Tuesday 30 January 2018

Rothschild & Sons - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sherman Yellen
Based on The Rothschilds by Frederic Morton
Directed by Jeffrey B. Moss

Robert Cuccioni

Playing at the Park Theatre for one month only, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s Rothschild & Sons marks the European premiere of a show that (as The Rothschilds) first played Broadway in 1970. Several years earlier Fiddler On The Roof had defined the pair’s credentials in setting the travails of Europe’s Jewry to music. But where Fiddler’s fictional action never left the village of Anatevka, Rothschild & Sons spans the continent with its history.

There was clearly a lot going on in the late-18th century that was to inspire future musical theatre creatives. In North America Alexander Hamilton was carving out his career, while in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, the young impoverished Mayer Rothschild showed a canny eye in recognising antiquities and selling them to the city’s wealthy classes. His circumstances slowly improved, Mayer married Gutele and they had five sons. As they in turn matured, so too did Rothschild’s shrewdness, with a combination of circumstances and negotiation placing him in the fortuitous position of broking a loan from Prussia’s royalty to the king of Denmark and from there, the Rothschild fortune grew. The narrative soon shifts focus to son Nathan who, against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, is tasked with investing the family wealth on the trading exchanges of London.

Mayer Rothschild was driven not only by an inspired combination of chutzpah and prudence, but was also a profoundly driven philanthropist, longing for the Jewish people to be freed from the imposed segregation and ghettos confining them in continental Europe. When the German Prince Metternich was to renege on a commitment that he had made to liberate the country’s Jews in exchange for a war loan from Rothschild, Mayer died broken-hearted. It was to be his sons who in a commercially daring and risky move, were to finally force Metternich into giving the Jews their liberty.

As a musical, the show works as an entertaining and informative one-act history. Its structure however feels firmly rooted in the 1970s (although an off-Broadway take on this reworked version had a creditable run in 2015). Where Fidder’s women were a driving force in that musical (itself drawn from a story originally titled Tevye And His Daughters) Gutele is marginalised, her maternal love and anxieties reduced to little more than footnotes.

A nice production touch sees Robert Cuccioni lead as Mayer. Cuccioni, over from America for the show, played Nathan off-Broadway in 1990 before leading the 2015 production and he brings a rich depth to the character that faintly echoes Topol’s Tevye. He portrays a compelling yet compassionate strength within the visionary Rothschild and is also blessed with a majestic voice that drives the show, convincing in his patriarchal stature. Opposite Cuccioni, Glory Crampton, another American import, replicates her 2015 Gutele with fine vocal work in the comparatively modest role.

Of the five sons, Gary Trainor’s Nathan is the most compelling, with that complex chemistry that can exist between father and son cleverly explored between him and Nathan. In his duet with Mayer, What’s To Be Done? both men smart with the humiliation and agony of Jew hatred that permeated Europe, while in This Amazing London Town, Trainor captures not only Rothschild’s ability to profit from commodities, but also his recognition of the thinly veiled prejudice and cultural contempt shown to him by the English.

In a range of cleverly caricatured cameos Tony Timberlake plays the wigged contemptuous nobility of Europe from both sides of the Channel, with a hint of the satire that underlies Hamilton’s King George here too (men in wigs will always look ridiculous). Harnick’s lyrics cleverly expose the vile moral bankruptcy of the elite, as Bock’s melodies offer up a minor-key medley of melancholy and oppression.

The production is another example of London’s off-West End at its finest, seeing a relatively obscure musical dusted down and shipped across the Atlantic (and under the watchful eye too of a 93 year old Sheldon Harnick, in the Park Theatre audience for press night). Ben van Tienen made fine work of the score, as Pam Tait's costumes were meticulous in their suggestions of both time and place.

In our modern era Rothschild & Sons is unlikely to sustain a full blown commercial revival - but at its core it nonetheless remains yet another paean to man’s inhumanity. While Hitler’s 20th century Holocaust was unquestionably the worst display of industrialised slaughter of a people, he was only executing a long held hatred that had burned across Europe for centuries. Rothschild & Sons reminds us that the ultimate institutionalised racism, the state-sponsored ghettos of anti-semitism, had long preceded the Nazis. The show may date from the 1970s - its message however is timeless.

Runs until 17th February
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday 18 January 2018

Heartbreak House - Review

Union Theatre, London


Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Phil Willmott

The Company

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, stylistically inspired by Anton Chekhov, was first performed in 1920. Set on the brink of the First World War, its message about the very real danger of political indifference chimes with today’s audience.

The story plays out across a single evening; Hesione Hushabye the lady of the namesake house has invited Ellie Dunn, her father and her fiancé to dinner, with Hushabye’s sister’s unexpected arrival further complicating the dynamics. Refreshingly, the dinner is not the focal point. Rather, the real draw is the mix of guests plucked from a wide cross-section of society – there is a capitalist, a bohemian, an aristocrat, the poverty-stricken and more – with what should give rise to intriguing interactions. 

The audience is privy to several social commentaries embedded in a narrative that revolves around each character’s own desires and selfish motives. We see a great deal of talk about the role of women – both in the home and wider society. There’s also some dissection of society’s composition and differences between the rich and the poor, bohemians and puritans, politically engaged and politically indifferent. 

However, Shaw’s script takes a while to get going and it’s only towards the end of the second act that the social commentary swells to a crescendo, by which point it’s all feeling a little too contrived. 

Nonetheless Wilmott has a solid cast working with this challenging script. JP Turner’s Boss Mangan is appropriately brash, Ben Porter makes for an endearing Mazzini Dunn and Mat Betteridge’s Hector Hushabye is a commanding presence.  Although James Horne’s portrayal of the simultaneously confused and shrewd Captain Shotover might seem slightly excessive at the outset, his gradual softening heightens the intrigue, making this a performance to watch. But Helen Anker’s standout performance as the effervescent Hesione Hushabye is the one to leave an imprint after the figurative curtain falls. 

The set design (Justin Williams and Johnny Rust) excels. Nestled in an archway beneath train tracks, the Union Theatre makes an ideal home for Heartbreak House. The result is a house façade that mirrors the nautical theme that runs throughout. The set stretches upwards, providing a clever birds nest-esque nook for Captain Shotover, lending further weight to his frequent godlike interjections into the conversations taking place below. Moreover, the overhead rumble of passing trains could pass for crashing waves, nicely complementing Philip Matejschuk’s sound design.

Much is packed into one evening and the heartbreak alluded to in the title is cleverly determined to be both of conventional and unconventional forms. Yet the play is ultimately held back by the playwright’s desire to say something of importance, rather than an actual delivery of a narrative via well-formed characters who interact with authenticity.

Ultimately though, with a message that is as relevant today as it was almost a hundred years ago, Heartbreak House remains a story worth retelling. 

Runs until 3rd February
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday 2 January 2018

2017 - My Diamond Dozen

In what has been another full and stimulating year of reviewing countless revivals and some occasionally excellent new writing, below are the twelve productions that have impressed me the most during 2017.

3 are plays, 9 are musicals.

Even more compellingly, only 6 of the 12 originated in London. Of the remaining 6 shows (one of which hails from France) 5 were created in the UK's regions. This speaks volumes for the vast amount of creative and performing talent that sits outside the M25.

In alphabetical order, here is my 2017 Diamond Dozen with links to each show's original reviews:

42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

A Christmas Carol at the Lyceum, London from the London Musical Theatre Orchestra

A Little Night Music at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Follies at the National Theatre, London

King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Pippin at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Singin’ In The Rain at the Grand Palais, Paris

Sunset Boulevard at Curve, Leicester

The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London

The Revlon Girl at the Park Theatre, London

Top Hat at Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Singin' In The Rain - Review

Theatre du Châtelet at the Grand Palais, Paris


Music by Nacio Herb Brown
Lyrics by Arthur Freed
Book by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Directed by Robert Carsen

Dan Burton
Fittingly, the reviewing year has ended in the grandest of styles at Paris’ Grand Palais to where the city’s illustrious Theatre du Châtelet have temporarily decamped, reviving their 2015 production of Singin’ In The Rain. A "Grand" venue demands an equally grand show to fill it, and with their sensational company Robert Carsen and choreographer Stephen Mear have done just that.

The musical’s story is a 1952 movie classic that was only ever brought to the stage some 30 years later by Tommy Steele at the London Palladium. But with a libretto crammed with American Songbook greats, an evening here feels like revisiting a masterpiece that’s straight out of Broadway’s Golden Age. The plot is as heartfelt as it is corny, set in the 1920s as silent movies are on the wane. The demand for talkies engulfs Hollywood and Lina Lamont, Monumental Pictures' starlet silent siren finds herself challenged by her ghastly squawking voice, a sound that is completely at odds with her stunning physical beauty. Monumental's leading man Don Lockwood fortuitously meets the beautifully voiced Kathy Selden who agrees to dub Lamont’s vocals. Scheming shenanigans famously unfold, for the most part inspired by Lockwood’s cunning musical accompanist Cosmo Brown, until a happy ending prevails with Selden and Lockwood falling blissfully in love.

Monique Young and Dan Burton
If a show with such a slight and clichéd story is to speak to a 21st century audience, then its production values can be nothing less than flawless and (by implication) expensive. With the Mayor of Paris happily associated with the show, it appears that the budget has been substantial. Not only has Tim Hatley’s scenery been beautifully designed for the show, the stage itself has been created within the vast, glass dome of the Grand Palais (google the place, you’ll thank me) and it is a credit to both Hatley and the show’s (uncredited) sound designer that the acoustics are perfect. Likewise, Anthony Powell’s costumes are just sumptuous, dripping in period-perfect Flapper-glamour and crafted with minute attention to detail. Wielding the baton, Gareth Valentine (another Châtelet regular) makes magnificent work of Brown’s melodies.

Dan Burton leads as Lockwood. Returning to the role from 2015, Burton is clearly Stephen Mear’s “go to” triple-threat performer. This website has long praised Burton’s talent and in a role that sees him onstage for most of the show Burton makes the most intricate of moves seem effortless, with mellifluous vocals transforming 70-year old tunes into fresh delights. And when it comes to the famous title number, both the Châtelet company and Burton deliver magnificently. The water cascades onto the stage as Burton pays heartfelt homage to Gene Kelly’s immortal routine. A nod too to Jo Morris, who has worked with the company to faithfully recreate Mear’s choreography of two years ago.

Kathy Selden is played by Monique Young who wowed this Paris audience last year as Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. In another display of triple-threat magnificence, Young defines Selden’s tender strength. Her takes on You Are My Lucky Star and Would You? mark her out as a gifted performer of classic numbers, while her footwork (notably stunning in Broadway Melody) is a blur of brilliance.

Emma Kate Nelson
Playing one of the more challenging roles in the canon, Emma Kate Nelson is Lina Lamont. This nasty-girl character could barely be shallower, yet Nelson transforms her into a completely credible creation. Lamont’s one solo number, What’s Wrong With Me, can be a beast to sing for a trained performer trying to preserve her voice as she squawks. Nelson makes it a delight in another example of perfect casting.

There's excellence too from Daniel Crossley’s Cosmo Brown. Cosmo’s comic responsibilities are critical to the narrative and Crossley’s timing in both physical and spoken humour is spot-on. Make ‘em Laugh and a wealth of other moments all contribute to comedy gold. There are other gems that lurk within this company as Jennie Dale (playing dialogue coach Miss Dinsmore) earns a rapturous whoop of applause for her deft display of tap dance in Moses Supposes.

Daniel Crossley, Jennie Dale and Dan Burton
Theatre du Châtelet have a deserved reputation for excellence in their annual presentation of a classic English language musical - they simply set out to hire, and to produce, the best in the business. If only a UK producer were to one day ship a Châtelet show back across the Channel......

Runs until 11th January
Photo credits: Vincent Pontet and Marie-Noëlle Robert