Monday 30 January 2017

Raising Martha - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by David Spicer
Directed by Michael Fentiman

Stephen Boxer

There's a madcap edge to David Spicer’s new comedy that spoofs so much of modern England. 

Stephen Boxer is Gerry Duffy, a middle aged frog farmer who's been supplying amphibians for dissection in schools for years, but who recently has become the target of animal-liberation activists. His brother Roger, (Julian Bleach)  who he’s not seen for years, arrives at the family farm at the suggestion of Inspector Clout a police officer, because as has been set out in the opening scenes, the bones of the brothers' mother Martha have been dug up by the local animal rights mob, to be held hostage until the farmer’s frogs are freed. 

The plot is thickened because not content with just breeding frogs, Gerry has also been cultivating a hydroponic cannabis farm, which now that Clout is inconveniently sniffing around the house, gives rise to some early comic gems in the narrative. Whats more, Gerry has been introducing the secretions of cane toads, famed for their hallucinogenic properties, into his growing crop and as such has acquired a reputation for providing some of the strongest skunk around. In a masterful turn we also discover his predilection for licking the cane toad's skin to get his own particular legal high. The psychedelic nightmares so induced are as hilarious as they are violent. Once stoned, Gerry (along with the audience) sees himself being gorily dissected by vengeful six-foot frogs. Those old enough to recall Lindsay Anderson's seminal movies If and O Lucky Man! will see nods to that gloriously British anarchic humour in Spicer’s writing. 

The plot is madness but to quote Hamlet (as the play occasionally does) there's a method in it, as amidst perfectly timed farce, some witty one liners and even some perfectly judged crudity, Raising Martha makes for one of the funniest new plays in years. Michael Fentiman. whose Titus Andronicus at the RSC a few years ago proved his talent in helming violent comedy, makes fine work of a script that simultaneously plays out over multi-locations and which in less assured hands, could lose its nuance and easily flop. 

The assembled company are a stellar bunch with casting director Anne Vosser's skills plainly evident. Jeff Rawle is Clout - a sometimes hapless moustachioed country copper edging towards retirement who's the very embodiment of Private Eye's Knacker Of The Yard. Rawle makes perfect his ineptitude, in a performance that is as wistful of the rural Plod from days gone by as it is up to date. Joel Fry and Tom Bennett are the bungling grave robbers, Fry channeling Wolfie Smith in his passionate but dishonourably devious campaigning, while Gwyneth Keyworth as Roger’s feisty daughter Cora completes the cast, offering the distraction of infidelity amongst the ranks of the animal-libbers.

In today’s era of vocal liberal protest, Spicer takes no prisoners – and his ability to mock the hypocrisies of the animal liberating social justice warriors, is as evenly matched by his dissection of the English middle class as personified by the Brothers Duffy. 

Certainly not for the squeamish, but for those who like their comedy served bloody (consider perhaps a Carry On movie, but one produced by Hammer Films), Raising Martha is an all too rare treat.

Runs until 11th February

Sunday 29 January 2017

Dreamgirls - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Henry Krieger
Lyrics and book by Tom Eyen
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Marisha Wallace

Dreamgirls is now well settled into the Savoy Theatre and comfortably booking up until the autumn. So for a reviewer with no real interest whatsoever in the TV series Glee or its much lauded star Amber Riley, what better way to assess the show than on the one night in the week when Ms Riley rests her remarkable larynx, with her Effie White played (as advertised) by Broadway diva Marisha Wallace.

The story of Dreamgirls should be well known by now. A fictitious yarn whose roots stretch back to the days of American segregation when soul and rhythm and blues, essentially “black music” (a description taken from the show’s programme notes) were striving to break into the pop charts. A Michigan trio The Dreamettes are backing vocals to R&B star Jimmy Early. Curtis Taylor Jr, an opportunistic manager recognises their potential and lures them away from Early to headline their own act billed as The Dreams. Along the way there’s love, rivalries and jealousies that play out to a backdrop of a ruthlessly cutthroat music business and some sensationally sung songs.

Strip away the music and Tom Eyen’s book is paper thin – it’s Henry Kreiger’s melodies that make the show. Wallace’s closing of the first half with a jaw dropping take on And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going proves a stunner of a powerhouse, that sends the (predominantly female) audience reeling as they totter to the bar for their half time Proseccos.

The show’s other big number is One Night Only - a song that many of today’s kids will have come to know through its X-Factor regularity, even though its chart history dates back to the 1980s – and the three Dreamgirls, along with the ensemble, give it a powerfully polished outing.

Credit where it’s due – Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack are superb as Deena and Lorrell, Effie’s partners, Joe Aaron Reid’s Curtis is a pantomime baddy but he holds the stage magnificently. Adam J. Bernard’s Jimmy Early is a groin thrusting lithe limbed delight, while Tyrone Huntley as songwriter C.C. White is, yet again, simply magnificent in his West End presence. Huntley is already riding high in the nation's musical theatre pantheon – he can only soar further still.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography oozes imagination, Gregg Barnes costumes are as sexy as they are period-perfect, while in the pit Nick Finlow’s orchestra serve up Kreiger’s score with panache.

Bravo to Sonia Friedman and her co-producers for bringing this Broadway bonanza to London. It’s a great night out!

Booking to 21st October

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Death Takes A Holiday - Review

Charing Cross Theatre


Music & lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone
Based on the play La Morte in Vacanza (Death Takes A Holiday) by Alberto Casella

Chris Peluso and Zoe Doano
It is rare that a musical is presented with such exquisite elegance as Thom Southerland delivers with Death Takes A Holiday, making its European premier at the Charing Cross Theatre. The essence of Maury Yeston's musical, itself drawn from Alberto Casella's 1920s Italian play, is that of a love story spun from the finest filigree, yet, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, played out against a hauntingly gothic backdrop. 

The prologue sees the beautiful Grazia thrown from a speeding car in a horrific crash. Her death must surely be unavoidable but Death himself, so captivated by her beauty, spares her. Intrigued by the mysteries of humanity, whose lives he has claimed and stalked over the centuries, for one weekend only Death grants himself two days of mortality. Assuming the identity of a Russian Prince, he visits Grazia's home as an unexpected house guest and what follows is quite literally a fairy tale of enchanted love and ultimate tragedy. Throughout Death's weekend vacation no-one (anywhere) dies, Grazia's family discover new depths of relationships, while Grazia herself falls in love with Death, in a passion that is as deeply doomed as it is reciprocated. 

It's a brave story to stage - for to suspend the audience's disbelief and convincingly create a world that is potentially of the darkest horror, requires nothing less than precision stagecraft. Leading the show are Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso as Grazia and Death. The two are magnificent and with both having only recently led in major West End roles, their pedigree is breathtaking. Zoano's soprano voice combines power with fragility. Her four solos are compelling and commanding, while her duet with Peluso, More And More, is a heartbreaker. Likewise Peluso, whose striking performance captures the inscrutable paradox of his weekend of humanity. We believe he is a man with the ultimate of powers and yet at the same time reduced to a childlike curiosity when confronted with that most profound and rawest aspect of humanity, the power of love.

It’s impossible not to care for nearly all of the supporting characters too. Mark Inscoe is the Duke Lamberti, Grazia's father, already mourning the recent death of his son and as the host, charged by Death not to reveal his house guest’s true identity. As he watches his daughter fall for Death's charms and knowing what could potentially await her, Inscoe's delivery of this most complex of emotional struggles adds yet another layer of tragic beauty to the plot. In a modest role Kathryn Akin's Stephanie, Grazia's mother delivers the most poignant of numbers that mourns her son with Losing Roberto, Yeston’s composition truly touching the heart.

Samuel Thomas offers another ingenious cameo as the battle-hardened fighter pilot who recognises the Russian Prince for who he really is, while James Gant's butler Fidele, offers occasional moments of well nuanced comedy that are beacons of relief along the story's bittersweet arc. There are equally weighted moments of brilliance from Anthony Cable and Gay Soper as a veteran star-crossed couple finding love, their ageing temporarily paused during the weekend's magic and from Scarlett Courtney and Helen Turner as Grazia’s contemporaries. 

The creative talent behind the show is as topnotch as the cast with Morgan Large's set proving as simple as it is wondrous. A rotating set of palazzo walls and doorways, graced by rococo chairs, ingeniously create the Lamberti home, complemented by Jonathan Lipman's period-perfect costuming, with Matt Daw's lighting proving both sinister and spectacular in equal measure. Hidden away offstage, Dean Austin's 10 piece band could easily pass for a far larger West End orchestra, such is their treatment of Yeston's soaring score.

The show deserves to be snapped up for a longer run or transfer - it really is that good, but until then rush to the Charing Cross Theatre. Death Takes A Holiday is the darkest of fairytales in a work of musical theatre that is at the very top of its game.

Runs until 4th March
Photo credit: ScottRylander

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Promises, Promises - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David
Book by Neil Simon
Based on the screenplay "The Apartment" by Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood

Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse is a delightful splash of Burt Bacharach, in a musical set in 1960s New York and which hasn't played in London for nigh on fifty years. The show's pedigree is top notch, based on Billy WIlder's (he of Sunset Boulevard fame) Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Apartment, translated thence into a musical theatre book via the satirical wizardry of Neil Simon.

Chuck Baxter is a humble accounts clerk in a huge Manhattan insurance office, young and single and who lives in a modest apartment in the city. When Baxter's married manager asks if he can borrow the apartment for an extra-marital liaison with his mistress Baxter agrees - word spreads amongst the managers who all then ask for the apartment's use, with the news ultimately reaching Sheldrake, the department head, who too wants to use Baxter's flat. There's a complicated love that develops between Baxter and Fran, a waitress in the company's Executive Dining Room and for risk of spoiling, that's all that can be said about the plot.

The strength of this show however lies not only in Bacharach and David's eternally hummable tunes, but as much in Simon's razor sharp wit. The comedy is a wry New York shtick and Lagan has polished her cast into a subtle, perfectly timed delivery.

Gabriel Vick plays Baxter and he carries the show magnificently. For those that remember the movie, he captures that beautifully bemused essence of Jack Lemmon - finely principled and ultimately nobody's fool. Vick is also wonderfully voiced and when he picks up his guitar to sing I'll Never Fall In Love Again, it's a pleasant reminder that this timelessly classic song, along with the show's other great Bacharach treats, was born out of the production itself, a refreshing contrast to the modern trend of juke-box shows created long after songs have become hits. Indeed, Promises, Promises is a far more entertaining gig than the recent Close To You, a juke box show framed around the Bacharach catalogue

Opposite Vick is Daisy Maywood's Fran. Maywood captures Fran's feisty and sometimes exploited vulnerability perfectly - with more than a hint of the movie's Shirley MacLaine in her stance. Vocally she's wonderful too, making fine work of A House Is Not A Home.

The casting throughout is spot on. Paul Robinson's Sheldrake is as chiselled in his looks as his morals are despicable, the quartet of middle managers are a delight and John Guerrasio's Doctor, who lives in the flat next door, masters Simon's comically caustic New York nuance. Perhaps the most stunning supporting work comes from the ever excellent Alex Young who opens the second half hilariously as the drunken Marge, stumbling and fumbling towards a doomed romantic tumble with Baxter.

Gabriel Vick and Alex Young
The set design is imaginative but flawed (sit on the far left or right and some moments will be invisible) and likewise Joe Louis Robinson's 7 piece band, who put in a fine shift throughout the evening, need to fine tune a couple of early numbers, though note that these are very modest criticisms.

Promises Promises is a warm-hearted delight on a cold winter's night. This bittersweet story performed by a fabulous company, makes for another jewel in London's theatre crown. 

Runs until 18th February
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Sunday 15 January 2017

La La Land - Review


Certificate 12

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

Opening in the UK with a haul of Golden Globes, La La Land deserves every one of its awards and possibly one or two more too. Damian Chazelle's movie, all about hopes and dreams in Los Angeles is a delightful look back to the days when movies literally brought the word "fantasy" into "fantastic". It has an extravagance of song and dance in movie musicals that hasn't been seen since the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but which with Chazelle's script, is brought bang up to date.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Sebastian. She’s a frustrated actress working as a barista on the Warner Studios backlot, while he is a jazz pianist reduced to playing cheesy Xmas background tunes as the only way of earning a living. The two meet, fall in love and through the most romantic yet credible of circumstances, inspire each other to go on and achieve their dreams. If the ending isn't exactly the happiest, the film's journey is nothing less than two hours of sheer, delightful cinematic whimsy.

The opening number sets the tone - even before the titles have rolled we have seen a line of Los Angeles traffic, stuck in a jam (remember this is LA, where traffic never moves) where the drivers leap from their cars to sing and dance the most ingeniously choreographed Another Day Of Sun. This is a movie where the mundanity of a traffic jam becomes a thing of dancing beauty - and what a refreshing joy it is to see a musical that’s prepared to see its characters fantastically burst from speech into song and dance and to erupt into numbers that are new and fresh, a world apart from the all too common juke-box regurgitations of a famous bands' or artist's greatest hits.

Justin Gurvitz scores the picture, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The duo’s reputation precedes them with their 5* Dogfight a few years ago and yet again they pitch their lyrics spot-on, adding just the right amount of saccharine-infused schmaltz to bittersweet scenarios. The movie’s written wit is as sharp as it is sensitive, while Gurvitz's tunes prove to be perpetually hummable - City Of Stars and Mia & Sebastian's Theme proving to be gems.

Gosling and Stone's footwork is spectacular. Sure, Stone has a Broadway track record but who knew Gosling could either dance or play piano? Mandy Moore's choreography deserving its own award alongside Linus Sandgren's breathtaking cinematography with its wondrous, never-ending tracking shots. 

La La Land represents new musical writing that all composers and librettists should be aspiring too. Its numbers are a delirious cocktail of balladry, ballroom and brash braggadocio, all framed around a story that’s nothing more than an exploration of the highs and lows of the human condition. An unashamed delight that has to be enjoyed on the big screen. Go!

Now screening at all major cinema chains

Wednesday 11 January 2017

The Kite Runner - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by Khaled Hosseini
Adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler
Directed by Giles Croft

Andrei Costin

There's a broad canvas painted in Matthew Spangler's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel in a story that traces the troubled recent, tribal history of Afghanistan from its pre-Soviet days to the Taliban nightmare of today. The deepest human drivers of honour, loyalty and guilt are played out through the interwoven family tales of two Afghan boys: Amir (played by Ben Turner) and Hassan (Andrei Costin) his closest friend, who is the son of Amir's family servant.

Kite flying was a national pastime in Afghanistan, with the kite runner chasing after the kites as they fall from the skies. The young Amir and Hassan are a skilled double act in the sport, but Kabul proves to be a dangerous and challenging city and when Amir (unseen) glimpses, in a backstreet, Hassan about to be raped by the local bully, rather than stepping up to defend his friend he shamefully flees.

To reveal any more of the narrative would spoil and the beauty of the production lies in the detail imbued in the characters. There is finely crafted supporting work too from Emilio Doorgasingh and Ezra Faroque Khan, as Amir and Hassan's fathers.

The staging is simple yet imaginative, with Barney George's designs suggesting not only Central Asia but also San Francisco as the plot crisscrosses the globe. Though it’s not all perfect - when an actor's fake beard ends up making his Taliban look more Tevye than terrorist, something's gone wrong. 

While the tale may be epic, its adaptation from the original best-seller is troublingly two-dimensional and at times melodramatic. A sharper wordsmith than Spangler would have told less - in fact much less as the play is nigh on 3 hours - but suggested more, through finer prose. 

Music is prevalent throughout - and one cannot help but wonder if a musical treatment, that might have reached out to both the harsh and beautiful aspects of the tale, might have offered a more artistic interpretation and unlocking of the tale's emotional depths. Tragedy and redemption lend themselves well to a grand score, with the play's second act offering more than a nod to hints of Miss Saigon.

Here for 12 weeks only - If you loved the novel, you'll probably love the play.

Runs until 11th March
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Sunday 8 January 2017

Assault On Precinct 13 - Review


Certificate 15 - 1976

Written and directed by John Carpenter

Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer 

Released on Blu-Ray this week, John Carpenter's seminal 1976 action thriller is a finely crafted movie that is well worth either re-visiting or catching up with for the first time if it’s escaped you so far.

In a district of Los Angeles rife with organised gun violence, the police station of Precinct 13 is being closed down, with Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) assigned responsibility for the station's last few hours. The movie's narrative has already opened earlier that day with cops killing six gang members, so revenge is in the air. Adding to the tension, there's a prison bus in the area transiting to a city jail, but when a prisoner is taken ill on board the bus has to make an unscheduled stop at the police station.

Completing an incendiary cocktail of plot lines, Lawson (Martin West) who's just a regular guy, has witnessed his young daughter being shot dead in a gangland shooting while buying an ice-cream. Grabbing a gun, Lawson shoots and kills the gang warlord who killed his daughter but when the dead man’s fellow gang members start hunting him down, Lawson too arrives at Precinct 13 seeking sanctuary. Sworn to avenge their dead, the gang lays siege to the soon-to-be-mothballed station house. (Interestingly, Carpenter has since gone on to regret the bloody slaughter of the ice-cream girl, but for most the killing only adds to the yarn’s grim verité.)

It's not just Carpenter's richly-fruited story that makes the movie quite so mouthwatering, it’s also the detail he imbues in his characters. Who'd have expected that convict Wilson (sublime work from Darwin Joston) on-board the prison bus and heading towards death row, would emerge a hero. Or that a finely crafted even if unconsummated love between Wilson and police secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) could add a level of pathos to the bloody violence that surrounds them.

Very much an exploitation movie of its day and with more than a nod to George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, the craft in the director's suspense, photography, script and action offers a fine reminder of those halcyon pre-CGI days when filmmakers like Carpenter, Spielberg and Lucas laboured over the analog perfection of their imagery.

Assault On Precinct 13 is a classic and in this 1080p release which captures the 1970s Technicolor perfectly, it's a glorious trip back in time.

Available to purchase from Amazon and all usual distributors