Tuesday 27 February 2018

Harold and Maude - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Written by Colin Higgins
Directed by Thom Southerland

Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock

The art of telling truly great stories is in part a science. A captivating premise and fully formed characters can offer an opening for an audience to connect with a production. Occasionally it’s done well. But when the formula is perfected, the result is undeniably pure magic. 

Hopeful, joyous and hilarious, Harold and Maude is one of these instances that nudges towards perfection. It is the story of a nineteen-year-old who is deeply disconnected from the world, a much older woman who with a profound connection to life and their effect upon one another after meeting at a funeral. Yet while much may be made of the scandalous nature of the relationship for the age gap spanning several decades, to describe it in these terms alone is reductive. 

Harold Chasen (Bill Milner) perfectly articulates the façade that a young man might put up to shield himself from a mother’s projections on to her son. Mrs Chasen (Rebecca Caine) is a formidable yet not monstrous woman, desperate only for her son to grow up and take responsibility, but in the form of a respectable marriage. It is, after all, all she knows.

As Harold spends more time with Maude, we witness how he blooms beneath her revitalising effect. She has lived so many lives, while Harold has yet to live one and the contrast is stark.

Sheila Hancock as Maude is utterly captivating; a magnetic, technicolour whirling dervish, it should come as no surprise that Harold falls in love with her. She is spectacularly lovable and unbelievably believable.  

A snappy – yet not rushed – script lovingly draws out the nuances in key relationships; between the titular characters, Harold and his mother, Harold and the world, Maude and the world. Amidst it all there are many things including a seal, a gong, a tree and some extraordinary paintings. None of this is superfluous, though. Everything has a part to play and bears testament to a masterful feat of set design (Francis O’Connor) and direction. 

The supporting cast are fantastically humorous and talented, alternating between bringing Michael Bruce’s score to the stage with an array of instruments and playing various characters. Samuel Townsend delivers a particularly noteworthy performance.  

When told well, coming of age stories are very often a reminder of the fragility and beauty of life, inspiring a carpe diem attitude tempered with immense gratitude. That the ‘Harold and Maude effect’ delivers this message completely liberated of any subtleties is a shining beacon of hope for humanity in otherwise trying times. Like Maude herself, it really is ‘an original talker’ and a production entirely befitting her sparkle.

Runs until 31st March
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Sunday 25 February 2018

A Night At The Oscars - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Laura Sillett, Kieran Brown, Steven Dalziel, Natalie Green

A Night At The Oscars is the latest revue to showcase some of the last century’s finest songs. In two hours (and two acts) Bronagh Lagan’s cast whirl their way through snatches of 60 songs all of which have an association with either Academy Award nominees or winners.

Chris Burgess has weaved a well-researched narrative that interjects moments of history and comment along the way. The strength of the show though rests in the talents of the 4 performers who make this snapshot tour of much of the American Songbook (and indeed, beyond) such a polished gem.

Kieran Brown, Steven Dalziel, Natalie Green and Laura Sillett are all on top form. Amidst so many classic songs it is hard to highlight the (many) treats, but the stand out moments from the women were both Judy Garland numbers from the first half. Sillett delivered an exquisite take on Yip Harburg’s Over The Rainbow that captured the song’s powerful fragility. The act’s closing number saw Green sing The Man That Got Away with a handling of the song that made for a spine-tingling heartbreaker, a reminder that this is a number that’s not heard often enough.

Dalziel and Brown offered a memorably tight duet of Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (Harburg again) and also an unexpected close harmony of What’s New Pussycat. The tongue in cheek highlight of the gig however was undoubtedly Brown’s powerful delivery of Live And Let Die – he was magnificent!   

It is a credit to producer Katy Lipson for assembling such spot-on talents for her quartet who are well supported by musical director Ben Ferguson and choreographer Chris Cuming, who has produced well drilled excellence from his tiny cast in the Gatehouse’s compact space.

Carefully curated by Burgess, A Night At The Oscars is a charming production of a delightful idea.

Runs until 4th March, then playing at the Radlett Centre on 11th March
Photo credit: Tim Hall

Scott Alan Live At Zedel - Review

Live At Zedel, London


Scott Alan

Back in London for a one week residency in January, Scott Alan was in sparkling upbeat form as he played to a packed audience at Live At Zedel. With the human condition having long been Alan’s muse, the last time he’d played this venue had been a short season that proved to be an introspective glimpse into a soul heavy with sadness. One year on and it is clear the songwriter is in a much happier place. With boyfriend Jerry sat in the audience, the gig was a collection of songs new and old, woven into a set-list riddled with Alan’s hallmark rapid fire irreverence.

Opening with Goodbye New York, a number from his new album Lifeline, Alan brought a Billy Joel like intensity to his performance. The song, inspired by his move away from Manhattan to Florida was wry and reflective yet at the same time vibrant and set a neatly balanced tone for the evening.

On the night of this review there were three featured guest vocalists – Tyrone Huntley, Kayleigh McKnight and Tim Newman. To much joshing banter from Alan, Huntley was up first delivering sweet interpretations of Kiss The Air followed by Sail. Newman followed with an equally nuanced albeit distinctly different style, to take on I’ve Already Won. Alan himself wrapped up the first half with another new song (inspired by Jerry), My Unexpected Melody.

The second act kicked off with McKnight and Huntley delivering a powerful duet before a stunning solo from McKnight in I’m A Star, alongside a powerful accompaniment from Alan’s piano work, had the audience cheering.

Perhaps the evening’s most powerful moment was Huntley’s take on Anything Worth Holding Onto. One of Alan’s signature tunes the number reaches into the very heart of depression, demanding a well-honed voice to open up its carefully crafted complexities. Huntley grasped the melody, holding onto both its strength and its desperation. He stamped his own hallmark on the number in a way that has not been seen for many years and has been long overdue. It was a brilliant, memorable performance that defined a rather lovely cabaret.

Angry - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by Max Lindsay

Georgie Henley and Tyrone Huntley

In Angry at the Southwark Playhouse, Tyrone Huntley and Georgie Henley (Him and Her in the play) are quite possibly giving two of the finest performances to be found on London’s fringe. As they tackle Philip Ridley’s six monologues alternately one apiece, each of them immerses themselves in a coruscating display of compelling physical and vocal theatre.

If only Ridley’s script was as good as his cast. He has a keen eye for the zeitgeist of the time and his six speeches touch upon the moments that are recognisable to most of each night’s audience. But the flimsy structure that interlinks the pieces is close to non-existent resulting in a 90 minute (no interval) onslaught of little more than virtue signalling.

There’s a gender neutrality to the show that is of the moment too. Each night sees Him alternate with Her in the performance routine, and even in the brief cast sheet the typical stereotypes are challenged as “Her” is printed in blue, while “Him” is denoted in pink. Disappointingly, Ridley’s arguments are as fluid as his treatment of the sexes.

A very shouty opening routine – the only dialogue of the evening – makes liberal use of the F-word to the extent that the scene could have heralded a Derek & Clive tribute act. But as the solo scenes play out the play evolves into a litany of issues rather than a literary treat.

There’s a potentially gratuitous nod to the plight of seaborne trafficked individuals in Huntley’s final monologue Air (along with a suspicious whiff of anti-semitism too elsewhere in that routine) while in Bloodshot,  Henley’s encounter with an assasilant in the park turns a moment of a woman’s sexual terror into her ecstasy. This scene in particular is deeply troubling, almost as if a misogynist Ridley is sanctioning sexual violence. 

Ridley's work may be a disjointed take on dystopia but the acting is flawless. Go and see Angry if only to catch two skilled performers delivering a monologue masterclass.

Runs until 10th March 

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Carmen 1808 - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Georges Bizet
Arranged by Teddy Clements
Book and lyrics by Phil Willmott
Adapted from the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée

The Company
There’s a noble intent behind Phil Willmott’s Carmen 1808 that seeks to meld Bizet’s opera into a narrative inspired by Goya’s painting of Napoleon’s troops brutally firing on defenceless Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War of the early 19th century. 

Tinkering with greatness does, however, demand greatness from the tinkerer - and there is little that is great about this show. Bizet wrote his tunes for classical operatic voices and, aside from the sonorous charms of Alexander Barria (whose Royal Academy of Music training stands out a mile) as Goya sketching out the unfolding narrative, most of the other voices are lost in the Union’s un-mic’d melee. Rachel Lea-Gray in the title role puts in a fine shift but she’s found wanting in the Habanera.

In the right hands (and voices) opera’s classics can work spectacularly on the fringe but all too often in this show one is left with the distinct feeling that Willmott has done to Bizet’s melodies what Napoleon’s riflemen did to the helpless Spanish. There are occasional moments of redemption though as alongside Lea-Gray, Ellie Ann Lowe and Charlotte Haines put in solo turns that evidence their vocal skills.

Elsewhere there’s acting that at times is clichéd beyond belief - and quite why the French soldiers speak with stereotyped accents that are straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo defies comprehension. Just be grateful that Willmott didn't have his Spaniards speak like Manuel, the Fawlty Towers waiter. 

This all plays out on an imaginative set from Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, while Teddy Clements puts in sterling work on the keyboard to accompany the cast. And for those folk seeking a snatch of Bizet’s “hit tunes” (Willmott’s words) there’s a pre-recorded backing track (that’s disgracefully un-credited in the programme) to support the cast in choreographer Adam Haigh's toe-tapping flamenco-esque finale . Now That’s What I Call Carmen.

Runs until 10th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Cirque Berserk - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


Germaine Delbosq
There’s a gritty sense of unpretentious wonder at Cirque Berserk’s touring show, currently playing at the Peacock Theatre in central London. Forget that other show across town with its overpriced seats, in an oversized arena – this sensational circus couldn’t be more traditional if it tried.

2018 marks the 5th year that Zippos have sent their Berserk show on the road and the assembled talent is astonishing. There are neither live animals here, nor human freaks to be gawked at – rather a collection of ridiculously skilled individuals many of whom, literally, have circus in their blood.

Germaine Delbosq (a 12th generation circus performer) juggles fire – with her feet! And when she’s not doing that, alongside husband Gabriel she performs an astonishing routine that combines the pulse of flamenco with the hypnotic swing of Argentinian bolas.

Czech Toni (6th generation circus) throws knives at his 7th generation wife as she spins on a wheel; the Tropicana troupe soar through the air via the simple use of human bodies propelled from see-saws. Using only gravity and skill two men jump, sending a third man up to the height of the Peacock’s lighting gantries and landing him in a chair! In a truly wicked act, defying gravity is re-defined. 

There is loads more to enjoy, as between the acts Tweedy the Clown (1st generation, trained in circus skills after leaving school) delivers a cracking routine of classic physical comedy and slapstick. These gags and acts are centuries old and yet, in the hands (and legs and bodies) of this tremendous troupe, their acts seem timeless and eternal.

A nod to the 21st century comes with the finale to both acts as the Lucius Team's four motorcyclists, engines revving, enter a steel mesh sphere. Accelerating to 60mph the bikers weave a meticulously choreographed routine amongst themselves, with centimetres to spare. Death defying, literally.

The Lucius Team
At Cirque Berserk, with no special effects or illusions, what you see is what you get. Accessibly marketed (the top price at the Peacock will get you a restricted view at the Royal Albert Hall) this is a show that families can afford and all generations will enjoy. Prise your kids away from their screens – entertainment does not come more perfectly performed.

At the Peacock Theatre until 17th February, then on tour. Tour dates here
Photo credits: Piet Hein-Out

Thursday 1 February 2018

Julius Caesar - Review

Bridge Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

David Calder
An immersive and ever roaming production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar should pique the interest of any Shakespeare sort-of-fan, but throw in a killer cast of some of TV’s most talented stars showing just why they’re reaching such successes and a stunning venue to boot and it becomes unmissable.

Nicholas Hytner’s production has an almost politically apocalyptic setting with its nods to the controversial leaders of today, complete with excessive red flags, branded red baseball caps and mist growing steadily as we stumble with the characters into chaos. This setting is completed by the standing audience staring up at the moving stages, bustled about by urgent stage managers and roaring insults, chants and CAESAR! with the cast members. 

The powerhouse cast includes Ben Whishaw as a complex and sometimes overwrought Brutus who is glorious to see so up close with his twitches and frowns as he contemplates the options and reads his Stalin biographies. Michelle Fairley is Cassius, Brutus’ cunning co-leader of the coup, subtly hysterical in her bid to execute the terrible deed. Fairley has an incredible presence, perfectly encapsulating both the seedy manipulator and the faithful friend, for so often can people be both.

Adjoa Andoh’s bad-ass of a Casca is as quick to wit as to draw a weapon. David Morrissey is Mark Anthony, here portrayed as a rebel rouser, joining the street band who open the play and encouraging the rise of Octavius at its end. Octavius was a pleasure to watch as Kit Young took the role after the majority of the play in the ensemble. He really comes into his own as this cocky nephew of Caesar, primed with balloons aplenty, as the metaphorical curtain falls, to become a similarly lauded leader (because it ended so well for his uncle).

Caesar himself is a perfect casting with David Calder encompassing a man who could be deemed both a strong, brave leader or an arrogant tyrant, depending on whose asides one is more inclined to listen to.

Hytner directs with as much blockbuster flair as he can muster from his incredible cast, as do the stage managers who direct the plebeian audience in the pit. Surrounded by those with seated tickets and lorded over by scene after scene of masterclasses in the craft, the cheap seats are without doubt the best, even if you’re very aware of your knees at the two hour finish.

Bunny Christie - known for her work on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time with Finn Ross - uses the moving block set up of the gorgeous Bridge Theatre to take us from fancy pants villa to a bright and bustling Colosseum utilising the beauty of a big black box to somehow surpass the ornate West End proscenium theatres just up the river.

This epic show is worth every foot shuffle and slightly bad back, even if only to applaud the absolutely knackered stage managers who downplay their delight at the applause from these acting giants. And with day tickets available, the play is accessible to all. It’s just cool, man.

Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Runs until 15th April
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The Grift - Review

The Town Hall Hotel, London


Written and directed by Tom Salomon

Ged Forrest
Much like a street card conman setting out his stall, Tom Salomon’s The Grift describes itself as “a practice in the art of deception”. The gig certainly makes for an unconventional episode of immersive theatre - but in trying to replicate what feels like a hybrid of The Crystal Maze crossed with Glengarry Glen Ross, The Grift falls somewhere between the two leaving the audience conned in a way that they may not have been expecting.

Cons and tricks are explained, but in the 2 hour experience that sees teams of ticket holders scouring Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel solving riddles that ultimately lead to a denouement in the hotel’s (magnificent) former council chamber it all seems just a tad too con-trived.

The cast put in fine shifts as they marshal the various groups through their different tasks, but they never really con-vince. To be fair though Ged Forrest as the evening’s “mark” Eddie Hammersmith does throw in a lovely dash of cockney menace.

Originally acclaimed in the States – and it’s con-ceivable that American audiences may well have lapped this up for the evening is as much theme park as it is drama - in a more cynical London, disbelief is not quite suspended. 

The evening’s a novel giggle though and the hotel’s sassy, immaculate Art Deco chic is worth the ticket alone. The building was opened in 1910 and as the various groups assail its labyrinthine corridors one can easily be reminded of Jack Torrance and his family, marooned in the Overlook Hotel. Now if only Danielle Tarento and The Town Hall Hotel’s owners were to produce an immersive take on Stephen King's The Shining...

Runs until 25th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander