Thursday 27 October 2016

Side Show - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book and lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Henry Krieger
Additional book material by Bill Condon
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Originally opening on Broadway in 1997 then revived in 2014, Side Show by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger finally finds its way to the London stage thanks to Hannah Chissick’s ingenious production now playing at the Southwark Playhouse.

Based on the true story of the Daisy and Violet Hilton– conjoined twins who became famous in the 1930s as a vaudeville double act – the musical follows the decade of their fame from its beginnings in Texas through to New York and ultimately their Hollywood debut.

Through their fascinating and unconventional lives, Side Show succeeds in engaging the audience with an open question about individuality and identity; the two girls’ struggle to just be themselves (or “Like Everyone Else” as they sing) is a never-ending controversial and painful process of auto-definition. The contradiction lies in their desiring to be two separate people, on the one hand and the fear of losing a deep part of their inner selves in doing so, on the other.

Bringing a fabulous pedigree to the show, its strong cast is led by Louise Dearman as a saucy and strong Daisy and Laura Pitt-Pulford who plays the sensitive and dreamy Violet. The two are the living embodiment of yin and yang, where the need to be accepted and the desire to live a normal life are intertwined with the sparkle of showbiz and they are utterly convincing in portraying the twins’ double act, especially in songs like “Buddy Kissed Me” and “Typical Girls Next Door”. Their male counterparts are equally impressive: Haydn Oakley is a rascally, charming Terry while Dominic Hodson is a naïve and controversial Buddy.

To deliver such a distinctive story the show can count on some striking songs, from the strongly energetic opening number “Come Look At The Freaks”, to the funny and entertaining “Very Well Connected” and “One Plus One Equals Three”, to the tender “Feelings You’ve Got To Hide” that clearly succeed in moving the audience.

Chissick guides her top-notch company through a virtually flawless production, thanks also to takis’ thought-provoking set which, in its simplicity cleverly alludes as much to the golden lights of the music hall as it does the harsh restraint of circus cages, alongside his glamorous costume designs. As ever, Howard Hudson's lighting plots excel, while Jo Cichonska keeps the band perfectly nuanced under her classy direction.

An uncommon musical infused with both uneasiness and joy, Side Show is a unique, rare experience that will stay with you long after the finale. Go and see it!

Runs until 3rd  December
Reviewed by Simona Negretto
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday 26 October 2016

The Exorcist - Review

Birmingham Rep


Written by John Pielmeier
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
Directed by Sean Mathias

Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly and Peter Bowles

Unquestionably for over 18s and with John Pielmeier's adaptation retaining both the physical and verbal profanity of Blatty's shocking novel, the tale of 10 year-old Regan’s possession by the devil condenses well into Sean Mathias’ neatly staged two hour yarn. With Hollywood forever having been about make believe and impossible illusions - now more than ever in the age of motion captured CGI – it was always going to be a tall order translating classic horror from screen to stage. So there’s a well-earned hurrah (or should that be scream?) for this evening of hokum that's currently playing in Birmingham over the Halloween fortnight. As the audience take their seats the house lights are gradually built up to a full on brightness before plunging the auditorium into a shriek-filled darkness and we’re off.

If you know the story then it’s all familiar territory. If you don’t, there’ll be no spoilers here. Kicking off with a brief glimpse of Father Merron, the excavating exorcist, digging up a decidedly dodgy amulet somewhere in the Middle East (think Indiana Jones crossed with Lawrence of Arabia) the action shifts to a house in Washington DC’s Georgetown where our pre-teen protagonist has been discovering the delights of the Ouija Board and her apparently imaginary friend, Captain Howdy. It’s hellishly downhill from thereon.

The production could arguably have been called The Possessed, rather than The Exorcist. It's not until the second act that the titular Peter Bowles really starts earning his wage, cassock donned and holy water spurting. Prior to then the story is all about the poor possessed Clare Louise Connolly's Regan becoming increasingly demonized.

Make no mistake - Bowles gives Merron a worthy gravitas. Not easy, given that his character on stage is reduced to a little more than a paper thin caricature with acute angina. Likewise his earnest sidekick Father Karras (fine work from Adam Garcia) eases the narrative along commandingly, whilst Jenny Seagrove's Chris, Regan's despairing film-star mother does a fine job, steering her character just safe of melodrama. Nods too, for Tristram Wymark's head-turning performance as Burke, the drink-soaked film directing family friend and also for Mitch Mullen who's as dependable as ever in the modest role of Dr. Klein.

The acting honours however are all Connolly’s in a performance that is quite simply a tour-de-force. Yes - there are some clever special effects and ingenious projections (which could to be honest be a little tighter, especially that rather clunky projectile vomiting gizmo) with Anna Fleischle's design work and Ben Hart's illusions creating the story's disconcertingly hellish domestic setting. But it is the diminutive Connolly who makes the show. Whether she's either speaking or lip-syncing to Ian McKellen's vocalizing her inner demon, Connolly’s performance suspends disbelief and from a terrifying precipice at that, utterly convincing that she is a girl possessed. 

Forty years ago on screen, director William Friedkin had Linda Blair’s Regan do all sorts of cleverly horrific tricks, assisted by an FX army and days of post-production. Live on stage however it’s all about the acting and Connolly simply becomes a blond haired fiend before our very eyes. One can only hope that the UK Theatre Awards judging team have her performance in their sights. 

Neither for the squeamish nor the pretentiously highbrow, The Exorcist represents Bill Kenwright at his very best, staging wonderfully entertaining theatre. And Clare Louise Connolly's Regan is unmissable!

Runs until 5th November
Photo credit: Robert Day

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Ragtime - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Thom Southerland

The Company of Ragtime

Yet again director Thom Southerland has assembled a virtually flawless cast and crew in his revival of Ragtime, a show that is probably Flaherty and Ahrens' finest collaboration. Terrence McNally's book, itself drawn from E.L. Doctorow's opus, casts a panoramic gaze over the USA at the turn of the 20th century and the communities that formed the melting pot of modern America.

Ragtime's narrative fills a vast canvas, though neatly focuses on three protagonists - Mother who is a fine and magnificently dignified WASP, Coalhouse Walker an African American whose gift for the piano transports him through different layers of the show's Eastern seaboard setting and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant escaping Europe's pogroms for the New World. Ostensibly their three lives are disparate and disconnected but it is the sequence of events and the interplay of the major figures of the time including Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini that through imaginative (and to be fair, arguably improbable) chance and coincidence lead the lives of all to become interwoven. 

The lead performances are sensational. Ako Mitchell's Coalhouse exerts a captivating presence from the get go. Powerfully voiced and with a glint in his eye, Mitchell is as inspiring as he is moving. Gary Tushaw deftly avoids cliché as he nails the charming chutzpah of Tateh, determined to advance himself and make a life for himself and his young daughter.

Anita Louise Combe simply redefines the role of Mother. In an evening of all round excellence, two of the most stunning musical moments involve Combe - her duet with Tushaw, Our Children, is exquisite, while her take on the show's eleven o'clock number Back To Before is just spine-tingling. West End star Earl Carpenter playing Father, her husband, brings an equally mellifluous magic to his role. 

Southerland's vision remains masterful. In an actor-musician production, he creates space even amongst the full company numbers. Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher have created a set that cleverly wraps around into the old music hall's balconies, allowing a staging that is well complemented by Howard Hudson's carefully plotted lighting and Ewan Jones' ingenious choreography. Jones' routines evoke both style and period and are peppered with explosive moments of classic Vaudeville dance. 

Credit too to Mark Aspinall's orchestrations and Jordan Li-Smith's unbelievable musical direction. At times being wheeled around the stage, Li-Smith manages to play the two onstage upright pianos - which in themselves form perhaps the most imaginative car ever seen on the London stage – ingeniously, as throughout he maintains a perfectly nuanced grip on the melodies being played by his cast. Actor-muso shows are a challenge to pull off well and Li-Smith just makes it look so easy.

As the Charing Cross' Artistic Director, Ragtime marks Southerland's second stint at the helm and it is evident that his continued and longstanding creative partnership with co-producer Danielle Tarento continues to flourish. Truly, musical theatre does not get better than this.

Runs until 10th December
Photo credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander 

Friday 14 October 2016

The Dresser - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Sean Foley

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott

There's a timeless nostalgia to Ronald Harwood's The Dresser that captures a particular snapshot of England during the Second World War. With the country's fit young men called up to fight, it's left to the "cripples, old men and Nancy boys" to tread the boards. Having served as actor/manager Sir Donald Wolfit's dresser during the 1950s, Harwood's experience provides a bedrock of credibility to the period piece.

Revolving around Sir (played by Ken Stott) and his dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith), the text plays out during a performance of King Lear. Whilst not a pre-requisite, a working knowledge of Lear helps - for what emerges on stage is not just the parable of Lear and his all-licensed Fool being projected onto Sir and Norman, but we also watch the ageing actor crawl toward death. 

Stott and Shearsmith perform well, with Stott capturing the tragic decline of Sir's body and mind, as Shearsmith, knowingly and in a flurry of campiness after sixteen years of service, devotedly tends to the old man needs. Foley however fails to take his leading actors truly into their characters' skins. There's a lack of chemistry between the pair that's manifest in a lack of empathy from the audience. The second half (which bore witness to a number of post-interval empty seats) drags in a way that Harwood would never have wished, and though Shearsmith is racked with grief at the play’s denouement it's hard, in this production, to share his pain.

There's fine work from the supporting cast whose collection of modest roles set the era of time, place and also emotions, perfectly. Harriet Thorpe's Her Ladyship is a well turned battleaxe of a wife to Sir, while Selina Cadell exquisitely captures an ageing spinster’s pain whose love for the actor had never been returned.

Runs until 14th January 2017, then transfers to Chichester
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Lunch and The Bow Of Ulysses - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Steven Berkoff
Directed by Nigel Harman

Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni

In a powerfully devastating and unrelentingly humorous look at the dark and unspoken truths manifest in the psyches of men and women after decades spent together in a relationship, the double header of Steven Berkoff’s Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses at Trafalgar Studios is gripping theatre that will possibly provide less than comfortable cab rides home for some of the couples in the audience.

Starting with Lunch, the audience is introduced to the plays’ only characters played by Emily Bruni and Shaun Dooley, on a beach (outstandingly minimalist and effective set design from Lee Newby) and portrays the raw passion, emotion, insecurities and yearning that comes during those first moments of courtship - that first night, week, month are frequently referenced - between two eventual life partners. Bruni and Dooley create a stand out chemistry that offers a profound fluidity to the show.

Fast forwarding from that initial encounter on the beach, the audience are presented with their second course, the Bowl of Ulysses. Transported through the rabbit hole of reality, mundanity and time itself the two characters are 20 years older, with Nigel Harman coaxing a harrowing contrast in tone, performance, humour and light heartedness.

It is undeniable how time and life has transformed the pair, but without special effects (or even makeup), just a change of coat and a tying up of the hair, the deliverance of this clear passing of time by just their stage presence is a credit to the performers.

Berkoff is clearly an equal opportunities writer as he points out the numerous and apparent flaws of both sexes. We see his characters launch consecutively devastating attacks on each other in the form of mini monologues with cross hairs aimed solely at the inadequacies of the other, each more brutal and razor sharp than the last.

Ringing throughout the evening is a scorching reality in both script and performance. The production acts as one giant mirror, compelling the audience to look in horror yet all the while wearing smile as they enjoy the and enjoying the show’s potent dark flavours.

To call the plays uncompromising in their articulation of people’s need for companionship and all the wonderful and stark flaws of our species would be an understatement. Whether you walk away from this play electrified or shaken, there is an undeniable honesty in Berkoff’s masterpiece.

Runs until 5th November
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Chicago The Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Music by John Kander
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by Walter Bobbie

John Partridge and Hayley Tamaddon

Were it not for a young reporter - Maurine Dallas Watkins - being assigned to cover the trials of women accused of murder, for the Chicago Tribune, the world would have missed out on the long-running musical named after that same city. Some very real characters from the early 20th century provided the inspiration for iconic names such as Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly and Billy Flynn - all of whom are brilliantly brought to life by the cast of Chicago The Musical, currently touring the UK.

The tale of murder, deception and glamour is played out against the backdrop of Cook County Jail, where dazzling black costumes and stage lights replace orange jumpsuits and jail bars. The media's morbid fascination with some of its more attractive criminals enables Roxie and Velma to engineer a route to a new life of celebrity.

A social commentary on fame and justice - but more than that, Chicago is a fast-paced extravaganza, whirling through iconic numbers such as All That Jazz, Razzle Dazzle and Cell Block Tango with the cast and orchestra never missing a beat, step or line. 

The principals in this line-up are equally strong, each bringing stellar vocals and a convincing embodiment of their characters to the stage. Jessie Wallace as Mama Morton, John Partridge as Billy Flynn and Neil Ditt as Amos Hart blow the audience away with their solos but are also a joy to watch working with the rest of the cast. Hayley Tamaddon's Roxie and Sophie Carmen-Jones' Velma both play beautifully off against each other, shining while on stage every time. 

The chorus also puts on an impressive show, seamlessly transitioning from scene to scene while retaining a high level of energy throughout. Gary Chryst's recreation of Bob Fosse's choreography and Ann Reinking's original choreography transports the audience back to the roaring 1920s but never feels dated. 

The orchestra is the other star of the show. Under Léon Charles' direction, the score is slick and cheeky and the musicians - centre stage throughout - work beautifully with the actors. The clever staging also ensures that the stage never feels cramped or that it is a touring production. 

Particularly striking is the absence of a dull moment. The show starts with a literal bang and, never resting on its laurels, continues to ramp up the momentum throughout. As Velma and Mama Morton muse about the notion of class, the answer is evident - it's all being held by this production of Chicago.  

Runs until 15th October, then tours
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit Catherine Ashmore

Friday 7 October 2016

This Little Life Of Mine - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written and directed by Michael Yale 
With music by Charlie Round-Turner

James Robinson and Kate Batter

The strapline to This Little Life of Mine invites us to "be at the birth of a brand new British musical". This is all well and good, but unfortunately aside from being "brand new " and, to be fair, an astonishingly good performance from Kate Batter as leading lady Izzy, there is little else to redeem this show.

Michael Yale (who also directs) has compiled a glimpse into the lives of a young couple, Izzy and Jonesy (James Robinson) as they set up home in today's high rent, cappuccino infused capital, subjecting them to a handful of recognisable but cliched vignettes along the way.

Its all very humdrum and unremarkable and that's just not good enough. For a musical to transport its audience to the highs and lows of the human condition (and surely that is what good musical theatre is all about) there must be sharp, witty lyrics, memorable tunes and standout performances. Sadly, with only a few exceptions, Yale and his composer Charlie Round-Turner subject their cast to little more than a barrage of stereotypical set pieces, which in the second half descend into dire predictability.

Batter puts in a fine turn, with a striking presence and voice that sometimes hints at her desperation for a child. The shallowness of the script however suggests that a woman's creative input in this show has been much missed. Yale fails to convince us in his documenting the depths of desperately female angst. There is at times an awkward schoolboy clumsiness to his writing, highlighted in the naïveté with which he has his characters handle the profound sadness of a miscarriage.

Other writers tackle such complexities with aplomb. Across the Atlantic, Sara Bareilles offers an acute understanding of the modern woman in Waitress, whilst Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years is a masterclass in understanding how a deeply loving relationship between two young people can both grow and yet soon be extinguished. 

Elsewhere Greg Barnett and Caroline Deverill make the best of the script in fleshing out their multitude of supporting characters.

Runs until 29th October
Photo credit: Charlie Round-Turner

Thursday 6 October 2016

Murder Ballad - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Conceived by and with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan
Music and lyrics by Juliana Nash
Directed by Sam Yates

Read my interview with Kerry Ellis and Norman Bowman here
Kerry Ellis, Ramin Karimloo, Norman Bowman

In yet another example of exciting new writing to appear in London, Murder Ballad opens at the Arts Theatre following its original a brief run off-Broadway. This first collaboration between Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash sees the show’s female writers choose the classical plot structure of a high octane love triangle and a woman torn between two men, with Jordan and Nash proving that that sometimes; the oldest storylines can still be the best.

Notwithstanding its title, the work avoids a feast of all too common self-indulgent balladry, plumping instead for a heavily rock based score full of exciting guitar riffs, punctuated by a pulsating percussive undertone with Sean Green's band doing a fine job throughout the sung-through show.

Set in modern day New York, Sara's passionate relationship with the gorgeously masculine and muscular Tom ends suddenly. Rebounding into the loving, caring arms of Michael who's educated, compassionate and everything that Tom isn't, their love develops into marriage and parenthood. A chance encounter years later between Sara and Tom sees a mutually lustful desire fatally re-ignited.

What sets this show apart from most other emerging productions is its casting. Of the four lead roles, two are filled by actors more used to headlining casts in multi-million pound West End or Broadway productions, rather than the more intimate environs of the modestly budgeted Arts.

Kerry Ellis is Sara, playing a role that she herself has described as being a woman who’s "a rock star in a mother's body". Very much an everywoman (and so much more so than cinema's saccharine Bridget Jones currently swamping the multiplexes) Ellis nails Sara's complex emotions, juggling her primal lustful yearnings for Tom's passion against the betrayal of the family that she’s built. Magnificent in both voice and presence and under the scrutiny of the venue's compact space, Ellis delivers a knockout performance.

The source of her understandably weak-kneed desire is Ramin Karimloo's Tom. Spending much of the gig shirtless, the ripped Karimloo demonstrates that the inked body art he sports on his left arm is as impressive as his renowned musical theatre ability. In a gender-reversed definition of pure theatrical Viagra, he brings a ravishing guttural energy to his performance. If Ellis is an everywoman on stage, then Karimloo is for (nearly) every woman in the audience.

It's a tough gig to be cast against Ramin's ramming, rampant potency, but Norman Bowman's Michael rises to the occasion magnificently. His love for Sara is sincerely played out and Bowman who with as much Shakespeare as musical theatre to his recent credit, must surely be ranked as one of our finer performers. His character, a kindly homemaker is not the easiest to portray with an engaging sympathy, but as ever, Bowman pulls it off with charm and flair. 

Completing the quartet of leads, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt takes on the chameleon-esque role of Narrator, guiding the narrative as it plays out across Manhattan. As ever beautifully voiced, Hamilton-Barritt offers her own seductive charm to the evening as the doomed denouement looms.

Sam Yates directs intelligently with a clever use of simple revolves and ingenious projections to transport us through time and place.

Shows this sassy don’t come along that often. Poignant, punchy and perfectly performed, Murder Ballad drips with desire.  

Runs until 3rd December
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Kerry Ellis and Norman Bowman talk about Murder Ballad

As Murder Ballad opens at the Arts Theatre, I with spoke two of its quartet of performers, Kerry Ellis and Norman Bowman to learn a little more about the show.
Update - You can read my review of Murder Ballad here

JB: Kerry, tell me about the show.

KE: It's a very intimate show, it's a four-hander with, obviously, Ramin, Norman, Victoria and myself. It's at the Arts Theatre, with the lovely Sam Yates directing us.

Murder Ballad has only been performed once before and that was off-Broadway, so it's a very new thing. It's got a bit of rock music in, a bit of country, a bit of musical theatre. It is completely sung through, it deals with real people's situations and, obviously, there's a murder, but I'm not going to tell you who did it!
NB: Kerry pretty much summed it up quite well. It's funny because I've been describing it exactly the same way, as kind of a rock, country piece based on, I think, a very traditional principle of a love triangle. I'm very excited, it's a stellar cast and I just think it's wonderful. 

JB: Tell me about your respective characters, to the extent that you are able to. Norman, I'll start with you. 

NB: I play Michael and I keep wanting to say he's the sensible one of the story in some respects.

If people have any knowledge of those kinds of relationships that a woman will sometimes go for the dark, edgy character, the bad boy, for a thrill, and sometimes the sensible guy for marriage. It's a bit like that game, "sleep with, marry, or murder” I think Michael is the one that you would end up marrying. I guess he wants to be a bit edgier in places, maybe that's why he falls for Kerry's character like he does, because everybody likes a bad girl too.
JB: And Kerry, what about your character Sara?
KE: I guess in a way she’s quite typical. She has a relationship in her younger years and then that kind of breaks down and she moves on and meets Michael and they have their relationship. She talks through having a child and all of that, and then things go wrong, dealing with all of that too.

She's a little bit dangerous, I guess. She had dreams when she was younger to be a rock star and that didn't work out, so I think when she becomes a mother and gets into that routine lifestyle, she craves a bit of that youth and excitement, to be a rock star again. 

I think she's a bit of a rock star in a mother's body! Something I can relate to a little bit!

JB: Who is the show going to appeal to?

NB: Anybody interested in relatively new musical theatre. This is such an unknown quantity to a lot of people. I think that the advertising campaign is great. I think it's been very clever, very catchy. 
KE: I think what's interesting, for me especially, is just that it's so raw and intimate that it's quite exposing. For me, I'm kind of used to doing big, glitzy musical theatre. Costumes, lights, sound, all that kind of showy stuff. This is very raw. It's four regular people telling their story and it's very close. 
NB: It's bringing more of the fringe values into town. 

JB: Norman, what do you mean by "fringe" values?

NB: Fringe values, for me, first of all, they always tend to be a bit more bite sized. They're about shows that are not there for the duration, to run for years and years. They have a known shelf life and I think, as a result of that, something else is given to those productions. 

I know, of course, at the end of the day, it's a business and people still need to make their money back, but a fringe show is not always about the money. It's about putting something on; from beginning to end that is something for the audience. I think it represents great value for money, to be honest.
I know that if you go and see something like Wicked and you pay top dollar for it, you're helping to fund a big production that’s got enormous running costs. When you bring all of the running costs down and you go into something as intimate as the Arts, it can say more about the content that you're going to see, rather than lavish production values.

JB: The show's already extended before it opened, which is good news. Was that something you were expecting to happen?

NB: I wasn't surprised, knowing that Kerry and Ramin were attached to it. I don't mean that as a disservice to either myself or Vic, because we both have worked solidly for a long period of time, but if you're looking to bring audiences in then you need people with that extraordinary profile. 
JB: Kerry?

KE: I'm blushing now. Thank you, Norman, that was very kind of you.

NB: It's very true.

KE: Likewise, I think what attracted me to it was the fact that it's an incredible cast. We all come from slightly different areas and that's what's exciting, for me especially.

JB:   Kerry and Norman, thank you both and break a leg with the show!

Murder Ballad plays at London's Arts Theatre until 3rd December 2016