Tuesday 30 December 2014

Diamond Dozen - My 12 Best Shows Of 2014

In Chronological Order:

Oh What A Lovely War

Terry Johnson's remarkable recreation of this show, on the stage where it all began: Theatre Royal, Stratford East. A beautifully crafted tribute to the horrific legacy of the First World War and the artistic legacy of Joan Littlewood

King Henry IV Parts 1 & 2

In Stratford upon Avon, Greg Doran fashioned tragi-comic excellence from Anthony Sher's Falstaff, supported by Alex Hassell's Hal. 2015 will see this trio re-united in Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. I can't wait!

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Jethro Compton (writer and director) scaled down this iconic Western to fit the Park Theatre, without losing a drop of the story's nuances and tensions. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart would have been proud.


On a shoestring budget at the Arcola, Morphic Graffiti with Lee Proud's visionary choreography, breathed a new life into this beautifully tragic classic. Gemma Sutton broke hearts as the girls and gays swooned for Tim Rogers.


In the first of three nods on this list for both Chichester and for Stephen Mear, Rupert Everett's Salieri paired with Joshua McGuire's Mozart marked a gloriously styled re-opening of the Festival Theatre as this South Coast centre of excellence gave the most exciting take on Amadeus since the play's 1979 National premiere.


Producer Danielle Tarento spotted the dramatic potential for this tale of misogyny misfired, set during the Vietnam war. The best of the critics loved it, including (eventually) the Evening Standard who went on to give leading lady Laura Jane Matthewson their 2014 Emerging Talent Award.

Guys and Dolls

Chichester again, for another show that was the best since the National's version in 1982. A cracking cast led by Peter Polycarpou, Jamie Parker and Clare Foster made the Festival Theatre's first musical, memorable.


And again! Imelda Staunton (with Lara Pulver and Gemma Sutton) was scorching as Mama Rose, whilst Stephen Mear choreographed par excellence and Jule Styne's brassy brilliant sound filled Chichester's cavernous orchestra pit for the first time. Arriving in London in March 2015, don't miss this one.

The Scottsboro Boys

A deserved West End returning transfer for last year's sensational debut at the Young Vic. Broadway may have shunned this tragic stain on America's history, but London critics recognised Kander & Ebb's final collaboration for the work of troubling genius that it is and the Evening Standard have proclaimed it Best Musical of the Year.

On The Town

Broadway does what it does best in this sensational celebration of song and dance. Bernstein's classic score underpins this fairytale of New York.


Rarely seen commercially, Jamie Lloyd's directs a stellar cast (Jamie Parker included) in Sondheim's caustic commentary upon the USA. Sold out at the Menier until March '15 this show may transfer but it will never be the same anywhere else. Oh, and Soutra Gilmour's Arkham inspired design is a knockout!

City Of Angels

Stephen Mear's third UK triumph, where with director Josie Rourke the pair craft a world class company into musical theatre perfection. Hadley Fraser cheats (on stage) on real life wife Rosalie Craig and Peter Polycarpou drops his trousers, again. Sold out but tickets released daily and weekly for this clever, classy comedy. Kill to get your hands on one!

Monday 29 December 2014

Golem - Review

Young Vic, London


Directed and written by Suzanne Andrade

Golem is this year's seasonal offering from the Young Vic, a multimedia production from the usually ground-breaking 1927 company. Based on Gustav Meyrink's Jewish Czech fable of 100 years ago, the story tells of a man-made creature that starts its existence under the control of its creator but evolves to break the shackles of its its command, going on to dominate the people around it. Sounds familiar? Around a hundred years prior to Meyrink, Mary Shelley explored a similar vein with Frankenstein.

Today's outing adds little to the tale, other than to update dilute its message. Suzanne Andrade's Golem suggests that our monster is the technology from the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon to which we have enslaved ourselves. Andrade may have a point but her argument never leaves a first base of childish simplicity and predictability. Where Meyrink's original yarn ended with the Golem's death, this version conveniently avoids that troublesome flaw in the adaptation.

Nonetheless, the show is worth seeing, as its production values are first class. Paul Barritt's animations, which include a nude claymation Golem (think of a hybrid Morph, cross-bred with John Holmes) along with montages drawn from familiar images are brilliantly conceived. The performances of the 5 strong company are honed to precision and their interactions with the projections of the Golem as well as their entire surrounding world are flawless. Lillian Henley's music (played live) adds a delicious dimension to the whole.

Runs until 31st January 2015

Sunday 28 December 2014

Assassins - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Carly Bawden and Catherine Tate

It is a thrilling, chilling intimacy that infuses the Menier's production of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's compelling work that unfolds via the back stories of those who have taken a pot-shot at America's Presidents down the years. The audience enters a traverse space through the sinister open jaws of an oversized clown, with Soutra Gilmour's inspired design placing this show's prescribed fairground setting in a decayed theme park. Video-gamers will find more than a hint of Batman's Arkham City amidst the grotesque paraphernalia - and that's even before setting eyes on Simon Lipkin's Joker-esque Proprietor.

There is as much history as there is entertainment in this show. Broadway import Aaron Tveit is the first of the shooters, playing John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's Confederate murderer. Booth was committed to opposing the abolition of slavery that Lincoln championed and proves to be one of the musical's few assassins who is drawn to kill purely in pursuit of a political even if reprehensible political motive. There is little that's crazy in Tveit's sensitive portrayal of a man who sees Lincoln destroying his nation and whilst many of the other assassins are executed, Booth's suicide as his captors close in, evokes a surprising pathos from the American actor.

Aside from the Proprietor, Sondheim's key narrative thread comes from Jamie Parker’s guitar-strumming Balladeer. Amidst moments of brilliant irony, Parker achieves a subtle blend of satire and tragedy as he weaves his way through the show's haphazard chronology, his final transformation, from everyman to Lee Harvey Oswald, is one of Sondheim's most chilling creative concepts.

The power of this show lies in its construction as an ensemble piece and Jamie Lloyd has assembled a world class company to portray this clutch of infamous inadequates. Catherine Tate cleverly underplays her comic genius as Sarah Jane Moore who was to have a pop at Gerald Ford, whilst in a separate bid to kill Ford, Carly Bawden's Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme offers up another carefully crafted slice of ditzy 1970's Americana.

Rising star Stewart Clarke electrifies (literally) as F.D.Roosevelt's would be killer Giuseppe Zangara. Clarke's last Latino turn was as Pirelli in NYMT's Sweeney Todd and this young actor's Italian job has to be seen to be believed. Andy Nyman offers a perfectly nuanced nebbish as immigrant Charles Guiteau who shot Garfield in 1881. Nyman's disturbingly hilarious reprise of The Ballad of Guiteau, complete with jazz hands as his character's corpse swings from the gallows (great stagecraft from Freedom Flying) must rank as one of the most ghoulish moments in the canon.

Canadian Mike McShane is perfectly placed as the oft forgotten Samuel Byck, a middle-aged unemployed salesman who plotted to fly a 747 into Nixon's White House. Lumbering on stage in a Santa suit and in a role that credits him with no sung solos but rather rambling monologues, McShane leads the company in Assassins' most portrayal number, Another National Anthem. (And if McShane is one day cast as Willy Loman, remember that you read it here first)

Lipkin is an assured force throughout - and as each President is in turn shot at, he dons a paper target on head, back or torso, inviting gunmen to take aim. His is a performance (that also includes his acclaimed puppetry skills), that like the show itself, is as exciting as it is thought provoking. With no interval, Assassins proves to be a relentless roller-coaster ride. The most famous assassination of them all, that of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, sees the Menier's stage flooded in crimson petals, mimicking the famously televised bloody horror that the world witnessed in November 1963. 

As one of London's visionary directors and a creative force who consistently brings a perceptive flair, often sprinkled with just a hint of carnage, there was an inevitability that Jamie Lloyd would want to tackle this troubling show. His execution is flawless, ably supported by musical director Alan Williams' interpretation of Sondheim's complex melodies.

Sold out until March, this show is a work of genius that deserves a wider audience. A West End transfer may yet be a possibility, but nothing will match the cockpit-like intensity achieved in this versatile venue. The finale's ensemble of the assassins, guns aimed at the audience and all singing Everybody's Got The Right will, to quote Sondheim, stay with me for a long time.

Runs until 7th March 2015

Sunday 21 December 2014

City of Angels - Review

Donmar Warehouse, London


Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Josie Rourke

Rosalie Craig in rehearsal

It's more than 20 years since City Of Angels last played in the West End and it is a mark of panache that sees the Donmar reviving it now. An unconventional tale, mixing morality with the darker side of Hollywood's film-noir era, but for this particular production with a shortish run, a million-dollar cast and production values to match, tickets to the Donmar are like gold dust.

Hadley Fraser is Stine, a writer contracted to monstrous mogul Buddy Fidler's studios. Sat at his Corona typewriter, Stine taps out his pulp fiction screenplay City Of Angels, a mystery of murder and double crossing that centres upon the investigations of fictional gumshoe Stone. All of Stine's movie characters are modelled upon the people who share his world, with a feature of the musical's book being that the actors who play Stine's contemporaries mirror their roles in Stone's fictional existence. With one key exception: although Stone is the writer's alter-ego, he is played by Tam Mutu, in a role that sees the detective slowly usurping his creator's influence. Fraser and Mutu, both giants of their generation in musical theatre, are flawless as the protagonists inhabiting their parallel worlds. The irony as Stine stamps on Stone at the end of act one in the glorious You're Nothing Without Me, a message so brilliantly reinforced by clever projections, is slickly mirrored in the show's closing number I'm Nothing Without You.

The acting is perfect throughout. Rebecca Trehearn smoulders as secretary / other-woman in both worlds and sings sensationally, first in a striking duet with Rosalie Craig's Gabby, What You Don't Know About Women and later stealing the show with You Can Always Count On Me. Flame haired Craig stuns too, with her With Every Breath I Take a fabulous act one solo. The production's list of talent is endless. Samantha Barks pops up (literally) in Stone's bed, singing as beautifully as her looks are deliciously provocative, whilst the show's humour is never bettered than in Marc Elliott's Latin detective Munoz's number All Ya Have To Do Is Wait.

Peter Polycarpou has been busy building a reputation as the master of middle-aged Americana, with his Hines (Pajama Game) and Nathan Detroit (Guys and Dolls) proving to be recent comic delights of the canon. He surpasses himself here, both as Fidler and fictional producer Irwin. Whether it be with trousers round his ankles or cigar wedged firmly between his teeth, Polycarpou is a master.

Josie Rourke directs her first musical with an assured touch that showcases the hallmark precision of the Donmar's Artistic Director. The gorgeously voiced backing ensemble of the Angel City Four (who also play the various serving roles in the LA locations and who include the sensational Sandra Marvin) are black. In a show set some years before the (partial) emancipation that the Civil Rights movement was to yield, Rourke subtly layers her production with a tacit acknowledgment of Tinseltown's racism. Stephen Mear's inspired choreography pushes this exposition just a little further, with his work in particular on Ev’rybody's Gotta Be Somewhere and the song’s underlying theme of the resentment of white privilege proving another example of this dance supremo's excellence.

(read my recent interview with Stephen Mear here)

The Donmar's space is famously, deliciously, tiny. By early into act two the fake stage smoke has been replaced with a rich fug of cigar smoke, filling the auditorium and only adding to the authenticity. Robert Jone's set design is ingenious, with the simplicity of a scene-setting slow revolve fan cutting a swathe through a hazy spotlight beam matched only by the wizardry of Jone's CGI projections that Tardis-like expand the Donmar's confines. (The swaying palms at the Kingsley mansion are inspired!) Gareth Valentine's ten musicians, heavy on the brass and wind, extract every note of genre-laden tension and nuance from Coleman's score.

Gelbart's book is clever but it ain't perfect and there are moments when Stine's stylised "reality" is as incredible as Stone's fantasy world. But when a show is produced as perfectly as this, frankly who cares? The Donmar's City of Angels drips with world class talent. Kill to get a ticket.

Runs to 7th February 2015. The production is sold out, however the Donmar is releasing a number of Barclays Front Row each Monday and a limited number of day seats can be purchased at the box office.

Photo: Johan Persson

Saturday 20 December 2014

Singin' In The Rain - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Screenplay by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Songs by Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed
Directed by John Plews

Simon Adkins

There is a delightful air of ambition that pervades each Christmas musical at the Gatehouse and this year is no exception. In offering Singin' In The Rain to the good people of Highgate, director John Plews aims high indeed. The songs are classic, the book has the potentially lethal cocktail of gorgeous romance mixed with schmaltzy simplicity and of course there's "that" iconic scene.

Plews is a visionary creative and it is to his credit that his productions blend recently trained performers with seasoned West End and commercial talent. The story needs little introduction. Set in Hollywood, Monumental Pictures is contemplating the end of silent movies as glamorous starlet Lina Lamont realises that her voice is not as good as her looks. Meanwhile, dashing co star Don Lockwood has stumbled upon the demure and angelically voiced Kathy Selden. Love blossoms and jealousies burn as the rain-sodden tale unfolds.

The principal roles are all cast delightfully. Frankie Jenna's Kathy is a beautifully pitched performance of vocal perfection whilst Paul Harwood's Cosmo (Lockwood's best friend) offers up some great dance routines, with especially beautiful work in Moses Supposes and Make 'Em Laugh. This show's moments of breathtaking excellence however come from the carefully crafted performances that Plews coaxes from Simon Adkins' Lockwood and Thea Jo Wolfe's Lamont. Adkins' West End pedigree is manifest in his voice, his presence and his dance. He consistently convinces as the era's dashing movie-star, bringing a gravitas of quality to the performance that drives the entire show. Wolfe, a relative newcomer to professional theatre is just deliciously contemptible as the story's villain. Her dumb blonde vocal squawk is painfully hilarious and her mastery of Lamont's charisma, envy and ultimate fragility belies an acting talent of some considerable depth. Elsewhere, Nick Barclay is the believable Monumental boss R.F. Simpson and Emily Wigley sets the scene nicely as a Movietone news reporter.

The Gatehouse show offers a delicious flourish with its screenings of grainy black and white movie footage that the story demands. Seasoned director Monica Swelp racks up another triumph with her interpretations of The Royal Rascal and The Duelling Cavalier.

Chris Whittaker's choreography cleverly exploits the compact traverse performing space, with tap routines that make lavish use of the dozen performers and yes, for an off West End production there's even a rain drenched title number that includes the baton-twirling cop on his beat. Up in the gallery Matt Ramplin's six piece band knock out the favourites with a pleasing familiarity.

Singin' In The Rain makes for perfect festive fayre. A classic tale, beautifully told that brings a splash of Broadway rhythm to North London. It put a smile on my face!

Runs until 25th January 2015

Saturday 13 December 2014

It's a Wonderful Life - A Radio Play - Review

Bridge House Theatre, London


Written by Tony Palermo
Directed by Guy Retallack

The company of It's a Wonderful Life - A Radio Play

‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings’…

To take a much loved iconic movie and condense the magic of its story onto the immediate intimacy of the stage is one of the hardest dramatic challenges. Yet with the Bridge House Theatre's It's A Wonderful Life, writer Tony Palermo under Guy Retallack's assured direction achieves just that.

A latter day fable from the '40s, Palermo reduces the classic yarn to a radio play with a company of just six playing all the roles. In the small town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey is despairing of his life and about to end it all. Meanwhile in heaven angel Clarence, who has still not earned his celestial wings after 200 years of trying, is despatched to Earth on a mission to rescue George from his despondency. An emotional roller-coaster with both cast-members and audience in tears at times, without spoiling too much it's safe to say that there is an uplifting climax of redemption and the happiest of endings.

Opening the show Daniel Hill chats with the audience as himself and radio host as we wait for Radio IBC to go live ‘On Air’, before transforming into the story’s bad guy Mr Potter. Gerard McCarthy makes for a stupendous George, lifted convincingly from the depths of despair, whilst alongside him, Kenneth Jay's Clarence captures an almost cherubic desparation as he strives to make his mission a success. Sophie Scott is charming and commanding as George's wife Mary, whilst the wonderful and ever-versatile Gillian Kirkpatrick resplendent in red, is resourceful and imposing in a range of roles and accents. This is truly a special piece of theatre with Retallack lavishing an attention to detail, from sound effects and lighting to accents, props and musical underscore, all delivered by a company at the top of their game.

It is impossible not to be moved by this modern morality tale of decency triumphing over nastiness and the show's powerful message of how we all affects other people’s lives in ways we will never be aware of and cannot imagine. George Bailey represents everyman and woman and he touches us all for the better. It’s A Wonderful Life truly puts everyone young and old, in the Christmas spirit.

Runs until 4th January 2015

Guest reviewer Catherine Francoise

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Christmas Truce - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Phil Porter
Directed by Erica Whyman

The soldiers of The Christmas Truce
The poignancy of Christmas 2014, marking the centenary of that famous truce in the First World War, a conflict in which soldiers on both sides believed that they’d be “home by Christmas” has a compelling resonance. Whilst a leading supermarket chain has already themed its seasonal TV ad campaign around the event, it was some 18 months ago in Stratford that the RSC engaged Phil Porter to write a truthful, even if not entirely accurate story, intended to reflect both the tragedy and the humanity of the “war to end all wars” that defined the Christmas truce.

There is much beauty in Porter’s writing. The Christmas Truce opens to a typically English summer mise en scene, before the war’s outbreak. A village cricket match, complete with Vicar’s tea-time speech is played (the first of many sporting allegories that run through the play) before the action seamlessly segues into the mists and murk of the conflict in northern France. Porter’s research is impressive and reflecting the local roots of the RSC his tale focuses upon a platoon of troops from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the battles, along with the truce, that they waged with their Saxon enemy.

Much of the show’s stagecraft is beautifully simple. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a world class auditorium and whilst the simplicity of denuded trees and upturned benches and barricades successfully evokes the trenches, the technology that enables mists to rise from the floor, or a fog to roll down from the backstage are moving enhancements to the production’s physical charm.

As a family show the gruesome details of conflict have had to have been airbrushed out. It is therefore a tribute not only to Porter's writing, but also to designer Tom Piper, creator of the recently acclaimed commemorative poppies display at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, that both the gallows-humour camaraderie, along with the horrors of war “in theatre,” are so effectively played out, in theatre.

There are plenty of crashes and bangs to depict the battles that the men fight, but there is also much focus upon the work of the Queen Alexandra’s nursing service (the QAs), founded in 1902 upon principles established by Florence Nightingale. The role of the QAs in the show provide a platform on which to tell of the lesser known contribution made by women during this terrible conflict, whilst the actual historic details of the Christmas truce reveal that not only were of course the eponymous football match(es) played (complete with a gag about Germans and penalties), but also, movingly, that much of the Christmas Day was spent by troops of both sides recovering the bodies of their fallen from no mans land for dignified burial.

In a solid cast throughout, Gerald Horan’s Old Bill, a leathery tommy who has seen it all brings a credible gravitas to the inter-national meeting between the trenches, whilst Leah Whitaker’s Matron conveys caring dignity and discipline that at last lays to rest the clichéd Matron that (our beloved) Hattie Jacques imprinted upon a nation. If there is but one flaw in Porter’s story it is the likening of a (fictional) truce between committed nurse Phoebe (elegantly played by Frances McNamee), a firebrand of female emancipation and the hardened Matron with whom she crosses swords and the actual truce that occurred at the Front. The two do not compare.

Leah Whitaker
With an authentic musical accompaniment from an on-stage octet, Erica Whyman directs assuredly and it is a credit to both her and the entire company that in particular, the bleakness of no mans land is so effectively portrayed mainly via the performance skills of her actors.

There is much to be learned from this seasonal offering. Aside from the history, the play’s closing scene contrasts the blessed sanctity of the Christmas spirit (irrespective of one’s individual faith) with the infernal inhumanity of conflict. The Christmas Truce is woven around an underlying sense of decency and compassion of man towards his fellow man. If only that same spirit prevailed in so much of the global strife we witness around us today.

Runs until 31st January 2015

During a special Christmas Eve performance, the show's band will include the Wilfred Owen Violin amongst their instuments, which has been made from sycamore wood taken from a tree within the grounds of Edinburgh's Craiglockhart hospital. Owen, one of the most respected poets of the First World War, was a patient at Craiglockhart when he was recovering from shell-shock (PTSD)

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Stephen Mear - An Extraordinary Year For An Extraordinary Choreographer

Mear rehearses Lara Pulver in Gypsy (photo Roy Tan)

Since this article was first published, City of Angels has opened at the Donmar Warehouse to rave notices.
My 5* review of this outstanding musical can be found here.

The virtually sold out City of Angels is currently previewing in the intimacy of London’s Donmar Warehouse. As rehearsals were drawing to a close last week, I spent a delightful evening at Joe Allens with acclaimed choreographer Stephen Mear, to learn a little more about this man’s remarkable career and achievements.

As 2014 draws to a close, Mear is likely to have had the rare distinction of having choreographed two of the year’s most highly acclaimed musicals this side of the Atlantic and both away from the mainstream thrust of the commercial West End. As well as the buzz surrounding City Of Angels, he has only recently returned from a brace of theatrical excellence at Chichester. His work on the movement in Rupert Everett’s Amadeus that opened the re-built Festival Theatre was a gorgeous treat of rococo splendor, whilst his choreography of Jonathan Kent’s production of the Sondheim & Styne Gypsy, a giant of a show with a cast led by Imelda Staunton with Lara Pulver, has contributed to the production being hailed as a “once in a lifetime” event. 

(read my review of Gypsy here)

A lean and incredibly athletic 50 year old, Mear speaks of his influences, with his career stretching back to performing in the early years of the original productions of both Cats and Evita. He has both worked alongside and assisted many of the dance greats having known Fosse, worked with Gillian Lynne and counts Broadway’s (and lately the West End too) Susan Stroman as a close friend. And it is probably that rich breadth and depth of Mear’s experience that makes the quality of his work so distinctive. We both recall Richard Eyre’s seminal and groundbreaking Guys And Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982, where Mear was to find the late David Toguri’s choreography an inspiration.

That introduction to Eyre's musical theatre style was to plant the idea in Mear's mind of working with the director in later years. Alongside Matthew Bourne, Mear choreographed Eyre’s multi-million Disney-dollar Mary Poppins. That dance pairing was to prove sensational, with Mary Poppins winning the 2005 Olivier for choreography before going on under the same creative talent to garner a Tony nomination two years later in New York. The vision behind that show was unique - Who can forget Gavin Lee, upside down, tap dancing his way across the top span of the Prince Edward Theatre's massive proscenium? At this point Mear confesses: he is afraid of heights. In rehearsals a swing had been constructed especially for him, to allow the dance maestro to be suspended from the stage upside down alongside Lee. The height proved too much for Mear and he was swiftly returned to terra firma, but it says much for his perseverance and commitment that he even permitted himself to be hoisted aloft at all.

Gavin Lee and ensemble in the famous Mary Poppins Step In Time routine

The Eyre association continues to this day with Mear having worked alongside Sir Richard on Betty Blue Eyes as well as the short-lived Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Don Black offering, Stephen Ward. Mear looks back appreciatively on that show, especially upon being able to have worked again with the likes of Jo Riding and for the first time having the opportunity to have worked with Lloyd-Webber. Eyre was to hire Mear again last year for Chichester's charming revival of The Pajama Game, a show that was to see a 2014 transfer to the West End - and as Gypsy prepares to land at the Savoy Theatre next March, allowing Mear's glorious work to be shared with the wider audience it deserves, the theatre world is abuzz with what is likely to be the 2015 musical theatre revelation… It's Chichester again, this time producing the Jerry Herman stunner Mack & Mabel, with Michael Ball lined up to play Mack Sennett, the genius director of two-reeler silent movies. Again Mear will be responsible for the dance and in a show that offers a famously perceptive and sometimes dark commentary upon the early years of Hollywood, personally I cannot wait to see Mear's take on the slapstick comedy that underlies the brilliantly maverick number Hit Em On The Head!

But right now, amidst the season of tinsel and glitter, the talk of the town is of a show that focusses upon Tinseltown's darkest side, the noir of the 1940s styled City Of Angels. Billed as a musical comedy, the show reflects two parallel plots - a writer desperate for his screenplay to be produced woven together with the fictional story that he is creating. It's a world of gumshoes, hazy cigarette smoke and sleazy intrigue and its been a good 20 years or so since the Prince of Wales theatre last gave the show a West End outing.

City of Angels marks Mear's first time working at the venue as well as alongside director and the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke. Another first is that City of Angels is Rourke’s entrée into musical theatre and Mear speaks glowingly of her approach. "She's amazing and hasn't missed a trick" he says, adding that the acclaimed director, some years his junior, believes in a constructively collaborative approach to planning the show. Mear adds that City of Angels is a show not famed for its dance routines - yet without giving too much away, talks excitedly about his staging of the Prologue and refers to how the casting of the show will complement some of the plot's darker racist undertones.

Mear is also fortunate in having been gifted a platinum-plated cast to work with. Hadley Fraser who numbers amongst the cream of his generation is playing the writer Stine, whilst his on-stage wife Gabby is played by real life (and newly wed) missus Rosalie Craig, another British musical theatre A-Lister. That the cast also includes Peter Polycarpou as movie mogul Buddy Fidler only appeals further to Mear - he worked with both Polycarpou and Fraser on The Pajama Game, gleaning a thorough understanding of these performers’ potential. With Katherine Kelly, Samantha Barks and Tam Mutu also on the bill, Mear truly feels spoilt with the talent that he has been blessed to work with.

Peter Polycarpou in rehearsal for City of Angels
photo by Johan Persson

Mear’s talent know no bounds and this piece has not even mentioned his New York achievements with Disney’s The Little Mermaid on Broadway, nor his acclaimed Die Fledermaus last year at the New York Met. The list is endless. For now though, its all about shoehorning the immense craft of this lord of the dance into the bijou confines of the Donmar. City of Angels will be a sassy show performed by the cream of the industry’s talent and in a production sculpted by the finest creatives. What a fabulous way to see in the new year!

City of Angels plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 7th February 2015. The production is sold out, however a number of Barclays Front Row seats are released for sale each Monday and a limited number of seats can be purchased each day at the box office.

Gypsy transfers to London's Savoy Theatre in March 2015

Sunday 7 December 2014

Cinderella and the Beanstalk – Review

Theatre 503, London


Written by Sleeping Trees (aka James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith, and John Woodburn)
Music by Mark Newnham
Directed by Tom Attenborough

The Sleeping Trees company

Those in the mood for some electric, creative and surprisingly original Christmas pantomime should run, not walk, to Sleeping Trees’ Cinderella and the Beanstalk at Theatre 503.

The premise is simple and sets the evening up for lots of laughs. We join the Sleeping Trees trio (who also wrote the show) as they are ready to open the pantomime that they have prepared, only to discover to their horror that they have forgotten to hire actors, remembering only to have booked a musician. (The talented and also genuinely amusing Mark Newnham.) In order to not disappoint the audience, the three decide to play all the parts of their panto themselves, bringing to life a veritable smorgasbord of fairy tale characters and Disney stories whilst telling the ‘familiar’ tale of Cinderella and The Beanstalk.

The result is comic genius, with the talented trio creating a show that is hilarious for the entire audience, irrespective of age. It’s fast-paced and physical, with the actors bringing a tremendous amount of infectious energy to their craft. The secret of good comedy is timing and these guys are spot on!

Of course there's song and dance, including a love song about a Wickes brochure (no really), which is terribly funny and also, rather well written. Throughout, the choreography, like the comedy, is well rehearsed and drilled.

Amongst a sea of festive pantos, Cinderella and the Beanstalk makes for a refreshing, clever and truly enjoyable star of a production.

Runs until 10 January 2015

Guest reviewer Emily Pulham

Thursday 4 December 2014

The Sound Of Music - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Paul Kerryson

Laura Pitt-Pulford and Michael French

The vespers bell sounds at Nonnberg Abbey and the Curve stage seems to fill with black habits. The vastness of Leicester’s huge performing space is filled well by designer Al Parkinson, as he convincingly evokes the echoing majesty of the Abbey alongside the splendour of the Von Trapp mansion and of course, a neatly created suggestion of those musically alive hills that surround the town.

We all know The Sound Of Music’s touching if corny story, but it is the show’s songs that are iconic. The challenge of this musical, more than most others, is to take armchair favourites and breathe new life into them.

In his swansong season Paul Kerryson has, for the most part, cast shrewdly. In the modest role of Max Detweiler, Mark Inscoe is a clipped and avuncular delight. Alongside him, Emma Clifford nails the frigid frustations of Elsa Schraeder perfectly, whilst Jimmy Johnston's nastily Nazi-sympathizing butler Franz is another modest gem. Moving up through the cast, Lucy Schaufer’s Mother Abbess is a revelation. Her act one closing number Climb Ev'ry Mountain being so inspirationally spine-tingling that one could almost be reaching for the crampons as she sings. Michael French is the erstwhile Captain Von Trapp. As his seven stage offspring serenade him French sheds a convincing tear, but his naval uniform sits a tad awkwardly on him and he has yet to hit his best in the role. No matter though – when Albert Square’s David Wicks sings Edelweiss, every mum in the audience will have moist cheeks.

As ever, Ben Atkinson’s musical direction of his ten piece orchestra is spot on, but The Sound Of Music will always be all about Maria...

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s portrayal of the errant postulant snatches Julie Andrew’s hallowed crown (or dirndl) and makes it her own. Pitt-Pulford gives the most relaxed yet polished interpretation of this legendary role with her pitch-perfect performance entrancing the audience from one song to the next. From her delivery of the title song sprawled across a hillside, through to her gorgeously convincing interaction with the Von Trapp brats (cutely played mind, well done kids) in Do Re Mi, every song is a treat. As an actress she is convincingly youthful yet wise, at all times displaying that most intriguing of emotions, a spunky humility. This leading role is so very well deserved by one of the most talented actresses of her generation that surely it cannot be long now before Pitt-Pulford leads a West End show. 

Notwithstanding a lack of racial diversity both on stage and in the audience (which surprises for a venue in the heart of as diverse a community as Leicester) Kerryson has again delivered some top-notch talent to the town that he’s called home for some time. There is excellence afoot here – and if you want a glimpse of a woman destined for musical theatre greatness, you won't see it more clearly than in the wondrous Laura Pitt-Pulford.


Runs until 17th January 2015

Wednesday 3 December 2014

The Mikado - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Thom Southerland

Leigh Coggins

It may not be a Christmas show, but there is still a seasonally comforting familiarity to the Gilbert and Sullivan gems that make up The Mikado. The comic opera's timeless wit alongside melodies hard wired into every educated English-person, make for a show that one cannot help but smile throughout. Thom Southerland has set the 19th century work firmly in the roaring 20's, with flappers and jazz-hands making it a Thoroughly Modern Mikado. Whilst the costumes may bizarrely range from spats and bowlers through to kimonos and a Juan Peron lookalike Mikado, everyone looks sumptuous.

Aside from costumes however there is an all-pervading air of budgetary restraint. This most clever of scores has been economically re-arranged for two pianos and notwithstanding the excellent ivory tinkling of Dean Austin and Noam Galperin, there is a timbre and a texture to Sullivan's tunes that is lost in the reduction. Vocally too and with no-one mic'd, there is an apparent gulf in ability between the actors who have an operatic background and those more usually reliant upon amplification. That Matthew Crowe's delightfully foppish Nanki-Poo is occasionally inaudible (and this from a front row seat) is unforgivable. Likewise Hugh Osborne's Ko-Ko is a treat of a characterisation, but far too often his tuneful voice lacks projection. Mark Heenehan however brings just the right amount of blustering buffoonery to the title role.

The performing excellence of this production lies with its women. Rebecca Caine's Katisha is a masterclass. Her vampish, vulnerable and (sometimes) baddy is a flawless display of perfection in her craft, her voice filling the auditorium and her presence, alongside hilarious poise and facial expression, stealing every scene. Credit too to Leigh Coggins whose Yum-Yum also belies a career history in opera and whose voice often soars (delightfully) above those of her singing partners.

There are moments of sweet genius in this Mikado. Make sure to sit near the front and revel in some wonderful songs you've known since childhood.