Friday 24 May 2013

Avenue Q

Upstairs at The Gatehouse, London


Book by Jeff Whitty
Music & lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by John Plews

Josh Willmott with alter-egos Nicky and Trekkie
It’s a brave off West End theatre company that seeks to restage a musical famed for its puppetry as much as for its singing and dancing. It thus speaks a lot for the credentials of the Ovations theatre company, that they secured the rights for this fringe production of Avenue Q, the sharp, witty pastiche on Sesame Street, last brought to London in 2005 by Cameron Mackintosh, for what was to be a 5 year run.

On walking in to the theatre its hard to believe that one is upstairs above a pub. The set, a beautifully detailed creation by Suzi Lombardelli is a street of four two-storey houses, with fully functioning doors and windows in all properties on both levels.

Good puppetry and animation begin with voice and sound and with barely an exception, this cast of fresh young unknowns get the delightfully sardonic tones of angst, humour and filth from the Avenue’s residents spot on. Invidious to highlight individuals amongst such a funny and well drilled company, but Josh Willmott’s porn-loving Trekkie, Will Jennings’s preppy Princeton and Shin-Fei Chen’s manic Christmas Eve are amongst the best of the evening’s comedy.

It's different to the West End – that show was on a grand stage, this is close-up and in your face. Previously, as for example in War Horse, the puppeteers disappeared from ones conscience vision, and all one saw were the comic characters. Here, you see the actors full on. At times that’s a tiny distraction, but the flip side is that the extent to which they throw themselves totally into their characters’ creation can actually be a treat to watch. This is a fringe-show after all, and Simon Lipkin (London’s original Trekkie/Nicky) has worked well as Associate Director to extract the well timed performances.

The show is refreshingly true to the original licence, with leading UK puppet consultant, Nigel Plaskitt (also the design brains from the original show) taking time out from filming the Muppets’ latest movie to advise. Simon Burrow’s band, stowed high above the stage are great, and in a show that has frenetic backstage responsibilities with frequent puppet changes, a nod too to Bessie Carter who evidently stage manages seamlessly.

Director Plews, does not disappoint in his show that displays a huge commitment to great production values. It’s a short hop on the Northern Line to Highgate’s Avenue Q, well polished fun, performed to a deliciously high standard.

Runs to June 30th

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Next Thing You Know

Landor Theatre, London


Book, lyrics & music by Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham
Directed by Robert McWhir

Bart Edwards and Aaron Lee Lambert
Next Thing You Know is a freshly styled show, first produced off-Broadway in 2011 and now making its UK arrival off-West End, at London’s landmark launchpad for new musical theatre, the Landor in Clapham.

This is a show written by and about young professionals in New York City. It tracks young lovers Waverley and Darren, hurtling towards their 30’s and frustrated with both career and love life. Waverley’s best girlfriend Lisa (played by Amelia Cormack) is similarly disenchanted with the romantic vacuum that the city has becomed for her, whilst the final cast member is Darren’s colleague Luke. With scenes set around a Sullivan Street bar, an office, and assorted apartments, it presents a fairly drawn snapshot of contemporary city life.

Jennifer Pott’s Waverley is perfectly cast. She’s a mix of frustration and feistiness, wanting “more” from life, just not too sure what that “more” is. Vocally sweet and at all times convincingly portraying a young New York woman, she wraps up an intriguing combination of fragility and determination. Luke is played by Aaron Lee Lambert, a seasoned trouper not long out of playing Shrek’s Donkey. His gorgeous voice and assured presence allow him to carry off some of the show’s lighter funny moments with confidence and great timing. And I Breathe, a song about his hard to shake off love for an occasional cigarette, is a treat, whilst his double act with Darren (Bart Edwards), The Way To Get A Girl, recalls Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr.

Robert McWhir directing and Robbie O Reilly’s  choreography, as always use the Tardis-like space of the Landor brilliantly, with routines that are skilful and subtle whilst Anna Michaels’ set design cleverly evokes the Big Apple as the action flits across the locations.

The 5 piece band under Michael Webborn’s direction are wonderful. Using strings and piano only, no wind or percussion, they remarkably conjure up a New York brashness from the opening bars of the Prelude. Throughout the show they are just a delight to listen to and a fabulous reminder of how much talent exists within London right now.   Complementing  Webborn’s band is Sarah Weltman’s sound design. Unusually for a Landor show, the cast is mic’d, an expensive add on for any fringe production. In this case the money has been very well spent as the mics are perfectly balanced, faded in and out with pinpoint precision and they allow the voices and tone of the actors to be enjoyed with clarity above and alongside the big beautiful sound from the band.

Next Thing You Know makes for a great “date-show”. The cast all look gorgeous, there's a soppy love story with a happy ending and it all looks and sounds a million dollars but will cost you far less. Take your squeeze to the Landor, buy him or her a large long drink and cuddle up together to enjoy the ride.

Runs until June 8 2013


Theatre Royal Stratford East


Written & directed by Rikkie Beadle-Blair

Louise Jameson and Frankie FItzgerald
On entering the Theatre Royal Stratford East, you immediately notice that the plush curtains have been removed from the stage and in their place a mirrored wall, which like a safety curtain, rises as the play begins. Rikki Beadle-Blair who directs as well as writes has a clear message. Gutted will mirror parts of society and that however hard it may be, watching his play is to take a look at either ourselves, or at components of our communities alongside whom we live.

This is a strikingly innovative piece of drama. The four Prospect brothers, their mother Bridie and their relationships with their partners, are tracked from twenty-something years ago, to the present. The writing is gritty and very coarse. Eye-wateringly funny knob-gag humour, never once gratuitous nor out of context, sits side by side with deeply harrowing revelations of abuse. This is a story of damaged people trying to find their way in the world and more often than not making wrong decisions along their journeys.  Through Beadle-Blair's text, in which nearly every character with only few exceptions is damaged goods, we watch how over the course of lifetimes, decisions are made, that are often at best no more than shoddy compromises and at worst a series of blind-eyes being turned to horrendous acts of evil.

The performances are all flawless and several are outstanding. Louise Jameson is the widowed Bridie, a loving, supportive and feisty mother and grandmother. She is the rock of the Prospect clan albeit with a complex past and it is not until her spectacular, raw,  denouement scene towards the end of act two, that we understand how she has hardened herself to have survived a life of continued misery, mixed with a surprising combination of profound understanding of what has occurred around her and also encompassing a mind  boggling talent for denial. Rarely has one character earned in turn not only our sympathy but also our contempt.

Frankie Fitzgerald shines as middle son Mark Prospect, most notably when, acting as his younger self and as a child who has not been subjected to the sexual abuse that his siblings have endured, expresses his own low self-worth and inadequacies as to why he is not attractive to the abuser. Through snatches of such distressing dialog does Beadle-Blair reveal a world that is fatally flawed. Later in life when Mark learns that his own infant children are being abused, the horror of his comprehension combined with the manner in which he speaks to his terrified damaged kids, is deeply moving. The performance is all the more astonishing given that there are in fact no children up on stage and Fitzgerald is speaking to empty space. Sadly, his performance is so good that we can painfully conjure up the images of the youngsters in our minds eye.

James Farrar and Jennifer Daley
Jennifer Daley's Lucy Lockwood is another fascinating and ultimately morally bankrupt character. She is a young woman drawn to brother Matthew Prospect (played by James Farrar) and so in love with him that not only is she accepting of his damaged sexual history, she is prepared to support his warped cravings, offering to "breed lovers" for him. She portrays her character so un-sensationally that when we hear her make that hellish offer, one that so rails against the basic precepts of maternal love and protection for a child that rather than be shocked, we weep. Lucy is one of the most complex and profoundly selfish characters created for the stage in recent years

Beadle-Blair's writing is a requiem for Britain's victims of moral depravation, though he does sow some seeds for hope and redemption, via youth, in the final scenes. The Prospect family are a brood who have learned to satisfy their craving for love and respect via football, drugs, religious fundamentalism and abusive behaviour. Their sexualities are ambiguous, and any sexual respect for others that they might have had, was lost years ago. The play is uncomfortable, searching and also downright bloody brilliant. It deserves a transfer to a more central stage for a longer run. Soon.

Runs until May 25

Monday 20 May 2013

More Bloody Shakespeare! - Titus Andronicus Returns To The RSC

Stephen Boxer in rehearsal as Titus Andronicus

This week, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) present their latest interpretation of this, perhaps Shakespeare’s most gruesome creation. Directed by RSC newcomer Michael Fentiman the play promises to pull no punches and I caught up with Michael during the penultimate week of rehearsals to discuss his approach to the play.

One of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, outside of the world of actors and literature scholars not many have heard of the tale, let alone know what it's about. The text has no legendary quotes of "Alas, poor Yorick" or "Romeo, Romeo" status, no fairies or ass’s heads or star-crossed lovers, to mark it out in the collective consciousness. It has probably never been studied at GCSE level, (with good reason) and if any quick image were to iconically identify the story, it would be that of a (possibly one-handed) baker, resplendent in white chef's hat, labouring over a generously filled meat pie.

The story is little more than a revenge tragedy, no different from so many of the more famous Shakespearean tales.  After all, strip Hamlet down to its bones and it is the story of an aggrieved son looking to avenge his father's murder. It is however, the audacious nature of the revenge that sets Titus Andronicus apart , with either extreme violence or the consequences of extreme violence, visually played out in every act. Whilst the play may not be for the faint hearted, it should arguably be compulsory viewing for every devotee of well told horror. The story, the roots of which stem from mythology rather than factual history, starts out with simple homicide, but goes on to  include rape, mutilation and beheadings, climaxing with one of the most disturbing acts of murderous cannibalism staged.

The play opens with Titus Andronicus, a victorious army commander returning to Rome, with Tamora , Queen of the Goths, whom he has just conquered, in chains. With the Emperor of Rome recently deceased, the public clamour for Titus to be appointed as his successor, in place of either of the former Emperor's squabbling sons. So the play begins with these two brothers having a grievance against Titus, who then slaughters one of Tamora’s sons, in front of her, as vengeance for his own sons having been killed in battle. So now Tamora is out for revenge too – and this is just in act one! Unlike much of Shakespeare's violence, where the body-count doesn't really start to rack up until well into the second half, Titus Andronicus' storyline delivers heaps of smoking flesh at a fairly consistent rate throughout. Whilst it frequently occurs that members of a Titus audience pass out due to the violence on stage, none  fall asleep from boredom.

Katy Stephens in rehearsal as Tamora

This is Fentiman's directorial debut at Stratford, so whilst he is only being let loose on one of the Bard's minor works, the RSC are still taking that initial gamble that comes with all first-timers. The young man though knows his craft and his literature well. From a historical context, whilst we may today find the extent of the play's savagery shocking, Fentiman points out that in Shakespeare's time the audience coming to the theatre would be familiar with a judicial system that amongst other things, “had criminals heads impaled on spikes on London's bridges”, to say nothing of public hangings, so violent theatre was often nothing less than expected. He also observes that, whilst the play was rarely performed after Shakespeare's death, it having being deemed too violent until Olivier and Vivien Leigh tackled it ( also at Stratford) in 1955, during Shakespeare's lifetime it remained a regular and popular feature in the repertoire.

Fentiman is under no illusion that, notwithstanding the civilised way of the modern Western World, revenge remains a key driving force in society even to this day. Whilst vengeance may no longer be meted out via a dagger or a cup of poison, one need not look too far from home to have recently seen an adulterous politician's career wrecked over the matter of some speeding points as a wronged spouse sought satisfaction. (A mere trifle, excuse the pun, when compared to the vicariously gourmet filicide that is served up by Titus to Tamora.)  And considering a global perspective too, where death through conflict remains a sad current commonplace, Fentiman also contends that many (not all) wars of the modern era have had their origins in revenge and that other than advances in military technology, little has changed since the 1500's.

Michael Fentiman in rehearsal

Not only is this challenging director knowledgable in classic literature, he is also refreshingly up to speed on modern cinema.  It is rewarding to learn that the man responsible for helming this current take on Shakespeare's bloodiest rampage includes Wes Craven (he of Freddy Krueger renown) and Lars von Trier, a Scandinavian known for distinctive and sometimes disturbingly explicit imagery, amongst his influences.

With an innovative director in charge, who has the resources of the world class RSC creative team to assist in realising his vision and talented Magic Circle member and illusionist Richard Pinner drafted in to advise on making the scenes of bloodthirsty carnage and butchery as realistic as the stage will permit, expectations for this show run high and there is an increasing likelihood that those expectations will be exceeded. Fuelling this anticipation is the RSC's own trailer, released in line with the current trend for theatre productions to have mini movie-type promos that grab ticket-selling attention via YouTube.  Industry experts Dusthouse have produced the beautifully shot, but gruesomely gory mini-featurette (link below) that plugs the play, but be warned: the 90 second film re-defines the grindhouse genre and its viewing demands a strong stomach.

Enfant terrible or visionary director ? Only this run can determine how history will regard Fentiman's take on Titus. The production is in rep until the autumn and whether you know the play well, or are simply intrigued by how a top theatre company will present high-budget on-stage slaughter, treat yourself to a trip out to Stratford and a ticket to a show that promises to be one of 2013's most intriguing as well as exciting productions.

In repertory until October 26 2013


My review of the production can be found here


RSC website for the production

Saturday 18 May 2013

Dead Mine

Available on DVD & Blu-ray


Directed by Steven Sheil

Miki Mizuno
Some films create an impact that can leave you pondering for days after viewing. Dead Mine is one such movie and the question it provokes is just how director Steven Sheil, who directed the chillingly inventive, funny and downright brilliant Mum & Dad just a few years ago could have lost his creative talent quite so spectacularly, helming this tedious production that seems to have wasted nearly every aspect of its (probaby not miniscule) production budget, on a film that could easily be titled Dead Loss.

Set on a remote Indonesian island, it follows a modern day group of treasure hunters as they seek out wartime gold, stumbling across an apparently abandoned Japanese mine from 1945. It's not unoccupied though and within its catacombs are the survivors of wartime experiments: elderly, mutated  and murderous.

Frankly, like any treasure from Indonesia, this is all a bit far fetched. In scenes that are a poor homage to Neil Marshall's wonderful The Descent, as these explorers venture deeper into the mine workings, the rare plot developments are unsurprising and cliched.

To a person, the acting is as wooden as the scenery is plastic. Occasionally, there is some bloody chicanery as a WWII vet proves himself a dab hand with the samurai sword, but other than that, with its simplistic and oft repeated camera angles, the film is dull. One can only hope that amongst this movie's mayhem, Shiel's creative muse has not ended up being incarcerated deep underground. He needs it returned.

Be warned.  Should you watch this movie you run the risk of wasting 90 minutes of your life that you will never get back. Like a deadly disused mine shaft, avoid.


Rose & Crown Theatre, London


Book by Arthur Kopit
Music & lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Dawn Kalani Cole

Kira Morsley sings as Kieran Brown looks on

Phantom is the "other" musical based upon Gaston Leroux's classic  horror-romance, The Phantom Of The Opera. Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit wrote their show for Broadway in the early 1980's but whilst under development Andrew Lloyd Webber's show opened  and plans for the Yeston/Kopit production were suspended. It was not until 1991 that the show first played to an audience and this production at Walthamstow's Rose & Crown Theatre marks its UK premiere.

It is an ambitious project from director Dawn Kalani Cowle. Set in, under and on the rooftops above, the Paris Opera House it demands spectacular settings and whilst the scenery is simply defined in the show, Cowle broadly succeeds in creating the story's different locations on a shoestring budget.

Perhaps the only similarity between this show and that other mega musical is that both productions have the Phantom's tutelage of Christine and the love between teacher and ingenue as a central theme. That though is where the similarities end, as this Phantom's plot and also its villains are a refreshing alternative. To say any more of the story would be to spoil, but to learn that the disfigured, ghostly Phantom, is in fact just a man called Eric (albeit with a "k"), does give the show a Pythonesque moment of mundanity that the writers could never have foreseen.

Kieran Brown a seasoned West End trouper, is Erik the Phantom. Masked throughout, his performance offers a great display of acting through voice, movement and also via his eyes that are clearly visible (excuse the pun) in such a close up venue. Vocally, whilst Brown is subtly good, Yeston does not give him showstopper numbers and he rarely makes the spine tingle.

Christine however, played by Kira Morsley is a soprano treat. The flame-haired Australian stuns when she sings and hers is a performance to relish. Her admiration for her masked maestro is convincing and her ability to combine the fresh-faced naivete of her character, with a deep understanding of the power of love is what musical theatre is all about. See this  show if for no other reason than to experience the vocal delight that Miss Morsley provides.

Other notables are Pippa Winslow's wonderfully wicked Carlotta, whilst Tom Murphy's theatre-manager Carriere gives a well performed explanation of the Phantom's back-story and Elizabeth Atkinson's Belladova is a cameo role that is fabulously played.

A modest flaw is Aaron Clingham's band. He needs to drill his hard-working musicians with   a touch more polish and whilst the ensemble numbers were a joy to hear, too often the music drowns out some of the solo performances.

It's a credit to Cowle, the theatre and the company that there is such talent to fill this off West End venue. This is a grand show, well cast and with lofty aspirations.

Runs to 31 May 2013

Friday 17 May 2013


Coliseum , London


Composer: Alban Berg
Director: Carrie Cracknell

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Leigh Melrose and Sara Jakubiak
Wozzeck marks Cracknell’s directorial debut for the ENO at the Coliseum, and this talented young woman arrives with some panache. First performed in Berlin in 1925, it was in 1988 that Berg’s demanding work was last tackled by the ENO and with a talented cast and creative team, Cracknell weaves a gripping but agonising hold over us during the heavily stylised 90 minutes that the interval-free production runs.

The story is drawn from Buchner’s Woyzeck, the troubling story of a young soldier of fragile mind and susceptible to paranoia who is bullied by his Captain, the army doctor and his Drum Major who then cuckolds him with Marie, his common law wife and the mother of a young boy. His struggles with his mental health and the abuse he suffers inevitably has tragic consequences.

Leigh Melrose is Wozzeck. Beautifully baritoned he displays a well-performed flawed grasp on reality from the outset. It is hard to watch him knowing that each challenge he encounters or humiliation he suffers is adding to the provocation that will unleash his final acts of slaughter. American Sara Jakubiak another ENO debutante is Marie, a perfect soprano , who notwithstanding her character’s lifestyle, still evokes our sympathy in her difficult relationship with Wozzeck.

Tom Scutt’s set design is as imaginative as it is convincing. Marie’s cramped flat set above the noisy pub suggests the poverty that she and Wozzeck endure and in the climactic finale, is home to some hauntingly visceral imagery. None more so than Harry Polden as her young son, donning his schoolboy rucksack and heading out into the world. Cracknell bleakly indicating that this cycle of violent abusive behaviour is only destined to continue.

Photo: Alastair Muir

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Shana Farr

Crazy Coqs, London


Shana Farr

Shana Farr makes her UK debut at the Crazy Coqs and it is a wonder that it has taken this lady so long to cross the pond. In a show entitled Whistling Away The Dark, over the course of a far too fleeting hour and in an act that was for once truly a tribute, rather than a trotted out tribute act, over twenty or so songs she distilled and incredibly replicated the genius that is Julie Andrews.

Farr's performance, accompanied by Nathan Martin on piano who incredibly had only met her some 24 hours previously, was flawless. Just as a virtuoso musician can make their instrument come alive in their hands, so it is with Farr and her voice. Her greatest salute to Julie Andrews is that even with her American accent, she performs the Englishwoman's numbers with just the right amount of gusto and fragility as may be required, combined apparently with any other emotion that may be required in between.

Opening her act with a medley of favourites she then sang the little known but incredibly demanding Je Suis Titania. Explaining that the complex aria was in fact the song that Andrews, then un-discovered by Hollywood, sung to the then Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth at a London concert, her fine soprano voice soaring effortlessly, yet at all times remaining in her control, never once wobbling in tone, tempo or strength.

The Sound Of Music, Star and Cinderella were amongst the shows that Farr acknowledged, with A Spoonful of Sugar being the most delightful way to reference Mary Poppins. During Stay Awake, from the same movie, if one pretended not to and closed ones eyes, it could as easily have been Andrews herself singing, such was the fidelity of the performance.

Gems on the night, amongst a selection of sparkling arrangements, were Someone To Watch Over Me and I Could Have Danced All Night. Her final encore performance of Feed The Birds (her favourite, and apparently Walt Disney's too) was a fine and exquisite interpretation of a song that speaks to us all and is as pitiful as it is hopeful.

In recent years Tracie Bennett has won acclaim as a Brit emulating the all American Judy Garland. Farr gives the special cultural relationship between our two nations a mirrored spin with this, her distinct "Yank's take" on one of our very own national treasures. Her knowledge of Andrew's life is thorough and meticulously researched and if there is one criticism of the night, it is that occasionally her patter is too drawn out and too detailed. (“Whats that?” I hear you say, “ an American talking too much? Surely some mistake..") Farr does not need to justify her devotion to Andrews to a London audience or any other for that matter as her performance defines both her excellence and her credentials. For an evening of outstanding cabaret that is currently amongst the best to be found in town, head to the Crazy Coqs before her week's residence is up.

Until May 18th 2013

Monday 13 May 2013

Dogfight - Original Cast Recording


Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book: Peter Duchan
Producer: Kurt Deutsch, Lawrence Manchester, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Dogfight is an all-American musical set in Los Angeles between 1963 and 1967 around the time of the Vietnam conflict. Premiering off Broadway in 2011, it tells of three young Marines on their last night on the town before shipping out to war. The “dogfight” of the title is a cruel lads game in which each Marine has to find the least attractive girl to take on a date. The guy who, in the opinion of his buddies, brings the ugliest date wins the pot of cash that they have all funded.

It’s a simple, sadly plausible, premise for a tale already made into an acclaimed 1991 movie and Paul, Pasek and Duchan have plenty of rich material: reckless abandon; broken hearts; hope and despair, with the looming background of war’s potential fatalities, with which to fashion a musical that touches on many of life’s grand and sweeping issues.

Of the three Marines, Privates Bernstein and Boland are the most carefree and selfish, each inviting a girl to accompany them to the dance hall, before callously discarding their partners in favour of fairground rides and whores. It is Birdlace who gets caught up in the emotional turmoil of the upset he has caused his girl Rose and a complex love emerges between them.

The numbers are written with a perceptive ear for a 1960s sound yet still acknowledging the expectations of a 21st century audience. Birdlace’s ‘Come To A Party’ is a buoyant song as he lathers on the flattery to shy homely Rose. Her song that follows, ‘Nothing Short of Wonderful’, a sweet girly whirl of a tune as she preps her hair and outfit for the night out is all the more poignant for us knowing that she is being set up. The Marines ultimately vote Boland’s girl Marcy as the ugliest date, and when she, in the Ladies Room, tells Rose that the evening has been a dogfight, the lyrics have a raucous piercing honesty, as we hear Rose’s bubble bursting.

‘Hometown Heroe’s Tickertape Parade’ is a riotous explosion of pre-conflict optimism that the Marines sing whilst on the town. Its lyrics are cleverly reprised post-war, when emotions are far more grounded and those who survived the war confront a very unglamorous reality as homecoming veterans.

From a broader UK perspective however this show is likely to have little appeal and the prospect of it becoming a commercial success “over here” is remote. The story is so enmeshed in the post-Vietnam psyche of modern America that other than perhaps via an off West End or work-shopped production it is unlikely to cross the Atlantic.

Dogfight is nonetheless an album that is entertaining from the outset with a storyline and lyrics that are clear to follow. It’s an innovative sound that remains a pleasing purchase for all who have a passion for the musical theatre medium.

Available from Sh-K-Boom Records

Kerry Ellis In Concert

London Palladium


Sunday nights these days seem to be full of London’s musical theatre performers occupying various cabaret venues to showcase their (not unremarkable) talents, accompanied by a whizz of a Musical Director and maybe a guest or two thrown in. The evenings are invariably lovely and the talent on offer is always choice.

It takes a rather special star however to display not just talent, but awesome showmanship and thus it was this Sunday night at the London Palladium where Kerry Ellis, onstage for the best part of two hours and accompanied by some outstanding guests wowed a packed house.

Ellis' set had been preceded by Woman The Band, who warmed up the evening with 30 minutes of chic chick rock that included clever covers of I Don’t Wanna Talk About It as well as Sweet Child Of Mine. Lead singer Mazz Murray (who like Ellis has significant previous from We Will Rock You) fronted the trio well and they set the crowd up nicely, with just the right tone for the show to follow.

The curtain rose and sparkling in a black evening dress and with heels that were either to die for or to be killed by, Ellis strode to centre stage, commanding the vast auditorium with John Barry and Don Black’s Diamonds Are Forever in the arrangement from her album Anthems. Adele’s Skyfall (arguably the best part of that particular Bond)  was the next number and again, Ellis made it her own. As the Bond medley segued into Live And Let Die mixed with Goldfinger, many in the audience were perhaps hoping that Barbara Broccoli might ask Kerry to record a future Bond theme. Ellis may not (yet) be a global rock star but her vocal presence is more than a match for the demands of the 007 franchise. Eon Productions, please take note. Lyricist Black is clearly an inspiration to Miss Ellis. As her set went on to include his I Can’t Be Your Friend from Anthems, together with a later brace of Tell Me On A Sunday classics, the evening almost verged on being a modest tribute to the writer who was sat amongst the Palladium throng.

Ellis’s vocal power and presence at times strongly suggested the potential of an English Streisand and the arrangements for her concert prepared by talented MD Craig Adams, were innovative and refreshing. In a nod to her My Fair Lady roots, she tackled the song that was never hers in the show, On The Street Where You Live and the tender rock beat that Adams had infused into the melody was an inspired touch. I Could Have Danced All Night similarly had a rock pulse to it that invigorated a very familiar and comfortable showtune.  When her orchestra then oh-so gently released the intro to Sondheim’s Losing My Mind, spines tingled in anticipation awaiting her treatment of the spectacular song and again, Ellis did not disappoint. As Long As He Needs Me was given an authentic "mockney" treatment that served the number well and as her first hour drew to a close she sang I Dreamed A Dream, again with a distinctive sound that set it apart from the original. As she tackled the massive middle 8 of that modern classic, she sent the crowd into their first frenzy of the night.

Passions ran so high that a Doctor needed to be sent for and slipping quietly onto the stage the bobbing mass of silver hair that is Dr Brian May, Queen legend and who if he wasn’t so damned wholesome could easily be mistaken for Ellis’ Svengali, took his place beside her. In 2002 May recognised the singer’s potential when he was putting together We Will Rock You and since then he has been visionary in guiding the younger woman to critical acclaim. In an acoustic treat her voice and his guitar created a remarkable version of I Who Have Nothing. The Streisand suggestion that had emerged earlier in the evening was sealed when with May and the strings of the Bergersen Quartet, Ellis tackled the diva’s signature tune, The Way We Were. The clarity and beauty of the modern harmonies was rare and not for the first time, an oh-so familiar song was given a completely fresh interpretation. The second frenzy of the night came soon after, as with acoustic replaced by electric, May led her and the audience in Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The Queen man then magnanimously exited and in a nice touch, a modest medley of Michael Jackson numbers was Ellis' tribute to the King of Pop, Billie Jean proving the most inspired of the selection.

With the stage bathed in a green floodlit wash, there could be but one finale and as the opening chords of Defying Gravity sounded and free of the constraints of having to sit quietly in the Apollo Victoria, nearly every man woman and child in the Palladium whooped their appreciation. The screaming only increased as one by one, Ellis was joined by Alexia Khadime, Rachel Turner, and Louise Dearman (a former Glinda no less, and the sole actress to have ever played both of Wicked's witches), for what can only be described as the most spellbinding and talented British coven ever to grace a London stage. These four Elphabas gave a unique performance, that as well as celebrating Ellis’ stardom on the night, also recognised equally the talents of these three enchanting sisters of sorcery.

Of the several encores that the over-running show stretched to and with Ellis accompanied by May and the heavenly voiced Arts Ed Choir, No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) proved a moving yet profoundly inspirational end to an outstanding evening.

There is talk of this concert touring the UK and such talk should be fuelled and encouraged. It is simply a privilege to hear the talent that is Kerry Ellis and in the event that her gig does pitch up in a town near you sometime in the future, go buy the best tickets you can afford. You will not be disappointed.

Sunday 12 May 2013

The Hothouse

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Simon Russell Beale and John Simm
The Hothouse is a delicious treat of a Pinter play. Unashamedly political, it encompasses sexiness, absurdity and menacing violence, as well as some brilliantly comic moments.

Simon Russell Beale is Roote, an ex-military man who leads the team at an undefined state institution, administering psychiatric treatments to its residents, none of whom are named, only numbered. John Simm is Gibbs his oleaginous but oh so perceptive number two, with eyes for Roote's job. It is Christmas, one patient has just died whilst another has just given birth to a child, apparently fathered by one of Roote's team. It is quite clear that Roote has lost his grip on managing the institution and Russell Beale plays him as a tragi-comic with gloriously controlled eye-popping incredulity. Think Basil Fawlty crossed with his long-term hotel resident, The Major and when in act two, Russell Beale directs his formidable acting firepower towards some perfectly timed slapstick involving whisky throwing and cake eating, the comedy is sublime.

By way of contrast, clean shaven Gibbs is no laughing matter at all, though his repartee with Roote is as good a double-act as you are likely to see. He has the measure of his buffoon boss, along with his colleagues and his elegant yet smarmy and duplicitous servility is another masterclass of performance. Where his fellow staffers only aspire to climb the ladder of promotion, Simms scales it ruthlessly and when his ambition and motive demand that his colleague Lamb be subject to brutal Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), Gibbs does not flinch from arranging the shocking voltage to be applied. The reasons for patients'  detention in this facility are never made clear, but the frequent references to “the Ministry” combined with Soutra Gilmour's brilliant set depicting a greying, publicly-funded government department, add weight to the suggestion that the unit adminsters a brutally harsh response to those who seek to challenge an authoritarian regime.

Key supporting cast are Harry Melling's Lamb and John Heffernan's Lush. Both are on the faculty staff albeit with different responsibilities and both deliver impressive monologues, mastering Pinter's complex concepts and Melling's delivery of his character’s reaction to the ECT is harrowing to watch. Indira Varma is Miss Cutts, a seductively attractive staff member who, trapped in the stifling hothouse of the institution , craves male approval and knows how to use her body to attract it. That actors of the stature of Clive Rowe and Christopher Timothy have been recruited for critical but nonetheless tiny cameo roles, speaks volumes for the cache and impact of this wonderfully slick production.

It's not a long show - each act barely 45 minutes or so, but the production is an accessible collection of performances that provides The Hothouse with a very fresh interpretation as well as also making it a useful introduction to Pinter for those not familiar with the writer’s work. Encapsulating absurdity and menace, as well as outstanding satire, this company rank amongst the best to be found on a London stage.  

Runs to August 3 2013

And In The End

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Written & directed by Alexander Marshall

And In The End, a line in itself taken from The Beatles' song The End, explores the life of John Lennon through his own eyes, presenting him at the pearly gates moments after his murder. Three celestial gatekeepers challenge him to accept that he is now dead and using a take on the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 1969 book, On Death And Dying, that breaks the grieving process into five distinct phases : Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression and finally, Acceptance, they take John through each phase and facilitate his story being told.

The play's mechanism is actually clumsy. The Kubler-Ross book was written to help the bereaved and to project its structure onto the deceased as a character is a flawed pretence from the outset. Thankfully however each of the play's chapters has more of an association with an (accurate) chronology of Lennon's life rather than with an adherence to the clinical five phases, most of which serve as little more than perfunctory introductions to each chapter before being quickly forgotten.

The narrative of the play however provides a surprisingly credible reportage of Lennon's life, from primary school years through to his death and there is much in Alexander Marshall’s meticulously researched text that will be both familiar and also surprising. John's first encounters with McCartney and later, Brian Epstein are fleshed out in pleasing detail. The play explains that Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was not, as has been oft stated, based on an LSD trip, but rather drew its inspiration from a picture drawn by John's infant son Julian about his little best friend Lucy, with words drawn from Lewis Carroll. Above all, John is presented as a pithy quick-witted joker and it is easy to see from his sharp witty cynicism the incisive mind that would give the world some of pop music's most incisive lyrics.

Valentine Pelka puts in what is mostly a memorable performance as the gifted Liverpudlian. His voice, rimless specs and mop top of hair creating a caricature of such familiarity that in full flow of dialog or more often, monologue, it is not too had to imagine that it is Lennon re-telling his own story. On press night though his performance stuttered, with several line-stumbles. Whilst one has sympathy for an actor performing such a massive stage role, each glitch lowers the fragile basket of disbelief that the play seeks to suspend. One wonders if the producers, who include Marshall,  had perhaps rushed the show to opening, denying it sufficient preview time to bed down? Corners have also been cut in production values with projected backdrop imagery that could be slicker and the sound of Chapman's gunshots clearly being played from a mildly hissy SFX recording. On such shaky stage foundations are an audience's illusions made or shattered.

This is a show that can only improve into its run. Putting its production flaws to one side, the central performance is a cracker and aside from the creaking chapter changes, the text is compelling too. If you like Lennon's work, or The Beatle’s music, you will  find something in the play to enjoy.

Runs to Jun 1 2013

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Lee Lessack

The Crazy Coqs, London


Lee Lessack
Arriving directly from the States, Los Angeles based Lee Lessack takes up a week’s residency in the chic underground surroundings of The Crazy Coqs with a set that reflects his respect for Stephen Schwartz and which also heavily draws from two of his albums, Too Marvellous For Words and Chanteur, focussed around the works of Johnny Mercer and the Great French Songbook  (his capitals), respectively.

Beautifully baritoned, Lessack with Nathan Martin on piano, is undoubtedly easy to listen to and his set made for a very pleasant 90 minutes or so, but rarely did the evening get out of that riskily anodyne “pleasant” zone. Lessack had just flown in from performing in Orlando, Florida and quite possibly his act was still aimed at Disney-exhausted tourists or expense account businessmen rather than a room packed with an arguably more discerning London crowd.  It seemed to take a while for a rapport to be established with a surprisingly tough audience but on those rare moments when a spark of vibe to the act was kindled, it seemed to be swiftly extinguished in a following number.

Memorable on the night was the Mercer hit I Wanna Be Around, which Lessack delivered with the vituperative panache that the song demands.  With self-accompaniment on cut-down ukulele or fluke, Pineapple Pete was a number of genuine Vaudevillian entertainment, whilst in a remarkable contrast on the night, Lessack’s take on Kathy Lettea’s Where’ve You Been cut a very perceptive portrayal of the impact of dementia on the elderly, providing a moment of genuine and sincere melancholy both in singer and also within the empathetic and for the most part mature, audience too.

But too much of the evening seemed to have been laid out by Lesssack as CD producer/marketer, rather than as a singer who should have thought: what would a London audience really like to hear and as importantly, how would they like to hear it ? Taking the Broadway smash Being Alive from Sondheim's Company he effectively put it to sleep and with his cover of Charles Aznavour’s She, it seemed that Lessack was unaware of Elvis Costello’s 1999 version of the song recorded for the movie Notting Hill. Costello stamped such a re-defining imprint upon the classic French number that all future artistes should recognise they may well be compared against his benchmark. The set’s penultimate number, a take on Edith Piaf’s Hymne A L’Amour was also best suited to Orlando rather than London. The notes were perfect and the tone flawless, but Lessack’s passion for the song that may well have burned fiercely within him, was barely detectable.

Here until Saturday, it is quite possible that Lessack may spice up his act twixt now and then. The man is immensely talented, though many would argue that he has set himself a huge hurdle for this visit: a Yank, singing classics from France, to the Brits. For such a complex cultural crossover to work any singer has to be at the very pinnacle of their career, not pausing on the slopes around that summit.

I want to see Lessack again one day with a set that is less formulaic, more American and one that allows him to really move up through the gears and lose himself in the power of performance that he clearly has the potential to deliver.

Until May 11 2013

Monday 6 May 2013

A Man Of No Importance

Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terence McNally
Directed by Gareth Machin

The company perform a musical interlude
A Man Of No Importance, drawn from the 1990s film of the same name, is a musical that explores the prejudices of Catholic Ireland in 1964. Alfie, performed by Mark Meadows, is the "man" in question, a bus conductor by trade and an am-dram theatre director as a hobby. His passion for literature is such that he rather endearingly even if a little eccentrically, shares his love of the arts with his regular bus passengers, whilst at the same time grappling with his closeted and virginal homosexuality. His stifled inability to express his sexual inclination has driven him to the works of Oscar Wilde and in a further, but unexplained, change of character has him leading his theatre company into a provocative production of Wilde's Salome, a show widely signalled as likely to prove heretical anathema to the Catholic Church hierarchy under whose auspices his theatre company meet.

This Salisbury Playhouse production is a pot-pourri of prejudices that highlights the Church's and broader Irish society's disapproval not only of homosexuality but also of extra-marital sex and pregnancy outside wedlock. These huge social issues are thrown into the plot in act two with such apparent casualness that they render the musical more of an unsatisfying and unsubtle picket line of protest rather than an occasion of well-crafted entertainment. Ahrens' and Flaherty's hearts and minds are unquestionably in the right place in writing this show, however their (often wonderful) creative talents seem to have wandered off, with this piece lacking the wit and bite that, for example Ragtime, had in abundance.

This is a fragmented story, desperately tragic at times yet with a curiously bolted on happy ending that almost desperately tries to create a final feel-good factor. Ultimately, this is a production whose merits lie in a handful of astonishing moments and performances that are, it should be said, rather special.

In two acts, the first half being too much of a mournful ballad-fest, it is the performances of Fra Fee and Laura Pitt-Pulford that justify the ticket price alone. Fee brings the show to life with The Streets of Dublin, a beautiful song that wonderfully sums up all that is folksy and traditionally Irish about that city. Pitt-Pulford's Adele, a newcomer to the community who finds herself cast as Salome, inspires with both voice and dance and who, after the interval, simply sizzles as the Princess. Robert Maskell as bible-bashing butcher Carney and one of the bad guys of the piece, is delightfully ruddy faced and fulsomely voiced as he sings Books, in a mildly comic number with Alfie's elderly sister who he is wooing.

A Man of No Importance brings some outstanding talent to Salisbury and is to be seen if only for its eclectic curiosity value. A nod of congratulation too to the cast, who all double up as accomplished musicians at different times in the show. Flaws notwithstanding, the appreciative Saturday matinee audience appeared to enjoy the fare on offer, with Fee's good looks in particular, especially what with him being fresh off the Les Mis movie barricades, proving a hit amongst the city's teenage girls!

Runs to May 18 2013

Saturday 4 May 2013

Merrily We Roll Along

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Book by George Furth
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Maria Friedman

Josefina Gabrielle leads the line in Musical Husbands
Some 6 months after it opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Maria Friedman's production of Merrily We Roll Along takes up a three month residence in the West End's Harold Pinter theatre. And like a fine wine or spirit, this production has beautifully matured over the months and should be savoured as a finely crafted piece of theatre.

This backward journey of composer Franklin Shepard's life, that opens in 1976 with his lover, his second wife and oldest closest friend deserting him amidst a party of vacuuous  Hollywood celebrities, is encapsulated in one line from the show's opening number (and title song) " how did you ever get there from here?" And it is that question that underlies Sondheim's lyrics and Furth's brilliant book as from there, almost as in some crazy, backwards whizzing theme park ride, this show hurtles us back in time through nineteen years, pausing only to chart the key events within the two friendships and marriages that Frank builds and then destroys.

This show has no gimmicks whatsoever. It is simply the finest assembly of musical theatre talent in town, led by the novice but nonetheless brilliant direction of Friedman, who herself  has built up a lifelong understanding of Sondheim's work.

Mark Umbers is Frank. A gifted composer whose talents are selfishly and callously wasted over the years in pursuit of cash and ultimately cocaine. The decline of his friendship with lyricist Charlie Kringas is deliciously spelt out by the writer, played by Damian Humbley as always at his very best, in a solo number Franklin Shepherd, Inc, in which Kringas, live on national TV,tells of his friend's love for contracts and cheque books over and above the more human passions of people and piano. Completing this doomed trio of friends is Jenna Russell's Mary Flynn (a role in fact played by Friedman in 1992). Of all the key characters, Sondheim gives Flynn no solo numbers, but don't be deceived. The very best of Sondheim's acerbic put-downs and one-liners, ever, are all hers and whilst her plaintive harmonies sung in Old Friends are exquisite her pain at losing her adored Frank to his first wife Beth, sung at their wedding in 1960 in a reprise of Not A Day Goes By, is gut wrenching.

Clare Foster's Beth is a beautiful, trusting, naive Southern Belle. When she ultimately learns of Frank's infidelity, her beauty displays a further facet, as hurt and betrayed she grief-stricken but fiercely protective and possessive of their young son, sings Not A Day Goes By as a solo set in 1967 outside of a New York divorce court. The song is immense. It destroys the audience, reduced this writer to a mess and is perhaps one of the most perceptive yet poetic descriptions ever written of selfless love that has been destroyed by a selfish partner.

Wife number 2 is Gussie Carnegie, an already divorced man-eater of a Broadway star, who finds Frank's zipper an easy if not submissively willng,  challenge to overcome. Josefina Gabrielle is a delight in this role, bereft early on in act one at rejection in favour of a younger starlet and stunning in the show-within-a-show number Musical Husbands. A true star of London's West End, Gabrielle's voice and presence only improves with her career.

This show has expanded perfectly to fit the impressive Harold Pinter proscenium. Sound and movement have all been seamlessly upgraded to tackle the larger stage and David Hersey's subtle lighting adds masterful touches. Catherine Jayes easily takes her ten piece band from offstage at the Menier to the Pinter pit and her understanding of Sondheim's composition is faultless. From brassy upbeat, to searing ironic agony, to the heavenly harmony that is Our Time, every note is explored to the full.

This is a show that's only here on a 12 week visit. As this review is published, the press are commenting that no West End show has ever garnered as many 5-star ratings (and lest Hecuba is accused of simply following the trend, this review's 5-star opinion was tweeted straight after curtain down on press night!). Merrily We Roll Along started out magnificent, and has simply become even better. Are there, or have there ever been, any other shows of this calibre? Damn few.

Runs to 27 July 2013

Picture: Tristram Kenton