Friday 24 February 2012

Frozen - Review

Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans


Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Stephen Cunningham

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

24 February 2012

Frozen touches upon some of the darkest aspects of (in)humanity and is written to be performed within simple staging parameters. The cast comprises Ralph, a serial killing paedophile, Nancy the grieving mother whose 10 year old daughter Rhona, he has murdered and Agnetha, a psychiatrist responsible for assessing his behaviour. It is a challenging production to stage.

The play opens with Nancy tending her garden and sending Rhona on an errand, the journey that will lead to her being snatched. Interestingly, a gardening theme is echoed in the National Theatre’s London Road, written 13 years later. This popular domestic activity is now being recognised as a metaphor by which normal sub/urban life can be defined, a task so humdrum and routine that it throws into sharp contrast the horror of a nearby murder.

The aims and scope of the play are massive. With a lot of the text delivered as monologues, some deeply distressing, there is a huge responsibility upon the cast to carry the intensity of Lavery’s writing effectively. There is nowhere for an actor to hide within this production.

Ralph is possibly one of the darkest monsters of modern theatre. An apparently typical “white van man”, no Hannibal Lecter he, his most chilling feature being this apparent normality. John Stenhouse tackles the role admirably, portraying a breadth of emotion as he told Ralph’s story. However, whilst he had breadth, I felt he lacked depth. I have seen an audience flinch in disgust and loathing as Ralph describes aspects of his perverted sexual appetite, but Stenhouse failed to reach the understated menace that surrounds his character’s supposed normality and which, in the right hands, can chill an entire theatre.

If Ralph is the darkest modern monster, then the role of Nancy is arguably one of the most harrowing. Debbie Oakes as Nancy played the role sensitively, avoiding the slip from tragedy to melodrama, however for me, her harrow was just not deep enough. It felt as though we were spectating upon her pain, rather than sharing it. In her closing speech to act one, acknowledging the grief that her surviving elder daughter Ingrid has suffered following the murder, Oakes moved me deeply, but those moments were all too rare.

As Agnetha, Lisa White is excellent, accurately portraying not only the doctor's own sense of personal guilt and confusion as a sub-plot unfolds, but also her sense of cluttered mania, as she attempts to manage the therapeutic assessments of Ralph, as well as her own complicated life.

Phil Hamilton’s sound and lighting design enhanced the production, with effective backgrounds to mood and scene.

Sadly on press night there was only a sparse audience in St Albans. Given the hard work and effort that the cast had clearly put into this show, such a poor attendance is disappointing, but it begs the question: Was the show poorly marketed, or was there simply no appetite for such bleak and upsetting theatre in an out of town venue? As in the big city, regional productions are entitled to challenge audiences as well as entertain then, but with London only 30 minutes away by train, a production as dark and adult as Frozen needs to be simply outstanding if an audience is to be attracted.

The play’s writing is largely 5-star and for the power of the text to be conveyed it needs actors of a similar calibre. Anything less, and the arc of this painful story freezes.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Travelling Light - Review

National Theatre, London

February 19 2012

Written by: Nicholas Wright
Directed by Nick Hytner
Music by Grant Olding

In some ways, Travelling Light represents what the National Theatre really can do very well. A stunning set design by Bob Crowley that cleverly evokes an Eastern European shtetl at the beginning of the 20th century, and a use of technology and staging to tell what could be a very imaginative story.
The play charts the development of the exploitation of the motion picture camera developed by the Lumiere brothers into a vehicle for telling fictional stories that can ultimately be projected to paying audiences. In essence, the birth of what Hollywood was to become.
Nicholas Wright opens his tale in 1936 with Maurice Montgomery ( Paul Jesson ) , a Hollywood producer, looking back to his starting out in motion pictures as a young man in the shtetl, inheriting his father's camera.  The young filmmaker is played by Damian Molony,  whose name before emigrating to the USA had been Motel Mendl
Mendl recognises the potential to use the camera to tell stories through film, and a local wealthy timber merchant Jacob Bindel, (Antony Sher) sees the commercial potential in Mendl making films that will tell exciting and fantastic stories that people will want to pay money to see.
The story’s strength lies in its premise that some of the key aspects of film-making were born even in the infancy of the art. The small world of the shtetl sees the movie-makers encounter budgetary constraints, temperamental artists, a meddling (or even visionary) producer, sexual duplicity and even the casting couch. To that extent the story is potentially clever, and at times probably close to being historically accurate in some of the detail it portrays. The National’s use of projection technology to chart the development of Mend’ls black and white silent movies is pleasing – the musical accompaniment written by the talented Grant Olding provides an authentic shtetl sound. It is clear that with his skiffle contribution to One Man , Two Guvnors, and with his work in this production, that there is a very positive creative relationship between Hytner and Olding.
The delivery of the story is however flawed inasmuch as there is an inconsistent use of accent and dialect. In the shtetl, most of the (generally well acted) characters do not have an Eastern European inflection to their voice  with the exception of Bindel, whose distinctive and somewhat contrived accent has already rather mischievously been described as being based around Borat. In a similar observation, the young  Mendl speaks with with no accent whatsoever in the shtetl, yet adopts a broad American-Yiddish brogue as the old man Montgomery by the time he makes it to Hollywood. This dialectic evolution is left unexplained.

The character of Bindel is also just a little too "one-dimensional". The timber merchant describes his journey from poverty to wealth, but we only encounter him as an established person of substance, and see little of his development.  To have Sher play a character who is often little more than a stereotypical cross between Tevye and Zorba ,but without the emotional arc of either of those two cultural legends, seems to me a rare squandering of one of the great acting talents of his generation. The action of the play hops between Hollywood and the flashback shtetl, and the story moves towards a denouement that whilst aiming to be moving and profound is perhaps a little too contrived.
Overall, one is reminded of Tateh , the penniless Jewish immigrant to the USA in Ahrens and Flaherty's musical Ragtime who goes on to make his fortune in the movie industry. Tateh's story is a modest chapter in a much larger canvas, but nonetheless a journey told perhaps a little more succintly than has been portrayed here.

The recent success of the movie The Artist has seen silent film thrust back into contemporary popularity. With that in mind and given the rather distracting vocal inconsistencies in this production, a possible thought to consider is that if this play had perhaps have been devised as a  mimed performance, without dialogue, but with simply more of Olding's music and appropriately projected dialog cards it could possibly have been a more impressive tribute to the era that it sets out to portray.

In repertory and also on tour until June 2

Rocinante! Rocinante! - Review

CLF Theatre, London


This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

16 February 2012

Devised by: The Panta Rei Theatre Collective

Director:  Chiara D'Anna

Rocinante! Rocinante! is a participative piece of physical theatre. The production takes the character of Don Quixote, played here by Juancho Gonzalez, as its baseline and weaves a dream-like interaction between Cervantes’ troubled hero and the gravediggers from Hamlet. The cast of seven take us on a journey, performed entirely mise-en-scene that is always thought provoking and at times quite unsettling. Whilst the production is often beautiful, it is not easy to watch, nor is it intended to be. The bleak white-washed space of the CLF theatre in Peckham lends a harsh and unforgivingly clinical air to the performance: wear comfortable clothes and wrap up warm!

Quixote’s pursuit of Dulcinea provides a central thread to the performance, and Stephanie Lewis embodies the subject of the Don’s desire with a ghostly ethereal beauty that at times blurs into hints of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In a surprisingly effective doubling up of roles, Lewis also plays Quixote’s trusty steed Rocinante, her slender frame evoking a nag well past her prime. The other equine role, that of Sancho Panza’s donkey is performed by Tommy Scott, and with effective use of Lewis’ flowing locks, and cleverly deployed wooden spoons as the donkey’s ears, the two quadrupeds are touchingly evoked on a fraction of the War Horse budget!

Two of the production’s scenes really do stand out . Quixote’s nightmare is a portrayal of a man struggling with paranoid schizophrenia and it is difficult, almost unbearable, to watch. There is no windmill on stage to be tilted at, but neither is there a requirement for one. Gonzalez moves the audience with a depiction of a man who is as terrified as he is unhinged. And elsewhere, in a haunting dream like vision, the suggestion of the tragic drowning of Ophelia is beautifully portrayed.
Other notables in the production are Daniel Rejano who embodies Sancho Panza, with a nod to Fawlty Towers’ Manuel, both characters of course being the “straight guy” to their deluded masters and Chiara D’Anna , who also directs, impressing as a manic gravedigger, Gary.

The play’s stated mission to link these two leading works of English and Spanish literature is a bold conceit and I am not convinced that the argument for such an interaction is effectively made within the show’s one-act 70 minute duration. Nonetheless, the company’s venture into using classical literature to tackle perceptions and tolerance of mental health, is an innovative and refreshing use of theatre.

Runs until March 2

Sunday 12 February 2012

Lucky Stiff - Review

Landor Theatre , Clapham, London

February 11 2012


Music : Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics : Lynn Ahrens
Director : Rob McWhir

With Lucky Stiff,  the Landor has offered to London a musical theatre treat, delivered in its intimate surroundings and proving again that a well produced show, based solely around talented performers does not require gimmicks of technology or staging, nor even a heart-rending story.

The show is a delightful farce the improbability and incredibility of which , demand that you set your intellectual expectations at zero as you take your seat. James Winter, recently of Jersey Boys, is Harry Witherspoon, a shoe salesman from Sussex who learns that he will become the sole beneficiary of a distant relatives $6million legacy in diamonds, if he can wine, dine and entertain the deceased’s corpse, for a week in Monte Carlo. The instructions for the weeks carousing are precise, and if Witherspoon fails, the estate will pass to a New York dogs home . Hoping that the Englishman will put a foot wrong, the dogs home have sent Annabel Glick to tail him throughout his European stay, so they can claim the fortune. Throw in a murderous casino manager's moll ( who also happens to be the casino owner's wife ) , a neurotic East Coast optometrist escaping a domineering spouse and you start to get a feel for the outrageous twists and turns of the plotline.

Such a tall story requires actors who can rise to the challenge of delivering performances that are in essence as much caricature as character, and the Lucky Stiff cast do not disappoint.

Winter is everything you expect as an angular awkward Englishman, thrust into circumstances that at first he can barely comprehend, but the challenges of which he quickly rises to. Abigail Jaye, as Glick, the foil to his plans, is a delight to watch. Her performance is perhaps the most challenging of all. A prim do-gooder, concerned solely for the welfare of her dogs, to whom personal pleasure is anathema. Jaye takes Glick on the most delightful arc, cautiously shedding her inhibitions ( and in a moment of sheer farce, her clothes ) as the inevitable love interest blossoms between her and Witherspoon.

Lucy Williamson ( who recently understudied Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow ) is wonderful as the murderous broad, Rita La Porta, dragging her optometrist brother Vincent , maniacally played by Miles Western , in their own pursuit of the diamonds.

To spoil the story would not be fair, but suffice to say that some of the finest principles of farce are upheld - bodies are wheeled in and out in a combination of wheelchairs and laundry baskets, doors open and shut, and of course there has to be a scene in which the trousers of a lipstick-smeared man end up around his ankles.

The choreography is a delight. James Houlbrooke has exploited the Tardis like qualities of the Landor, with routines and movements that defy the dimensions of the room, and the tap dance of Harry’s Nightmare, where the corpse of his dead uncle hilariously leads the line , is wonderful.

Set design too is imaginative, with the numerous doors cleverly designed into the Landor’s space, and it should be added, the comic timing of the cast is faultless throughout.

Rob McWhir has directed a comic gem. The show is literally short and sweet. See it to catch musical theatre at its truly frivolous best.

Runs until February 25

Songs From the American Motel - Review

Leicester Square Theatre


This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

9 February 2012

Music & Lyrics : Ezra Axelrod

Director: Martina Bonolis

Songs From The American Motel showcases the recently released album of the same name, from American singer songwriter Ezra Axelrod.

The Lounge at the Leicester Square Theatre has been cleverly transformed into a seedy American motel room, adorned with a bed, of course, but also with empty Doritos packs, used beer cans and bedside lamps with cracked red shades, tawdry items that instantly suggest the down-market establishments in which Axelrod has “banged his way across America”.

The songs chart the writer’s journey – as a gay adolescent, pressured into conforming to the straight expectations of his Oregon small-town peers and poignantly described in “Around Here”, through to the present day, gloriously looking back on his relationships to date, and celebrating his sexuality.

.Some of Axelrod’s writing is beautiful. “10 Million Lights” is a soulful ballad, whilst “American Motel” is a brash raunchy number, epitomising what to him is clearly the delicious seediness of relationships consummated behind motel room doors.

Other numbers however lacked impact. “Father” performed after a spoken tribute to Axelrod’s late grandfather, was a softly written song that somehow missed a truly moving dimension. And in “Strangers” the emotional impact of the song similarly failed to register, perhaps again because the structure of the melody was too simple, not reaching the depth of the message of the lyrics.

Accompanied by 6 performers, the close harmonies were tight throughout and the ensemble excelled. Willemijn Steenbakkers on violin was a delight, and Tim Oxbrow impressed on vocals. Tom Parsons of Avenue Q fame proved a worthy bass player and vocalist.  Perhaps too many of the songs were Axelrod solos and it would have added depth to the evening to have further exploited the other singers, all of whom were on stage throughout the set. Also bear in mind that the Lounge is a tiny venue and unless you are sat in the front row it can be difficult to see all of the action.

Overall, some good songs, but the evening’s humour could have been funnier, and some of Axelrod’s narrative less schmaltzy and clichéd. The show’s publicity comprises a clever Photoshopped montage of Ezra pillow fighting with himself in a motel bedroom. A neat image that turns out to be a little more punchy than the show it is designed to promote.

Runs until March 3

Friday 10 February 2012

Snow White & The Seven Poofs - Review

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

December 8 2011

Snow White & The Seven Poofs COMES AGAIN!!!!

Directed by Simon Gross

The posters hail it as London’s naughtiest pantomime. Well it’s certainly not for children and it is indeed a filthy, vulgar and smutty night out. But the crude naughtiness of Snow White and the Seven Poofs actually embodies the traditions of fine British panto with more than a nod to the Carry On films, Benny Hill and the predominantly male cast also a reminder of the ENSA troupe in It Aint Half Hot Mum.

Anthony Poore, as the coquettish compere Tanya Hide, demurely warmed up the audience as they took their seats: the wicked Queen’s opening number, Pink’s Get The Party Started, accompanied by three appropriately horned devils, perfectly setting the tone. And where most pantomimes have one Dame, this show has two. Richard Byrne, (alter ego Titti la Camp on the gay cabaret circuit ) is a truly evil Queen, frequently upstaged by his henchman Horrible Hilda , played on this night by the outrageous transvestite Mrs Moore.

The Queen then asks of the magic mirror, who is the fairest in the land. In this production the talking Mirror is the Comic Lead performed crudely and cleverly by Kyle Stewart, making his West End debut. In true panto tradition throughout the show Stewart’s character encourages the audience to respond to his “Hello Boys and Girls ” line with a filthy reply. His ability to then put-down any audience heckling that arose showed a fabulous confidence in a performer so new to the stage. Tanya Hide swiftly returns as the story’s heroine, with immaculate hair and make-up, singing “Every Time You Touch Me, I Become a Hero”. One does not expect a pantomime transvestite to effectively mimic the voice of a mega star and Hide did not disappoint. Diana Ross, he aint, his singing voice being definitely a “demure masculine” – however his movement was excellent, and as the show’s choreographer, the strength of all the company’s dance routines, tightly performed on a tiny stage are a credit to his talent.

The classic story’s love interest is provided by Liam Ross-Mills as Prince Donkey Dick. Not an easy role, playing the straight man against such an outrageous paramour in Snow White, however at times Ross-Mills seemed too eager to strike a rapport with the audience at the expense of developing his character. No doubt, this can be improved over the show’s run. Mrs Moore’s crude delivery, and sheer profanity was a delight. I was reminded of numerous schoolboy jokes from years gone by (the old ones really are the best !) plus a few new gags too, and it is a testimony to the show’s vulgarity that none of them can be repeated in this review.

Like all pantomimes, some parts of the show are corny, and others are achingly hilarious. The incongruity of Byrne’s Susan Boyle performing “I Dreamed a Dream” was swiftly overtaken by a 7 part re-working of the old camptime classic, “If I Were Not Upon This Stage” , with Mrs Moore, as a nurse, reducing the audience to sobs of laughter each time she menacingly brandished her grotesquely oversized syringe. Notable too was Shamiso Mushambi providing much comedy in her role as a diminutive poof. Simon Gross has assembled a good show here, and if you’re looking for either a saucy girls night out, or just some good camp Christmas fun, you will not be disappointed. The show ends with a singalong of Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic, sending one off onto the cold streets with a grin on your face and a tune on your lips. Just what a pantomime’s supposed to do.

A Spotlight on Stevie Webb - Review

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

January 26 2012

By popular demand Steven Webb, accompanied by some wonderfully talented friends, returned to the Landor Theatre to perform his “A Spotlight On..” evening , first aired ten days earlier. The intimate venue was packed with Webb’s friends and colleagues lending a genuinely relaxed air to an evening of songs that were as emotionally charged as they were beautifully performed.

Webb opened his set with “How Do You Know ‘Til You Try Me (Which You Haven’t and You Should)?” from Betwixt. Punchily delivered , and with able accompaniment from Steve Edis, it set the tone. Throughout the evening the singer possibly spent as much time re-telling anecdotes and stories as singing, but in the company of so many of Steven’s friends, the stories took on a mixture of warmth, tenderness, as well as at times outright blokey banter. At 28, the fact that he has already been performing professionally for 20 years is a remarkable achievement and Webb spoke appreciatively of the sacrifices his Wirral-based parents made to support him as a precocious 8 year old, making his West End debut as Oliver.

Steven selected not only songs from shows that he had performed in , but also songs that he enjoyed. With the talented Sarah Lark, he performed “Music of the Night” taking the familiar classic and re-working it to a beautifully harmonised duet. Later in the show, again with Miss Lark, with a nod to Betwixt he delivered a tribute to Ellen Greene with “Suddenly, Seymour” cheekily re-worded to “Suddenly Stevie”.

There is a symbiotic relationship between writers and singers at the moment ( was it ever thus?) with the young talent of the country writing and performing on each other’s albums with almost incestuous frequency. Nonetheless, it is a tribute to Webb that not only Chris Passey, Webb’s excellent MD, but also Dougal Irvine were there to perform at each of the Landor nights, with Irvine even joking of Webb’s apparent “residency” at the theatre. Both of these writers have included the singer in the launch events for their recent albums, and these performances were reprised. From Irvine’s album Acoustic Overtures, Webb sung the piercingly perceptive “Simple”, and from Passey’s Self Taught, Still Learning, he delivered the powerful number “Room for Me” . Both songs allowed Webb to immerse himself in their performance, giving each number a raw and human emotion. Irvine’s Departure Lounge had provided Webb with his return to musical theatre two years ago, and the close vocal harmony of the writer, also on guitar, dueting with Webb in “Do You Know What I Think Of You” was exquisite, Webb catching the bitter frustrations of a soured friendship with painful poignancy.

Elsewhere in the evening, Webb included a heartfelt tribute to Etta James, with “At Last”, and a song, written for him by Passey, and touchingly dedicated to his mother “From Your Loving Arms”
The show closed with an absolute treat. A song rarely if ever heard live, the bonus track from the Departure Lounge album “We Rule The World” , that had been dropped from the London production of the show. In a powerful and perfect 4 part harmony, Webb, Lark, Irvine and Passey united on stage to again move the audience with the perceptive intensity of a superbly crafted song, stunningly performed.

When Webb spoke of friendship, to an audience that included many of his friends, he spoke with honesty and openness – both of which virtues are manifest in all his performances, and evidence of why, at his young age, he is already such a gifted and accomplished performer. He remains a talent to follow and enjoy.

Self Taught, Still Learning - Album Launch Review

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

November 29 2011

On a chilly autumn morning, upstairs at Dress Circle in Covent Garden provided a warm venue to enjoy a selection of songs from “Self Taught, Still Learning”, the debut album from Chris Passey . In August 2011 this website conducted a ten minute interview with Chris whilst the album was in production, so it was a delight to enjoy the finished work performed live.

The performance started with Steven Webb singing “Room For Me”. It is a tribute to Passey that he has attracted the cream of young musical theatre talent to record his writing. Even though Webb did not feature on the album (where the song is performed by Richard Meek ) his performance was polished and beautifully rehearsed. The compact venue required no amplification so with simply Passey on keyboard and Jake Mason on cello, Webb took the arc of the song on a journey quite different from the recorded version. Where the recording has a choir providing an ethereal backing to the song, Webb was vocally on his own. His talent shone and he simply soared with a spine-tingling performance.

The album’s title derives from a line in the song “Three Tiny Words”, and with the versatile Tim Prottey-Jones on guitar, Allyson Ava Brown immersed herself in a delivery of that song that took its balladesque opening through to a middle-eight that had an almost rock-style exhilaration in her singing. Again, the unmiked intimacy of the performance gave her performance a real frisson.

Next up was Prottey-Jones singing the moving and tender tribute to a loved friend, now passed away, “If They Only Knew” ( recorded on the album by Kieran Brown ). Passey’s ability to describe passion, grief and longing in his writing, again brilliantly displayed in this number.

The fourth and final song of the morning was the upbeat 4-parter, “You Were Mine”, Passey singing with Zoe Rainey from the album, joined by Jeremy Legat and Amy Carroll.

Passey is donating all album profits to worthy causes. In a brief post-gig conversation, he described the most humbling and inspiring part of the album’s development being the generous donation of time and support from so many talented and accomplished performers – including Miranda Sings!

The album is a showcase of all that is good in today’s musical theatre – performance and writing. Buy it to support that talent – as well as the two worthy nominated charities.

All The Fun of The Fair UK Tour- Wimbledon - Review


Music and lyrics by David Essex
Directed by Nikolai Foster

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

November 16 2011

All The Fun of The Fair is a rare piece of musical theatre. Unashamedly a feel-good “juke box musical”, it is also, perhaps the only such show that actually boasts the original artiste as lead performer. The publicity proclaims David Essex’s name, as boldy as the title of the show itself, and without doubt it is his presence that provides the foundation to the show’s strengths.

The audience enters to a drape across the stage, proclaiming the daredevil Wall of Death fairground motor cycle ride. That image, mixed with the opening number, a haunting rendition of A Winters Tale sung by Rosa, the Irish fortune teller, sets the scene for a story that will inevitably lead to tragedy.
The storyline of the show is un-complicated, cleverly written around many of the star’s well-known songs. Several love interests are portrayed. As Rosa, Louise English reprises the role she delivered in the West End last year. Her knowing smile and flowing skirts portray a woman fully capable of the potential to steal the heart of Essex’s Levi, the fairground owner.

Levi’s rebellious son Jack, falls for Alice, the daughter of a disapproving London gangster and as this romance blossoms, Jack spurns the lifelong desire felt for him by Mary, Rosa’s daughter, with whom he has grown up within the fairground community. Whilst at times the “rebellious child” storyline wears a little thin, there is a moment of unexpected poignancy in the bond that develops between Levi and the orphaned roustabout Jonny, a teenager with learning difficulties who has been with the fair since a small child. When Levi eventually addresses Jonny as “son” the young man’s overwhelming response movingly portrays how even the most simple of family relationships, that of father and son, is so precious to a young person who has only ever dreamed of receiving such affection.

While Levi and Rosa play out their own complicated love story, Alice, Mary and Jack are tangled in a love triangle of their own. As Alice, Tanya Robb is an impressive actress , and in He Noticed Me, and later , in If I Could, her voice is a delight. Also returning from the West End run are Susan Hallam-Wright as Mary who skilfully tugs our heartstrings as she realises Jack’s love lies elsewhere and Tim Newman who portrays Jonny’s difficulties sensitively.

The stage design by Ian Westbrook evokes a fairground that has seen better days, and Ben Cracknell’s lighting subtly contributes to the on stage atmosphere. As the story unfolds the finale of Silver Dream Machine is as breathtaking as it is moving.

The songs, (nearly) all penned by Essex, are generously shared around the cast, and generally this works well. However for those of us who know David Essex from Radio 1, rather than his more recent appearance in EastEnders, to hear Hold Me Close sung by Jack and Jonny, and not the man himself was a small disappointment. Notwithstanding, the Dodgem car ballet within that song was a joy to watch.

Without question this is a good show, even if the main draw is David Essex himself. The man’s timbre is timeless, and the authenticity that he delivers in performing his own songs is unquestionable. When he sings, he owns the stage, and he has (mostly the women in) the audience in the palm of his hand. If you want a good night of romantic, escapist, musical theatre, that will leave you grinning at the end, and humming a tune, then this show undoubtedly delivers. I clapped enthusiastically at the end – many women stood !

A Spotlight on Kim Ismay - Review


January 10 2012

For the second year running the Landor Theatre has transformed into a cabaret venue, providing a stage for West End stars, both long established and newly emerging, to showcase themselves in an atmosphere that is intimate and yet stylishly professional with its A Spotlight On… season. This year’s run was opened by Kim Ismay, performing a collection of songs some selected from her career and others, simply numbers that she adores.

Chic-ly dressed in black on a simple stage and with her sole accompanist the talented Alastair Gavin seated at a gleaming white grand piano, Miss Ismay opened her set with two Bond numbers. The demure passion of “Nobody Does It Better” gently warming the audience up, before a powerful interpretation of “Diamonds are Forever”, that explored the provocative nature of Don Black’s lyrics.
Ismay’s choice of songs took us on a journey both in time and geography. In a nod to Streisand her “Second Hand Rose” took us on a journey that seemed to include Brooklyn as well as Second Avenue, such was the authenticity of her New York persona and with “Don’t Let It Rain on My Parade” her performance simply filled the stage, spectacularly capturing the big-scene vision of that song on her own.

Her choice of songs was frequently interspersed with recollections and anecdotes from her wide-ranging and extensive career and at times she reflected upon songs from roles she wished she had been cast for. One of these was Audrey’s heart-rending “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors. Ismay simply delivered this song beautifully. This reviewer had been privileged to have heard Ellen Greene perform the song live in 2011, and hearing Ismay sing it at the Landor made me wonder for the Audrey that never was, but arguably should have been!

Midway through the show, she was joined by the talented Kelly Rainford and Amy Hill. Both performed excellent solo numbers, before a classy 3-part harmony of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. Ismay then opened the second act of the evening with “My Shattered Illusion”, a clever rendition of the Fascinating Aida song, before she then brought her earlier personification of New York across the Atlantic, and into Oliver!’s London. “It’s A Fine Life”, followed by “As Long As He Needs Me” reminded us that Kim is a London girl who can perform beautifully.

Bringing the songs up to date and confessing to not being a soprano, Kim sang “Popular” from Wicked in a way that truly showed the range of her voice. She then performed “For Good” from the same show, duet ting with Amy Hill. Interestingly, away from the vast jaws of the Apollo Victoria stage, and presented in the intense intimacy of cabaret , the song grew. The two women delivered Schwartz’s stunning and perceptive tribute to friendship with such heart that some of the audience were left quietly sobbing! She then closed her set with “Journeyman” , a passionate song from her one woman show, About Bill, ending the night to rapturous applause.

The Landor Theatre and Andrew Keates are to be praised for presenting the “A Spotlight On ..” series. Taking this opening event as a benchmark, the programme over the next three weeks will surely present the best of current West End talent.

About Bill - Review


Writer: Bernie Gaughan
Music & lyrics: Matthew Strachan
Director: Charlotte Westenra

November 22 2011

“About Bill” could easily be titled “About Kim”. This stunning one-woman musical, written about a fictional, womanising musician, Bill Fitzgerald stars Kim Ismay, (taking a week out of playing Tanya in Mamma Mia) portraying Bill’s life through the recollections and confessions of the women whose lives he touched.

In the intimacy of the Landor Theatre, with simply a piano and bass in support, Miss Ismay takes us on a journey starting in 1930’s Blackpool. As Stella, Bill’s pregnant showgirl mother, she hopes for the future of her child casually conceived with the ‘second trumpet’ of her touring band. In “Be a Girl”, Stella prays that her baby will not be a boy. Her womanly prescience sensing that should the child be a boy he will be destined by gender to become a rat, irrespective of upbringing.

The boy is born, and we see Kim transform into Bill’s Aunty Dot, one of only two women who make repeat appearances in the show. Dot has taken Bill in from birth, raising him in a stable household, whilst Stella tours. God-fearing in hat, coat and court shoes, she strives to offer Bill love and warmth. Hers is the only character not to be given a song within the show, underlining her puritanical views.

Music however is in young Bill’s DNA. We next meet Joyce a swooning 16yo, besotted with this (now) 19yo rascallish trumpet player, and soon to be the mother of their unplanned daughter.

Ismay manipulates our heart strings cleverly. Gloria is Bill’s landlady, well past her prime, who he seduces and flatters into charging him a lower rent. Her subsequent misery as her ongoing desires for Bill are snubbed whilst he uncaringly brings younger lovers to her house, is painful to watch. From tears to laughter, Ismay’s talent shines. Later in the show, as Lopita, a Latin motel chambermaid enthusing to her mother about her new but impotent husband Bill, the comedy is brilliant.

These have been only some of the ten women that Kim creates in the show. Strachan and Gaughan have written the show specifically around Ismay’s talents, and under Westenra’s skilled direction, the evening is a tour-de-force of the actress’s versatility, range of character, strength of voice and downright brilliance. This show deserves to return to a stage soon. Until then, whilst Kim shines as Tanya, the ultimate ‘cougar’, “About Bill”, also shows her for the Dynamo she truly is.

Legally Blonde UK Tour - Southend on Sea - Review


18 January 2012

It’s a confident production company that can stage the touring version of a major West End show so geographically close to London. But with a talented young cast and a sprinkling of famous name cameos, Legally Blonde rolled into Southend to start its 2012 tour.

The lead roles remain largely as cast when the tour commenced last July and the company displays a well-drilled ease in performing the show, demonstrating not only a clear understanding of the sugar sweet plot line, but also the occasional darker nuances of the story.

As Elle Wood, the graduating UCLA student, Faye Brooks leads with an energy that combines elegance , poise and ditz. Her role is immense, 14 out of the show’s 20 numbers include her, and she is outstanding throughout. The show opens with her character being defined in her college sorority house, Omigod You Guys, swiftly followed by her being dumped by her boyfriend Warner in the song Serious. This provides the storyline of the show, as Elle commits herself to studying, so as to follow Warner to Harvard Law School. Perhaps the one weak-link in the long established show’s story, which at times in true Hollywood stye is deliciously implausible, is how Elle, a girl who is extremely strong in character, could even seek to pursue a man as blatantly shallow as Warner.

Arriving at Harvard, Elle becomes a pupil of Professor Callahan, a fiercely adversarial attorney, played here by Matthew Kelly. Callahan’s big number, is Blood in the Water, reflecting the popular image of the lawyer as shark. Kelly relishes every word, and is at his best when reprising the American curmudgeon, recently seen in Lend Me a Tenor.

Elle’s striking blonde locks lead inevitably to a friendship with her hairdresser Paulette, a feisty woman past her prime. Claire Sweeney in this role is a delight. Her wistful yet earthy delivery of Ireland, in which she rues her tattered love life to date is arguably the high spot of the show’s first half.

The true love interest of the story is developed as Emmet, a fellow Harvard student develops a fondness for Elle. He teaches her to look outside of her self in the song Chip on My Shoulder, and her initiative and talent is recognised in So Much Better, a clever number that stirringly closes act one.

Opening the second act, Hannah Grover as Brooke leads an energetic and wonderfully choreographed number, Whipped into Shape, and provides a key plotline that allows Elle’s character to develop further. Without spoiling the story, it is cutely feminine touches that see the plot turn firstly on one woman’s concern over liposuction and later upon Elle’s own self-described “gaydar”, her ability to detect a man’s sexuality, hilariously delivered in the song There! Right There!

Before concluding with an appropriately happy finale the story honestly portrays Elles brave defiance of Callahan’s attempted sexual harassment and in her journey through the second act, Faye Brooks ( a future Glinda perhaps?) truly makes the show her own.

The touring company is a scaled down version of the West End production in terms of orchestra size and scenery. There has however been no compromise at all with the production’s performance values. The vocal work and dance of the entire company is simply outstanding throughout, and the creative team of this UK Tour, ably led by resident director Graham Lappin have excelled.

This production brings West End quality at a fraction of the cost of a London ticket. Go see it!

The Pitchfork Disney - Review


February 2 2012

The Pitchfork Disney is widely recognized as the first piece of “in yer face” theatre. That the play can still shock, some 21 years after it burst on to the London stage and during which time reality has caught up with and in some cases even overtaken the graphic imagery of Ridley’s 1980s imagination is yet further credit to the craft of its composition.

In a bleak east London home, two twins, Presley and Hayley Stray in their late twenties, eke out a tawdry isolated existence, drugged on medications and surviving on chocolate. Their parents disappeared from their lives some ten years previously, and in their quasi-orphaned and rudderless state, their lives have slumped into a vacuous routine that is as callow and as unhealthy as the complexion of their skin.

Their sole excitement is derived from the sharing of outlandish fantasies or traumatic recollections, a recurring theme being that they are sole survivors in a post-apocalyptic city, thus providing them with a deluded justification for their self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

This fragile existence is rocked by the arrival of Cosmo Disney, vomiting as he enters their home. Disney is a showman who has learnt that people want to be shocked . He states that there are “No miracles: just freak accidents and freaks” and we subsequently learn that his performance routine involves eating live animals before a paying audience. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in this role is brilliantly menacing. His sexual interest in the stupefied Hayley is immediate and the subsequent elegant and aggressive worldliness with which he deceptively wins Presley’s naïve trust before going on to gratify himself with the drugged girl is disturbing.

Towards the end of the show Disney introduces an accomplice, Pitchfork Cavalier, a menacing hulk, gimp-masked and latex clad from head to toe. Whilst Cavalier’s character is not explored in depth, the names of the two intruders are critical. In an astounding monologue Chris New as Presley has told of a recurring nightmare, in which people are slaughtered by a disfigured man known as The Pitchfork Disney. This begs the question, are Cosmo and Pitchfork real? Or are they themselves, simply false creations of the fevered troubled minds of these two damaged siblings? Ridley leaves that question hanging.

It is a reflection of our times that over the last 21 years aspects of the writer’s allegorical prescience have come to pass. Celebrities frequently eat live insects on “I’m a Celebrity” as light entertainment, whilst the play’s suggestion of the twin’s abusive parents having drugged them routinely, chillingly echoes the recent criminality of Sharon Matthews.

The Pitchfork Disney is not for the faint hearted. The descriptions of human slaughter and animal mutilation are visceral. And proving that sound can sometimes be as, or even more, horrific than vision, the crunching of cockroaches being chewed on stage and the snapping in half of a finger bone, had a seasoned audience gasping.

Whilst the subject of the play is challenging, the performances are outstanding. New takes Presley on a powerful arc , from being frightened of “foreigners”, to manifesting profoundly violent anger. He is ably complemented by Mariah Gale as Hayley. Edward Dick effectively tackles the play’s lengthy monologues, cleverly coaxing as much physical movement as well as vocal nuance, into their delivery. And Danielle Tarento has again produced a show with outstanding production values all round. If you can stomach it, see it.

Runs until March 17