Friday, 15 November 2019

Touching The Void - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Based on the book by Joe Simpson
Adapted by David Greig
Directed by Tom Morris

Josh Williams and Angus Yellowlees

The true story behind Touching The Void and the endeavours and trials that befell mountaineer Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates on the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes has been recognised in both Simpson’s 1985 bestseller and Film Four’s acclaimed docu-drama released some 18 years later. However, in its translation to the stage, the epic arc of humanity underlying this remarkable tale is matched only by the dramatical ineptitude manifest in its ham-staged adaptation now playing in the West End’s proscenium-arched Duke of York’s Theatre.

Perhaps in a modern amphitheatre-style auditorium and with better managed sound, this show might, just might, make for an evening’s entertainment. But for an audience member seated at the end of a mid stalls row, too much of what occurs on stage is simply invisible - even to a reviewer who is 6 foot tall! Anyone shorter sat in these mid-priced seats (face value £55 - £60) will have paid a lot of money for an equal amount of disappointment.

David Greig has adapted Simpson’s heroic passage to survival by translating the action into the climber’s own hallucination of his wake, at which his sister Sarah becomes a fantastic apparition accompanying him through his ordeal. The could have made for an intriguing conceit, with Fiona Hampton as Sarah putting in a well measured performance as a sibling on the verge of grief. Josh Williams’ Joe however, who for much of the evening is restricted to crawling across the stage as he manages his horrifically shattered leg, loses our sympathy - his acting is just not deep enough to convince us of his profound desperation. Likewise, Angus Yellowlees’ Simon lacks credibility.

There’s some automated steelwork in Ti Green’s set that the two men, carabiner-clipped, clamber over for much of the first half’s climbing action - but the accompanying music suggests that composer Jon Nicholls perhaps saw himself scoring a Hollywood action thriller rather than a taut psychological drama. At times not only were the cast invisible, they were also inaudible too.

If only this play were to have suspended our disbelief as effectively as it sometimes suspends its actors. 

Runs until 29th February 2020
Photo credit: Michael Wharley

Monday, 11 November 2019

Maria Friedman: From The Heart - Review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


Maria Friedman

Maria Friedman’s new one woman show is titled From The Heart and thank heavens for that, as during this evening’s gig at a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall it appeared that her songs were emanating from anywhere but her usually sensational voice. 

One of the most gifted musical theatre performers of her generation, Friedman battled a singing problem throughout the evening and while her acting through song was flawless, her vocals were scratched and strained. If ever there was a night for stepping back from the microphone, this was it, With a set list including numbers as massive as Sondheim's Being Alive, Losing My Mind, Send In The Clowns and even The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, there was nowhere to hide her fractured pipes.

To be fair, there were occasional moments of sublime talent. Theo Jamieson’s piano accompaniment was perfect throughout and in a recent nod to her Golde in Fiddler On The Roof, Darius Luke Thompson, that show’s eponymous fiddler, popped up for a virtuoso violin take on the show’s key melodies that was breathtaking in its genius.

As an encore, Friedman reprised her comic take on West Side Story’s Officer Krupke, a number that this blog last reviewed at her Pheasantry cabaret some 6 years ago. Back then she was brilliant and hilarious - here, the shtick was clumsy. 

We all know Friedman is way better than tonight’s performance - Fane Productions should ensure that she is well rested before the show is aired again.

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

Saturday, 9 November 2019

The Taming Of The Shrew - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Justin Audibert 

Claire Price and Joseph Arkley

The RSC continues their inclusive season with a gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew that goes some way to highlight and parody just how messed up and old fashioned this play of an absurd and abusive patriarchy really is. All too self-aware but still imperfect, this production is nonetheless perfectly timed for a Handmaiden’s Tale world, with director Justin Audibert’s innovative inspiration shining through.

So it goes Baptista Minola announces to  all of Padua that no one shall marry her much-desired son Bianco (a flamboyant James Clooney) until her outspoken, outburst-prone shrew of a son Katherine (Joseph Arkley) is married off. With an array of overtly keen suitors vying for a chance at Bianco’s hand, fortune seeker Petruchia soon finds herself well paid for her wooing services in a bid to pin down, and tame, the elusive Katherine. 

Joseph Arkley clearly relishes this opportunity to reap the irony of his lines, unchanged but for the pronouns. He plays the role many a feminist critic would deem to be “where we are heading”, starved and mentally tortured into losing all his traditionally male qualities by Claire Price’s, Petruchia. It is interesting to note that while most male performers took the opportunity to play a traditionally female character by camping it up, Arkley as the exception, Price’s Petruchia is the only masculine played traditionally male character. There are many an example of when it really shouldn’t have been funny but absolutely is, such as with Sophie Stanton’s Gremia’s lustfulness. If an older male character had practically drooled whenever he thought of a young woman, it would have been the opposite of charming. Stanton’s sight gags are the comic relief in a play laden with it, with Gremia echoing Mars Attacks’ lady spy alien silently floating across the stage to much audience guffaw. 

But while undoubtedly thought-provoking, Audibert's production fails to hit the mark, unable to shake off its other-worldliness. There remains a pervading sense that the characters just aren’t quite right and this in turn prevents our disbelief from being truly suspended. Nonetheless it remains an undoubtedly stimulating evening and well worth a visit, if only to witness the script re-imagined and reinterpreted - a pleasing rarity.

Runs until 18th January 2020
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Ikin Yum

Thursday, 7 November 2019

High Fidelity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


Music by Tom Kitts
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Book by David Lindsay-Abaire
Lyrics and book adapted by Vikki Stone
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby

Oliver Ormson
In a transatlantic shuffle that was to first see Nick Hornby’s novel cross the Atlantic for an American themed film and subsequent musical theatre treatment, in a feat of skilled creative collaboration the narrative is dragged back to its North London roots. In the show’s opening return to Blighty this re-iteration proves to be a glorious night at the theatre.

The show premiered on the USA stage in 2006. This production, itself the first musical to be staged at Battersea’s new Turbine Theatre, has been lyrically adapted to reflect a London setting. Much credit is due to Vikki Stone for delivering a text that fits both time and place.

Taking its plot from Hornby’s 1995 novel, the show revolves around Rob, the owner of a small vinyl record shop on the Holloway Road at a time when the digital march of CDs had rendered vinyl pressings into obsolete collectors’ items.  Rob is a louche lothario, yet to discover emotional fidelity and notching up sexual conquests yet failing to grasp the concept of committed love. Laura is his most recent girlfriend and the show opens with their splitting up. Through a series of clever vignettes and occasional flashbacks we not only glimpse their relationship’s decline but also, as an uplift, see Rob’s redemption to a state of decency too. It all makes for a tight and clever journey.

The strengths of this production are many. Kitts’ melodies are inspired, drawn from across the spectrum of the rock and pop scene, with tunes that set out to pay homage to various music stars across the years with the nod to Bruce Springsteen proving particularly well observed. Likewise, the unexpected lyrical partnership of Green and Stone offer moments of carefully drawn pathos along with well observed hilarity. David Shield’s stage design captures the geeky, sweaty, “unwashed single male” ethos of a specialist record shop, while Andrew Exeter’s lighting plots neatly and imaginatively enhance the Turbine’s compact space.

Leading the show and on stage virtually throughout, Oliver Ormson is Rob. There is a steady voice to Ormson’s work as he also brings the right level of smouldering good looks to the role to justify his tally of past sexual relationships. Ormson also captures the role’s complex combination of testosterone fuelled lust and envy together with, ultimately, compassion. As Laura, Shanay Holmes brings vocal strength to an emotionally demanding role that sees her weather a number of credible misfortunes in the course of the show’s arc.

Memorable too are Robert Tripolino’s incense-fuelled Ian, Eleanor Kane’s Marie, an American country singer who finds herself washed up in London’s N7, together with a brilliant pastiche of The Boss (aka Springsteen, see above) from Joshua Dever.

Tom Jackson Greaves directs and choreographs with an ambitious flair. The dance numbers are fun and detailed, with the inspired excellence that underlies the second act’s Conflict Resolution having to be seen to be believed. The precision movement and design of that song’s delivery is quite possibly the funniest ever delivered on London’s fringe musical scene. Up above the action, Paul Schofield’s 4 piece band are a polished treat.

High Fidelity marks the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre venue to contribute to the capital’s railway arch theatre scene. It is well worth a visit.

Runs until 7th December
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke

Death Of A Salesman is Arthur Miller’s post-war homily to the bleak brutality of the American Dream. A timeless tragedy of the dashed hopes and aspirations of husbands and wives, parents and children, all ground out through the crushingly recognisable reality of salesman Willy Loman, his wife Linda and their two adult sons Happy and Biff.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have framed their production that has transferred across the river from the Young Vic, within a distinctly racial context. Their Lomans are African Americans, subject to injustices from both their employers and their would-be employers, who here are all white. In this production's world, both power and employability (and, to be fair, the saintly kindness of neighbour Charlie) are with the white folk - while it is the blacks whose dreams are shattered. While this may be a noble conceit in its artistic intention, Miller’s text does not yield unquestioningly to such interpretation. Willy’s older brother Ben - whose spirit appears throughout the play- ventured into Alaska and Africa to make his fortune. But would a colonial exploiter of Africa’s diamonds really have been black? And would Miller's humble waiter Stanley really be a white man in such a world? The directors’ cultural misappropriation undermines Miller’s opus for in truth, Willy Loman is everyman.

Flown in from the USA, Wendell Pierce plays the eponymous salesman. While there is unquestionable power and consummate energy in Pierce’s Willy, his is not a tour-de-force. Miller writes that Loman is tired but for much of his time on stage Pierce’s delivery is frenetic. We know that Willy is manically depressed, but rather than allow Miller’s beautiful prose to portray his terminal decline, Pierce mangles manic with maniac, all too often garbling his words when a slower pace would inexorably bring the audience with him. Pierce’s work sits in sharp contrast with, by way of example, Sope Dirisu’s immaculately nuanced Biff, never finer than in the second act’s hotel room scene when he discovers his father’s devastating secret.

It is in Linda Loman, played here by Sharon D. Clarke, that we discover the production’s greatest strength. Clarke’s is perhaps the finest interpretation of this complex role, for decades, displaying a fierce protective love for Willy, while convincing us of her wise and weathered life. Magnificent in her matriarchy, Clarke’s Linda is desperate to be the glue within her family with a devotion to her husband that is as heartbreakingly supportive as it is deeply recognisable. Buy a ticket for this show if for no other reason than Clarke - hers is quite possibly a once in a generation turn.

Drama moves with the times and perhaps audiences have dumbed down or perhaps, more likely, Elliott and Cromwell know what pleases the modern-day crowd. But the strength of Miller’s tragedy has always lain in the razor sharp brilliance of his words. There is no need to reduce his work to a play with songs, no matter how relevant either the spiritual or american songbook numbers may appear. Equally, there are moments when Aideen Malone's staccato lighting bursts suggest a production that's more akin to The Curious Incident Of The Car Crash In The Nighttime. Credit though to Anna Fleischle’s set, an ingenious reflection of the timebends of Willy’s fractured mind.

Kenneth Tynan famously described Death Of A Salesman as “the greatest American play”. Elliott and Cromwell deliver an interpretation that demands to be seen.

Runs until 4th January 2020
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

Thursday, 31 October 2019

As You Like It - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kimberley Sykes

Lucy Phelps

The first of three new Royal Shakespeare Company productions kicks off this week with a delightful and especially woke performance of gender-bending romantic comedy As You Like It. Director Kimberley Sykes embraces the playful text with a diverse and tuneful cast so at ease with the text that off-the-cuff moments and audience interaction are plentiful.

The story goes that Duke Senior is exiled to the Forest of Arden by his usurper brother, Duke Frederick. Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, stays behind thanks to her bond with Frederick’s daughter, Celia… that is before Frederick flips out and banishes her after all. Celia joins her, as does their fool Touchstone, but not before disguising themselves. Rosalind becomes Ganymede, the brother to Aliena, Celia’s disguise. Throw in Rosalind’s love Orlando also escaping to the forest to avoid further persecution by his brother, Oliver... farce doth ensue.

Lucy Phelps is farce-in-chief as Rosalind/Ganymede, a bundle of eccentricity and energy as she encourages Orlando to prove his love to Rosalind by wooing Ganymede, all the while struggling to maintain her guise. David Ajao is a brawny Orlando, as passionate as any lovesick youth would be, with a dash of the jovial cheek ( a common youthful trait ) . The infamous melancholy Jacques, who’s gifted many of the play’s most quoted gems, from “All the world’s a stage” to “A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest!” is played with the perfect amount of wise whimsy by Sophie Stanton. Antony Byrne as both Dukes is another absolute tour de force as are Emily Johnstone’s beautiful vocals as Amiens and Le Beau.

The diverse cast of eighteen reflects not only age and race but also disabilities, to say nothing of a range of accents that seems to reflect nearly all of the British Isles. It’s a gorgeous way of presenting one of the Bard’s most quoted plays, adding a depth not often achieved in productions drawn from received pronunciation. 

The wooden staging seems sparse for most of the first half, with just a patch of grass and a balcony to set the scene, but is soon becomes more of a forest setting. Scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis puts his biggest creative stamp on it however in a collaboration with puppetry designer Mervyn Millar producing a disconcertingly overbearing giant puppet of the Goddess Hymen for the final scene.

This is an appropriately enjoyable and charming production of one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming up in the next few weeks.

In repertory at the Barbican until 18 January 2020, then on tour
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Monday, 14 October 2019

Up Pompeii; A 50th Anniversary Audio Revival - Review


Adapted from the stage play by Miles Tredinnick that was based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell
Audio adaptation written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin
Directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones

David Benson (in toga) with the cast of Up Pompeii

Titter ye not, and especially not amongst today’s woke folk, but a 1960s comedy classic centred around a captive slave has just been revived for the 21st century with a double CD due for release next month, just in time for Christmas.

Up Pompeii was a popular BBC TV comedy that went on to spawn two feature films in the mid Seventies, and which featured the comedy genius of Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, a slave in  Ancient Rome. The series revolved around Lurcio who would guide the show's viewers through the salacious activities going on within the household of his patrician owner Ludicrus Sextus. Much of the success of the original was down to Howerd, his camp, saucy, and titillatingly sexist gags, puns and irreverent comments that were often delivered straight to camera gave the show its energy, with his surrounding characters inevitably falling to be the butt of his seaside-postcard humour, laden with risque puns and double-entendres.

Working from the original scripts and more recent play adaptation, Barnaby Eaton-Jones has done well to capture the essence of the brilliant original, but the strength of this recording is provided by David Benson’s Lurcio. Benson’s mimicry of Howerd is uncanny and as one closes one’s eyes to listen, the transformation could be complete.

While the style of this politically incorrect curiosity has been maintained by Eaton-Jones, the recording's plotline is as creaky as a dilapidated Roman handcart. The (good) gags come aplenty early on in the piece, but as the story plays out - a yarn to do with runaway slaves and love potions, all mixed in with the day to day lechery of Ludicrus’ villa - the narrative wears dangerously thin. And while some aspects of the script have been updated to reflect 2019 - Ludicrus’ daughter Erotica “slates” (rather than “texts”) to her friend in a nod to modern day social media, complete with aubergine emojis - there is a disappointing hint of pulled-punch hypocrisy in the writing: Up Pompeii's comedy ultimately rests upon Rome’s barbaric slavery. That Eaton-Jones' script displays a complete absence of any comment whatsoever upon the various and august institutions that today are hand-wringingly addressing their guilt at having been built on slave trade wealth, seems to suggests that the slavery imposed by the Romans BCE is more acceptable than that imposed by the English speaking nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, many centuries later. 

Benson is well supported by a talented company whose highlights include a blustering Fraser Hines as Ludicrus alongside the always delightful Madeleine Smith - whose career saw her appear in the original movie alongside Howerd - who sparkles as his wife Ammonia. Cleo Rocos plays Suspenda, the nymphomaniac object of Ludicrus’ lust, while Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up as the evil slave trader Captain Treacherus.

For sure, much of the corny humour of Up Pompeii demands to be as dated as it has been written - this was the Carry On era of the 1960s/70s after all - but this script really needed to have been sharper to have truly stood the test of time. Nonetheless this CD of David Benson and his brilliant cast will offer a nostalgic stocking-filler of a gift for most of the nation’s over-50s.

To order the 2-CD recording, visit this link:

Friday, 11 October 2019

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Leo Robin
Book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields

Abigayle Honeywill and company

Sasha Regan’s revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the finest musical theatre productions in town. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell gave the 1953 movie its diamond-encrusted panache, but it was the 1949 Broadway show that came first - and with songs penned by the genius of  Jule Styne and Leo Robin, its credentials are impeccable. The story is a confection of romantic whimsy and caricature, set in an era when sexual politics were a world apart from today’s identity driven issues, a contrast that makes Regan’s decision to stage the piece all the more bold and brave.

The strengths of the evening lie in the excellent song, dance and acting that are on display. Stepping into Monroe’s shoes is Abigayle Honeywill as Lorelei Lee, the titular blonde. Whip smart, Lorelei is a woman well aware of the siren-like power of her charms, with Honeywill channelling her remarkable talent and experience into the role. Her songs are riddled with a wry ironic comedy and she makes fine work of classics including Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and I’m Just  A Little Girl From Little Rock.

As Lorelei’s chaperone Eleanor Lakin who plays Dorothy Shaw is every match for her charge. Lakin also possesses the voice of an angel that is at all times powerful, controlled and a wonderful medium for her acting. Opening the solo singing with It’s High Time, Lakin sets an equally high bar that is never bettered than in Keeping Cool With Coolidge in which her vocal work is simply sensational.

Styne and Robin’s libretto’s liberally sprinkled with Songbook gems and it says much for Regan’s cast that they all step up to the plate magnificently – capturing each number's rhythm and cadence, but also and this is critically important, unlocking the comedy in the lyrics and delivering the gags with pinpoint timing. Tom Murphy as the womanising Sir Francis Beekman plays a character who modern writers would baulk at creating. Murphy's turn however is a hilarious delight, with his take on It's Delightful Down In Chile proving a cracker. Similarly Virge Gilchrist as the alcoholic American aristocrat Ella Spofford is another delightful vignette.

Choreographer Zak Nemorin has drilled his cast with flair and precision, the dance numbers being ambitiously conceived and thrillingly delivered in the Union's compact space. Sat at a baby grand, Henry Brennan musically directs with his small band making fine work of some of the 20th century's most entertaining melodies.

This is a carefully crafted musical. Classy, sassy and perfectly performed.

Runs until 26th October
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Mamma Mia! The Party - Review

The O2, London


Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (some songs with Stig Anderson)
Story by Calle Norlén, Roine Söderlundh and Björn Ulvaeus
Adapted for the UK by Sandi Toksvig
Directed and choreographed by Roine Söderlundh

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and the cast of Mamma Mia! The Party

Forget a 4 hour flight, airport transfers and the like because now Mamma Mia! The Party is whisking audiences straight into the heart of the Greek island of Skopelos – and all within London’s O2 Arena. Despite a lengthy (Schengen-esque?) queue for punters on arrival, from the moment one steps foot into the venue the transformation and indeed the transportation into the traditional Greek taverna is immediate and this extraordinary evening begins.

The story is set in Nikos’ Taverna on Skopelos, the island that was indeed the location for the exterior shots of the first Mamma Mia movie franchise. Since the island is now so famous, Nikos (played by Fed Zanni) explains how business has been booming and that tonight we ‘the audience’ are his diners and his punters!

While the plot line is nothing complex Sandi Toksvig has written a script that keeps the mood light hearted, funny and sharp, providing a perfect framework for the songs that everyone knows and loves, as wonderfully corny dialogue that seamlessly segues the numbers. The accompanying four-course meal proves to be as stunning as the ABBA songs – with food that is well prepared, served and tastes fantastic. Design from Bengt Fröderberg is a wonder in itself not to mention the vision of Björn Ulvaeus and Ingrid Sutej in creating such a perfect transformation.

The cast are also an equally perfect fit to each of their respective roles. Special mention must go to Zanni, the perfect master of this Greek public house. His powerhouse vocals are sensational particularly in Money, Money, Money which even sees the centre-piece water fountain dancing along throughout. Julia Imbach gives a performance that is fun and fitting as Nikos’ daughter Konstantina, delivering an epic take on The Winner Takes It All. There is similarly wonderful comedy and vocals from Linda John-Pierre, the deliciously delightful Deborah, the Taverna’s Head Chef. The entertainment is non-stop throughout with the waiting staff occasionally bursting into fully choreographed numbers and there is even the unexpected treat of some aerial circus from Elin König Andersson.

As with any ABBA themed production, it’s all about the songs. In this case the classics combined with some new additions by Benny Anderson & Björn Ulvaeus together in part with Stig Andersson are delivered by the ingenious John Donovan whose band not only constantly move around the Taverna but provide backing vocals throughout, adding a flawless and powerful musical soundtrack to the evening. And as The Party turns into an after-dinner 1970s disco, Donovan's band just gets better and better. 

There really is nothing quite like Mamma Mia! The Party. The fourth wall between audience and artist doesn't exist for a moment and the combination of theatre, dining and entertainment is of the highest order. Smash a plate, sing a song, but above all grab a ticket, because after a night in Nikos' Taverna you truly will be yelling from the rooftops, Thank You For The Music!

Booking until 16th February 2020
Photo credit: Dave Benett
Reviewed by: Davide Davidsson

Friday, 6 September 2019

Falsettos - Review

The Other Palace, London


Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson

Daniel Boys

When the patriarchal Marvin leaves his wife and young son for another man his family life is thrown into disarray. Trina, his frazzled spouse hooks up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, Marvin’s lover Whizzer is reluctantly inducted into the family’s day-to-day activities for the sake of maintaining some sense of normalcy as 10 year old Jason find himself caught in the middle of the pandemonium. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, originally envisioned as a pair of one act chamber musicals, really is a show of two halves. Act one, while slightly disjointed, is a fairly breezy affair, filled with pithy recitatives interspersed with zippy ensemble numbers. It’s all good fun, but while the show is funny, cutting and witty, as the interval arrives it also seems a little bit directionless. 

Not so in the second half. Picking up two years later and introducing Marvin’s delightful next door neighbours, caterer Cordelia and doctor Charlotte (‘the lesbians next door’), Falsettos delves into the confusion and chaos of the AIDS crisis. It’s a gut-wrenching decent – the darkening tone jarring uncomfortably with production designer PJ McEvoy’s kitschy set, with its cartoonish colour palette washed over with blinding bright primary coloured lighting. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson directs the turn from mayhem to tragedy perfectly, seamlessly balancing the laughs and the tears.

And, of course, the production is elevated by an outrageously good ensemble cast. Daniel Boys gives a masterfully complex performance as Marvin, a man who is constantly in the middle of a precarious balancing act with Oliver Savile charming as Marvin’s sardonic and seemingly self-absorbed boyfriend. Meanwhile Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Trina is as brilliant as ever, the jilted wife putting on a happy face for the sake of her family. 

Having picked up a cult following amongst UK musical theatre lovers after its well-received 2016 Broadway revival, the UK premiere of Falsettos was massively anticipated, and this production goes a long way to showing just why. It’s a shame though that it has been marred by controversy, with some in the UK’s Jewish community  calling out the lack of Jewish representation within the production’s cast and creative team. As the story centres closely upon the Jewish experience, including a touching subplot that centres on young Jason’s looming Bar Mitzvah, it remains essential that the show never dips into distasteful parody. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here for future iterations of this show and indeed, others. 

Judging the production at face-value though, Falsettos is well sung, ultra-smart and ultimately gutting. Those who buy a ticket will have plenty to look forward to.

Runs until 23rd November
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: The Standout Company

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Anything Goes - Review

The Other Palace, London


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by Alex Sutton

Olivia Hallett and the company of Anything Goes

Continuing the National Youth Music Theatre’s summer residence at The Other Palace sees this formidable company stage Cole Porter’s satirical musical Anything Goes. Comedy is a tough gig for even the most experienced of performers and it is a credit to NYMT that they deliver a show that, for the most part, hits the mark and captures Porter’s piercing wit.

Packed with songbook classics, any production of Anything Goes will always stir great expectations from its audience that are more than exceeded here, the enormous cast proving spectacular in their ensemble numbers.

Throughout, the song and dance work is performed to such a high standard that it is almost invidious to single out specific performers. However Olivia Hallett as Reno Sweeney leads the line with some sensational solo numbers and she is equally supported by Lulu-Mae Pears, Milo Hallett, Daniel Gray, Spike Maxwell, Toby Turpin, Miguel Rivilla and Sarah Dare in the show’s other key and featured roles. Vocal work is spot on throughout with Porter’s moments of comedy and irony - that are at times ridiculously silly - all being delivered with aplomb, confidence and above all, perfect timing.

The young company are supported by an outstanding creative team drawn from industry professionals. Jordan Li-Smith is, as ever, a masterful musical director. Lee Proud and Adam Haigh’s choreography, drawn from the 1987 Broadway revival is breathtaking - the full company tap numbers are a particular delight - while Diego Pitarch’s designs neatly suggest the SS American and all cleverly helmed by Alex Sutton.

Anything Goes doesn’t come around that often and this one’s a treat. Only on for three more dates, it makes for a great evening in the theatre.

Runs until 24th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Evita - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre, albeit staged in its intended 1940s style, proves to be a masterclass of contemporary political theatre. In a production that is as much rally as world class musical, Lloyd transforms the piece into a commentary on recent times as well as a showcase of some of the finest performing talent to be found on both sides of the pond.

Lloyd, with his regular design partner Soutra Gilmour and choreographer Fabian Aloise, takes the story of Eva Duarte (subsequently, Peron) and charts her rise and fall in a stark brutal staging that is unashamedly sexual and politically brutal. The stage is bare and tiered – save for a rusting and distressed “EVITA”, fashioned in stark iron letters, that hangs over the space. The costumes are evocative of time and place, but it is the lithe writhing movement of the ensemble that define Argentina’s betrayed poor, from whose ranks Eva was to rise to become the wife of President Juan Peron. The occasional use of hand-held cabled mics adds a touch of campaigning urgency to the piece

But it is not just Lloyd’s visualisation of the piece that defines its political punch – although show’s smoking flares and confetti cannon do add to the impact. Rather, the political wit of Tim Rice’s lyrics proves as timeless today as when they were first sung in 1976. There is a veritably cruel incisiveness to Rice’s words that resonate as metaphors for the 21st century. Lloyd offers us hints of Farage and Trump in his contexting, while Rice’s merciless exposition of socialism in And The Money Kept Rolling In makes Jeremy Corbyn’s contemporary canards promising free-stuff to the impressionable seem ruthlessly resonant.

The production values of this show are close to flawless. In the title role, Samantha Pauly is the first of the show’s three trans-Atlantic imports. Pauly perfectly captures Evita’s curious fusion of strength and vulnerability, with a grace in movement and a vocal presence that are spine-tingling. Amidst the darkening trees of Regents Park, Pauly’s big number Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is imbued with a rare beauty.

Another Yank in the show is Trent Saunders as Che. Lloyd has fun with Che, defining him very much as the voice of the Argentinian people as well as the role of questioning chorus to which he had originally been created. Saunders provides the usual amount of deprecating irony towards Evita – but splashed with paint in the final act, he very much represents the spent and abused populace. 

The final American on stage is Ektor Rivera’s Peron. Aside from bringing the production a Latin authenticity, Rivera captures Peron’s sexual irresistibility as well as a convincing, uncaring, fascist governance to his leadership.

There is excellence in the key supporting roles too, with the wonderfully voiced Adam Pearce giving a thuggish sleaze to Augustin Magaldi, while Frances Mayli McCann enchants with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. Placed to the rear of the action and slightly above the stage Alan Williams' orchestra handle Lloyd Webber's South American melodies immaculately - with a particular mention to Ollie Hannifan's exquisite guitar playing. 

Tickets are still on sale, but at the time of this review availability is limited. Rush to see this show – it makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.

Runs until 21st September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Parade - Review

The Other Palace, London


Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter

This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.

Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.

Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.

Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.

There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.

Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.

It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever. 

The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.

Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.

Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!

Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Equus - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai

Equus remains a fascinating, if dated, piece of writing from Peter Schaffer. Exploring the psycho-sexual complexities of the adolescent Alan Strang, a boy who has just, horrifically, blinded six horses, Shaffer contexts the young man’s mental turmoil against the emotional and sexual failings of his psychiatrist Richard Dysart.

Done well, the play should offer a well crafted glimpse into teenage angst, parental frailties together with the numbing realities of mid-life disappointment. In Ned Bennett's production however, that arrives at the Trafalgar Studios from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a strange fusion of magnificence and mediocrity permeates the evening.

Ethan Kai plays the troubled Strang and while he may appear perhaps a little too old to portray his teenage character, his performance nonetheless convinces. Kai captures Strang’s awkward dysfunctionality - a boy who is more at ease with horses than with people - delivering a performance of intensity and energy.

Opposite Kai is Zubin Varla’s Dysart in a turn that fails to deliver the gravitas that the role demands. Varla is unable to carry us along with his revelations of the demons that surround his infertility and failing marriage. On stage virtually throughout, in what is unquestionably a demanding role Varla’s work is of a standard that is little more than “average” and for Shaffer’s prose that’s just not good enough. 

The supporting roles are likewise workmanlike in their execution. With the exception of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Jill, Strang’s peer who befriends him, all the other characters prove too tedious as they flesh out Strang’s back story, making the 2hr 40min piece seem even longer.

To their credit however, and with the exception of Varla and Kai, all the cast double up in their portrayal of the horses that Strang is to ultimately mutilate and under Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction, their equine interpretations are sensational. The immaculately sculpted Ira Mandela Siobhan plays Nugget, the “lead” horse in the stables in a masterclass of physical theatre. Maxwell delivers genius in her suggestions of the horses’ movement, that her company deliver immaculately.

Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: The Other Richard

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Rodgers & Hammerstein (& Me Too)

Bread & Roses Theatre, London


Directed by Edward Goggin

Molly Lynch in rehearsal
For this week only, the capital can again savour the vocal excellence of Molly Lynch in her one-woman show Rodgers and Hammerstein & Me Too. The titular pun is deliberate as the accomplished Lynch takes her audience through a dozen or so R&H classics, interspersed with verbatim references to a selected choice of recent years' headline stories.

Lynch is a magnificent performer with the tightly packed hour long show demonstrating not only her ability to sing - but also a perfectly nuanced knack to act through song too. And for some of the evening the emotional punch of the stories she relates are painful and poignant. The interweaving of Kyle Stephens’ testimonies - a woman who as a young child was horrendously abused by America’s notorious paedophile Larry Nassar - with the lyrics of My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music proves powerful and heartbreaking. But there are moments when the counterpoint is clumsy. Contexting Rose McGowan’s description of Harvey Weinstein’s vile behaviour to a backdrop of the comparatively sugary sweetness of That’s The Way It Happens from Me And Juliet is an intended irony that misses the mark

Save for a brief reference to Jimmy Savile, Lynch's politicking is aimed squarely (and disappointingly, politically correctly) at the USA. This being the "woke" 2019, her failure to reference either the numerous misogynist regimes around the world that see women treated appallingly or, closer to home, the thousands of young girls in the UK that are and have been preyed upon by grooming gangs, are glaring omissions. 

Most fine musical theatre songs are best left unadulterated and, above all, uninterrupted. Good songwriting should tell its story and pack its punch through melody and lyric and it takes a fine and subtle hand to meddle with a masterpiece effectively. If Lynch returns to the intimacy of a cabaret venue - and one sincerely hope she does - the politics could perhaps be parked in favour of an evening that breaks the fourth wall and shines some light on the genius that underlies this young woman who is surely one of Ireland’s most talented exports.

When Katherine Jenkins played Julie Jordan in the Coliseum's Carousel a couple of years ago, Lynch was her acclaimed understudy and it remains a source of regret to many (Jonathan Baz included) that they missed those rare occasions that saw her step up to the leading role. This concert however offered some solace, with Lynch including What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’ in her set list. Her take on the song is exquisite, showcasing one of the finest voices to be found in London.

Runs until 3rd August