Friday 29 November 2019

Vikki Stone - A Songbird Speaks

Vikki Stone

Vikki Stone brings her one-woman show to the Lyric Hammersmith this Monday 2nd December. 
She and I briefly talked not just about the show, but also about her adaptation of High Fidelity, the American musical based upon Nick Hornby's classic London-centred novel and which Stone has just brought back home to the UK

JB:    Tell me about Monday's show.

VS:    Well it is nice to be able to bring it to the Lyric Hammersmith and send it off in style. The show is called Songbird and it's a piece that I have been touring this year. I've been in Edinburgh with it and Monday will be the show's last performance of this year.

I've made a conscious decision to try and make a show that feels inclusive and fun as I didn't really want anything particularly heavy at the moment. I go to the theatre a lot and I'm watching shows that are heavy into topics and while that's all fantastic, worthy and good, I really wanted to create something that feels like a bit of comedy escapism and is just there to be silly and really fun.

Songbird has often been described as joyous and hopefully it's an evening that, in the very tense times that we are in, proves to be a good old-fashioned, fun night out.

JB:    Has the impending General Election made you vary your routine or the scripts at all?

VS:    No, not really. I've decided that I wanted to feel like my show was an anti-thesis to politics. It's about life and family and loss and about my dog! It is very silly and very funny hopefully to other people's opinions.

And it’s a one woman show too, although I do come on in the first half and mess around a bit as Abanazar, before doing the second half as me!

JB:    You are quite a presence in London at the moment. Currently playing at the Turbine Theatre is the new musical High Fidelity, a show that saw you re-adapting Nick Hornby’s tale back to its Anglo / London roots. Tell me about that process. 

VS:    It was interesting as High Fidelity has been a very unique project and not something that gets asked of me very much. As a writer I was taking a pre-existing musical and a pre-existing book, with the original book having been set in London, but then the subsequent film and musical treatment were set in the States - so bringing it back across the Pond was an interesting job. My first thing was to read the book a couple of times and  listen to the audio a few times so I felt that I was dead familiar with the source material. 

When I started to add scenes or add language, most of the time it was original stuff from Nick Hornby and not actually from me. I wanted not only to remove some of the American references, but also some of the dated material. Dated in its portrayal of women, in the portrayal of the female characters and the protagonist’s attitude to sex - all of which was stuff that wasn't in Nick Hornby's original novel. 

There was a fair amount of  resistance to some of my changes that I really had to fight for. We were talking over e-mail with the licence holders and who were then taking it the writers. Not so much Tom Kitts, because the music wasn't really changed at all but with Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire. It was a process that went on way after press night as we fought our corners but it has all now been resolved. 

It was quite touch and go as to whether or not we'd really be allowed to do what we wanted to do with it. There were original American lyrics about “a real go-getter, in a thrift store sweater” which the writers didn't want to change it and I was like, but we just wouldn't say "thrift store" as it immediately takes the show out of where we are. Similarly referencing "autumn" as "the fall" where again I'd say we just do not say that, it's not in our language. Even though we understand the fall, we've all seen American movies, we just don't use that phrase. 

I had to make a case for a lot of things, but I can understand this because David and Amanda had spent a lot of time and effort and years of work into making the musical, only for us to come along and go, "we're changing that, we're changing this". I can understand why they were so protective over their material.

But I am very pleased with what the English version of the musical has become.

Vikki Stone can be seen in Songbird at the Lyric Hammersmith on Monday December 2nd. For tickets click here

High Fidelity runs at the Turbine Theatre until Saturday December 7th. For tickets click here

For my 4* review of High Fidelity click here

High Fidelity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 7th December
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday 27 November 2019

& Juliet - Review

Shaftesbury Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Max Martin and Friends
Book by David West Read
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Miriam Teak Lee

& Juliet is a new musical inspired by a Shakespeare classic and the back catalogue of one of the 21st century’s smartest songwriters, Max Martin.

David West Read has taken 30 Martin numbers – remember that the composer, who also co-produces, has written for most of the recent giants of the global pop music scene – and around them, woven a story that explores Juliet’s potential to have become a powerful and dynamic leading lady.

The show’s narrative may be slight but its twists and turns keep the audience hooked and the piece engages with its classic references that display an imaginative wit matched only by an outstanding cast and creative team. Miriam Teak Lee takes the title role, convincing in her chic interpretation of Juliet complete with powerhouse vocals, while alongside her are some of musical theatre’s strongest performers. David Bedella compels as Lance, while Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse, Arun Blair-Mangat's May and (cover) Dillon Scott-Lewis’ Francois are equally sensational.

Luke Sheppard directs with his hallmark visual flair that lends itself so well to such a music and dance driven story. Jennifer Weber’s whip-smart choreography is thrilling, with Soutra Gilmour’s typically provocative design work, lit by Howard Hudson, combining romance with excitement. Dominic Fallacaro’s nine piece band deliver an electrifying pulse to Martin’s melodies.

Suitably woke and with a nod to issues of both gender and sexuality, & Juliet is that unique musical that fuses classic English literature with the modern classics of pop. It’s a fun night at the theatre.

Now booking until 30th May 2020

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Measure For Measure - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran

Members of the company of Measure For Measure

Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s less performed works. A comedy (or such as was, in its day) exploring morality, sex, corruption and forgiveness, it has long been recognised in the modern day as a challenge to present. Greg Doran has translated the play’s Viennese setting to the 1900’s, but while there has clearly been an imaginative attempt at a credible interpretation of the yarn, this production is hamstrung by too much mediocrity. 

Many of the performances, notably Lucy Phelps’ Isabella, are just too flat to bring a life to the narrative and this is only compounded by very poor sound design. Clarity of speech and diction is vital in all aspects of theatre, and with Shakespearen verse, with its dated but still richly observed perception and nuance, even more so. For the Barbican, a modern venue that should be executing cutting edge techniques in both stagecraft and acoustics, this is hard to forgive. Much of the dialogue was inaudible to the extent that the play’s ending and associated resolution was, to many in the audience, quite simply incomprehensible.  

Credit to David Ajao (Pompey) as well as Joseph Arkley (Lucio) who gave strong performances, catching the underlying humour. Likewise Anthony Byrne (Duke of Vienna) who was equally entertaining. 

Unususlly for Stephen Brimson Lewis, his set designs disappoint. While this may be a repertory touring run for the RSC, that is no reason to deliver scenery that fails to effectively shift the narrative's various locations.

Not the RSC at its best. This is most likely a production that will be best appreciated by students and Shakespeare enthusiasts. 

Runs until 16th January 2020
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Amatory Asylum - Review

Wellington Members Club, London


Directed by Sophie Cohen

Billed as an immersive piece of erotic theatre and taking place in the recently refurbished Wellington Members Club, Amatory Asylum has been the latest offering from the provocatively named House of Kittens. Set in the Wellington’s dimly lit basement and, with the company inviting audiences to ‘come play’, there is a buzz of nervous tension in the air as the room wonders what exactly this might entail. 

A loose story weaves its way tenuously through the evening that presents a medical study of psychosexual therapy, the audience observing the patients’ unconventional sexual preferences with the end goal being sexual liberation for all. 

The show starts with a bang - and, to be fair, one of the standout performances of the night from Jessica Holland - and proceeds to roll on through number after number. It transpires that the evening comprises a series of vignettes; choreographed solos and group dances, with a smattering of comedy and clothing throughout. 

The performers’ athleticism and strength is enough to turn heads, but is regularly limited by the choreography, with dancers are conventionally stunning, even if lacking in any real diversity. A disappointment was that the event was very much viewed through a male prism, which is at odds with the promise of female empowerment outlined in the show’s promotional material. 

The real highlight of the night is the soundtrack. Far more than a supporting actor to the performers, it never fails to deliver, gaining momentum throughout - in stark contrast to the performances. 

It was also unfortunate that the venue did the show little justice. Small and intimate it may be, but the space is not designed for such a multi-set performance. Seating is limited, and it’s difficult to see all of the performances comfortably. Audience participation, and any element of immersion is sparse, bar the ending when the observers are encouraged to join the dancers and further the crusade of liberation. 

Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

Friday 15 November 2019

Touching The Void - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


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

Josh Williams and Angus Yellowlees

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

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

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

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

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

Runs until 29th February 2020
Photo credit: Michael Wharley

Monday 11 November 2019

Maria Friedman: From The Heart - Review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


Maria Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

Saturday 9 November 2019

The Taming Of The Shrew - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Justin Audibert 

Claire Price and Joseph Arkley

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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