Saturday, 5 September 2020

C.O.N.T.A.C.T - Review


Originally created by Samuel Sené and Gabrielle Jourdain
English adaptation by Quentin Bruno
Directed by Samuel Sené, associate director Bronagh Lagan.

It’s a typical wet and dreary slightly muggy evening in the capital. Sodden shoes, jeans damp already but you know what? As 6pm approached at the agreed meeting point, one would not wish to be anywhere else. Katy Lipson’s promenade production takes away "pre-show orders at the bar" offering instead a purer theatre: stripped down, bare and exposed in the streets of London. 

At just under an hour's duration, C-O-N-T-A-C-T consists of a cast of two and is playing out at various places across London. This reviewer saw Laura White and Max Gold taking on the double-hander at a location close to Monument tube station. As the play opens we find Sarah (White) sat alone on a bench from which we start to share her journey - a very personal expression of her thoughts from the pandemic that range from music, to work pressures, to stomach cramps. Such is the writer’s perception that there will be different moments within the narrative that will likely resonate with most of the audience. Sarah’s time remains private until she is interrupted by the arrival of a Raphael (Gold) a stranger who sits down next to her, socially distanced of course, with Sarah finding herself establishing a strange form of contact with this man whom she barely knows. 

Before delving into Sarah’s mind, the very first experience of C-O-N-T-A-C-T is the state of the art immersive sounds and music that play through each member of the audience’s personal headphones. Cyril Barbessol’s sound design is extraordinary, instantly taking the audience into another world of stereo soundscapes so carefully crafted that they could almost suggest a state of the art theme-park experience. Weaved into it this audio are the recordings of Aoife Kennan vocalising Sarah and Richard Heap as Raphael. Interestingly, while the layering of sounds, synth, music and voice is both innovative and transporting, there are moments in which the sfx or music overwhelms. If it were to be sometimes just the actors’ voices in their simplest, natural form this may well prove more effective. 

Sarah and Raphael may start the piece as strangers but they quickly form an incredibly open, and in many ways complex, relationship. Gold offers an initially slightly unnerving aloofness and detachment from Sarah, but nonetheless gives a well rounded performance in this new form of theatre where the audio track dictates every single moment, thought and action to the millisecond. White however takes the audience on the most personal of journeys, anxieties and revelations. Her natural instincts, intuition and honesty would be something to behold on a traditional stage and sat 30 rows back – but up close and some 5 meters away in the rain, her performance is little short of extraordinary. 

As joggers run by and tourists stop to gander there is something very refreshing about this piece of unconventional theatre that recently premiered in Paris. Sené’s direction is so intricate and versatile however that one suspects the piece could be picked up and played anywhere in the world. And so it should. At a time where the world for the most part has been without theatre for so long, C.O.N.T.A.C.T is an opportunity to reacquaint oneself and make contact with an art form so close to so many, on a whole new level.

Runs until 10th October 2020
Book via
Reviewed by Davide Davidssonn

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Siobhan Dillon - One Voice - Review


Siobhan Dillon

There is a touching, piercing beauty to Siobhan Dillon’s solo album One Voice, released last month. Dillon rose to public prominence in 2006, competing in TV’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and from there has gone on to leading roles in musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. Away from the greasepaint and spotlights however, recent years have seen the singer win her own very private and personal battle with cancer. Dillon has thus directed that the album's proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Haven charity as a mark of her own personal reflection upon her journey.

There is of course a poignant timeliness to the album too, for as theatres around the world lie dark amidst the lockdown, the haunting resonance of Dillon’s beautiful interpretations speaks to us all. Comprising 11 ballads, Dillon’s is an eclectic choice drawn from the greats of recent decades. The album carries only a modest nod to her musical theatre heritage, although her take on Sara Bareilles’ She Used To Be Mine from Waitress offers a spine-tingling interpretation of the number, revealing an even richer nuance to this showstopping heartbreaker.

Above all, it is Dillon’s interpretation of some of the most exquisite ballads of recent decades that gives her album such polish. Her cover of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face lifts the song away from the timelessness of Roberta Flack’s original, imbuing a new and haunting charm on the number. Likewise, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which Dillon refreshingly claims is a song that takes her straight back to her childhood, is makes for another treat.

Hearing Dillon rework Tears For Fears’ Mad World brings not only another burst of musical and vocal excellence, but as much, an almost sagelike sadness as a comment upon the world in which we find ourselves today. It is however in her final number Promise Me that Dillon dials down Beverley Craven’s passionate power, leaving instead a sweet and delicate performance that leaves one almost as if discovering the song for the first time.

Don’t just grab this album because it is raising funds for such a worthy cause. Rather, buy it as a work of beauty. Dillon’s melding of melody and voice is an album for today and for the future, while offering a stunning lookback at our musical past - simply gorgeous.

Available via Amazon, Apple Music and Spotify

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Identity - Review

Turbine Theatre, London


Created and choreographed by Christopher Tendai
Co-created by Denzel Westley-Sanderson
Music by Sam. G
Original spoken word and live music by Caitlin Taylor

On for a short run at the Turbine Theatre in the last days of pre-lockdown live performance, Identity was a dance show themed around the challenges of mental health. Intriguing and unpredictable – and thus much like the soul of a dancer – the movement was accompanied by a mixture of a pre-recorded soundtrack alongside live music being played too.

This young group of performers achieved their aim of being honest both with themselves and with the audience. Their moves were self-founded, expressive and truthful, with much of the work proving to be both distinctive and excellent. Occasionally the company seemed to lack immersion in the dance, but this will no doubt be addressed over time with experience and tighter performances – when venues are allowed to re-open.

Mental health is a critical aspect of our modern lives, especially with the influence of social media platforms and there was brave imagination from the troupe in seeking to create a safe space, an environment where, as dancers, they could perform and express themselves safely and openly. In a post-show discussion between the audience and the company, the message was clear: that the issue of mental health demands more open discussion.

The performers set out to communicate that people in general should create a more supportive environment for each other, in order to be able to share more readily and to talk more with each other on a daily basis, recognising that everyone has life experiences that are both positive and negative. Their message to young people was ultimately that they should not be afraid to remove those masks that can so easily be used to hide behind - to encourage us all to show our weaknesses and acknowledge that, particularly under the cover of social media, people can appear to be strong whilst in reality that strength is nothing more than a façade.

Throughout, the dancers were able to display their identities along with their personalities as they tried to encourage young adults to follow the same path. Above all, this was an exciting evening of imaginative and moving movement.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Last Five Years - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Molly Lynch

In one of the show’s finest versions in recent years, Jonathan O’Boyle’s take on The Last Five Years makes for an evening of simply exquisite musical theatre in what has to be a definitive production of this complex and unusual work.

The narrative is simple but mind bending - Jason Robert Brown, the show’s creator projects a doomed five-year romance from two conflicting timelines. Jamie’s arc follows a natural timeline from first date right up to closing down the couple’s shared bank account. Cathy, by contrast, is introduced to us picking up the pieces of her shattered marriage and from there Brown plays with his audience. Cathy sings her life in reverse, ending on the excruciatingly painful number – to us at least - of her delirious joy following her first date with Jamie.

Oli Higginson

With its complex conceits, the show is not everyone’s cup of tea and indeed has yet to enjoy a run on Broadway. But at the Southwark Playhouse, O’Boyle much like an alchemist, fuses an array of brilliant base elements into a truly splendid show.

A grand piano sits on a revolve as the two performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson deliver the piece. The actors not only both play the instrument (and Lynch the ukulele and Higginson the guitar too) but dance upon and around the piano too. The magnificent Yamaha also proves a deceptively common denominator to the audience, cruelly appearing to unite these two out-of-lovers, when in reality there arms are only linked to perform some neatly arranged 4-handed interpretations of Brown’s slickly intuitive melodies.

Lynch’s performing skills have long been held in awe by this website and for a woman whose name sets ridiculously high levels of anticipation even before the curtain goes up, at the Southwark Playhouse she exceeds those expectations by a country mile. Capturing both passion and pathos, Lynch stuns us with her belt in A Summer In Ohio, yet breaks our hearts at both the show’s open and closing moments, as she so convincingly plays a woman who has either either seen, or is destined to see, love crumble and slip through her fingers. Elegant in white, Lynch is every inch the young out-of-towner transformed into a sassy yet vulnerable Manhattanite.

Barely graduated from the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, Higginson displays a maturity beyond his years in his inhabiting of Jewish Jamie’s crotch-driven persona. As Jamie’s deceit becomes apparent one is left wondering if the man is ever capable of sincere love, with Higginson capturing not only his passion and lies, but also that complex puppy-like charm that endears him to the audience in the show’s early numbers, but which starts to evaporate as soon as the wedding band is around his finger.

The range of musical styles that Brown has included within the 90minute one-act delight are a treat for all. This is not a show bogged down in introspective balladry, but rather a feast of melodies that range from rock and blues through to klezmer and with as much a sprinkling of humour as well as tragedy thrown in too. Complementing the two on-stage pianists, above the proceedings George Dyer, who has also orchestrated this revival, leads his 4 piece band immaculately.

O’Boyle’s direction is ingenious and economic. With both players on stage for almost the entire piece, every glance and nuance is perfectly posed to reflect their realtime non-interaction with each other, save for the show’s centrepiece, The Next Ten Minutes, that sees the pair marry in Central Park.

Lee Newby’s simple striking set is elegant and underplayed – slick and jazzy with a marquee of "L5Y" as a backdrop, but which seems to soften in the productions more melancholy moments. Likewise, Jamie Platt’s lighting plots are equally and as imaginatively, effective.

This take on The Last Five Years is one of the most gorgeously presented pieces of musical theatre to be found in London right now. Actors and creatives at the very top of their game, it is unmissable!

Runs until 28th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday, 2 March 2020

The Prince Of Egypt - A movie fan's perspective

Stephen Schwartz's musical The Prince of Egypt, a stage show based upon Dreamworks' acclaimed animation opened in London last week to mixed reviews.
The 1998 movie, the studios' first animated feature, had seen its Hans Zimmer score being Oscar nominated with Stephen Schwartz's song When You Believe, going on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Replete with its star-studded vocal cast, The Prince of Egypt movie has formed part of the backdrop of many childrens' formative years, commanding their love and adoration for a strong Bible story, beautifully told.
So what went wrong that has led to such a much-loved movie, being so slated by the critics on its transformation into a West End show?
I invited teenager Emmeline Liddle, a self-confessed fan of the film, to offer her thoughts...

Emmeline Liddle

If I had to choose one word to describe this production it would probably be “unnecessary”.

Unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary songs and unnecessary scenes manage to turn (in my opinion) one of the best animated films of all time into a boring biblical ‘bromance’. So much time is dedicated to the brothers’ relationship that the whole play drags and uncomfortably, feels ever so slightly homoerotic. We don’t need ten extra numbers depicting Moses’ frustration with and yet love for Ramses. In just a few minutes of dialogue the film manages to establish a powerful emotional connection between the two. There would be nothing wrong with this if a love story was what Schwartz had in mind - it might even have made for an interesting and original twist.

What is necessary, however, is a better set. Polystyrene blocks that wobble unsteadily and clip art of the Nile, or a sunset stock image projected onto the background just doesn’t cut it for a West End production. Having slaves portray water to carry the infant’s basket was a nice idea but looked rather clumsy at times, as was sadly often the case throughout the play. Moses almost slipped off his polystyrene seat, a ‘limestone’ block would be nudged out of place by a stray foot - it all felt amateur and cheap.

The costumes were also off. Moses would occasionally enter wearing what looked like a tank top and pajama bottoms, and I’m not sure what they were thinking dressing the Pharaoh as a Napoleonic admiral. An interesting choice, but I’m pretty sure white suits and epaulettes weren’t invented for a few thousand years.

The performance also lacked comedy. There were a few laughs, but only at the jokes which had been directly lifted from the film. In the animation the priests Hotep and Huy were an effective comedy duo, but Schwartz chose to make Hotep (Adam Pearce) the solo villain of the piece. It was also a mistake to excise the song You’re Playing With The Big Boys Now which functioned in the film to combine humour with villainy, whilst still invoking fear and awe. Despite this, Pearce was certainly the best of the male actors, bringing real malice to the stage and a welcome contrast with the overwhelmingly schmaltzy and tiresome discourse.

Overall, however, the women of the production easily outshone the men. Miriam (Alexia Khadime) was both believable and likeable - she sounded as though she meant what she said, not doing a turn at the local pantomime. Christine Allado played Tzipporah with passion, but was let down by a confused script and direction. Isn’t it rather contradictory to sing a song about how she is not an object to be owned or controlled by anyone, whilst performing an overtly sexual dance for the Pharaoh and his sons? In fact, the whole production felt confused, seemingly unable to decide whether aimed at kids, with bright colours, upbeat numbers and cartoonish backgrounds, or adults, with an overly contemplative script.

That said, Schwartz does well to address some hitherto unanswered questions. For example, we have a scene between Moses and Queen Tuya which acknowledges that if your adoptive child returned, destroyed your kingdom and killed your grandson, you’d probably be quite upset! There was probably a song about this, too. I can’t remember. Which is rather the problem. There is so much focus on having the songs be reminiscent of ancient Egypt that the same cadences are used throughout and meld into one another. The only memorable songs were the original ones.

No Power On Earth was an overused, weak new song. When the plagues descend, rather than use the original chorus Let My People Go - which drives home the main point of the story right at the climax - we have the mawkish new number instead, accompanied by cheap CGI fireballs. It has nowhere near the impact, but Schwartz has seemed set on making this song the theme of the entire production.

This brings me to my main gripe with the production. A powerful biblical tale of Hebrew emancipation is overshadowed by a preoccupation with the emotions of and relationship between two brothers. I suppose this brings the story up to date - reflecting our contemporary obsession with personal ‘journeys’. What a waste. If a story about God, betrayal, hope and miracles that has endured for millenia isn’t enough to make an exciting production out of, then I don’t know what is.

Written by Emmeline Liddle

Friday, 28 February 2020

The Prince of Egypt - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Philip LaZebnik
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Luke Brady

The Bible has not always had an easy relationship with musical theatre. Two notable exceptions being Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and that  perennial favourite Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Each of these casts a contemporary take on the scripture and features a through-sung score. A modern oratorio. At about the same time US composer Stephen Schwartz gave us Godspell, a whimsical take on the Gospels that proved just as successful and gave us memorable hits such as God Save The People and Day By Day. What Godspell lacked was staying power and major revivals have been few and far between. His musical Children Of Eden, also based on episodes from the Bible, failed to take off in 1991, despite development from the RSC.

A few years later, Schwartz scored a  hit with an animated version of the story of Moses from DreamWorks Animation, The Prince Of Egypt. It’s probably nowhere near the classic movie that the publicity would have you think, despite the noble line-up of actors providing the voices.  However Schwartz hit pay-dirt with the Academy-award winning anthem When You Believe, recorded for popular release by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Move forward another 20 years and Schwartz has shifted the story to the stage, adding further musical numbers to the score and a book by the author of the original screenplay Philip Lazebnik. All the familiar key points are in place. There are bulrushes, a baby in the basket and a burning bush. Lazebnik’s storytelling technique manages to cram many plot points into a relatively short running time. Yet for all this speed it still manages to drag, only ever really springing to life in the musical numbers. And boy, do we pray for some of the whimsy that made Godspell so appealing in its day. Instead we get a story that’s both too leaden for family audiences and too simplistic for adults.

Kevin Depinet’s set design works on certain levels, with the projections and variegated screens capturing the burning desert or the majestic temples of the Nile with some sense of scale. However bearing in mind that this is a story steeped in mysticism and miracles, there’s very little magic on show. Sean Cheesman’s relentless choreography offers us the Twelve Plagues of Egypt via interpretative dance, which would be fine if this was Sadler's Wells or the Union Theatre. I personally want a little spectacle from a West End production, especially as the hand of God was supposed to be behind it. Instead we get polystyrene building blocks and a couple of magic tricks that wouldn’t impress a ten-year old, let alone a Pharaoh. To add to the disconcerting simplicity of the special effects and set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes managed to look both cheap and unsettlingly anachronistic.

Schwartz has padded out the original with ten additional numbers, none of which really have the impact of When You Believe. The song Dance To The Day is given to Christine Allado's Tzipporah the captured Midian to establish her pride and independence. This turns out to be one of the best numbers in the show, proving a highlight for Allado and a shoo-in for this year’s Eurovision entry. Thankfully a woefully underused Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Allado do justice to When You Believe but it’s a long wait for this edifying anthem.

It’s good to see Gary Wilmot back in the West End in trousers, rather than his regular star turn as Dame at the Palladium panto. Wilmot has a natural warmth on stage and his musical number as Jethro, offers a little light relief from the rather worthy, soul-searching anthems that populate the score. The focus of Lazebnik’s story is, understandably, Moses played by Luke Brady and more pointedly his relationship with Rameses, the boy who would be Pharaoh, played by Liam Tamne. There’s oddly little chemistry between the two, although this may be down to Lazebnik’s script, which struggles to fashion a credible tone and ends up as conflicted bromance. Brady and Tamne each get to strut their stuff vocally, both proving they have quality singing voices but there’s little here to help establish them as West End leading men.

Schwartz appears to have added to his collection of problematic Bible-based musicals with The Prince Of Egypt, but director Scott Schwartz’s cheap and often confused looking production doesn’t actually help matters. It cuts too many corners, dumbs down Moses’ relationship with God and beefs up the one with Rameses. Who knows, in years to come a fringe theatre may manage to hit the right tone. In the meantime, this production could do with a little more creative flair and re-write.

Booking until 31st October
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Elton John It's A Little Bit Funny - Review

Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Musical arrangements by Andy Collyer

Martin Kaye

Martin Kaye enthrals his audience at Upstairs at the Gatehouse as he spins the tale of Elton John’s ascendance into global super stardom, complete with pitfalls along the way. Kaye’s enthusiasm for Elton is infectious, weaving in his own autobiographical detail into his recantation of the singer’s journey from the lonely Reginald Dwight in grey flannel trousers through to the sensational Elton John in spangled hot pants. 

The show is centred around a night in Las Vegas where Kaye, during his time performing in Million Dollar Quartet, bumps into his ultimate hero Elton John in a hotel lobby where the two then spent an eventful, confessional, evening together. The evening’s narrative however seems minimal, especially when contrasted with Kaye’s excellent singing talent and with the Rocketman movie having only recently graced our screens, there is not much here that we do not already know. But the songs are great and undoubtedly the best part of the performance is a finale that sees Kaye getting the whole audience to sing along with Crocodile Rock.

Ben M Rogers’ set is striking, with huge illuminated lettering and the piano being put front and centre (literally with some incredibly inventive live projection of Kaye’s finger work), giving the feel of being front row at an actual Elton John concert. The lighting was effective, helping to create atmosphere and tone, as the sparse set and limited props allowed Kaye’s showmanship, with his odd socks and wild piano playing, to be the main focus of the event. 

Clever and entertaining, the show is a musically brilliant tribute to one of our greatest showmen.

Runs until 1st March
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh
Photo credit: Ben Hewis

Message In A Bottle - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


Choreographed by Kate Prince
Based on the songs of Sting

In a display of sensational dancing, Message In A Bottle takes the songs of Sting and The Police fusing them into a performance, under Kate Prince’s choreography, that focusses on love, resilience and above all, a desire for freedom. 

The evening is a display of inclusiveness and freedom of expression in different ways: both physical and emotional with the first act starting through the telling the story of a strong supportive community, where people are friendly and look after each other. As the simple narrative unfolds it becomes heart-wrenching to see the challenges of tougher times – the separation of a married couple and a community experiencing hardship.

Throughout, the performances are sensational. Nafisah Baba in particular is a mesmerisingly strong and talented dancer.  Baba’s moves are animalistic, full of grace and intrigue and it is a delight to watch her dance. To the backing of The Police’s classic number Roxanne she flourished in a dance of spice and passion.

While Baba stood out it has to be said that all of Prince’s talented troupe are fantastic. Their moves are filled with physics, energy and mutual connection, communicating brilliantly the concepts of teamwork, friendship, family, community and love. If there is but one small flaw, it is the space constraint of the stage which seems to restrict the dancers’ movement.

A dance of love between two male dancers is impressively performed to Sting’s Shape Of My Heart, with the audience exploding into applause. One can see the dancers not only holding the line of the dance, but also transferring their feelings to the audience. 

Message In A Bottle is an inspiring show filled with energy, joy, love and expression and a must see for lovers of modern dance.

Runs until 21st March
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Lucie Jones Live at The Adelphi - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Lucie Jones

Having captured the public’s attention back in 2009’s X Factor series, Lucie Jones this week played her first solo gig (with guests), impressively packing out London’s Adelphi Theatre.

That same stage has seen Jones play the title role in Waitress for the past 7 months and in a sassy touch the singer opened her set with that show’s well-known "sugar, butter, flour" motif from What’s Inside, segueing into a powerful performance of Funny Girl’s Don’t Rain on My Parade’. A bold choice of an opening number with an even bolder lyric tinkering to “Hey The Adelphi, here I am” receiving a rousing cheer from the adoring crowd. 

Throughout the evening the audience were treated to various anecdotal moments from Jones’ early life and career, highlighting her down to earth nature. Her natural charisma and warmth giving an almost cabaret-style intimacy to the vast venue. 

Providing the musical accompaniment was Freddie Tapner’s 22 piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra. Jones and Tapner have worked together on numerous occasions, their synergy and tightness evident from start to finish. 

In occasional support were John Owen-Jones and Marisha Wallace, the latter having played Waitress’ supporting role of Becky alongside Jones’ Jenna. Rent’s female duet Take Me Or Leave Me was performed with all the tricks, flicks and flair that you would expect from these two West End leading ladies. Equally impressive was a beautiful rendition of ‘The Prayer’ sung alongside Owen-Jones, with these two Welsh singers demonstrating a beautiful handling of the Italian lyrics with soaring melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies sung so tenderly one could have heard a pin drop.

Other stand-out songs were Gimme Gimme from Thoroughly Modern Millie, Lucie’s original song from her 2017 Eurovision entry I Will Never Give Up On You and Into The Unknown from Frozen 2. It is just a shame that the gig was for one-night only as Jones will have no trouble filling out the Adelphi again!

Reviewed by Sophie Kale

Friday, 14 February 2020

Somebody Loves Me : The Songs of Gershwin - Album Launch

Image preview

Friederike Krum, one of Germany’s finest mezzo-sopranos captivated a Ronnie Scott’s audience with a handful of the composer’s classic numbers to launch her album.

Assuming an improvised, off the cuff jazz style, there was but the tiniest hint of restraint as Krum delivered a delicious take on some of the last century's most beautiful songs. Displaying a modest playfulness with the audience as she performed the album's title track, Krum went on to shine in her closing rendition of Summertime, sung in its originally intended operatic style. This wonderful ending to a very modest set allowed Krum to highlight the beauty of Gershwin’s music and her ability to bridge the gap between classical and jazz through powerful, perfectly nuanced vocals. On piano, James Pearson’s accompaniment was sublime. His riffs, while never overshadowing the vocals, inserted just the right level of both gravitas and jauntiness to the occasion.

Krum's album will complement any collection of jazz recordings.  of stunning songs, beautifully sung.

Written by Dina Gitlin-Leigh

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London


Written by Chris Bush
Directed by Caroline Byrne

Jodie McNee

Life imitates art with the opening of Chris Bush’s latest play Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith. For where the original tale saw Dr Faust bargain with the Devil to exchange his soul for all worldly knowledge – so here does Bush seek to swap the classic parable for a feminist-angled perspective that fails to hit its target.

There is fine work from Jodie McNee as Johanna Faustus and an equally enchanting turn from Danny Lee Wynter’s diabolical Mephistopheles. But as Ms Faustus seals her pact, and in the future encounters Marie (Curie) played by Alicia Charles, we see Bush scoring the most spectacular own goal. For rather than Curie’s achievements being celebrated for the (true) heroine that she was in her scientific discoveries, Bush relegates her to little more than a sidekick to husband Pierre (Tim Samuels) and where Marie could have been portrayed as a strong, smart and independent woman, Bush and director Caroline Byrne reduce her to little more than a spouse who is both humble and scared. This shallowness of perspective clouds the whole piece, and while there may be some wit in Bush’s words, it is overshadowed by a disappointing structure that sidelines real, factual female achievement in praise of the patriarchy.

The set and costume designs from Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and Line Bech impress, but not enough to avert a disappointing evening.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is a Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and Headlong co-production, in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 22nd February before playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 24th February and then touring the UK, visiting Bristol Old Vic, Leeds Playhouse and Northern Stage throughout March and April 2020.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Les Misérables - Review

Sondheim Theatre, London


Concept, book and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil
Book and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell

Bradley Jaden and Jon Robyns

Arriving in London following a toured and international try-out, Les Misérables (or rather Les Mis 2.0 as the programme affectionately describes it) opens at Cameron Mackintosh’s newly revamped Sondheim (formerly the Queens) Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For nearly 35 years this behemoth of show has dominated the global musical theatre scene, spawning a movie treatment along the way and for one simple reason. For not only are Claude-Michel Schönberg’s melodies as stirring as they are heart-rending in equal measure, with Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics skewering the very essence of humanity with wit and tenderness, but at the core of Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s classic novel that is possibly unmatched in its ability to drive a musical. For however smart the words or snappy the tunes, a good show demands to be constructed upon a sound book and Hugo’s is the best. It may be set at least two centuries ago, but this epic tale of humanity, redemption, forgiveness, envy and greed still packs a relevant and oh-so timely punch, particularly as cries for the recognition of democracy have only recently been heard echoing around these isles. Did we hear the people sing (or vote)?

There are some modest, subtle changes to Kretzmer’s prose, but the tunes are still the same and the narrative still gorgeous. The Queens’ revolve has been rolled away and in its place are Matt Kinley's automated scenery trucks married to Finn Ross' ingenious projections. It is no wonder that this production has achieved such acclaim on tour with a technical portability that the original show never could match. For the most part the new designs generally deliver an innovative take on their predecessor, but it has not been a perfect transition. The tragic impact of the second half's Final Battle, where back in the day and with one half-turn the old revolve revealed the massacred students’ bodies, is not lived up to in v 2.0. The projections and techno-wizardry are fun though, as pyrotechnically enhanced fusillades ricochet around the auditorium (credit to Mick Potter's sound design). reminiscent of the audio brilliance of Saving Private Ryan’s opening battle scene.

[SPOILER ALERT] Javert’s Suicide is a (visual) treat. In place of the bridge’s balustrade being whisked up to the flies, the eponymous cop himself joins the flying squad. Indeed, so spectacular is Javert’s death that one is only left hoping for something even more celestially impressive for Jean Valjean’s last gasp. Sadly, when our hero does eventually expire, the moment is nowhere near as visually thrilling as Javert’s demise.

Vocally the piece remains a classy gathering of talent. Jon Robyns ages majestically through the piece as Valjean, his dramatic tenor tones catching the full range of his heroic character’s power and sensitivity. Opposite Robyn and hunting him across the years, Bradley Jaden captures Javert’s flawed but principled complexities.

Carrie Hope Fletcher sees a sideward promotion (to the Green Room for most of the show) as she takes over Fantine. Fletcher’s vocal talent and presence remains is amongst the finest of her generation and her singing exquisite. But is she a Fantine? Although this reviewer is unconvinced, Fletcher’s 500K Twitter followers may well have a different view. 

Hauled back in from the touring production, Ian Hughes’ Thénardier is in fine form capturing the show’s comic moments with perfect timing and delivery. Opposite him, the always outstanding Josefina Gabrielle’s Mme Thénardier is equally brilliant. But to take a step back for one moment, times have moved on since the 1980s. In this #MeToo era is it really right to be laughing so whole-heartedly at such a couple of child-abusers as the Thénardiers? The pair are actually terrifying monsters, rather than clowns. Elsewhere, the eternal triangle of Marius, Eponine, and Cosette is played well by Harry Apps, Shan Ako and Lily Kerhoas respectively. There is vocal talent here a ‘plenty but the true and passionate chemistry that these roles demand has yet to fully emerge.

Above all it is Kretzmer’s stunning lyrical treatment of those soaring French melodies (on press night, immaculately delivered under Steve Moss’ baton) woven around a story that is breathtaking in its scope that still define Les Misérables as a night of world class musical theatre.

Booking until 27th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Directed by Marc Bruni

It’s rare to get a glimpse into the magic of the songwriting process. From idea to creating initial elements, to arrangement and recording, before finally arriving at the final product, each song progresses through an alchemy of talent, collaboration and, quite often, a dash of luck. Beautiful provides a window exceptionally well, often beginning with flashes of inspiration, sketching out the skeleton on the piano before transitioning into the final version as performed by the recording artist themselves. However this is just one of the qualities that contributes to truly memorable music.

Carole King’s remarkable journey is reflected in this delightful jukebox musical. From writing songs throughout childhood, to joining the Brill Building and Aldon Music, Don Kirshner’s publishing “hit factory” (with fellow writers and friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and which also included Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka), having two children with then husband Gerry Goffin and moving from New York to Los Angeles - all before turning 30 - it’s quite the adventure.

Of King’s marriages, this story focuses exclusively on the first with Gerry Goffin; partner in life and work. The two churn out an impressive  discography, writing hits for The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Monkees, with many songs taking on a life of their own with recordings made over the years by various artists, some of the more recent covers being; Will You Love Me Tomorrow (Amy Winehouse), The Loco-Motion (Kylie Minogue) and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin). It is all as educational as much as it is entertaining, providing ample reasons to support King’s numerous accolades, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, alongside Goffin.

Douglas McGrath’s book is snappy, funny and moving. And with words and music by King, Goffin, Mann and Weil, each song is nothing short of exceptional. These are, after all, pop masterpieces. With these foundations in place, a stellar cast in possession of strong vocals and personality is required – delivered impressively in this iteration of the show.

Helmed by Daisy Wood-Davis’ Carole, the bar is set high. Wood-Davis manages to be sweet and driven, while being phenomenally talented. Her vocal performances are outstanding, particularly when in higher registers. Yet what’s most enjoyable is her characters interactions with her peers; Laura Baldwin’s sharp Cynthia Weil, Cameron Sharp’s Barry Mann and Adam Gillian’s Gerry Goffin. Special mention too to Oliver Boot, playing impresario Donnie Kirshner in a warm and engaging mentor-like role. 

For a touring production, one of the greatest challenges is a flexible set design and on this front, Derek McLane manages to have created something that fits comfortably on stage. Certain visuals are stunning; the backdrop of the Brill Building for example. Yet on occasion, a more simple approach might possibly have been more effective - at times the supposed grandeur of backdrops doesn’t have quite the desired effect. Alejo Vietti’s costumes are peppy and each costume change leads with an element of anticipation.

This is obviously a show for fans of Carole King but more than that, it is a show for lovers of great music. Simultaneously an homage to talent, love and friendship - with others and oneself - and a masterclass in musical theatre.

Currently touring until 29th August - Details here
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar

JEW...ish - Review

Kings Head Theatre, London


Written by Saul Boyer and Poppy Damon
Directed by Kennedy Bloomer

Edie Newman and Saul Boyer

After a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, JEW...ish has just completed a short run at the Kings Head Theatre. The brainchild of co-creators, Poppy Damon and Saul Boyer, the play is centred around the relationship between Max, played by Boyer, and TJ, Edie Newman who are trying to navigate their way through their difficulties beyond the comfort of their university’s polyamorous society. Fraught with all the problems of an inter-religious couple, TJ is determined in her opinion that Max’s overbearing family not only cannot accept her because she isn’t Jewish but also accuse her of leading Max to becoming a ‘self-hating Jew’. 

Finding most of its comedy through the pastiche of millennial culture, the script also cuts across a broad range of themes including grief, therapy, the complexities of polyamory and of course, the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis. Newman nails the woke, sexually explorative, university graduate even down to her intonation which makes everything out as a question, as though she is questioning society at every turn. This is perfectly offset by Boyer’s unflappable comedic timing, presenting Max as the recognisable male archetype who is completely lost without the direction of a woman, whether that be his overbearing Jewish mother or TJ. The chemistry between the two is visceral and believable making the audience root for these two easily dislikeable characters and want to continue on their love-hate journey. 

Georgia Cusworth’s simplistic set only adds to the atmosphere, making sure the actors’ relationship stays as the main focus and allows for an incredibly creative car ride. Working within an awkward space with the audience sat at three different angles, Kennedy Bloomer and Toby Hampton’s direction ensures that the whole audience feels involved and invested in the story throughout. 

JEW…ish plays out as a Semitic Richard Curtis-esque romp through the struggles of 21st century dating with all its pitfalls and absurdity and is well worth a watch.

Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh
Photo credit: Samuel Kirkman

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Rags - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Joseph Stein
Revised book by David Thompson
Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Carolyn Maitland

Rags from Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse is a show that is set in New York City’s Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th century. Seen through the eyes of Rebecca, a penniless seamstress straight off the boat together with her young son David, the tale largely of Manhattan’s impoverished Jewish community, but with enough references to the Jews’ Italian migrant neighbours to define it as a non-denominational commentary upon immigration.

The book is by Joseph Stein and it has long been suggested that Rags represents a sequel to his earlier Fiddler On The Roof. But where that show achieved it’s punch through simple human challenges, beautifully told, Rags is more of a melting pot of issues that, combined, lack the same emotional heft. There is a narrative here that veers too easily into cliche and this perhaps is the reason behind the show’s failure to achieve lasting Broadway success.

That being said, director Bronagh Lagan has assembled some gifted talent in her Park Theatre company with Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca driving the show. Maitland is never less than magnificent in all her work and here she both captures and stirs our hearts in her take on the beautiful, driven young mother that she plays - her solo delivery of the closing number Children Of The Wind is stunning.

Dave Willetts puts in a strong turn as the kindly Avram who takes Rebecca into his home. There is a confidence in Willetts’ performance that captures moments of complex nuance. Opposite him, is Rachel Izen’s Rachel in another genius delivery that masterfully displays understated humour finely contrasted with the wry and wise experience of a long life, fully lived. The pair’s duet of Three Sunny Rooms is a highlight.

In charge of Strouse’s compositions is musical director Joe Bunker, who not only manages half of his 8-piece band from across two lofty corners of the stage but also conducts 4 onstage actor-musos too. Credit to all the musicians - the score straddles a multitude of genres with Bunker’s band deftly delivering across the evening.

Rags may be more schmaltz than substance but in this, its London premiere as a fully staged production, it is still a fine example of off-West End musical theatre.

Runs until 8th February
Photo credit: Pamela Raith