Saturday 31 January 2015

A Little Night Music - Review

Palace Theatre, London


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

The company of A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music is inspired by the Swedish writer/director Ingmar Bergmans’s whimsical movie Smiles of a Summer Night, that tells of the midsummer night smiling three times. The first smile falling upon the young, the second upon the foolish and the final smile, upon the old. On a chilly January evening in London, the midwinter’s night actually smiled for a fourth time, upon the city itself, by gracing the Palace Theatre with this show. First mounted in Guildford some 18 months ago Parker and Knight’s interpretation of this Tony-winner remains an absolute treat.

Typically, reviews on this site are short in length – a show is running and a review needs to be published asap. This time round however A Little Night Music was a one-off and the tickets (all sold-out on the night) are gone. So what follows here is a lengthier than normal commentary, focussing upon the various components of this charming chamber production. 

The Liebeslieders, effectively a Greek (Swedish?) chorus set the tone for the night. Dotted around the auditorium and loggia, their Overture leading into the Night Waltz was delicious. Notes, often a capella, were spot on with a simply spine-tingling vocal purity. Top work all round throughout the show from Jenna Boyd, Michael Colbourne, Emma Harrold, Nadim Naaman and Laura Tebbutt.

Frederik and Ann Egerman were played by David Birrell and Anna O'Byrne. Birrell’s bumblingly philanderous Egerman nailed the hapless everyman who finds his world populated by not so much grotesques, as extremes. Birrell’s vocal work did the job and he proved a worthy partner in his character’s various duets. O'Byrne’s Ann however was a gifted creation. A young woman barely still a child, terrified by/revulsed at the thought of consummating her marriage to Frederik (who of course is old enough to be her father). O'Byrne managed the complex combination of fear, manipulation and outright lustful passion for Frederik’s son Henrik perfectly. Her magical soprano tone belied her talent and with a supreme understatement, O'Byrne gloriously realised the comic potential of her character.

The three generations of the Armfeldt family form an axis around which the story hangs. Young Bibi Jay as the teenage Frederika Armfeldt was a confident performer, able to hold her own amongst a company of stars. Anne Reid, an accomplished actress most famous for her film and TV work set a measured tone as the matriarchal Mme Armfeldt, with her caustic one-liners delivered deliciously and her solo number Liaisons being salaciously convincing. Reid’s character dies as the show ends and unless one knew this beforehand, the death was hard to discern. When all the principal characters are sat on stage throughout, mute and frozen as is the demand of such a chamber-styled piece, then director Knights needed to have done more to highlight such a key moment.

The focal character of A Little Night Music of course is fading actress Desiree Armfeldt, the true love interest of Frederk Egerman and played again, as in Guildford, by Janie Dee. Desiree is a tough role made even more challenging by having to sing Send In The Clowns, a number that is arguably bigger than any actress. Dee was good as Desiree capturing that charm of femininity that defined her desirability and her Send In The Clowns was undoubtedy a celebration of coherent magnificence. But re-visiting notes from Guildford, even there the show was dazzled by the performances of O'Byrne and (see below) Joanna Riding. When there are “outstanding” performers in a company, to be just “good” is not good enough and Knights again needed to have done more to address this. In footballing parlance, he should have put his arm around Dee’s shoulder and coaxed that little bit extra from her, lord knows she has it in her tank to give. It was barely two years ago that Dee's Dolly Levi at Leicester’s Curve wowed the critics and deservedly earned her yet another gong. Maybe next time.

The real bittersweet highlight of this show though comes from the adulterous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and his wife the Countess Charlotte. In Guildford these parts had been played by Simon Bailey and Joanna Riding where both were sensational. This time around Riding returned but Bailey was replaced by Jamie Parker. Parker is currently in the middle of a 7-show week stint in Sondheim’s Assassins, so expectations surrounding his performance were mixed as to how much he may have been able to give to the Count. Any such anxieties were misplaced. Parker reached for the bar set by Bailey and smashed it. His Count being both menacing and hilarious, with a presence in all scenes that demanded attention and delivered a flawless singing voice. Parker’s take on In Praise Of Women filled the Palace’s cavernous space with whoops of audience delight.

As in Guildford Jo Riding’s Countess was, again, a masterclass in musical theatre. Riding knows the show of old, having played Ann some twenty years ago in Sean Mathias’ production at the National Theatre. Her mastery of Charlotte’s ingenious complexity was a sight to behold – poise, voice and movement all flawless – an actress perfectly suited to the role in terms of age and ability. Pray that this show returns and with Riding in it – she’s already won two Oliviers in her career and this performance deserves to have earned her a third.

Henrik, played by Fra Free was the necessary cauldron of repressed desire, struggling to contain the passionate love he fees for his stepmother. Fee got the angst just right.

The housemaid to the Egermans is Petra, wise beyond her years and a knowingly sensous flame of a woman, very sexual and with not much to sing in the show until her 11 o’clock number The Miller’s Son. Reprising the role from Guildford, Laura Pitt-Pulford was, as one would expect from this leading actress of her generation, outstanding. Throwing herself into the song in one of the most passionately choregoraphed solo routines of the night. It’s only a pity that Sondheim didn’t give Petra more songs.

So much for the actors – What about the musicians? Alex Parker musically directed meticulously, commanding a sumptuously furnished orchestra of 28 players. One can only speculate as to what favours he had called in to amass such orchestral excellence, but as Parker confided over a glass of post-show bubbly, there were several West End orchestra pits lacking a handful of talented players that night! The show’s score is rich in melodies that feature, brass, strings, wood and percussion at different moments and Parker’s orchestra did not disappoint. Truly a class act.

Parker and Knights have now presented this show twice. They need to do it again – and for a longer run too, for London (or a regional venue) deserves nothing less than to feast upon this groaning smorgasbord of talent. Knights may still have work to do, but as and when this show comes round again, don’t miss it!

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The Ruling Class - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

James McAvoy

Director Jamie Lloyd continues to prove a deliciously petulant force in London theatre with productions of The Hothouse, Urinetown and most recently Assassins that have all sought to parody an accepted view of society, government or history. With his new production of Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, Lloyd again takes aim at what is shown to be a blatant madness that lies within institutionalised power structures, specifically in this work the control and influence of the English political and moneyed elites.

Barnes 1969 satire displayed a vision for the timelessness of sharp political farce, with The Ruling Class feeling as painfully poignant and relevant amongst today’s New Labour and Cameron’s Bullingdon buddies as it would have done in the Swinging Sixties, yet with moments in the play that resonate with our era’s phone hacking scandal and a ruling “Old Boys” club.

Lloyd again pairs up with James McAvoy, directing the Scottish actor in an unrelenting portrayal of the schizophrenic 14th Earl of Gurney. Mcavoy's performance will have one both crying with laughter and shifting uncomfortably, such is the recognisability of Gurney’s world. As the play progresses it darkens, becoming increasingly disquieting yet enthralling. Gurney’s arc highlights the contrasts of his world, and when he is ultimately brought into the fold of the ruling class, McAvoy offers a truly terrifying reality, performed brilliantly - and thats even without his topless unicycling!

The entire cast’s energy is sensational throughout, with Joshua McGuire in particular continuing to display his talented versatility. And in the event that Barne's carefully crafted irony may have been lost on the audience, a tenet of the play’s message is spelled out in an interjection from Anthony O’Donnell’s butler, Tucker, reminding us that it is 1% of the country owns 50% of the nation's property. A comment that is as relevant today as ever.

In what is fast becoming a recognised double act of theatrical creativity, Lloyd turns to Soutra Gilmour for her distinctive design work. Staged in the Trafalgar Studios, a venue that, in a previous existence as the Whitehall Theatre was famous for farce in the 50’s and 60’s there is a comforting appropriateness in the location. Lloyd however would be appalled should his shows ever be mistaken for comfortable viewing. The Ruling Class is satire at its best, powerfully written and sharply presented. Unmissable.

Runs until 11th April 2015

My Night with Reg - Review

Apollo Theatre, London


Written by Kevin Elyot
Directed by Robert Hastie

Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Broadbent and Julian Ovenden

On paper, My Night with Reg could be a searingly witty sitcom written around six unorthodox characters, each with their own hilarious intricacies and tragic plights. However, the death of writer Kevin Elyot in 2014 sees the play’s more macabre and somber notes raise the inflexion, making this production more melancholic and disconcerting than just a classy revival of a now certified ‘classic’, modern, British comedy.

Not just an original gay play, Elyot lays bare (quite literally) the social and sexual manners of the titular Reg, who never appears on stage, though his seed, it seems, has been sewn just about everywhere else. Elyot’s gratifyingly outrageous and authentic dialogue is ignited brilliantly by Jonathan Broadbent who reprises his Guy, the probably-passed-it central figure, whose circle of old university friends come over for a dinner party.

Robert Hastie’s direction is delicate and nuanced from the offset. Not a glance or a line is missed as we are introduced to Geoffrey Streatfield’s dandy Daniel, the camp and frivolous dancer to David Bowie’s Starman with his long-time sidekick pal John, played charmingly by Julian Ovenden. 

Newly in love Daniel is a bounding energy, which makes his demise to a mourning mess all the more poignant. The plot then begins to trace the long line of his beloved’s bed notches, which becomes a standing joke as an ever-entangled web of deceit and betrayal is found to be woven throughout the friendship group. 

Meanwhile, Guy’s unrequited love for the coiffured-in-the-style-of-Hugh-Grant John is the most profound theme (alongside the infidelity) and is best exploited through Richard Cant and Matt Bardock, the brilliantly mis-matched hopeless lovers Bernie and Benny. This bold bittersweet comedy duo of the expletive loving brazen Benny who is more akin to a Jason Statham stereotype than the lover of conservatory-coveting Bernie, in turn described as “redefining boredom”. But one can’t help feeling for the softly-spoken Bernie as he dotes after the gregarious Benny and doubts the strength of his own relationship, before both confess to having bedded the apparently insatiable Reg. 

As we move into the darker territory of the third and final section of the play, this lack of forethought and arbitrary irresponsibility threatens to take down of each them and following a key character’s death, Hastie’s direction, like the sex, takes on a casualness, with the play’s pace suffering as it lulls sulkily towards the curtain.

Arguably, the reason Elyot’s play continues to draw audiences is that the issues remain as pertinent now as they did in the 1980’s. Disputes regarding promiscuity, sexual politics and AIDS remain equally unresolved and enduring.

Runs until 11th April 2015

Guest reviewer Lauren Gauge

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Thriller Live - Review - 6 Years In The West End

Lyric Theatre, London


Conceived by Adrian Grant
Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd

The 2015 Company of Thriller Live
Any reason to re-visit Thriller Live is always a good one and there was a buzz in the air at the Lyric Theatre last week as the show celebrated six years since its arrival on Shaftesbury Avenue. It may carry 2,000 performances under its belt, but Thriller Live's cast and crew continue to define both freshness and excellence.

Lead vocalists John Moabi, Jesse Smith, Britt Quinton and Cleopatra Higgins, (reviewed here when she took over in the show) continue to deliver top-notch riffs and trills, making Michael Jackson's hits their own, as they narrate and hold the show together. The four leads take the audience on a journey through the singer's life and music, delivering facts and songs so convincingly that they almost suggest a personal connection with the King of Pop.

The Lyric's size and friendliness helps too, creating a bond between cast and audience that continues to reach out across the fourth wall. A stand out moment of the current show is Dangerous, in which Michael Jackson and the male dancers captivate and almost intimidate the audience through Gary Lloyd's skilled choreography. Higgins' take on P.Y.T offers another show stopping moment as the singer owns the stage amongst the male dancers, giving her flawless vocals to one of Jackson's biggest hits.

The show continues to be stolen by its sensational dance, with a nod to Chloe Ferns whose strength and technique make her a delight to watch. John Maher's band remain exceptional although not as fully appreciated as they perhaps deserve, hidden behind a wall. They still deliver enough punch to ensure that come the finale, the audience are up, as one, to dance and sing throughout the theatre.

Simply put, six years on, Thriller Live still wows the West End.

Now booking until September 2015 

Saturday 24 January 2015

City of Angels - A Performer's Eye View from Tiffany Graves

In the first of an occasional series in which respected professionals from the world of theatre offer their thoughts on a show, Tiffany Graves gives her Performer's Eye View of City of Angels, currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse....

I know, I know - I'm very late to the party. Embarrassingly so, as City of Angels shall only be at The Donmar for another couple of weeks (the run comes to an end on February 7th). But, better late than never - with soaring reviews and tickets like gold-dust, I was delighted to have been able to secure a seat.

Before the performance, I spotted a fellow performer Frankie Jenna (currently starring as Kathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain at The Gatehouse) who had bagged a standing spot on her night off as she couldn't bear to miss this production either.

Although not a show I was lucky enough to be seen for, it was definitely one I would have loved to have been in (not least because I adore Cy Colman’s work and greatly enjoyed doing his Sweet Charity at the Menier and Haymarket, also choreographed by the wonderful Stephen Mear).

I do, however, have a ridiculously talented friend who got very close to being cast as one of the Angel City Four and recounts tales of sitting up until the early hours learning both female harmony parts and was a mere 'shoo-wap-bee-dooo-wah' away from getting the job - had it not been for the fact that she has glorious long, raven hair (not too dissimilar to Rosalie Craig's locks that adorn all the show’s sultry smoldering posters) and that Josie Rourke decided to give a nod towards LA's racial undertones so fitting of the time. Brilliant choice... not so much for my talented friend.

So where does one start? The show is a veritable smorgasbord of delights, boasting a creative team that would make any performer salivate with joy at the thought of the first day of rehearsals. Think 'Avengers Assemble'. With the likes of Josie Rourke, Gareth Valentine and Stephen Mear at the helm, you know you are going to be in very safe hands.

And the cast that they had 'assembled' were truly at the top of their game. Led by newlyweds Rosalie Craig and Hadley Fraser, the entire cast's diction was a crisp and effortless vocal tone.

Peter Polycarpou excelled playing Fidler/Irwin with just the right combination of cringe, humour and Hollywood sleaze. Quite a masterclass in delivery. And, naturally for Peter (we did Cats together many Jellicle Moons ago), he didn’t pass up the opportunity of going au naturel for our viewing pleasure!

Like every performer, there is the part of my brain that never stops when watching a show, no matter how hard I try to quash it, whispering to me "If you had been cast in this- who would you like to be? How would you play the role and would it be a different portrayal to the one you see before you?"

So - hands up, I admit it - I would’ve adored to play Alaura Kingsley/Carla for the sheer glamour and show-stopping joy that a part like that offers. What a gift! Katherine Kelly was perfect casting for the role (damn her!) and oozed the sophisticated allure demanded of her. 

And with Katherine's unfortunate exit from the cast this week, in swooped Wonderwoman Caroline Sheen to save the day with a mere 24 hours notice. (We did A Funny Thing at the National together, and you couldn't ask for a calmer head or safer pair of hands to step into the show at the last minute) Hats off to you Caroline, from all of us awestruck and envious fellow performers up here in the cheap seats!

Stephen Mear's clever racket-choreography for her Tennis Song duet with the rugged Tam Matu raised all the necessary titters, and I will be doing my level best to steal some of Alaura's bombshell poise when I portray Ulla in The Producers later this year (well, it's the biggest form of flattery after all).

As for my favourite turn of the evening, it was a tough call, as You Can Always Count On Me is one of my all-time favourite songs and Rebecca Trehearn did not disappoint in her rendition. She certainly is a dame who knows how to sell a song. And Rosalie Craig’s It Needs Work was delivered beautifully – and must have been such fun singing David Zippel’s irreverent lyrics across a New York cafĂ© table to her new Mister.

However, it's a full feast of a production, meaning that not only are the performances sublime, but the devilishly ingenious lighting, creative staging, inventive set and fabulous costume design all play a huge part in the audience's enjoyment and the show’s overall success; seamlessly depicting which story we are in (there are two - the Film Noir and reality, woven together marvellously in Larry Gelbart’s book... do keep up!).

In such a stylish era, the women look spectacularly put together and the men suave. Set against a backdrop of scripts that can be climbed upon and sweeping stairs that glide across the stage, it cannot fail to impress. I always worry when friends see me in a show and comment on how wonderful the set or costumes or lights were as I feel that they are deflecting. Not so here - these features all complement the actors beautifully, making the piece as a whole so perfectly formed.

So. I enjoyed it. A lot. Is it obvious? I would love to tell you to grab a ticket and go, but sadly they are now few and far between. You could try the Barclays Front Row offer if it is still available, or if not queue up for returns. Or feel smug that you were one of the lucky few who got to enjoy such a gem. Or sit on the floor, crossed legged and pray to the great fairy of musical theatre in the hope that it might, hopefully, transfer.

If it does, I for one would certainly go see it again!

Tiffany Graves

Tiffany will soon be appearing as Ulla in the UK tour of The Producers alongside Jason Manford, Ross Noble, Phil Jupitus, Cory English and David Bedella.

Best known for playing both Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart in Chicago, Tiffany went on to be alternate lead in Sweet Charity at The Haymarket, Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Marlene Dietrich in Piaf, and took part in the 50 Year celebration at the National Theatre. She has also appeared in Cats, A Chorus Line, Sunset Boulevard, Witches of Eastwick, Wonderful Town, Follies and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

She will be performing in her own cabaret show Desperate Divas at London's St James Theatre on February 22nd.

Follow Tiffany on Twitter @tiffanygraves4

City of Angels plays until 7th February 2015

Friday 23 January 2015

Oppenheimer - Review

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Tom Morton-Smith
Directed by Angus Jackson

John Heffernan and the company of Oppenheimer

The writer of Oppenheimer, Tom Morton-Smith recently tweeted that he wished he "could phone 2011 Tom and tell him that the play he's about to start writing looks pretty damn sweet on the Swan Theatre stage." That wish is well-founded, for his is a meticulously researched play, now directed by Angus Jackson, that offers an irresistible fusion of history, art and science. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the brilliant American physicist who led the team that developed the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. If Alan Turing's mathematical genius, in developing the Enigma machine, is credited with having ended the war in Europe, so too did Oppenheimer's work end the Pacific conflict. But where Turing's legacy was the advent of the digital age, Oppenheimer's Bomb, in his on-stage words, has left the world with “a loaded gun in the playground".

To an early rousing rendition of The Internationale, we learn of the scientist's early communist beliefs and of the commitment that he and his peers shared in opposing the fascism that threatened to engulf Europe. From that belief stemmed a commitment to harness the theories of Albert Einstein and design a bomb to drop on Spain and Germany, so powerful that it would not only end World War Two, but would end all wars thereafter...

Initially believing that they were in a race with the Germans to develop an atomic weapon, as the history plays out Oppenheimer's Project Manhattan team come to learn that not only are the Germans out of that race, but they also come to understand more of the devastating potential of the weapon they are building, with the play succinctly exploring the chain reaction that results from conscience and philosophy colliding with patriotism and occasionally, treachery too.

John Heffernan is Oppenheimer, in a tour de force of a dramatic creation the impact of which echoes the Antonioni Salieri that Peter Shaffer gave us in Amadeus. Heffernan captures the resolve and focus of the Jewish professor from New York, yet Morton-Smith embodies him with so much more detail. Emotionally crippled (and Heffernan tells achingly of how his teenage character was mercilessly bullied on camp one summer) we see his the power of his irresistible charm over women and yet also an emotional detachment that prevents him showing his newborn daughter any love. Apart from the mind-boggling science, displayed through clever equations scribbled on the stage floor, Oppenheimer's life offered a rich and varied seam of humanity that Morton-Smith has refined into a critical mass of literary genius.

Alongside Heffernan, all of this RSC company are sensational. Catherine Steadman plays Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer's first and fatally flawed love, whilst in a performance that combines a hint of Lady Macbeth with the declining frailty of an alcoholic, Thomasin Rand's Kitty is another painful treat. William Gaminara's General Groves is every inch the military man, tasked with delivering the Bomb to the US forces, yet also responsible for managing the interface between the square-jawed servicemen and the floppy haired geniuses of the labs. On its own, this carefully crafted dynamic that evolves between the clipped yet perceptive fighting man and the professor, is worth the price of a ticket. Elsewhere, Michael Grady-Hall convinces as Oppenheimer's overshadowed sibling as Ben Allen and Tom McCall are noteworthy fellow scientists.

The enriched production values of the play define all that is spectacular in one of this nation's world-class theatre companies. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins offers a striking X-frame, thrust diagonally up and into the Swan's space. (And it's remarkable how in an auditorium so Shakespearean in its design, that such a profoundly modern story can be so comfortably accommodated.) As the Heath-Robinson like test bomb that was first detonated at Los Alamos is revealed being slowly winched up the steel frame (and the RSC have constructed a remarkable facsimile) the visual yet subtle horror of the infernal contraption is breathtaking. Paul Anderson lights the Swan perfectly, his lamps cleverly suggesting the intimacy of a cocktail party or the harsh sunlight of the rattlesnake infested Nevada desert. A nod too for the talented Grant Olding, whose music (enchantingly performed by a six piece gallery ensemble) only adds a further texture to the work.

Combining sex and drugs and science with the ultimate of killing machines, suggests that whether or not Oppenheimer transfers beyond Stratford (and it should), the RSC would do well to consider turning this play into a movie. Morton-Smith's work is a stunning opus of history and analysis told as the most fascinating, and ultimately horrifying, of stories.

Runs to 7th March 2015

Thursday 22 January 2015

Brent Barrett's Life Is - The Songs Of Kander & Ebb - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


Brent Barrett

A year after his debut appearance at Crazy Coqs, Brent Barrett is back. The singer's affection for the work of Kander and Ebb forms the basis of his set, with his longstanding close relationship with the songwriters clearly evident. Barrett has the qualities of both Broadway performer and Vegas showman, but he also offered heard some charming anecdotes about growing up in rural Kansas from where John Kander hailed too. A supremely comfortable performer, Barrett’s patter throughout the gig reflected the many aspects both of his professional life in theatre (he has played Chicago’s Billy Flynn on and off for 16 years) and his personal life where as a gay man, he touchingly reflected as to how "I never thought I’d be able to get married and have a wedding list at Bloomingdales”

His title song and opening number Life Is, was from the little known musical Zorba. The show premiered on Broadway almost fifty years ago, yet Barrett nevertheless made it sound fresh and vibrant. That his next song, Cabaret's Wilkommen, came from a score that had garnered both Oscar and Tony success only highlighted the remarkable achievements of Kander & Ebb. With a nod to The Scottsboro Boys, (currently playing at London's Garrick Theatre, in a production that Kander has proclaimed definitive) Barrett's Commencing In Chattanooga offered a stylish yet subtly different interpretation of the number to that of Susan Stroman's stage show. And as for Chicago? Well, Barrett’s evening wouldn’t have been complete without All That Jazz, whilst his take on New York, New York sealed the Kander & Ebb reputation for having written some of the biggest songs out there.

During his 70 minute routine, accompanied throughout by musical director Christopher Denny, the intimate ambience of the Crazy Coqs is such that one feels as though Barrett, with his shiny suit, perfect hair and film-star looks, is offering a personal serenade – indeed, truly personal for the one lucky lady who danced with the star as he sang to her! Here for one week only, Barrett’s residency truly is a classy cabaret.

Brent Barrett performs until 24th January 2015

Guest reviewer: Louisa Shulman

Monday 19 January 2015

The Railway Children - Review

King's Cross Theatre, London


Written by Mike Kenny
Directed by Damian Cruden

Serena Manteghi

In reviewing The Railway Children I must declare an interest. I love trains and the stage show of E.Nesbit's classic tale, that not so long ago was putting Waterloo's mothballed Eurostar terminus to good use, had long caught my eye. So with the production now having steamed across the river to a venue straddling some disused tracks between London's Kings Cross and St Pancras termini and with a 4-4-0 lovingly restored locomotive topping the bill, I could not resist.

The history on display in this carefully crafted play goes far beyond England’s railway heritage. Notwithstanding Nesbit's socialist inclinations, she firmly believes in a class-divided England where everyone has their place. Class brings privilege and the responsibilities of noblesse oblige, but as ever it is moneyed wealth that brings the social mobility and connections that the Old Gentleman clearly enjoys. Humble stationmaster Perks proudly lives in poverty with his washerwoman wife and brood of six kids and there’s a glimpse too of a life before an NHS or welfare state, as the valiant railway children use their initiative to raise funds for mother's medication. Nesbit also throws in a political morsel, with the children’s father being wrongly imprisoned for spying - even the Government cannot be trusted. 

But enough of the politics, for The Railway Children was, is and always will be, to mis-quote Meghan Trainor, "all about that train". The venue is a carefully crafted tent, which on press night did well to see off the noisy blusters of Storm Rachel. The audience straddle an ingenious traverse that runs a platform length and in between which glide trucks (heroically manhandled by strapping stagehands) bearing the story’s tableaux. In the movie Jaws, Steven Spielberg famously kept the audience waiting for ages before getting sight of the shark. So it is here, with Cruden throughout act one suggesting the presence of passing trains by using light, sound and a fiendishly clever hidden machine that puffs billows of smoke up and down the track. The stagecraft is delightful and the suspension of disbelief, perfect.

The cast all convince, suggesting time, place and above all, stiff upper lips. Jeremy Swift’s Mr Perks and Caroline Harker’s pre-Suffragette Mother lead the grown-up roles with conviction, whilst Serena Manteghi, Jack Hardwick and Louise Calf are the believably adolescent children. There is a delightful mise en scene too. As the audience take their seats (having entered via a themed foyer that would do the Disney Corporation proud), the piped in sounds of steam engines shunting and passing by are almost enough to suggest one has stepped back in time. And of course that famous final scene, all swirling smoke and steam as Bobbie rushes towards her freed father, crying "Daddy, my daddy!" will tug at heartstrings throughout the tent.

But above all bravo to the city of York, and its National Railway Museum and Theatre Royal for getting behind Mike Kenny’s vision some years ago. As the first half ends, almost all of the ingenious illusions (and I'm not about to spoil the biggest illusion of the night) give way to reality as the huge and gorgeous steam train draws to a breathtaking halt, just managing to avoid the eponymous landslip. The audience cheer and the kids are open jawed in amazement. It is what theatre is all about!

Runs to September 6th 2015

Sunday 18 January 2015

John Kander Talks about The Scottsboro Boys

Monday January 19th marks Martin Luther King Day 2015.

There is a moment towards the end of The Scottsboro Boys musical when a black woman is told to move to the the back of a segregated bus and she refuses. That woman was Rosa Parks and her subsequent arrest led to a boycott of the buses in her city of Montgomery, Alabama. King's role in the bus boycott was to transform him into a national figure and become the best-known spokesman of America's growing civil rights movement.

John Kander, together with the late Fred Ebb, in creating the legendary partnership of Kander and Ebb had already composed some of the greatest shows of the 20th century, including Cabaret and Chicago before going on to write The Scottsboro Boys.

To coincide with Martin Luther King Day, I interviewed John Kander about the show, and in a conversation that ranged from the injustices of prejudice around the world, through to the development of a musical with Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman, the conversation was fascinating. Read on....

John Kander

JB: What made you want to write a musical about the story of The Scottsboro Boys? 

JK: The first thing that happened really was that Stro (Susan Stroman – the show’s director and choreographer) and Fred (Ebb) and Tommy (David Thompson, who wrote the show’s book) and I loved working together. That's really the first thing. 

We were looking for a subject and we had spent some time dealing with the '30s as a period which to explore and as I recall, we thought let's keep looking there and see what's interesting to us.

I can't be very accurate about how the subject came to us. Certainly we were looking at cases and trials among a lot of other things as a possible subject. 

Once we stumbled onto Scottsboro, we were immediately intrigued by it, in great part because nobody with the exception of me probably, remembered it at all and I remembered it because I'm so bloody old. (Kander is 87)

I remembered that when I was just learning to read I would see on the newspaper, pretty much daily in those early reading days, something about The Scottsboro Boys. I didn't know what that was or who they were, but they were always mentioned, they were always called that title. As I began to be able to read and understand more, it seemed to me that they were always spoken of as a group. Then they disappeared altogether.

When we stumbled on this topic we were immediately, in the first place just as humans, intrigued by this story and horrified by it.

I think the thing particularly, looking back on it, was to think that these guys actually disappeared. There were nine lives that were just erased, if you will.Then we began to try and figure out how we might tell the story. 

My feeling, and I think my co-workers will agree, is that when we stumbled on the idea of the minstrel show it suddenly solved any number of problems. First of all the minstrel show, which was the most popular form of entertainment in the country for I think well over 100 years and even had its reflection in England too, with The Black and White Minstrel Show

JB: Yes. That show was broadcast on the BBC until 1978 and achieved very high ratings.  

JK: And the minstrel genre was terribly, terribly popular in the USA too. Nobody thought anything about it. That's what's amazing. I don't think any of us really thought about the real implications of it. Not only was it made up of white people in black face (black make up), but if you had black performers, they also had to wear black face too.

Aside from the racist conversations that come with the minstrel show, its structural form was such that there is a semi-circle of entertainers and in the middle is sat a white man, the Interlocutor, who we looked on as a kind of benign “plantation owner” type.

The Interlocutor calls on people to tell stories or tell jokes or do a dance or carry out some long sort of narrative and as you may recall having seen the show, every once in a while the Interlocutor will say, "Mr. Bones, tell us a joke." Or "You boys sing that song about home that I love so much." So that flexibility meant that we could jump around in the story and weren’t too bound by narrative. In my opinion, once we stumbled on the minstrel show, that was the key to The Scottsboro Boys musical. 

One of the other things about the minstrel show, which none of us really considered as we were growing up, was that it was a show populated by white men pretending to be black and playing for a white audience. They also sang songs written by white men as if they were black men longing for the days of the old plantation.

Some of the most popular songs that ever happened in our country, the Stephen Foster songs like Old  Black Joe or Swanee River, they all are very lyrical, nostalgic songs about “how I wish I was back on the old plantation with good ole Massa”. 

It's interesting, and I think this is so true in a lot more areas, that you can get used to that prejudice and you no longer think about what these things really mean. They just become kind of entertaining cliches.

JB: The prejudice becomes normalized and conditioned…

JK: Right, they did this in vaudeville for years and if you leave the black situation by itself, the stingy Jew, the drunk Irishman, those stereotypes are very entertaining to a certain extent and people made their careers out of exploiting them and being funny with them, but then in some areas they become lethal.

When you look at the cartoons in the early days of Nazi Germany, the big-nosed, conniving Jew who is out to eat children and hoard all the money. Those things go from entertainment into real powerful propaganda.

It happens without us even realizing it.

JB: I want to talk more about the Interlocutor and what Julian Glover does with that role in London.

JK: Yes, he's wonderful.

Colman Domingo (Mr Bones), Julian Glover, Forrest McClendon (Mr Tambo)
JB: It strikes me as such a complicated role. The Interlocutor’s racism is ingrained, it's what he's grown up with. His is such a complicated character and I think Julian gives it an amazing degree of depth.

JK: I quite agree. I think he's spot on with it and the thing is about the Interlocutor, is that he's a racist sort of by definition but he really, truly believes that black people are just not as smart as white people and it's up to the white folks to take care of them. He believes that that's what he does. He believes that they have a place in the world, but they are not equal to white folk, in a kind of paternalistic way.

It's the romanticized idea of “good ole Massa” on the plantation, but he is not a Klu Klux Klansman.  somebody who would go out and shoot people or lynch them.

Julian Glover is perfect and he found just the right tone, so that at the end when the people that he's working with wipe off their blackface makeup and don't want to do the cakewalk anymore, he's upset that he's shocked and uncomprehending. 

JB: My next question is about the role of The Woman in The Scottsboro Boys. When I first saw the show, the woman was an enigma to me throughout, until the Rosa Park connection is made at the end. Seeing the show again and watching her onstage throughout, one can really observe that she symbolizes what The Scottsboro Boys did to the civil rights cause in the United States. 

Whose idea was it, as you were creating the show, to have the woman onstage throughout?

JK: I can be very specific about that. Tommy and Stro and I were having lunch at Stro's house, which is something we like to do anyway and we were sitting around the table and in my memory it was Stro who brought up the idea of having an observer and originally that observer was a little girl.

Then we did variations on that and we talked about maybe having a little girl who then gets older and older as time goes on and is a woman at the end of it. And then we learned that Rosa Parks was in fact involved with the Scottsboro Boys. That little moment in the last third of the show, where somebody brings them a cake, that was her, that really happened.

So we immediately I think sort of grabbed onto the idea that yes she is Rosa Parks but she is also more than that, in other words she is a real person, but she is a symbolic person as well.

I can even remember the sandwiches we ate as we planned that part of the show. We got our choice of tuna fish sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly, which I love. It was a very nice afternoon.

JB: On a more general level about your career, what was it that drew you and Fred to such interesting, difficult chapters of history to write shows about?

JK: I think your first adjective was the answer. What drew us to such “interesting” stories. The pieces that we've written which seem to be dealing with unlikely musical subjects, which are actually what make you want to write. 

I can't be I think more specific than that, but you know what's really hard to write? Boy meets girl, then they have an argument and they separate and then they come back together again. That's really hard, but if you're writing material about the beginnings of Nazism or the lack of justice in fascist South American prisons or racial problems, or killing people, murder in Chicago, those stories, those are rich pieces of material.

It's much easier to write that. you become so engaged emotionally that your passion for writing the piece can maintain itself right straight up to opening night.

JB: John Kander, thank you very much for your time today.

JK: It has been my pleasure.

The Scottsboro Boys continues at the Garrick Theatre until 21st February 2015.

Other reading:

Saturday 17 January 2015

Bat Boy: The Musical - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe
Book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming
Directed by Luke Fredericks

Rob Compton

Much like the winged mammal of its title, Laurence O’Keefe’s Bat Boy: The Musical is a rarely spotted show. A shortish run off-Broadway in 2001, followed by a 2005 early closing at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre mark its chequered past. Director Luke Fredericks however, garnered critical acclaim last year with a fringe Carousel at Dalston’s Arcola, so it is an intriguing prospect to see how he fares south of the river and taking on this eclectic look at super-sensationalised vampirism in small-town USA.

In a story intended as a comic-book style allegory, Rob Compton plays the Bat Boy, a speechless creature discovered in a West Virginia cave, who is to upturn the lives of local townsfolk. Compton’s performance is well crafted. From a speechless embodiment of his freakish character in the initial few scenes, he develops his capabilities, going on to stretching his bat wings with ease. From vulnerability through to a sheer unaware stupidity, he performs with a conviction matched only by faultless vocals, notably in Let Me Walk Among You and later with Inside Your Heart, a duet sung with Lauren Ward playing a complex mother figure to him as Meredith Parker.

Ward brings much compassion to her role and together with her daughter Shelley played by Georgina Hagen the two women are often the characters that lift the tale out of a rolling stylised humour and into the raw emotions of its ultimate dilemma. There is a strong mother-daughter chemistry between the pair that cleverly builds towards their respective final revelations. 

The cast are all strong, performing with a tongue in cheek pastiche that makes the full company numbers hilarious, a particular treat being the ever excellent Simon Bailey. His performance as faith healer Reverend Hightower, opening act two with A Joyful Noise, sees Bailey dazzle, not only in his gold shoes and yellow suit but with an infectious zany energy that few can match.

The show however remains a curiosity, with Fredericks treading a careful path that aims for deliberate kitschness while trying to avoid the crass. It’s a tough call that doesn’t always work, with the show’s design by Stewart Charlesworth occasionally seeming tacky. A stuffed toy cow’s head complete with intestines in tow, Barbie doll-like puppets abseiling down the set and an over-sized lethal injection syringe, set a tone that occasionally oversteps the mark.

Nonetheless, Bat Boy: The Musical is another example of the vibrancy of London’s Off-West End theatre scene. Mark Crossland’s well arranged five piece band with Joe McKneely’s imaginative choreography all make for a grand night out and if you enjoy wallowing in that guilty pleasure of kitsch Americana, then its unmissable!

Runs until 31st January 2015

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music and lyrics by David Yazbeck
Directed by Bartlett Sher

Ricardo Afonso and Tamsin Greig

Pedro Almodovar's seminal film Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown famously captured the liberated spirit of post-Franco Madrid in a story that celebrated not just the women of the movie’s title but also the Spanish capital itself. The glory of Almodovar's vision however does not translate to the stage. Whilst some of the musical’s acting may be top-notch, its plot creaks and the mania of Madrid's scenic and atmospheric spice that so imbued the movie, is much missed on the Playhouse's cramped stage.

Billed on the posters as equals, Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne are Pepa and Lucia, respectively the lover and long-estranged wife of Ivan and although both actresses are sensational, this is Greig's show. Mastering the comic subtlety of anger, in a potentially Olivier winning turn, Greig alone merits the (discounted) price of a ticket. Lucia meanwhile really has suffered a breakdown since Ivan abandoned her and Gwynne captures the desperate essence of this woman’s manic fragility. Lucia’s number Invisible, a sad self appraisal of the best years of life having passed her by, is exquisite in its heart rending poignancy.

Ricardo Afonso delights as a guitar strumming taxi driver. This coolest of cabbies, (and has consistently raved about Afonso’s genius) commands our gaze and it’s only a shame that the show does not afford his character more airtime. Willemijn Verkaik, surely the eurostar of modern musical theatre, turns in a gamely supporting role as a lawyer with a surprise up her sleeve.

Aside from the ever talented Michael Matus’ many minor roles in the ensemble, that’s it for the excellence. Jerome Pradon fails to convince that his Ivan is the irresistible swordsman the writers intend, whilst Anna Skellern’s Candela struggles to be even a two-dimensional representation of a dumb, panic-stricken model. The desired level of farce does not come easily to this show and its ridiculous sub-plot about a terrorist at large, that would have been a lame thread even before last week’s tragedies in Paris, now just seems awkwardly embarrassing.

There are other pockets of talent to be found. Ellen Kane’s flamenco-flavoured dance work (enhanced by Holly James’ outstanding movement as the Matador) is always a treat to watch and much of Yazbek’s music (including a lovely motif that offers a nod to Carmen’s Habanera) is a delight. But much like Afonso’s taxi driving, the show's lyrics career and lurch alarmingly from wittily tight to utterly trite. Fans of the uber-talented Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne won't be disappointed. Fans of the movie will be.

Now booking until 9th May 2015