Sunday 24 December 2017

Cinderella - Review

Sadler's Wells, London


Music by Prokofiev
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne

Liam Mower and Ashley Shaw

Witty, gothic and yet strangely enchanting, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella returns to Sadler’s Wells for the festive season before heading out on tour. Where last year’s Christmas offering from Bourne’s New Directions company was The Red Shoes, this year it’s all about the glass (or rather, the sparkling diamantĂ©) slippers as the classic fairytale, scored by Prokofiev is translated onto London during the Blitz of 1940.

Bourne’s Second World War staging was first aired in 1997, before a revival in 2010 leading to this 2017 slightly re-worked reprise and it makes for an uncompromising interpretation of the famous yarn. The best fairytales have always melded magic with monstrosity and Bourne’s vision upholds that fusion as goodness fights to triumph over evil.

The psychodrama here however is harrowing. We all know how the tale traditionally pans out, the wickedness of its opening chapters defining Cinderella’s family. Bourne however takes the darkness deeper. One of Cinderella’s step-brothers attempts to molest her, her stepmother tries to murder her and even the show’s hero - in this narrative a downed RAF pilot - is shown to be both physically and morally flawed.

In removing the traditional "royalty and castle" from the story, Bourne still preserves the classic three acts. The first depicts Cinderella’s domestic misery. The second, famously the Ball, is here shifted to London’s CafĂ© de Paris on the night that the venue was (as tragically occurred in real life) bombed during a German air raid.

The third sees the pilot searching London’s streets and tube station blitz shelters for the beautiful woman whose shimmering slipper he retained after she was taken away injured from the explosion. Bourne lobs in some novel twists, but rest assured there’s a pleasingly happy ending.

Ashley Shaw again assumes the responsibility of leading ballerina, in the title role and, as in The Red Shoes, is magnificent. Without referencing the technical intricacies of Bourne’s choreography, suffice to say that Shaw translates poetry into movement. Her love, desire and fears are all exquisitely portrayed in a performance that appears as exhaustingly athletic as it is artistically beautiful.

Opposite Shaw is Andrew Monaghan as Harry, the Pilot. Wounded and bomber-jacketed, he’s not the fairytale’s handsome Prince, rather a decently loving (and beautifully danced) everyman, who falls for the downtrodden heroine.

There’s not a fairy godmother to be found here. Instead, Liam Mower dances The Angel, gifted with magical powers to make Cinderella’s wish come true. Mower too is magnificent.

Amongst an excellent cast, a nod to Michela Meazza as Sybil the Stepmother. Bourne’s programme notes acknowledge a reference in Sybil to the 1940’s screen legend Joan Crawford – and Meazza beautifully embodies the aura of Crawford’s cruel mystique.

The influence of cinema again pervades Bourne’s work. There is a broad monochrome ambience throughout, interspersed with vivid flashes of colour, alongside assorted hints to movie classics that captured the 1940s. The reference to Brief Encounter in the final act (albeit without the standard Rachmaninov soundtrack) is a particular treat.

Bourne's dark interpretation of the story sits at odds with our expectations of the Cinderella narrative. But the challenge is a good one that creates a stunning interpretation that holds a mirror up to ourselves. Catch it now at Sadler’s Wells – or make every effort to see this enchanting ballet as it tours the country.

Runs until 27th January 2018, then tours. Touring dates here.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Saturday 23 December 2017

The Christmasaurus Live On Stage – Review

Eventim Apollo, London


Music and lyrics by Tom Fletcher
Directed by Derek Bond

Tom  Fletcher and Dan McLellan 

“This is not a musical. This is not a concert. This is not a panto, or a play, or anything I can compare it to,” so proclaims Tom Fletcher in the show notes. And he is quite right. While The Christmasaurus Live On Stage has components of all of these, it is – much like the titular only dinosaur in the world – truly unique.

The Christmasaurus tells the story of William Trundle, who wants nothing more than for his dad to be happy. Friendless and lonely, he asks only for a dinosaur for Christmas. Meanwhile, in the North Pole - the home of an equally lonely Christmasaurus - Santa and his elves are working hard to get ready for the big day, and to fulfil William’s wish. However, The Hunter - a man who by his own admission is ‘fangirly for taxidermy’ - stands in the way of a seamless Christmas Eve, as he plans to shoot down one of Santa’s flying reindeer, before determining that the Christmasaurus should be his prize.

From the outset, it is abundantly clear that this show is full of heart and joy; the Christmas spirit brought to life. Tom Fletcher (who plays William's father Bob, as well as narrating the plot) commands the stage in a role he was born to play. Matt Willis (The Hunter) and Harry Judd (Dancer Bob) are hilarious, Carrie Hope Fletcher (Brenda Payne) outstanding as a vocalist and Giovanna Fletcher (Miss Payne) is warm, funny and magnetic. 

Elsewhere, the terrific ensemble adapts to a variety of scenarios with seeming ease. While there are no weak links, special mention goes to Katie Bradley, Miracle Chance and Raquel Jones for delivering some sterling performances.

William Trundle will be played by three young actors across the show’s run. In this review performance, Dan McLellan did a beautiful job in capturing the character’s alternating innocence and keen awareness. He proves he is more than capable of delivering elements of this challenging role, including some soaring vocals and snappy one-liners - a stunning debut from this young performer.

What also shines through in this short run at Hammersmith, is Fletcher’s commitment to making his show’s representative of, and accessible to, all children. Beyond casting actors who are genuine wheelchair users for Trundle, there is also an interpreter those who are hard of hearing on stage throughout. What’s more, unlike most theatres, the Eventim Apollo is far better equipped to facilitate wheelchair access. Fletcher is truly making this Christmas magical for thousands of children and adults.

Musically, the score is a work of genius, combining Fletcher’s expertise in writing great pop songs and a natural gravitas towards musical theatre, previously articulated in McFly’s Wonderland album (2005). Each song is a standalone entity crafted to perfection; there are no filler tracks here. 

A highlight is Afraid of Heights, an exceptionally rousing number that cements the show’s film potential – something that’s currently in the works, with The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey signed on to the project.

As ever, Howard Hudson's lighting enahnces the tale magnificently, but despite Santa and The Elves’ presence throughout, it is the Christmasaurus himself who brings the real magic to the stage. Puppeteers Mikey Brett and Luisa Guerreiro breathe life into Max Humphries’ design in a way that presents no doubt about the authenticity of this wondrous creature. There isn’t a soul that believes otherwise and so manifests, the message purveyed throughout the production – that “believing is seeing.” 

Fun, energetic, heartfelt and magical, The Christmasaurus Live On Stage is a gift worth its weight in gold, that's sure to become a Christmas classic. Merry Christmasaurus!

Runs until 28th December
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Slava's Snow Show - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


The Company

When a family friendly Christmas clown show seems more akin to Waiting For Godot rather than an act from a big top 3-ring circus, something’s gone wrong.

Slava’s Snow Show is unquestionably a masterpiece of mime artistry. The troupe of actors convincingly portray emotion with movement and facial gestures (and in a mini cheat, via some deliberately unintelligible quacking on some oversized telephone props too) that are understood by everyone in the audience irrespective of age or nationality. There’s also some clever stuff that shows how bed-frames, brooms and hat stands can become sources of wondrously imaginative make believe. Momentarily these clever performers remind us of the strange universality of body language and gesture and its ability to depict the human condition. 

The trouble is that for the most part it’s all so damn miserable. Act One references death as well as a brief contemplation of suicide - and whilst the clown’s traditional makeup has always been on the grotesque, you be hard pressed to describe these performers as comics. Move along please, there’s no commedia dell’arte to be seen here.

Capers ramp up in the second half with some water sprayed around, before eventually the kids in the audience are allowed to laugh hilariously when the cavernous Royal Festival Hall is transformed into a gargantuan ball pond with giant inflated spheres released for the audience to riotously punch around. There’s a “real” snowstorm too, with millions of paper snowflakes blown into the auditorium from a backstage industrial fan (the fumes of which waft in alongside the artificial blizzard. Lord alone knows how many trees may have been consumed for snowflakes over the course of this show’s global tour.)

But strip away the gimmickry and it’s all a tad depressing for the older ones and too tedious, too often, for the youngsters. The inflatable-filled finale goes on far too long, leaving a lasting impression of a load of balls.

Runs until 4th January 2018
Photo credit: Veronique Vial

Sunday 17 December 2017

Titus Andronicus - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blanche McIntyre

David Troughton

The RSC once again proves that Quentin Tarantino aint got nothin’ on good ol’ Bill Shakespeare with this gloriously gruesome production of Titus Andronicus, first seen at Stratford earlier this year and now playing at the Barbican until 17th January. For those Scrooges among us, Titus Andronicus is truly the antithesis to the seasonal festivities as gleeful gore replaces glitter and garlands.

The titular Titus is the badass general in the triumphant Roman army. Returning from a long battle against the Goths and with their Queen Tamora and her delightful (!) sons in tow, Titus kicks off the action by sacrificing the Queen’s oldest son to avenge the deaths of his own sons during the war. What follows is a cycle of revenge and pettiness that spirals out of control with the hands of Aaron the Moor (a wicked performance from Stefan Adegbola) firmly on the wheel.

Headed up with an engaging performance from RSC stalwart David Troughton as the frail but somehow still intimidating Titus Andronicus, the play is quite the ride with humour kept firmly at the forefront even as Titus finds himself losing a limb, very slowly. This clever offset of what is Shakespeare’s most bloody and brutal play keeps things as light as they can be, difficult for a three hour production.

A spurned-love opening moment sees Tamora (Nia Gwynne) elevated to Empress of Rome opposite the newly installed Saturninus (Martin Hutson portraying wonderful ignorance) shortly after her son’s sacrifice. Not unreasonably, she bears nothing but terrible intentions and the illustrious Gwynne relishes every minute. Brothers Goth are certainly grim, inspired by their mother’s thirst for vengeance and violence, and almost childish in their pursuit and destruction of Titus’ only daughter Lavinia. Portrayed by Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart as brothers too in love with each other (at the moment platonically) to ever have a meaningful relationship outside their twosome, the actors have fun with the absolute wretchedness of their characters and bounce off each other, sometimes quite literally, with ease.

Marcus (Patrick Drury) heads up what is left of the Andronicus clan with Titus, together with Lucius (the stunning Tom McCall) and Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) who, putting it lightly, suffers a pretty terrible time. This clever quartet are certainly there to be rooted for as the idiots that surround them come crumbling down.

There were a couple of prop mishaps (the bloodiest Shakespeare was a little bloodless at times) that kept the play from being as flawless as other RSC productions. Though backed by the simple fortress set - designed by Robert Innes Hopkins - with many trap doors in which deaths, baths and burials can occur and combined with Blanche McIntyre’s grand and generous direction, the company depicts the tragedy of Titus Andronicus with a chorus of orchestrated bloody chaos that is breathtaking to behold.

Runs until 19th January 2018
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Dick Whittington - Review

London Palladium


Written by Alan McHugh
Music by Gary Hind
Directed by Michael Harrison

Nigel Havers and Charlie Stemp
Following critical and commercial success with last year’s Cinderella, QDOS Entertainment have again invested millions to make Dick Whittington the biggest, boldest and glitziest pantomime on the London circuit with what looks like a degree of overkill, taking a sledgehammer to crush a rat perhaps.

Alan McHugh’s script covers all the bases in the narrative – Dick meets Alice, is charged with ridding London of rats, is falsely charged with theft, goes to Morocco, comes back a hero and is hailed Lord Mayor – but the plot is subsumed to the procession of ‘turns’ hired to do their own excellent thing.  It’s normal in a pantomime to have a comedian, but here there are three – Julian Clary’s campery, Gary Wilmot’s clowning, Paul Zerdin’s ventriloquy – as well as Elaine Paige’s vintage vocals, and street dancer Ashley Banjo and his troupe Diversity who are rather oddly interposed as the Sultan and his bodyguards

This is an extraordinarily boldly costumed show which must have kept lurex manufacturers on overtime for months: at every scene change the 22-strong ensemble appears in a different saturated hue, with elaborate hats and a tonnage of feathers, and there are flashes of theatrical wit like in Fitzwarren’s sweetshop where mannequins pay homage to the ‘Beautiful Girls’ in Follies – or possibly ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – with headdresses and appendages made from giant liquorice allsorts.  

As the Spirit of the Bells Julian Clary's costumes are so elaborate with crystalline accessories they almost hamper his movement - although he doesn't need any excuse not to do choreography because he's nearly as bad at is as he is at singing although he’d defy you to point it out. But he's endlessly, wickedly funny especially at the expense of Elaine Paige who he refers to constantly as E.T.   His bone dry delivery, feigning ennui at the whole process is perfectly timed.

Julian Clary
There are a lot of Dick jokes, and a surprising number of very old jokes which haven't been brushed up for 2017: political topicality is limited to one glancing reference each to Brexit, Trump and Mrs May.  The audience love the old stagers - Nigel Havers is game for a laugh as a sort of self-propelled running gag about wanting a bigger part and being too old for it. Paige is markedly better at the singing than the comedy acting but the parodies of her greatest hits are well written, and Wilmot reminds you that he is every bit as much a musical theatre performer as a comedian when the routine he does naming every tube station to the tune of the can-can is the hit of the show.

But despite being fourth on the bill - and this really is a variety show - the best performer is the ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, British winner of America's Got Talent. Both his routine with his boy dummy Sam, and the words he puts in the mouths of the volunteer kiddies up on stage are terrific, and he's the closest this rather strange confection comes to traditional pantomime.

There is no top over which this production won’t go, whether it’s the rich innuendo in Clary’s script, or the tremendous mechanical effects of an animatronic giant rat, flying London bus or shipwreck where Clary and Charlie Stemp as Dick parody My Heart Will Go On from Titanic while sailing over the heads of the audience.  

At this point any visiting producer with a regional pantomime budget must have lost the will to live.

Ashley Banjo and Diversity

Runs until 14th January 2018
Reviewed by Johnny Fox
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Wednesday 13 December 2017

A Christmas Carol - The Musical In Concert

Lyceum Theatre, London


Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens
Based on the story by Charles Dickens

Robert Lindsay
Much like a rich brandy butter complements a fine Christmas pudding so too does Dickens’ classic Christmas fable nestle cozily into an Alan Menken score. His tunes are soaring, grand and just a little bit Disney-esque and in a story that’s all about redemption and humanity that’s a perfect fit.

What makes this concert performance of A Christmas Carol all the richer is the sumptuous sound of Freddie Tapner’s 32 piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra playing to support a stellar cast of musical theatre’s finest, alongside a 16 strong chorus. With just a hint of props and costuming, along with Mike Robertson’s ingenious lighting, the imagery of this show lies entirely within the audience’s imagination. 

Reprising his 2016 creation, Robert Lindsay is a gnarled and grizzled Ebenezer Scrooge, blossoming as he journeys to discover compassion and kindness. Lindsay brings a weathered London nuance to Scrooge and what makes his skinflint all the more compelling is that not only is he a top notch actor with immaculate timing and presence, he is also blessed with a stunning musical talent. 

A concert performance of any musical is all about acting through song and the assembled talent playing to a packed Lyceum offer a masterclass. In what is, probably, the UK’s definitive Bob Cratchit for the 2017 season, Michael Xavier delivers a cracking combination of power and pathos. Xavier knows the subtleties of working a massive West End crowd into an atmosphere of intimacy - and that he manages to capture the tragedy of Tiny Tim’s graveside aided only by Menken’s music is testimony to his craft,

The company’s other Christmas cracker is Sophie-Louise Dann as Mrs Fezziwig. The show’s writers have (mercifully) trimmed the original tale and where once the Fezziwigs were focal to the narrative of not only the Ghost of Christmas Past but also the Christmas Present phantom, here they play in just the historical chapter. Dann however relishes every word, lighting up the stage with a fabulous flamboyance.

In chronological order the three Christmas Ghosts, are played by Gemma Sutton, Hugh Maynard and Lucie Jones. Sutton manages what is in effect a therapy session for the old man, perfectly. As she whirls Robert Lindsay through Scrooge’s troubled childhood, bereft of love, the pair bring a sad, beautiful resonance to The Lights of Long Ago.

Maynard crowned in a holly wreath brings a haunting gusto to the stage, though it is the silent veiled Jones, signalling Scrooge’s impending doom that truly chills. A doubling up in the cast however does allow Jones (as Emily) a beautiful duet with Young Ebenezer (Cameron Potts), A Place Called Home, sung when the two were married many years ago.

Throughout, Tapner’s casting proves a delight. Glenn Carter brings an ugly yet compellingly youthful virility to Jacob Marley - rarely has this miserably spectre been played out so appealingly. Carter’s big solo Link By Link is Menken and Ahrens at their wickedest. Rebecca Lock and Nicholas Colicos turn in similarly top-notch cameos as Mrs Cratchit and Mr Fezziwig.

And the kids are professionally cute too. Tobias Ungleston is a cracking Tiny Tim, while Aaron Gelkoff who plays a number of Dickensian juveniles through the evening brings a beautifully voiced chutzpah to the stage that is made for Menken. Nods too to young Sylvia Erskine and Ivy Pratt, both also on top form.

When the show premiered in New York in 1994, it was to famously and festively return for ten subsequent sold out seasons. Lindsay makes this iteration of the timeless tale his own, and free of the wizardry of stage-crafted special effects, resting solely on the talents of its cast and orchestra, this musical concert becomes an enchantment.

Returns to the Lyceum for one further performance on Monday 18th December.

Friday 8 December 2017

Miracle on 34th Street – Review

Bridge House Theatre, London


Directed by Guy Retallack

The Company

‘Tis the season for glad tidings, joy to all men and women, mince pies and mulled wine. And it is also the time for miracles.

Miracle on 34th Street at Penge’s premier off-West End venue is a delightful romp through a 1947 New York Christmas. Staying true to the film, it captures the heart that has turned this story into a cinematic Christmas classic.

The show tells of a Santa Claus who may or may not be the real deal, as part of a story that acts as one long commercial for Macy’s on 34th Street. Richard Albrecht as Kris Kringle does a fine job of convincing the audience of his authenticity, thawing the hearts of Doris Walker (the superb Lowenna Melrose) and her daughter Susan (Emily Carewe).

While a live musical play version of a film might be a challenging concept to understand, the reality is very straightforward. The audience becomes a live studio audience watching a live performance of the tale for a national radio audience, complete with humorous adverts tailored for the Penge locals, presented by broadcasting giant IBC. With reminders throughout that this is a 1940s era production, such as allusions to the domestic dynamics of that time, the adverts elicit more than a few chuckles.

Yet it feels there is a missed opportunity to up the ante. Instead of the adverts, there could have been real interactions between the actors waiting to deliver their next lines as Doris, Kris Kringle, Susan and more. We could perhaps have witnessed an additional testament to the magic of Christmas in ‘real life’ through the relationships between the cast as they perform.

Nevertheless, the musical element of this production is a very welcome departure from the film. Jon Lorenz’s creative arrangement of carols and popular Christmas ditties is a stroke of genius with the score adding pace aplenty and breaking up the dialogue wonderfully.

It’s a talented cast that’s able to snap between different characters, scenarios and songs. Lewis Rae and Amy Reitsma in particular do a phenomenal job portraying a plethora of individuals, from small children to professionals and more. Rae’s vocals are outstanding making his solo one of the most magical moments of the production.

Special mention also to Ellis Dackombe who plays Fred Gailey, the lawyer defending Kris’ reputation and a pivotal player in the conversion of the Walkers from non-believers to believers. He exudes an extraordinary energy that makes for a captivating performance, with stellar vocals to boot.

Jamie Ross as the very dry Announcer and Director of Music delivers a masterclass in multi-tasking, juggling narrator skills, piano playing, singing and delivering sound effects on cue.

Miracle on 34th Street is a sparkling, joyful and heartwarming spectacle. For a very merry Christmas, this is just the ticket.

Runs until 23rd December
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Thursday 7 December 2017

A Christmas Carol - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


By Charles Dickens
A new adaptation by David Edgar
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Phil Davis

This year's seasonal offering in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a grand affair as David Edgar (it was he who famously adapted Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for the company back in 1980) tackles A Christmas Carol. The classic fable is timeless in its tale of Ebenezer Scrooge who is forced to re-discover his compassion and humanity. What concerns Edgar however is that some of the book’s rich social commentary upon the time may have been been lost over the decades and this 2017 adaptation seeks to redress that balance.

Edgar’s trick is to frame the story as a spin-out of dialogue between Dickens himself (as a young man in his 30s, played by Nicholas Bishop) and John Forster, the author's editor and friend played by Beruce Kahn. It is a novel conceit that serves well to remind us of the inhuman poverty of the time along with the widespread and crippling exploitation of very young children employed in the nation’s factories. But in his history lesson, Edgar does us a disservice –Dickens’ prose spoke of the harshness of his time through a beautiful (and quintessentially English) dynamic of understatement, allowing his carefully crafted text to paint the picture. Here, as Dickens and Forster occasionally explain the show’s context in their exchanges, Edgar’s script feels lazy and patronising and, to the purists, a distraction. And as for those references to Snapchat, Uber, Tinder and Boris Johnson - they seem crass and shallow in a show that other than its Christmas scheduling is anything but a pantomime.

The casting however is exquisite. Phil Davis’ Scrooge captures the miserly callousness of the old usurer. The story is traditionally set in London and there is more than a hint of Wilfred Brambell’s Steptoe to Davis’ gnarled anti-hero. Actually, that’s no bad thing, because the tragic pathos of Scrooge’s loneliness is one of the show’s underlying drivers and as Dickens' four ghosts guide him on his path to redemption, Davis cleverly lets the petals of Scrooge’s humanity unfold.

But bah humbug! The full depth and breadth of the RSC's main house is put to fine use and even if the projections are a little cranky, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ scenery and Ben Hart’s illusions are a treat. The cast too offer up a fine interpretation of the festive favourite. Vivien Parry pops up as numerous characters throughout the tale including an enchanting Ghost Of Christmas Past (as well as a wonderfully crotchety elderly aunt). Gerard Carey and Emma Pallant break our hearts with their passionate dignity as Bob Cratchit and his wife, while on press night, the sweetly voiced young Jude Muir made fine work of Tiny Tim.

Rachel Kavanaugh has created quality theatre with A Christmas Carol – the show’s visuals offer a hint of magic – and there is much of our nation’s troubled social history to consider too. But above all, the story’s traditional message of the healing powers of love, warmth and kindness shines through. The people of Stratford are well served this Christmas.

Runs until 4th February 2018
Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Animus - Review

Laban Theatre, London


Music by Michael Webborn
Lyrics and book by Daniel Finn
Directed by Simon Grieff

The company of Animus
Set amidst family strife in 1700’s London, three children bicker and squabble over their inheritance after their father has mysteriously died. Charlotte, the eldest, a headstrong and determined young woman who’s been bequeathed her father’s wharf business is determined to prove to the patriarchal society around her that she is their equal, however deadly the consequences. 

In what is the second collaboration from British writing team Webborn and Finn, Animus delivers a cleverly constructed plot including complex characters and a chilling mystery that keeps one guessing.

There was fine work here from the students of Trinity Laban who gave the piece a 3-show outing. Animus is no easy beast to tackle comprising a dark subject matter, challenging score and multifaceted characters. Played out on Amy Yardley’s sparse set, the audience had to use their imagination to envision the settings. This may have been another hurdle for the students to climb but they did so with precision and confidence. While no doubt well intentioned, Yardley’s projections of 18th century London were at times an unnecessary distraction, failing to fill the backdrop that they were intended for.

Three specific names must be mentioned for their performances. Danielle Whittaker as Fanny Penhaligon, the powerhouse madam of the local brothel was a joy to watch. She brought an excellent comic timing that lent itself so imperatively to the nature of the character and her voice while powerful was delicate enough to suit the style well. Similarly, Harvey Westwood as Joe Grey, the loveable cheeky street urchin/thief, who helps Charlotte, track down her enemies was very easy to watch. Westwood brought a welcome, relaxed vibe to the piece that lifted the mood continuously. Resembling something of a young Ralph Fiennes, he’s an honest actor with an impressive vocal range that comfortably met Webborn and Finn’s challenging melodies.

The most striking performance however came from Laura Barnard as Lily Donne, Charlotte’s younger sister. In an incredibly complex role she simmered quietly throughout the show as the chaos ensues around her. Hovering in the background until her true motives are revealed in the second half proved effortless for the young actress and was truly the highlight of the evening. Barnard has a soaring and emotive voice and her visible turmoil had one ensnared throughout.

The students of Trinity Laban should be proud of their achievements. They have tackled a monster of a piece with professionalism and skill. It will be intriguing to see what else this year has to offer, later down the line.

Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy

Thursday 30 November 2017

West End Producer - The Man Behind The Mask

Many years ago Winston Churchill famously described the Russians as "a riddle wrapped in an enigma" 
Well, London's theatre scene has a similar riddle. For the best part of six years, no press night has been complete without the masked, mysterious and above all, enigmatic presence of the capital’s West End Producer. 
With a media persona that emerged on Twitter and has since taken him to become one of the most popular contributors to the industry’s weekly organ The Stage, WEP (as he is known) has become one of the “go to” commentators on the UK's theatre scene.
The masquerading pundit is fast becoming a prolific author too, with his second volume on the theatre world Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Going To The Theatre But Were Afraid To Ask, published this week.
Amidst a study strewn with bottles of vintage Dom Perignon, I caught up with West End Producer this week, to learn a little more about the man behind the mask…..

JB:    Here we are to discuss Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Going To The Theatre* (*But Were Too Sloshed To Ask). This is your second book, how many more do you anticipate writing? 

WEP:      Well, my dear, I did think that perhaps it's going to be something like a Harry Potter, that I’ll just keep writing and writing and writing. But no, I think there's only so much one can write about.

I think one more would be quite nice, a trio, wouldn't it, on the book shelf? But I don't know what the next one will be. It's about finding the subjects that are relevant and interesting, and of course, not repeating the same subjects but looking at theatre in a light, fun, yet supportive way. 

JB:    I'm curious about your writing process. Before the book goes to print, how much of your original draft is ripped out by the libel lawyers? 

WEP:      Well actually quite a lot my dear and may I say, what an excellent and very well thought out question!

What I do, I will have a first draft. Well to begin with, I will send about 10,000 words in to my editor, to Nick Hern Books, who will have a little read, and see if he thinks it's the right direction for them. 

But of course I don't want to get in trouble. It has to be based on fact. It can't be too naughty because even though I prod, and tease, and tickle (and slightly whip) some people involved in the industry, it's all done from a place of admiration, you see.

JB:    Along with many of your readers, I like to think of your writing as tongue in cheek. 

WEP:      Yes dear, tongue in cheek. That is it, yes. And my dear, my tongue's been in many cheeks.

It’s salacious gossip I know, but that's how one gets a career these days. So, WEP's tongue has been in many cheeks, my dear. 

JB:    Is that gossip salacious or, perhaps, fellatious?

WEP:      Both, my dear! 

JB:    You spoke earlier of the Harry Potter approach; of writing a string of titles. We know that J.K. Rowling’s inspiration came to her at a time when she was down on her luck, and she sketched out her anthology in an Edinburgh coffee shop. Where did your inspiration come from, to be an author, all those many years ago? 

WEP:      I suppose I’d done bits and bobs of writing as “me” anyway not as WEP, but actually I suppose that Twitter is a platform which is actually rather good for writing and writers. It helps writers to get rid of rubbish, the shitty things, because you have to keep it so concise, you see. I think Twitter, as a tool in the craft of writing, is actually quite valid. 

JB:    It must have been quite a challenge, leaping from 140 character tweets to 10,000 word manuscripts. How did you manage to bridge that gulf?

WEP:      To begin with, someone mentioned it to me, and said, "Maybe you should write a book because what you write is quite funny." So I just sat around and gave myself the target, when writing the first book, of writing 500 words a day, and I did that. 

I wanted to make sure that it still had the zing, and the power of a quick Tweet, which is why I try and make it quite funny and quite quick in the way it deals with things, but actually, I must say, the first book, it did just all come out of me quite quickly. Stuff doesn’t always come out of me quickly, but the books did.

I found the whole thing quite cathartic, quite therapeutic, writing these thoughts I had, writing these stories of things I'd heard. It just all came out, and I enjoyed doing it. That's the thing. You have to enjoy the writing.

If it's a chore, then first of all, what you're writing won't be very good I don't think and secondly, you'll start resenting the time that you put into it.

I find, if I'm honest with you, I have to write fairly late in the evening in my study. I sit here with either my Dom Perignon, or a lovely G&T, and I sit here and write with my musicals playing on my speakers. 

I’ll have the lights rather dimly lit, alone apart from my Jean Valjean teddy who's staring over at me with his enthusiastic eyes, yearning, inspiring me to write. And of course occasionally, my Miss Saigon blow-up doll will whip me when I start getting distracted. That's my writing ritual. 

JB:    The West End already has one world-famous musical about a man who hides behind a mask. Do you think there's room for a second?

WEP:      Oh, yes, my dear. Yes, indeed. I have to be honest with you, I have thought about it, talking to some people about doing a little show myself, more of a talk-thing, in the theatre, variety-thing, interviewing actors and the West End Wendies about their time in the theatre, and talking about my life a little because it is quite silly really that I'm a mask-faced impresario.

It's a slightly shocking, concerning thing that I do, but it's quite fun. It allows me to say things and write things and meet people like yourself.

JB:   And when the time for that musical arrives, who would you like to be cast in the role of playing yourself?

WEP:      Well, what a wonderful question. Let's have a think.

I think Hugh Jackman might do a good job because he looks quite similar to me in real life, you'll see. I think if we go on that, I think we'll give Hugh a call. If he says no, just in terms of ticket sales, we'll see if Cliff Richard’s available because at least we know he'll fill the theatre with lots of purple rinse old dears. As a producer, one always must think about bums on seats.

And who knows? Maybe we can get dear ███ █████ to play my mask. I'll see if she's up for it.

JB:    Changing tack. The book must have been going to print just as the terrible revelations of sexual exploitation began to dominate the news.

Your chapters offer sound suggestions to fans at the stage door, including the prescient advice: not to touch actors without their permission.

On a far more serious note, to what extent would you offer a cautionary word to your fellow industry professionals to behave similarly?

WEP:      I think my cautionary word to other producers, and everyone in the industry is that it is about respect and about knowing the boundaries. It's about treating people as you wish, and would want to be treated yourself. Not only just that, but knowing that some people are more sensitive than you possibly are. No one person is the same. So one person may feel different about a little kiss on the cheek, an overlong hug, or something. You have to be very perceptive and judge the situation accordingly. 

People need to remember that it is still a job. It is still a profession, and with that must come professional respect. That's the main thing that I think we all have to remember with this now, that we must respect each other as professional workers in our industry. We are not just all people who can touch and flirt and hug each other and cup each other’s balls. 

I think it's our duty to, particularly now, be more caring, more aware, more self-aware. That doesn't mean that one can't flirt, and one can't have fun because the worry is that flirting and fun will disappear. No, it won't. It will be done slightly differently, I think, more respectfully. You will be more aware of where the boundaries are and I think people will just start questioning themselves, and what they do, and what they say before they do it. That can only be a good thing.

JB:    Turning back to yourself, I note from your biography in the book that you were born during a particularly bloody production of Titus Andronicus.

WEP:      Yes, my dear, oh, dear me. The production photos of that show, I tell you, adorn my study rather disgustingly. It's a bloody show anyway, but it was particularly bloody that night!  I was literally born onstage, so really I had nowhere else to go to, no escape, my dear. Theatre was literally thrust upon me. As many people do in theatre, they thrust in a theatre, and I was thrust upon it. I haven't managed to escape since.

I'm thrilled that I haven't because I’m surrounded by wonderful people, silly anecdotes, ridiculously, fantastically talented human beings, and a wonderful community who do look after each other.

JB:    The book is sprinkled with references to some of the great musicals. Do you see it becoming referred to as an anthology, a reference book that people can turn to?

WEP:      Oh, well I do hope so, my dear. 

JB:    And as you’ve stated in your Twitter profile, "Plays are too long."

WEP:      Yes, sadly they do go on. The good thing with musicals is if there's too much bloody talking, get the conductor to move his little rod around, get the musicians to start playing, and suddenly we're whisked away, energy is on the stage again, and jazz hands wake us all up.

In a play, sadly, people sometimes go on talking, which is fine if the play is at least interesting.

Also, when we can't even hear what the bloody actors are saying, it becomes a thankless task, doesn't it?

Quite frankly, I'd prefer to be at home with my Miss Saigon blow-up doll sharing some intimate dance moves. 

JB:    This has been a fascinating interview. Thank you so much for your time and I wish you every success with the book launch! 

WEP:      Thank you too and let me say, well done to you, Jonathan. I love how involved you are and the amount of reviews you do, I think it's wonderful. They're great and you write so well, and it's lovely that I've known you for quite some time now.

JB:    That's very kind of you to say.

WEP:    So bless you, my dear. Enjoy, and please read the book again. I look forward to reading our little interview when it’s published. Have a wonderful Christmas, and if I see you about, we'll have a mulled wine.

Alright dear?

For the perfect Xmas gift you can buy a copy of  Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Going To The Theatre* (*But Were Too Sloshed To Ask) here: