Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Pajama Game

Chichester Festival Theatre

Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Directed by Richard Eyre

The Chichester Festival Theatre has a grand track record in producing five star musicals. With Sweeney Todd and Singing In The Rain having recently enjoyed successful transfers to the West End, the  expectations for Richard Eyre’s The Pajama Game, run high indeed. Sadly however, the press night reports of this show’s excellence turn out to have been great exaggerations.

Eyre established his credentials as a musical theatre director with Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982. That inspired vision, matched with a creative team to die for, stunned London. Whilst The Pajama Game does not sit as high in the musical theatre canon as the Frank Loesser epic, it offered Eyre similar potential that has frankly been squandered in what at times seems to be little more than an odd tribute to his Guys and Dolls triumph. There is scene-setting neon, a big Latin dance number, the lampooning of American culture and Eyre has even gone so far as to hire his Sarah Brown from the 1996 revival, Joanna Riding, who when she leans back in the arms of Hadley Fraser, still shows that elegantly profiled poise of the sergeant from the Save A Soul mission.

But this is The Pajama Game, a moderately corny piece albeit with its heart in the right place, that against a backdrop of conflict between unionised pyjama workers and their corrupt employer creates an unlikely love story between factory superintendent and the boss’ right hand man, Sorokin (played by Fraser) and his adversary, the union rep Babe Williams (Joanna Riding's role).

Pippa Ailion who cast the show has a lot to answer for. Whilst Riding looks downright gorgeous for her age and her singing and movement are perfect, she is by some years Fraser’s senior. The chemistry betwixt these two thus seems at best improbable and at worst, forced. The other minor love interest of the show is between factory time keeper Hines and office secretary Gladys. Peter Polycarpou’s Hines is a scene stealer. This outstanding actor’s voice and timing are perfect and the farcical moment when his trousers fall down is eye-wateringly funny. Alexis Owen-Hobbs however, who plays the glamorous Gladys, (un)fortunately looks young enough to be his daughter. This is a credit to her beauty, matched also by her talent, but it does nonetheless provoke disbelief that a young woman could date such a visibly older guy. Hadley Fraser’s voice is dreamy and his delivery of Hey There (You With The Stars In Your Eyes) is a spine tingling rendition of the classic, but whilst he sure can sing, his acting on the night seems flat. The final failing of the show is the choreography. The big dance number of Hernando’s Hideaway seemed at best sloppy and un-drilled and the act two opener, Steam Heat, with Gladys and two factory men, evolves into a slick tap routine that is brilliantly performed but needs a lot more of the company tap dancing on stage to fully achieve the song’s spectacular potential. In an age that has just witnessed a revival of Irving Berlin's Top Hat, to have just three people tap-dancing smacks of micro-budgetted constraint that can surely not be the case at Chichester?

Eugene McCoy’s Prez and Jenna Boyd’s Mae are excellent in support and creatively Tim Hatley’s design, Jack Galloway’s costumes and Linda McKnight’s wig work all add perfectly to establishing the show’s location and period. Credit too to Gareth Valentine’s band who provide a beautiful sounding and perfectly balanced backing to the show.

There is talk of The Pajama Game following that now well-worn path up the A3 to a London transfer. That would be inhumane. This production, as it stands, should be allowed to gracefully see out its days amongst the retirement homes of England’s South Coast. It’s a touch more pants than pajamas.

Runs to June 8 2013


Union Theatre, London


Book by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo
Music by Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics by Jon Hartmere
Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills

(l-r) Lily-Jane Young, Michael Vincent, Melanie Greaney
London's Union Theatre hosts the European premiere of bare (sic), a show that first hit Broadway some 13 years ago. Set in a private and stifling Catholic high school in Massachusetts built upon a rectangle of adolescent relationships and desires (rather than the more typical triangle), it is a passionate dissection of the angst of youth.

Peter and Jason are schoolboys in love with each other and the production elegantly thrusts their uncertainties as to how to address their sexuality into the spotlight. Ivy, the beautiful willowy blond is in love with Jason though she herself is desired by Matt, whilst Nadia, Jason's overweight sister, despises Ivy for her beauty and struggles with her own self image. It's a complicated cocktail, yet Hartman and Intrabartolo avoid cliche, in creating a story that addresses the fears, confusions and prejudices of growing up.

Michael Vinson and Ross William Wild are the boys at the show's core. Whilst their acting is carefully crafted, their vocal presence is muted and they fail to convince the audience of the chemistry of their love. Vinson does however shine, agonisingly, in See Me a song set around a telephone call with his mother, beautifully performed by Yvette Robinson. His struggle to tell her he is gay, whilst she on the other end of the phone line is quietly breaking down at confronting what she has known but denied to herself for so long, is heartbreaking.

Melanie Greaney's overweight Nadia, in A Quiet Night At Home, plaintively sings of the hurt of being overlooked and ignored through being "fat". Janis Ian nailed that sentiment in her 1970’s hit At Seventeen and Greaney’s performance reminds us how timeless that cruel agony can be. Lily-Jane Young as the trophy blonde Ivy delivers a cri de coeur in Reputation Stain'd. She sings of her low self esteem, a consequence of having been used as a sexual plaything by too many boys. The irony of Nadia’s envy of the miserable blonde who outwardly appears to have it all, is clear.

It is left to Hannah Levane's Sister Chantelle to deliver the simply knockout performance of the night. Levane has previously toured in Sister Act so her credentials for being a belting whooping “Aretha Franklin” in a nun’s habit are impeccable . She more than meets expectations and her presence and strength of voice and character are beautifully realised. She is also the only adult who shows true compassion and care to the struggling Peter, with one of the best lines written in modern times: "there's a black woman inside the soul of every gay man"

Racky Plews’ choreography again extracts powerful and imaginative routines from her well drilled cast, using the compact space of the Union to its best for a production that at times seems to have the theatre bursting at the seams.

It may have taken a long time for bare to cross the Atlantic but it has been worth the wait, although Paul Taylor-Mills needs to get more from his leading men if they are to make us share their passion and pain in this unmic'd production.  The show is a cautionary tale of growing up that serves as a useful point of contemporary reference to children, their parents and their educators.  It is also a thoroughly modern piece of musical theatre that is for the most part superbly performed and one that with a little more work could yet prove to be a 5 star show, worthy of a longer run in a larger venue.

Runs to May 25

Sunday 28 April 2013

American Mary - Fright Fest Originals Poster

Artwork by Chris Everhart

American Mary written & directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska

Chris Everhart's poster

American Mary was an acclaimed festival hit in 2012, garnering praise and awards, before a brief pre-DVD launch UK theatrical tour in early 2013, and a release in USA theaters slated for May 2013. The second feature from the provocative Canadian twins  Jen and Sylvia Soska, it tells of ingénue medical student, Mary Mason, who through a mixture of poverty and coincidence, finds herself drawn from the refined elite of med school, through sleazy clip joints, to the underground world of the body modification community, wherein word of her remarkable scalpel skills rapidly spreads. In a parallel plot line, Mary is unwittingly slipped a date-rape drug at a party attended by med school faculty staff and waking to find that she has been raped by at least one of her teachers, wreaks bloody revenge upon the men that she trusted and who have violated her.

The brilliance of this film lies in the Soskas’ ability to have pitched a story from a challenging and at times uncomfortable perspective and then for that pitch to be brought to life by Katherine Isabelle playing Mary.  Critics have already labelled the movie a 21st century Frankenstein, and whilst that is only partly true ( Mary does not restore life to the dead) , the extent to which student Mason is drawn from being a clean living moralist to a murderous avenger who has made a bonfire of both social and medical ethics, is arguably the creation of a new personality, if not the new creature. Isabelle’s chilling beauty so often appears incongruous against the scenes of violence and bloody back-street surgery that overwhelm her.

The film shocks on many levels. Mary’s rape, the disturbing presentations of the body-modified characters that appear in the movie, the surgical procedures that Mary performs upon her paying patients, and the vengeance she wreaks upon her sexual predators. Tristan Risk plays Beatress, a woman pursuant above all else of looking like Betty Boop , and we meet her character as she is already gruesomely transformed into Boop and is seeking Mary’s services to assist Ruby, another friend of hers who wishes her breasts and genitalia to be radically altered. Risk’s Beatress is as troubling as it is brilliant, a combination of both outstanding  prosthetics and acting. David Lovgren is Dr Grant, Mary’s rapist teacher. It is a mark of the Soskas’ perception that, as in reality, this evil man does not look monstrous or geeky, rather Grant is a youthful handsome and clearly talented doctor, though ultimately a deeply flawed alpha-male. The revenge that Mary subjects him to bears more than a nod to Hannibal Lecter style torture, and whilst the disfiguring effects of Mary’s surgery upon the once-handsome young doctor are deliciously captured by the Soska’s, the twins wisely cut away from actual scenes of surgery. Scalpels and saws are often seen in the movie, though they are rarely seen in action.

It is this sense of controlled understatement that provides a baseline to the movie’s screen printed posted from Fright Fest Originals, a provocative piece of art from Detroit based designer Chris Everhart. A strikingly red image, using only black and grey with the paper’s natural white as additional colour, it suggests horror and torment, without showing any specific act of torture or violence. Inspired by a promotional still, the most striking aspect of the image is that of the surgically masked Mary, with an apron appropriately looped around her neck, but also slim shoulder straps  that suggest underneath the apron she is clad in negligee or similar nightwear. Bizarre dress for surgery befitting her bizarrely altered world. Everhart speaks of wanting to have introduced a creepy innocence to Mary. The surgical mask and apron suggesting a trusted concept of a caring professional who naturally garners our respect, yet Mary’s eyes are flecked with deep red, suggesting exhaustion or craziness, or both. Take your pick. Perhaps above all, in one image, the Mary of this poster suggests a surgeon who has taken an alternative direction and lifestyle from the Hippocratic path pursued by her peers. She is a doctor who administers dark, sometimes deadly procedures. A medic whose knife one would succumb to, either because one’s surgical requirements were beyond the pale of acceptable practice, or more chillingly, because the doctor was offering you no choice.

Initial ideas that Everhart considered drew from an interpretation of the USA’s flag, depicted with scalpels and surgical tools.  Whilst that approach would have acknowledged the film’s title , geography, and at its most crass interpretation, some aspects of the plot’s darkness too, it would not have hinted at what the Soska’s tale is about. The crazed young woman that he has painted instead is one who is enduring a massive internal struggle as her world crumbles around her. The artist subtly adds to Mary’s crazed existence. Surgical tape seems to be holding an almost crumpled image together whilst paint spattered across the image in much the way as blood may spatter a scene from a severed vessel, hinting at Mary’s violent menace. Look closely at the title lettering and also around the image and spidery surgical sutures are seen everywhere, a suggestion not only of the medical nature of Mary’s world but also of how, like a body-modified individual, the image has been stitched together, to create this alternative perspective on a radically different lifestyle. The lettering of the films title, hand scrawled in upper case, in a lettering that grows in size, again suggests this crazed  distorted world, that consumes Mary through the story.

The Soska sister’s are themselves thrilled with Everhart’s interpretation of their work, declaring it “stunning”.  The twins have commented that the artwork is unique, and how impressed they are that the work beautifully captures the side of Mary who hides her most vicious and bloody nature behind a perfectly put together disposition A print hangs on their Vancouver production office wall.

A limited edition print-run has so far restricted this contemporary view of a very modern film to collectors and enthusiasts only.  Fright Fest Originals have commissioned a piece of understated brilliance that hints at both terrifying slaughter and troubling psychological horror. It’s a striking image that vividly encapsulates the absolute extremes of existence that Mary Mason is forced to live in.

My original review of the movie can be found here.

Fright Fest Originals can be found here.

The Lords of Salem

Written & directed by Rob Zombie


Rob Zombie's view of Hell
The Lords of Salem is almost the perfect horror movie. Written and directed by Rob Zombie (he of the recent Halloween remake), it is set  in Salem town and intelligently re-examines the notorious and true witch-burnings that the Puritan judge Jonathan Hathorne carried out in the 17th century upon 20 or so local women.

Sheri Moon Zombie (Mrs Rob) stars as Heidi Hawthorne, a recovering addict and DJ on a local rock radio station. When a band, The Lords of Salem, deliver a vinyl recording to her radio station, Hawthorne broadcasts the eerie music to the Massachusetts town with such a troubled history. If one can recall Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, where a celestial melody inspired good curiosity, so The Lords’ simple minor harmonics awaken satanic impulses in those of the town’s residents descended from pilgrim forefathers.  It’s a neat twist by Zombie that works well, as his movie plays out a haunting combination of psychological horror, as well as as some graphically disturbing imagery.

Zombie’s premise is that Satan has remained alive and well within Salem's townspeople and wouldn’t you know it, Lacy Doyle, Heidi’s landlord is in fact a modern day witch and it is a delight to find that Doyle is played by veteran English actress Judy Geeson. Whilst it may be a worn-out tradition to cast a Brit performer as the malevolent bad guy (gal), who cares if it provides the audience with a chance to re-aqcquaint ourselves with the elegant Miss Geeson who has been away from our screens for far too long.

In a slightly clichéd sub plot, Jeffrey Daniel Philips is local wise historian Herman Salvatore, who deduces that the satanic coven of old is being re-kindled in the town and is in turn battered to death for being so inquisitive.

Zombie’s imagining of the horror of the stake-burnings, the gruesomeness of the effects of the devil upon his disciples and the magnificence of his vision of hell are superbly captured with great photography by Brandon Trost. Where the film drops points is in its representation of the devil himself, whose image switches from a goat which is fine, to a rather disappointing Bigfoot type character or alternatively a grotesque baby, the special effects of which jar in quality with the overall standard of the rest of the film.

The Lords of Salem is a refreshingly generously budgetted, well written and very well photographed horror picture with many suggesting that it is Zombie’s best to date. Grab or download this film soon. It’s a truly scary movie, the calibre of which does not come along very often.

Available now on Blu-ray, DVD and for download

Friday 26 April 2013

Ten Plagues

Wilton's Music Hall, London


Libretto by Mark Ravenhill

Music by Conor Mitchell

Directed by Hester Chillingworth

Marc Almond’s performance of Ten Plagues is one of the most distinctive pieces of theatre in recent years and at last arrives in London having garnered a Fringe First in Edinburgh in 2011. Written specifically for the singer by Mark Ravenhill, after Almond had shown an interest in the author’s earlier work and with a challenging piano score both written by and performed on the night by Conor Mitchell, it draws its title from the perspective of the biblical Israelites who survived the plagues wrought upon the Egyptians and projects that take on survival forward in time to 1665 when the Black Death (The Great Plague) devastated London.  Almond’s solo performance is of a seventeenth century Londoner living through the plague and surviving it, though Ravenhill then fast forwards our viewpoint through the years again, to draw parallels with the 20th century emergence of AIDS (The Gay “Plague” as it was homophobically labelled in sections of the media) and the impact of living through the onslaught of that modern disease.

Whilst he may be a wigged and costumed commentator, Almond is no charming, kindly Samuel Pepys. Ravenhill’s staccato language and Mitchell’s cleverly crafted music make for very uneasy listening. Whilst the performance is unquestionably to be admired and respected, it is not an enjoyable night out, nor is it intended to be. Spread across 17 songs, it traces the arc of the Plague’s growth and the emotional horror and fear evoked, both in Londoner’s being shunned by other healthy Britons as well as the suggested visual and visceral image of cartloads of bodies being dumped into the lime pit. Simply staged and costumed, clever video projections suggest a timelessness to the shunning of the infected, whilst the decayed (albeit undergoing a marvellous programme of restoration) Grand Music Hall at Wiltons provides an authentically atmosphere of “quasi-dereliction” that echoes the majestic London coming so close to succumbing completely to the apocalyptic virus.

Almond’s performance is a revelation. Having battled back from a horrific motor cycle accident some nine years ago, he brings to the verse not only that seductively sardonic and provocative lilt that those of us old enough to remember the 80’s know so well, but also the wise and weathered inflection that reflect his 55 years. Fans of the singer will not be disappointed at how he throws himself into the songs, sustaining some notes that seem to go on forever. At the curtain call he was demonstrably exhausted and spent having given of himself completely to his art.

Only lasting an hour, this is a must see if you enjoy the work of either writer or singer, or believe in the philosophy of theatre being a fulcrum of debate and challenge. The house was packed on press night, and the standing ovation that Almond received was proof above all that the adoration and love in which he is held, is far from tainted.

Until 18 May 2013

Thursday 25 April 2013

Verdi's A Masked Ball (or Ballo)

King's Head Theatre, London


New english version by Adam Spreadbury-Maher

New piano versio by Luca Tieppo

Becca Marriott

Opera Up Close’s production of Ballo, a new interpretation of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, (in Italian Un Ballo in Maschera) is brought bang up to date, with the action translated from 18th century Stockholm, to today’s London, specifically the North Circular Road near Wembley and to a large eponymous Swedish owned furniture store to be found there, complete with distinctive blue and yellow branding and product names so obscure that the word Ballo could just as easily refer to their latest sofa range. In this production however, Ballo is the name of the store.

The satire that underlies this work is cleverly crafted. To take the grand setting of a classic opera and reduce it to the mundanity of a suburban furniture store has echoes of the genius that underpinned The Office television series in which a minute examination of the humdrum routines of daily ordinary working life provided a rich seam of comedy. Where Ballo entertains even further is in the sheer breathtaking abilities of its performers.

The scope of this production is wonderfully and sensibly compacted to fit the tight constraints of the meltingly warm Kings Head performance space. Ben Woodward on keyboards provides the only musical accompaniment and it is a credit to his remarkable ability that he matches and leads the singers perfectly.

The original tale is set in the court of King Riccardo and tells of the love that grows between him and Amelia, the wife of his close friend Renato.  Also present in Riccardo’s court are his loyal fop Oscar, Tom, a courtier with a lurking grievance and astrologer Ulrica. These characters have evolved into the furniture store Manager (Riccardo) and various other jobs around the shop and warehouse, with Amelia employed as a checkout girl. The staging is simple using desks and occasionally, flat-pack furniture. With a planned tryst in the store car park at midnight being cleverly suggested with bulkhead lights and brilliant floodlights this production’s attention to detail on what is clearly is a tiny budget, is remarkable.

But it is the vocal performances of this company that astound. There is not a weak moment between them, rather numerous instances of excellence. Martin Milne’s immaculate male soprano sports an impressive budgie-smuggling costume bulge for the final scene that is at odds with his evident talent amongst the eye-wateringly highest of octaves. Dickon Gough’s resonantly baritone Tom is a modest part beautifully delivered, his testosterone fuelled voice emphasising almost every word with a vicious relish. When he mistakenly accuses Riccardo and Amelia of having been dogging in the car park, the anticipation with which he savours spreading such malicious gossip around the store is almost palpable. Ulrica, a customer service telephonist who moonlights during office hours providing a premium-rate telephone astrology line shows Olivia Barry at her accomplished best.

The triangle of betrayed friends and lovers is completed with Edward Hughes’ Riccardo, Becca Marriott as his paramour and Christopher Jacklin as her husband. Hughes has the swagger of Matt Lucas and the voice of a tenor angel. Marriott’s arias are frequently spine-tingling whilst Jacklin’s classy portrayal of a man emotionally betrayed by friend and wife is initially heart-rending, evolving into chilling as he plots his murderous revenge.

The libretto is a new translation by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Luca Tieppo’s arrangement of the score has blended in some nods to ABBA for the final masked ball scene at the store party.

This is not a show for prudish purists. On the other hand, if you are new to the concept of opera or broad minded enough to enjoy a ridiculously talented cast pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptability, whilst singing their hearts out, then Ballo is a must see.

Runs to 25 May

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Sleeping Arrangements

Landor Theatre, London


Book, music & lyrics: Chris Burgess
Director: Robert McWhir

Jenny Gayner
Sleeping Arrangements is a transition of Sophie Kinsella’s novel of the same name into a new piece of musical theatre staged at that veritable genre dynamo, Clapham’s Landor Theatre. It’s a simple enough even if anodyne tale of two frustrated married couples thrown together in an Andalucian doubled booked holiday villa.  Add in the 16 year old son of one union and a gorgeous nanny from t’other to generate some adolescent Carry On capers, as well as some adult bed hopping and you have the ingredients for a passable piece of chick-lit cavorting.

Chris Burgess writes in the programme that when he first read the novel, he “couldn’t help but hear songs all over the place”. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes these may have been other people’s songs. When Grant Neal as victim of the rat-race, pasty-faced, Philip (husband to Chloe)sings of his resentment at being just a “Nice Guy”, it sounds like a faux-Sondheim version of Kander and Ebb’s Mr Cellophane. Sam, the testosterone fuelled 16 year old wonderfully played by Adam Pettigrew has some comic moments but one can’t help but feel that Dougal Irvine nailed adolescent sexual awkwardness with so much more perception in Departure Lounge and when Liza Pulman’s Amanda (married to Hugh, keep up), legs akimbo, splendidly belts out Superwoman, she must be thinking to herself that whilst she couldn’t physically be giving any more to such an all-consuming  performance, her own lyric writing contribution to Fascinating Aida far outweighs Burgess’s efforts.

Nonetheless, this show entertains. As frustrated wife Chloe, Jenny Gayner masterfully extracts the melodrama from her lyrics and she steamily convinces as a still seductive but frustrated wife who found herself becoming a mother far too young in life. She discovers that she still holds a candle for Steven Serlin’s Hugh, a flame from many years past, also thrown into the villa booking as a consequence of the scheming machinations of an old mutual friend of theirs. When passions inevitably spill over into a stolen afternoon of lust, Serlin’s muscular naked torso (as well as his magnificent voice) will have much of the audience swooning in the Landor’s cramped aisles.  A note to Grant Neal: in the Rat Pack styled duet that he later shares with Serlin, Women Always Win Out In The End, he is vocally outclassed by the other man. Whilst Neal’s character may be a bit limp, his voice needn’t be and this needs to be stepped up into the run.

Sabrina Aloueche smoulders throughout as Jenna the at times bikini-clad provocative young nanny, lusted after by Sam whilst flirting wickedly with Philip. When Aloueche sings her voice has an electrifying unity of youth, power and pitch-perfect tone.

The show is directed by Robert McWhir, a seasoned and talented practitioner, who takes Burgess’ composition and skilfully fashions it into a watchably endearing production. David Shields' Spanish set is a delight and whilst Colin Billing’s band are four worthy musicians, Burgess’ melodies don’t give them a lot with which to make our spines tingle.

Sleeping Arrangements is simply crying out for coachloads of West End Wendies to pack the Landor during its four week residency.  The ticket price is infinitely better value than most juke box musicals to be found up West, the performances on display are at least as good (if not better) and the story is far more up to date than Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. Don’t forget your passport!

Runs to May 12 2013

Saturday 20 April 2013

Monty and Mirabella

Hackney Children's Theatre, London


Written & directed by Sarah Redmond

Lucy Harwood and Nathan Potter
Monty and Mirabella is a delightful work of children’s theatre. In a world where so much entertainment is delivered to kids via electronic screens, to see two young actors telling a sweet kiddies tale without words simply by way of acting, mime and brightly coloured props is a treat.

The venue was packed on a Saturday morning, with children seated on a rug and parents sat behind them.  The show is performed close up to the audience, allowing moments of delighted audience participation and also ensuring that attention can be as focussed as possible upon close-up action, rather than some far-off stage.

Whimsically set in a park on a sunny blue-skied afternoon what the show lacks in plot, it makes up for in performance and educational intention. Nathan Potter and Lucy Harwood are the heroes of the show’s title. Harwood arrives, miming  the walking of and chasing after, an invisible dog and instantly the kids are gigglingly entranced. Potter’s inept klutz of a character has the kids laughing at him too, but the neatly timed and well drilled choreography combined with Sarah Redmond’s eye for movement that will engage even the youngest audience member, ensures that the 40 minute show passes all too quickly.

The show has a sensible social conscience. Along with delightfully ridiculous games of hide and seek and the occasional opportunity for the kids to shout out “he’s behind you”, it also teaches that dog-dirt should be dealt with responsibly and that using suncream is a good idea – though there are squeals of cheeky hilarity all round when Monty finds himself liberally applying aerosol squirts of silly-string rather than SPF 25.

Monty and Mirabella is a charming way to either introduce or re-inforce theatre as an art form to a young audience.  It’s a more colourful version of a moderately slapstick Hollywood silent movie and when any show has a nod to Bizet’s Carmen that hints at a flamenco with spacehoppers, what’s not to like?

Wednesday 17 April 2013

The Hired Man

Curve Studio, Leicester


Book and lyrics by Melvyn Bragg
Music by Howard Goodall
Directed by Daniel Buckroyd

Julie Atherton and Kit Orton

The Hired Man is quite possibly the greatest ever English musical. In a story that avoids sentiment and cliché, Bragg and Goodall open a window into a tightly knit Cumbrian community, via a tale that spans the reigns of Queen Victoria through to King George V and addresses the growth of industry, the challenge it presented to those who worked the land, the rise of the trade union movement, the devastation of the First World War and the emerging trend towards women’s emancipation. And all this through perceptive verse and the most stirring of scores.

David Hunter, an ITV Superstar semi-finalist is John Tallentire, the hired man of the title who is introduced at a hiring fair, in the Song Of The Hired Men, a striking melody reprised throughout the show. Newly arrived in Crossbridge village, together with pregnant wife Emily,  John is an honest hard working man, blind to the subtleties of life and oblivious to his beautiful wife’s needs for more than just the “same blessed rain on washing day”. When Emily first spies local landowner’s son and cad Jackson Pennington wrestling in a local tavern, she cannot help but immediately flirt with him. Inevitably trysting follows and act one culminates with the blindly-trusting John excruciatingly learning of his having been cuckolded.

Act two condenses a vast span of years and plot into a credible hour of performance. The exploitation of the coal miners and the emergence of a union in response to their hellish working conditions together with the slaughter and devastated aftermath of war are tackled confidently by the writers.

Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director of Colchester’s co-producer Mercury Theatre is no stranger to the work and on Juliet Shillingford's cleverly designed sloping slabs of land, that depict Cumbrian fells as vividly as the Somme, he extracts clever concepts, particularly with the boisterous tavern scenes and a gripping penultimate moment, set at a Whitehaven coal face that has been terrifyingly extended far out under the sea. Yet Buckroyd also makes some disappointing short cuts. Blackrock, a phenomenally stirring song of the dangers of mining is an opportunity wasted, with minimal acting action being added to its powerful lyrics.  Farewell Song, sung as the local men leave for war and which could arguably be included in the liturgy of any Remembrance Service such is its power, has some of the most beautifully engineered key changes ever composed and should, in the right hands,  be able to effortlessly prise open the tear ducts. In this production, sadly, it fails to hit that spot.

John's is a very tough role to portray.  A solid traditional man of the land, black and white in opinion and seeking only to work hard to provide for his family, his naivete lends a profound complexity to his make up. Whilst unquestionably beautifully voiced, Hunter doesn’t quite reach the depths of credibility that could make this character truly believable.

Julie Atherton however is a definitive Emily.  Her pitch and tone are perfection and her acting is simply flawless. A woman, fiercely loving and protective as a mother, yet with a burning desire to broaden her world through both a passionate love affair and later in going out to work. (In an era still brimming with chauvinism,  it was rare for married women to earn a wage.) The frustrated passion that Atherton injects into her character’s supressed desire for Jackson is almost red-hot with stifled sexual yearning and when Bragg’s story draws Emily into experiencing tragedy, her response and sobs of grief are perfectly delivered to claw at our heart strings without once becoming mawkish.  Kit Orton’s Jackson (also a dab hand on the violin)  together with Jenni Bowden’s singing and trumpet-playing performances are noteworthy cast members amongst a talented company who all perform with wit and clarity throughout.

Under pianist / MD Richard Reeday the show’s music is simply yet subtly arranged. A modestly sized band, drawn mainly from the cast who pick up their instruments as and when required and with an inspired inclusion of harp and trumpet. Never has Goodall’s music sounded so perfect, with just enough mournful trumpet melodies lines to depict the North poignantly and passionately.

Albeit possibly deserving of an alternative title: “The Hired Man’s Wife”, this production nonetheless remains what its writers always intended. A living history lesson, beautifully told, of England’s transition into the 20th century.

Runs until April 27th


Sunday 14 April 2013

Merrily We Roll Along - CD review - Encore Recordings, 2012

Released on Encore Recordings

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth

Reviewers note:

I reviewed this recording for thepublicreviews.com earlier this year and that review can be found below. Coming very soon to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End will be the transfer of Maria Friedman's award winning production of the show that opened in 2012 at London's off-West End Menier Chocolate Factory.

This New York recording complements that London show perfectly! In the  understandable absence of a recording of the Friedman production, this CD is a more than worthy addition to any soundtrack collection. See the London show and buy this CD.


This review was first published in The Public Reviews

This recording of Merrily We Roll Along hails from the 2012 Encores! concert production, staged at New York City Hall. Whilst many acclaim this show to be one of if not, the best of Stephen Sondheim’s work, it’s a tough story to conceptualise. The tale unfolds backwards through time, where friendships and marriages that are initially presented fractured and in pieces, are slowly re-assembled as the plot winds back twenty years to three young Americans. Frank and Charles are composer and writer and Mary a college friend, with all three sharing a floor at college and meeting on a rooftop watching the Sputnik orbit. On stage it’s a tough enough plot-line to follow. In a recording, and without a knowledge of the story’s structure, then the narrative is virtually impossible to discern. So, as a pre-requisite, any recording of this particular show needs to assume that the listener has a familiarity with the underlying story. Conveniently, there is an unconnected, but nonetheless acclaimed production of the show currently in London and shortly to transfer to the West End, which can provide that background.

And so to the numbers. Generally, they are performed extremely well, even if sung by a cast of American musical theatre talent whose names are unlikely to be recognised by anyone outside of the showbiz bubble. At nearly 5 minutes, the Overture is a brassy treat of a big Sondheim sound that is a well crafted easing in to the collected melodies of the show. Other treats to listen out for on this recording are the show’s title song, setting the scene and like so much of this acerbic piece, dripping with irony. Franklin Sheperd, Inc, a vitriolic number sung by lyricist Charley about his former friend and songwriting partner Frank is a tour de force of rapid fire lyrics, a mix of humour and scathing criticism.

Powerfully sung, Not A Day Goes By is the most gut-wrenching of songs , sung by Frank’s (first) wife Beth, as she addresses the collapse of their marriage. This short song is arguably one of Sondheim’s most coruscating compositions and the heart-rending performance on this recording is flawless. Amongst the other strong numbers from the show are Our Time and Old Friends, which too provide inspirational listening.

If you love Sondheim , or if you adore the show, then this recording will not disappoint. It’s a tough plot to follow and whilst some of the rhymes are at times a little naïve, his melodies are outstanding and this collection of songs are a deliciously incisive comment on the human condition.

The album is available from PS Classics

La Traviata

Bloomsbury Theatre, London


Composer: Guiseppe Verdi

English translation and director: Jane McCulloch

 This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Alison Guill and Christopher Diffey
Opera UK’s La Traviata is an ambitious production from this modest but energetic company. Verdi’s tragic work, one of the most well known in the canon, paints an epic tale of honour, sacrifice and love. Grand tales however demand a grand staging and with the relatively cavernous jaws of London’s Bloomsbury stage often left gaping during this minimalist production, one senses that notwithstanding the demonstrable singing talent on stage, as a passionate work of opera this piece falls far short of ambition.
Jane McCulloch’s new translation does not help. Whilst it is a credit to the performers that every word has clarity, this 2013 libretto lacks splendour with dull phrasing oft repeated. McCulloch also designed and directs and thus it might be hoped that she could have foreseen the pitfalls that were to detract from this classic story’s impact. And why she chooses to use 1938 Berlin as the setting for any reason other than to show off the Baron’s particularly dapper Nazi uniform, is actually quite unfathomable.

Alison Guill was the ailing Violetta. Initially disappointing, she warmed up to be vocally delightful, though leaving this reviewer unmoved at both her sacrifice and her sickness. Christopher Diffey playing her lover Alfredo is also vocally wonderful and displays some strong acting but again, a performance that fails to move. The strongest male on stage is the beautifully baritoned Adam Miller as Germont. Replete with cane and immaculately groomed beard, he is every inch the proud father , desperate to end his son Alfredo’s love affair with Violetta and thus preserve his daughter’s honour. Whilst good at the superficialities of pomp and bluster, when it came to the desperately tragic scene of his disowning Alfredo, again the theatrical magic evaporated, maybe due to the tedious libretto or maybe through the staging. Either way, what is meant to be gut-wrenching isn’t, and by the final scene one is just wishing Violetta would get on with it and die.
Elsewhere, Rachel Farr’s Flora was a charmingly performed supporting character, as too was Matthew Duncan’s Baron. Stephen Hose conducts his four fellow musicians flawlessly, though opera at the Bloomsbury demands more than a quintet for an effective sound. Small orchestras work best of all in small venues. Opera UK are to be praised for their promoting of young talent and their singers possess a vocal excellence that one can look forward to enjoying as careers mature. But next time, a different venue might be more advisable.


Tuesday 9 April 2013

An Evening With Erin Cornell

St James' Studio, London


Erin Cornell

Arriving from Melbourne Australia, via Tokyo, Japan, and with a hint of London’s Clapham, Erin Cornell’s one-woman cabaret touched down almost next door to Buckingham Palace, packing out the St James' Studio. An established musical theatre star of the Asia Pacific region, this blonde bombshell (think Marilyn Monroe/Debbie Harry, with just a dash of Kylie) who to date has been broadly unknown over here, is making a very impressive UK debut.

Opening her set with Annie Lennox’ 1,000 Beautiful Things, Cornell made it clear that she did not plan to stick to theatrical numbers and when she then seamlessly segued into U2’s Beautiful Day, a stadium-sized song demanding a massive performance, she rose to that challenge magnificently, providing the first of several truly spine-tingling moments.

Sporting a provocatively cut little black dress, Miss Cornell was delightfully ditzy as she coped well to maintain dignity and avoid potential wardrobe malfunctions. She showed an infectiously enthusiastic confidence both in herself and in her material, that was just so refreshing and also so damned strine too.

Cornell’s pedigree is impressive. Having been Elphaba in Tokyo and acknowledging that her audience were hungry for some Wicked, The Wizard and I was a beautifully delivered treat. She then went on to explain that the Japanese production required her part to be performed in the local tongue, before launching into the most hilarious and melodically perfect mash-up of What Is This Feeling? blended with For Good, slipping effortlessly between English and Japanese in a virtuoso performance of Schwartz’s two songs, before signing off her Wicked tribute with a seductive “sayonara”.

Releasing the power of her “Aussie sheila within”, Cornell performed fellow Antipodean Matthew Robinson’s, Kerry’s Land, a song that is little known in the UK but judging by the audience response (a lot of southern hemisphere ex-pats in the throng), clearly a well observed take on life down-under, where “men were men, and girls were men”. Smash’s Keep Moving The Line closed act one on an impressive high.

The second half saw Cornell return wearing a shimmering little sequinned number and launching straight into Evita’s Rainbow High. With a beautiful belt, she gave a rarely heard passion to the Lloyd Webber/Rice composition and when the lyrics spoke of “star quality”, they could have been written with Cornell in mind. Her next song was Mona, a solo from Kleban’s A Class Act , in which Cornell is currently appearing at Clapham’s Landor Theatre. Hers is a funny raunchy piece in a show of often raw emotions and it was a delight to hear her fellow cast members, at St James’ to hear her perform, whoop applause for their fellow trouper.

In a surprise twist, Simon Bowman popped up to duet in Queen’s song Pressure, before going on to play acoustic guitar, accompanying the singer in her cover of his own composition He’s Just A Man, demonstrating a powerful performing synergy between the artistes.

Not afraid to tackle the greats, this Australian diva took on Funny Girl’s The Music That Makes Me Dance with a truly invigorating flourish of Streisand chutzpah in her delivery and then, much as a girl-racer might hurtle a Mercedes around Monte Carlo, Cornell slammed the brakes on the evening’s tempo to truly treat her audience to one of Minelli’s signature Cabaret numbers Maybe This Time. Not for the first time, the singer wept as she sung, her ability to act through song having remained exquisite at all times.

Immense credit to Theo Jamieson and his three piece band who provided understated excellence throughout the gig, with arrangements that complemented the singer perfectly.

New to the capital, Erin Cornell has a lot to offer. Her voice and her presence are stunning and it surely cannot be too long before this utter whirlwind of a performer is given a major role in a London show.

A Class Act is running at The Landor Theatre until April 13th 2013

Photo: Darren Bell

Friday 5 April 2013

Alice Diamond And The Forty Thieves

The Bell, London


Written by Madelaine Beevers
Directed by Emma Williamson

The phrase "site specific" is frequently banded about, but rarely has it been so appropriate as to describe this play. Performed upstairs at The Bell pub in Middlesex St, E1 (aka the capital's famous Petticoat Lane) on the fringes of the East End, Alice Diamond And The Forty Thieves is itself set above just such a fictional gangland boozer some 60 years previously and probably located just a mile or two up the Whitechapel Road.

Alice Diamond (so named because of a predilection for using her jewellery bedecked fingers as a vicious weapon) is based upon Alice Hughes, real life boss of a 1950’s girl-gang of thieves and shoplifters. A romantic interpretation could see her as a 20th century Fagin. The reality of London’s gangs was of course far more brutal than Bart’s Oliver!, more Bill Sykes than Artful Dodger. Madelaine Beevers writes with such a perceptive feel of colloquial period cockney that her play remains gritty and authentic, without ever becoming caricatured.

The story unfolds over the course of a single remarkable day. Maud has just returned to the gang following a six month jail term whilst blonde bombshell Dolly, a blackmailer, has only recently been shot dead. The script follows Maud’s re-entry into the bosom of the fold, whilst at the same time watching how the gang go about finding out who ordered the shooting. And all played out under the quiet controlling leadership of Alice.

Beevers herself plays the title role, in a well-constructed part that displays both command and menace through a selfless subtle understatement. Only rarely since Anita Dobson's Angie Watts of Albert Square  has female East End grit been so hypnotically portrayed. Emma Lillie Lees’ Maggie, a loyal gang member who has seen it all, is another treat of a performance and Katie Pearl’s authentically beehived moll is yet a further clever nod to the mode of the times. Providing a well observed and modestly comic turn, Johnny Doran’s Irish son of the pub landlord raises a few chuckles through the evening, though Beevers use of wry cockney banter - shoplifting is referred to as the "five finger discount"- provides some moments of wonderful irony.

A pre-interval surprise (no spoilers in this review) leads to a complicated second half in which deceit and double crossing are exposed and unravelled. The story occasionally stretches the limits of credibility, although the play’s suggestions of an incestual relationship between Alice and her brother hints at the complex sexualities of some of the notorious East End gangland bosses of the 50s and 60s.

Boxing posters adorn the bar-room walls, and with character names that include the dated Ada and Bertha, the setting of time and period is effectively accomplished in Emma Williamson’s clever direction. This play is an invigorating and stimulating example of modern writing and is a credit to the young talent behind Soot – Skin Of Our Teeth Theatre. Turn up in time to buy yourself a beer or that large scotch and settle down to enjoy a thrilling and roller-coaster drama.

Runs until April 24th

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Blood Privilege

White Rabbit Theatre, London


Written by Don Fried
Directed by Andy McQuade

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a 17th century woman who, whilst her story might be known by historians and horror buffs, is otherwise broadly unheard of. Born into a privileged world but enduring a harsh childhood, in her adult years she became convinced that bathing in virgin’s blood would maintain her youthful beauty, thus earning her a place in history as one of Europe’s most notorious ghouls. Against that backdrop, Don Fried has written Blood Privilege, portraying the essence of the Countess’ life in a two hour, two act piece, staged in the tiny venue of London’s White Rabbit Theatre.

Unfortunately, Fried’s work falls short of his aspirations. A cleverly constructed act one portrays the young Countess’ experiences and Fried effectively extracts our sympathy for her plight at the hands of a would-be-tyrant king and a rejection by her true love Count Thurzo. Aside from a possibly slightly gratuitous scene of lesbian love, the key premise that Bathory expounds during the first half and which she argues cleverly, is that whilst men are driven by lust, women can be driven by vanity. The second act however disappoints. Essentially a political commentary, as the king seeks to manipulate Bathory to avoid repaying her a loan that her wealthy estate had made to the bankrupt Crown, the play descends into a tedious court case, in which the Countess is tried for the virgin murders.

The hype for this production suggests, not unreasonably, that it will be bloody. Fried however chooses for the play to avoid almost all on-stage violence, save for a stabbing and some early vengeful lashing, settling instead for a cod-historical comment upon the Austro-Hungarian politico-legal system. Hell’s teeth, this is Elizabeth Bathory he is writing about, a murderous monster. If even Shakespeare in Elizabethan times could have recognised that an audience would want to see Gloucester blinded or Caesar assassinated, before their very eyes, then it should not be beyond the wit of a 21st century playwright to recognise that a play about one of history’s most notorious murderesses should depict for the audience the bloody death of at least one of her virginal victims.

The strength of this production is thus due to the success of its lead actress Mia Zara, who turns in an astonishing performance with the material available to her. Croatian born, Miss Zara has the merest hint of a mid-European accent that adds a deliciously piquant authenticity to her performance. Her presence is often chilling and her mastery of a massive script, spellbinding. Sporting complexion perfection and a perfectly formed physique, she is as captivating to watch as to listen to and when this play reminds one of old Hammer movies set in Magyar vampire country, it is easy to imagine Zara as a classic Hammer glamour starlet.

Ross Mullan is every inch a king in immaculately fitted tight leather trousers and fur robes. Initially majestic and imperious, the second act sees his performance unfortunately remind one more of a pantomime baddy than a truly manipulative monarch. Dan Shelton puts in a good turn as two of the supporting characters in Bathory’s court whilst George Collin’s bumbling legal eagle Count Sigray, at times suggests more of a comic, almost Blackadder approach, to this horrific chapter of history that sits at odds with the play’s underlying darkness.

This bloody historical tale lacks gore but drips bore. As it stands, Blood Privilege merely shows only significant potential as piece of credible historical drama. Were Fried to re-write his second act, the play could yet become an outstanding piece of modern theatre.

Runs until 14th April

Monday 1 April 2013

The Mick Flinn Band

Long Island Hotel, Rickmansworth


Packing the crowds in The Mick Flinn Band ‘s My Generation Club Night is proving something of a stir in rural Rickmansworth. Once a month Flinn and his band, guitarist Pete Lennon, Ricky Simpson on bass and drummer/singer Steve Rolfe, take over the otherwise quiet Long Island Hotel opposite the tube station, and roll out a set of immaculately performed covers that encompass the greats of the 60s through to the 90’s. Whilst the audience may be predominantly silver haired, the music pulses with a strong beat and as a reasonably priced, reasonable meal is eaten, the band maintain an excellent ambience, with couples frequently taking to the floor for an impromptu twirl.

Flinn is a class act of a showman. His band The Mixtures reached No1 in 1971 with The Pushbike Song and he knows how to work a room, especially out in the shires.

The My Generation Club Night follows a formula that is surprisingly effective. The band play a strong opening set, there is then a pop-quiz, followed by a guest band or artist, before Flinn’s boys play until an 11pm close. If the thought of a pop quiz makes you groan, think again – when the questions are such as: Which famous hellraiser first recorded the Jimmy Webb song, Macarthur Park? ( answer at the foot of this review), it is clear that the questions, aimed at the 50+ audience, don’t pull any punches.

The Long Island venue has surely seen better days, but much as in a movie where a band’s arrival transforms a venue, so it is with The Mick Flinn Band, and the crowd’s mood throughout the evening, whilst not electric, was certainly incredibly enthusiastic. On the night of this review the set included songs from The Beatles, Rod Stewart along with The Eagles and several rock and roll numbers, whilst the guest act were the talented Broken Boat performing a short line up of R&B.

For an evening of quality music, excellent value and a great craic The Mick Flinn Band are well worth catching.

Every third Tuesday at Long Island Hotel, Rickmansworth
Also at The Bar At The George, Chalfont St Peter

(answer: Richard Harris)