Saturday 26 January 2019

Notre Dame de Paris - Review

London Coliseum, London


Music by Richard Cocciante
Lyrics by Luc Plamondon
Directed by Gilles Maheu

Richard Charest

They say context is key and thus two things are paramount prior to watching Notre Dame de Paris. Firstly, the show is firmly of its time: with Victor Hugo’s original work having been published in 1831 and taking place in 1482, equality of any sort is lacking; the second consideration is that this is a thoroughly French production and that any comparison with its West End contemporaries is moot. The emphasis here is on the "spectacular", rather than on the musical and the distinction cannot be underestimated. 

The narrative famously charts the arc of bell-ringer Quasimodo and his love for Esmerelda; a Romany who takes a poet as a husband, falls in love with a soldier and is herself the obsession of the (celibate) Archdeacon of Notre Dame. It’s quite the love rectangle, and that’s before the soldier’s betrothed comes into play. Needless to say, it does not end well - a happy ending would be difficult to achieve and at odds with Gothic literature.

In what proves to be a curious evening There are stellar vocal performances across the board; both earnest and powerful. Gringoire (Richard Charest) sets the bar high with the first number, an ode to cathedrals that firmly channels Hugo’s original objective of persuading French society to treat these architectural masterpieces with the respect he believed them to be deserving of (Le Temps des Cathédrales). This is swiftly followed by an introduction to Clopin (a commanding Jay) and, thereafter, the dynamic between Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) and Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio).

Before she even steps to the front of the stage, eyes are drawn instantly to Esmerelda (a role played expertly by Hiba Tawaji). With a headset microphone and green dress Tawaji stalks the stage in a manner reminiscent of Britney Spears’ iconic I’m A Slave 4 U 2001 MTV VMA performance. All that is missing is a Burmese python.

That’s not a bad thing, however. This is more like a concert, after all - one which takes influence from Italian opera and French pop music and the effect is at once melodramatic, rousing and bold.

The principals are supported by a troupe of acrobats and dancers, bursting with energy and colour throughout, once again making this production feel more like a concert. However there is more than one occasion during which the stage feels too big for this grand vision, and challenges the decision to put this on at one of the West End's largest venues.  

Despite the lead vocals being sung live, they sit atop a prerecorded and heavily produced backing track and while the musical support from English National Opera’s orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Brind, is a nice touch, it feels token. Ultimately it is nigh-on impossible to tell what is being performed live and what is not. Performed entirely in French, the production is localised for the British audience with surtitles set atop the stage. Given that each number’s substance is thin, the need for the textual assistance slowly wears off; watching the performers is enough to grasp the storyline. 

Ultimately this is what hinders the production from packing a punch. This is a show built on a series of songs that fail to carry a narrative thread effectively. But for a musical spectacle, perhaps that’s not necessarily too important after all.

Runs until 27th January
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Alessandro Dobici

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Thriller Live West End 10th Anniversary - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Casts, both old and new, on stage for the 10th Anniversary of Thriller Live

Celebrating 10 years at the Lyric Theatre, a memorable production of Thriller Live played to a full house last night. The show has been reviewed here in the past, consistently achieving outstanding  standards.

Adrian Grant’s vision, breathed into life by Gary Lloyd’s direction and choreography, together with John Maher’s intuitive understanding of Michael Jackson’s rock, pop and soul classics has created a fusion of excellence.

Lloyd’s genius sees him craft Jackson’s music into the human form, the cast’s non-stop movement proving an immaculately drilled display of modern dance, with the timeless songs’ lyrics and harmonies only being enhanced by Lloyd’s slick, perceptive routines.

The video displays remain breathtaking in both their ingenuity and, at times, stunning simplicity, as Maher’s 5 piece on-stage band faithfully recreate the Jackson sound.

The magic of the show’s anniversary night was made all the more special by a horde of ex-company members filling the stage half way through the second act, and causing  an impromptu standing ovation , together with post show speeches from the producers as well as Grant and Lloyd, with Grant in particular referencing his own personal connection  to Michael Jackson.

Thriller Live remains the most consistently outstanding show in town. There are no moments of tedium nor, unlike nearly every other big musical in the West End, any weak songs whatsoever. Each moment is carefully crafted perfection in a production that is world-class entertainment.

Booking until 29th September
Photo credit: Betty Zapata

Violet - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and lyrics by Brian Crawley
Directed by Shuntaro Fujita

Kaisa Hammarlund

After a traumatising accident in her childhood leaves Violet with a facial disfigurement, she becomes obsessed with an Oklahoma televangelist who she believes can heal her scars and make her as beautiful as the movie stars she idolises. Hopping onto a Greyhound bus in South Carolina, she heads off on a cross-country pilgrimage, joining forces with a pair of poker-playing soldiers on the way. 

Originally debuting off-Broadway in 1997, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s tragic yet heartening musical is remarkable in its quiet, unassuming depiction of what is slowly revealed to be a deeply entrenched self-loathing. The immense disaster of Violet’s accident and the subsequent isolation she experiences, are totally at odds with the plot’s tranquil pace. The accompanying bluesy score only further emphasises the musical’s strange, indistinct tone. Making good use of flashbacks, the plot showing Violet before the accident, together with the subsequent toll it takes upon her and her widower father. But the whole musical feels strangely nostalgic; like a series of diary entries tied together by a purgatorial bus ride. 

In the titular role, and making a short hop across the Thames from Tesori’s Fun Home that recently played at the Young Vic, Kaisa Hammarlund glows with desperate hope in a remarkable portrayal of the warring pain and optimism that drives Violet. Hammarlund makes it agonisingly clear that Violet is scarred not only physically, but emotionally and is never free of her “Otherness”. Her scarred face, although unseen by the audience, hangs phantasmal over every second of the musical. She sits hunched and walks with a clomping, stoic gait. It is as if she has learned to detract others from her scar by cultivating an image of brashness, and self-admitted insignificance; she controls how she is perceived by others in order to protect herself from the would-be tormentors that she encounters day-to-day. 

It is therefore a shame that the musical is less generous to its supporting characters. The dynamic between Violet and the two soldiers she befriends is certainly interesting, as it evolves from a bickering rapport to an uneasy love triangle, but despite a couple of excellent performances by Jay Marsh and Matthew Harvey, their insertion into the story feel rushed and underwritten. 

By the time director Shuntaro Fujita’s slick and sun-kissed production draws to a close, it’s impossible not to root for Violet’s happiness, but the plot falters in its hurry to achieve a neat ending, resulting in a finale which, albeit hopeful, remains wholly unsatisfying.

Runs until 6th April
Reviewed by Charlotte O'Growney
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Monday 21 January 2019

Witness For The Prosecution - Review

County Hall, London


Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey

Emma Rigby
Witness For The Prosecution is a glorious fusion of classic storytelling, first class production values and top-notch acting. Set amidst the oak-panelled Edwardian Baroque of the (now disused) County Hall Chamber, the Old Bailey is recreated to host a cracking yarn of a murder mystery, courtroom drama.

At risk of spoiling, the plot will not even be outlined. Suffice to say that there is skulduggery, passion, and twists and turns that will make even the seasoned theatre-goer gasp in surprise as the story unfolds. The show is very 1950s in its style, costumes, mannerisms and dialogue – and a delight of the piece is that one does not have to think too hard. The cast deliver the narrative delightfully, and at times it is as if a film-noir is being screened in person. Such is the cynicism of our times that the script can occasionally seem a little corny – but actually, the deliciously dated nuance only adds to the evening’s charm.

Lucy Bailey has coaxed magic from her newly-installed replacement cast. Jasper Britton is Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC, opposite prosecutor and professional nemesis Mr Myers QC, played by William Chubb. Britton's Robarts is a gem – a patrician who nonetheless is acutely aware of the details of the world around him. His unravelling of the facts he encounters is fresh and vibrant, and one cannot help but grin at such a well polished turn that never once descends into pastiche.

There is fine work too from Daniel Solbe as the hapless Leonard Vole, facing the noose if found guilty, together with a perfectly poised performance from Emma Rigby as his mysterious European wife Romaine. That both Solbe and Rigby are amongst a quartet of the show's players who are making their West End debuts, speaks volumes for the current cohort of actors entering the profession.

There are smaller treats too amongst the company. Ewan Stewart plays Vole's believably gritty brief, Christopher Ravenscroft is every inch an Old Bailey judge, while Joanna Brookes’ Janet Mackenzie, the murder victim’s housekeeper, is a Scottish dour delight 

Bailey’s direction is only enhanced by William Dudley’s imaginative design. Witness For The Prosecution is a quirky, quintessentially English drama that makes for a thrilling night at the theatre.

Currently booking until 1st September
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Aspects of Love - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart
Based on the novel by David Garnett
Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle

Jerome Pradon and Madalena Alberto

In a rare London revival, Jonathan O’Boyle brings Aspects of Love down the M6 from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre to the Southwark Playhouse, delivering a show that wavers between a confection of complex cliché and a homage to the male ego.

Driving the narrative is Alex, (Felix Mosse), a man possessed with such apparent animal magnetism that he is rendered irresistible to the opposite sex from adolescent girls through to women approaching their third age. But for all that Alex may have been imbued with this Lothario-like psyche, it hasn’t rubbed off on Mosse, a young man who lacks both gravitas and vocal presence. As a consequence, too much of this production, especially in the second act, becomes literally in-credible and at times tedious. And in the #MeToo era especially there needs to be questions raised about performing a show that references a mutual love, even if non-consummated, between a 34 year old man and a child 19 years his junior.

Most of O’Boyle’s company turn in sound performances with fine work in particular from Kelly Price as Rose, the show’s leading female and Eleanor Walsh as Jenny, her daughter. The acting accolades of the night however belong to the cast’s more senior members with Jerome Pradon putting in a polished turn as George, Alex’s uncle and an incorrigible romantic. A man who hopelessly falls for any woman who chances to wear the gown worn by his first late wife, Pradon’s priapic predator masterfully steals his every scene, his acting through both song and presence proving immaculate. Madalena Alberto plays Giulietta, George’s Venetian lover. Alberto is the very essence of excellence in a role that is woefully too small for her sensational talent.

Aspects of Love, inhabiting that obscure fairy-tale world of love that Sondheim mastered far more effectively in A Little Night Music, demands flawlessness across the board if its creaking conceits are to work and the cynical 21st century disbeliefs of its audiences be suitably suspended. This requirement extends to the band too, for while Richard Bates’ trio put in a fine shift on Lloyd Webber’s score, the noble Lord's melodies crave a bigger ensemble of musicians if they are to soar effectively.

Fringe treatments of musical theatre can often be magical. Here however, a difficult story makes for an evening of uneven entertainment.

Runs until 9th February 2019
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Sunday 13 January 2019

Swan Lake - Review

Coliseum, London


Choreographed by Derek Deane after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Precious Adams in Swan Lake

The English National Ballet’s 2019 Swan Lake presents one of the most famous, classic works in a production that is at once beautiful and thrilling. Derek Deane choreographs after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov - with additional movements created by Sir Frederick Ashton - and the hallmarks of this collection of trans-European geniuses is evident throughout.

Dancing Odette / Odile is the Romanian Alina Cojocaru - with a grace and allure that reached out across the curtain. The beauty of any ballet lies, not only within the elegance of its performers or the artistic talent of its creative team, but for the piece to convey the flowing drama of the narrative - a bar that is set all the higher when the production’s underlying fairy tale is not only one of dance's most fabled yarns, but is also so strong both in its moral rectitude and its global familiarity and recognition. In this iteration at the Coliseum, the English National Ballet have more than risen to the challenge, they raise the stakes too. The much loved story - even where every chapter is known and anticipated - is delivered here with such meticulous panache that one cannot help but weep at the unfolding, underlying tragedy.

Leading with Cojocaru are Joseph Caleb as Prince Seigfried and Jeffrey Cirio as Rothbart. There is a beautiful trusting naïveté to Caleb’s work that defines the uncompromised virtue of his Prince - and this contrasts magnificently with the feathered menace of Rothbart’s wickedness – his evil persona chillingly retained even whilst sat watching the court dances of the ballet’s third act.

Conducted on the night by Orlando Jopling, Tchaikovsky’s classic score becomes a whirl of musical wonder - the detail provided at times by the harp, or even (in act 3 again) the castanets, only enhancing the evening’s symphonic majesty. Its not just the music either, as Peter Farmer’s lavish stagings, with fogs across the lake deployed perfectly alongside Howard Harrison’s lighting that provides a flawless frame to the evening.

And as for the flock of swans - the avian/aquatic grace of the ENB’s 24 strong corps de ballet provide a shimmering. fluttering magnificence to an occasion of simply divine dance.

Runs until 13th January
Photo credit: Jason Bell

Wednesday 9 January 2019

The Dame - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Katie Duncan
Directed by Ian Talbot

Peter Duncan
In an impressive Duncan double-act, The Dame transfers from the Edinburgh fringe to London’s Park Theatre and makes for compelling theatre. In her first play, Katie Duncan writes, for father Peter to enact, the fictional story of Ronald Roy Humphrey a decaying dame in the twilight of his career, whose working life has revolved around winter pantomimes and summer seasons in end of the pier music hall.

Well researched, Duncan (junior) has delivered a text that captures Humphrey’s melancholy, contrasting it with a beautifully composed paean to Britain’s crumbling Victorian seaside towns. Places that were once home to frolicking fun palaces, now reduced to rusting and often burnt-out relics.

The writing is perceptive but in a 70-minute solo performance, Peter Duncan’s acting is masterful. Opening with a whirl of corny-gags and panto numbers, he takes us through Jack’s (from the Beanstalk) Mother, Widow Twankey and Pierrot, even throwing in a Punch and Judy routine too. But it is as he slowly strips off the gowns and make up, revealing the tortured soul that lies beneath the greasepaint carapace, that Duncan-pere excels. Through snatches of old music-hall numbers, we catch glimpses of his fractured mind and in a master stroke of both writing and performance, the Duncans deploy There’s A Hole In My Bucket as a discordant backdrop to the horrific physical abuse the young Humphrey suffered at the hands of his father.

The Dame is uncomfortable theatre, movingly performed. Under Ian Talbot’s assured direction, the Park Theatre have unearthed another gem.

Runs until 26th January
Photo credit: Robert Workman

Saturday 5 January 2019

In Conversation with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

Ian La Frenais, Sally Wood (producer of Chasing Bono) and Dick Clement

Chasing Bono, the latest play from writing partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, is currently playing at London's Soho Theatre. The play is loosely drawn on the autobiographical recollections of Neil McCormick, who grew up, and was schoolfriends with, Bono. Both young men shared a passion for music, but only Bono went on to achieve worldwide fame.
The play's authors, who in their pomp delivered some of British television's finest writing, now reside in Los Angeles and it was a joy to speak with them, not only about Chasing Bono but also about Porridge, its stars and their own remarkable writing career.

JB:    Gents, what drew you to turning Neil McCormick's story into a play?

Dick & Ian:    Well, as you know we had tackled the story once before in a movie (Killing Bono in 2011) and so we thought the theatre would give us a chance to focus on the core theme, which is really chasing fame and the fact that Neil had to change. There had been this one interview he had with a gangster which was the pivotal moment in his whole life and which changed his life around. And we thought there was a way of putting that into focus on the stage in a clearer way, and a totally different way. That's what appealed to us. 

But this all started when Sally Wood (the play’s producer) spoke to Ian at a Rolling Stones gig in Paris and said, "I wish you and Dick had a play." 

And then we discussed it. We’ve always liked the idea of doing Chasing Bono as a play, because it's a lovely witchy, wise, rock-n-roll fable. And we didn't feel that the movie captured that.

The movie had moved in a different direction. It was about sibling rivalry, but we always felt that a much more interesting conceit was that of the rivalry of two best friends, one of whom went into the stratosphere and one of whom made every mistake it's possible to make in the music business.

And that was the central premise of the story and we felt that it made a wonderful idea for a stage play. Because essentially that conceit can be done quite economically in a captive situation, with flash backs. 

JB:    You have written some of the finest crafted television drama. How does the process differ between writing for TV and writing for the stage?

Dick & Ian:    Actually, the the bigger difference is between film, which we've written a lot of, and theatre. When you're writing a screenplay you get a little edgy if a scene goes on more than three pages, because people like to say you gotta keep it moving, moving, make it more visual.

The challenge in the theatre is that you don't have that restriction.  The theatre loves words, and really doesn't mind if a scene goes on, as long as it's still riveting. So it gives you a chance to be more articulate than the movies and you can certainly do that on TV as well. And so much is being developed now for the stage that used to be the province of cinema.

Take a play like "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime". A brilliant adaptation that is not an obvious sort of subject for a play at all. The same director (Marianne Elliott) did "Company" recently, which is also quite brilliant. The theatre really is quite liberating at the moment.

Our play of course is small with a cast of six and one basic set, which adjusts to other sets. There are no technical challenges to Chasing Bono and that gave us a chance to not compress everything like we have to do in screen plays, and rather enjoy the words. 

JB:    The strength of your work stems from your ability to recognise how human beings relate, or fail to relate, to each other and the comedy / tragedy / irony that arises therefrom. Where does that inspiration come from? 

Dick & Ian:    It was pointed out to us that much of our work was basically about captive situations. The Likely Lads originally were trapped in a social environment; Porridge was the ultimate trap. Auf Wiedersehn , Pet saw builders trapped in their situation. And then, in more recent years, we've done a lot of music based films. So, in a way, Chasing Bono is the perfect marriage between our interest in music and the captive situation. 

As for the social observation, well that's just something that comes to us. Fortunately we've done it rather well, but it's just part of our interest and mindfulness of everything that's around us. 

Of course, it gets harder sometimes to live in America and do a contemporary series now set in Britain, because you just lose touch. You lose touch with the Zeitgeist, you lose touch with the references and every day speech patterns of Britain, whereas if we did a period series, we wouldn't have those problems. 

We went back a year and a half ago to do the new Porridge and that was much harder than the original Porridge because of that separation between us and Britain. We have to focus very much more carefully on getting speech patterns because things have changed so much. And diversity was of course an element.

And also, we were noticing speech patterns in Britain, in London especially, were so different. There was a kind of patois. It was a different kind of accent. There was a different vocabulary. It was much harder doing the new Porridge than the original. Because when we did the original, we lived there. 

JB:    Was the original Porridge written for Ronnie Barker? 

Dick & Ian:    Yes. Because we'd done a series called Seven of One where Ronnie played seven different parts. Dick and I wrote two of them, and one of them was called Prisoner and Escort and it was about a man being taken to prison with two guards, prison officers. And in fact, then that was the decision was made to develop it as a series. And the two prison officers were in the series, Fulton Mackay and Brian Wilde. 

JB:    So, that trio formed the genesis of where the series came from?

Dick & Ian:    Absolutely right. And then the brilliant addition of Richard Beckinsale.  

JB:    Richard Beckinsale – his was a a talent that was so untimely taken. His was a short, brilliant career that burned so brightly

Dick & Ian:    Oh my God, yes. It's still painful. We thought Richard would have been such a major factor. 

JB:    As a teenager I recall learning of his death in 1979, and feeling that his was the first celebrity in my life, the news of whose death actually touched me, rather than it just being “just another news item”. 

Dick & Ian:    Oh, really? That's interesting. There was a documentary made about two or three years ago about Porridge and about Dick and I, and Kate Beckinsale (Richard’s daughter) happily agreed to be on it, and she was being interviewed. She was five when Richard died. 

And she said, you know, she said, "I got to know my father through Porridge." She said, "I watched the reruns and I watched the repeats, and that's how I knew my dad."

We did a rewrite on Pearl Harbour, which was one of her first big movie roles, and we were out in Hawaii, and the first thing we wrote was a scene for her, actually, the same day we arrived. But she said she found it very reassuring to have this connection with her father while she was actually making a movie. 

JB:    What are your views on where comedy has moved to in the modern era?

Dick & Ian:    That’s very hard to comment on,  People keep asking us, "what about British comedy?" They keep asking about the “golden days”. We don't know.

The only thing perhaps in the last few years is that comedy has become a little crueller. Had to become a little unkinder, and become harder edged. There was a lot of piss taking in comedy, certainly, about ten years ago. But it's very hard to make some glib statement about the state of British comedy, especially if you're not watching it every night. 

But there's still some great stuff around. I mean, here in America, Curb Your Enthusiasm is fantastic. Veep has been amazing, Silicon Valley is very very good. I mean, there's very good stuff. I'm sorry those are all American examples, but in the UK there are Mitchell and Webb, Catherine Tate, for example, and we've been watching their work.

People tend to remember the best shows and forget the ones that were dreadful. And there were plenty of those. Was the “golden age” really that gold?. 

JB:    And finally, back in the day, who were the writers that inspired you? 

Dick & Ian:    Oh, Galton and Simpson and that new wave of British Cinema had enormous influence on the first things we wrote. We loved that social realism. We suddenly realised the drama was about working class theatre, and not posh people. 

But they had written Hancock and Steptoe And Son and we thought “oh my god, we wanted to be like Galton and Simpson”

There was Frank Muir and Dennis Norden who we also admired enormously, but their style was different to ours. The thing about Steptoe was that suddenly, there was real down market, working class people in that. And they felt real. Even more so than Hancock. Hancock was much gaggier, even though it was bloody brilliant. But Steptoe was a big big inspiration. 

And then there was the seeds of what would become the Pythons, and Marty Feldman, but that wasn't us also. Although we loved The Goons! But we never wrote sketches. We couldn't write sketches. 

What we found early on, however good a line is, is that nothing beats a good situation. You know, if you suddenly have a really good situation, then that is worth gold in terms of milking laughs. No one line will ever give you quite something like that. So, we were always looking for really good situations.

We admitted that when we first started, we used to read Richmal Crompton's William books a lot. We both discovered that we liked them and had read them as kids. And Crompton was great with plots. It didn't matter whether William won or lost, as long as it was a good, satisfying ending.

Chasing Bono plays at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 19th January.
Click here for my review of Chasing Bono.

Friday 4 January 2019

Sinatra: Raw - Review

Live At Zedel, London


Richard Shelton

Transferring to the capital from a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe, Richard Shelton’s tribute to Frank Sinatra makes for a fabulous evening. Accompanied by the excellent Michael Roulston on piano, Shelton adopts Sinatra’s persona for the gig - transporting the action to The Purple Room in Palm Springs and, in amidst a selection of the crooner’s greatest hits, delivers a well rehearsed and meticulously researched whirl through Sinatra’s life.

Shelton’s script touches on Sinatra’s youth, The Rat Pack, his (alleged) links to The Mob and JFK, as well as his politics and fierce support of America’s civil rights movement. There are moments perhaps when the narrative seems a little lengthy and self-indulgent, but these are more than made up for by Shelton’s sensational voice. The songs are classics, with the script offering occasional footnotes alluding to the numbers’ histories.

But for 75 minutes of mellifluous wonder, Sinatra: Raw cannot be beaten. Sit back as you sip on a vodka martini or scotch on the rocks and as Shelton sings, close your eyes, and Ol' Blue Eyes could be right there with you!

Runs until 20th January
Photo credit: Betty Zapata