Saturday 16 March 2019

Jasper Britton In Conversation

Jasper Britton

Witness For The Prosecution, Agatha Christie's murder thriller is playing very successfully at London's ingeniously converted County Hall venue. RSC leading man, Jasper Britton heads the latest cast change and as he took over the role of defence barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts he and I chatted about the play and his career... 

Jonathan:    Jasper, tell me about your journey into Witness For The Prosecution?

Jasper:    Well I was doing A Pack of Lies at the Menier and then Lucy Bailey (the director of Witness For The Prosecution) called me. This is the fourth time I've worked with Lucy. She usually phones me at midnight and asks me to start rehearsing the next morning, telling me that she’s “made a terrible mistake casting!”. I'm forever meeting her in bars and in theatres and she says, "Oh I'm directing such and such, and there's a marvellous part for you, you'd be brilliant in it." So she phoned up and said, "Look I'm doing this thing. And we're recasting and it's great fun”

And so we went in one afternoon and she showed me round the whole place. Downstairs at County Hall the company has kind of created a whole backstage area out of nothing and there's a real sense of fun and I just thought this is a happy place to be, a happy fun place and "Well, why not?". And it was a six month contract too which is sort of rare in this day and age.

And then my agent said, "Don't do it, it'll kill you, you'll be performing (at the Menier) while you're rehearsing Witness." And I said, "Well I've done that before at Stratford."  And  she said, "Yes but you're normally in rep and you're… you know…."

And of course she wasn't far off. By the time we got to finishing Pack of Lies and starting Witness, I really was on my knees. I turned up for a photo shoot, I can't even remember it. I look at the photograph, I look like the tiredest man in the world. That period of performing and rehearsing was a month without a day off and 70 to 80 hour weeks. Luckily we were rehearsing at the Jerwood which is only round the corner from the Menier, so it literally was a three minute walk to and from each venue. But bloody hell!

Jonathan:    Was the entire cast replaced for this change over in Witness?

Jasper:    More or less. There are a couple of people in the smaller roles who stayed on, who've been there for a while. And yeah, they are a fantastic bunch. Some of them it's only their first job, but you'd never know it. Their range of skills is absolutely astonishing. And there is a wonderful work ethic. Everybody pulls their weight, even down to the smallest parts.

Jonathan:    In my recent review of the play I noted that there are four of the show’s players who are making their West End debuts and how this speaks volumes for the excellent standard of the current cohort of actors currently entering the profession.

Jasper:    Quite right too and it's very nice of you to big them up like that, because they really do deserve it. And they are all very kind to me and patient with me. It took me a while because I was so tired!

Jonathan:    What strikes me about the play, is that It's the sort of show that the tourist who's not well versed in English literature could go to and thoroughly enjoy as top notch theatre. How does Witness compare with say Shakespeare where there's more potential for interpretation in the verse?

Jasper:    That’s a really good question. I would say that this is absolutely a piece of popular theatre and that's reflected in the breadth of the audience that we get. We get very young people, we get very old people. We get foreign people, we get English people. We get a very different audience to the one that I'm used to working with in what I would describe as subsidised British theatre. The attraction of it, is that it is a popular piece of theatre. And that you don't have to engage your brain too much. But of course people do because they're trying to work out who done it, all the way through.

The challenge of any piece really is that after you've finished rehearsing as it were, I always feel that's when the real work begins. Because the audience teach you so much about the play. And they teach you about what works and what works less well. And they teach you about when they get bored, and they teach you about what they don't believe, and they teach you about what they do believe.

And so the process of performing for me, is always a continuous process of reconsidering, and reworking and finding new inspirations. So I really wanted to find the maverick, like Lucy is a maverick. I wanted to find the maverick in my barrister. And of course it's different to Shakespeare because Shakespeare does all of the work for you.

I remember doing a Simon Gray play in the West End. - Simon taught me so much about acting.- And he said, "Look, it's okay for you to just sit on the sofa and talk. Don't forget, the writer has done the work for you."And those were golden words of advice.

Jonathan:    The last thing that I'd caught you in before this show, (I didn't see you at the Menier) was Scrooge The Musical at Leicester’s Curve in 2017. Before then I hadn't associated you with musical theatre. Where does that heritage comes from?

Jasper:    Right, well, there's a tale!

My dad was the first person to tour Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in this country from 1964 to 66 (and I was born in 1962).

Jonathan:    Your father is Tony Britton

Jasper:    Yes – and he’s enjoyed an extraordinary career.Being Higgins, touring for two years. And then being a household name on television. I mean he is brilliant. He can do anything really. So as I was growing up, my recollection is, that the record of that was always on the record player.

And then in 1972 he was in a musical called No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane and he used to give me his scripts to draw on the back of because in the old days, before we were green, they would only be printed on one side so you could write notes on the facing side. And he'd just give them to me and I'd draw pictures of ships and God knows what.

But one day I took this script with me to school. I've no idea why. But I put it in my bag and I took it with me and in a history lesson ... I was terrible at history, I found it intensely boring. I took the script out and I started to read it. And very early on in that show is a song called Too Many Rings Around Rosie. And it was sung by Annie Rogers and Teddy Green. And Annie Rogers wore a 1920's flapper dress, green sequined flapper dress with a big feather in her hair, and Teddy Green was wearing a very stylish cream linen suit and a straw boater.

And I'd seen the show, obviously, but what struck me was the lyrics on the page, when I got to the page. There was just the lyrics in block capitals. There were no stage directions, nothing. And as I read the lyrics, I could see in my minds eye, and hear in my minds ear, Teddy and Annie singing and dancing the song. And I loved it. It was my favourite song in the show. And it's actually the thing that made me want to be an actor. It was that moment, reading those lyrics.

A few years later I found myself at a different school, and a man called Jeremy James Taylor turned up. He'd been at university with my English teacher. And they decided, because the school play had been defunct for some years, they decided, "Hey why don't we do a school play."

Jeremy was an associate director at the Young Vic at the time and he’d had this idea about a boy player in Elizabethan times in London called Salomon Pavey who had sadly died when he was only 12 years old. But he was very famous for playing old men, oddly. So they thought, "Right, why don't we explore that." So over nine months they wrote for us, this musical which is now called The Ballad of Salomon Pavey - what they described as a ballad opera.

We performed it in a vast marquee, I mean a really big marquee, on the lawn at my prep school and it was magical. And then we took it to the Edinburgh Festival that summer and we won a Fringe First! The following year we did it at the Young Vic for a fortnight to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and that production turned out to be the first from what is now known as The National Youth Music Theatre that Jeremy subsequently set up.

As time went on I became an actor and I went to the RSC in 1992 where they put me in The Beggars Opera which had 74 songs in that version with the brilliant Ilona Sekacz having done the arrangements. It was mega.

The thing though that I really want to do, is to play Henry Higgins. And I'm going to drop a card to Cameron Macintosh and say, "Next time you do it, would you just put my name in your hat." I only have two ambitions really in my life. One is to play Henry Higgins. And the other is to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I played Willy at the age of 17 at school, and I love that play!

Witness For The Prosecution is booking until March 2020

Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Rip It Up - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Directed & choreographed by Gareth Walker

Harry Judd, Louis Smith, Jay McGuiness and Aston Merrygold

Rip It Up does exactly that to the conventional West End tried and tested juke box musical. In part a Reality TV show and in part a showcase, the evening encapsulates a musical time-machine that will have you tapping your feet and smiling from cheek to cheek despite your best attempts to resist.

In a show that will please Boomers and Millennials alike, the show covers the cherished pop hits of the 60’s. Harry Judd, Louis Smith, Jay McGuiness and Aston Merrygold whirl through the decade’s differeing music scenes ranging from the Swinging 60s all the way through to the Mods. Much in the spirit of A Hard Days Night, this fab four clearly enjoy their West End debut.

Merrygold delivers some show stopping vocals, well and truly stepped up when hitting the high notes of Frankie Valli as Smith pleases the crowd with some physical feats that are almost Olympian, such is his show biz finesse. 

Full of energy from start to finish the show does a great job of reliving some of the era’s most cherished music, with the power of female vocalist Jill Marie Cooper alongside the onstage band adding the show’s TV studio feel. There’s an unexpected treat in the second half where Harry Judd’s dance is a joy to behold – one can see that his time on Strictly has certainly paid off.

Not for those seeking a quite night of passive theatre, but if you are up for some mash potato plus a little bit of twist and a sprinkling of shout then this show will most definitely have you singing these classic records all day and all of the night. Rip up your plans and get yourself a ticket – it’s nostalgic, cheesy and delightfully good fun.

Booking until 2nd June
Reviewed by Josh Kemp

Saturday 9 March 2019

Sara Kobayashi - Review

Wigmore Hall, London


Sara Kobayashi

Sara Kobayashi’s recent concert  at London’s Wigmore Hall hinted at a promising afternoon of entertainment. But while the diva’s piano accompaniment was flawless throughout, the vocal offerings proved to be a curious and sometimes disappointing selection. 

The first act saw Koyabashi offering a number of songs from a range of European languages. The singer’s linguistic skills are not in question however the ability to translate cadence and rhythm across tongues is a craft in itself. As Koyabashi came to sing an English number, the jarring delivery was an unwelcome distraction from her otherwise gorgeous voice. 

Sung in Koyabashi’s native Japanese the second act was much more of the expected treat, albeit with the opening number Ki I Te (literally, “Listen”) proving lyrically to be little more than that, the titular phrase being repeated incessantly - and eccentrically.

The gig’s saving grace rested with the exquisite piano accompaniment from Ayaka Niwano, three pieces in particular proving sensational: Takemitsu’s Small Sky, Roger Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy and Green by Claude Debussy.

Waitress - Review

Adelphi Theatre


Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus

Katharine McPhee

Of all the new musicals that Broadway has shipped to London in recent years, Waitress is quite possibly the greatest as Sara Bareillles takes an unflinching look at 21st century America through the eyes of waitress Jenna and her two best friends and workmates, Becky and Dawn. But what makes this transatlantic transfer quite such a success, is that while the musical is set in a nameless small-town, somewhere, anywhere, in the States – and Scott Pask’s set design is terrific, all disappearing telegraph lines and ingeniously sliding interior locations – Bareilles’ tale drawn from Adrienne Shelly’s movie, is a celebration of modern womanhood that transcends all borders.

Katharine McPhee crosses the pond from the Broadway production to open the Adelphi run and she is wonderful. Unhappily married to the abusive - albeit not without his own complex history - Earl, she is a hard working woman with a gift for making inventive pies who finds herself early in the show with an unplanned pregnancy. One of the show’s gritty strengths is its ability to upend traditional trends. Devastated at her pregnancy, Jenna nonetheless vows to remain strong, making the most of hers and her baby's future, and it is this grasp of verité that places Waitress firmly within the sphere of most of its audiences. That of course, and its songs. Bareilles acute eye for life and rhythm serves up a collection of glorious numbers that range from country, to rock, to Jenna’s scorchingly tender solo ballad She Used To Be Mine.

Bareilles and Jessie Nelson sweeten their tale with liberal amounts of comedy. Marisha Wallace’s Becky is recognisably wonderful as the much put upon spouse of a disabled husband, who while she loves him deeply, seeks her sexual satisfaction elsewhere. And Laura Baldwin is the wonderfully gauche and cooky Dawn, who discovers an unlikely online soulmate in Ogie, and who steals the show in her first half big number When He Sees Me.

Waitress’ men are no more than supporting roles in this celebration of womanhood – but they are neatly fleshed out turns. Peter Hannah is a convincingly unpleasant Earl as Jack McBrayer joins McPhee as a well placed American import. McBrayer’s physical presence and comic timing as Ogie is a work of genius. In the most complex of male supports, David Hunter plays Dr Pomatter, Jenner’s (married) gynaecologist, with whom she strikes up a brief but passionate affair . Hunter captures the awkward fusion of an unethical love (complete with in-flagrante comedy) together with a sincerely credible pathos.

The modest supporting roles are all perfectly delivered. Shaun Prendergast as the wise and saintly diner owner Joe is an occasional charming diversion, while Stephen Leask’s diner chef Cal and Kelly Agbowu’s Nurse Norma are both brilliantly observed characters.

Katharine Woolley’s 6 piece on stage band make fine work of Bareilles’ score and credit to director Diane Paulus, who must truly be one of the most visionary helmswomen on Broadway today. Credit too to producers Barry and Fran Weissler who, on seeing the movie some years back, had the vision to assemble Bareilles, Paulus and Nelson and create the finest deep-dish screen to stage transition in decades.

Booking until 19th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 7 March 2019

Nine to Five The Musical - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Dolly Parton
Book by Patricia Resnick
Directed by Jeff Calhoun

Natalie McQueen, Caroline Sheen , Amber Davies
Musical theatre comedy done well is a blissful way to spend an evening. So it is with Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, currently playing to packed houses at the Savoy Theatre.

Set in 1980s corporate America the plot is an unbelievable humbug that sees three focused, driven women kidnap their boorish, mysogninyst boss with everything leading to a deliriously happy ending. But while the story may be a fictional fable, the show’s themes are sadly timeless - and to that end, while Parton my have set Patricia Resnick’s book to music nearly 40 years ago, the show’s themes of workplace inequality and sexual harassment are as true today as they ever were.

So what turns this potentially grim scenario into quite such a banging night at the theatre? Parton’s cracking songs, delivered by a perfect cast. Caroline Sheen leads the line, as Violet, an overlooked female executive. In a tough role that doesn’t offer much comical caricature potential, Sheen is magnificent. Beautifully voiced as ever, she drives the story’s narrative.

Dolly Parton is as famous for her physique as for her country & western singer/songwriter talents - and it falls to Natalie McQueen as Doralee to capture the legendary statuesque Parton persona. McQueen rises to the challenge fabulously, never better than in her poignant solo Backwoods Barbie.

Third in the lineup is Amber Davies’ Judy playing a young dumped bride finding her way in the workplace. Both Davies and McQueen capture the comic essentials of their characters with an impressive avoidance of cliche - top work from all three.

The supporting roles are equally flawless in their delivery of cracking comedy. Brian Conley is the women’s monstrous employer turning in an assured performance as a man with no redeeming features whatsoever other than an awesome stage presence and impeccable comic timing. Opposite Conley, Bonnie Langford plays Roz, his harridan henchperson.  Langford’s talent is breathtaking as she transitions from brusque, bunned busybody to basque-clad temtptress in her sensational solo piece Heart To Hart, with an elegant litheness that has to be seen to be believed.

And all credit to the show’s creatives. Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Lisa Stevens pack the piece with colour and movement, while Howard Hudson’s lighting and Nina Dunn’s video projections make the stage itself as entertaining as the perfomances. Under Andrew Hilton’s baton, the eight piece band are an equal delight.

9 to 5 is perfectly played, unpretentious fun and one of the funniest feel-good shows in town.

Booking until 31st August

Monday 4 March 2019

Waitress' director Diane Paulus talks to me about the show

Marisha Wallace, Katharine McPhee and Laura Baldwin
Waitress opens in the West End this week and I grabbed a rare, brief opportunity to chat with the musical's Tony-winning director Diane Paulus about the show.

JB:    Diane - With Waitress now such a Broadway success, what was it that drew you to the story being translated from screen to stage? 

Diane:    Well, when I watched the film, the Adrienne Shelly film, I was struck by, first of all, how theatrical it is. It's almost like a unit set in the way it's filmed, it's just in the diner. It's in a doctors office, it's at Jenna's house. Adrienne purposefully didn't really get into, you know, what town are we in? What does it look like on main street? 

It's really almost like a fairy tale and it's very quirky and the characters have a lot of personality and then you get this like sock to the gut, emotional punch of this woman's crisis of her life. And when I watched it, I saw that character and I thought, I know who that woman is because I know people who go through that.

And what struck me was quite a personal experience. One of my dearest friends growing up, is not a working class person. She's actually a woman of enormous privilege, but she had been in a terrible relationship where she had been made to feel small and made to feel like she didn't deserve: her feelings or her self.

And so I thought this thing of what happens when we lose our sense of self with really wrong things happening, like having an affair with your gynaecologist. Like, let's just say that's sort of wrong! But life is messy and that's what the show is also about. 

You know, the other thing that I loved about the story was, so she gets pregnant and she is not excited about being pregnant. So I'm a mom with two kids and I really related to that. However, I had read when Adrienne Shelly wrote the movie's screenplay, she was pregnant and she was terrified, like terrified. Like: “What if I don't love the baby?” Every other mother is going crazy, like on cloud nine pregnant. And, and so this feeling again, that’s not quite politically correct to say: “I'm pregnant and I'm like, you know, not as happy as I should be.” But, this idea of the journey of what it means to become a mother and the journey of learning to love yourself. So it's a universal story. So it was that character, the complexity of that character that interests me.

Diane Paulus

JB:    Jenna is a strong, well fleshed out character, however the three key guys in the story’s arc are, by comparison, quite thinly sketched: One, her abusive husband, is a bastard; Another, her doctor, has really questionable professional ethics; and the third one's a guy who's 100% heart and yet 100% geek. So why are Waitress' men such caricatures?

Diane:    I'm going to push back on that question because this is a story about Jenna as the central character and the next most important people around her are her sister-waitress friends.

You need to understand that the men are simply the supporting roles in this show. And when you're a supporting role, you're not given as much real estate and time as your protagonists. So we should just say that first. Right?

Now I think Sara (Bareilles) and Jessie (Nelson) and I always felt we never wanted the men to be caricatures. So you know, when you look at the film and you see Earl and you understand the decline of Earl and the humiliation he suffered by being fired and how he breaks down.

And as for the doctor’s questionable ethics, when you study the show, and we were very deliberate about this, it is Jenna who makes every first move on that doctor. That really was also quite deliberate.

JB:    Finally I want to ask you about Pippin, which I saw on Broadway and loved. When will you bring your production of Pippin over here?

Diane:    Thank you. I'll go tap Barry Weissler (producer of Waitress and Pippin) and say come on now!

Waitress is currently in previews and opens at the Adelphi Theatre on 7th March

Photo credit (London cast): Johan Persson