Saturday 25 February 2017

Movie Classics For Valentine's - Review

Barbican Hall, London


London Concert Orchestra
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele

I have written before of conductor Anthony Gabriele’s love affair with the movies. The Italian has an innate understanding of matching the nuance and tempo of a score to performances played out both on stage and screen. So to turn up to the Barbican Hall on February 14th and see Gabriele conduct the London Concert Orchestra in a Valentine’s Evening concert of Movie Classics, was quite the romantic treat.

Gabriele’s programme spanned most of the 20th Century. A nod to the pre-war great movie composers saw the evening open with Tara’s Theme from Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind and what was to become immediately evident was that opening up these legendary scores to the full acoustic treatment of a live symphony orchestra, imbued them with a passion and a texture that only enhances their music. 

The evening’s pieces were segued with carefully researched introductory comments from the Maestro, telling us for example that Steiner along with Erich Korngold and Alfred Newman were the three composers responsible for establishing the cultural bedrock of movie scores. The programme referenced them both with Korngold’s Love Scene from the 1938 Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood and Newman’s timeless Cathy’s Theme from the Laurence Olivier starring Wuthering Heights (1939).

The first half closed with Mei Yi Foo performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. Gabriele had previously explained that the “Rach” has been used in scoring no less than 8 feature films to date – however his evening of Valentine’s romance chose David Lean’s take on Noel Coward’s timeless and quintessentially English romance from 1945, Brief Encounter. It’s a movie that is well worth the (re-)viewing – Celia Howard and Trevor Johnson capturing the essence of love through masterful acting. Though a further revelatory (even if culturally mundane) moment in the Barbican Hall came half way through the concerto’s second movement, when I realised that the Adagio sostenuto was in fact the inspiration for Eric Carmen’s All By Myself, covered by Jamie O’Neal and then, briefly, on screen by Renee Zellweger, in the multi-franchised Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The concert would not have been complete without a nod to Italian influences and hence the inclusion of Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso. The movie’s melody is exquisite and one can only long for the day when Gabriele and his friends at Raymond Gubbay assemble a night of film music dedicated to l’italianità.

Amongst other romantic gems on offer, were a double header of John Barry, truly one of the UK’s greatest film scorers with Gabriele conducting Somewhere In Time and Out Of Africa and Henry Mancini’s mellifluously mellow Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s – with marvellous alto-saxophone work from Chris Caldwell. Similarly, Philippe Schartz trumpet work in Francis Lai’s Love Story was hauntingly wonderful, while Nigel Bates’ non stop work on the snare drum for 15 minutes (yes, 15!) was a feat that was as much a display of stamina as of musical excellence and proved a stunning climax to the evening’s programme – before the thunderous applause demanded a much deserved encore of Craig Armstrong’s theme from Love Actually.

Musical movie magic throughout!

Thursday 23 February 2017

The Wild Party - Review

The Other Palace, London


Book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Book by George C. Wolfe
Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie

Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones

The arrival of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party in London marks a number of premiere moments. It is: the first production of the show this side of the Atlantic; it is also the debut production staged in the newly re-branded The Other Palace (formerly known as the St James Theatre); and even more importantly the production marks choreographer Drew McOnie’s elevation to director, alongside his recognized craft of choreography. 

Drawn from Joseph Moncure March's 1928 poem of the same name the show is an unrelenting tale of bastardry in 1920s New York. Frances Ruffelle's Queenie and her husband Burrs are a pair of fading Vaudeville artistes. But Queenie loves to party, wildly and the musical evolves into a blurred flurry of decadent debauchery that is ultimately to end in rape and murder. The details of the plot are barely significant - think of The Great Gatsby without the glamour, or perhaps a glimpse into what Stephen King's Overlook Hotel may have been like in its once wonderful pomp.

John Owen-Jones is the terrifyingly brilliant Burrs - at times grotesquely sporting a clown's white slap and red lips. To Gavin Mallett's muted trumpet early on in the show his compelling voice and presence defines misogyny - his white-gloved jazz hands as capable of beating up a woman as whipping up an audience. Owen-Jones is never less than compelling, think Archie Rice with a hint of Amos Hart and you start to get close to his monstrous creation. (There's a doomed mania to the partnership of Owen-Jones and Ruffelle that makes one long for a one-day future pairing as Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett.)

It's hard to track the flow of guests - there are so many cameo turns, for the most part performed flawlessly, that the plot's details dissolve into a carefully choreographed cocktail of humanity. These are partying gadflies desperately clinging to a life of social semblance, yet all, for the most part, little more than vapid, vacuous vamps. And throughout there's a pulse of jealousy fuelled by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt's Kate and her insouciant lover Black played by Simon Thomas.

LaChiusa has structured his work so that all the ensemble get their moment(s) in the spotlight and to be fair, with only a couple of exceptions, they all give of their entirety to make this punishing show deliver its punch. Memorable amongst the cast are Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo's androgynous twins, Tiffany Graves intriguing Madeleine, Steven Serlin's violated Goldberg and Dex Lee's serpentine Jackie.

As with any McOnie production, the movement comes first - and The Wild Party is a virtually constant flow of lithe fluidity as the cast writhe through their roles. Where perhaps the flaws in McOnie's directing skills peek through, is in the occasional moments where the acting sometimes fades away. Seasoned troupers like Owen-Jones and Ruffelle can act their hearts out blindfolded - but elsewhere McOnie needs to have taken some of the cast deeper into their roles.

Soutra Gilmour's set is a multi layered confection that's a treat to look at,  save for Richard Howell's lighting which a tad too often blinds the audience with its stadium-powered wash. Up above the stage, Theo Jamieson's eight piece band are nothing short of remarkable as they deliver LaChiusa's score, a composition as relentlessly brilliant as the narrative.

Whilst the music and movement are stunning, The Wild Party's not easy on both eyes and ears and is probably best enjoyed by genre aficionados. A couple of pre-show gins or juleps are recommended too.

Runs until 1st April
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Wednesday 22 February 2017

The Girls - Review

Phoenix Theatre, London


Written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Directed by Tim Firth

Claire Machin, Sophie-Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore, Debbie Chazen

Make of it what you will, but in less than as many years, the West End has showcased two new British musicals both of which have been inspired by the true stories of naked women being presented in provocative tableaux. While Mrs Henderson Presents may have been drawn from the Windmill Girls' wartime titillating tonic, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls is of a more classic vintage, savouring the sauce stirred up when the mostly mature membership of a northern branch of the WI (Women’s Institute) set out to raise funds for a local hospital by posing nude for a calendar.

The true story of the Rylstone & District WI is the stuff of modern-day legend, inspiring Firth to have previously scripted both its film and subsequent stage play treatment (each titled The Calendar Girls). But he and Barlow are two northern lads who’d grown up together and despite pursue differing career paths, had long harboured the dream of co-writing a show. It was to be Barlow’s mum who convinced them of The Calendar Girls' tuneful potential.

Musicals are nothing if they do not explore the human condition - and The Girls pulses with a humanity that touches almost everyone in the audience. That it is written to be performed by predominantly older women - a casting bracket so often woefully overlooked in today's industry – is a joy in itself. Even more impressively, in filling the show’s six featured roles, the producers have done well to assemble a troupe who represent the cream of their musical theatre generation.

Joanna Riding plays Annie whose husband John (James Gaddas) succumbs to cancer, sparking the fund-raising idea. Not just a remarkable, spine-tingling performance, Riding’s role, perhaps more than any other in the canon, is also that of playing everywoman on stage. Her song Kilimanjaro touching anyone who's been bereaved and it is with the most understated pathos that she portrays the grief that is both her devastation and motivation. Her early career saw Riding garner Olivier awards and nominations by the handful. This powerhouse turn will likely see her nominated again.

Alongside Riding is Claire Moore's Chris, the feisty local florist whose idea the calendar is. Moore is another timeless West End star of remarkable pedigree who commands the stage.

Firth and Barlow’s songs have a sweet simplicity with an occasional touch of genius in the lyrics, their opening number Yorkshire, being a stirring tribute to the county’s rugged charm. There may be occasional moments of trite silliness in the wit, but these are more than made up for by the company's sheer excellence. 

Sophie-Louise Dann, herself an accomplished diva, is sensational as Celia, a retired stewardess, whose number So I’ve Had A Little Work Done is a spot-on paean to plastic surgery. Michele Dotrice’s elderly Jessie is similarly outstanding with her feisty, poignant rebuke to the advance of years, What Age Expects. Likewise, Debbie Chazen and Claire Machin bring their own characters’ anxieties to hilarious, even if at times painfully well-observed relief.

The supporting cast fill modest roles with an unassuming charm, Gaddas bringing a caring, nuanced stoicism to his decline that’s never mawkish. Likewise Josh Benson and Chloe May Jackson are a comic delight as teenage schoolkids, simultaneously discovering love and thwarting their mothers’ high-flying expectations.

Richard Beadle’s band infuses the hummable score with verve, while Robert Jones’ design, an ingenious confection of drawers and doors, outlines both the glorious majesty of the Yorkshire Dales with a cosy and well-worn intimacy of the local village hall.

Above all, the strength of this musical lies in how it is played by this wonderful cast. Against the darkest of backdrops, The Girls not only touches our hearts with its tragedy, it celebrates a self-deprecating yet very British resilience that squares up to adversity. 

In what is a story for us all, The Girls makes for a magical night of musical theatre, performed to perfection.

Away from showbiz, the Rylstone women, who set out only to generate a very modest hospital donation, have gone on to raise nearly £5 million to date. A proportion of the show's receipts are being donated to the charity Bloodwise.

Now booking until 15th July
Photo credit: Matt Crockett, Dewynters

Friday 17 February 2017

My Land's Shore - Review

Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Christopher J Orton
Book and lyrics by Robert Gould
Directed by Brendan Matthew

The company

Whisky aficionados will know the name Penderyn as that of a distinguished single malt distilled in south Wales. But in My Lands Shore, Christopher Orton and Robert Gould’s new musical, one learns so much more about the history surrounding Dic Penderyn (aka Richard Lewis), a martyr to the cause of Welsh worker's rights and suffrage.

The time and place is Merthyr Tydfil in the early 19th century, when Welshmen mined the coal and smelted the iron that built Queen Victoria's Industrial Revolution. Trade unions were as nascent as employers were ruthlessly exploitative. Branded as the show's world premiere, its development has in fact seen Orton and Gould themselves labour through workshops and concert presentations for 15+ years to reach this first fully staged production.

And much like a fine whisky can offer nosings of different scents and influences, so too are there echoes here, not unsurprisingly, of Les Miserables and also The Hired Man, although where those two shows spanned nations and decades My Land's Shore, keeps its focus tighter. While Penderyn’s story is ripe for a musical theatre treatment, there are times when Orton and Gould's writing fails to reach emotional depth. The death of a child for example should make an audience weep - here however the writers kill a kiddie so early in the first half that unlike the cared for tragedy of Gavroche's death in Les Mis, we've barely had a chance to get to know this youngster, let alone grieve their untimely passing.

Where My Land's Shore soars however is in its stirring ensemble numbers and an unwavering excellence throughout its company. Aidan Banyard leads convincingly as Richard Lewis, the supremely principled miner. Enjoying an unconventional romance and marriage with Rebecca Gilliland's Angharad, the pair solo impressively. Gilliland defining a magnificent opening with The Way Things Are as Banyard offers a powerful take on the title song. Their duet, Love On The Edge Of Our Tears is likewise, poignantly played.

There's as impressive supporting work from Michael Rees as Lewis' brother (actually named Lewis Lewis) and from Kira Morsley as Rebecca his wife, both beautifully and majestically voiced. Likewise Taite-Elliot Drew as the bad-guy Jenkins makes an impressive career debut, even if, as his character faces an anguished guilt late in the show, it is again hard for the audience to care too much about him.

There are nuggets of Celtic gold to be mined from the show’s ensemble. Hywell Dowsell as the blustering bastard industrialist Josiah Guest is a neatly fleshed out cameo and there is a moment of exquisite vocal magic as Raymond Walsh's Sean, his beautiful Irish voice backed up by Ashley Blasse's guitar work, breaks hearts with Air For A Wise Celtic Fool.

Brendan Matthew uses the compact space well with an excellent creative team. Aaron Clingham's musical direction brings out the lush charms of Orton's melodies, Joanna Dias multi-layered set is an imaginative use of wood that so easily suggests location, be it miners' cottages, chapel, or a riotous town square and there's fine choreography from Charlotte Tooth, especially amidst the raucous routine of Isn't It A Sin.

Unquestionably a flawed masterpiece, My Land’s Shore represents the stunning potential that exists in new British musical theatre writing. Matthew and Clingham have served the text well, delivering a fascinating narrative and stirring songs in an inspirational production that’s deservedly playing to packed Walthamstow houses. There’s still work to be done, but this show deserves to go on to greater things.

Runs until 26th February
Photo credit: David Ovenden

Sunday 12 February 2017

That's Jewish Entertainment - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Musical Arrangements by Andy Collyer
Directed by Kate Golledge

The Cast

Katy Lipson's Aria Entertainments unveils its latest revue drawn from the world of Jewish melodies at Highgate's Gatehouse Theatre for a month's residency.

Compiled by Chris Burgess, That's Jewish Entertainment, unlike Aria's previous forays into the kosher catalogue, doesn’t just focus on the showbiz greats made famous by Jewish writers or performers, but also takes in snatches of liturgy from the synagogue alongside a sprinkling of Yiddish songs that stem from the vanished world of the shtetl, as well as from New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. It all makes for a lively and entertaining evening, with Burgess having researched some fascinating historical details to link and segue the numbers.

Kate Golledge directs a strong quartet of singers who are all in fine fettle throughout. David McKechnie brings a neat impersonation of Groucho Marx to the gig, while one of Matthew Barrow's solo highlights is a well nuanced take on Al Jolson's Mammy. A novel twist sees the honours shared in the Barbra Streisand, Funny Lady moment. Emma Odell gives Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady an interpretation that can more than match the Barnes/Smith roadshow soon to tour the UK. Just before Odell's turn however, Joanna Lee steps up with a barnstorming Don't Rain On My Parade that was spine-tingling in Lee's power and presence.

Interestingly, Lee is the show's only Jewish cast member and whilst ethnicity may not matter when it comes to singing the Broadway greats, the foreign tongues of both Hebrew and Yiddish (like any language) demand an innate cultural familiarity in order to be fully savoured. Barry Davis is credited with having coached (well) the linguistic pronunciation, but it's hard, nay impossible, to replicate a lifetime's understanding and recognition of a language in a two week rehearsal window. Similarly Burgess's translations, albeit carefully created, tend to blunt the romantic power of the foreign lyrics' original sound. In future shows, maybe stick to the original words with projected surtitles? Just a thought.

The show's music however is flawless. Andy Collyer's arrangements of tunes drawn from across the Western Hemisphere is a joy to listen to and under Charlie Ingles' direction (though on the night of this review the talented Alex Bellamy was in the chair), the four piece band capture the songs' time, location and above all their spirit, perfectly. A nod too to Joe Atkin Reeves' sublime work on the reeds. His snatch of Rhapsody In Blue is spot on and when his clarinet work drifts towards klezmer, a Pied Piper-like entrancement falls across the predominantly grey-haired audience.

It’s a lovely show and as Moses might have said, That's Jewish Entertainment is well worth crossing the Red Sea for (or at least the North Circular Road)!

Runs until 11th March, then at The Radlett Centre on 12th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday 10 February 2017

Thriller Live Becomes the West End's 15th Longest Runner - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Directed and choregraphed by Gary Lloyd

This week Thriller Live celebrated becoming the 15th longest running show on the West End and its audiences thankfully still can’t get enough. From the first hip thrust, to the still incredibly relevant political numbers and the satisfyingly zombie filled Thriller Finale, the incredibly talented cast embrace each song, each moment and each moonwalk as if each note and step were the highest honour.

Director and choreographer Gary Lloyd presents a show that is unashamedly fantastical. Shooting Flowers have styled flashy versions of almost every costume you can recall the inimitable MJ wearing, that stun alongside Jonathan Park's steel and LED set. With Nigel Catmur’s lighting and one heck of a live band, the show is as seamless as any Michael show, even if on a smaller stage.

Michael Jackson wasn’t one to write songs that are easily forgotten, but the sheer volume of his catalogue means that there are more than a few surprises in this fabulous show. Dirty Diana seduces with some fantastic head pieces, while Remember The Time, complete with Egyptian poses and sass, bring the 90s flooding back. There’s also a rollercoaster ride of emotions, with the somber reflection of She’s Out Of My Life, sung with soul by the sweet Reece Bahia and a gender swapped The Way You Make Feel making everyone in the audience feel young and sexy while reminding them that Cleo Higgins (she of Cleopatra, Comin’ Atcha fame), is still a voice to be reckoned with.

Clichéd though it sounds, Thriller Live makes you feel alive - though perhaps not as lively and spritely as the unbelievably talented dancers, who fill the stage with as many backflips, high kicks, cartwheels and grinding as they can muster... which to be fair is the only appropriate reaction when Wanna Be Starting Something comes on. There’s even some comedy as cheeky Leslie Bowman interrupts the narration of the leads and the gorgeous Jamal Crawford is rejected again and again by Cleo. Throw in some baby faced young talent, this time Marcellus Virgo Smith, to portray Jackson's early years and you’ve got yourself one blinder of a show.

Out of the four leads, the closest we get to an MJ tribute is Dajiow, who encompasses Michael Jackson in every step and note, leaving many questioning whether it was really him singing Thriller… and it definitely was. The show isn’t a tribute though, but a celebration of the heart breaking, body shaking, crotch grabbing Man in the Mirror, who is still indisputably the King of Pop.

The West End's 15th longest running musical and yes, we can still feel it.

Now booking through 2017.
Reviewed by Heather Deacon

I Am Not A Serial Killer - Review


Certificate 15

Written by Billy O'Brien & Chris Hyde
Directed by Billy O'Brien

Christopher Lloyd

An impressive tale from Billy O'Brien, filmed on location in the small town Midwest during a bleak midwinter.

Seventeen year old Max Records plays John Wayne Cleaver a diagnosed sociopath who is in therapy and who is struggling with issues around death and mortality. His troubles are only fuelled by the fact that his family's business is as the town's undertakers. At his mother's knee, John Wayne has learnt the intricacies of the cadaver and the chemical complexities of embalming.

A spate of disemboweling murders sparks the young man's morbid curiosity, with his quest to uncover what exactly is happening around him that makes for a finely crafted horror-thriller with just a twist of ironic humour.

There's a supernatural thread here too and it's driven in a stand out turn from veteran Christopher Lloyd as Crowley, an old man with a distinctive if somewhat ghastly secret. Lloyd doesn't so much steal his scenes, as imbue them with an excellence that feeds into his co-performers. His work is as chilling as it is intriguing and as the pieces of the jigsaw slot into place, the denouement (albeit with slightly creaky CGI) is an unexpected delight. 

Robbie Ryan's tight cinematography keeps Minnesota's wintry icy intimacy perfectly claustrophobic, making I Am Not A Serial Killer a bloody treat that is as raw as it is rare.

Available on download, Blu-Ray and DVD from February 20th

Fences - Review


Certificate 12A

Screenplay by August Wilson
Directed by Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington and Viola Davies

A cinematic powerhouse which is as refreshing as it is honest, August Wilson’s work is transformed into an understated masterpiece in its adaptation for the big screen. 

Set in the 1950s, Denzel Washington is Troy, a father battling his inner demons against a backdrop of a nation divided by race issues and a society where change is not only in the air but tantalisingly just around a corner too. A former baseball virtuoso who was born “too early” and who now his son wants to pursue his talents in college sport, brings to the surface in Troy, conflictions and qualms about doing right by his son which set in motion some deeply human narratives  about the challenges faced by African Americans at the time.

Raw and intense but not judgmental, Fences makes clear that Troy is a deeply flawed man. But what is also clear is his unwavering love for the things he holds dear in his life even if, tragically, he may not be able to understand or come to terms with the good inside him. August Wilson’s script is a solid piece of masterful writing and this film showcases the raw talent of the on-screen actors that bring the work to life. Viola Davies’ performance is terrific, providing an emotional core to the story yet remaining the bedrock of strength in the family.

Award nominations are raining down on this picture and where sometimes such such hype and admiration can be exaggerated, in Fences they are all throughly deserved. Every scene evidences that the movie is a labour of love, with the cast displaying an ease and naturalness about their roles that almost suggests that they had been previously acquainted with their characters. Indeed, speaking to me a few weeks ago, Washington emphasised that when the opportunity to translate the play into a movie arose, he was insistent that his fellow actors were cast from the Broadway production, a decision that has clearly paid off.

Denzel Washington’s Fences could well be looked upon in future years as something much more than a mere great adaptation, but as a cinematic classic in its own right.

Fences is now screened at cinemas nationwide

Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: David Lee