Sunday 30 June 2013

When I Grow Up I Want To Drive A Steam Train!

An inspiring sight!

Since George Stephenson invented his Rocket locomotive in 1829, kids have gazed at trains and wished they could be the driver. After a 50 year wait, this (over-sized) kid finally achieved his ambition, with a rather spectacular birthday present of an Introductory Steam Train Driving Course on the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Many years ago, the K&ESR was a fully working branch line, part of the national network, but the combined onslaught of cheaper road transport and Dr Beeching’s axe took their toll. It fell into disuse until an army of volunteers mobilised themselves restoring the track, rolling stock and stations and it now features as a heritage line, operating mainly as a tourist attraction.
And thus it was, that on a damp morning and together with seven other big kids, ages from 65 – 30, I arrived at Rolvenden station where the locomotive, already fired up and with smoke billowing,  awaited. I have always found the sight of a steam train magnificent. To see, hear and smell such an engine and to know that shortly I would be on the footplate driving it, was to experience a sense of anticipation that is truly rare.
After squeezing into overalls and over a mug of tea (a railway runs on coal and tea we were to learn) a crucial health and safety briefing followed. It is remarkable as to quite how much ingenious  safety design was built into railways even back into the 19th century, with vacuum brakes and interlocking points and signals being astonishing inventions. Whilst passenger safety has always been paramount, the crew’s jobs have been as dangerous. Knowing how to handle 50 tons of fast moving furnace, with fatally hot pipes and knobs all around takes years of experience whilst the heat on the footplate suggests that the copious cups of tea are essential to avoid dehydration!
Mick our driver, welcomed us in turn onto the footplate and much as a 17yo takes to the road in their first driving lesson, so the nervousness and excitement increased. He talked us through the basic controls and then to the first and most crucial of safety tasks, to sound the engine’s whistle (joy!) to alert those nearby of an impending departure. The concentration was intense as I applied the vacuum pressure to release the brakes and then edged the regulator lever (think car accelerator) forward. The noise rose, there was a gentle jolt and then, incredibly, the train was moving, pulling away from the platform, clunking over sets of points and the best part of it all, I was driving it! The Sussex countryside sped by at all of 25mph whilst Mick watched like a hawk, patiently instructing on acceleration, braking and finally in how to bring the train to a halt exactly where you want it to be (OK, eventually and only after 1 or 2 attempts!). By the end of the day I was buffering up the loco to a 20 ton brake wagon (almost) like an expert.

Buffering up

The train crews and railway staff are all unpaid volunteers and their dedication is inspiring. The day was not only about driving a train, it was a fascinating lesson in industrial history, heritage and a chance to marvel, with no small amount of national pride, at some outstanding British engineering. Now, where did I put that volunteer’s application form……

To find out more about the Kent and East Sussex Railway visit their website.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells 'For Two'

Spiegeltent at the Wonderground, London


Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts

It is almost 40 years to the day since young promoter Richard Branson persuaded his wunderkind signing Mike Oldfield to perform from the Tubular Bells opus, live at London’s South Bank Purcell Room. (Legend has it that Branson had to throw in the keys to a Bentley to convince Oldfield to take the stage.) The album was to prove an astonishing work for its time. Stretching the analogue capabilities of 24 track recording, Oldfield had meticulously created his piece almost solo, famously playing nearly all of the 30 instruments himself and layering them track by track. In so doing, he was to create what an admittedly biased Branson has since described as “one of the most influential records in modern music”. That the opening piano melody was then taken up as The Exorcist’s theme only added to the album’s stratospheric success.

Fast forward to 2008 and two talented young Australians, Aidan Roberts and Daniel Holdsworth acquired the performance rights to the work. They went on to develop their consummate understanding of the piece as a live show, with just the two of them playing a glorious collection of string, percussion and keyboard instruments, free of all digital trickery whatsoever save for the occasional layered loop (each of which is freshly laid down on the night). Domestic tours and a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe followed, before this year’s gruelling tour of the UK that finishes with a further month’s residency at Edinburgh. So it was a touching gesture that saw the London gig, on this 40th anniversary, take place just a very short swim up the Thames from the Purcell Room, in the Spiegeltent at the pop-up Wonderground festival site.

From the moment those haunting bars of the the first movement were played spines started to tingle,  but as the movement played out, with its wonderful Celtic recurring motifs and awesome rock riffs, the tingling spines gave way to dropping jaws as the sheer audacious brilliance of these talented antipodeans held 500 people in the palm of their hand. Viv Stanshall’s memorable Master of Ceremonies instrument intros. are replicated on the night by Roberts and as he introduces the various sounds (including the 8 members of the guitar family,  one of which includes the famously and daintily delightful mandolin) the trip back in time is complete. A brief pause, not unlike the real life experience of turning the vinyl over and then the guys canter through the album’s B side, a chapter of the work that has always proved a tad unfamiliar to most, reflecting the fact that whilst millions wore their side one grooves down to smoothness, Oldfield’s second movement was to languish in comparative obscurity.

Branson recounts how back in 1973 Oldfield told him of all the instruments he needed to record the album. Branson was surprised at how expensive tubular bells were to buy. “£20 for tubular bells?” he asked. “They’d better be worth it.” Last night’s standing ovation suggests that they were.

Currently touring the UK and Ireland

Sunday 23 June 2013


Park Theatre, London


Written by Ross Ericson
Directed by Harry Burton

Alex Ferns and Emma Stansfield

With the opening of the brand new Park Theatre being only an (arguably long) stone’s throw from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Finsbury Park now possesses the two finest sources of sporting and cultural entertainment that North London can offer. This elegantly designed purpose-built theatre, comprising two bars, two auditoria and an open airy design with wifi throughout, is a pleasure to visit and augurs well for becoming a new artistic focal point for the capital.

Casualties, staged in the smaller Park 90 theatre, marks this website’s first visit to the venue and is also the first London production of a Ross Ericson play. It’s a gritty tale of two soldiers, Gary and Mike, Gary’s wife Emma, and a military police officer or Redcap, Peter.

In a traverse staging, designer Katherine Heath has split the performance area into two sets. One half is the UK domestic kitchen of Emma and Gary, whilst the remainder is sand strewn, representing various locations in and around Camp Bastion, the British Army’s HQ in Afghanistan. Ericson stages the plays movements through various time shifts, frequently switching between UK and Helmand Province, as his tale unwinds and the reason behind the Redcap’s presence is gradually revealed.

Ericson's chosen canvas though is too broad. He has sought to encompass the violence of war and the soldiers’ terror of the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that they face alongside a love triangle, jealousy and there’s more than a nod to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder within the plot line too. That’s a lot to cram into a 90 minute one-act piece for any writer let alone a novice and Ericson stumbles when it comes to credibility and subtlety. The hint of the love triangle is slipped in almost clumsily early on in the piece amidst circumstances that are both barely believable and also far too obvious, whilst the sketching out of the Redcap, and his closing act denouement seems to have been written from a far too shallow perspective. So, whilst some of the writing is indeed funny and perceptive, overall Ericson can do better.

If the play is a 3-star vehicle, some of the acting is 5-star brilliance. Alex Ferns is Gary, a robust action-man of a soldier who lives for the army and loves the craic of military life and active service. His performance is convincing and believable and when we see him, in full combat gear, attempting to neutralise an IED, the nail-biting suspense amongst the audience is almost unbearable. Finlay Robertson’s Mike seemed to be an awkward performance in the play’s opening movements though he becomes more assured in his role as his character is fleshed out, whilst Patrick Toomey’s Redcap is just a little too stilted throughout albeit his character is the most poorly served by the Ericson’s text. It is down to Emma Stansfield’s take on Emma to give a performance that  is heart-breakingly scorching, initially in her scenes with her husband, but mainly in her response to the dissection of her intimate personal life by the Redcap, amidst the deceptively re-assuring surroundings of her own kitchen, over cups of tea. Her expressions of pain, indignation and humiliation are very nearly amongst the best to be found in town.

Harry Burton’s direction is an assured job and notwithstanding its flaws, Casualties still makes for a stimulating night of drama at what will surely prove to be one of London’s most exciting venues.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Paul Hyett - Directing The Seasoning House - A Feature Profile

Paul Hyett (l) on set with Kevin Howarth

As The Seasoning House opens in cinemas this week, I caught up with director Paul Hyett, to find out a little bit more about this brilliantly troubling tale of independent British horror and also to learn out about the man behind the movie.

The Seasoning House tells the grim story of a typical brothel in war ravaged Bosnia through the eyes of Angel, an almost childlike waif of a deaf mute, who inhabits the ventilation cavities of the building as she attempts to tends to the needs of the working girls who are her friends. Whilst using Angel as a vehicle for telling this story may be novel, the historical research behind the story proves that such establishments exist today, wherever there is a warzone and Hyett bravely tackles a story with that has a massive social message and conscience, as well as a gripping and horrific plotline.

Whilst the production budget may well have been typically modest (though Hyett resolutely refuses to be drawn on the cost of making the picture), what is clear throughout is the commitment that he and his crew have endeavoured to ensure the highest possible production values. It’s a debut movie that packs a punch and unfalteringly suggests the assured vision of a director who knows exactly what his mission is and what he wants to achieve.

Rosie Day

At 39, Hyett has worked a long apprenticeship before this, his first feature. A novice director sure, but he is nonetheless a noted and respected practitioner within the UK movie industry, his skills to date having been deployed in special make up effects with an emphasis on horror and violence. In an industry famed for fickle and tough markets, this century has seen Paul's work consistently in demand with his contribution to those (terrifying) crawlers in Neil Marshall's The Descent firmly establishing his reputation. Other notable movies that have benefitted from his hint of the grotesque and gruesome are Liam Neeson's Unknown, and notable Brit flicks Harry Brown with Michael Caine and The Woman In Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It is clear that Hyett evidently knows how to scare people through the medium of  a shocking or violent effect, yet speaking to him about the development of The Seasoning House, it is clear that he also has an admirable understanding of story construction . He states that what was most important about this movie were story, character and tone, recognising that to win the attention of a modern and discerning audience a narrative tale has to be credible and gripping, with visual shock effects coming last on the list of his creative priorities.

With so much movie experience under his belt, Hyett has had the benefit of seeing some of the best, along with some of the not so good of today's film makers. He is far too professional to name names, but he does not hesitate in acknowledging that along with some inspirational directors, he has also worked alongside some whose talents were less than obvious and where he simply did what was asked of him, as best he could, whilst quietly acknowledging to himself that he could be doing the director’s job far better than the helmsman in question. Hyett has boldly stepped up to this plate however and he has not been found wanting. It is the director's responsibility to tease the very best performances out of his cast, and Hyett has done just that with the quality of the acting that graces The Seasoning House being a tribute not only to the performers themselves but also to his artistic vision and his creative people management skills.

The world of The Seasoning House is lawless and gruesome. Human life could not be cheaper and given the true real-life backdrop to this ghastly tale of bleak hopelessness, Hyett has to tread a careful tale. This is not horrific fiction as in The Descent, a movie that is essentially just a very scary story, albeit one that is brilliantly told and one that whilst it terrifies us, we know deep down to be just make-believe. Hyett’s saga is drawn from a grim contemporary reality and he has been required to plot a path that needs to be convincing and at times horrific, but one that must also respect its sources and be neither sensationlist nor exploitative of the tragic events that underlie his story’s foundation. Hyett’s research into the collapse of society in a war zone has been thorough if not exhaustive. He speaks with deep sadness of the common experience of the Balkan regions and of African states, to name but two conflict zones, where in recent wars men have been slaughtered and women raped before then often being sold to pimps as nothing more than commodities. This is sexual exploitation at its most raw and in our civilised Western society that strives to respect concepts of diversity, equality and tolerance, the basic barbaric brutality of these worlds shocks even more. To portray such an environment is a tough challenge for even an experienced moviemaker, so for a novice to pull off the credible, shocking, yet still profoundly respectful success that he has done, is nothing short of remarkable. Hyett and his co-writers have though laid some clear ground rules to their story: Not one man in the movie is a sympathetic character; and whilst the on screen violence is at times harrowing, for a movie set in a brothel there are barely any scenes of female nudity. This heartening and implied subtext, is that in this world it is simply ordinary men who are the the monsters, whilst the women and girls are all victims deserving of our sympathy. The simplicity of the tale is almost biblical and sadly the crimes and exploitations depicted within the story, are equally as old in both principle and example.

Kevin Howarth

The movie stars both new and familiar faces. Angel, the waif-like protagonist is played by newcomer Rosie Day. Hyett speaks of Day being a pleasure to direct and one who, when on set and off camera would be a cheerful member of the company, yet who when “action” was called, could almost instantly drain the colour from her face and the sparkle of life from her eyes, to give the most convincing performance of a young woman forced to survive in hellish surroundings. The fact that Day has not been (until this movie at least) a recognisable star, adds to the convincing nature of her casting, with a hint of the story almost being a drama-documentary at times, such is the commitment of her performance.

Other notables are Anna Walton who plays victim Violeta, a familiar face from amongst other outings, Hellboy 2. Kevin Howarth is Viktor, the owner of the brothel. Again a genre-familiar face and Howarth turns in a performance that is disturbingly credible as a man who in a split second, can turn from being a “supposed” friend of the rounded-up girls to a ruthless murderer, slaughtering one of them in front of the group, to terrify them into  obedience. The most famous name in the credits is Sean Pertwee, star of Dog Soldiers and Wild Bill. His character Goran, a corrupt militia leader, is cleverly written and wonderfully performed. Whilst all the men in the movie are evil, none of them are caricatures and their wickedness by turn is depicted via subtle acting and outstanding direction.

Hyett has mastered his locations well and where one expects to see an end credit suggesting that the movie was filmed in some low-cost eastern european nation, it is a genuine and pleasing surprise to discover that the film was actually shot in and around London. An old RAF base in Uxbridge together with local woods, being masterfully converted to an anonymous Balkan “somewhere” and with appropriately modest use of CGI combined with clever design and photography, the director’s illusion is complete.

Rosie Day

And of course with Hyett being one of the UK’s effects-meisters, expectations run high for the movie’s special make up offerings. Those expectations are exceeded. Hyett speaks of one murder that took nearly two weeks to complete, involving a  day of photography on both actress and her prosthetic dummy, followed by days of subtle CG, to complete the gruesome detail of her despatch. Genre fans who want a gore-fest as well as a harrowingly told tale, will not be disappointed.

The Seasoning House is a refreshingly intelligent story albeit tragically grounded in reality. Helen Solomon who initially researched the movie pays tribute to Hyett when she says that “a lot of the films key scenes are sadly more documented fact than fiction.” Hyett himself hopes that the “film may in some way bring attention to the terrible experiences that some women continue to suffer during times of war”. He has done his cause proud with a film that shocks, entertains and above all, educates. The most terrifying aspect of this picture is that the horror it depicts is all too real for too many women.

My 4* review of The Seasoning House can be found here
The Seasoning House opens in selected cinemas on June 21st.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Patti Lupone

Leicester Square Theatre, London



The phrase "every cloud has a silver lining" was defined last night at London's Leicester Square Theatre when Patti Lupone, in residency until Sunday, had her piano malfunction shortly into her act. Whilst the problem was addressed and until a replacement keyboard sourced Lupone, in conversation with host/pianist, Seth Rudetsky, expanded the chat section of her act from inter-song fillers, to a far more revealing Q&A and a show that stretched from two to three hours, could have happily continued all night, such was the wit and disclosure of the banter, combined with the singer’s sublime talents.

It's nearly 30 years since Miss Lupone created the Tony and Olivier winning roles of Evita on Broadway and Fantine in London respectively and her backstage tales were sparkling gems that burned a glorious arc through the years right up to the present era. She recounted her withering response to John Caird's suggestion that in Les Miserables, after Fantine's death, the Broadway diva should simply fall in with the rest of the ensemble. Lupone went on to share a devastating observation on the more recent appalling behaviour of her (unnamed) Broadway leading lady in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown whilst her relating of the sad commercial life of Schwartz's The Bakers Wife was made all the more painful by her expanding upon the history behind its beautiful (but axed) song Meadowlark which she then went on to sing, wonderfully.

It is an inspired move that pairs Lupone with Rudetsky for this show. Back home in the USA he hosts a coast to coast satellite radio show, On Broadway and he jokingly refers to himself as America's Elaine Page. The man has encyclopaedic knowledge of musical theatre, silky skills at the keyboard and above all, the respect and trust of Miss Lupone. The first half of the evening is given over to his stand up routine that is a combination of autobiographical reflections and a sharing of amusing musical theatre mishaps over the years. It works and it warms the audience up nicely for the chanteuse's arrival after the interval.

In a classy comedic touch the singer truly does not know what number Rudestky has selected to open her set with until the opening bars. It’s a fresh touch that shatters the fourth wall and creates an automatic and relaxed bond with her audience. Later in the act, bespectacled and with a disarming honesty, she will occasionally reach for sheet music to remind herself of lyrics. Do any of the audience care that she needs prompting? Hell no. Her voice has clearly matured with the years but her delivery remains magnificent and her belt is still simply spine-tingling. I Dreamed A Dream was the moving treat we all expected, but her explanation that the spectacular five note melodic journey of the word “shame”  in the line “ as they turn your dreams to shame”, was her idea, was a nugget of golden theatre history. (For Les Mis geeks, that  line was originally scored to mirror Eponine’s “but he never saw me there” from One Day More) Her selection from Evita included a fabulous Rainbow High, complete with audience participation for the song's ensemble lines, that proved Lupone to be more than still up to the task of delivering one of Lloyd-Webber's more challenging compositions.

With other highlights of the evening including some wonderful "mockney" nods to Lionel Bart's Oliver and a sprinkling of Sondheim and Cole Porter, her set list was as diverse as the chats with Rudetsky were revelatory, and witnessing Lupone perform, close up, in this venue's comparative intimacy was little short of a privilege. Tim Rice famously had Evita sing of her own  "little touch of star quality". Many years on, Lupone has far more than just a little touch. The woman is an icon. Not to be missed.

Runs until June 23 2013
Seth Rudetsky performs Dissecting Broadway solo for one night only on June 22 2013

Monday 17 June 2013

A LIttle Night Music

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford


Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Alastair Knights

There were almost as many stars on stage as there were twinkling lights in the scenic starcloth hung behind the orchestra, such was the pedigree of Alex Parker’s production of Sondheim’s classic.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s movie Smiles Of A Summer Night, the well known story follows actress Miss Desiree Armfeldt, her family and her (married) lovers over the course of an enchanted midsummer’s night in a country mansion. With a nicely coincidental touch, this production, in itself enchanting, has been staged in June almost as closely as possible to this year’s midsummer’s night.

In a sensible move for a sole performance, the cast performed entirely from the book and it says much for Alex Parker (of whom more later) that he could attract so many established names from the musical theatre firmament to take part. The cast were all excellent, with several performances being simply outstanding. Janie Dee’s Desiree had the required irresistible attractiveness that defined her ability to have two paramours in tow and her performance of the show’s melancholy signature number, Send In The Clowns was as confident and as moving as the song’s modest range allowed.

It was however in the performances of the two scorned wives that the production truly took off. Anna O'Byrne, as the 18yo virginal wife of lawyer/lover Egerman, captured the soprano naivetĂ© and innocent charming beauty of her character perfectly. Hers is a complex and unforgiving role, nailed by the talented Australian. As Countess Malcolm, and Armfeldt’s peer, Joanna Riding gave the performance of the evening, with her character that is as comically caustic as she is  tragic. Her take on Every Day A Little Death, an almost tear-scorched look back on life as a cheated upon spouse was as moving a performance as is to be found. Riding and Dee were both Olivier winners as Julie and Carrie respectively in the National Theatre’s Carousel of 20 years ago and their stage reunion was an added treat for musical theatre connoisseurs.

Simon Bailey’s Count Malcom was an absolute cracker of a bristling Dragoon, clipped and precise and in a show with few props it was easy to imagine his accuracy with the duelling pistol. Other jewels in this glittering cast included Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Petra, the smoulderingly sexual maid to the Egerman household and whose solo number and the show’s penultimate song, The Miller’s Son, was a wonderfully passionate portrayal of a tart with a heart. As the hormonal Henrik, Egerman’s son and trainee priest, Fra Fee gave a master class of pent up adolescent sexual frustration that seemed poised to erupt at the slightest provocation.

The true star of the night however was young Alex Parker, who as well as producing the show musically directed, conducting an orchestra which at 31 members was considerably larger than those to be found in most commercial West End pits. Complete with harpist, this night’s music (far from “little”) was perfection and with  Weekend In The Country, which is one of the best act one closing numbers written,  the full sound of Parker’s ensemble with Sondheim’s glorious brass melodies suggesting  the delightful chaos to be unleashed in the second act was simply thrilling to listen to. Parker had rehearsed his musicians meticulously and on the (rare) moment when an actor stumbled, the confident musical backdrop maintained the momentum.

The evening’s standing ovation confirmed suspicions that this show is simply far too good to have a life of just one night. Parker’s vision in staging this production has been inspired and merits investment and a return to either Guildford or London. One only hopes that complex contracts can be negotiated to allow this glimpse of absolute theatrical joy a further lease of life.

Saturday 15 June 2013

The Seasoning House


Written by Paul Hyett & Conal Palmer
and Adrian Riglesford
from an original idea by Helen Solomon
Directed by Paul Hyett

Rosie Day

The Seasoning House marks Paul Hyett's debut as director and its an impressive calling card. To date Hyett as plied his trade as a Special Make Up Effects Designer, but with this bleak tale of Balkan butchery he has fashioned a movie that's as believable as it is horrific and with a thrilling action twist too.

The story follows Angel, a young pretty girl, deaf and mute, who we meet as she has been rounded up amongst a bunch of her pretty peers, by a gang of violent pimps. The seasoning house, or brothel, to which the girls are taken is a remote, bleak, run down building where thugs keep the girls imprisoned. Violence is the norm in this fractured society with one of the girls being horrifically slaughtered on arrival, in front of her friends, to terrify them into obedience. The men who frequent the brothel are either militia or corrupt officialdom and with the girls routinely drugged to ensure compliance, the abuse to which they are subject is harrowing. Notwithstanding the tale's sexual backdrop, female nudity is almost completely avoided, as the brutal storytelling avoids gratuitous sensationalism or exploitation. Sadly however, the background to the story is all too authentic. Hyett has commented with the benefit of well researched authority that in conflicts, epecially civil wars, the rape of women alongside their being corralled and sold/trafficked to pimps and brothel keepers is a practice that is as old as lawlessness itself.

The role of Angel is an astonishing performance from newcomer Rosie Day. With her character’s disablilites she is a "flawed" girl who is not sent to work alongside her peers. Her task within the house is to prepare the girls for their work, cleaning them and ensuring that the filthy heroin injections she is forced to administer keeps them stupefied. There is not one good man in the movie. Kevin Howarth is Viktor, the brothel owner, in a performance of thinly veiled charm that masks his cynical brutality. Sean Pertwee plays Goran, a local militia leader, who combines the swagger and bombast of modest officialdom, supported by ruthless barbarity. An emaciated waif of a girl, Angel has learned her way around the labyrinth of ventilation shafts of the dilapidated building and following a thrilling David v Goliath moment in which she avenges the murder of one of the girls, the plot develops from a violent morality tale into an innovative chase story, as the slender heroine avoids retribution, hiding amongst the buildings cavities.

Kevin Howarth

With such an accomplished background in horrific effects, (it was Hyett who spawned the crawlers in Neil Marshall’s The Descent) well photographed violence is to be expected. The movie's backdrop of broken Europe echoes the harsh continent of Eli Roth's first two Hostel pictures, showing a world where human life is a cheap consumable commodity and where quite literally anything goes, for a price. To the director's credit however, he has put story first, seeking to place the  effects on the back burner.  Where gore is required the use of prosthetics is shocking and innovative with some seamless finishing touches of CGI that perfect the imagery. And as much as the visceral visuals are stomach churning, excellent technical attention is also paid to the film’s sound effects, which combined with Paul E. Francis' haunting soundtrack, complete the realism of the on-screen horror.

If ever there was a film that defines the phrase "power corrupts", this is it.  Hyett's helming debut makes for a troubling, watchable, well told story with the true horror of his tale being not the well-crafted special effects, but rather the chilling realisation that places like the seasoning house actually exist. The movie is an almost perfect combination of action thriller and credible violent psychological horror. It is a must see for genre fans and if you can catch it on the big screen, even better.

In selected cinemas from June 21st

My feature article on Paul Hyett - Directing The Seasoning House can be found here

Tuesday 11 June 2013

The Three Phantoms

Swan Theatre, High Wycombe


The Three Phantoms

The Three Phantoms features three of Britain’s finest musical theatre tenors together with outstanding support, performing an immaculately drilled whirl through many familiar show tunes, plus a few surprises too, from Broadway and the West End.

Emerging onto the stage in immaculately tailored light grey suits with purple tie and handkerchiefs and all of a uniform height, one could be excused for mistaking the Phantoms for a Virgin Atlantic cabin crew, albeit a crew whose performances are nothing less than Upper Class. In this outing, the trio comprises Earl Carpenter who conceived the show, Matthew Cammelle and Stephen John Davis. Each introduces himself with a solo, of which Davis’ Mr Cellophane from Chicago was a particular treat. With voice and acting in sweet synchronicity, Davis brilliantly extracts the complex humour and pathos that Kander and Ebb wove into the number. Alistair Barron as a supporting tenor joins the Phantoms for an exquisite Maria from West Side Story, the arrangement of the number broken down into a four part harmony being the first of some truly memorable moments.

A Phantom must have his Christine and thus soprano Rebecca Caine is introduced half way through act one. Whilst her dazzlingly tailored red evening gown, amongst the purple tinted men, continued only the briefest of hints towards the sassy Virgin Atlantic colour scheme, her outfit exuded nothing if not refined understated majesty. Not only is Caine one of the few singers in theatre to boast a classical opera training, but her enchanting features belie her considerable experience. She created Cosette in Les Miserables, played Christine opposite Michael Crawford's Phantom and went on to create that role in Canada opposite Colm Wilkinson. Caine gives a fine interpretation to I Could Have Danced All Night and accompanied by Annette Yeo and Mandy Whatsham Dunstall, the rarely heard Make Him Mine from The Witches of Eastwick proves another magical moment.

With an eye to the practicalities of a gruelling tour schedule, the music of the night has been pared down to Anthony Gabriele, musical director, on piano with a beautifully arranged cello accompaniment from Yvonne Marie Parsons. Gabriele has performed with the show since its inception and his understanding of each of the songs’ subtleties and sweet spots complements the singers like a fine wine matching gastronomy. Act one closes with a medley from Les Miserables commencing with Gabriele leaving his piano to conduct the seven voices (eight, including Parsons who downs her bow to sing) in a sublime a-capella version of  I Dreamed A Dream. The vocal beauty of this particular arrangement is breathtaking and the show should be seen if for no other reason than to experience quite what the human voice is capable of in this one song.

The Ensemble

Act two’s highlights include Earl Carpenter’s take on Matilda’s The Hammer. His Trunchbull is a cleverly crafted grotesque and it is surely only a matter of time before the RSC hire him to perform the loathsome headmistress. In a tribute to other shows based on or around Gaston Leroux’s Phantom Of The Opera, Matthew Cammelle gives a soaring Til I Hear You Sing from Love Never Dies, making one wish  for that show's return and as her solo finale, a bejewelled Rebecca Caine performs Think Of Me, hitting those glorious final stanzas with a controlled magnificence that sparked a  mini standing ovation.

The Three Phantoms is probably the finest collection of songs from the shows to be found on tour. Whilst the programme has a few oddities (three numbers from Spamalot is possibly too many), it remains packed with favourites and the production values that surround the evening are faultless. The set is simply but stylishly staged, beautifully lit and the sound is perfectly balanced. Above all the show presents four international stars of musical theatre whose talents are incomparable. Should The Three Phantoms descend upon your town, don’t miss them.

Touring until July 6

Pippin - New Broadway Cast Recording


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

This review was first published on The Public Reviews
It is 40 years since Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin first arrived on Broadway. On paper it’s a quirky show, inspired by the historical reign of Charlemagne whose empaire in the early Middle Ages stretched from what is now modern day France through Germany to Italy and zooming in on the Emperor’s eldest son Pippin. This is not your standard “boy meets girl” musical love story, but more an exploration of a young man trying to find himself and define his relationships with his powerful dominant father Charles, a conniving wicked stepmother Fastrada who is out to prefer her natural son, an enchanting grandmother who his father has exiled and ultimately the young widowed Catherine, mother of a young son, who falls for him. With parables of war at its core and Vietnam clawing at the psyche of 1970s America, the show was acclaimed by New York on its opening and under Bob Fosse’s direction it garnered numerous awards and nominations. This new Broadway version is already living up to its predecessor’s standards and is the most nominated show in town so far for 2013.

The recording of this work is simply an invigorating joy to listen to. Patina Miller, who as this review is written is a Tony Nominee for Leading Actress, opens the show as the Leading Player with the instantly recognisable Magic To Do, though in line with this production’s values the song is as stunning as it is familiar. Her troupe of Players are a clever creation by Schwartz, acting  as both guide and Chorus to the shows protagonists. Corner Of The Sky, perhaps the show’s most recognised number follows next on the album, and as Pippin, Matthew James Thomas combines youth with a strength of purpose and a clever blend of naivete and assertiveness. The tonal talents of this young actor mark him out as a truly remarkable performer.

Andrea Martin as Grandmother Berthe has a rudely glorious number with No Time At All, as she wryly looks back on life from her senior age. Her line “when your best days are yester, the rest’re twice as dear” is but one example of Schwartz’s razor sharp wit that makes this song, recorded with an audience sing-a-long chorus that could so easily be cheesy but is in fact exhilarating, an absolute delight. Charlotte d’Amboise as the maturely seductive Fastrada sings of having youthfully sulked and pouted in her coyly delivered Spread A Little Sunshine, but the song is a thinly veiled description of a seductress still very well aware of her charms and wiles and also transfers seamlessly to the recorded medium. As Catherine, Rachel Bay Jones gets a handful of solos, with Kind Of Woman being a tale of an ordinary independently minded, yet still “wonderful girl”, whilst I Guess I’ll Miss The Man is a poignant realisation that Pippin has still to journey on and leave her, as he seeks to discover his destiny.

Schwartz is that rare writer/composer who not only has a perceptive eye and witty mind, but also the ability to harness these talents to mainstream commercial success, an achievement that few, if any of his creative peers can match. This recording mirrors the writer’s talents. It’s a perfect copy of a strong story, told with recording values that capture not only the talent of musicians and actors, but also encapsulate the spirit of the live staged show. If you love musical theatre then this recording has to be a part of your collection. You will not be disappointed, it truly is magic for you.

Available from Sh-K-Boom Records

Our House

Stratford Circus, London


Music & lyrics by Madness
Book by Tim Firth
Directed by Sarah Redmond

Our House, the juke box musical based upon the Madness catalogue is given a sparkling re-visit by the second year Musical Theatre students of Trinity Laban. Set in and around London's Camden Town, the story follows Joe Casey a likeable cheeky chancer of a lad, who is caught breaking into a house with his girlfriend. As the police arrive, Joe's character splits into two: spiv Joe who chances it and runs away, contrasted with honest Joe who is arrested, serves a stretch in a Young Offenders institution and who then battles against disapproval and stigma as he tries to do "the right things" in his lfe. It's a classic morality tale of wrong versus right set against a backdrop of strong north London family values, lifelong friendships and corrupt multi-million pound property deals.

Sion Warner effortlessly masters both the humble and the arrogant personae of Joe in a quality performance enhanced with split second costume changes that wow with technically timed perfection. Warner has a hint of Madness' lead singer Suggs in his portrayal and his singing of the two classics I Go Driving In My Car and It Must Be Love are neat tributes to both numbers.

Joe may be the lead character but it is the company around him that create his world and the lively London that Redmond sculpts from her cast is impressive. Lewis Asquith as the spirit of Joe's dead father, accompanying him on stage through much of the show, is a masterfully understated performance of a fallible but big hearted man who despite his blunders, always loved his family. Cathy Thomas who plays his widow is heartrendingly believable as she plays a 40-something mum twice the actress' age. As Sarah, Joe's love, Lucy Thomas is a perfectly voiced and well acted foil to both versions of our (anti) hero and Thomas rises well to the challenge of having to play Sarah from two different perspectives. The tightly observed comedy comes from a quartet of friends whose timing and delivery is a treat of wit and smutty innuendo. Nazerene Williams, who performs an eye-watering splits and Amy Depledge are the giggling girls, whilst Joe's half-brothers, played by Alex Gilchrist and David Grant are a cracking pair of comically awkward adolescents. The bad guys of the piece are smoothly crafted turns from Tom Self as Reecey, who grows up from school bully to hired thug (via a sharp cameo as a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator) and Mark Gollop as ruthless developer Pressman, a pantomime villain for our time.

The choreography is inspired work from Robert Foley. The ensemble numbers of Baggy Trousers, Embarrassment (with a brilliant boxing-ring interpretation from Redmond) and The Sun And The Rain are moving and exhilarating in their audacity, with credit too to Dance Captain Anna Britton and her lead of the troupe in executing Foley's visions. A nod also to the Finale, which is a feast of fancy footwork brilliantly executed by the entire company.

Chris Whitehead's band, drawn mainly from 1st and 2nd year music students provides an accomplished accompaniment. At its core, wind player Victoria Bell's saxophone work provides the most ballsy authentic Madness sound that truly takes an already wonderful show, one step beyond.

Sarah Redmond crafts a cracking musical. Her stage is bare, save for a handful of boxes and some bunting, with video projection setting scenic suggestions. Her mission is clear: this vision of London will be created entirely by performance and it's a mission that succeeds. The production reflects a very talented bunch of students that have been led by an inspirational creative team. This show deserves a wider audience and Trinity Laban's next production is eagerly awaited.

Runs from Jun 6 - 8

Sunday 2 June 2013

Titus Andronicus

Swan Theatre, Straford Upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Fentiman

Stephen Boxer and Rose Reynolds
If the RSC’s Titus Andronicus were a DVD (which it damn well should be, but that’s another story) it would sport an 18 certificate, with the warning “contains scenes of extreme gore and violence”. This production actually deserves a further rubric: “contains scenes of outstanding acting and visionary design”.

Michael Fentiman’s production messes with our mind as costume and design take us on a Back To The Future ride, blurring the 1950s and Saturninus’ gorgeous pinstripe suit, with the downright medieaval as Tamora dons wolfskin: head, teeth and all, to portray Revenge. This review will not outline the plot – a synopsis can be found on the RSC website (link below) and to describe too much of how this freakish story is told, would only spoil.

Stephen Boxer as Titus is masterful. He conveys the nobility of a decorated and battle hardened General, who notwithstanding his love for his family, puts duty above all. When his loyalty to Rome is abused by the new Emperor and his wife, Boxer’s interpretation of that snub gives an added dimension to the plot. His final scene that bears more than a nod to kitchen queen Fanny Craddock, is a Tarantino inspired episode of Come Dine With Me.

Tamora, the Goth Queen, is a smoulderingly lustful display from Katy Stephens. Rarely is a Shakespearean MILF so wickedly portrayed, and Stephen’s performance does not disappoint. By contrast, Rose Reynold’s Lavinia brings a fragile fragrance to the production. Her character’s arc takes her from fair, prized beauty to violated mute victim, almost Cordelia like in the tragic fondness that evolves between her and father Titus. It is hard to believe this is Reynolds’ debut season at the RSC and she remains a talent to look out for.

John Hopkin’s Saturninus is a leader who claims his authority solely based on heredity. His subtle portrayal of a nice-but-dim man, in charge of a powerful empire, has chilling echoes of a world where even today a dictator’s son can take over from his late father.

Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward as Chiron and Demetrius are feral, hoody-wearing scum, who ride BMX bikes onto the stage in another chilling comment on the world today. Their offstage acts of rape and violence are so abhorrent that when we witness their being slaughtered, the revenge is so satisfying that one could cheer. Their on-stage deaths are as brutal as their crimes and these two young actors, also company debutants, deserve a nod for the physical extremes of their performances, being suspended above the stage, upside down by their ankles, for what seems like an excruciating eternity

Katy Stephens bites off more than she can chew

The final treat of the night (though all the cast excel, to a person) is Kevin Harvey’s wickedly evil Aaron. A Scouser with a massive presence and a beautifully weighted voice to match. That I was reminded of the Narrator in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers during his monologues, should only be taken as a compliment ( Did you hear the story of Tamora’s twins…..?)

Fentiman makes a classy impression with this his first production for the RSC and he has well exploited the design genius of Colin Richmond and the trickery of illusionist Richard Pinner. Titus Andronicus is a play typically produced on the fringe with a shoestring budget and relying on no more than good acting, inexpensive props and gallons of stage blood. So to see in this version the RSC invest expensive world-class technology into making the show soar, is an absolute treat for theatregoer and practitioner alike.

The only preparation for seeing this play is a tolerance of extreme gore. If you can stand the sight of blood, then travel to Stratford and enjoy this fine collection of individual and company performances. At times funny, often tragic and downright bloody brilliant.

For a synopsis of the play, prepared by the RSC, click here

Read my feature on Titus Andronicus and interview with director Michael Fentiman here

Runs in repertory to 26 October 2013

Saturday 1 June 2013


Union Theatre, London


Book by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by John Barry
Directed by Michael Strassen

Keith Ramsay

Billy at the Union Theatre is the most sparkling celebration of talent currently to be found in an Off West End show, as this musical adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Billy Liar makes its first London revival since Michael Crawford made the role his own at Drury Lane in 1974. (A production that this reviewer attended.) Musicals that comment on social issues and life's complexities are more often than not to be found set in the USA and it adds to the joy of Billy that the show is resolutely rooted on this side of the Atlantic, an infectiously glorious snapshot and celebration of 1960's England.

Set over the course of one day in the typical Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, the show follows undertaker's assistant Billy Fisher. An incorrigible liar and fantasist, he chases the town's girls having deceitfully gotten engaged to at least of two of them, in pursuit of adolescent fumbling sex whilst lacking any sense of emotional commitment to anyone else at all.

His family and friends make up the show's company and avoiding complex staging or scenery, Michael Strassen has elicited the most eloquent performances from his cast, who with the use of skilful lighting and sound effects, create tableaux that range from bedroom to a crowded commuter bus to busy mainline train stations.

Keith Ramsay is Billy who we first encounter in flannel pyjamas as he daydreams a wartime aerial conflict. Ramsey is an inspired casting as he nails both the comedy and the  sadness of Billy's pursuit of fantasies at the expense of any jot of responsibility. He is but one of a handful of outstanding actors in a troupe that is never less than excellent. Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt are his much put upon parents. Carroll's frustration at his son's indolence is almost palpable and Butt wraps up a convincingly worn down mother and wife, who in one of Billy's fantasy sequences also shows that she remains very hot on her pins in a nifty tap routine. Paddy Glyn's Gran is a treat of a performance of understated perceptive ageing, whilst amongst Billy's cohort of fiancĂ©es Katerina Stearman breaks our hearts in her un-reciprocated devotion to the young man, Laura Bryars' Rita all cocky feisty mouth and open legs is a northern gem and Rosie Clarkson's Barbara, who has her wholesome dreams of a married life with Billy roundly shattered by his double-dating immaturity, is an exquisitely voiced soprano.

Rosie Clarkson and Laura Bryars

It is no wonder that the show is so poignant yet also so brilliantly observed. With a book by comedy giants Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and lyrics by Don Black, the creative talent that underlies the work is impeccable, supported by John Barry's melodies.

The tight space of the Union Theatre is brilliantly exploited by Strassen's intelligent handling of the piece and Tim Deiling's lighting highlights the transition between fantasy and reality seamlessly. This near-faultless production is another example of British brilliance in both writing and performance and should not be missed.

Runs to 29 June 2013