Wednesday 31 July 2013

Sophie-Louise Dann - From Classic To Coward To Current

Crazy Coqs, London

Sophie-Louise Dann

The Crazy Coqs was packed to see Sophie-Louise Dann's return to the UK cabaret scene. Flame haired and clad in an immaculately tailored silk jacket and trousers her eclectic choice of songs opens with Its An Art from the little known Stephen Schwartz show, Working. It's a feisty number, presenting Miss Dann as a gamine take on Liza Minnelli in her pomp. Dann’s vivacity matched with her dazzling eyes gives an energy to a cabaret show that is not often seen. 

Showing a clear affinity with comic roles in song, Dann is a mistress of that challenging combination requiring the comedian's timing and dramatic talent to be married with the singer's vocal power and precision. Cole Porter's satirical Tale Of The Oyster was prised apart by the chanteuse, revealing the wit not only within the words but contained in Porter's melody too. When Dann then turns her firepower onto the Stephen Sondheim/Mary Rogers co- composition of The Boy From, her voice ascends the register with what sounds like just a hint of Keith Harris' Orville hatching. Dann's control of the comedy was at all times assured, never missing a note.

Dann has a glorious affinity towards the cornucopic composition. She closed her first act with the inspired number May I Have A Moment from her Olivier nominated performance in Lend Me A Tenor. Delivering snatches of countless famous arias, all of course recognisable to the cultured Crazy Coqs crowd who were in hysterics at her wondrous delivery. The whoops of applause as she gracefully brought the song to its conclusion had to be heard to be believed. In a similar theme, her act 2 number from Helen Goldwyn's World’s Biggest Fan, which showcases famously recognisable snatches from the best of musical theatre past and present, hints at the success Dann had achieved early in her career as a member of the Forbidden Broadway company.

Giving occasional masterclasses in performance at her alma mater, the Arts Educational School in London, one can only hope that her pupils’ summer workload includes a compulsory attendance to see "Miss" performing her gig. To hear the awesome belt that Dann can produce in both Back To Before, from Ragtime and subsequently in Kander & Ebb’s Ring Them Bells is to be in the presence of genius.

James Church provides the slickly effortless piano accompaniment to Sophie-Louise and on a balmy London summer's evening there is surely no finer way to pass the time than listening to one of the coolest divas around.

Sophie-Louise can be seen at the Crazy Coqs from July 30 to August 3 and show details can be found here

To read my profile of Sophie-Louise click here.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Witches of Eastwick

Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Based on the novel by John Updike
Book and lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana P Rowe
Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood

Alex Bourne (lucky devil) with l-r Poppy Tierney, Joanna Hickman and Tiffany Graves

Driving along the M4 through a horrendous storm, a vivid streak of forked lightning over Newbury suggests a good omen for the opening night of Craig Revel Horwood’s take on The Witches Of Eastwick. And indeed on approaching the Watermill Theatre, set as its name suggests amongst some of Berkshire’s finest wetlands, the evening was to prove an enchanting first commercial revival of the show in five years.

An initial visit to The Watermill finds the auditorium surprisingly small for such a regional centre of excellence, yet the stage is designed thoughtfully and with an attention to detail that smacks of outstanding production values notwithstanding the budgetary restrictions that are probably imposed upon such a modest venue. Actually, “outstanding” is the one word that sums up this show.

Revel Horwood is a gifted director, not only for the movement and choreography he envisions, but more importantly for the performances that he coaxes from all of his talented cast. The three leading ladies are Tiffany Graves, Poppy Tierney and Joanna Hickman, all accomplished actresses who not only bring depth and nuance to each of the women they portray, but also excellence in their acting and vocal work. The story is pure comic-book fiction, yet each actress portrays her two dimensional character with canny three dimensional depth. Billed as a musical comedy, these performers work their seductive skills upon the entire audience and in an unashamedly sexual staging, Revel Horwood extracts performances from his Witches that lustfully sizzle, yet remain on the right side of decency throughout the show, just. The act two opener, Another Night At Darryl’s, led by a smouldering Tierney as sculptress Alexandra, with its suggestions of mud wrestling as the three women daub each other with her wet clay, has to be seen to be believed. Similarly with Sukie Rougemont's (played by Graves) steamy act one number Words. The song is a singer's minefield, demanding fast and complex lyrics to be delivered whilst Sukie is being seduced and made love to. Graves nails it.

Joanna Hickman fiddles furiously as Alex Bourne seductively strums

Three witches of this calibre demand a devil that is up to their strong characters and Alex Bourne’s Darryl van Horne is perfectly cast. In a show where the performers are all required to play an instrument, (a delightfully long-established economic policy of The Watermill) Bourne’s sex fuelled rebel naturally plays the electric guitar. The actor brings perfect gravitas and presence to van Horne and his Dance With The Devil is but one example of a performance that will please many women in the audience.

The baddy of the piece is local townswoman Felicia Gabriel. It is usually wrong to compare castings from different productions, but let’s make an exception. Rosemary Ashe who created this harridan at Drury Lane in 2000 reprises her monstrous character and like a fine Scotch whisky, she has wonderfully matured over the years. When early on in the show an indignant Felicia proclaims “I am Eastwick”, Ashe aint kidding!

Rosemary Ashe leads the (washing) line in the wonderful Dirty Laundry ensemble number

Licensed by Cameron Mackintosh, this show represents by far and away the best musical revival to be staged out of town this summer and the producers would do well to consider how its glorious spirit can be transferred to London come the autumn.

The ingenious effects of Revel Horwood's staging are not smoke and mirrors. Close up, we can all see how everything’s done, but for once, that really doesn’t matter. The magic of this show lies not in its special effects, but rather in the crafted talent and beauty that Revel Horwood has inspired his entire company to deliver. You won’t see a better cast this year.

Runs until 14 September 2013. Booking details here

To read my profile of composer Dana P. Rowe, click here

Monday 29 July 2013

Sophie-Louise Dann - In Profile

Sophie-Louise Dann
Sophie-Louise Dann is one of England's rather well accomplished musical theatre actresses. A graduate of the Arts Educational School she has been plying her profession for over 20 years building up a fabulous international pedigree of work, yet it was only recently with a 2012 Olivier Awards nomination, that her name reached a long overdue wider circle of recognition.

Vocally, Dann is a treat to listen to. An admirer of Stephen Sondheim, the composer recently endorsed her casting as Dot in a wonderfully appropriate Paris located production of Sunday In The Park With George that he had re-orchestrated for a 47 strong orchestra. In a career that has encompassed a broad range of roles, Dann is especially proud of her achievement as Dot.

A sound soprano background offered her an entree into the world of Gilbert and Sullivan with the D'Oyly Carte company and through her career the presence and beauty of her vocal clarity has earned her the acclaim and respect of many celebrated peers, whilst her understanding of the wit of operetta provided a grounding in learning to master the subtle nuances of comedic timing and delivery. 

Performing in the London version of New York's Forbidden Broadway, the long running ever evolving satirical pastiche on famous musical theater works, defined her gift for a supremely talented shtick, which was to be deliciously exploited in the West End's 2011 musical premiere of Lend Me A Tenor. It is one of the recent tragedies of Shaftesbury Avenue that this fabulously constructed show only enjoyed such a short truncated run. In what was very much a supporting role Dann played diva Diana Divane, a character whose opinion of her own singing ability far outshone reality. In the show’s second act however, with her number May I Have A Moment, Dann delivered what was quite simply a good old-fashioned showstopper. The song was a whirlwind tour-de-force, demanding that the singer propel herself through snatches of the world's most famous arias (Verdi, Wagner et al are all in there) in two minutes. With her roller-coaster performance defining the technique of "acting through song”, Dann combined excellence with side-splitting hilarity, coming close to earning a standing ovation with 30 minutes of the show still to run. That a performer of this talent can still take time out to teach today's students at her alma mater Arts Ed., suggests that the future of British musical theatre performance is in safe hands indeed.

The autumn will see the actress, reserved by nature and who in her own words likes nothing more than enjoying the peace of her Bexhill-on-Sea life with actor husband Nic Colicos, return to musical theatre comedy as Margaret Jones in Molly Wobbly's Tit Factory. Paul Boyd's show was acclaimed in Belfast and Edinburgh last year, taking a skewed look at vanity, life and (most) religions too, with songs that are as offensive as they are eye-wateringly funny. In a role created by Leanne Jones just before she became too pregnant to act, it will be grand to see Dann give a more age appropriate perspective to Boyd's creation.

But before Molly Wobbly, Sophie-Louise Dann is in residence at London's Crazy Coqs for this week only. Her show From Classic To Coward To Current promises to touch on some of the great moments of her career, as well as some personal favourites. Suffice to say, that in  the confident company of Miss Dann, a classy combination of wit and musical excellence is assured.

Sophie can be seen at the Crazy Coqs from July 30 to August 3 and show details can be found here

Molly Wobbly's Tit Factory is at the Hackney Empire from September 20 to October 5 and show details can be found here 

Sunday 28 July 2013

Dana P. Rowe - A Brief Profile

With the UK’s first professional production of The Witches of Eastwick in five years opening at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, I spent a brief while with composer Dana P.Rowe, to talk briefly about the show and his collaboration with writer John Dempsey.

The show, based upon John Updike’s novel and following on some 13 years after Jack Nicholson created the on-screen role of Darryl van Horne, received its global premiere at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane as a Cameron Mackintosh production. Rowe and Dempsey had already been collaborating since the 1980’s with two modestly successful hits behind them, Zombie Prom from 1995 and The Fix in 1997 (that Sam Mendes had staged at the Donmar).

If there is a theme to Rowe’s and Dempsey’s output, it is the tackling of social issues and commentary via stories that are either faux-horror, or of comic book style structure. Simple fables, often with a literally in-credible or zany storyline, yet all speaking towards a message of simple comment upon the human condition.  Where The Witches of Eastwick shines a light upon urban life and relationships and frustrations that have gone awry, Zombie Prom takes a sympathetic view of a high school boy killed in a freakish nuclear power station disaster, whose mutilated corpse returns from the dead to seek re-acceptance from his peers and school prinipals and above all, be allowed to attend the school prom. It’s a ridiculous whacky premise, but at its heart it speaks of an outsider desperately seeking affection and recognition.  Rowe speaks with some tenderness and personal experience when he talks of the difficulties of being an outsider excluded from the “in-crowd”.

Musical theatre is no stranger to tackling darker aspects of humanity, though where Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t mince their words with human comment (think of the abusive streak of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, or the menace that overshadows Jud Fry in Oklahoma) so Rowe and Dempsey adopt a different strategy of directness. I suggest to Rowe, particularly with the imagery of Zombie Prom in mind, that the world that he and his collaborator portray is one that could have been drawn by Roy Lichtenstein. Simple images, primary colours, and punchlines that whilst they may be superficially obvious or even shallow, actually speak to us with a poignant irony upon the world they describe, sound out from his compositions and Rowe is quick to endorse the suggested similarities between his work and Lichtenstein’s iconic imagery. 

Whilst Rowe’s output with Dempsey has not been prolific, their creative relationship continues to this day, suggesting an artistic harmony and union that has a reassuring degree of timelessness. With Merrily We Roll Along, just closed on London's  West End, describing the arc of destruction that shatters the working friendship of a lyricist and composer, it is strangely comforting to find a harmonious and productive partnership that has existed between two creative talents, for so long.

Rowe's craft is simply to take his perceptive perspectives on life and set them to some uplifting melodies. Act one of The Witches of Eastwick closes with the marvellous composition I Wish I May. More than 8 minutes long its a song for the three Witches and the Devil, that is a biography of the ladies and a glorious perspective on how Satan has understood their personae and endowed them with what they think they most desire. It's a vast canvas of a number, that in its grandeur echoes Bigelow's Soliloquy. The song opens with tender heartfelt verses from each woman, before crescendoing to its final stanzas as their diabolical lover makes them all, literally, fly. It is one of those few songs that is truly as thrilling to listen to as it is to watch on stage.

The man's music speak to us all. His songs are classically structured yet written with a timelessness that does not date their message. The lucky folk of Newbury are blessed with Craig Revel Horwood's take on The Witches of Eastwick being with them until September 14th. For the rest of us, it's only a short trip (or broomstick flight) down the M4 for the chance to savour some of the funniest and most stirring musical theatre written.

The Amen Corner

National Theatre, London


Written by James Baldwin
Directed by Rufus Norris

Marianne Jean-Baptiste

The Amen Corner at the National Theatre is a remarkable comment upon the lives of an African American community in 1953 Harlem. Rufus Norris’ interpretation of James Baldwin's play with music weaves a beautiful gospel lilt upon this scrutiny of a small church, its pastor, her family and the community elders. Whilst never leaving the claustrophobic confines of the church and Pastor Margaret Alexander's modest apartment, Baldwin dares to question the duplicity of religious fervour and amidst a background of a nascent Civil Rights push and with an all black cast, shows that hatred exists everywhere, not just amongst racist white folk.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is Margaret. A single mother who following the infant death of her first child fled the the errant ways of Luke her alcoholic musician husband, gathering up her young son and donning the cloth as pastor to a committed if somewhat cynical city flock. Margaret's commitment to her faith is unquestioning. She makes decisions that are at times unpalatable, and Jean-Baptiste embodies her with such subtlety and also such passion, that we come to discover that in her world, faith has a dark side. It has provided her with a mechanism to deny much of life's ugliness and pain and further, Baldwin suggests that it has also served as a possible opiate to too many of the black community, dulling any sense of justified rebellion against the appalling racism that they were subject to through much of the 20th century,

Sharon D Clarke is Margaret's wise all seeing sister Odessa. Clarke is surely the grand-dame (and one day a deserved Dame?) of Britain's black acting community. Her fierceness combined with a compassionate protection of her sibling, offers a supporting role of strength and beauty whilst less well known Cecilia Noble turns in another masterful performance as a church elder who slowly sheds her early comic turn of virginity and bible bashing faux-purity, to reveal a malevolence of hatred and bitterness.

A surprise return of the estranged and dying Luke (Lucian Msamati) to the apartment questions all that Margaret has sought to hold dear for many years, and whilst Luke's lifestyle of wine, women and sin is anathema to the pastor, he provides the inspiration to their 18 year old musician son David, (yet another cracking performance, this time from newcomer Eric Kofi Abrefa) to quit the ghetto, free his spirit and make strides that are clearly signalled will influence the burgeoning demands of the Civil Rights movement.

Baldwin's writing is poetically profound and searching. If Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman highlighted the creaking gaps and flaws in the American Dream, then take the image of that play’s broken Willy Loman, re-write him as an African American woman and there emerges a strong argument to suggest that Margaret Alexander's story is as harsh a take on the realities of the black community’s strengths and battles as well as its flaws and failings.

The musical background to the work is impressive. The London Community Gospel Choir adding melodic brilliance to the The Reverend Bazil Meades arrangements, whilst Ian MacNeil's detailed set, split to show both church and apartment is another example of the timeless versatility of the Olivier stage. The final scene of passionate but cruelly heartless communal gospel singing, contrasted with Margaret's grief as she confronts her devastating personal loss, will break your heart.


Festival Theatre, Chichester


Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Book by Mark Bramble
In a Revised Version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble
Directed by Timothy Sheader

This review was first published in The Public Reviews.
There has rarely been a venue more site specific than the sumptuous Big Top that Chichester Festival Theatre have erected to stage their 2013 season’s flagship show, Barnum, the Coleman and Stewart take on America’s 19th century circus legend who came up with The Greatest Show On Earth.

The tent is stylish, air conditioned and comfortable. A pre-show read of the thoughtfully designed programme finds praise heaped upon producer (and co-reviser of the book) Cameron Mackintosh and numerous references to Jim Dale who created the role on Broadway in 1980 (though strangely, for such a thoroughly historical essay by book writer Mark Bramble, no mention of Michael Crawford who was to premiere the role in London one year later). So before the lights go down, expectations are set to high.

The opening movements of both acts are spine-tingling with suggestions of spectacle along with company work that is superb. These wow moments however turn out to be rare and short lived. Leading man Christopher Fitzgerald is an American actor of excellent drama pedigree and gifted with extraordinary credentials in movement and circus abilities that include the famous tightrope walk that closes the first half. But as a musical theatre Leading Man he struggles. His voice, albeit melodic and tuneful lacks punch and presence and fails to expand to fill the cavernous tent. In Museum Song, arguably one of the toughest lyrical tongue twisters penned, speeding up scarily through the stanzas, the final verse written to be sung at ridiculous speed has Fitgerald blurring, slurring and crashing his words. His character has a line in the song Black And White “Nobody does show-business better than me”. Sadly, not here and not now. Whilst that adage could even recently have been applied to Mackintosh, the legendary producer who certainly knows what makes for a stunning image has apparently lost his casting mojo. Technical improvements are required too. Sat in Row U, some big-number lyrics are barely audible, whilst the lighting plots often leave dancing members of the ensemble in virtual darkness.

Tamsin Carroll is an adequate Chairy Barnum in perhaps one of the weakest roles for a female lead in the canon, though Aretha Ayeh’s Joice Heth and Anna O’Byrne’s Jenny Lind both deliver performances that are as vocally magnificent as they are entertaining to watch. It’s a shame that both their cameos are so modest. Credit too to Adam Rowe’s 15 piece band, heavy on the brass, whose work is a treat throughout. 

The real star of this show though is the company. Sheader together with co-choreographers Liam Steel and Andrew Wright have extracted brilliance in the ensemble’s dance and movement. The footwork is impressive with an amazing routine in Thank God I’m Old and a finale that dazzles with circus skills and flying people. It would have been lovely to have seen more circus themed direction throughout, especially during the tedious dialogues between Barnum and Chairy that cry out for more pizazz.

Mackintosh is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest showmen, but on this showing he’s humbugged the good people of Chichester.

Runs to August 31 2013

Friday 26 July 2013

WAG! The Musical

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Written by Belvedere Pashun
Music and lyrics by Grant Martin, Thomas Giron-Towers and Tony Bayliss
Directed by Alison Pollard

Lizzie Cundy and Alyssa Kyria

WAG is the acronym for a footballer's wife or girlfriend. It describes the caricature of a money grabbing woman, who when young is a siren luring a rich athlete whose brain is well hung between his legs and who when older, will have made sure she has married her trophy sportsman, turning a blind eye to his infidelities as she enjoys the trappings of wealth and glamour that his earnings provide.

If the concept of the WAG is a shallow cliche, then WAG! The Musical is an even more vacuous pastiche. The story is flat, the characters are two dimensional (at best) and Belvedere Pashun its writer, whose biography curiously suggests likes nothing more than camping in the mountains of his native Tibet, needs to return to his homeland damn quick because based on this show his writing skills are close to non-existent.

Even more damningly, Pashun has played solely to the cliché, showing no regard at all to the emotional back lives of the WAGS or their real loves, anxieties and issues.This is a story as flimsy as the atrociously poor scenery that would barely grace a local am-dram production. (Producers, hang your heads in shame).

Yet, amidst this smorgasbord of medioce creativity and forgettable tunes there is actually some damn good acting, with a predominantly young cast giving their classy all to the show. Daisy Wood-Davis and Amy Scott lead the line as two young department store perfume saleswomen with complicated love lives. Whilst their characters could not be more stereotypical, they enliven their performances with commitment and passion and when towards the end of the show, Wood-Davis laments her character's broken heart in How Could I Not Leave A Scar, her belt is rather spectacular. As expected, the talented Katie Kerr turns in another class act with her obesely chav character, Blow-Jo (subtle, huh?)

The predators at the top of this food chain of feminity are the WAGS, casually spearing these young pretenders with their Louboutins. Lizzie Cundy, a former WAG in real life is Zoe, all legs, knickers and a walking testament to the cosmetic surgeons who have laboured over her for years. Mercifully spared too much singing, Cundy delivers a spicy feisty turn as a TV red-carpet commentator. Whilst it is Cundy’s famous name that may draw punters to the show, it is Alyssa Kyria's Ariadne, a Greek WAG who unashamedly steals it. Kyria’s character is no stranger to the UK's stand-up circuit, and with echoes of Nancy Dell’Olio hers is the comic performance of the night.

Judging by the timely cheers and baddie-directed boos coming from the audience, there is a market for this show, probably amongst slightly tipsy women on a girls night out, whose husbands, boyfriends and feminist pals have been kept well away. Whilst WAG! The Musical’s residency in the West End may be thankfully short, the producers should be seriously looking to tie their cast into a tour.

Runs to August 24 2013

Sunday 21 July 2013

After Show

London Hippodrome, London


Once a month, the London Hippodrome’s divinely decadent Matcham Room succumbs to a midnight hour (or two) of cabaret’d magical mania, as the cast of two West End shows battle it out in a quiz/contest of wit and talent in After Show.

OK, so its not quite midnight (the show commences at 11) but the evening reflects one of the most skilful combinations of spontaneous improvised hilarity along with the immaculately rehearsed professionalism of some of the most sickneningly talented performers to be found on stage today. The July show featured Merrily We Roll Along vs Spamalot with Damian Humbley, Robbie Scotcher and Zizi Strallen representing Merrily, whilst Jon Robyns, James Nelson and Michael Burgen flew the Spamalot flag.

The smut was frequent and the gags were fast and furious (I lost count of the number of times the lyric “I’m Zizi Like Sunday Morning” was sung by the hosts, but it didn’t really matter) and the challenges that are posed to the teams are best described by the technical term “ridiculous”. Amongst rounds that were tributes to old TV game show favourites such as Bullseye and The Generation Game, there was also a Countdown round requiring words to be formed from the letters SUQMADEEK and ASSBURGER. Classy huh? Well er, embarrassingly er, yes. This reviewer could be found, from time to time, moist eyed at the hilarity of it all.

Each month features unique games inspired by the competing teams with the two specialised games of this particular evening being "Merrily We Fling A Thong", in which a marshmallow had to be knocked off an opponents head using only the flinging of a thong and Cramalot, in which opponents' mouths were increasingly crammed with marshmallows. As the stuffing increased, after each additional candy was inserted (or forced in) the stuffee had to say the word Cramalot. Its unashamedly schoolboy stuff, but trust me, it works.

Damian Humbley celebrates firing his thong into James Nelson's face

And amidst all this rather stupid mayhem, there are some quasi-serious moments of genius, when the contestants stand at the mic and sing, beautifully accompanied by the house band of Steve Holness, Elliot Henshaw and Olly Buxton. And as might be expected, the singing is simply sensational. For the most part casually clad, and with a simple intimacy that belies the outstanding standard of their performances, these skilled professionals rattle off some of their personal favourites in a manner and style that The X Factor can only dream of replicating. Memorable from this visit (though all the performers shone) were Michael Burgen’s "Debukelele" with John Robyns modestly accompanying on guitar and Robbie Scotcher’s Dancing In The Moonlight. Talented performers, singing beautiful songs, wonderfully.

Regular hosts of the night are Simon Lipkin, Jamie Muscato & Owen Visser who, as well as being gifted musical theatre professionals, also bring a polished and semi-rehearsed wit and irreverence to the night that, amidst much heckling, is great for its immediacy as well as its barbedness. They take no prisoners, but its all done amidst affectionate respect.

If you are an MT professional, then a visit to After Show is a must. If you are simply a fan of the genre, with a love for theatre, be it West End or fringe, then go. You may end up sitting next to the star of the show you’ve just seen on stage, you may end up spattered with shaving foam, or you may just end up amused and entertained. Bring your cab fare or a night bus timetable to get you home, it finishes after 1, but above all, just go. After Show is a supremely professional gig that blends meticulously rehearsed excellence with anarchic hilarity. Catch it when you can!

(Oh, and Spamalot won on the night!)

To find out more about After Show dates visit

Live By The Lake - Kenwood House to host the return of exquisite summer entertainment

Kenwood House

Live By The Lake describes the concert season that return to Kenwood House next month and it’s a phrase that could quite possibly sum up my own summer relationship with this beautiful treasured corner of Hampstead Heath, a location that has entertained me, my family and my friends for more than 40 years.

I can recall the old GLC hosting concerts over an 8 week season. Each Saturday night featuring an eminent orchestra playing a worthy classical programme. There would be a mid-season treat of Tchaikovsky’s 1812, complete with cannon blasts and an end of season spectacular, typically Handel’s Music For The Royal Fireworks performed with due firework wizardry. With the GLC long since disbanded, English Heritage picked up the baton (sublime pun) and the survival of this landmark of London’s summer culture seemed assured. If the programmes were not dumbed-down, there certainly evolved a more populist feel, with themed nights being introduced and fireworks each week.  Perhaps understandably, some of the Hampstead and Highgate locals started to express their displeasure at a weekly fireworks display shattering their summer Saturday nights and thus it was a few years ago that whilst the House and its sumptuous grounds remained open, come Saturday nights in July and August, Kenwood fell dark with gates firmly padlocked.

Until now that is. Producers Rouge Events in conjunction with English Heritage, have cleverly arranged a 6 night season taking place over two long weekends at the end of August. Their season’s remit is broad. Opera, Choral Greats, a Gershwin celebration, an inspired screening of Singin In The Rain with live orchestra and two evenings of alternative rock from Suede and Keane to complete the line up. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform for three of the concerts including the Gershwin evening, which hosted by Michael Ball, will see established stars of the West End musical stage, including Kerry Ellis and Gina Beck, sing some of those talented New York brothers' fabulous compositions.

Michael Ball hosts the Gershwin night

Long before New Years Eve fireworks were broadcast live from the London Eye, the pyrotechnic designs at Kenwood House were arguably the most beautiful to be found in town. By late August, come 9.30pm, the night on the Heath has become deliciously dark and as the first smoking flares transform the woods through various hues, the gasps of astonishment from the crowd are only surpassed by the traditional oohs and aahs as rockets and starbursts explode high (but not too high) over the treeline. The fireworks over the lake provide beautiful illuminations that leave a pall of wonderfully smelling smoke hanging heavily over the dark mysterious woods, an impression left upon me in childhood and which I have been thrilled over the years to be able to share with our children. This year’s evening of Choral Greats promises “spectacular fireworks” so bring your kids and friends and not only will you be sharing with them an evening of cultured firework magic, you will also be bringing (and possibly introducing) them to some of the most spine-tingling arias of Verdi and Puccini.      

The 2013 Kenwood season promises the traditional charm and magic of the concerts that have long featured in the grounds of this exquisite house, but brought up to date to reflect the appetite of a modern audience. Nathan Homan of Rouge Events has said “the calibre of artists who are appearing at Live By The Lake is a testament to their own enjoyment of playing outdoor concerts and I think audiences across the six nights will love every minute of it.”  From the programme he has arranged, Homan is not wrong and if this glorious sunshine continues, there will be no finer place to be in the capital than at an evening, Live By The Lake in Hampstead.

The full programe of the season is listed below.

For more details and to book tickets , visit the Live By The Lake website

For more details of visiting Kenwood House , click here



PROGRAMME at a glance:

August 23rd: SUEDE and special guests BRITISH SEA POWER


August 25th: KEANE and special guest LAURA MVULA

August 30th: ‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’ – film screening, score performed by the ROYAL PHILHARMONIC CONCERT ORCHESTRA conducted by NEIL THOMSON


September 1st: MICHAEL BALL and friends sing songs by GEORGE & IRA GERSHWIN with the ROYAL PHILHARMONIC CONCERT ORCHESTRA conducted by JAE ALEXANDER 

Thursday 18 July 2013

Daytona - Theatre Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Oliver Cotton
Directed by David Grindley

John Bowe and Harry Shearer

Daytona is a cleverly crafted tale of love amidst denial and despair. A play that never leaves the 1986 Brooklyn apartment of Joe and Elli, married septuagenarians with a passion for ballroom dancing, lives lived almost to the full, with happinesses and tragedies amassed over the years. Theirs is a childless marriage and for all the polite warmth and fondness they show each other in the opening act, there is a pervading sense of sadness and "getting-by" that seems to be being papered over. When Elli leaves to visit a friend who is working on her ball gown, no sooner has she departed then the doorbell sounds and Billy, Joe's brother who has been self-estranged for thirty years arrives bedraggled. The tale that then unfolds is remarkable, gripping and above all, sensational yet still remaining credible.We learn that the all three characters are Holocaust survivors and that Billy whilst holidaying in Florida the previous week, had recognised an elderly concentration camp guard and war criminal whom he thought had long since been executed. 

The plot unfolds but never unravels and to reveal too much would be to spoil. Suffice to say that Oliver Cotton has written a piece of remarkable sensitivity, throwing complex family dynamics into the harshest of spotlights, whilst also laying bare the damage that the Holocaust caused to the minds of so many who survived its horrors.

Harry Shearer is Joe, who for the most part plays a weary Brooklynese accountant, getting by in managing his demons. Initially little more than a dramatic foil to his wife and brother, it is in the final act, when his demons run amok, that his performance as a man who admits to a lifetime of domestic denial is delicately fleshed out. 

Maureen Lipman is Elli. Her journey since the War is perhaps the most painful to hear of. Emotionally vulnerable in her youth and clearly scarred from enduring so much pain, hers has been the journey back from mental illness. Lipman's dialogs with both brothers, that start mundanely but which crescendo to agonising accusations and revelations, are heart breaking.

Maureen Lipman

The tour de force performance of the night though rests with John Bowe’s Billy. A man who has built the last 30 years of his life around a framework of lies and of a total denial of his past, yet who ultimately finds within himself a resolve of massive strength, that leads him to commit a crime of honourable recklessness. The role is draining, with monologues recounting Billy's life that are relentless, yet Bowe marches through both acts of the play with an admirable defiance. His is surely one of the finest performances to be found on a London stage this year.

David Grindley's pinpoint direction picks apart the subtleties of the human condition, whilst Cotton's writing at times echoes the scalpel like incisiveness of Arthur Miller. Daytona is a fine study on love, self-discovery, and above all, a glorious albeit damaged sense of survival that emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. A play that should not be missed.

Runs until August 18th and then on tour

Tuesday 16 July 2013


Kings Head, London


Written by Sonnie Beckett
Music by Sonnie Beckett and Joe Morrow
Directed by Hannah Kaye

Carla Turner, Emma Hook and Sarah Anne Cowell

As a new musical about Jack The Ripper, RIP sets out to be an intelligent take on an horrific chapter in London's history. Whilst it certainly is a meticulously researched and carefully crafted piece of theatre, as musical theatre horror it remains very much a work in progress.

Written by Sonnie Beckett with music co written by Beckett and Joe Morrow, both talented individuals who perform in the show interchangeably dropping out to play the piano as required, the show has a noble premise at its core. Beckett seeks to explore the back stories of the five women murdered by the Ripper, with each victim's story being told in turn. A noble aim, but a structure nonetheless that through no fault of the generally good, albeit unexceptional actors, has become tedious and predictable by the time we get to victim #4. Thankfully, Sarah Anne Cowell who plays Mary Jane Kelly the fifth unfortunate murdered woman, is an exceptionally talented performer and her beautifully Welsh sounding tones provide the one true soaring moment of the show. It should be noted that the troupe's close harmony work is sweetly performed throughout, although both lyrics and melodies are all too easily forgettable. For a show that this reviewer sincerely wanted to love, the production was informative and educational but not very entertaining.

Whilst the programme cover, possibly gratuitously, evokes horrific gore there is not a drop of stage blood to be found inside the house and that is a disappointment. A show about the Ripper needs at least a soupcon of blood and guts to scare the audience. When one goes to see Peter Pan, one expects to see on-stage flying, so it is with a show about the fiendish Ripper. Gore should be de-rigeur (even if in subtle moderation) and like the fairground ghost-train, one expects to encounter the odd hide-behind-your-hands moment too. Beckett and Kaye have staged the show such that many blades are flashed, sharpened and glinted under the lights, but this show cries out for the occasional visual effect of a victim dripping Sondheim’s “rubies” of blood. We need to be made to shudder or gasp at the occasional sight of brutal murder, rather than just glancing at the programme cover image of a woman dissecting herself. (Note: An image that is actually out of context with the show and arguably offensive. These poor women did not harm themselves, but were mutilated by a misogynist psychopath. Ergo, change this image for future runs!) 

Horrific violence was certainly suggested and mimed in the show, however as this blog has stated previously, portraying horror convincingly on stage is a tough act (see Cross Purpose review) and to portray it via mime is is a very tall order indeed. If the writers were perhaps to collaborate with some of the up and coming Grand-Guignol theatre companies to be found on today's fringe, then there may well be the potential for this work to achieve greater heights, with a cross-sharing of creative skills. A salute nonetheless to Hayley Thompson whose period costume work of tail-coated gentlemen and prostitutes all in petticoats and bloomers was outstanding. 

As it stands and judging by the biographies to be found in the programme, RIP is currently little more than a well intentioned Italia Conti school reunion. Beckett and Morrow however need not rip up the good work achieved so far. Rather, they should pare their collaboration down to its bones and seek to develop the fabulous potential that this show has to offer.

Runs until 21 July

Mack-beth : A Profile of Norman Bowman

Bearded and relaxed in shorts and t-shirt, it’s a pleasure to grab an afternoon with Norman Bowman as he takes a breather from the demands of Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed production of Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival. From a career that started out in musical theatre and has been most frequently filled by work in that genre, no-one was more surprised than Bowman himself to have been cast in this Shakespearean masterpiece, but as our conversation unfolds it is clear that all that this actor has achieved to date has been nothing less than hard won and above all, richly deserved.

Bowman’s biography is a tribute to his talents. He is wise to what makes a commercial West End production work, acknowledging that a “star name” is often needed to sell tickets and in a charmingly self-deprecating comment he acknowledges that today he may well not be that “star” person. Star billing or not, the body of work that this talented performer has achieved speaks of his abilities. From being cast as Marius in Les Miserables early on in his career, he has gone on to play Carousel’s Billy Bigelow in Chichester, Danny in a Grease national tour, Tony in West Side Story, and a two year stretch as Sam Carmichael in Mamma Mia. Whilst these parts have been his commercial leads, with many other supporting roles along the way, off West End his Mack in Thom Southerland’s 2012 production of Mack & Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse, was one of London’s outstanding male musical performances of the year. 

In Mack & Mabel with co-star Laura Pitt-Pulford
When Bowman reflects upon his journey to Macbeth, he does not hesitate in acknowledging the creative genius of Rob Ashford who, with Branagh, has co-directed the Scottish Play and who has creatively worked with the actor on three previous occasions. Bowman speaks warmly of being choreographed by Ashford in Michael Grandage’s 2005 Guys and Dolls, a show in which he played gambling gangster Harry the Horse, chuckling to learn in our conversation that the National Theatre’s 1982 version of that show opened with fellow gritty Scots countryman Bill Paterson, in the same role.

Ashford was to go on and cast Bowman as Tom Watson, the outspokenly racist publisher from the Deep South in Parade by Jason Robert Brown. Parade had had a difficult opening on Broadway and it was not until Ashford’s take on the work at London’s Donmar, that the show achieved the acclaim it deserved, an association with which Bowman is evidently proud. His next engagement under Ashford was to be directed by him in Finding Neverland at Leicester’s Curve. The production was controversial being movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s first venture into staging an original piece of theatre and Bowman is nothing if not diplomatic in referring to the show’s journey. Notwithstanding the show’s challenges, Finding Neverland had provided a further opportunity for Bowman to work with the American, so when the opportunity for Macbeth arose and whilst there is no question that Bowman earned his place on merit, the established mutual respect between him and Ashford combined with his glorious Arbroath accent clearly stood him in good stead. Bowman is in fact one of only a handful of authentic Scots cast in this most Caledonian of texts. 

Bowman speaks as a man wise about his world and his profession. Even though he looks (enviably) damn good for his 43 years, he is all too aware that he is frequently auditioning for roles against fellow professionals some years his junior. His philosophy though is admirable, always respectful of competitor actors, yet focussing his energy on his own performance, rather than worrying over the potential strengths and weaknesses of others. He refers to the adage that once you mentally put yourself in a “race for a part”, the other actor is already in front of you and how he avoids that thought process.  It’s an attitude that speaks of immense personal strength, a pre-requisite in the glamorous but nonetheless harsh show-business world. He also speaks with a wry and realistic acknowledgment of the power of social media, the new lingua franca amongst performers and those who follow them, as an important component of an actor’s profile. He is savvy enough to recognise the increasing importance of media channels such as Twitter that can allow an audience to immediately express praise (or displeasure) for production or performer as they exit a theatre and like many around him, he conducts himself with measured professionalism in the online community. 

As sword wielding Ross in Macbeth
Bowman is that rare performer who is not only skilled enough to have amassed a respectable body of work to date, but is also open-minded enough to welcome development and improvement from acting legends. He speaks warmly of his time, again under Michael Grandage, in the director’s Twelfth Night that formed part of the Donmar at the Wyndhams season. Working with and occasionally opposite Sir Derek Jacobi was an experience that he acknowledges to have been rare and privileged and Bowman speaks with warmth and admiration of how he found Jacobi to be a source of inspiration. That some four years on he now finds himself selected to perform in a Branagh-led Shakespearean troupe is a further mark of the Scotsman’s talent.  As one might expect, he is at all times refreshingly respectful, but never fawning, to these giants of the English stage.

A father of two twins, Bowman speaks lovingly of his kids and it is clear that notwithstanding his recent separation from their mother and his long term partner, they remain vitally important to him and he remains focussed on being a significant part of their developing lives, living close by to them in London

Our conversation ends to allow Bowman time to return backstage, don his heavy garb as nobleman Ross and perform the daily pre-curtain up rehearsal that health & safety regulations demand of all fight scenes. For this production of Macbeth such compliance is an exhausting obligation as the stage combat of Ashford and Branagh’s vision is amongst the most ambitious ever presented in live Shakespeare. The physical effort that the actors put into their meticulously choreographed battle-work and swordplay is jaw dropping, as sparks literally fly from the clashes of heavy steel.

I bid farewell to this accomplished musical theatre performer and Shakespearean stalwart to boot and reflect that to describe Norman Bowman as “comfortable in his own skin” would actually be to understate. He is good at his job and, with all appropriate modesty, he knows that he is good at it too. Above all, the man is a committed actor who loves his work and it shows.

Norman Bowman can be seen in Macbeth via NTLIve on Saturday 20 July 

My review of Macbeth can be found here

My review of Mack & Mabel can be found here

Saturday 13 July 2013


Manchester International Festival, Manchester, and via NT Live on July 20 ( see below)


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford

Kenneth Branagh
In this baking summer heat, a de-consecrated church in Manchester has been converted into a veritable cauldron. No eye of newt or fenny snake fillet  in this pot though. Rather the most inspired and infernal combination of an almost medieval venue, floored with mud, drenched with (real) rain, equipped with basically brutal steel and wood scenery, yet also endowed with state of the art theatre-craft. Wrap this combination up in some of Shakespeare's most beautiful prose, have it performed by actor-director Kenneth Branagh's company, and the result is theatrical enchantment.

Branagh's impact upon this production is profound. The poetry of Macbeth is legendary, and the actor's considered interpretation of its rhythm and context reveals new depths to Macbeth's tortured soul. Branagh has a demonstrated love for and understanding of Shakespeare that is almost unique amongst his generation and rarely has each classic monologue or soliloquy from both Macbeth and his Lady been so longed for by the audience. Simply put, the acting talent within this Manchester International Festival offering is a privilege to witness. 

Alex Kingston
It is the cast of this play that are the jewels in Branagh's crown. Alex Kingston's Lady Macbeth is a masterclass in manipulative matrimony, sliding before our eyes into bleak suicidal madness. Her sleepwalking scene, free of all gimmicks and trickery harrows as the actress gives fresh depth and interpretation to this most complex of Shakespeare's women. John Shrapnel's Duncan defines majesty. Ray Fearon's Macduff is as menacing when he avenges his family's slaughter, as he is heartbreaking when told of their deaths and in the sweetest of cameos, Rosalie Craig's devotedly maternal Lady Macduff claws at our base emotions as we see her witness her son's murder. Norman Bowman's Scottish brogue makes his Ross a vocal treat, whilst Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan's Witches give these Shakespearean women a ghoulishly freakish twist that alarms as much as delights.

The venue is an inspired choice. Performed in the traverse, the beautifully restored building lends itself magnificently to suggesting a feudal kingdom, far removed from the modern day. Timbers groan, and when the portly Scottish Jimmy Yuill's Banquo is slaughtered, crashing into the wall (in front of this reviewer's row A seat), his dying, clutching grasps as he succumbed were haunting. Christopher Oram's costumes of the era add to the work's chronology and the magnificent swordplay literally sees sparks fly as the heavy steel blades collide under fight director Terry King's design.

It is a credit to the production that the cast are undetectably mic'd. The clarity is perfect throughout as Christopher Shutt's sound crew manage Patrick Doyle's beautiful music, along with the delivery of the spoken word, perfectly. Lit by Neil Austin, some effects are breathtaking. That a dagger can be suggested on the floor by a bright light shining through a chink in a timber wall is a neat touch - but when daylight suddenly illuminates the stage, streaming through the building's magnificent rose-window  and supplied as it turns out, by a massive floodlight set atop a cherry-picker OUTSIDE the church, one has to gasp at the ingenuity that can deploy modern technology to deliver such a beautifully conceived yet sweetly simple vision.

Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm, battles in the muddy, bloody rain
Rob Ashford co-directs and where this giant of Broadway and the West End's strengths can lie in conceiving the movement and choreography of the text, so Branagh is a world class authority on the Bard and an accomplished movie director. The union of these creative talents is far greater than the sum of their parts. They have imbued the story with a sense of authentic spectacle usually associated with gimmickry rather than the artistic brilliance that this production represents. They give a depth to the play that focuses on the simple raw beauty of the visual image as well as the splendid verse. The result is a rare, precious and undeniably definitive production.

Runs until July 21

Making the Unmissable unmissable, those wonderful people at NTLive will be broadcasting Macbeth live to cinemas across the country and also globally, on July 20 2013. The broadcast production values of the NTLive series are world class, bringing outstanding theatre to within not only the geographical reach, but also the budget, of all.

NTLive booking details can be found here.