Monday 24 November 2014

Half Time And Down - Review


Written and directed by Mark-John Ford

Harley Sylvester and cast on set

Half Time and Down is the debut offering from writer director Mark-John Ford. Running to around thirty minutes, this football focused fantasy takes a look inside the dressing room of Stanley Beavers FC. It's half time and the team are trailing 6-0.

As manager Bob (Tom Davis) unleashes his "motivational" team-talk, his profanity amuses - but it soon becomes repetitive. There is some wit in Ford's characters, but there's a tad too much clichéd stereotype too: the overweight player; Bob's sycophantic assistant; they're all stock comedy targets, although there are the occasional brilliantly recognisable Sunday League moments too - Bob's combo of tracksuit bottoms with a shirt and tie is inspired!

Aside from the script, Ford has assembled some acting gems. Harley Sylvester (who the kids will know as half of Rizzle Kicks) puts in a decent turn as one of the Beavers, whilst legendary ex-hooligan and now respected author Cass Pennant gives a no-nonsense cameo as the referee.

The film has a sound premise, but whilst the f-word's comic potential has been known for decades, (Derek and Clive used it brilliantly) abuse needs to be handled with care. Too much filth is boring. Ford clearly has imagination, but his scriptwriting needs attention.

It's far from the best, but if you're in the mood for a curry and a few beers, then Half Time And Down could well provide a perfect evening's entertainment.

Available to download from 1st December 2014

Guest reviewer - Jed Samuel

Friday 21 November 2014

White Christmas - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed by Morgan Young

Aled Jones and Tom Chambers

If your idea of a Christmas theatre visit trip is to enjoy warm, sweet festive fayre, then White Christmas' arrival in London is the perfect choice. Loosely (very loosely) based on the classic Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie, David Ives and Paul Blake have used Irving Berlin's songs as baubles to decorate their delightfully improbable plot. This new tale just about bears a passing resemblance to the movie's story of 4 troupers attempting to put on a show at a Vermont ski resort enjoying an unseasonal heat wave, as in the background the most sugary of romances sees true love blossom across the generations.

For so long an established part of Britain's Christmas TV tradition, it is only fitting that Aled Jones should descend from Walking In The Air to inherit Crosby's mantle. The square-jawed Welshman and Radio 2 regular gets the combination of cheese and charm spot on as his Bob Wallace gradually falls for singer Betty Haynes. Alongside Jones, Tom Chamber's fame is relatively recent - but this fabulously footed NYMT alumnus is fast becoming one of the West End's hottest properties when a show requires a flourish of traditional lavish Broadway with a generous dose of tap. He pulls off the Danny Kaye tribute as Phil Davis delightfully.

Opposite the men, Rachel Stanley smoulders as the beautifully indignant Betty, whilst Louise Bowden, playing her stage sister Judy, stuns with both movement and voice. Graham Cole (famously of Sun Hill nick) is prematurely aged to play General Waverley, whilst the deliciously lovable Wendi Peters gives a belt that has to be heard to be believed.

The songs are comfortably familiar gems. Sisters early in act one is a treat, whilst the first half's closing number, Blue Skies, is a masterpiece of a pinpoint ensemble routine, clad in the sharpest white suits. Youngster (on the night), Sophia Pettit delivers a suitably precocious Let Me Sing And I'm Happy with enough confidence in voice and dance to charm the (already sympathetic) crowd, whilst the second act moves inexorably towards an ending that couldn't be happier, as the by now warmed up audience are encouraged to join in with the record-breaking eponymous title number.

Whilst the sets are neat if a touch simple, the costumes are lavish and Randy Skinner's choreography is immaculately drilled (congratulations captains Grace Holdstock and Gary Murphy). Peter Wilson's 20 piece orchestra give Berlin's compositions a gorgeous lilt.

White Christmas is a show that's a snowfall of non-demanding loveliness - just like the ones we used to know.

Runs to 3rd January 2015

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Man to Man - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Manfred Karge
Translated by Anthony Vivis
Directed by Tilly Branson

Tricia Kelly

Man To Man is a extraordinary perspective on latter day Germany. It is a tale of the country through the prism of Max Gericke, or rather Gericke's widow Ella. When Max dies early on, Ella concludes that the only way for her to survive the desperate economic times is to suppress the news of his death, announce that he has suffered a disfiguring injury and after a decent period of time, return to his workplace assuming the dead man's identity. A one woman play and effectively a tour de force of a monologue, the 80 minute one act work that follows is her take upon Germany's march through the 20th century.

Accomplished actress Tricia Kelly is Max, putting in a gruelling shift and never once off stage as her character's beer and schnapps-fuelled reminiscences paint the history of Germany from the rise of Nazism, through war and subsequent division and more recently and in a final act newly written by Karge and receiving its first outing here, as a country re-unified. Kelly's turn is at times crude and bombastic, sometimes reflective and at other times desperate for survival. Drably clad throughout and with poorly shod ill matching footwear, much like Brecht's Schweyk hers is a character who observes the world around her. An energetic and all consuming performance for sure, but the world that Kelly gives us is also relentlessly drab.

Historically informative in parts and technically, this is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre, but Man to Man is not an entertaining evening. Whilst Karge's writing may acknowledge the American and Soviet influences upon Germany over the last 70 years, there is barely any mention of Germany's role at the heart of a developing European union - so even his history lesson is marginally myopic.

This play is only rarely seen on an English stage and it does not cross the North Sea well. Strictly for the students.

Runs to 30th November 2014

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Go See - Review

Kings Head Theatre, London


Written by Norris Church Mailer
Directed by Sondra Lee

Making its world premiere, Go See from Norris Church Mailer (Norman Mailer's wife) is a curious tale of deception and desire set in Manhattan in the late 20th century.

Peter Tate plays David, a 50-something professor of anthropology who is studying aspects of human sexuality. His research leads him to a sex-show booth off 42nd Street, where he encounters the scantily clad Marie. Feeding her dollar bills through the glass, not for his sexual gratification but to be able to talk with her, his quest is to learn more about her.

Lauren Fox is Marie, the 45 year old private dancer, who even though she cannot see through the one-way glass between her and the punters, has nonetheless seen it all. Fox's performance is a revelation, for whilst the plot of Go See unfolds through credibility stretching complexities, her character is at all times a woman whose personal tragedy and loneliness is profoundly plausible. There is a thread that runs through the play of David's homosexuality - and AIDS is starting to reap its grim whirlwind - but the deception that he unleashes upon the unsuspecting Marie is so beyond belief that as much as his story his hard to take seriously, so is it difficult to find any sympathy for such a manipulatively deceitful man.

A post-show Q&A suggested that there may be a connection between Go See and My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot's 1994 play that famously comments upon the impact of AIDS. Such an association is an overblown conceit. As a poignant observation upon the life and journey of a sex worker, Go See shines - but as a comment upon David's confused sexuality, the play is far too muddled.

Tate's performance is worthy, suggesting at times Paul Freeman with just a hint of a faux Jeremy Vine from Radio 2 when he questions Marie, but no more than that. It is Fox's star turn that justifies the price of this ticket. Her tale of love denied and a youth abused, echoes with the plaintive resonance of a Bobbie Gentry ballad.

Sondra Lee directs cannily and such flaws as there are in Go See lie entirely within the text, for the remarkable (84 year old!) Lee brings vision and perspective to the staging. Klara Zieglerova's overpowering designs, together with Mike Roberston's lighting achieve an economic excellence amidst the confines of the King's Head space, cleverly suggest the clip-joint, shifting to the proudly maintained ordinariness of Marie's apartment. 

The play may not be the best but Lauren Fox is both commanding and compelling. Go see Go See if for no other reason than to marvel at her acting.

Runs until 29th November

Sunday 16 November 2014

Jack O'Brien - In Cabaret at 54 Below - Review

54 Below, Broadway


A first ever visit to New York’s bijou and intimate 54 Below was to prove a surprise treat. In the heart of theatreland this chic venue attracts the cream of Broadway (and the West End) with an ambience that has inspired London’s Crazy Coqs and Hippodrome.

On the bill this particular night was Jack O’Brien – an acclaimed Tony-winning director in the States, probably best known in the UK for re-creating Hairspray in an Olivier winning production at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 2007. It is always fun when an artiste more used to the creative offstage process braves the spotlight themselves and O’Brien exceeded expectations. A remarkable 75 (!) his caustic wit and timing were spot on throughout and in opening with Gigi’s I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore, O’Brien set the tone for a mirthful (and occasionally reflective) set.

Jack O'Brien
Produced, directed and encouraged by Scott Whitman – and with an immaculately rehearsed four piece band in attendance (comprising Dan Lipton, Pete Donovan, Dean Sharenow and Eric DellaPenna) , O’Brien’s set was slick. If his patter at times descended deliciously to “Carry On” style level of smut, (with O’Brien conducting a straw poll of the audience to suggest that his ensemble be named Jack O’Brien And The Eight Balls) no one really cared. The talent on stage spoke for itself.

O’Brien’s personal history was to offer up the pearl in the evening’s oyster, as the acclaimed director revealed that one of his longest friendships, stretching back through the years, was with jazz musician and composer Bob James and how long ago they had penned numbers for a Tarzan-themed show Jungle Man. Proceeding to then sing that show’s Blue Tattoo and a strongly tom-tommed This Is The Life, proved a novel diversion to the evening’s list of more familiar tunes. 

It was however, when O’Brien invited James to the piano to perform perhaps his guest’s most famous composition Angela (aka the theme to hit 1970’s TV series Taxi) that 54 Below was first hushed, before erupting into wild applause. Angela was one of the truly evocative TV tunes of its time -  I still hum it each time I drive across the 59th Street Bridge (Simon & Garfunkel eat your heart out!) - and to hear it played live, by James, was a moment I had never expected to experience. Priceless. 

Bob James
O’Brien wrapped up his set with a generous glass of bubbly to everyone in the house and a rendition of the Judy Garland number Here’s To Us. A charming end to an exquisite evening. Maybe he (with Bob James?) might consider a night or two in cabaret on this side of the Pond. I hope so!

Scott Alan Greatest Hits Volume One - Review


In the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Scott Alan has released Volume One of his Greatest Hits. Whether you are a newcomer to the work of this talented New Yorker or a devoted fan, there is something for everyone in this 19 track pot-pourri, including a heartfelt couples of pages of liner notes from none other than our very own uber-critic Mark Shenton, a close friend of the composer.

Such is Alan’s respect amongst the performing community, that as with his live gigs, the cream of both Broadway and the West End are credited on the album. He includes a coven of former trans-Atlantic  Elphaba’s  (I counted five but am happy to be corrected) – and indeed it was Kerry Ellis singing Never Neverland (Fly Away) at London’s Pheasantry a couple of years ago that introduced me to Alan’s work. This time round it is Stephanie J. Block who gorgeously frames this paean to childhood, whilst Ellis’ Behind These Walls proves again why she is one of the UK’s leading musical theatre leading ladies.

Several tracks are a nod to Alan’s stage musical Home, that a London audience was treated to a full chamber performance of last year. Shoshana Bean’s take on the title number Home is as gorgeous a performance as you will ever hear from this woman, whilst Liz Callaway’s Goodnight perfectly captures the tragic poignancy of the show’s endgame. Other treats amongst the tracks are Willemijn Verkaik’s magnificent Watch Me Soar, whilst Brit boys Hadley Fraser, Oliver Tompsett and Stuart Matthew Price also make listening to the album a joy.

Within this set of Greatest Hits is perhaps one of the greatest recordings of recent years with Alan being never bettered than when he writes from experience. Inspirational in his publicly declared battles with depression, his Anything Worth Holding To, sung here by Cynthia Erivo, probably the UK’s brightest emerging musical theatre star and in a version arranged by Ryan Martin, is just heartbreakingly sublime.

To be fair, there is much upbeat fun recorded too. Eden Espinosa’s I’m a Star is a witty look at today’s oft-seen desperation for fame, with Espinosa giving just the right amount of punch to Alan’s pithy perceptions. 

The album makes for either an ideal gift or a personal treat and with Alan having re-arranged and orchestrated many of his numbers anew and with all pre-existing recordings being re-engineered for the occasion, this collection is much more than a cynical bundling of work to stack the aisles and the download servers ahead of the festive season. Go buy Scott Alan's Greatest Hits. The album may make you laugh and cry. It will certainly make you smile and think.

Available from Amazon and iTunes

Thursday 13 November 2014

On The Town - Review

Lyric Theatre, Broadway


Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins
Directed by John Rando

l-r Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and Clyde Alves

On The Town is a classic Broadway show and under John Rando's direction and Joshua Bergasse's inspired choreography, this whimsical tale of three sailors on 24 hours’ New York shore leave makes for flawless musical theatre.

Where to start? Under James Moore's baton, Leonard Bernstein's sumptuously symphonic score is perfectly performed by a 30+ band, deliciously heavy on strings and brass, making for the largest orchestra to be found on Broadway. The show's staging is ingeniously simple, with Beowulf Boritt's projections creating a careering cab as convincingly as Coney Island.

But it is the brilliant performances on stage that define this production as one of the greats. Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves are the love-seeking seamen, with Yazbeck's Gabey demonstrating how beautifully this actor has settled into the role, have played it since early workshop runs. His Lonely Town is a spine-tingling take on the timeless number.

The show famously revolves around Gabey's search for Ivy Smith or “Miss Turnstiles” a former beauty queen of the NY subway. Megan Fairchild is Smith and her ballet is just jaw-dropping. Bergasse precisely sculpts her fine movement, making it impossible to look elsewhere as she glides through her routines. Her introductory song, the Presentation Of Miss Turnstiles, only reinforces the quality of this production’s dance-work.

Gabey's two pals provide much of the perfectly timed comedy of the night. Johnson's virginal Chip, is devoured by Alysha Umphress' taxi driving Hildy. Umphress re-defines "maneater" and the couple's duet Come Up To My Place, sung as her cab improbably screeches through New York, is just the most  inspired stagecraft. The final coupling of the show, Alves' Ozzie who incongruously pairs up with Elisabeth Stanley's perfect creation of repressed society lady Claire, make for another union of faultless dance and vocal work. Their big number, Carried Away complete with dancing dinosaur, is a hoot.

The show drips genius. In supporting roles, Jackie Hoffman as Smith’s drunk and incompetent singing teacher Maude P Dilly (along with some choice cameo appearances later in act 2) is all that a buffoon-like baddy should be, whilst Michael Rupert as Pitkin, Claire’s much cheated upon fiancĂ© brings just the right amount of affronted bombast to another deliciously implausible creation. Elsewhere, popping up in numerous tiny roles is Phillip Boykin’s perfectly booming baritone. Boykin has only just wowed London as Crown in the Open Air Theatre’s Porgy and Bess, so as a visiting Brit in New York it is a true joy to re-encounter this gifted performer.

Who can say if On The Town will transfer across the Atlantic? London deserves it, though truth be told a show that is such a fabled New York fantasy will simply never be bettered than when it plays, to perfection, on Broadway. Go cash in your air miles, stowaway on a ship, or paddle across the Pond if you have to. This is song and dance at its very best – A Helluva Show!

Now booking until 2015

Aladdin - Review

New Amsterdam Theatre, New York


Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin
Book by Chad Beguelin
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Adam Jacobs

It is always a joy to review the work of Alan Menken and the late and much lamented Howard Ashman. Not since the Sherman Brothers has a song-writing partnership nailed so perfectly that glorious combination of pathos, irony and hilarious self-deprecation that make for a good Disney soundtrack. These two guys put the Genie into genius and so it is with Broadway's Aladdin, where their songs from the 1992 animated Oscar-winner form the backbone to the newly-expanded stage show.

We all know of Robin Williams' gifted performance in voicing the cartoon Genie. Williams created a role nigh-on impossible to match, that is until Disney found James Monroe Iglehart. His blue pantalooned lamp-dweller is a breathtaking combination of comedy, dance and song with an audience rapport that is as confident as it is brazen. Iglehart has famously made the show, with his full-company act one blast of Friend Like Me proving to be an encore-demanding show stopper the likes of which don't come around often. Understudy Michael James Scott proved to be a top-notch cover on the night.

Adam Jacob's Aladdin is a convincing take on the street rat with a heart of gold, whilst Courtney Reed's  Princess Jasmine and understudy Merwin Foard's bad guy Jafar put in just enough to keep the story ticking over.

Where the movie had talking animals as the comedy sidekicks (Aladdin's monkey, Abou and Jafar's parrot, Iago) the constraints of real-life theatre demand human henchmen. Abou evolves into three of Aladdin's buddies that include one food-fixated overweight shmuck, whilst Iago is also an obese (albeit wise-guy) buffoon of a foil to Jafar. Brian Gonzales and Don Darryl Rivera are both great comics in these roles, but whilst elsewhere Aladdin strives for political correctness with an almost patronising nod to Jasmine's pleas for sexual equality, it is disappointing that Disney still can't resist making the fat guys the laughing stock.

The technical wizardry of the show is fun, although on this visit a loud auditorium alarm ruined A Whole New World. The show was halted whilst the fault was fixed, but then simply carried on where it had left off. Shame on you Disney. Many of the audience had paid a fortune to see THAT carpet fly (which it did magnificently) and to hear THAT song too (which was sadly reduced to sonic garbage). Ruin one effect and you ruin the other. The song and flying routine should have been repeated. Dollars wasted.

The original movie ran for 90 minutes and with a stage show demanding another 60 to be filled, more songs are needed to pad. It is a genuine a joy to hear some Menken / Ashman work that had originally been cut from the movie, (notably the two numbers Proud Of Your Boy and High Adventure) but some of Bequelin's new stuff in the first half drags. Credit though, his act two newly-minted Somebody's Got Your Back, comprising knockabout swordplay, makes for an entertaining routine.

Kids will love the show and it makes for a sure fire birthday or Christmas treat. Flawed, yes, but even so, Disney’s Aladdin is still a diamond in the rough.

Now booking until 2015  

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Girlfriends - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Written by Howard Goodall in collaboration with Richard Curtis and John Retallack
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

The women's ensemble in Girlfriends

Expect to be surrounded by glorious singing and music-making at Bronagh Lagan’s revival of Girlfriends at the Union Theatre. There is much passion in Howard Goodall’s score and in choosing a story about a group of disparate women serving on an RAF base during the Second World War, there is a poignancy that well serves the current time as we mark November’s Armistice Day.
Composed shortly after The Hired Man, Goodall sought to write a piece specifically for women’s voices.  The work serves his lofty ambitions with the opening number First Day building up to support  no less than eight simultaneous, independent vocal parts. The rich, warm sound that envelops the audience is tremendously powerful and continues throughout.

The story focuses on Amy, beautifully sung by Corrine Priest (fresh from winning the Stephen Sondheim Performer of the Year Award in May) and Lou, played poignantly by Perry Lambert both vying for Guy, a dashing but emotionally detached RAF pilot played here by tenor Tom Sterling, the strongest singer in the cast.

Although Goodall’s ringing, resonant score dominates the show, Girlfriends’ weak link is the lack of real development of any of the characters.  Whilst we follow 10 young women and 2 young men, each skilfully, or at least enthusiastically, doing their daily duties be it flying planes or making tea and each making their own emotional journey of self-discovery, understanding that at any moment lives could be cut short, not much else happens. That being said, the singing is wonderful, particularly in the duet and ensemble numbers.

Amongst the cast, strong performances come from Catrina Sandison as passionate and anxious Jas, deeply troubled by the death of her own brother and as a consequence conflicted by war itself, whilst Catherine Mort (herself no stranger to Goodall’s work having in recent years played a fabulous Emily in Andrew Keates’ The Hired Man)  is also very strong as Jane, a warm and levelling presence amongst the girls. Mort’s duet with Priest in The Chances Are proving a highlight of the evening. Accompanying, Freddie Tapner’s well rehearsed four piece band delivers precision and nuance in equal measure.

In Girlfriends Goodall has dissipated the chill of wartime with one of his richest, warmest scores. If you love his work, beautifully staged, then go see this show.

Runs until 22nd November 2014

Guest reviewer - Catherine Francoise