticulously written and directed piece that offers not only a finely constructed psycho-drama to propel its narrative, but also some top-notch horror visuals too.

In an equally stunning performance, Najarra Townsend is Claire, the movie’s titular hairdresser. And without pulling any punches, The Stylist sets out its stall before the opening titles have rolled as Claire drugs and scalps an out-of-town walk-in client who simply wanted her roots touched up, rather than removed.

Gevargizian’s effects are wonderful, with the sight and sound of her victim's demise proving almost unbearable to watch - particular credit here to Colleen May’s special make-up. But it is so much more than the ‘hair-raising’ horror of Claire's carnage that makes this movie work, as Gevargizian’s script explores her protagonist’s murderous motives. While Claire’s candlelit lair, complete with rows of mannequin heads sporting previous victims’ locks may be a tad Hollywood kitsch, her deadly-damaged psyche is as credible as that of Joaquin Phoenix’s recent Joker. Claire’s envies, resentments, rejections and neglect are all in plain sight and in one particular killing, where Claire’s craving for the dopamine release that only scalping a victim can deliver, Gevargizian’s understanding of addiction and its associated compulsions is chilling in its accuracy.

Brea Grant plays Olivia, a long-standing client of Claire who is preparing for her wedding amidst a bride’s usual anxieties of making sure that her hair is perfect for the big day. The decline of the women’s relationship is charted through the movie’s 105 minutes, culminating in a devastating and shocking finale. 

Tributes abound within the storyline, in a production lovingly filmed around Gevargizian’s home town of Kansas City, Missouri. Indeed, in a truly Hitchcockian moment, the writer/director herself puts in a pulsating cameo that only adds to Claire’s body count. 

This is undoubtedly one of the finest horror movies of recent years.


Certificate 18
105 minutes

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