Saturday 22 December 2018

Nutcracker - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographed by Wayne Eagling

One of the best-loved ballets, Nutcracker returns to London’s Coliseum and is a real festive treat from start to finish. 

Wayne Eagling’s lavish production for the English National Ballet, which premiered in 2010, is set on Christmas Eve. A young Clara is enjoying her parents’ Christmas party, where she is gifted a Nutcracker doll by her godfather Drosselmeyer, toymaker and magician, and shares a dance with his nephew. Later that night she dreams of an enchanted world with Nutcracker, who becomes Drosselmeyer’s nephew, the evil Mouse King and his army, and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. 

Tchaikovsky’s score is brought to life by the English National Ballet Philharmonic Orchestra and is paired with fine performances from members of the English National Ballet. Rina Kanehara is graceful and elegant as adult Clara, and shares brilliant chemistry with both Fernando Carratalá Coloma as the Nutcracker and Jeffrey Cirio as Drosselmeyer’s nephew. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux with Cirio was one of the show’s highlights. Credit must also go to the young performers from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, sure to be stars of the future, particularly the young Clara and Freddie, danced by Sophie Carter and Oscar Williams respectively.

This Christmas classic is a feast for the eyes thanks to the spectacular set and a wealth of stunning costumes courtesy of Peter Farmer, including the Sugar Plum Fairy’s beautiful Swarovski-studded tutu. It’s a somewhat dark production at times, with the evil Mouse King making his presence known even in the second act, but there are warm moments tinged with humour, notably during a winter scene complete with snowball fights and ice skating mishaps. It is in the second act that the production really comes into its own, with dances from around the world followed by the Waltz of the Flowers all showcasing the talents of the English National Ballet. 

At times it does get confusing with the Nutcracker and Dr Drosselmeyer’s nephew switching back and forth, particularly for younger members of the audience, and a slight niggle is that the hideous Mouse King does outstay his welcome in Act II. That said, Nutcracker is a charming and enchanting production sure to entertain and inspire people of all ages. 

There may be three versions of Nutcracker on in London this Christmas, but a standout company of dancers, magnificent score and the lavish surroundings of London’s Coliseum all combine to ensure that this festive treat is not-to-be-missed!

Booking until 29th December
Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington

Caroline, Or Change - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & lyrics by Tony Kushner
Directed by Michael Longhurst

Sharon D Clarke and Ako Mitchell

Caroline, Or Change is a curious show that sees a 5 Star cast deliver distinctly flawed material. Set in an early 1960s Louisiana, Sharon D. Clarke plays Caroline Thibodeaux, an African-American maid employed by the (Jewish) Gellman family. Caroline is low paid and hard working and Kushner and Tesori do a fair job in sketching out the prejudiced, poverty trap that blighted the South’s African-Americans, a situation that some may argue continues to the present day.

Where Thibodeaux, we learn, has three growing children for whom she heroically and proudly provides on little more than a hand-to-mouth basis, the Gellman household is a desert of dysfunctionality. Noah (played by the confident and cool Jack Meredith on the night of this review) is 9 years old. His mother having passed away some time back sees the boy now being raised by father Stuart and step-mother Rose (Lauren Ward) . Kushner goes on to suggest an intriguing, but ultimately fragile, bond between Noah and Caroline as the child seeks and apparently (so we are led to believe) receives, emotional succour from the matriarchal maid. Noah despises Rose, leaving Stuart reduced to little more than an (oddly) clarinet playing nonentity. The reed playing offers a possible musical twist but as an easy nod to perhaps a hint of klezmer in the score, its an unusually lazy touch from Tesori. Rose rarely strays from an angst and kvetch-ridden neurotic, while the Gellman grandparents offer little more than superfluous stereotypes.

In their portrayal of the African-American characters however, the writers soar. Caroline listens to the radio - itself embodied by three beautifully soulful singers, while the bus that she takes to and from her work, is also given a living soul. And one only needs a moment’s recollection of Rosa Parks to recognise the clunking symbolism of the bus in the narrative.

Technically it is not just Clarke who is award-winningly magnificent. Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus is, as ever, on fine form, while Abiona Omonua as Caroline’s daughter Emmie is another vocal star.

But taking a step back, one can see that Kushner and Tesori, possibly burdened by their white privilege, have deified Caroline and her community, while monstering America's Jews on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. In Rose’s petty fussing over Noah’s inability to recognise the value of even the smallest amount of loose change, she embodies one of the oldest anti-semitic tropes in the book: that of the Jew as mean and penny-pinching. It is (thankfully) not often that such a potentially hate-filled stereotype is played out on stage. 

In his musical Parade, Jason Robert Brown offered a passionate yet dignified exploration of the South’s capacity to hate both Jews and people of colour. Kushner lacks that dignity offering us instead his own personal expiatory, prompted possibly by a personal conflict with his Jewish heritage? In today's world of increasing hatred Kushner might have done better to have worked his issues out in the therapist’s chair, rather than impose them upon the theatregoers of Broadway and the West End.

Booking until 6th April 2019

Wednesday 19 December 2018

A Christmas Carol - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Written by Charles Dickens
Directed by Tom Cairns

Simon Callow

Simon Callow’s telling of A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre is theatrical perfection. A solo performance, aided only by subtly ingenious projections and the occasional, immaculately timed sound effect, sees Callow deliver Dickens’ classic festive fable in an 80 minute acting masterclass. Dressed plainly, but for the period, Callow’s narration is a tour de force, not only of vocal ingenuity - but of physical theatre too with his carefully choreographed movements only enhancing the story. 

it is of course in Callow’s voice that the story comes alive. His tone takes us through, not only Ebenezer Scrooge’s nightmares and ultimate redemption - but also the characters in Scrooge’s world. Without once resorting to hackneyed cliché, Callow voices the supporting cast in a way that not only convinces, but moves the audience too, removing us from our 21st century screen-based world of visual hyper-stimulation and returning us instead to the land of our imagination, supplemented only by the hints of Dickensian London in Cairns’ elegant, minimal stage design.

The phrase ‘national treasure’ is bandied about far too loosely these days - but Callow ranks there, up amongst our cultural crown jewels. With his mellow, mellifluous timbre and gorgeous cadence, Callow’s take on the story is flawless and unique. Voices such as his are rare - go and catch this gem of a performance - it truly is London’s Christmas cracker!

Runs until 12th January 2019
Photo credit: Laura Marie Linck

Sunday 16 December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - Review

Sadler’s Wells, London


Directed by Matthew Bourne

Will Bozier and Ensemble

As one of dance’s most iconic productions, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake returns home to a rapturous reception. The story of The Prince, starved of love and chained by duty, who finally finds love and acceptance in an unlikely place, is a tragedy. Yet Bourne’s trademark injection of comedy is dialled up tenfold in this production, with laughs drawn from staging (a mechanical corgi), performances (notably The Girlfriend, played in this performance by Carrie Willis) and premise (notably the ballet performance watched by the royals, poking fun at traditional ballet stereotypes).

While the plot scurries along, the most striking elements remain those that feature The Swan and his herd. Such is the iconography of this character that when he finally makes an appearance in Act 2, perfectly paired with Tchaikovsky’s quintessential score, there is a frisson of excitement in the audience.

The swans are truly extraordinary. Their casting as male dancers, coupled with their costuming, enables Bourne to perfectly capture their grace, ferocity and strength. This also serves as an homage to the athleticism of a dancer, usually concealed or, at the very least, downplayed.

Yet there are times where it’s clear that a larger stage is required for the swan troupe, particularly in A City Park; it simply feels that it has outgrown its roots. That aside, the stage is awash with exquisite costuming, opulent set design and explosive choreography.

Individually, the Prince (a sweet and earnest Dominic North) and The Swan (the powerful Will Bozier) are stunning. Together, they are not a typical pairing - but that serves only to highlight the atypicality of Bourne’s vision. The Queen (Katrina Lyndon) and Willis also contribute memorable performances combining theatrics with dance excellence, all the whole bolstered by a superb ensemble.

23 years after its original staging at London’s Sadler’s Wells, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is back with more electricity, punch and swagger than ever before. With a standing ovation, the audience agrees; this is a must-see.

Runs until 27th January 2019
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Johan Persson

White Christmas

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Emma Williams, Danny Mac, Dan Burton and Monique Young
There are few shows as comforting and traditional at this time of year as Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It’s a corny old yarn for sure that sees Dan Burton and Danny Mac playing Phil Davis and Bob Wallace and two ex-trouper/troopers who team up with the Haynes Sisters (Emma Williams and Monique Young) to put on  a show in Vermont, and rescue the business of their former and much loved commanding officer General Waverly who since the end of World War 2, has been running an upstate Inn and making horrendous losses.

Strip away the seasonal feel, and the story crumbles under close scrutiny. But with Berlin’s classic numbers and in the gifted creative hands of director Foster and his choreographer Stephen Mear, the evening becomes a fabulous feel-good delight.

Foster has established form in coaxing excellence from Mac and Williams, but it is Mear who offers the lucky citizens of Leicester their biggest Xmas treat by taking Burton and Young away from his usual seasonal offering at Paris’ Theatre du Châtelet, to their native side of the English Channel and pairing them at the Curve. These two actors have seen recent years allow them to develop an intuitive connection in their dancework – they surely have to be the finest movers in the nation’s musical theatre corps, proving this again with their  phenomenal footwork in the show’s second half opener I Love A Piano.

Mear of course delivers excellence from across his ensemble, with strong performances from Garry Robson as Waverly and from Wendy Mae Brown as Martha Watson, the General’s much put upon, (but ultimate) sweetheart and, on press night, the cutest turn from Georgia Stewart as his young granddaughter Susan.

A seasonally busy Jason Carr has done beautiful work arranging the Songbook classics, while the seven piece band, under Neil Macdonald’s direction, take the packed Curve houses all the way back to the 1950s – heck, the snowblowers even deliver a venue-filling blizzard as the audience delight in a singalong of the title number.

White Christmas maybe as cheesy as a fine old stilton, but it’s still first-class festive fayre!

Runs until 13th January 2019
Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

Friday 14 December 2018

Chasing Bono - Review

Soho Theatre, London


Written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Directed by Gordon Anderson

Denis Conway and Niall McNamee

Chasing Bono, on at the Soho Theatre over the festive season is a new play from Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, drawn from Neil McCormick’s remarkable autobiographical tale, I Was Bono’s Doppelganger. McCormick and Paul Hewson (Bono) were at school together, both harbouring ambitions of making it big in the music world. Where Bono was to triumph, McCormick, to quote the playwrights "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” spending his life in the shadows of his megastar pal, not only dealing (and coming to terms) with his own sense of failure but also to be fair going on to build a successful career as a rock journalist.

Clement and La Frenais have visited this story before, with a co-scripting credit for the 2011 movie Killing Bono. But the pair have sole authorship for this iteration which, staged in one 90 minute act, is perhaps the sweetest piece of new drama to hit London this year.

In a bizarre twist of real-life, many years back McCormick had been kidnapped by Irish gangsters. It is the mark of Clement and La Frenais’ genius that from this event they have woven a narrative that sees the hoodlum (fictionalised as Danny Machin in the play) demand that McCormick ghost-write his life story, and from which process spins out the remarkable story of McCormick’s own and very personal journey. The writing is fresh, perceptive and sharp, with the authors - whose pedigree includes some of British television’s finest comedy work - having an innate understanding of the human condition’s sweet spot,  allowing them to distil pure humour from humanity.

They are blessed with a perfect cast, nearly all of whom hail from across the Irish Sea. Niall McNamee puts in a beautifully weighted turn as McCormick. Riddled with angst and envy and frustrated at his own (comparative) ineptitude, he carries the play convincingly, capturing McCormick from schoolboy through to adulthood. Gifted with some of the play’s pithiest wit, Denis Conway is the hoodlum Machin. With spot on timing, Conway brings an avuncular menace to this curious comic creation, a man who’s imbued with more than a hint of Clement and La Frenais’ Grouty (from their BBC comedy Porridge) in his fictional DNA. There is strong work too from Dónal Finn as McCormick’s brother Ivan – with a nod to both Finn and McNamee for their fine work on acoustic guitar that permeates the evening, while in perhaps the play's toughest gig, Shane O’Regan pulls off a carefully crafted caricature of Bono through the years.

In another example of London’s fringe theatre at its unmissable finest, Chasing Bono offers an evening of flawless entertainment.

Runs until 19th January 2019
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Thursday 13 December 2018

The Merry Wives Of Windsor - Review

Barbican Centre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Fiona Laird

Karen Fishwick
The Barbican Centre concludes its RSC’s Autumn/Winter season with a playful production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a lesser-known but undoubtedly hilarious comedy featuring the lecherous and legendary John Falstaff. After the tragedies of Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet earlier in the season, this play is a welcome respite from the seriousness of the times, choosing fun and farce over politics.

Returning to the RSC and the Barbican after his triumph in Titus Andronicus last year is David Troughton as the drunken and self-proclaimed womanizer, Falstaff, his caricaturesque performance mirroring the cartoony nature of the plot, characters, script and direction. So it goes, Falstaff is short on cash but living it large in Windsor and has no intentions of slowing down. The comedy of errors (not that one) begins as he devises a plan to woo two wives who seem to have control over their husband’s purses: Mistress Ford (Beth Cordingly) and Mistress Page (Rebecca Lacey). When his identical love letters are discovered by the wives and his sacked servants spill the beans to their husbands, a tidal wave of wonderful and witty nonsense transpires as the wives trick Falstaff into hiding in bins and dresses to escape discovery. 

Alongside this mayhem a Frenchman, Welshman and Englishman all vie for the attention of the lovely Anne Page (Karen Fishwick). Jonathan Cullen is the Gallic Dr Caius, ever hilarious as he embraces the stereotype, complete with teeny moustache. Sir Hugh Evans (Welsh) is played by David Acton who coaxes his character’s plentiful countrymen in the audience to sing Bread of Heaven, while from England comes Fenton, played with bumbling glee by Luke Newberry  who Anne happens to adore, warts (oh giant wart) and all. This threesome, with support from Tom Padley’s bucktoothed Slender and Tim Samuels’ closeted Shallow, add merriment to the mayhem as this ensemble juxtapose the Only Way is Essex with Shakespeare... in a good way.

Lez Brotherston’s costumes are just terrific, perfectly mismatched in keeping with the juxtaposition. With neck ruffles meeting tailored suits, Tudor breeches meeting hairy chests, bodices meeting chainlink leggings and bosoms meeting... bosoms. Some things never go out of fashion. 

This isn’t high brow, and certainly not politically correct, but neither was Shakespeare! Go, enjoy and revel in the eccentric ridiculousness of it all.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

The Tell Tale Heart - Review

National Theatre, London


Written and directed by Anthony Neilson
Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe

Tamara Lawrance
Expectations are high for a festive ghost story from the National. With its world class resources, the theatre offers a wondrous potential to stage the most chilling of tales and when the source material is a famed Edgar Allan Poe short chiller, the anticipation is only heightened. But in Anthony Neilson’s The Tell Tale Heart transplant, Poe's gloriously gothic original is served up as a modern-day Christmas turkey.

There's attempted humour in the script, as horror can often sit alongside carefully crafted comedy. But Neilson’s three-hander fuses The Writer, The Landlady, and The Detective, (Tamara Lawrance, Imogen Doel and David Carlyle respectively) with dialogue that is crass, tacky and often puerile. Where monologues should be advancing the narrative, a glib joke about a girl being bullied by everyone around her because of her looks, is unforgivable. And in an unnecessary distraction the text plays fast and loose with sexualities too.

Good horror works well when the terror is subtle and the special effects are strong. While there are some scary touches of genius from designer Francis O’Connor, Nick Powell’s music doesn't quite hit the spot, and his sound design (where a strong bass heartbeat should be de rigueur) is woeful.

Perhaps the truly killer finish comes from the Writer’s final words: “the play is shite anyway”.

Runs until 8th January 2019
Reviewed by Eris
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 12 December 2018

A Christmas Carol : The Musical In Concert - Review

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

Griff Rhys Jones

It’s that time of year where once again Freddie Tapner gleefully conducts A Christmas Carol: The Musical in Concert at the West End's Lyceum Theatre for two nights (and a matinee) only. The classic tale is told with the help of a gorgeous cast including Welsh treasures Griff Rhys Jones, X-Factor finalist Lucie Jones together with the fabulous Cedric Neal who, along with an excellent company, bring Alan Menken’s score to life with plenty of Christmas cheer.

Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his moral comeuppance from three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future is a much beloved yarn. Here it is Rhys Jones who bah-humbugs his way through life much to the disappointment of his orphan nephew whose yearly invite to Christmas Dinner is met with gruff Griff’s lust for solitude (“Nothing to do with me!”). David Hunter is Bob Cratchit, his ever-suffering and ever-faithful employee whose son, Tiny Tim is on his last legs (sorry) not that Scrooge seems to mind nor notice. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s old partner Jacob Marley (a menacing performance by Jeremy Secomb) arrives with a spooky warning (“Link by link”) that Scrooge may be working his way toward an eternity of torment if he doesn’t give up his self-serving ways. Soon after, the three spirits show up to further open his curmudgeonly eyes to the error of his ways.

The score is full of old-school sentiment, arguably perfect for the time of year, though Cratchit’s sickly sweet exchanges with his son (the adorable Tobias Ungleson) are perhaps a little over sweet and hard to swallow. A few dance-along tunes help bring the festive spirit with Abundance and Charity, a company number led by the delightful Neal, a particular joy.

A few technical issues and lines lost in the London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s melody get in the way of a perfect evening but there is something to be said for gloriously unashamed Christmas celebration in this continuously turbulent time. Get a ticket and settle in for a fun night of relentless festive frolics, indulging yourself in the sheer escapism that comes with the season.

Performances on Monday 17th December at 4pm and 7.30pm
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Peter Pan - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by J.M.Barrie
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Alexander Vlahos

In an exciting and ambitious move for one of London’s leading Off-West End venues, the Park Theatre splash the cash on their Christmas production and with flying experts Foy on board, have arranged for Peter Pan and Wendy to soar through the space of the Park 200. And if the look of wonder in the eyes of the kids in the audience on press night is anything to go by, it has been money well spent.

Jonathan O’Boyle directs a cast who (except for a few tiny tweaks) stay true to J.M. Barrie’s original play script, itself a precursor to his famous novel. Nickcolia King-N’Da plays the boy who never grows up in a muscular, yet impish performance that convinces charmingly. Indeed – at the end of the story (spoiler alert for those who don’t know the yarn) as Mrs Darling welcomes her returned children back into the fold, while Peter remains outside, it would take a hard-heart in the audience not to shed a tear, not only at the moment’s classic traditionality but also, tragically, at its timeless relevance.

Alexander Vlahos takes on the traditional double-hander of Mr Darling / Captain Hook and delivers a menacing delight. Barrie clearly had a beef against the patriarchy in his writing, and while this production is most definitely not a pantomime (whilst remaining wonderful family theatre), as Hook receives his deserved “boos” from the audience, one cannot help but grin. Elsewhere, aside from the three Darling children, there is much doubling up amongst the cast. They are all good – but a special shout-out to Alfie Webster who aside from playing a couple of Hook’s pirates, does a sensational job in giving canine life ito the Darlings’ dog Nana.

A mention too for the exceptional sound and set design teams. Adrienne Quartly’s sound design, not only gives a moving (literally) twist to the free spirit of Tinkerbell, but she also conjures up the locations of London, Mermaid Lagoon and Hook’s galleon wondrously. Gregor Donnelly’s set and costume design, likewise, is sensational. Clever backdrops and a beautifully timbered floor create the basics for all sorts of surprises. Nana (created by Matthew Hutchinson) is a gem of a creation – and as for the crocodile, ingenious and snappy!

The Park’s Peter Pan is beautifully festive theatre.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Photo credit: Chris Gardner

Saturday 8 December 2018

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Judy Kuhn and Andy Nyman

One can only wonder if, when Fiddler On The Roof was being scheduled for the Menier over this Christmas season, that the producers were aware that the chill winds of antisemitism that whip through the show’s narrative would again be so prevalent in the UK. For rarely does a show present such a polarised contrast between a glorious celebration of life and the stark reality of man’s inhumanity.

Trevor Nunn helms this latest outing of the Broadway classic and together with a gifted cast and crew alongside the unique intimacy of the Menier’s space, he crafts a charming interpretation of life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Andy Nyman steps up to the role of Tevye, beautifully bearded, he makes fine work of perhaps the world’s most famous milkman. The role is massive – in both its vocal and physical demands, as well as the emotional spectrum that defines Tevye’s journey. If Nyman is not quite there yet with some of the more finely nuanced moments, he is a gifted performed who will surely settle into the songs’ full ranges as the show matures. He does however capture the worldly, weary wisdom of the beloved husband and father he portrays, bringing an authenticity to the role that catches the audience’s feelings at unexpected moments. There is a depth to his Tevye that has, quite possibly, not been witnessed on these shores since Topol.

Judy Kuhn is Golde, bringing her recent previous experience of the role from Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production. Again, and for the first time in decades over here, Kuhn brings an authentic credibility to Tevye’s spouse, offering a clearly defined relief to the complexities and triumphs that have seen her's and Tevye's 25 year old marriage become such a strong family bedrock.

Not just at the top, there is inspirational casting throughout Nunn’s compay. The always excellent Louise Gold delivers a perfect Yente, taking a tiny role and breathing a new life into its significance. Dermot Canavan’s Lazar Wolf captures the wealthy butcher's financial power within Anatevka's tiny community and yet, ultimately, his vulnerability too. As Perchik, Stewart Clarke convinces as a young Jewish firebrand. There is, perhaps, a little more that all three of the adult daughters could bring to their respective roles and challenges – but to say any more would be unnecessarily harsh, for above all this Fiddler is a work of rare beauty.

And that beauty is essentially derived from Nunn’s inspired staging. Robert Jones' design transforms the Menier with aged timbers encompassing the whole space, hinting at the impoverished architecture of the shtetl. And yet, amidst this darkened wood and with the company playing out in the venue’s thrust space, audience raked around them on three sides, there is almost a hint of an Eastern European synagogue settled upon the theatre. So much so that in the first act's wedding scene, as Motel stamps upon the glass to seal his marriage to Tzeitel, this reviewer felt more akin to being a guest at the wedding, rather than just a critical audience member. It was as much as one could do to hold back from joining in with the cast and shouting a hearty “Mazeltov” from the third row!

Nunn delivers inspirational work on Tevye’s Dream too, always a moment of comedy horror when done well. Intriguingly, the performer playing Grandmother Tzeitel is not credited in the programme, but one detects however that perhaps an both an age and gender swap has occurred in the old lady's casting (and actually, it works brilliantly too!)

And there is quality too across the show’s creative team. Matt Cole offers up a worthy working of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, while Jason Carr’s orchestrations and Paul Bogaev’s direction bring a verve to Jerry Bock’s score. 

In short – this production is both an imaginative yet also reassuringly traditional take on a much loved show. In eschewing any trendy political statement to hang around his work, Nunn has made it all the more poignant and powerful. Deservedly sold out for the rest of its Menier run, his Fiddler On The Roof is a must-see musical.

Runs until 9th March 2019
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 6 December 2018

Aladdin - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written and directed by Susie McKenna

Clive Rowe
There’s something truly magical about panto at the Hackney Empire. Writer/director Susie McKenna delivers her 20th (oh yes it is!) festive production with a show that captures the diversity of her London patch, yet cleverly avoids cultural appropriation and all the while managing to maintain the joyous irreverence that makes pantomime such a glorious British Christmas tradition.

Set on the fictional island of Ha-Ka-Ney, McKenna’s company of Mare Street stalwarts launders the age-old Middle-Eastern cum Chinese fairytale into a 21st century iteration that it is anything but washed out. Obeying the genre’s conventions meticulously, Gemma Sutton is the titular Principal Boy (as McKenna lobs in a bravely scripted swipe at gender-fluidity too!). Sutton of course, as this website has long proclaimed, is up there with the best of her generation in UK’s musical theatre and it shows! She brings poise and precision to the role, capping it off with her wondrous voice. Her leading the company in The Greatest Showman’s This Is Me is spine-tingling.

Making his return to Hackney’s panto after a short sabbatical, Clive Rowe shares the bill-topping honours with his wonderful Widow Twankey. Showmen aside, Rowe is arguably The Greatest Dame of our time. His presence is sublime with razor sharp wit and precision timing making each one of the corniest, smuttiest gags sparkle. Rowe’s gift for pantomime is a rarity and his beautifully frocked, twerking Twankey is worth the ticket price on its own.

In time-honoured tradition, McKenna lampoons the lunacy of our leaders, with Brexit and assorted Tories coming in for some well-deserved flack. But if there is one criticism of the piece, it is the bias. Given the current debacle that is manifest throughout our political class, there is no reason to have let Labour off the hook quite so lightly.

Other top-notch Hackney regulars comprise the classy company. Notables are Tameka Empson, released by the Beeb from her duties on Albert Square to play the Empress, Julie Yammanee’s Princess, Kat B's energetic Genie and Tony Timberlake’s dastardly Abanazar. Heck, they’ve even roped in stage legend (and Mckenna’s missus) Sharon D. Clarke to voice a Goddess!

Whilst the show’s budget may not be as palladian as some, not only are Hackney’s tickets affordable but the show's professionalism and panache are a treat, well earning it the moniker of “London’s No 1 panto”. McKenna continues to create the very essence of pantomime - a show that is firmly rooted in its local community, yet packing a hilarious punch with technical excellence. (And did this review even mention Steven Edis' music, the stunning flying dragon scene or Richard Roe’s super-slick tap-dance routine?)

Meanwhile Clive Rowe's Widow Twankey, masquerading as Cher and serenading Abanazar with ABBA’s Fernando, will stay with me for a long, long time.

Runs until 6th January 2019
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Hot Gay Time Machine - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss

Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Toby Marlow

You enter a dark basement in the heart of the West End. RuPaul is blaring, lights are flashing and there is dancing. Yet this is not a club. Instead it’s Hot Gay Time Machine.

What is that, exactly? It’s hot, and gay and a time machine, so proclaim co-writers Toby Marlow and Zak Ghazi-Torbati (the third member of this creative team is Lucy Moss). A not entirely helpful answer but one that does provide an indication of what’s to follow in the ensuing 75 minutes.

This show tells a version of the performers’ stories, specifically those incidents that bear relation to their identities - such as coming out to their mums, navigating school and finding a gay best friend. It’s a story about their friendship, packaged up in a musical ‘extravaGAYNza' comedy cabaret.

They - the Hot Gays and Lucy - describe this show as a joke that’s gone too far. It was an idea that escalated into an actual commitment at their university and was produced on a £400 budget in a week.

We know that Marlow and Moss can write fantastically sharp songs. They are, after all, the creators of SiX: The Musical - the award-winning hit show - and something that the former pleasingly refers to on stage. With Ghazi-Torbati added into the mix, the result is even sharper and, on occasion, close-to-the-bone humour. Its a trifecta of witty lyrics, pop music structures and strong vocal performances that delivers immense joy.

The beauty of a production like this is that it allows for performers’ personalities to shine through with a full beam, beyond what is intrinsically woven into the script and score. It’s the moments where they break character as a result of ad libs or improvisation that heighten the laughs. This fluidity works well in the Trafalgar's bijou Studio 2, a veritable cockpit where no expression goes unseen.

Standout elements include songs such as ‘Couldn’t Get It Up’, Marlow’s pink hot pants and both performers’ flawless make-up looks. - and all of the sass. Marlow’s character is the more cutting of the two, while Ghazi-Torbati’s is the sweeter foil.

A former Edinburgh hit, it’s now been transplanted to London’s West End, while firmly maintaining its Fringe feel. It’s a tricky challenge to address; how do you maintain a balance between raw creativity and a polished production? But this team manages to strike the right chord.

In a very fitting end, the show ends with a standing ovation, followed by a dance party and, finally, a sashay away.

Runs until 5th January 2019
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

True West - Review

Vaudeville Theatre, London


Written by Sam Shepherd
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn

Squeezed into a lean and tightly filled two hours, Sam Shepherd’s True West is an acerbic glimpse of domestic dysfunctionality that plays out in sweltering Southern California, a blasted backfiring of the American Dream.

In this piece of exquisite theatre Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn are brothers Austin and Lee. The Ivy League educated Austinis apparently the slicker of the two, with a promising career beckoning as a Hollywood screenwriter. Lee, who initially suggests echoes of Oklahoma’s Jud, is poorly educated, a drifter as well as  a (potentially violent) criminal.

Yet Shepherd’s genius lies in showing that between these two siblings, once the trappings of academia are discarded, the smarts are equally shared. As layers are stripped away, so is the menace is calculatingly increased - and yet for all the improbability of Lee’s apparently usurping his brother’s gift for storytelling, Shepherd gives this tale of sibling rivalry a ghastly plausibility.

Perfectly cast, Harington is bookish, bespectacled and moustachioed - a wimp against the ripped six pack of his brother’s (bare chested in the second half) frame. Yet both men immerse themselves in compelling performances, ratcheting up the suspense with perfectly delivered dialogue, and immaculately choreographed movement. (Bravo fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) 

The creative talent behind the production is flawless. Director Matthew Dunster painstakingly eliciting every carefully weighted nuance from Shepherd’s already well-honed script, as Jon Bausor’s ingenious trailer-trash set and Joshua Carr’s lighting, perfectly capture the Mojave desert’s oppression.

Dated perhaps, but the play’s dynamism is timeless. Harington and Flynn define scorching drama in what is unmissable theatre.

Runs until 23rd February 2019
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday 30 November 2018

Ennio Morricone In Concert At The O2 - Review

The O2, London


Maestro Ennio Morricone
(Last year Turkish TV channel TRT World broadcast this 6 minute tribute to Morricone - At 2:12 into the clip, I am interviewed about the Maestro)

Ennio Morricone played London for the last time this week, his farewell visit to the capital heralding the gifted composer’s imminent retirement.

But what a spectacular farewell. In an evening that largely revisited the programme of his 60 Years in Music concert  from early 2016, (my review to that gig below) and again with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with whom the Maestro recorded his Oscar winning score for The Hateful Eight, for the best part of three hours Morricone conducted a heavenly symphony of instrument and voice. Enchantingly sprinkled with l’italianità, the concert was a unique fusion of cinema, music and passion.

And enchantment is no understatement as to witness this musical genius conducting  the music that he has created is to see a summoning up of spiritual wonder. With more than 200 souls breathing life into his work within the sold-out O2, the Maestro wielded his baton as a sorcerer might wave a wand, delivering an evening of sheer magic and displaying an energy that belied his advanced years.

Hearing Morricone conduct his work live offered a chance, not just to re-enter the ethereal cocoon of his music, but also to observe some of the finer details woven into his compositions: the harp melody incorporated into The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; the fusion of baroque, tribal and sacred that make up On Earth As It Is In Heaven from (what should have been an Oscar winning score) The Mission. The detail that underlies his melodies and orchestrations is breathtaking.

The evening’s programming was inspired too, with the staccato Tarantella seamlessly segueing into Susanna Rigacci’s sublime soprano take on Nostromo. Morricone could almost have written for Rigacci’s voice – her delivery of the the vocal line in The Ecstasy Of Gold proving almost literally, an ecstatic, spine-tingling flourish to what is possibly the Maestro’s signature tune. Dulce Pontes offered a second wave of vocal delight – with no number sung more verve-infused than the lesser known, samba-esque Aboliçao from the 1969 movie Burn!.

The choral background to the evening came from the Crouch End Festival Chorus who, when called upon, were magnificent – with none finer than their own exquisite soprano Rosemary Zolynski who more than deserved her handful of solo moments.

Rigacci and Pontes both returned to the stage for powerful, passionate encores but perhaps the sweetest moment of the encore'd movements came from the delicate beauty of the Cinema Paradiso themes - reducing many in the packed arena to tears.

Now in his tenth decade, while there may have been an aura of mortality to the occasion, there was not a jot of frailty in Morricone’s presence. We may never witness the Maestro perform live in London again - but he has gifted to the world a musical legacy that will live forever.

My review of Ennio Morricone's 2016 Concert  at the O2