Sunday 25 June 2017

Bat Out Of Hell - Review

London Coliseum, London


Music & lyrics by Jim Steinman
Book by Jim Steinman & Stuart Beatttie
Directed by Jay Scheib

Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington

Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell has just landed in the West End and with no intention of being a quiet neighbour in theatreland either. From the onset the audience are confronted with an immense overture of the loud rock delights that feature in this epic production.

Steinman is of course best known as the co-creator of 1970s rock megastar Meat Loaf, and while a familiarity with the singer’s work will only enhance the show, it is far from a prerequisite.

A familiar tale of forbidden love serves as the story’s template, swerving more often into rock opera rather than jukebox musical. Imagine a gothic West Side Story replaced with the flames and ruin of a dystopian Manhattan driven by rock power ballads and one begins to grasp the tone of the show. 

Leading the cast is Andrew Polec’s young Strat, who with his gang of “eternally” 18 year olds seeks to win over the love of the newly turned 18 and beautiful, Raven played by Christina Bennington. She’s been kept prisoner in a high tower by her over bearing parents (Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton) who as a duo work brilliantly off each other, delivering some of the evening’s best comedic moments.

If it’s at times slightly cheesy, the show is nothing if not true to the theatrical nature of Meat Loaf as an act - the audience on board with the campery and making the journey even more special. 

It is hard to single out cast favourites, with every name on the bill delivering vocal work that is hair-raisingly brilliant. Emma Portner’s choreography is spectacular, only adding to the immensity of the experience, as director Jay Scheib succeeds in incorporating visual effects that immerse the audience further into the tale.

The songs play out with an operatic fluidity as unnecessary dialogue has been mercilessly trimmed. Bat Out Of Hell is all about the music and as one classic number follows another, so too do the audience seem to channel their own energy back to the actors. By the finale the whole crowd are on their feet, screaming to the Coliseum’s lofty rafters, craving more.

If you're a Meat Loaf fan - the show is five star bliss, but even if you’re not just go and wallow in a night of premium rock opera. Side effects may include feet stomping, feelings of joy and acute whistling of songs upon leaving the theatre. Like a bat out of hell, get yourself tickets before they're gone gone gone.

Runs until 22nd August
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Specular

Saturday 17 June 2017

Hamlet - Review

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Icke

Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott’s take on Hamlet, in Robert Icke’s Almeida production that has just transferred to the West End, is a testament to the versatility of Shakespeare’s prose. With Benedict Cumberbatch, TV’s Sherlock, having been London’s last celebrity Hamlet, Scott’s (who played Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty) take on the role offers us a striking glimpse into the breadth of interpretation and intrigue that is offered by the Prince of Denmark.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s modern, flawless set, seamlessly lending itself from Elsinore’s grandeur to its dungeons, the cast offer up the classic tale with daringly long pauses and underplayed comic timing. They revel in the poetry and articulation that the dialogue commands so that the audience, however numb their bums are getting as the third hour passes, never miss a moment.

The play is directed with Icke’s signature dystopian flare. His is a Denmark obsessed with cameras on every corner and machine guns in authoritarian hands. Here it is only Hamlet who finds this setup odd and slightly ridiculous. Scott plays the perfect madman, convinced of his sanity in a world of insanity, grounded only by his friend Horatio (Joshua Higgott) and the wisdom in his monologues.

As Hamlet’s perceived craziness unravels, with Scott’s small voice and large gestures demanding a quiet room, there is little doubt of the incessant screaming inside this mourning man’s head, buried under his philosophical and iconic words.

The drama is all the better highlighted by Natasha Chivers’ lighting, unsettling the audience with flashing lights and almost spotlit soliloquies. Bechtler’s costumes dress Hamlet as a woeful performer, with others as uptight citizens in a despotic world. 

Jessica Brown Findlay’s marvellous Ophelia is a light in the darkness for everyone from Hamlet to Polonius (played with bumbling perfection by Peter Wight). The old man’s inherent waffling makes most sigh, smile and shake their head - thus his death is even sadder, with Ophelia’s loyalty and despair ever more understandable.

There is much clarity of tone from Scott and the ensemble, which occasionally contrasts with Icke’s work feeling rushed and muddled. Key moments unfold in seconds, while asides seem to last for minutes. And as for the play’s conclusion it is over in the blink of an eye, almost as if the dramatic action of the finale had not been given the same care and attention as elsewhere in the production.

Saying that, the show is well worth the night bus home, offering an evening of passion and surprise for even the most well-versed Shakespeare student. Scott’s is a Hamlet we can all relate to.

Runs until 2nd September
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Saturday 10 June 2017

After Anatevka - Review


Written by Alexandra Silber

Alexandra Silber’s first novel After Anatevka is a carefully crafted study into love and life in Russia in the early twentieth century. Much like Marc Chagall was to paint enchanted images of that era, so too do Silber's words offer a painstaking picture of a world long since disappeared. 

Not just a writer, Silber is amongst the finest musical theatre performers of her generation and on both sides of the Atlantic too. The novel however marks her own remarkable and professional journey which in this instance, and unconventionally, has gone from “stage" to "page”. Read on... 

Every now and then an actress can come along who leaves an indelible impression upon a role. Think here perhaps of Imelda Staunton's Momma Rose or Glenn Close’s sensational take on Norma Desmond. Far more intriguing however, is when the role turns out to have left its own indelible handprint on the heart of its performer. 

So it was in 2006, when Lindsay Posner chose Silber to play Hodel in what was to be his acclaimed production of Fiddler On The Roof at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. With Henry Goodman as Tevye the show was a sensation, becoming  swiftly earmarked for a West End transfer, playing at London’s Savoy for nearly two years.

Hodel of course is the second eldest of Tevye and Golde's daughters. When Perchik, the Jewish revolutionary firebrand blazes his way into the shtetl of Anatevka to steal her heart, what emerges is an onstage love story that is as sweet and inspirational as it is heartbreaking. It was 1894 when Sholom Aleichem breathed life into his fictional characters in his series of short shtetl-based yarns, collectively called Tevye The Dairyman. Some 70 years Joseph Stein was to draw on that creation in writing the book for Fiddler (a work that was only to be enhanced by Sheldon Harnick's Tony-winning lyrics). It has taken a further half-century for Silber to add a further thread into Aleichem, Stein and Harnick's golden literary tapestry.

One of the most poignant scenes in musical theatre's canon takes place on the platform of Anatevka's railway station. Some time earlier Perchik, branded as a political criminal by the tsarist regime, had been banished thousands of miles away to Siberia. His brief stay in the shtetl however had been long enough to win Hodel's committed and passionate love.  

Hodel realises that she must follow her heart to Siberia, and as the train approaches in the distance, she promises her father that she and Perchik will, one day, be married under a traditional Jewish canopy. Amidst the combined whirlwinds of political revolution, the impending destruction of Anatevka and the dispersal of its inhabitants across the globe, both father and daughter know that they are unlikely to meet again. When Hodel says to Tevye "God alone knows when we shall see each other again", the audience's hearts are broken. 

This scene is a manifestation of love at its most raw and pure. The exchange is carefully crafted prose which in the hands of skilled actors (and this scene has rarely come finer than with Silber and Goodman) can be a performance masterclass. Silber and Goodman did indeed break our hearts - but few (if any) in the audiences will have been aware of Silber's own tragedy that she brought to the role. Barely 23 years old at the time, she had borne the pain of losing her own and much loved father to cancer not long before taking on the role. The impassioned, blazing soul that fuelled Silber's performance was unforgettable.

And so, from the novel's background, to the tale of After Anatevka itself. It is a meticulously detailed story that paints a strangely recognisable picture of Russia’s imposing and corrupt hierarchy and the hardships wreaked upon those who offended the State. There are nosings of both Dostoevsky and Pasternak in Silber's work and she paints a picture of violence and violation as the backdrop to Hodel's remarkable quest to reach her betrothed and the life that they were to build amongst the salt mines of the East.

Silber's research has been thorough. Aside from studying archives of the vanished Jewish world of the Pale of Settlement she visited Siberia to understand for herself the detail and character of the region.

And yet, as well as the projecting the characters into their imagined futures, Silber also offers some charmingly imagined back-stories from the world of Anatevka that can only have come from a woman who has well and truly got under the skin of Tevye's daughters. For not only did Silber play Hodel in the UK, but two years ago in New York, when producers were searching for a Tzeitel for Bartlett Sher's (also acclaimed) revival of Fiddler, it was Sheldon Harnick himself who was to call Silber and ask her to re-visit his show, this time playing Tevye’s oldest daughter. Silber of course was again magnificent on stage and as an aside, the bond between Harnick and Silber is clear for the gifted lyricist has penned a sage and heartfelt foreword to the book.

Silber explores how the sisters grew up together. She offers Hodel's wistful perceptions on her older sister's strengths and capabilities, describing their shared childhood and how much their mother imbued in them the strengths and spiritual importance of 'tradition". The paragraphs in which Hodel recalls Golde instructing the girls in how to bake challah (the Jewish plaited loaf eaten on Sabbath) are but one example of the delightful detail with which Silber fleshes out her world.

There's also a fascinating back story to Perchik. Who would have guessed that this inspirationally handsome communist had started life as an accountant? Though while Perchik is surely no Leo Bloom, Silber breathes a fascinating life into his own troubled past  

After Anatevka is an impressive published debut. Alexandra Silber offers a profoundly perceptive yet quintessentially female take on a world in which tradition was both revered and challenged. Silber also gives us a stunning study into the power of love.

After Anatevka is published on 4th July 2017 and will be available from all good online book distributors

Thursday 8 June 2017

Working - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers &
Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor

Liam Tanme, Siubhan Harrison, Gillian Bevan,
Peter Polycarpou, Krysten Cummings & Dean Chisnall

It is remarkable how the mundane, simple and modest elements of hard graft, so often taken for granted, become the catalyst for the way you think and live your life, despite your best efforts to be defined by your dreams. Working, a musical directed by Luke Sheppard at the Southwark Playhouse, capitalises on that universal revelation with an incredible cast performing heartfelt, heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories of real people.

Without a narrative of sorts, the revolution that is Stud Terkel’s 1974 book (now on my Amazon wishlist) is celebrated as we’re invited into the lives of everyone from a hotel maid to a press agent, from firefighter to teacher. The seasoned cast relish the array of accents and sass, with no character left behind and no performance lacking and with their younger counterparts embracing their first post training roles with enough energy and glee to keep the hope alive even in the darkest moments. Under Isaac McCullough's baton, the tunes switch from cabaret to rock ballad to country, attributing to the multitude of musicians and writers credited which only adds to this celebration of the spice and variety of life.

Kicking off with an overture addressing the possibilities and downsides of worklife (“There are okay bosses or Satan bosses”) we are then thrown into the unknowingly deep thoughts of a fast food server and delivery guy (the mostly gleefully sweet Liam Tamne), the musings of a “Brother Trucker” (the very much not 19, Dean Chisnall), cue a rock ballad, and the pride of a steel worker (the endearing Peter Polycarpou) and that’s just a few from the guys. The range in the cast is incredible and drives the performance as the perky Indian customer service advisor warps into a pacifist with a screw loose. The ladies include Gillian Bevan perfectly presenting the pride of a lifelong waitress with a cabaret-esque number, Krysten Cummings bringing Whitney back as determined hotel maid and Siubhan Harrison bringing a tear to the eye as she harmonises the woes of factory labourer. It’s difficult to pinpoint a highlight, as it’s difficult to determine a more interesting story when they’re all told with the same pizazz.

In a world where it’s becoming more and more easy to forget the incredibly real and entirely fascinating lives of those who serve you coffee and build your homes, this musical is a welcome revival (and London premiere) and an eye-opening night. Oh, and so much fun.

Runs until 8th July
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Luke Sheppard talks about directing Working

Siubhan Harrison in Working

Any new musical from either Stephen Schwartz or Lin-Manuel Miranda makes for big news - so it is even more intriguing and exciting that this week at Southwark Playhouse sees Working make its European premiere - a show that is a collaboration of these two creative giants. 
The show is being directed by Luke Sheppard whose recent credits most famously include Miranda's In The Heights. This proved to be a show which achieved that holy grail amongst London's Off West End (or fringe) theatre scene by securing a fully invested transfer to a commercial venue in the capital, where it played for more than a year, garnering some considerable recognition and success at the Oliviers along the way.
As the rehearsals for Working were coming to an end, I spoke with Sheppard.

JB:     Luke, tell me about the strengths of the story that lies behind Working.

LS:     Well, to be absolutely honest with you, there isn't a story, but there is a narrative. There is no character in the piece that has a traditional journey as we would know it in a book musical even though the book was Tony nominated on Broadway.

It’s not a song cycle either. Rather it is a series of characters who take us on a narrative arc through their different jobs, throughout the piece. Essentially, its closest cousin is something like A Chorus Line because that is based on real experiences attached to a story narrative. Working however has deliberately always sought to remain detached from any sense of fictionalisation. It may not have a story, but what it does have is roots that are connected in, what is I think, arguably one of the first approaches to making a verbatim musical.

Stephen Schwartz took words from interviews and translated them into first monologues and then the songs, that now exist in this structure. I think part of what makes it so wonderful is that while it is totally unique, it’s not a story-driven musical, as people might have come to expect from shows at the Southwark Playhouse.

JB:     This is a most unusual project, bringing the long established talents of Schwartz together with Miranda. What has it been like to work with these two writers?

LS:     It's been a real passion project for Stephen. Working is a show that he's held very close to his heart over the decades, and he's been right behind us in what we’re creating. We keep him in the loop, and I flew over to see him in New York to explain our vision for the show. He really is our port of call as the kind of gospel for the show.

Lin-Manuel has been supportive, although we haven't seen much of him so far because, really, it's only two of his songs that are in the show, while Stephen is the father figure. But I do think that everyone who's ever been involved with Working feels a real fondness for it and are really excited that we're presenting it here.

JB:     And what about the cast? You have assembled a fascinating array of respected and established leads alongside a number of newcomers. Tell me more.

LS:     Yeah. Our cast are extraordinary. Literally, if we were doing this in the West End, every single one of them is who I would want to be playing these roles. Each day, in rehearsals, is just full of revelation after revelation.

We have six, I guess, in inverted commas, "grown-up actors," who play the roles, as per the scripts. We've made a decision to invite six young graduates along for the ride. We've created these six jobs for six graduates who were just leaving drama school and taking their first steps into the world of work, and invited them to essentially bring their opinion into the show, which absolutely informs every step of the production.

They're on stage throughout, and they become the mirror that we hold up to these professions and, also, the lens through which we see the piece. I hope that they will become the narrative that defines the show, that takes us on the emotional journey that Working demands, which is fundamentally all about presenting real people's words in a documentative way.

JB:     You worked with Lin-Manuel when you directed In the Heights a few years ago when, to be honest, his name was only know to the cognoscenti of musical theatre. Since then of course, with Hamilton, his rise to fame has been stratospheric. What has it been like, working with him in that transition?

LS:     It's been very exciting for In the Heights to have been a small part of that dialogue. I was drawn to that show because it's a piece of material that has, in my mind, a universal appeal, even though it's about a very specific community.

What Lin-Manuel does so brilliantly is writing work that is not only so connected to his own experience but can translate to such a wider perspective. In the Heights has been a very, very small part of that dialogue, but it's been wonderful to be a part of that journey.

JB:     You are also one of the very few people who's stewarded a show from a humble Off West End conception through to a full commercial transfer. Obviously you're not going to tempt fate and want to wish for something similar here - But........ 

LS:     Do we think it could have the same path? Actually, the brilliant thing about In the Heights was that it was never meant to do anything else. It was just meant to exist at Southwark. If you missed it, you missed it, and it would go away, and you'd never have another opportunity. The fact that it had a commercial life was a real surprise for us. It wasn't built to do that, and actually, if it was built to do that, we probably would have made different decisions that might have resulted in a less successful show. It was a real gift that the producers just trusted us to make it an event at Southwark and go from there.

And what I have loved about doing Working is that it's exactly the same ethos. It's put together by a team who want to come and work at this theatre, on this piece, and there's no other theatre in London where I would rather be debuting this show because of the industrial roots in the very architecture of the building!

Actually, we have never once talked about the show going any further which I find really refreshing. If you've always got one eye on the next step, then it's not always easy to make the most empowered choices for the audience who are coming to see the show right now. As it stands, this show is here for five weeks, and if you don't see it, you don't see it.

Working is a slice of something very bold and different, which is exactly what I think Off West End theatres are designed for and should be used for.

Working runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 8th July

Il Matrimonio Segreto - Review

Geffrye  Museum, London


Written by Domenico Cimarosa
Directed by Max Hoehn

Chiara Vinci and Mark Bonney

The idea that opera can pop-up is delightful and Pop-Up Opera’s simple approach to the genre, even more so. It’s no wonder Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto, or The Secret Marriage, is his greatest masterpiece and it’s also no wonder that the cast and crew seemed so full of pride at their humble creation; it really was quite gorgeous and a giggle to behold.

With just musical director Berrak Dyer on accompanying piano, the cast take us through the story of Paolino and Carolina’s farcical attempts to gain acceptance of their marriage from Carolina’s father, Geronimo. Helpfully and hilariously captioned by Max Hoehn and Harry Percival, who must be terrific company down the pub if their puns are anything to go by, we are taken on a whirlwind of emotion as betrothals go awry and Aunt Fidalma tries to get her leg over. Tom Asher as the Count is adorably attached to his bicycle helmet and somehow just as adorable in his creepy lovelorn attempts to win the affections of Chiara Vinci’s Carolina. Peter Kirk as poor, poor Paolino plays the perfect pushover, blissfully unaware of Fidalma (the hysterical Vivien Conacher) and her instruction-manual inspired lustful lurches until they find themselves in a more than compromising position.

The whole beautiful bunch are in absolute harmony from their voices (which never failed to incite goosebumps despite the less than fabulous acoustics of the downstairs space at the eclectic Geffrye Museum) to the familiarity that supported a performance based on trust, scarce props and a few coloured (and strong!) chairs.

The captions are awash with local references from referring to the room as “friends, Hoxtonians and countrymen”, to Elisetta’s declaration that she will inform “all of Shoreditch” that Carolina is a slapper, grounding the melodrama a little. As melodramatics is kind of what opera is all about though, we still find that the cast swoons (mostly the men), big bellies are embraced, solutions come in the form of tying people up and sending them to the nunnery and rolled “r”s are revelled in.

There is not one underwhelming performance in Pop Up Opera’s Il Matrimonio Segreto. Don't miss this fantastic troupe!

Currently touring the UK - click here for tour schedule
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Richard Lakos (The Other Richard)