Tuesday 31 March 2015

The Jew Of Malta - Review

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Justin Audibert

Jasper Britton

Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta play takes a tale of cunning and avarice, love and hypocrisy and strips it down to the basest of humanities at its core. Barabas  the Jew is a man for whom it is possible to feel both compassion and disgust.  He hadn’t chosen his calling, having first been a physician, then an engineer and finally a usurer.  Yet it is in that money-lending role that he is singled out by Ferneze, Malta’s Christian governor, to fill the island’s war chest or face conversion to Christianity. And as the Muslim Turks threaten Malta, so do we find Marlowe sketching out a contemporary, if troubling resonance, as the three Abrahamic faiths challenge each other

Justin Audibert’s intelligent production sees Jasper Britton give a warmth and joie de vivre to Barabas that one might not have expected from a man destined to ultimately wreak hideous revenge. Britton’s wiles and connivances serve only to endear him to the audience, whom he plays beautifully, with a string of raised eyebrows and intimately glanced asides. An unexpected counterpoint to the Jew is Ithamore, his Moorish slave. Lanre Malaolu bounces and clowns across the stage as we witness the slave perversely worming his way deeper into the affections of his master.

The threatening Turkish armada is led by Calymath, ably played by Marcus Griffith in true swashbuckling form. As the intrigues of the plot, riddled with treachery and deceit lead to an inevitably tragic conclusion, we witness the duplicity of inter-faith conflict alongside an even more painful intra-familial despair as Barabas and daughter Abigail, (sensitively and spiritedly played by Catrin Stewart) both come to despise the other, with fatal consequences.

Steven Pacey’s Ferneze displays a recognisable statesman-like duplicity, as he schemes both with and against Barabas to defend his nation, whilst we catch but a glimpse of Marlowe endorsing his own personal inclinations when Simon Hedger’s Merchant says ‘I count religion but a childish toy’.

In a production that thrills, Jonathan Girling’s music enhances proceedings. His introduction however of a 19th century klezmer sound, whose history derives from the European Ashkenazi Jewish community whereas Malta’s Jews hailed from a distinctly Mediterranean Sephardi heritage, does seem a little incongruous.

But elsewhere the detail invested in The Jew Of Malta is meticulous, manifest in the clarity, diction and playing of the company for whom neither a syllable nor glance is wasted. Bringing their world class style to this Elizabethan classic, with Lily Arnold’s plainest of sets proving a foil to magnificent costumes, The RSC again deliver magnificent theatre.

In repertory until 29th August 2015

Sunday 29 March 2015

Hugh Maynard - Something Inside So Strong - Concert Review

London Hippodrome

Hugh Maynard - inset Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong

Every now and then a gig comes along that not only marks a performer's talent, but also evidences their status in the industry and even more rarely, a remarkable generosity of spirit. So it is with Hugh Maynard, currently playing John in the West End’s revived Miss Saigon, who on the night he launched his debut solo album Something Inside So Strong not only sang sensationally but also chose to share his stage with a talented corps of Miss Saigon colleagues. It all made for a memorable night at the Hippodrome.

In front of his 5-piece band (MD Liam Holms) and on his own Maynard sparkled, covering Seal’s Kiss From A Rose in a distinctly fresh interpretation that still retained a hint of the writer’s hallmark edgy tenderness. When A Man Loves A Woman offered a further glimpse of the controlled power of Maynard’s belt, whilst in a disarmingly brave choice for a fella, his take on Brenda Russell’s Get Here (a smash hit for Oleta Adams) showed the full range of his tenor magnificence.

Maynard’s big number in the Boublil and Schoenberg epic is Bui Doi, an impassioned plea on behalf of Vietnam’s “dust of life” kids, the mixed-race progeny fathered by long absent GIs. A neat twist saw a 7-strong ensemble of Miss Saigon’s finest give a stunning, cheeky twist on the number, referring to the "spice of life" and sung a-capella no less, conducted by Maynard and gloriously led by the show’s Carolyn Maitland.

Making the short trip from the Prince Edward Theatre to guest for Maynard, his featured colleagues Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong both sung solos from Les Miserables. Each famous in SE Asia, both guests offered proof, if any was needed, of Cameron Mackintosh’s ability to source talent from across the globe. Hong’s Bring Him Home along with Go’s I Dreamed A Dream set spines-tingling. Their song  choices may have been well worn favourites yet each electrified the Hippodrome crowd before going on to duet with their host. 

One night was not enough and Hugh Maynard needs to return to the cabaret stage soon. Until then he remains a living reminder of the excellence to be found in London’s musical theatre today.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Bad Jews - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Written by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Michael Longhurst 

Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen

Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London's St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews' "mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.

The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be "a good title for a play". Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.

Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot's action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.

Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire.  It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.

To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna's piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and "marrying out" upon Judaism's cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it's all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.

Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn't accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews - and that's both before and after Hitler - and Harmon's failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.

And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical.  However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews' audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family's struggles to cope with the Holocaust's devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.

Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman's Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It's a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen's Daphna, almost a year into the play's run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.

Completing the quartet, Joe Coen's Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.

In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain't it.

Runs to 30th May 2015

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Saturday Night Fever - Review

Richmond Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by The Bee Gees
Book adapted by Robert Stigwood and Bill Oakes
Directed by Ryan McBryde

The Company

When 'Saturday Night Fever' hit the screen in the UK in 1978 it had the country eating out of the palm of its hand. John Travolta's Tony Manero, powered by the Bee Gee's inimitable disco pulse had girls wanting him and guys wanting to be him. Robert Stigwood’s dance fuelled vision dripped with the illusory seduction of the 2001 Odyssey nightclub’s neon that offered a weekly escape from urban mundanity to Manero and his buddies. On the Richmond Theatre's stage however, Ryan McBryde's version of the show is perhaps a touch too dark and raw for a story that craves light and glamour.

In his programme notes McBryde describes Saturday Night Fever as "gritty, complex and uncompromising". With a plot that includes heartbreak, financial struggle and suicide all set to such a popular and uplifting score, its inevitable that a credible staging will prove challenging. That said, McBryde has assembled a strong company of actor-musician performers. The economy of the actor-muso format serves the show well, offering a strong sense of energy and vibrancy in the more up tempo numbers, while equally giving the darker songs a real raw and honest edge, notably in Tragedy sung by Alex Lodge as Bobby C.  

Saturday Night Fever demands a fine leading man and Danny Bayne's Manero provides the show's driving energy. Bayne's performance as the arrogant yet sensitive Manero, complete with flawless dancing is worth the ticket price alone and he handles his solo numbers with flair. Elsewhere, Bethany Linsdell as the love struck Annette whose early rendition of If I Can't Have You offers just a glimpse of the singer’s talent as she makes fine work of the Yvonne Elliman classic. 

Throughout, Andrew Wright’s well engineered choreography excites, suggesting both the glitzy pizzazz and the emotional turmoil of growing up in New York city in the last century.

Above all the show makes for an entertaining night out. Many of us remember the movie (it was my first ever sneaked-into "x certificate") when the Bee Gees’ sound defined an era. The middle aged will love the nostalgia – whilst a younger audience can absorb the sounds of a generation, performed magnificently by their peers.

Runs until 28th March 2015, then plays in Cardiff

Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe - Review

Crazy Coqs, London

Joe Stilgoe and Claire Martin

The syncopated excellence of Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, defines insouciance as she controls her perfect timbre, her voice swooping like a seabird from the most glorious moment of an occasional mezzo trills, down to a luxuriously resonant contralto. Her pitch is perfect and her timing pinpoint - there is truly nothing more a cabaret singer could offer.

And then there's Stilgoe. With a reverential impertinence that reminds one of Peter Shaffer’s young Amadeus, eschewing sheet music and much like a Transformer straight out of the recent movie franchise, he becomes one with his piano. Stilgoe really is that good. The pair's set list, loosely themed around Springtime takes in the Great Songbooks from both sides of the pond and a segue that seamlessly joins Gershwin’s S’Wonderful, to Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and which in less confident hands would appear cheesy, here just seems so natural. Not just a pianist, the young musician’s guitar playing is divine too and he also delivers a neat mimic of a muted trumpet. But it was only when sat at his piano that Stilgoe junior whistled at me, that I truly realised how proud of son Joe, dad Richard should truly be.

For an evening packed with gems, the rest is detail. The pair (whose harmonies were always perfectly aligned) gave a cracking treatment to Sinatra’s That’s Life and also enchanted in Legrand’s Watch What Happens. Martin soloed sublimely with April In Paris, whilst her treatment of the Garland classic Get Happy! referenced the Hollywood star in style, yet bore a fresh interpretation that was nothing short of sensational. 

No matter their patter occasionally drifted. On this night the singing was all that counted and rarely are two performers so marvellously melded. They’re only here for a week, don’t miss ‘em!

In residence until 28th March

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Harvey - Review

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London


Written by Mary Chase
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Maureen Lipman and James Dreyfus

There are few shows in town more charming than Lindsay Posner's re-working of this 1940's all-American fable. Widowed Veta Simmons lodges with her daughter in the home of her wealthy brother Elwood P Dowd. Yet much is amiss, for as Simmons strives to keep up a genteel facade of normality, Dowd's closest confidante is Harvey, an invisible giant rabbit and much of the play hinges upon the anguish that his behaviour causes to his loved ones. 

This parable of the savant, who in today's jargon would be classified as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and yet who sees his world with a clarity denied his fellows, has already been explored in Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winner preceded those modern classics by some decades and as her Harvey lifts the curtain on a petty-minded small town, so we see Dowd's noble and chivalrous pursuit of all that is good in life, shine out as a beacon amongst his morally flawed peers, all signed up to the rat-race.

James Dreyfus is Dowd bringing a comic pathos to a beautifully created character. We laugh at the witty excellence of his performance though with a compassionate chuckle rather than the poking of cruel fun at a Bedlam lunatic. Dreyfus convinces us of his belief in Harvey and at the same time plays the straightest of bats as his (and the company's) pinpoint timing sees the plot's farcical elements unfold delightfully.

Opposite Dreyfus is Maureen Lipman's Veta. Amongst the best actors of her generation, Lipman commands our sympathy as she strives to find a suitor for Myrtle Mae her grown daughter, whilst supporting her brother's mental frailty. We feel her frustration at the difficulties she has to manage, yet at the finale we almost weep at the loving compassion she shows her sibling. Powerful stuff indeed, although glossing over the physical abuse Veta inadvertently suffers in the local sanitarium, as comedy rather than the ghastly brutality that it truly represents, is perhaps the script's only flaw. It was to be another thirty years before Jack Nicholson's Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was to define how the cruelty of mental institutions should truly be portrayed.

Dreyfus and Lipman lead a marvellous troupe. Ingrid Oliver's Myrtle Mae nails the awkward self-centredness of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, whilst Sally Scott's psychiatric Nurse Kelly is a clever portrayal of cutely cognisant compassion. David Bamber is psychiatrist Dr Chumley, a medic who undergoes a Damascene conversion of his own with Bamber giving the complex role the comic mania it deserves. The play's endgame sees Linal Haft, in a tiny role, play a cab driver whose revelatory monologue moves both hearts and minds. (And those eagle-eyed and over 40 may recall Haft’s Melvyn, the much put-upon son to Lipman's Beattie in the BT 1980s ad campaign.) 

Peter McKintosh's set displays an ingenious elegance as interlocking revolves shift the action between home and clinic, whilst meticulous design in both costume and wigs set the time and tone perfectly.

Old fashioned for sure and with American accents that occasionally grate, the show is a curiosity of a production, but nonetheless bravo to the Birmingham Rep and its co-producers for having taken it on the road. When late into the second act, as Dowd reveals that during his lifetime he has known what it is to be “smart” as well as what it is to be profoundly pleasant, it is with a moving wisdom that he reports (and we feel chastened), that "being pleasant" is nicer. An allegory with the feel-good warmth of an adult fairy tale, Harvey makes for excellent theatre performed by a fabulous cast.

Runs until 2nd May 2015

Friday 20 March 2015

The Father - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by August Strindberg
In a new version by Laurie Slade
Directed by Abbey Wright

Alex Ferns

Few go to a Strindberg play looking for an harmonious depiction of the sexes and this co-production between Emily Dobbs' Jagged Fence and Making Productions, while sharp in its execution, won’t do much to radicalise expectations. 

Written in 1887 by the deeply embittered Swedish playwright, on the brink of marital separation and in a fashion that has triggered many autobiographical interpretations, The Father pitches husband and wife into a dark custody battle that predates paternity tests and equal rights. Laurie Slade’s modern adaptation – requested by his friend, theatre director Joe Harmston for a 2012 production – is driven more by collaborative forces than real-life drama, but it retains the original’s antagonistic bite.

Director Abbey Wright takes the reins for this intimate production with great success. While the Captain’s last-minute attempt to break the fourth wall doesn’t sit well with the play’s largely naturalistic style, Wright’s depiction of conflict – whether that be between husband and wife, mother and daughter, or father and child – is as stylish as it is evocative. As the warring characters face each other in mirror image, Wright clouds the dialogue’s clear oppositions with vivid visual similarities.

Thomas Coombes is a treat as Nöjd, the playful trooper who, if rumour is to believed, has impregnated a member of the Captain’s staff. While Nöjd is unable to deny a certain degree of intimacy, it is beyond his power to prove whether or not the baby is his. Coombes excels at lacing Nöjd’s crude, pastoral expression - “no guarantee that a night in the hay means a bun in the oven” - with a cheeky, modern charm, furnishing Slade’s notion that this is “a modern play, which happens to be set in the C.19th”.

What seems like idle gossip transforms into psychologically taut obsession as the play pulls towards its inevitable conclusion. Just as Nöjd doubts his lover’s fidelity, Alex Ferns’s dazzling Captain ploughs his own memories, as he questions whether young Bertha, who calls him ‘Papa', is actually his issue or was in fact conceived by wife Laura (excellent on-stage work from Dobbs) during a lovers' tryst. Ferns is vibrantly volatile and while other characters are equally paired in their disputes, he retains a chilling control over the tempo of the piece. 

While the relationship between the Captain and his wife provides the thrust of this narrative, and the Captain and his Doctor (Barnaby Sax) are splendidly matched as rivals, it is the tender and trusting affinity between Captain and Nurse (June Watson) that brings the strongest emotional clout: “rest your breast on my chin”, the Captain commands his attendant, as a redundant Laura looks on jealously. This gentle, strikingly maternal relationship is complemented by James Turner's set and Gary Bowman lighting, all stripped-back, monochrome as a Gothic aesthetic gradually melts into warmer reds.

Husband and wife may be “black and white...different species” but there’s a faith in relationships and the power of one gender to sooth and complement another. While this production doesn’t fall far from Strindberg’s tree, it’s a well-designed and interrogative take on an unfashionable play.

Runs until 11th April 2015

Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook

Thursday 12 March 2015

The Producers - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Jason Manford and Cory English

The headline cast of The Producers is almost a who's who of today's popular entertainment scene. Jason Manford, Louie Spence and Phill Jupitus all take principal roles alongside the lesser known (but nonetheless industry greats) Cory English, David Bedella and the stunning Tiffany Graves. They lead a company that delivers flawless performances as they dust off Mel Brooks deliciously dated musical.

The 12 Tony-winning musical wowed Broadway in 2001, but of course the original yarn was spun by Brooks in his 1968 Oscar winning movie - and it is to that film that this touring revival pays homage. The onstage newspaper headlines scream of BJ and Vietnam as shyster Broadway producer Max Bialystock, so richly defined by Zero Mostel in the 60s, slicked-back hair and red smoking jacket, is neatly caricatured by Cory English. Back in the day Gene Wilder defined the nebbish (google it) that is frustrated accountant Leo Bloom. In 2015 Jason Manford (a surprisingly big fella in the flesh) makes the most of his lumbering features to define Bloom's wondrously hopeless inadequacies. Manford’s anxiety-ridden Bloom seriously exceeds expectations.

The story could be neither more tasteless nor more famous. As humble clerk Bloom realises that were a show to prove a guaranteed flop then amoral producers could sell its rights many times over and embezzle the investors' cash. Bialystock pounces on this stroke of (criminal) genius and takes Bloom into partnership. Sourcing possibly the worst script in town, Springtime For Hitler written by a crazed former Nazi and hiring Roger De Bris, a disastrous director to helm it, failure is a certainty. Until of course De Bris delivers a Fuhrer who's camper than Christmas and the Broadway crowds go wild...

Cory English has previous as Bialystock, having played the producer on Drury Lane and he masters the ways of the wily granny-shagger with aplomb, his 11 o’clock number Betrayed being a particular treat. Mel Brook's Borsht Belt comedy roots (google that too) are manifest in Bialystock’s corny patter, as his unique style merges Sid James’ Carry On smut with a wry sense of self-deprecation that's as New York Jewish as pastrami on rye.

The biggest butt (pun intended) of Brook’s gags is of course Hitler and the Nazis – and what better way to humiliate a truly evil force than to laugh at it (With a momentary pause to sadly wish “if only” that could be the case in today’s troubled world). Along the way however and in alphabetical order, blacks, gays, Irish, Jews and Swedes are all mercilessly mocked in a show that makes for one big guilty pleasure.

David Bedella’s De Bris is a high priest of high camp. Preening and pouting, he is poured into his dress – and gives Hitler just the right touch of manic megalomania too.  Louie Spence as his posturing assistant Carmen Ghia has a modest role but milks it magnificently with a movement that is as technically brilliant as it his hilarious.  And whoever thought of Phill Jupitus to play the Nazi Franz Liebkind deserves the Iron Cross. The comedian’s (rarely seen) fat, pasty, lederhosen-clad legs add visual genius to the deluded German. Be in no doubt, Jupitus cannot sing and his almost solo number, Haben Sie gehört das deutsche Band will stay with me for a long time.

Meanwhile, leading lady Tiffany Graves’ blonde bombshell Ulla simply steals her every scene. Graves' accent is wonderfully caricatured, her singing sensational whilst her dance and cartwheeling/backflipping movement is jaw-dropping. Sporting fabulous tresses (kudos to wig mistress Sally Tynan) Graves is every inch the (not so dumb) Swedish Blonde.

Magnificence elsewhere from Lee Proud’s choreography, with the big numbers of Along Came Bialy (complete with denture wielding tap-dancing geriatrics) and Springtime For Hitler evidencing a company well drilled in dance routines that blend professional precision with immaculate comic timing. And look out for the unexpected nod to the Vulgarian (aka Germanic) Doll On A Music Box routine from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the Springtime number kicks off. 

Bravo too to Andrew Hilton’s nine-piece band who give Brooks’ compositions the bold and brassy treatment they deserve.

The Producers’ producers have clearly piled their cash (or their investors’ ?) into the cast and it shows as Matthew White directs a magnificent 5* flawless troupe. But the un-inspiring scenery wobbles, the tank-gun helmets of the dancing Nazi showgirls look like they are Blue Peter inspired cardboard creations and unforgivably, Hitler’s moustache fell off in his big number Heil Myself! Bedella to his credit gamely played on – but where were the professional production values? The show's future audiences deserve a little better.

As entertainment, this touring production of The Producers provides a sensational night out at the theatre. Top notch actors, delivering top notch routines. It makes for one of those rare nights when cheeks will ache from grinning. If you love comedy and musicals it’s unmissable. Brilliant, irreverent, hilarious and all performed by one of the best companies on the road today.

Plays until 14th March, then on tour. 

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Cynthia Erivo - Hear My Soul - Review

Kings Place, London


There are few Leading Ladies that have accomplished so much, so young, as Cynthia Erivo. Having starred in a sell out run of The Color Purple and provided the vocal excellence to the most inappropriately named show of 2014, I Can't Sing! (she really Can Sing!) and led a recent national tour of Sister Act, it was only going to be a matter of time before she headlined her own gig. The lofty yet surprisingly intimate Kings Place, tucked behind the back of Kings Cross was packed to hear this most youthful of divas perform Hear My Soul, a collection of songs that she had either written or been inspired by.

There was an attention to detail surrounding the concert that is the hallmark of Erivo's approach to her craft, from her carefully worded programme notes, to the five piece band she'd assembled under Tom Deering's skilled direction. Apart from her encore (of which, more later) Erivo avoided the songs from her big career shows to date, opening the show with Signal, one of several of her own compositions that were to feature amongst her set list. Smoothly segueing into a charming cover of All of Me, the honey-voiced chanteuse sang the John Legend hit with her boyfriend Dean John Wilson in a duet that was as touchingly delivered as it was perfectly pitched.

Labrinth's Jealous saw Erivo purr like the engine of a Rolls. Her rarely heard (and incredible) lower range giving the song the velvety texture it deserved. Another self-written number, Fly Before You Fall which also serves as the title track to the movie Beyond The Lights, proved to be the most beautifully crafted of her compositions and gave the most poignant depth to the evening’s first half, though the highspot of the pre-interval set was unquestionably the spine tingling fidelity that Erivo beautifully laid upon Dreamgirls' One Night Only.

Having opened the evening in a gorgeously tailored trouser outfit, Erivo returned for act two in a subtle yet sensationally fitted red gown. Commencing the second with Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody gave the evening's only blip, with Erivo surprisingly rooted to her microphone stand, as her line-up briefly resembled a wedding-reception covers band. The song demands movement (the secret's in the title) and a big Whitney dance number needed big dance and Erivo needed (and to be fair deserved) some better direction from her producer.

No matter, for next up and staying with Whitney's family, was a sensational take on Aretha Franklin's Ain't No Way. The crowd went wild for the diminutive songstress and as Erivo moved up through the gears, her home straight was a succession of classic songs smashed right out of the park. Arlen and Harburg's Over The Rainbow, a song that can easily be mauled in clumsy hands, was given the most perfectly fragile confection of excellence, whilst Somewhere from West Side Story offered Erivo a rare moment of self-indulgence, telling her audience that this was to be the first time she had ever sung the song live and then, only because she loved it and would quite possibly never be cast to perform it.

Somewhere was, of course, flawless before Erivo returned to Dreamgirls for a knockout And I Am Telling You. Overcome by the power of the song and the audience reaction that she was inspiring, the singer had to pause before delivering the song's monumental final bars. Erivo suggests the power and majesty of a youthful Diana Ross. It really is quite simple - Dreamgirls has to come to the West End and when it does, Cynthia Erivo's Effie needs to top the bill.

The cheering, standing ovation led into an encore that could only have been a sensational delivery of I'm Here from The Color Purple, a show that barely two years ago had imprinted Erivo's name onto the capital's theatre-going psyche (and if there was any justice, so should have deserved its own cast recording too!)

As she re-lived that most passionate and beautiful of songs, spines tingled again. Igniting musical theatre Cynthia Erivo is one of her generation's greats and truly is the brightest of rising stars.

You can see Cynthia Erivo performing, live with Scott Alan, at London's St James Studio from 4th - 6th May 2015

Saturday 7 March 2015

Psycho Live - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Screenplay by Joseph Stefano
Based on the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Orchestral score by Bernard Herrmann
Performed live by Cinematic Sinfonia
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele

Janet Leigh takes a shower in Psycho

It’s been a long long time since the opening bars of a movie’s score have made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. But sat in the Dominion Theatre, as Psycho’s split-text title lines slid across the screen, to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only orchestration played by the Cinematic Sinfonia orchestra was to truly experience the magic of the movies.

The likes of Netflix and Apple have gone a long way to neuter the majesty of cinema. Imagery that  was once beautifully photographed for the vast expanse of cinemascope is now routinely streamed to our eponymous tiny telephones and tablets and one can fear for a generation currently growing up, who may well consider a trip to a local cinema’s full sized silver screen to be an unnecessary and expensive chore. So whilst this (partly premium-priced) event may well have been one for the fans, it was worth every penny.

Another feature of the evening was in actually seeing and hearing  the film's music played live, giving rise to a strange sense of witnessing the re-creation of what used to be a fundamental component of any movie’s construction. When any original score was recorded, it would have demanded a conductor facing the screen as he conducts his studio orchestra in time with the action – just the scenario that the Dominion audience were privileged to witness for themselves.

It was of course also a treat to re-visit a movie classic and one can forget quite how groundbreaking Psycho's 1960 release was to prove, shaking up many of the movie-industry’s accepted protocols. Intermingling sex with violence and deviancy – even the opening scene of Janet Leigh, bra-clad and in bed with her unmarried lover pushed the envelope of its time. And the dialogue is just so deliciously dated too. When Leigh’s Marion Crane tells Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates, who has just explained to her the gruesome yet mundane details of his interest in taxidermy, that “a man should have a hobby”, a comment so simple and genteel and so firmly fixed in a time gone by.

Shot in black and white by Hitchcock's TV series camera crew rather than a feature film unit, the production budget was a squeeze. In fact, so tight were the movie’s finances that Herrmann, who resolutely refused to cut his own fee, was forced to trim his orchestra to strings only. Has necessity ever been proved to have been the mother (no pun intended) of such ultimately rich invention? Some years back The Observer published its list of the 50 film scores. Psycho was ranked #2 and the paper wrote:

Hitchcock, who had originally planned to play the shower sequence without accompaniment, later admitted that '33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music', and doubled the composer's salary as a reward. Herrmann studiously matched the black and white visuals of Hitch's masterpiece by draining the 'colour' from his orchestrations, stripping away all but the stringed instruments to create a monochrome wall of aural unease.

And remarkably for a film that was to achieve iconic status, amongst that season’s major gongs Psycho was to only pick up a Golden Globe for Leigh, winning nothing at the Oscars. But as the years have proven and as modern-day horror director Eli Roth recently commented, “..time is the only critic that matters”.

Hitchcock’s assessment of the music’s contribution was sage. So much of the story’s drama, and in particular its opening chapters, homing in on Marion’s anxiety after she has stolen the cash from her boss, play out with an absolutely excruciating intensity. The performance and the photography are first class, but it is Herrmann’s relentlessly jarring strings with their harsh minor-key harmonics, that seal the woman’s anguish into our watching psyches. And for a feature film that was to give the world the slasher-movie, Herrmann’s jagged chords as Crane is stabbed to death in the most famous shower scene ever, only heighten that moment’s timeless terror.

Conductor Gabriele knows both movie and score intimately, with this having been the fourth occasion that time he has brandished his baton in time with Bates’ bread knife. Gabriele is one of London’s finest stage-conductors, adept at seamlessly linking an orchestra to the ebb and flow of a live production. But there is no scope for fluid flexibility in conductiong in time to a movie. The imagery and dialog are fixed in time and it is Gabriele’s responsibility to ensure that his musicians maintain pinpoint co-ordination with the screen. It is a massive task and it is a mark of Gabriele’s consummate skill that he makes it look so effortless – and a credit too to the Cinematic Sinfonica orchestra for delivering such an immaculately rehearsed sound. 

Gabriele has a passion for film and music, telling me post-Psycho of plans (and dreams) to conduct future movie scores by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, as well as other Herrmann offerings. Personally, I long for Ennio Morricone’s work for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In America to be given the Gabriele treatment. Maybe one day…

Until then, the sheer musical excellence of Psycho Live, wedded to Hitchcock’s masterclass in film-making will stay with me for a long time. And in a further thoughtful touch, possibly barely noticed by many in the audience, how considerate of the Dominion to screen the movie in the run up to Mother’s Day!

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, missing his mother 

To find out about more Cinematic Sinfonia screenings, follow them on Twitter @cinesinfonia

Monday 2 March 2015

Hyena - Review


Written and directed by Gerard Johnson
Certificate 18

Balkan  butchery. A scene from Hyena

Hyena, a gripping tale of modern London rife with Balkan butchery and bent law prowls onto our cinema screens this week.

It marks writer/director Gerard Johnson’s second feature, that again draws upon a powerful central performance from Peter Ferdinando. Five years ago the actor played a suburban psychopath in Tony, a portrait of a London serial killer – this time round he’s Michael, a flawed cop trying to police parts of a city that are falling increasingly under the control of rival Albanian and Turkish gangs.

Making for grim viewing. Johnson's Met is as riven with feuds as the criminals they are trying to police. No sooner has Michael learned of a new people-trafficking route across Europe, than he has to swiftly take cover as he finds himself witnessing the brutal dismemberment of his informant. It all takes a turn for the worse as he learns that the Met’s own internal anti-corruption squad are on to him too and as the plot unfolds, Michael realises that he is being framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

Michael's policing principles are old-school. Taking bribes off villains is OK if it helps to keep the peace, but the trafficking of women into prostitution is an outright No. Elisa Lasowski as Mariana, the Eastern European girl who finds herself bought and sold between the gangs and who literally has salt rubbed into her wounds as a punishment, earns our sympathy. Likewise, Stephen Graham as David, Michael’s traitorous buddy with a score to settle, is another classy turn. Elsewhere, when they’re not chopping up cops and robbers with swords and cleavers, Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi as the ruthless Kabashi brothers, out to make London their patch, give a well thought out nod to the forces currently at play in the capital’s gangland. 

Johnson’s snapshots of violence and corruption may well be accurate, for Hyena's credits suggest some extensive research. The plot that strings these ghastly glimpses together however is occasionally too far fetched. Of course this is the movies, but when we see Michael apparently gifted Liam Neeson-like powers to single handedly rescue Ariana from her captors or to execute a bent copper in a deserted field at midnight, the story's hard won credibility takes a knock. Likewise, Johnson’s shot of of a fat old punter, naked and with a half-mast hard on, about to have his vile way with the drugged Ariana, put me right off my popcorn. Gratuitous nudity or what? We know the woman is being horrifically exploited – there has to be a subtler way of depicting her humiliating agony.

It is a classy touch that see's Hyena's score prove as gritty as the narrative. Post-punk band The The provide a pulsing backdrop to the action that not only serves well in supporting the movie's troubling violence, but also emphatically underlines Johnson's artistic thrust. It is unlikely that any other 2015 indie Brit-flick release will be as well scored as this.  

Cleverly if economically filmed from a hand-held perspective throughout, the movie has much to entertain and shock from start to finish. With a proven knack for troubling us with his filmmaking, Johnson’s Hyena takes a long loud laugh at a lawless London.

In cinemas from 6th March 2015