Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Bitter Wheat - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Written and directed by David Mamet

John Malkovich

Bitter Wheat introduces us to Barney Fein, an obesely mysogynist movie mogul who, drunk on money and power, views women as little more than his playthings. It is no coincidence that post autumn 2017 and in the #MeToo era, the assonance of the name and the description of the man sound troublingly familiar. 

Fein is an ugly man - inside and out, with an ugliness that is matched only by Mamet’s writing. For this is a play of two halves - a first act that builds towards an explosive exploitation of sexual violation, and a second half that rapidly disintegrates into implausibility. And yet - for all of Mamet’s madness, the chaos of his writing still holds a withering mirror to Hollywood’s vile, vacuous and timelessly rapacious culture. While recent scandals may have rightly pushed Tinseltown’s casting couch into the spotlight - that toxic masculinity and mindset has riven the movie industry for as long as cameras have been turning. 

John Malkovich is a fine Fein. Padded up he is as massive the role that sees him onstage throughout the two hour piece. There is satire here but without the slapstick - Malkovich marvels in a role that, like Pravda's Lambert Le Roux in Pravda or The Producers' Max Bialystock, takes recognisable caricatures, magnifying them into a driving force. Mamet takes no prisoners in his writing, with Fein’s Jewish ancestry proving an uncomfortable butt for some of the venom he receives. However, Mamet is to be applauded in recognising the close and long-established ties between his anti-hero and America’s Democrat Party - a recognition that will not sit easily amongst the liberal literati on either side of the Atlantic.

Malkovich is well served by his fellow ensemble who, to differing degrees, are there merely as foils to his monstrous nature. Doon Mackichan is his much put-upon assistant Sondra, a woman of questionable ethics and evident complicity and who, rat-like, flees Fein's sinking ship. Making her West End debut, Ioanna Kimbook plays the South Korean movie star Yung Kim Li who finds herself the subject of Fein's abusive lust. The writer has allowed little room for nuance in the part, but Kimbook turns in a neatly measured performance.

There may be a whiff of sensationalised cliché to this world premiere, but no matter. Mamet's subject is timely and relevant and Malkovich's performance is electrifying.

Booking until 21st September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


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

Maria Friedman and Andy Nyman

With its first major cast change since opening - as well as a shift across the Thames - Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler On The Roof remains one of London’s musical theatre jewels. The intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory's original treatment is not quite replicated in the Playhouse’s transformation, that sees "shtetl-lite" timber cladding dotted around the auditorium, but with a winding pathway built through the stalls there's enough enhancement to draw the audience into Russia's Pale of Settlement and away from the show's traditional West End proscenium treatment.

Some six months into the role sees Andy Nyman sit ever more comfortably as Tevye. There is a wise youthfulness to both Nyman’s timbre and gait and even though the show is set at the turn of the last century, Nyman brings a perceptible modernity to his performance. His Tevye is a man witnessing the very tenets of his faith being tested as his three grown up daughters each explore their different paths towards emancipation and he remains convincing throughout. It helps that Nyman's voice is glorious too – resonant and thrilling in If I Were A Rich Man, yet deeply tender in Do You Love Me.

In a canny casting move by the producers, Maria Friedman and Anita Dobson make the move from Albert Square to Anatevka. Friedman’s Golde defines the Jewish matriarch, loving and compassionate, yet with a resoluteness that permeates her delivery. Friedman has long been recognised as a gifted musical theatre leading lady and it is only a shame that the show does not allow Golde more centre stage moments. Some in the audience may recall Friedman’s turn at the National Theatre some thirty years ago in Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto, a role that is today only enhanced as she displays a strength and resilience in portraying the timeless persecution of the Jews. At all times though Friedman acts with an artistic beauty that shuns mawkish schmaltz.

Dobson steps up to the role of the ageing, widowed Yente the village matchmaker. There is an unquestionable sparkle to Dobson’s work – in a role that Sheldon Harnick imbued with more than its fair share of the show’s witticisms – but currently she is more battleaxe than busybody and misses a hint of Yente's nuance. The criticism here  slight but subtle. Yiddishkeit is not easy to master, but given time and an exposure to Friedman and Nyman’s onstage chemistry, Dobson can only grow into the role.

Most of Nunn’s staging has transferred well – the wedding scene in particular – though amidst the lofty heights of a full London stage, Tevye’s Dream loses a little of the wit that worked so wonderfully within the Chocolate Factory’s intimacy.

Excellence continues to abound throughout the show – with Nunn eliciting every moment of Harnick’s wry, self-deprecating pathos. The show's song and dance is wonderful - sadly the message of Fiddler On The Roof and the agelessness of antisemitism remains as depressing as ever.

Booking until 2nd November
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Light in the Piazza - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Daniel Evans

Renée Fleming

Crossing the Atlantic, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza deploys some of the finest musical theatre talent in town to tell its curiously enchanting love story in a plot that upends one of society’s most deeply rooted taboos and prejudices.

The young and beautiful Clara Johnson together with her mother Margaret are American tourists footloose in Florence. A chance encounter with Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine, ignites a youthful, passionate love - and as Margaret anxiously frets over her daughter's emotions, a carefully nuanced story unfolds.

To say much more of the plot would spoil. Suffice to say that the unexpected twists offer a touching and unconventional portrayal of love, affection and the challenges of honesty that make for a rare and wonderful evening.

Making their professional debuts on this side of the pond are Broadway and opera’s leading lady Renée Fleming as Margaret, alongside Instagram and Hollywood star Dove Cameron playing Clara. Fleming’s classical voice stands out as a beacon of aural magnificence, effortlessly filling the Royal Festival Hall and notwithstanding the excellence that surrounds her on stage, Fleming’s powerfully poignant performance is worth the ticket price on its own. Cameron's Clara is an unexpectedly complex piece to deliver - and as the tale unfolds, she turns in an act of remarkably measured and touching sensitivity.

These two American women are the only players on stage allowed to perform in their native tongue. Everyone else has to masquerade in cod Italian - and if there is but one niggle of the piece it is the irritation of massed, cliched Latin dialects. The singing however is top notch. Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio captures the combination of Houchen’s physical and vocal beauty - the love that sparks between him and Cameron is delightfully plausible and convincing.

Alex Jennings is Fabrizio’s father - a man who we learn has never lost his admiration for the fairer sex, while Liam Tamne and Celinde Schoenmaker play his son and daughter-in-law. Guettel has liberally sprinkled his libretto with narrative-advancing solo turns throughout his cast, and under Daniel Evans’ perceptive direction the musical theatre treats are frequent.

For a simply presented semi-staged show, the highly spec’d creative work only enhances the production. Mark Henderson’s lighting offers an enchanting brilliance to Robert Jones’ delightfully suggestive set - as, sat above the action, Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Opera North orchestra in a lavish treatment of Guettel’s score.

Only on until July 4th before an international tour, The Light In The Piazza is a must see for all who appreciate modern writing and quality musical theatre.

Runs until July 4th

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Starry Messenger - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London


Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Sam Yates

Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern

As a love letter to New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger serves a purpose. Matthew Broderick is Mark, a professor of astronomy who teaches an evening class in the introductory basics of his subject, with an aspect of the play forming an  autobiographical nod to classes actually taken by Lonergan and Broderick in their youth at the Planetarium, before it was demolished in 1997.

Lonergan’s story however takes our disbelief and suspends it by the slenderest of threads. Amidst a string of weak constructs, we observe Mark being tested by a mid life crisis that stresses his long standing marriage to Ann (Elizabeth McGovern). Along the way Lonergan offers up a glimpse of many recognisable facets of modern living, his text enveloping love, lovelessness, deceit, jealousy, grief and ageing - together with a smattering of hope too. But ultimately there is little in this piece that grabs the audience to take them on much of a dramatic journey. For the price of a West End ticket Lonergan serves up a slice of life which, and for a fraction of the cost, many of the show’s audiences may well be experiencing day in, day out. The message of the piece may well be that sh*t happens but life goes on, but this is far too skimpy an argument to drive three hours of troubled text. There’s perception in the writing that offers up a sequence of meticulously observed mundanities, but too much of Lonergan's fiction is just implausible. 

Broderick does what he does best - this is Leo Bloom, thirty years on only without Mel Brooks writing the comedy. And as drama The Starry Messenger falls way short of Albee’s barbed acerbity that made George and Martha such a horrendously compelling mid-life, middle-aged, monstrous couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Overall, Lonergan’s Mark misses the mark. 

The acting is fine throughout. Alongside Broderick, McGovern captures an inner angst as Rosalind Eleazar's trainee nurse Angela puts in another well defined turn. Jim Norton's curmudgeonly Norman, an elderly cancer patient who drives one of the show's subplots is also spot-on in depicting the emotional onslaught of his disease and its impact on daughter Doris (great work from Sinead Matthews). 

There are momentary gasps and occasional laughs but ultimately this is a stretched out evening at the theatre, albeit one with a starry cast.

Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Vincent River - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by Robert Chevara

Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahey

Philip Ridley as a playwright is a theatre producer’s. The vivid scenes-capes that he creates tend not to require lavish casting nor expensive sets, being instead fleshed out by way of lengthy, descriptive monologues - windows onto the dysfunctional dystopia that Ridley perceives around him. The disappointment to the audience however is that when you’ve heard one Ridley monologue, it can feel like you’ve heard them all.

Vincent River is a two-hander that revolves around Anita, grieving for her dead son Vincent and Davey, a young man who, we come to discover, was connected to the dead young man. Lasting 90 minutes, the one-act piece never leaves Anita's flat.

Louise Jameson is magnificent as the mourning mother, with a subtlety of nuance and tone in her performance that sits alongside the raging howls of her unimaginable grief. Notwithstanding the tortuous convolutions that Anita is subject to through Ridley’s prurient projections, Jameson remains masterful throughout. Thomas Mahy’s Davey however, even this long into the role (the production has transferred from a run last year at the Park Theatre) is too stilted, too often.  Contrasted with Jameson's genius, Mahy is found to lack credibility and heft in delivering his complex and occasionally unpleasant character.

The circumstances of Vincent’s death were a brutal homophobic hate crime, with the show’s programme notes making  worthy reference to the prescience of Ridley's writing (the play premiered in 2000) amidst the "otherings" of today, and the violence of prejudice that exists across the world. Sadly however such hateful violence is nothing new to mankind, with history telling us that it has been here forever. Ridley’s tawdry words, at times offering little more than a virtual peep show into graphic descriptions of verbally violent torture porn, tell us nothing new.

Runs until 22nd June
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley

Amidst the financial crash of 2007/08, one of the most memorable images was that of the summarily fired employees of Lehman Brothers investment bank streaming out of their offices in New York and London’s Canary Wharf, their personal possessions unceremoniously borne in those ubiquitous cardboard Bankers Boxes.

Those branded boxes form a scenic mainstay throughout Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy and in this opus of a play, that spans from the middle of the 19th century through to the early years of the 21st, the writer’s suggestions are clear. Not only were the seeds of the bank’s downfall planted at its very inception, but also that much of the responsibility for this most recent of financial calamities, lies at the feet of the three Lehman brothers who had arrived on the USA’s eastern seaboard as penniless Jewish immigrants some 160 years before.

This is an unpleasant even if unsurprising conflation, for the last surviving member of the Lehman dynasty to have actually served on the bank’s board was Bobby Lehman, a grandson of the founders and who himself had died in 1969, some 40 years prior to the bank’s collapse and hence well distanced from the decisions that led to its demise. This lapse of time however has not troubled Massini. Much as was sung in Monty Python’s Spamalot: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you dont have any Jews”, so Massini switches Broadway for Wall Street and, like an East End mural, subtly fuels a troubling trope. 

The stagecraft on display in this 3.5 hours epic is breathtaking. Assuming all roles, genders, and ages, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are a tour de force of a trio. With accents that are never too laboured and Sam Mendes having focused on the tiniest of nuances in each man’s work, their performances have to be amongst the finest in town. Es Devlin’s staging is ingeniously and suggestively slick - a simple minimally furnished revolve (complete with said boxes) enveloped by Luke Halls’ wraparound video screen - but it is the three actors who convincingly convey time, place and characters as they drive the narrative from the brothers’ humble beginning as Alabama cotton traders through to their dominance of New York’s financial district.

Massini keeps the three brothers clad in European/Victorian tailcoats throughout, reflecting the costume and time of their arrival on the eastern seaboard. But while this simplicity of clothing places a dramatic requirement upon the three men to enact their respective characters through their performances - a challenge that they not only rise to, but emphatically smash - its continual presence throughout the piece only heightens the play’s subliminally uncomfortable associations. 

Taking a step back from the production’s breath-taking technical brilliance - opening now in the West End having only just returned from an acclaimed, brief, New York transfer - the quality of the writing does not match the standards of Mendes’ cast and crew. While the story revolves around (and not entirely incorrectly) the brute avarice of capitalism with the horrors of the 1929 Wall Street crash featuring heavily in the second act, the argument is one-sided and there is little if any respect paid to the positive aspects of capital markets.

For sure the markets are imperfect, often profoundly so, but it was and remains risked capital that often created national as well as private wealth and much mass employment too. But for Massini it seems that these are inconvenient truths. Similarly, the story’s vast timeline is managed well until the third act’s endgame, when the four decades following Bobby Lehman’s demise are telescoped into a barely fleshed-out finale.

Notwithstanding its flawed message, in these times of unparalleled political polarisation The Lehman Trilogy will be lapped up by eager audiences. And for sheer technical theatrical genius, the play is in a class of its own.

Runs until 31st August. To be screened via NTLive on 25 July 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Carousel - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer

To read my recent interview with Janie Dee and Jo Riding, click here

Image may contain: one or more people and indoor
The company of Carousel
Every now and then theatrical magic descends...

So it was at the Cadogan Hall this week where Alex Parker had assembled a starry cast and a magnificent 30-strong orchestra to perform, for one night only, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. But this cast had something even more special, setting it apart from the throng of musicals currently playing in the West End and on Broadway. For back in 1992 Carousel had been staged at London's National Theatre in a production that featured Jo Riding and Janie Dee as female leads Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge. Such was the excellence of director Nicholas Hytner’s show that not only did his revival win the Olivier for Best Musical Revival and Best Director, but Riding and Dee won the Oliviers for Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Performer (both for in a Musical), respectively.

Riding and Dee had been recently reunited at the National as the leads in a revival of Follies and so it was an act of sheer vision that prompted Parker to invite the duo to reprise their Carousel magnificence in a concert performance of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.

Janie Dee and Jo Riding in Carousel, 1992

The pair’s contribution to the evening was a display, not only of continuing musical theatre excellence – but also of a sheer unbridled love for the show that they were singing. As the cast remained seated on stage when not called upon to perform, Dee’s passion for the piece was almost palpabke. When not performing herself she was absorbing the detail of the music and the occasion, almost in disbelief - not dissimilar to Billy Bigelow being granted the chance to descend from Heaven for a one day visit to Earth - that she had been granted a chance to reprise this heavenly score. Riding too was both entranced and enchanting and yet, in full keeping with the incredibly complex character that Julie is, maintained a sobriety that in no way diminished her evident love for the occasion.

Parker had rehearsed his musicians impeccably. From the opening bars of The Carousel Waltz, through to the closing strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone – not to mention the sheer brilliance of the demanding Act 2 Ballet, the music was a profound delight, accompanied by a vocal chorus of students from the Guildford School of Acting.

Alongside Riding and Dee, Hadley Fraser was  compelling and convincing as the violently troubled Billy Bigelow. Another character of deep complexity, Fraser imbued the errant husband with as much sympathy as could be afforded to his abusive nature. He also delivered a sensational Soliloquy.

Gavin Spokes captured Mr Snow’s comic pomposity perfectly, as Stewart Clarke’s Jigger was another deft turn from this talented young man, Clarke picking out his character’s malign opportunistic wickedness. Both men were vocally outstanding, with Matthew Kelly and Chizzy Akudolu complementing the set of supporting roles as The Starkeeper and Mrs Mullins respectively

As Nettie Fowler, Lucy Schaufer’s operatic background led to her spine-tingling take on You’ll Never Walk Alone. But back in 1992 it had been Patricia Routledge (not yet then a Dame) who played Nettie. Incredibly, and at the age of 90!, Routledge returned to this production as the narrator. For those in the audience who remembered the 1992 show, to see Dame Patricia singing along in the finale of the show’s totemic anthem was unforgettable.

Photo credit: Take Two Theatricals (2019) and Clive Barda (1992)

Friday, 10 May 2019

Amour - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Michel Legrand
Libretto by Didier Van Cauwelaert
English adaptation by Jeremy Sams
Adapted from Le Passe-Muraille by Marcel Aymé

The company

Michel Legrand’s Amour is a curious show, first seen in Paris in 1997 and then five years later, on Broadway where it was to run for a month or so. Curious for sure, but yet this whimsical tale of a Parisian clerk who finds himself temporarily gifted with a superhuman ability to walk through walls,lends itself perfectly to London’s Off West End theatre scene.

The tale may be implausible and Jeremy Sams’ translation of the original libretto occasionally creaks with a predictable, schoolboy simlplicity. But in the hands of Danielle Tarento’s cast and creative team, Legrand’s show is imbued with a classy charm that, like the most delicate of a French pâtissier’s mille-feuilles, is a delight to savour.

On stage virtually throughout, Gary Tushaw is the magically transformed Dusoleil, bestowing a plausible ordinariness upon his literally unbelievable character and bringing a vocal delight to the role in this sung-through piece. The object of his desire is Anna O’Byrne’s Isabelle, with the actress’ pedigree shining through every time she sings. O’Byrne brings a quality to her performance that is most usually associated with West End productions costing far more than a Charing Cross ticket, as her poise, presence and vocal delivery prove enchanting. 

To be fair all of the cast are close to flawless, with some of the ensemble's close harmony work proving sensational as they glide through Legrand’s cascading melodies. There is a fine turn from Alasdair Harvey as the jealously possessive Prosecutor and husband of Isabelle, while Claire Machin’s Whore brings the house down with her perfectly nuanced caricature. A nod too on the night of this review to Jack Reitman, understudying three minor roles brilliantly, and delivering the Doctor with an assured comedic confidence.

Tarento’s hallmarks of outstanding production values abound. Hannah Chissick’s direction is perceptive and intuitive, Adrian Gee's costumes are a treat, and in a venue where sound design can often disappoint, Andrew Johnson’s work is outstanding. Every word is crystal clear, easily heard alongside the immaculately balanced sound of Jordan Li-Smith’s also excellent 6 piece band.

While the narrative and argument may be slight, the charm of this show makes it a musical highlight of the capital's 2019 fringe scene. For lovers of quality musical theatre production, Amour is unmissable.

Runs until 20th July 2019
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 3 May 2019

Man Of La Mancha - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Written by Dale Wasserman
Directed by Lonny Price

Kelsey Grammer and Danielle De Niese

It has been 50 years since Man Of La Mancha last played in London’s West End and based upon this year’s offering from the ENO and co-producers Grade-Linnitt it is easy to see why. This curious tale of romance, chivalry and ageing, drawn from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, demands production values that are nothing short of excellent if its hidden but cheesy charms are to truly suspend an audience’s disbelief.

Here however, celebrity stunt casting has stripped what could have been a majestic musical of its Iberian magic. Kelsey Grammer leads as Cervantes / Quixote and while Grammer’s ability to carry off the close-ups of a carefully scripted TV sitcom is unmatched, he fails to fill the demanding chasm that is London’s Coliseum. Compared to the West End’s finest Grammer can sing, just. But he cannot act through his song and for a show that is built around one absolute money-shot of a number, the first act's closer The Impossible Dream, one is left wandering out for an ice cream and feeling distinctly short-changed even before the rip-off prices of a vanilla tub.

There’s mediocrity elsewhere too - Nicholas Lyndhurst (another gem of the smaller screen) puts in a throughly average turn as the Governor / Innkeeper and even Peter Polycarpou as Sancho Panza, a man who usually delivers musical theatre genius, is burdened  by director Price with a cod Spanish accent that reduces his part to little more than a Spanish waiter. Polycarpou is so much better than this.

There are some moments to the production that imbue quality. Danielle De Niese is magnificent as Aldonza / Dulcinea - her voice, particularly in the closing act, breaking hearts as she sings of her love for the dying old man. And the music is rather wonderful too with the ENO Orchestra under David White’s baton proving an absolute delight. For anyone who loves Mitch Leigh’s sumptuous score, you will never hear it played live any finer than this.

Runs until 8th June

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Ain't Misbehavin' - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Fats Waller
Based on an idea by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr
Directed by Tyrone Huntley

The cast of Ain't Misbehavin'

Not seen on a London stage for 40 years, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is gloriously revived at Southwark Playhouse in a co-production with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre.

More of a revue than a musical - there’s no narrative thread outside of each individual song’s arc - the show’s beautifully voiced quintet whirl through thirty or so Fats Waller numbers in an evening that captures the Jazz Age in New York’s Harlem.

The songs are a selection of American Songbook favourites together with the less well-known and it is a credit to director Tyrone Huntley, in his first stint at helming a production, that he extracts not only humour, but also pathos and passion from his talented cast. 

The five performers work impressively as a well drilled troupe - and credit here to  Oti Mabuse’s slick and imaginative choreography that makes fine use of the Southwark’s tight thrust space. But more than just an ensemble, Huntley finds room for each performer to deliver powerful solo turns too.

takis’s ingenious set has travelled well from Essex. A glitzy, archy, tunnelled trompe l’oeil that sits atop a gold burnished floor. Unquestionably brash, yet takis has fashioned a design that complements the piece perfectly, suggesting a nightclub that could have been a magical escape from the poverty of Harlem.

The music is great too. On piano, Alex Cockle conducts his 6 piece combo with nuanced gusto, the non-stop music proving an absolute delight.

With Ain’t Misbehavin' Southwark Playhouse again proves itself as a venue for top-notch Off West End entertainment.

Runs until 1st June
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Night Of The Living Dead - Review

Pleasance Theatre, London


Written by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin
Created by Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison
Directed by Benji Sperring

Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering

George A Romero’s 1968 movie Night Of The Living Dead not only unleashed zombies upon an unsuspecting world, but was also one of the first movies to fuse horrific gore with political allegory and just a spattering of satire. The film rapidly garnered cult status and it was a bold move from the 5 (predominantly Canadian) minds behind the stage show’s inception to translate the picture from stage to screen.

Holed up in a remote farmhouse and surrounded by hordes of the rapacious undead, 5 survivors seek to avoid the gruesome demise that inevitably awaits them. Aspects of the movie’s plot surface throughout the narrative, and it is a tribute to Diego Pitarch’s outstanding set design and costume theme, that the era and location (including frequent switches between the farmhouse’s ground floor and basement) are delivered so convincingly. Reflecting the original black & white photography of the story, Pitarch deploys an effective monochrome throughout.

But the narrative depends on the people and co-producer Katy Lipson has chosen wisely in engaging Benji Sperring to helm the show. As seen with The Toxic Avenger a couple of years ago at the Southwark Playhouse, Sperring is an accomplished director of comic ghastliness and he has chosen two of his Southwark stalwarts, Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels to drive the evening’s morbid irony. A seminal 60s work, Romero ensured (and the play repeatedly acknowledges) that the issues of the Cold War, civil rights and sexual inequalities that were riving America’s psyche at the time fuelled his satire.

Mari McGinlay plays the eponymous Barbara while Jennifer Harding doubles up for Helen and Judy – with their respective interactions being as deliciously nuanced as a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. The sound (Samuel West, James Nicholson and Paul Gavin) and lighting (Nic Farman) are top notch too, enhancing the shock comedy horror and providing the perfect complement to Pitarch’s designs.

The tropes and familiar plot lines play out well, though a re-run scene between a cop and his assistant (Mike Bodie and Tama Phethean respectively) proves a little tiresome. Nonetheless a quality and innovative piece of theatre that offers up a neat tribute to Romero’s original.

Runs until 8th June
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Marvellous Wonderettes - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written & created by Roger Bean
Directed by Joseph Hodges

The Marvellous Wonderettes

The Marvellous Wonderettes makes its UK debut at London’s Upstairs At The Gatehouse, a juke-box musical that first played Milwaukee in 1999, before its off-Broadway arrival in New York some 9 years later.

Canny casting directors would do well to make the trip to Highgate and catch the quartet of Sophie Camble, Rosie Needham, Louise Young and Kara Taylor Alberts. In a set list (for the evening is more akin to a revue than a musical) that spans the 1950s and 60s, the four women capture the era’s vocals magnificently.

But this all-American show is served heavy on the cheese - and American cheese doesn’t easily cross the  Atlantic. The gleeful High School patter (shifted 10 years on for the second act) that links the songs could barely have entertain a modern US audience let alone a house (full, to be fair) of cynical Brits. And playing at the Gatehouse to an audience who appeared to be predominantly sexa and septuagenarians the, songs could not come quickly enough.

Lauren Ronan’s band put in sound work throughout the evening - but stronger work on the reeds would have been appreciated. Many of the numbers had glorious saxophone lines when released all those decades ago but much of the melodies’ original magic is muted here. And while the cast is unquestionably magnificent, performer(s) of colour would not have gone amiss, particularly given that one of the second half’s big moments is a cover of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. 

Hey - the audience loved the songs though, brilliantly sung as they are, and at times there was something close to a zombie awakening as Stupid Cupid and You Don’t Own Me stirred the crowd into a foot-tapping frenzy.

And when the Wonderettes sing, the show is marvellous.

Runs until 12th May
Photo credit: Kevin Ralph

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Tony's Last Tape - Review

Omnibus Theatre


Written by Andy Barrett
Directed by Giles Croft

Philip Bretherton
Tony’s Last Tape arrives at Clapham’Omnibus, four years after Andy Barrett’s perceptive work first played at the Nottingham Playhouse. A one-act monologue that lasts a little over an hour, Philip Bretherton plays an 87 year old Tony Benn, surrounded by gadgets and looking back upon aspects of his life.

A cleverly written piece, fictional in its detail yet drawn from and inspired by Benn’s diaries and speeches, it is a credit to Barrett (as he explains in a programme forward) that snatches of his playtext are now being mistakenly attributed as actual quotes from Benn himself.

The work will appeal most to those who recall the man and remember his politics. With pipe sometimes gripped between his teeth, Bretherton offers up a portrait of one of the nation’s most distinguished post-war politicians. While his acting is sometimes more caricature than cameo, is nonetheless instantly recognisable. There is much to ponder on in Barrett’s narrative. We see Benn’s commitment not only to workers’ rights, but also a profound sense of patriotic national pride too. Some argue today that socialism and nationalism are mutually exclusive – but Benn brings us back to a time when the country’s Left at least purported to be built on decency – a far cry from the shambles of today’s Labour movement.

Barrett tells us that Benn nailed the quasi-fascist, non-elected bureaucrats of the European Union too – and as one listens to his philosophies amidst the current shambles of a Brexit negotiation that Theresa May continues to flounder in, we weep at how the wisdom of Benn and his ilk has been so roundly ignored by a Prime Minister’s embarrassing prostrations before Brussels.

Tony’s Last Tape is brilliant theatre for its time – but deeply depressing too.

Runs until 20th April
Photo credit: Robert Day

Monday, 8 April 2019

Jo Riding & Janie Dee talk Carousel, Follies and friendship

Janie and Jo on London's South Bank, 2019
Janie Dee and Jo Riding are two of the UK's finest musical theatre performers. At the National Theatre the return of Dominic Cooke’s acclaimed production of Follies currently stars the two actresses. 
Dee continues magnificently as Phyllis (could she ever leave this wonderful show?) however Cooke has re-cast his Sally and Riding (or rather Joanna Riding as she is listed in the programme) is now taking the role to even greater heights. The pairing of these two women has made for one of London's most sensational casting decisions in years. 
Cognoscenti of London's theatre however will know that the two have shared a National stage before. In 1992 they led Nicholas Hytners’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as Julie Jordan (Riding) and Carrie Pipperidge (Dee) and such was their excellence then that they BOTH(!) won well-deserved Olivier Awards in '93 for their work.
So, while this time hop of 27 years to 2019 isn’t quite the 30-year gap that Dimitri Weismann marks at the reunion of his fabled Follies, there's the slightest, almost whimsical hint, of life imitating art as these two wonderful women work their magic on Sondheim’s sensational show. 
Making this casting even more exciting is the news just announced, as this interview is published, that on Sunday May 19th, Riding and Dee will return to the capital's Cadogan Hall for one night only in a concert production of Carousel, that will see them reprise their award winning performances!
My own memories of Hytner’s Carousel production are wonderfully vivid and so it was both joy and privilege to spend an afternoon in the company of these two fabulous performers. Amidst a rare burst of some South Bank springtime sunshine, we sat by the River Thames and talked of Follies, Carousel, friendship and musical theatre....

JB:    Janie and Jo -  Follies was outstanding in 2017. This time around, it's even  better. Tell me about the chemistry between the two of you that is so very palpable!

Jo:    That chemistry of Carousel... Well what was happening on stage with those two was kind of happening off stage as well, because I think that Carrie looks after Julie. She looks out for her. "You're a queer one, Julie Jordan, but I kind of like you, and I'm going to look after you." And that was exactly what was going in the rehearsal room.

I was very green and wet behind the ears, and I was having a bit of a hard time and Janie sort of came to my rescue and took me under her wing. A couple of little meetings in the dressing room just to have a nice chat saying "Are you alright? Don't take any notice."

Back then I'd never worked at the National. I'd done very little and a lot less than Janie and with her I just felt looked after in her very, very good hands and I've adored for that ever since. And yeah, it's kind of strange now that we're playing these old friends in Follies, with the sort of little crappy one looking up to the big glamorous one!

Janie:    Just before this interview Jo and I were looking at some Carousel pictures and there was one of Jo at the sewing machine, in a scene in which she had been required to age up (during the show) say 20 years and I also had to turn up with these ten children or something that I'd had with Mr. Snow and it was a lovely photo of us – as Jo said, it was almost like Sally and Phyllis!

Jo in Carousel, 1992
Jo:    One at her wits' end, and the other looking ever so glamorous, despite the fact that she'd spat out ten kids. You did look incredibly fabulous for having spat out so many!

Janie:    Julie and Carrie in Carousel, were very, very good friends and we kind of felt that friendship very truly whilst we were in the show. And we have stayed friends all through our lives until now. I've seen a lot of Jo's work. I went to see her in stuff and always thought she was amazing and I've got to know her various boyfriends over the years too. I don't know her husband so well -

Jo:    My boyfriends before the husband, that is.  Make sure you add that!

Janie:    Before the husband, of course! What I mean is that on and off stage we've kept in touch. And then, recently, we were brought back together, which was really wonderful, by Alex Parker to do A Little Night Music. And so that again kind of gave us a bit of a jolt, didn't it?

JB:    Julie and Carrie were friends. Are Sally and Phyllis friends, in 1971, at the Weismann’s Follies reunion party?

Janie:    No, I think they've grown apart. But I think what Phyllis is dealing with is not unlike Pinter's play, Betrayal. The betrayal isn't just of the people who had sex, it's the betrayal of the friendship as well, that obviously was the kernel of it all.

It was a good friendship between these two girls. And was it 30 years before that? So in 1941, it was Sally who took Phyllis under her wing and said "You can come and stay with me, and I know somebody. My boyfriend can bring an extra man for you," who ends up being Ben who ends up being her husband. And then we see what happens 30 years later when they return for the party, the reunion.

Jo:    It was quite a brief time, wasn't it? We worked out that they were probably working at the Follies for not much more than a year to 18 months before the war hit the USA, so we didn't get that long together, did we?

Janie:    It's trust, it's when you trust somebody. It's to do with trust, I guess. And forgiveness. But with Phyllis, I feel she's coming to the reunion party for a few reasons. Not only to get things clear, but also to try and move on somehow in one way or another. It's almost like she dares it all to happen, I don't know. I’m still trying to work it out!

JB:    Janie - How have you felt the show evolve from its first time around?

Janie:    Watching it this time? Well I've noticed that Dominic Cooke definitely has revisited his own production from last time and thought, "Hm, I'll change this and I'll change that - because the show could be better or more profound."

And the fact that we as the two main players are so different has shifted it into a slightly different place. You know, having enjoyed last year's production so much, it's hard to make comparisons and I don't want to make comparisons. But what I would say is that there's something about the relationship between Sally and Ben now that just feels more dangerous to Phyllis. And that's a big shift that's actually made it, I think, different for me as a performer, different for me as the character Phyllis. Our pairing has sort of shifted the show into darker territory.

Jo:    Quite astonishing, isn't it, that Dominic hasn't rested on his laurels? He had a five-star hit on his hands, so he could have just brought a couple of people back. "Yeah, you do your thing, walk it on." But he hasn't. The fact that he has gone where he's gone with it and he has decided to fiddle with a five-star show. That's brave.

Janie:    I said to him at the end of the last one, "Oh, I'm so sorry that we're finishing. I still haven't finished my work on this." And he said, "Good, 'cause I would like to try it again." And he knew then, and I think-

Jo:    Did you know then that you'd come back?

Janie:    I then knew that I wanted to come back, because I really didn't feel like I'd finished

JB:    Jo, your songs very much define Sally's vulnerability. What, over the years, do you think has seen Sally crumble - we know that she has attempted suicide at least once - while at the same time Phyllis has hardened?

Jo:    Oh. I guess a lot depends on personality in the first place. How one person copes with shit compared to another. I don't know. I think ... It was a different start out, wasn't it? I (Sally) was in love with someone who rejected me. Phyllis is in love with someone, believed that that person was in love with them, stayed with them, but then learned over the years, actually, he didn't love anyone, really, other than himself.

Janie:    Not even. Definitely not himself!

Jo:    No. Actually incapable of love. So I don't know why they've both turned out the way they've turned out. I can't answer that. If Mr. Sondheim was here....

Janie with Alexander Hanson as Ben in Follies, 2019
Janie:    I think working on our backstories has been great. I worked on my backstory with both of the women playing Young Phyllis (Christine Tucker in the 2019 revival) and we’ve got some nice stuff in, but there’s more this time.

Christine was new to it, and she’d gone mad on her backstory - some wonderful stuff that we had come over from Ireland to get to Philadelphia, and Phyllis’ father was killed.

So I'm not going to tell you, because that's my secret, but I now know why Phyllis is the way she is. Or at least I know why I think she's the way she is!

But the thing about theatre is that I don't think actors should ever tell the audience what they should think. Nor should writers for that matter!

One of the beautiful things about theatre is that you interpret it for yourself. So whatever you think was the reason that Sally crumbles and Phyllis stays strong, whatever that reason is, it is for you to work that out, not for us to tell you. That spoils it!

Jo:    I think that through Sally Sondheim does tell us a little clue, and that's when she's talking to Ben and she said, "You don't know how to feel things. I feel things. I feel things." And I think she is, she's a bleeder. And it all comes out. She's a very emotional creature, she's not reserved. And I think that, perhaps, could even be her undoing. I mean, it's good to get your feelings out, but I think to feel things so acutely that they become unbearable...

Janie:    I thought, "Ben’s trained Phyllis not to cry." I think he just has wanted the wife that he's got, and now he's got the wife that he's got, and he doesn't want her anymore, or he doesn't think he wants her anymore. But he actually trained her to be the person she is, and that's to push down the stuff. She's pushing down all the emotion. Whereas Sally has never been told, "Don't be who you are."

And I don't know, it's interesting that we don't know what happens after the end of this. The end is not the end, is it? Nobody dies. It's not the end. It's ... You don't know, you make up your own mind.

JB:    I picked up on your use of the word forgiveness, earlier on in this conversation, which is not a word that I've often associated with Follies’ message. Can you expand on that?

Janie:    I'm not saying that forgiveness actually happens, but I am saying that it's up for grabs. You know, it's a good take on humanity, actually, in a world that is crumbling around us, and how we are trying to hold on to some kind of value somewhere which we might want to call love.

But maybe love is not it. Maybe respect is more it, or something. I don't know, it's asking lots of questions, but I wonder if love is the answer? Because love ... If you look at what happens to most relationships that start with love, it takes a very special pair of people to keep that love alive for ever and ever and ever and not let it divert into boredom or hate or the worst, indifference.

JB:    Between you, aside from Follies, you've played many of Sondheim's great female characters. Desiree, Anne, Countess Charlotte Malcolm. What are your thoughts on how Sondheim writes for women?

Janie:    Not unlike Shakespeare, he seems to understand profoundly what it is to be a woman. The pain of a woman and the joy and the sexuality. And how does he know? I understand that he had a difficult relationship with his mother.

Jo:    I think perhaps, he doesn't necessarily understand women, per se. I think he understand what it is to be the kind of person that has been oppressed and repressed over the decades, over the centuries. I think he understands that. I think he understands the battle to be heard, to be seen, to survive against the odds. Maybe he understands that, which happens to be part of a woman's story, but not exclusively. And I think maybe that's it.

JB:    Jo - with  Every Day a Little Death in A Little Night Music and Follies’ Losing My Mind, you have sung two of Sondheim’s most painfully poignant numbers. How perceptive is he as a writer?

Jo:    Well again and again, he nails it, doesn't he? He tears into your soul. I don't know how he does it. I don't know how he manages to get the knob of something and turn it into song. I wish I did. I am just the conveyor of his material. I'm the medium. All I can do is interpret it the best way I can do that by finding little dark corners in me and interpreting the best I can. But I find him incredibly perceptive.

But again, it's very subjective, isn't it? There are those that don't like Sondheim, that don't get Sondheim, my mother included. And for her, that's not what musical theatre ought to be. It's too dark, it's too complex. It's ... I think it takes her somewhere she doesn't want to be taken to in a musical.

Janie:    Jo, do you remember? Sondheim came to see us in Carousel and the reason he came to see us in Carousel was partly because he probably wanted to see it and he was here, but also because he was sort of brought up with Richard Rodgers, who was almost like the godfather or something of his talent. So he had Rodgers and Hammerstein, I believe, bringing him up, and others.

And Bernstein who he worked with on West Side Story. He had these greats kind of running alongside him, and whilst he was picking up some of their talent or influence or musicality, he was bringing himself up as well.

But I think when he came to see us, he really loved Carousel, and I'd love him to see this with us again. I think he'd be really happy. 

Jo:    I wonder if even he knows why he's so perceptive and why he can write like he can write. I just find often, incredibly talented people, just the way they can put something down on paper, whether it's music or it's words or what have you. They just have this gift for getting to the knob and turning a screw on something. I don't even think they know how they do it.

JB:    I had never described Sondheim as Shakespearean, prior to this 2019 review of Follies.

Janie:    Did you? Because Dominic Cooke has described Follies as a bit Shakespearean.

Jo in Follies, 2019
At this point the wind turned breezy and we moved back into the National Theatre itself. The blustery weather reminded Jo of the National's 1998 touring production of Oh! What A Lovely War that had been staged in a tent. 
Jo:    Fiona Laird was the director - who had been one of the staff directors here during Carousel and I had one of the most incredible moments I've ever had on a stage in that show.

It's a phenomenal piece, anyways,  course, we're talking back in the 1990s, and there were still some First World War veterans who could come to the show - and often they would be seated at the front of the apron. And I'd play this character, where I had to come right to the front of the apron in a sort of a nurses outfit and sing Keep the Home Fires Burning.

And there was this little old man, and he looked about 204, and he was curled up. We thought he was asleep, we were sort of joking that he'd gone to sleep right at the beginning of the show, and we just thought just like this throughout the whole show. Except at that moment, he lifted up his head, and he sang the entire song with me. I don't know how I held it together. Every word, perfect. Sang it with me. Gorgeous, gorgeous.

Where that must have taken him and what it must have meant to him in that moment?

Janie:    How did you cope? How did you keep singing?

Jo:    Well, it's the hardest thing to sing with a lump in your throat, isn't it? But you have to. You think, "It'd be so easy for me just to go now, but I've got a job to do. And I'm just gonna steel myself. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing it." And then as soon as I sat down, I was in a flood. You kind of hold it in, don't you? Because if you lose it, the moment's gone.

Janie and Jo in Carousel (1992)
JB:    Returning to Carousel, and powerful moments on stage, the first time that I saw Gemma Sutton (currently playing Young Sally in Follies) on stage was at the Arcola five years ago in Carousel where she was an outstanding Julie Jordan. Since then London has seen the Coliseum production in 2017 and then last year there was a Broadway revival with Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. I recall discussing that Broadway show with the other Baz (Bamigboye), we both agreeing that it was the first Carousel since 1993 that had come close to replicating the magic you two had created at the Lyttelton.

Jo:    My dad was such a mess when he came to see Carousel. He said it broke his heart to see his girl, his little girl so old and so sad. He said, "I don't ever want to see it." He couldn't separate the two, bless him. I'm not from a theatrical background, and Mum and Dad at that point really hadn't seen very much theatre at all, so I think when they did see stuff like that it affected them so profoundly.

Janie with Clive Rowe as Mr Snow - Carousel, 1992
Janie:    Yeah, my dad was like that because of you. We all were. I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch Jo every night when she felt Billy Bigelow. It's awful in the thing, 'cause he hits her and she says to her little girl-

Jo:    "It is possible for a man to hit you hard and it not hurt at all."

Janie:    That's right.

Jo:    What a line to have to say. But I had to find a truth in it. And actually, it comes from that dark side of Julie, I think. There's a dark side to Julie who was drawn to the dark side in Billy, and there is an element of the fact that, "He can hit me and I can still love him because the idea of being without him is darker and bleaker than being with him. I cam come to terms with that. I can ..." It's a question of self esteem, isn't it? I mean, you could talk about battered wives of course, but there's something steelier in Julie.

Janie:    I think also it's an understanding of where the abusive person has been as a child. You know, this isn't to say it's condoning any kind of abuse, absolutely not. But it seemed to me that Julie was profoundly at one with Billy. They really found each other in that. And he did really love Julie, and he didn't mean to hit her, that's the point. His anger was something ... It was his problem. His anger management was bad, and why it was bad, you can only guess at. And only the actor will know what his backstory will be for that. But the guess is that he's been hit around when he was a little boy, right?

Jo:    So there's an understanding, and there's, I guess, a forgiveness from that coming from her because there is that understanding, and acceptance of him and everything. That she knew what she was taking on. She knew. And loved every part of it, the bad and the good, which is real love, isn't it?

Janie:    But never the less, you would still get gasps from the audience with that line from time to time. As if to say "How can you even say such a line?"

Jo:    I know, I know. But you as the actor, you can't be thinking that. You have to find justification for it. In you, you have to find a reason where it's acceptable to say that. You have to get underneath something in that character that makes it a truth for her. And that's the best you can do, isn't it?

Follies plays in repertory at the Olivier Theatre until May 11th
Carousel plays for one night only at the Cadogan Hall on May 19th

Photo credits:
Carousel 1992 - Clive Barda
Follies 2019 - Johan Perssson
South Bank 2019 - Michael Curtis