Thursday 27 February 2014

Jeff Harnar - Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?

Crazy Coqs, London

Jeff Harnar

Jeff Harnar may have started his life on the West Coast, but in his Crazy Coqs’ week-long residency, amusingly titled “Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?”, we meet a man who is unquestionably a product of New York City. His childhood recollections of the view down Broadway from the top of the Empire State Building, through to memories of meeting Sammy Cahn backstage at Carnegie Hall give the night a lifeblood that is derived from the city’s glittering theatricality.

Before his cabaret career took off, Harnar worked as a singing waiter at an Upper West Side restaurant where night after night, he would be elbowed into repeated renditions of Kander and Ebb’s New York, New York. Decades later and now internationally-renowned, he delivers a fresher take on the bombastic ditty. “Don’t get me wrong”, he pleads with over-inflated sincerity as he warms his audience up for the classic number, “It’s not a bad song – the first 10,000 times” and in his affectionately mocking rewrite of the legendary lyrics, we can see his dedication to the genre.

On form however, the man is a treat. As he blazes through glittering show-tunes including My Personal Property and Lonely Town, never dropping his broad smiling facade, we discover that Harnar is a clever negotiator who can juggle his expansive appreciation for New York with an adoring cynicism. To Musical Director Nathan Martin’s tinkering piano, the crooner extracts roaring laughter from his crowd and later, as he screams, riffs and cavorts in a spirit of well-balanced insincerity, he captures the pulse of a fickle town where both everybody and nobody can feel at home. Yes, these musical garments have their dropped stitches, but as Harnar dwells so calmly on the glittery surface of cabaret while teasing us with glimpses at the erudite foundations of his art, his show makes for a strong tribute to both his artform and his city. The show is not yet flawless with Harnar sometimes veering onto uncomfortable ground, blurring the boundaries between ‘nostalgic’ and ‘outmoded’. “Isn’t it quaint and charming how dated these records are?” he enthuses whilst over-indulgently thumbing through a pile of LPs that are possibly long past their Best Before date.

Ultimately we find that the night is marked by a learned appreciation of and a respect for, the cabaret form, that buzzes with a tightly-polished mischievous spirit. Harnar’s stage persona is as glitzy and sharply constructed as the city that inspires him and, fittingly for a show of this name – which sees the performer “trying on some new material, to see if it fits” – his set list is as deliciously frivolous as a shopping spree in Macy’s. Sparkling cabaret, delivered by a man who truly knows his craft.

In residency until 1st March

Guest reviewer: Milly Raleigh

Wednesday 26 February 2014

The A-Z Of Mrs P

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book by Diane Samuels
Music & lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert
Directed by Sam Buntrock

Isy Suttie

The A-Z Of Mrs P is a charming show that tells of the birth of London's A-Z, in song. For those who remember navigating the city before the digital age, the eponymous book was everywhere and even today its graphics still power many online map sites.

The human tale behind the map is a grand fable. Hungarian emigre Alexander Gross having mapped New York, saw the potential in similarly charting the streets of London. Marrying local girl Bella, it was their artist daughter Phyllis who was to step up to the challenge of recording the capital's streets and mind-bogglingly, indexing them too. We see Gross as an outwardly callous man. A visionary maybe but a selfish womaniser, ruthlessly focused on profit. When his marriage collapses he retuns to America as Bella loses her mind and against this turmoil, Phyllis remains steadfast, capturing the streets of her Lovely London Town (a gorgeous song) and with the help of a sage draughtsman, creating the iconic guide. Struggling with huge family pressures, the A-Z is to prove not not only her guide, but also the purpose to her life.

Isy Suttie of television shows Peep Show and Shameless is Phyllis, the Mrs P (for Pearsall) of the title. Embodying this eccentric yet tenacious and compassionate woman, Suttie's acting is on point throughout, well reflecting a woman who is to witness her mother's mental collapse as well as endure her father's cruel commercial envy. A plane crash was to cripple Phyllis in her later years and Suttie subtly evokes the onset of frailty, played out through sensitivity rather than stereotype. The show however does bear a hint of “stunt-casting”. This is the actress’ brave debut into musical theatre and one cannot help but wonder if the producers selected her (in part) on the strength of her significant Twitter following, rather than musical ability. Suttie is not helped by the show's sprawling structure which at times demands an A-Z of its own. The narrative jumps distractingly in and out of flashback and its nascent flaws demand the spine-tingling vocal impact of an established musical theatre leading lady, one that is able to pull the audience along with an inspirational performance however shaky the plot may be at times. 

Whilst the fable may not be fabulous, many performances are. Called upon to play yet another flamboyant European, Michael Matus is Alexander. Assured throughout, Matus is a vocal Rolls Royce of his generation. He cruises smoothly through the lower ranges of his role, yet can effortlessly shift through the gears, producing a powerful and when necessary, menacing sound that fills the traverse theatre. He deftly tackles the paradox of his paternal love for Phyllis conflicting with his profound resentment and envy of her commercial flair. Frances Ruffelle plays the fragile and damaged Bella. Vocally her distinctive tone and timbre is well suited to the troubled woman and her transition from coquettish Nippy, to worn-down wife is executed perfectly. Stuart Matthew Price charms as Phyllis' brother Tony, but not for the first time we find that this beautifully voiced actor is barely given a song to sing.

All of the ensemble shine, with veteran Sidney Livingstone in particular providing a range of charming cameos, never more delightful than as kindly draughtsman Mr Fountain, whilst Sarah Earnshaw deploys her sharply honed West End skills in a range of roles.

The A-Z Of Mrs P is beautifully intentioned and homely, but ever so slightly muddled. Herbert has composed a handful of enchanting melodies, though her lyrics and rhyme could be sharper. Nick Winston's movement work cleverly captures a spirit of London together with key events of the city’s 20th century history, whilst Klara Zeiglerova's set deploys numerous front doors and countless suspended curios, to suggest the Herculean task that Pearsall faced. Unquestionably innovative theatre, with moments of stunning stagecraft.

Runs until 29th March

Picture by Jane Hobson

Sunday 23 February 2014

Big Bad Wolves - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack


Composed by Frank Ilfman

The mark of a really great horror movie is its soundtrack. Whilst all fictional feature films require our disbelief to be suspended, fantasy stories or genres such as horror require that degree of suspension, or burden of proof, to be considerably higher. Burst the fragile bubble of that illusion with a hammed up performance, sloppy continuity or worst of all sound that is jerky or distracting and the magic is gone. Key to the soundtrack is of course the score and in Big Bad Wolves Frank Ilfman delivers a suite of compositions that perfectly complements the work that is going on both in front of and behind the camera.

Big Bad Wolves is a revenge tale with moments of emotional agony, horrific torture and suspense. The opening sequence presents innocent children playing hide and seek. Harmless stuff until one little girl disappears. Throughout this introduction not a word is spoken save for the gleeful noises of kids at play yet behind these traditional carefree images Ilfman's score pulses. It is the composer's talent that suggests the impending menace and whilst film directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales convey convincing suspense, it is Ilfman’s work that ensures our minds are tricked into believing that what we see on screen is terrifyingly real.

Melodies are sharpened with some jarring brass work and there is a hint of John Williams that is suggested in some of the movie’s recurring motifs, most notably in the menace that surrounds the alleged killer and in the typically-Jewish mother-son guilt that is wreaked upon the victim’s vengeful father by his own meddling mother (the murdered girl’s grandmother). This thread of Semitic guilt and vengeance that runs through the movie evokes just a hint of the haunting riff that Williams wove through Schindler’s List.

Ilfman understands working with Papushado and Keshales. He scored their “out of left field” debut feature Rabies that put Israeli horror on the map and is working with the pair again on their segment of The ABCs Of Death 2. Big Bad Wolves however marks a contribution to a feature film that has earned worldwide acclaim. It is a hauntingly scored movie and for a tale that touches upon suspense, dark comedy and gory horror before concluding in a moment of achingly bleak despair, Ilfman serves the narrative well. His album is beautifully crafted collection of work that suits the modern genre. 

The CD can be purchased here

Thursday 20 February 2014

Before The Night Is Through

Landor Theatre, London


Book and lyrics by Olivia Thompson
Music by Christopher Whitehead
Directed by Rob McWhir

Kieran Brown points an accusatory finger

Before The Night Is Through has the potential to be a fine piece of British musical theatre. Part Downton Abbey on acid, part Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man, Olivia Thompson has fashioned a murder mystery set in the mansion of a 1930s film star, Honey Quenelle. The first half in particular shows immense promise, motives and macguffins abound with the strength of this production lying in the stellar talent of its cast. All ten performers flap with utter aplomb, whilst special tribute to Thompson herself who stepped in to fill the breach at the last minute after a cast member became indisposed.

The show is more caricature than character, with Katie Brennan's Mabel, a maid-servant clearly inspired by Baldrick and Ian Mowat's penniless aristocrat Stubby, particularly well crafted comic creations. Amelia Adams Pearce is every inch the refined Honey, defining the elegance of the era, whilst Kieran Brown's dashing detective has a cracking number A Very Touching Story, that shows the actor at his best. Jenny Gayner's flapper Farmonica is an outrageously manic creation of perfect balance and sublime comic timing, who at times suggested a 21st century Bette Davis. Gayner’s performance was only enhanced by an unplanned jewellery malfunction giving rise to a stunning pearl necklace spillage, truly something not often seen on London's fringe.

Rob McWhir again extracts the best from a talented bunch and most of Cressida Carre's choreography works too, though the torchlit dances lost their gimmick second time around. The creative star of the show however is Chris Whitehead (who also musically directs on piano) whose well created compositions were an accurate take on the era. There was a hint of ragtime and charleston to some of his melodies as well as a fabulous waltz whilst the vocal harmonies that ranged from two to eight part are exquisite. As it stands though, the show is very much a work in progress and Thompson needs to take a scalpel to her second act. It's a complicated plot that unfolds, at times too complicated and a twenty minute trim wouldn't go amiss.

But bravo to Katy Lipson for mounting the From Page To Stage season. This is precisely the sort of well crafted work that is to be encouraged and a revised, honed version of Before The Night Is Through could yet have a commercial future.

Runs until 23rd February

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Ray Shell - Back To Black

The Pheasantry, London


Looking younger than his years Ray Shell skates through the decades of a remarkable career on stage in his cabaret Back To Black, in residence at Chelsea's Pheasantry for this week only. Few other performers define the crossover between soul and musical theatre as does this man and like fine molasses, the resonance of his gloriously weighted tone fills the intimate basement venue. When he sings Friends from Sweeney Todd you only wish that the show could be re-staged with Shell as the barber, it is the most gorgeous sound.

That his set list includes nods to Hair as well as to Kate Bush (no intended connection with that link but 70s savvy folk will see what I did there) is a mark of the man. When Shell sings What A Piece Of Work Is Man from Hair, (itself one of the few Shakespeare soliloquies to have made it into a rock musical), his take on the song, as with so many of his numbers, is exquisite. In recent years Shell has featured in The Lion King and The Bodyguard, neither of which are referenced in the show, but it was his creation of the steam engine Rusty in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express that sealed his reputation on this side of the pond. Throughout Shell’s patter is warm and informative, frequent references to Starlight Express (he reveals that a skating double was used for Rusty's races around the theatre, while he stayed firmly on the level backstage) lead into his closing number of the night, the show's title song that sees his magnificent tenor reach extend into a fine falsetto. For those who recall the opening of that crazy dangerous show at the Apollo Victoria, the moment is a spine-tingling trip back in time some 30 years!

Other highlights are an a-capella take on the Gospel classic (and Parade inclusion) There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, whilst his cover of The King Of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger, reminds us that the man's craft is timeless. Sting made the songs famous and Shell (who toured with The Police as a backing singer) re-interprets them with panache. Guest slots from Chardel Rhodean and Anthony Barclay provide a modest contrast as Shell joins his three backing singers in their support, but it is “Soul Man” Shell who defines the night.

Paul Jenkins directs a slick three piece musical accompaniment to the night and toes tap throughout the room as Shell, sporting Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer shirt from Miss Saigon, encores with a beautifully toned cover of Amy Winehouse’s title song for his show. A newcomer to London’s cabaret scene, (Shell confessed that this was the first time he had performed Starlight Express off roller skates) the star quality of his set demands that he returns soon. Barely scratching the vast repertoire of his career, there is simply so much more we want to hear from him. Back To Black is a rare chance to hear an exceptional voice, not to be missed.

Runs until 22nd February

Tuesday 18 February 2014

A Taste Of Honey

National Theatre, London


Written by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Kate O'Flynn

The 2014 season at the National Theatre could arguably be renamed “Unhappy Families, A Study On Parents And Daughters”. Whilst the Lear dynasty rages at each other in the Olivier, a far more recognisable family of modern Britons has lodged in the Lyttleton. Shelagh Delaney's A Taste Of Honey is her 1958 debut that paints a bleak tale of single parenthood in Salford, Lancashire.

It's a carefully crafted piece of theatre, all the more remarkable for having been penned by the 19 year-old Delaney who hailed from a working class Manchester background. In a literary era still dominated by a privileged patriarchy, that her work prevailed at all was due to the playwright’s nurturing by the remarkable Joan Littlewood. The play was first seen on the Theatre Royal stage at Stratford East and that Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War is currently in revival there, speaks volumes for the older woman’s theatrical energy and vision.

A Taste of Honey pivots around school-aged Josephine (Jo) and her mother Helen. Kate O'Flynn is Jo, giving a career defining performance that portrays the feisty girl who has never been shown maternal love, from petulant teenager through to the brink of motherhood. O'Flynn is at once naive, worldly and coquette. When her mother is besotted with latest suitor Peter, it is Jo‘s radar that detects the man is a serial cheating womaniser. When Jo does ultimately find an unconditional love from gay friend Geoffrey, O'Flynn's handling of her affection for the young man avoids all mawkish sentimentality. Hers is a complex role and in one of the finest performances currently to be found in London, she masters Jo's challenges superbly.

Lesley Sharp is Helen. Bitter and hard, more concerned with having a man in her arms than her daughter's welfare. Sharp is an expert foil to O'Flynn's teenage angst and her desperate love for her dishonest boyfriend could almost be pitiful. Delaney however is too smart to allow us any sympathy for the self-centred harridan and her final act of selfish cruelty towards her daughter is heart-breaking. 

The support given by Harry Hepple's gold-hearted Geoffrey to the pregnant Jo has moments of true pathos, whilst Dean Lennox Kelly makes Peter every inch the drunken manipulative spiv. Jimmie, the father of Jo's child is a black sailor, fecklessly home on shore leave. The play is famed for addressing the issue of British racism at the time with the challenges that Jo will soon face as the white mother of a black child, yet these are only hinted at during the second act and the play’s unsatisfactory conclusion tests the limits of plausibility. That’s the only flaw mind, for otherwise Delaney’s writing is spot on. Eric Kofi Abrefa could make more of Jimmie. He recently shone in the National's The Amen Corner and Kofi Abrefa has more in the tank that can lift the seaman free of the cliché he currently suggests.

The back to back housing of a rain drenched industrial Manchester is cleverly evoked in Hildegard Bechtler’s design with a striking curtain image setting the scene pre-show. Our nation has moved on in 56 years. Illegitimacy is acceptable and though racism and homophobia still flourish in some quarters, much has been done to broaden the country’s attitudes towards diversity. A Taste Of Honey represents quality writing of a bygone era, with a memorable performance from O’Flynn. The NT would do well to send this one on tour, the regions deserve to see it.

Now booking until May 11th 2014

Sunday 16 February 2014

The Cement Garden

The Vault Festival, London


Written by Ian McEwan
Adapted by David Aula and Jimmy Osborne
Directed by David Aula

Ruby Bentall, David Annen and Georgia Clarke-Day

Ian McEwan is a remarkable storyteller. He takes the darkest aspects of the human condition and magnifies them into the grotesque, the particular horror of The Cement Garden being the sexual explorations of incestuous siblings whose mother lies rotting in the cellar. One of McEwan’s earliest novels, this adaptation has preserved all that was fragile, tender and unspeakably vile in the oeuvre.

Where all families have their issues, the parents in this tale along with their clutch of three teenage kids and a much-later arrived toddler define dysfunctionality. Dad’s emotional cruelty towards the children is evident, whilst mum cannot help but blur the boundaries between what is right and wrong as she clumsily advises elder son Jack (George Mackay) into puberty. The parents’ early death, dad’s unexplained though with a hint of suspicious circumstances and mum’s through cancer sets the four kids adrift with no moral compass. Fearful of being taken into care as orphans they hide their mother’s death and bury her in the cellar. As the misguided feelings develop between Jack and elder sister Julie (Ruby Bentall) the ghastly spectre of perverted values cascading through the generations is clearly signalled.

None of this makes for easy watching, either from an emotional or physical perspective. Crammed on benches we arch our necks to capture the action and dialog that takes place on gangways above, as well as on the vault’s stone floor. The infant Tom is an inspired piece of stagecraft. Represented by a wicker puppet and brilliantly voiced and animated by David Annen, we quickly forget the puppeteer and wince at the distorted development the young child is exposed to. Mackay and Bentall are chillingly plausible teenagers who amidst jealousy, hormonal acne and a growing sexual awareness, grope their way towards their nauseating consummation. The incessant rumble of trains above the Vault only adds to the tale's infernal atmosphere.

Aula and Osborne's adaptation has reached the end of a seven year development. It is fine theatre that makes for a compelling if unpleasant evening.

Cynthia Erivo - London's Rising Star - Now, By Royal Invitation

Cynthia Erivo




This time last year Cynthia Erivo was a hard working actress, recently out of playing Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Acts UK tour. Fast forward 12 months and as 2014 dawns she has been nominated for two of the countrys most celebrated theatre awards, is amongst the headliners at next week’s Whats On Stage (WOS) Awards ceremony and is shortly to open at the Palladium in the Simon Cowell / Harry Hill X-Factor comedy musical I Cant Sing.

So, what has happened in the past 12 months? Three words: The Color Purple. In a production staged with beautiful simplicity, for two months, eight times a week, this perfectly poised, gorgeous young actress held the audience at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in the palm of her hand as she told the story of how Celie the story's heroine, triumphed over incredible odds to make an inspirational success of a tragic life. Audiences sobbed and such was the intensity of her delivery that a standing ovation half way through the second act became a regular feature of the run. Nominated for that performance in both the Evening Standard and the WOS awards it has been a truly remarkable year for the RADA graduate.

Taking time out from I Can't Sing's gruelling rehearsal schedule, we meet for tapas on a blustery night in Waterloo where over green tea and calamari, Erivo tells me of her whirlwind year.

JB: Tell me how The Color Purple came together for you.

CE: Celie is a role that I have dreamed of playing since I was ten. It is one of the most rounded roles ever written for a black female in either in theatre or in film and I love the grit thats in her character. I was already off the page with my audition pieces so working with director John Doyle was both challenging yet relaxed and I felt as the recalls went by, that at each step he was getting to know more of me and how I work. At the time I was appearing in Craig Adams new musical Lift, at the Soho Theatre and I was so lucky to go straight from that show into The Color Purple.

JB: Celie is told by her abusive husband, venomously: “…..Youre poor, youre black, youre ugly, youre a woman….” – Aside from the fact that you are not an ugly woman, how did you tackle the challenge of the role?

CE: I started out from the belief that Celies ugliness came from within, from her own sense of low self worth, that it was more to do with her not recognising her own beauty, rather than a promotion of her being ugly. We experimented with wigs and make-up to portray both that ugliness and also her ageing, but eventually, working with John, I chose to portray these challenges through how she carried herself. I thought a lot about Celies gait and how that would evolve both with her emancipation and also her ageing.

Erivo in The Color Purple

JB: At what stage into the shows life did you and the company realise that you had created something special?

CE: We were blessed with a standing ovation right from the start. But very early on, fear kicked in and I found myself thinking “I don’t want to lose this feeling”, so in each performance I would focus upon the concentration and above all the consistency that playing Celie demanded.

I was so proud that the show attracted an unconventional audience that would have people shouting at me “You go girl!” as Celie finds her resolve. Back in Shakespeares day the audience would shout at the actors and it was just so rewarding to have reached out and made such a strong connection. I could look around the theatre [the Menier only seats around 200] and see and hear people sobbing, passing tissues. When I came out into the foyer each night there would be women with make-up running, bankers, my sister “who never cries at anything” simply in tears.

JB: Your friend and colleague Sophia Nomvete (also nominated by WOS for Best Supporting Actress in the show) has described you as being an incredibly supportive team player, who notwithstanding all your responsibility on stage, is still a big kid in the dressing room. Apparently you would bring in healthy food and snacks each day, but then promptly graze on other peoples crisps and chocolate!

CE: Shes not wrong I do focus hard on fitness and healthy eating, but I just cant resist Haribo and I've a real weakness for Marks and Spencers Percy Pigs!

JB: Halfway through the run of The Color Purple, New York composer Scott Alan flew into London for a one night concert at the O2. The gig featured a star-studded lineup but for many the highlight was you singing Anything Worth Holding Onto, Scotts scorchingly autobiographical song about the pain of depression. Alan has told me how difficult it was to rehearse that number, saying that it only actually all came together on the night, in performance. Is that true?

CE: I guess it is. There is a part of me that can sometimes only truly explore a song when I am singing to an audience. I need to be telling the story to really be able to express myself. The day of that concert was crazy with morning sound checks at the O2, then back to the Sunday matinee of The Color Purple and finally back to Greenwich for the concert. But I knew that night, as I cried whilst I sang, that I had truly given Scotts song the connection it deserved.

Erivo singing Anything Worth Holding Onto at the O2

JB: Speaking of you, Scott saidshe is one of the great vocalists of our time…a songwriters dream and it is an honour writing for her”

CE: Wow, is that what he said? I have no words, I am so touched by his generosity!

JB: The two award nominations are both predominantly celebrity driven and have pitched you against competition from much larger shows that played at the National Theatre and the West End, in venues that in one night could seat the same number of people that it would take the Menier a week of full houses to achieve. For smaller off West End shows, the awards ceremonies are often an un-level playing field, so to have achieved a “podium finish” twice in one year is an incredible achievement. The Color Purple was refreshingly free of all gimmicks, earning its plaudits entirely through the outstanding work of its acting company and for many of the people lucky enough to have seen it, those awards belong to you.

Thats kind of you to say. Yes, the Menier is a small house of course, but I was simply so thrilled just to have been nominated for the role. It has been an immense honour.

JB: And so to I Cant Sing. Tell me about the leap from performing in one of the most harrowing musicals, to a show that is expected to be one of the years funniest.

CE: Theres loads that I cant say about I Cant Sing of course and I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but it has been an amazing learning process. The show has been written by Harry Hill and Steve Brown, two of the funniest guys around and it has been incredibly technical for me, as well as being a combination of great fun and phenomenally hard work. I am not a quintessentially funny comedy actress, so I have really enjoyed discovering my comedy timing.

JB: And what of your fellow cast members?

CE: I am learning so much from them. Nigel Harman of course has already mastered comedy in musical theatre with his Lord Farquad in Shrek and he is wonderful to work with. It is a large and above all very talented and experienced cast that I am so proud to be a part of.

JB: And looking beyond Londons musical theatre, what inspires you and what would you like to see on your horizon?

CE: For inspiration, I was blown away by Adrian Lesters Othello at the National Theatre last year. That was the first time I had set foot in the Olivier auditorium. I was there on my own, which is often the best way to enjoy theatre and I had never experienced a theatre as large as that stage, yet one that could also allow you to become so wrapped up in a production. Adrian is also a friend of mine and I am very proud of the interest that he has taken in my work to date too.

As for the future? Well immediately that is I Cant Sing of course and I have great expectations for the show. But looking even further ahead, if there was a TV series for me, well that would be just ideal!

I Cant Sing previews at the London Palladium from 27th February, before opening on 26th March

Saturday 15 February 2014

Oh What A Lovely War

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London


Joan Littlewood's Musical Entertainment by Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton,
Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast

Directed by Terry Johnson

Ian Bartholomew

Fifty years after the outbreak of the First World War Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop commemorated the conflict with Oh What A Lovely War at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. Today, in the War’s centenary year, the same theatre re-stages the show. 

The musical opens frivolously, as an end of the pier Vaudeville extravaganza, with carnival lights, fancy drapes and a company of pierrots inviting the audience to join them in war games that condense the four year war into one evening. But by the interval the injuries and carnage are mounting and as the curtain rises on act two, the glamorous red drape that previously adorned the centre stage-back is now collapsed and crumpled, suggesting at turns the mud of the trenches or the blood of the fallen.

What makes Littlewood’s work all the more inspiring is that the musical numbers are all songs of the period, often composed with gallows wit by troops in the trenches. From the filthy irreverence of Christmas Day In The Cookhouse, through to the noble, heart-breaking dignity of And When They Ask Us, the poignancy of the songs lands like a whizz-bang. Hearing them a hundred years on, we know that they were once sung by men whose destiny was quite likely to be killed in battle. 

Terry Johnson’s visions are as beautiful as they are haunting. Trenches, ballrooms and Speakers’ Corner are all staged via simple scenery and classy acting. No stage-blood in this show, rather the horrifying mimes of bullets hitting men and gas being inhaled, as an electronic screen updates us with specific details of horrific casualty numbers. A cast of twelve play the many roles, with veterans Caroline Quentin, Shaun Prendergast, Ian Bartholomew and Michael Simkins sharing the most prominent characters. Quentin’s bosomy recruiting-showgirl turn, I’ll Make A Man Of You is a treat worthy of archiving, whilst the men’s interchangeability from pierrot, to soldier, to officer is seamless. Bartholomew’s General Haig is a clever caricature that avoids cliché.

There is something aesthetically pleasing about a show that honours the bravery of the humble foot soldier returning to its origins in E15 and to a theatre so rooted in London’s East End, the traditional heartland of the capital’s working man. That authenticity extends into the orchestra pit where Mike Dixon’s five piece band reject all digital instruments in pursuit of an entirely acoustic sound. Dixon plays a real piano rather than the eponymous keyboards, whilst Graham Justin’s brass playing sets a perfect tone.

In a moment of life imitating art, shortly before the show’s opening, Education Secretary Michael Gove slated it (together with the BBC comedy Blackadder's episodes set in WW1) for mocking history. As many of the First World War’s generals were buffoons, so too is Gove. The Great War with its two most notable technological advancements of the machine gun and poison gas gave rise to slaughter on an apocalyptic level. Most famously at the Somme and Ypres, Haig despatched nigh-on millions of British troops to certain death for what was to prove negligible strategic gain. Oh What A Lovely War does not mock war, far from it. Nations and armies deserve strong intelligent leadership, that for too much of the First World War, was lacking. Gove’s recent pronouncements only show his failure to have appreciated the show's message and remind us how easily history can repeat itself.

Alongside Picasso’s La Guernica and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Oh What A Lovely War is a work of art that brings the horrors of war into our collective conscience. Johnson and his company have honoured both The Glorious Dead and the vision of Joan Littlewood. Their show is moving, compelling and the finest history lesson in town.

Runs until 15th March 2014

Tuesday 11 February 2014


Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford


Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by Michael Vivian

One of many stunning dance moments from the GSA class of 2014

The audience for Grease, on a Monday night in refined Guildford with the River Wey in near flood-like spate, may well have been more blue-rinsed than Brylcreem’d but along with the cast’s family and friends they packed out the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. There, they witnessed the GSA class of 2014 morph into the Rydell High graduates of ‘58 in this all-American tale of rites of passage that over many years and countless disco mega-mixes, has been so forcibly injected into our culture.

We know the songs and the story, so with little to surprise us in the plot it is down to the cast’s talent and the show’s production values to impress. And at times this production is truly breathtaking, never better than when the full ensemble pack the stage to execute Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s inspired dance work. If the Rydell girls sing and act, en masse, better than the boys, (which generally they do) then the lads’ movement, which was at times almost acrobatic, more than makes up for it. The agile, technical excellence that the dancers display in Grease Lightning and the show’s carnival like finale, to name but two memorable moments, suggests the jaw-dropping choreography of David Toguri in his pomp.

Like all drama school productions, the focus here is on the company rather than upon the leading characters. That being said, there are still some stand-out performances on offer. Ones to watch from this year’s graduation are Erik West, whose bespectacled square-jawed Eugene is a masterclass in akward geek and who when the Rocky Horror show is next being cast should be a nailed on Brad. Elizabeth Walker admirably tackled the challenge that is Sandy. To plausibly play the pink-clad saint-like virgin, who falls from grace to become a cigarette smoking high heeled hussy ain't easy but Walker pulls it off. Andy Owens’ Doody singing These Magic Changes was perhaps the most charismatic male vocal turn, but the truly spine-tingling performance of the night came from Ellie Ann Lowe’s take on the grizzled Rizzo. Lowe skilfully explored the layers of this brash and ballsy yet still damaged and complex character with empathy beyond her years and her solo, the not often heard “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was deeply moving in its honest intensity.

For the townsfolk of Guildford, Grease makes for a grand night out. The staging is clever, the laughs are familiar and corny and so long as the teeming Wey stays within its banks, there truly are worse things you could do than give these talented undergraduates full houses for the rest of the week.

Runs until 15th February

Photography by Mark Dean

Sunday 9 February 2014


Bridewell Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Grant Olding
Directed & choregraphed by Drew McOnie

Katy Lowenhoff and Simon Hardwick fizz as G&T

Much like a dash of mineral water can open up the hidden complexities of a fine Scotch single malt, so has the ingenious dance talent of Drew McOnie combined with Grant Olding’s sparkling score, to take a song cycle that celebrates alcohol in all its forms, distilling it into a blend of dance and performance that is simply breathtaking.

With McOnie’s acclaimed Chicago only recently ended at Leicester’s Curve, the choreographer has cunningly bottled much of the talent from that show, shipping it south to London’s Bridewell Theatre. Guiding us through Olding’s various boozy paeans, Gemma Sutton who sheds her Roxie Hart persona is Ice, a girl who we encounter struggling to order a drink in a crowded bar that is brilliantly suggested in a company dance number. As the show unwinds she tells of past relationships with different men, each suggesting a different tipple. It’s a bit like Tell Me On A Sunday with a twist, with Sutton giving a delightful display of confidence and fragility in an enchanting cocktail of performance.

The cast of eight are sublime throughout, adding to Ice’s recollections with a selection of tributes to other drinks. As Ice's intended date, Martini is a womanising James Bond with Daniel Collins taking McOnie’s vision and in three minutes embodying the suave charm of 007 through wit, clever comment and an excellence of movement. Lucinda Lawrence’s faded Russian film star is Vodka, brilliantly capturing the harsh clinical cynicism of this purest of spirits whilst by contrast, 4 braying flapping Hooray Henrys are a clutch of under-brained, over-moneyed Pimm’s drinkers. In this one glorious jazz number alone, our jaws drop as McOnie depicts polo, rugby, tennis and rowing all through an inspired fusion of his vision with the athletic strength and outstanding abilities of his cast. Anabel Kutay’s enigmatic Absinthe is another masterful turn of chic subtlety and seductive presence.

Olding’s score is perfect throughout, brilliantly delivered by Tom Kelly’s five piece band. Occasionally his lyrics are more cheese than wine and in a show that presents this most socially acceptable of addictive drugs so frivolously, there could perhaps have been one chapter to remind us that the demon drink has a dark side far more brutal than the urge to pee (wittily performed on the night as Breaking The Seal). And for a production that celebrates both dance and a torrent of free-flowing booze, where was the tap?

The composer's credentials are already firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic and this aligning with the newly formed McOnie Company is as innovative a partnership as has been seen for some time. The work is inspired, the performers are exceptional and for anyone who appreciates the evolution of dance and fine musical theatre, the show is unmissable.

Runs to 1st March 2014 

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Frances Ruffelle - Paris Original

Crazy Coqs, London


“You can’t have too much of a good thing” is the phrase and Frances Ruffelle is the proof. Barely four months after selling out London’s Crazy Coqs, she’s back with her Paris Original set and yet again the tickets are gold dust. Ruffelle believes in giving her audiences value for money and for the best part of two hours, with a five piece band and at least four costume changes, to say nothing of a set that smoothly links from jazz to rock to iconic Piaf with a sprinkling of musical theatre classics for good measure, she does just that.

Throughout, Ruffelle sparkles with an impertinent brilliance. Embodying the entente cordiale and opening with the ethereal romance of Un Homme et Une Femme, Ruffelle sets a coquettish style that’s simply way out of President Francois Hollande’s league. Her knowledge of Parisian culture and colloquialisms are a delight and whilst some of the Parisian connections to her material may be obscure, it doesn’t really matter. That her song selection includes segued nods to Boublil and Schonberg as well as Paul Simon and The Clash gives but a hint of her glorious un-conventionality and when talented daughter Eliza Doolittle sings a beautifully understated Chanson D’Amour, perched on a stool by the bar, it simply proves that every now and then even perfection can be improved upon. The young pop-star (who had loaned her mother some heels for the show!) did not upstage Ruffelle in the slightest and the kiss blown from mother to child after the cameo slot was fondly appropriate yet bursting with loving pride. 

The Piaf moments continue to wow and with schoolboy soprano Cole Emsley reprising his Jimmy Brown, Ruffelle’s sublime Non Je Ne Regrette Rien and Hymn To Love (the audition piece that won her the chance to create Eponine on stage), tears flow. There has been talk of Ruffelle’s 2013 Piaf touring, though in the turbulent world of theatre finance this has yet to be arranged. With the singer packing out the Crazy Coqs so emphatically, producers need to wake up. Frances Ruffelle attracts theatrical royalty (even Sir Cameron Mackintosh had brought his mum) and in front of such a star-studded audience Ben Atkinson’s musical direction and Romano Viazzani’s accordion grace the moment perfectly. 

Whilst this week may be sold out, Ruffelle can be seen on stage later this month in new musical The A-Z Of Mrs P that opens at the Southwark Playhouse. She only knows excellence in performance so its likely to be an outstanding show. 

Runs until 8th February and sold out. Contact the venue for returns.