Saturday, 23 October 2021

The Body Remembers - Review

Battersea Arts Centre, London


***


Created and performed by Heather Agyepong
Dramaturg and Co-Creator Gail Babb 
Movement Director and Co-Creator Imogen Knight


Heather Agyepong

Heather Agyepong's one-woman show The Body Remembers takes the audience on a visceral journey that witnesses the expression of internalised trauma and healing through the improvised movements of Agyepong's body. Set to a soundscape of personal testimony from black British women, the play is an exploration of their experience of trauma and how this is manifest and held in their body.

Agyepong encourages the audience to engage with their own bodily experience. To to their breathing, to begin to notice and be aware of the impact of her performance on their body and the meaning that this might have for us individually.

The personal testimonies are given without naming the context of their trauma, lending a powerful edge to the listeners' experience. The narratives of these women tells of their experience of carrying trauma in their bodies and how they wear it in their worlds. Often misunderstood, misdiagnosed or not believed by the medical profession or the people they turned to for help, Agyepong hears, sees and tells.

In her concluding scene Agyepong departs the stage leaving a carefully constructed array of objects including soft toys, therapeutic texts, a yoga mat and homeopathic medications to calm the body and the mind.

Lasting for 45 minutes, this is a thought provoking and evocative piece of theatre.


Runs until 4th November
Photo credit: Myer Jeffers
Reviewed by Lucy Bex

Friday, 22 October 2021

The Shark Is Broken - Review

Ambassadors Theatre, London


****


Written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
Directed by Guy Masterson



Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritsas
I declare an interest. I saw Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws (for what was to be the first of countless times) in December 1975 on the day that it opened across the UK. I have read Peter Benchley’s book, devoured The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (the movie’s screenwriter and whose book described the story’s journey from page to screen) and in 2015 I interviewed Gottlieb for this website. I know my Jaws...

The Shark Is Broken is an intriguing conceit. Actors have famously commented that while shooting a movie, most of the time is spent sat around doing nothing, waiting for the shot to be ready with only a fraction of time being spent in front of the camera. So it is that Ian Shaw, a son of Jaws star Robert Shaw (who played shark-hunter and fisherman Quint in the movie) together with Joseph Nixon, has created this one-act play set entirely on board Quint’s fishing boat Orca and featuring the interactions between the three actors who played the movie’s protagonists Roy Scheider (Police Chief Brody), Richard Dreyfuss (Oceanographer Matt Hooper) and Robert Shaw.

The show's dramatic structure works well, as with reference to his father’s diaries and stories, Gottlieb’s book and masses of additional research, Shaw Junior has constructed a very plausible narrative. Add to this the uncanny resemblance that Shaw bears to his illustrious dad and the evening is complete. To be fair Demetri Goritsas (Scheider) and Liam Murray Scott (Dreyfuss) both put in fine turns, Goritsas in particular, but – unlike Spielberg’s original, where the narrative was driven in equal measure by the trio – it is Shaw who delivers the piece's core energy, offering us a glimpse into his father's literary genius as well as a suggested dependance on the bottle. There's humour a'plenty too, with Shaw cleverly capturing his father's maverick brilliance.

Guy Masterson directs with an economic precision, the whole work being elegantly presented on Duncan Henderson’s cutaway Orca and Nina Dunn’s ingenious projections cleverly capturing the roll and sway of the New England seaboard. If there are criticisms, it is that some of Shaw & Nixon’s gags about the future are a tad too blatant, and Scott’s take on Dreyfuss’ anxieties errs too often towards a slapstick Leo Bloom – mental health should be no laughing matter.

But this is fine imaginative writing, and as the evening unwinds we see Shaw progressing through his development of Quint’s speech about the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis, and the ensuing shark attack that befell those sailors who survived the sinking. While Jaws is a work of fiction, the tragedy of the Indianapolis is true – and as Ian Shaw recreates his father’s masterful telling of that terrible tale, he holds the audience spellbound.




Runs until 15th January 2022
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Friday, 15 October 2021

The Cherry Orchard - Review

Theatre Royal, Windsor


***


Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias


Ian McKellen

There is a timeless allegory to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and in Martin Sherman’s adaptation the classic story's essence is maintained even if Sherman translates serfdom into the more recognisable description of slavery. The tragedy of bereavement and the fabric of life and heritage are woven into this tale of one family’s decline from a life of wealth and grandeur, and of another man's conquest over his family's one-time masters. It is a rich narrative and in Sean Mathias’ production much of Chekhov’s literary genius is maintained.

Francesca Annis’ Ranyevskaya is a tormented soul, bankrupted financially and fled to Paris to try and escape the grief of her young son’s tragic death, yet inextricably bound to the heritage of the Russian mansion of her earlier life and its cherry orchard. Annis is compelling, but fails to hit the sweet-spot that would truly bring the audience into sharing her deepening pain and loss.

Opposite Annis is Martin Shaw as Lopakhin, her nouveau-riche compatriot and ultimately her nemesis, in an equally measured performance, but with a shade more credibility to his character’s journey.

The glue that holds the story together is Ian McKellen’s elderly serf Firs. McKellen’s mastery is such that with the slightest word and nuance we empathise with his plight and his frailty, his humanity and above all his history, in a mastery of his craft that the two lead actors fail to match. 

The Cherry Orchard’s strength, particularly when set against our modern era, is that it speaks with such elegance on issues that our contemporary, curriculum-bashing activists tackle so crassly. Similarly, Mathias’ company replete with its gender-fluid diversity, distracts. This is unquestionably a quality night at the theatre – but it could have been so much more.


Runs to 13th November
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Friday, 1 October 2021

Witness For The Prosecution - Review

County Hall, London


****


Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey



Emer McDaid

Director Lucy Bailey writes in the programme for Witness For The Prosecution how when she first visited the “long discussed council chamber at London’s County Hall it was covered in dust”. In today’s  Covid-safe theatres the playing space may well be spotless and the dust is no longer, but County Hall still oozes just as much atmosphere and grandeur and that’s before a cast member has even said a line.

Despite the status of such a grand playing space setting the piece off in many ways from the moment you set foot in the auditorium, the first half is at times a slow burner, but audiences beware... pay attention and listen closely, you don’t want to miss a trick, let alone a line or piece of evidence that may later prove vital in the audience-jury verdict.

Leading the cast is Joe McNamara who plays Leonard Vole and is the accused on trial, a debut West End performance for Vole and yet he nails the character to a tea, flitting from panic to calm, anger to devastation with each development and very much taking the audience with him. Emer McDaid arrives on cue as the elusive and mysterious Romaine Vole and seems to lead the proceedings with her witness for the prosecution. 

Yet the leaders of the court room in this case are Miles Richardson and Jonathan Firth as Mr Myers QC and Sir Wilfrid Robards QC respectively. The court room provides the perfect stage for these two fine actors to lock horns throughout with a particularly assured performance from Robarts whose wit and dexterity is impressive. Teddy Kempner’s Mr Mayhew is equally fine as the pair work together throughout the court case.

A rare observation but indeed one worth noting was such a large company, many with extremely minimal moments of action yet so many on stage throughout the piece all contributing to the atmosphere that times could have been cut with a knife.

While the set design allows some flexibility in location throughout, at times it seems to get in the way with. That said Bailey’s direction allows for scenes to be played with a natural focus despite the in the round seating and truly leaves the audience not knowing what will happen next.

Off the West End geographically but not by much Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness For the Prosecution’ really is a fine treat, and very much an established one. Amongst the comings and goings of shorter runs for many plays in and around town, this production now in its 5th year truly is a thrilling night of whodunnit, classic drama.


Booking to 20th March 2022
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz
Reviewed by: Matt Hooper

Back To The Future The Musical - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London



*****


Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard
Book by Bob Gale
Directed by John Rando



Olly Dobson

In a dramatic gesture matched only in magnitude by the invention of the flux capacitor itself, so have the cast and creative team behind Back To The Future The Musical delivered one of the best new musicals to hit the West End in recent years.

Bravely opening as the pandemic (hopefully) fades, the Adelphi was packed to a cheering audience savouring a show that wasn’t just based upon a classic 1985 movie but which takes that film’s narrative to a fourth dimension amidst a veritable nuclear-powered fusion of effects wizardry, video projection, and good old-fashioned human talent.

It’s not just a tough gig to set a science-fiction yarn to music, Back To The Future also demands of its leads that they can inhabit characters including the leads that were so memorably brought to life on screen by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox . This show however pulls it off with an inspired casting that sees accomplished Broadway actor Roger Bart create the stage version of Doc Brown. Opposite Bart, Olly Dobson is equally convincing as teenage time-traveller Marty McFly.

Nearly 40 years old, the story is a classic. Marty gets sent back in time 30 years by the madcap inventor Brown, where he stumbles across his pre-marital parents. And as his youthfully gorgeous mother Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland) falls for the new kid in town, unaware of course that he is her son, it is down to Marty and the (younger, naturally) Doc to engineer the plot that sees Lorraine fall for her unlikely suitor George McFly, so that in time the pair can marry and beget Marty… 

Roger Bart

Throughout, the acting is flawless, not least with Hugh Coles’ George McFly, a veritable masterpiece of physical comedy. Coles’ perfect interpretation of the hapless George delivers not only perfectly timed hilarity but also immaculately pitched nuance that must surely stand him in good stead when the Olivier for Best Supporting Actor is being considered. There is pathos too in the bond between Marty and the Doc - again, never milked, just perfectly pitched.

And, for the most part, the show’s new songs are also rather clever. In a time when new musical theatre writing can often disappoint, the numbers created here combine humour and passion together with perfectly pitched insight into the human condition. Hello - Is Anybody Home? as Marty gazes despairingly at his (1985) family, is matched in wit by his (youthful) dad’s My Myopia. Whichever of Silvestri or Ballard thought to rhyme myopia with utopia is another deeply talented soul.

Actors and lyrics aside, Back To The Future has always been about the car! So much more than just a ripping yarn, what is needed here has been the translation of a 20th century blockbuster movie crammed full of (non-CGI) special effects and squeezing it into the confines of a proscenium arch, beyond which is a theatre brimming with the expectations of a tech-savvy 21st century audience.

Director John Rando pulls off this task magnificently – aided by Tim Hatley’s design work, Chris Fisher’s illusions, Finn Ross outstanding video projections (Doc Brown’s climbing of the clock tower towards the show’s finale is a hilarious coup-de-theatre in itself!), Gareth Owen’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting. The staging is imaginative, stunning and clearly expensive – everything that a big West End show should be – and, above all, imaginative. There will be no spoilers in this review – just go and savour what these guys manage to do with a classy company of actors and a DeLorean. (And if this 2021 iteration of the story sees those pesky Libyan terrorists from 1985 get canned in the name of politically correct progress, well hey that's showbiz!)

Jim Henson’s 14 piece band make fine work of the newly scored stuff – theres a great leitmotif running through the show that is a nod to the movie – with the more recent songs standing up well to the timeless gems of Johnny B. Goode and Huey Lewis’ The Power Of Love. The dancework is wonderfully tight too, with choreographer Chris Bailey lobbing in some wonderful moments of pastiche that only add to the evening's splendour.  

It says much for London as a global centre of theatre that the producers have chosen to workshop and launch this All-American show over here and with a predominantly British company of cast and creatives. As soon as circumstances make it possible and profitable, the show deserves a swift transfer across the Atlantic. 

Throughout, Back To The Future The Musical exceeds expectations, consistently delivering excellence in acting, song, dance, and oh, those effects.  Family entertainment in musical theatre does not get better than this. Just go!


Booking until 1st July 2022
Photo credit: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

Monday, 27 September 2021

Luminosa - Review

Jacksons Lane, London


****


Lawrence Swaddle and Tasha Rushbrooke


Luminosa from the UK’s Lost In Translation circus company is a novel interpretation of the classic circus show with a wonderfully executed combination of acrobatics, gymnastics and comedy, all set off with a cabaret-style band in accompaniment throughout.

For the most part this is a family-focused show that starts with a high octane aerial performance that sets the tone for the remainder of the evening. As is to be expected, the skills of the Luminosa troupe combine jaw-dropping human talent with, at times, death-defying bravado! 

Accompanied by three assistant reviewers aged 6, 8 and 10 the entire JonathanBaz.com review squad were held enthralled throughout. Praise from the three children included:

“The foot juggler impressed with the number of balls she juggled without dropping any of them!” 

“The astonishing human trapeze filled Jacksons Lane with awe, as the acrobat somersaulted in the air”

“After an exhilarating performance, I was amazed as to what this group of acrobats can do. They showed plenty of teamwork and resilience in making this exciting performance” 

Shortly to tour the UK, Luminosa makes for a fantastic evening’s entertainment.


Plays at Jackson Lane until 29th September, then tours - details here
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Thursday, 23 September 2021

The Last Five Years - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


***


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


Molly Lynch

For The Last Five Years, the last eighteen months have seen this show albeit skewered by the pandemic, transfer from a glorious run on London’s fringe at the Southwark Playhouse to the commercial bear-pit of the West End, taking up a month’s residence at the Garrick.

The artistic genius of its performers remains. Slightly matured from their south London opening, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson remain excellent as time-crossed lovers Cathy and Jamie, famously charting their five year relationship in opposing time dimensions. As Jamie moves forward from impetuous passion to duplicitous deceit, so does Cathy follow a reverse arc, opening with the grief of a shattered marriage and closing with her deliriously sincere and hopeful Goodbye Until Tomorrow. 

Molly and Oli are indeed magnificent - but not for no reason has this curiosity of a show struggled to even open on Broadway. The intense magic of Jonathan O’Boyle’s work at Southwark dissipates under the scrutiny of a multi-tiered West End house, its cast now removed to behind their proscenium arch. What this production defines is that The Last 5 Years is essentially a chamber work and that Brown’s ingenious dissection of a love’s birth and subsequent demise is best savoured up-close. While some of his show’s numbers are barnstorming roofraisers (Lynch delivers a knockout I Can Do Better Than That) overall, the piece struggles to captivate.

This Garrick production is one for the fans, undoubtedly a gathering of genius in both its cast and creative crew. But much like Jamie and Cathy’s love, something has died here.



Runs until 17th October
Phot credit: Helen Maybanks

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Aretha And Me - Review

The Pheasantry, London


*****

Patti Boulaye

Patti Boulaye’s cabaret Aretha And Me, is as much a glimpse into Boulaye’s own life story as it is a tribute to one of soul music’s most astounding singers. Offering us glimpses into a childhood that saw her bear witness to the horrors of the Biafran War , through to her teenage arrival into London and a whirlwind entry into musical theatre and then a recording career, Boulaye’s journey is a testament to both faith and talent. Her faith is important to her, but so too is the bedrock of her conservative family values and the respect and love that she shows, not just for her familial roots but in her manifest pride in her husband, children and grandchildren, runs through her cabaret patter like a stick of rock.

Notwithstanding Boulaye’s personal strengths, the evening is of course about classic songs, sung to perfection and if Aretha Franklin was the Queen Of Soul then Patti Boulaye is her heir apparent. She takes some of Franklin’s most memorable musical highlights – and one or two lesser know gems including a spine-tingling Nessun Dorma – and delivers them with a consistent level of flair and genius, that it is impossible to fault her singing. Boulaye gets the evening going with some crackers including Think, I Say A Little Prayer and Son Of A Preacher Man and with a mixture of pre-recorded backing tracks and live piano accompaniment, Alan Rogers her musical director, provides impressive support.

But it is in her soul interpretations that Boulaye holds us all in the palm of her hand. Her take on Amazing Grace and Etta James’ signature recording At Last (of course covered by Aretha) leave one moved way beyond expectation – while her second act opener of the Habanera from Carmen Jones is quite simply a delight.

Boulaye is taking her show on the road throughout the autumn – Go see her, you will not find a finer voice touring the land!


Saturday, 28 August 2021

Cirque Berserk - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


****






Returning to London's West End, Cirque Berserk deliver an evening of timeless human genius.

Bursting onto the stage like a pride of lions huddled together in perfect unison, were 7 agile men that hooked the audience into the very first extraordinary act of the night. The Timbuktu Tumblers, so aptly named, dazzled the crowd with their acrobatic prowess. The way they held each other up creating several different and quite literally, man-made structures, with such ease is a sight to behold. The danger was ramped up later in their routine when they danced under fire limbo sticks, with nothing short of a whispers breath between the floor and the flaming bar! A marvellous and rare performance to behold.

Another mesmerising act of the night comes from a more traditional circus acrobatic troupe, heralding from Mongolia these acrobats were flying through the air as a fish swims through the ocean. Traditional trapeze artistry accompanied by death defying gymnastic stunts kept the audience clapping through there whole act. One of their stunts being so dangerous a safety mat is required to prevent serious injury or death. Demonstrating both beauty and skill, their ribbon bound performance mesmerised adults and children alike. The tranquil, yet energetic music matched the way they moved so perfectly entwined with the silk, it was impossible to look away. A pin drop could have been heard amongst the audience, for all eyes were entranced by the talented act. 

Special mention must be given to 3ft 6inch tall comic, acrobat and showman Paulo Dos Santos who inadvertently came on stage between acts. His is a silly yet charmingly brilliant turn, one which engaged the children and kept them on their toes, with nuances that only the adults would understand to keep them giggling. It truly was a fulfilling sight to behold when a man who was from first initial reception seen as merely there to fill some laughs on stage, was also able to also perform some of the most challenging circus acts of the night. A touching tribute to the show.

The finale, a diesel fuelled spine tingling danger act was truly the definition of ‘Berserkus’. The Lucius team a group of professional dirt bike riders and the Globe of Death. Up to three riders flying inside the globe riding upside down while practically touching elbows as they zoom past each other at upwards of 60mph. A wild finish to an exhilarating show that, for family entertainment in the West End, is up there with the best.


Runs until 11th September. Tickets available here
Reviewed by Christian Yeomans
Photo credit: Piet-Hein Out

Saturday, 21 August 2021

Jersey Boys - Review

Trafalgar Theatre, London


**** 

Music by Bob Gaudio
Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Directed by Des McAnuff


The cast of Jersey Boys


A cast - each stars in their own right - perform a riveting, but also humble take on the lives of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Jersey Boys is a story about growing up, the sacrifices that we make along the way and the heartbreak of those left behind, with phenomenal songs to tie it all together.

Ben Joyce leads the cast in his West-End debut as Frankie Valli, with an uncanny musical resemblance to that of the man himself. His voice is distinctive and powerful and manages to capture Frankie’s uniquely powerful falsetto. You won’t leave the show forgetting about his voice any time soon. The audience were in uproar at his solo performances, in particular, the very famous “I can’t take my eyes off of you”, which is without a doubt one of the best renditions of the song. Joyce plays a star, but his authenticity and emotional depth that he brings to Valli is what makes the character truly come alive.
 
Supporting Joyce to make up The Four Seasons are Adam Bailey as Bob Gaudio, Karl James Wilson as Nick Masel and Benjamin Yates as Tommy De Vito. All three give sublime performances in their roles and are just as much stars of the show as Joyce.

Indeed, when the four perform together it is a truly fantastical experience. From Sergio Trujillo's brilliantly choreographed dance moves (Joyce does the splits!) to their 1960s costumes, this show does everything to make you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. A live, black and white video is even displayed at the back of the theatre screen while they are performing the timeless hits. 

Special mention must be given to Yates who encapsulates everything De Vito was about. Being the first character story that the show begins with, Benjamin’s cocky, confident and downright smooth performance firmly thrusts the audience into the golden era of doo-wop quartets performing under the late night street lamps of New Jersey. De Vito is the progenitor of the group, bringing ‘green’ Frankie in and taking him under his wing, despite all his floors, if it wasn’t for De Vito we wouldn’t have the Frankie as we know it. And Yates' portrayal stays cool from beginning to end, eyes are often drawn to his background dancing which just oozes 1960s style.

The set with mics emerging from the stage and street lamps descending from the rafters is the fifth member of the ensemble, truly transporting the audience to the time and period. A fantastic show that the whole family will enjoy.


Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Singin' In The Rain - Review

Sadler's Wells, London


*****


   

                Kevin Clifton, Adam Cooper and Charlotte Gooch



Music by Nacio Herb Brown
Lyrics by Arthur Freed
Book by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Directed by Jonathan Church


One of the two classic tales that defined the impact of the ‘Talkies’ on Hollywood (the other of course being Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) Singin’ In The Rain is an unashamedly joyous celebration of talent in both song and dance.

The story is an age-old fable. Silent movie Lina Lamont finds herself overtaken by the trend towards sound recording, and where Lamont may have the looks of a screen-goddess, her voice of course is an unbearable screech.

It takes the genius of Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown to spot the hidden talents in studio-hand Kathy Selden and as everyone knows, the dubbing skills of Selden go on to save the day with Selden herself being finally recognised for the vocal star that she is.

The story is simple, timeless and an endearing tribute to the triumph of good over evil. The show’s title of course derives from Lockwood’s deliriously happy discovery of both Selden’s voice and his own feelings for her – and while the title number has little impact upon the story’s arc it is a Broadway and Hollywood classic and here, under Jonathan Church’s deft direction, the front rows of the Sadlers Wells’ stalls are appropriately drenched in watery appreciation

Church and his choreographer Andrew Wright have reunited to recreate their 2011 Chichester triumph and they have been given a platinum cast to work with. Even more so in the fact that ten years ago it was Adam Cooper who starred as Don Lockwood and it is Cooper who returns to Sadler’s Wells.  With Kevin Clifton and Charlotte Gooch  as Cosmo and Kathy respectively, the trio are an unbeatable combination. Vocals and footwork are breathtaking in their pinpoint accuracy with even Faye Tozer’s squawky Lamont proving a further flawless joy.

For an evening of unqualified delight, this production of Singin’ In The Rain has to be one of the best shows in town.


Runs until 5th September, then tours, with tickets available here

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Dad's Army Radio Show - Review

Crazy Coqs, London


****


Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft
Directed by Owen Lewis


David Benson and Jack Lane


Originally penned as a radio show back in 1968, Dad’s Army could be described as unique in its comedic genre: despite being dated, somehow this comedy series centred around the doings of a Home Guard platoon in the fictional town of Walmington-On-Sea during World War II, manages to survive and is still much-loved (although, one suspects, probably by more senior audiences).

The genius of the original series was of course not only its inspired casting, but also the incisive wit of its writers, who managed to lovingly satirise so much of England's classic charm within their scripts. From radio, to television sit-com, to stage and screen translations, this latest iteration of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s brilliantly observed comedy masterpiece is a selection from the TV series’ latter episodes, all newly adapted for stage but performed here as a radio show – and thus the form in which it was first presented. As such, there are scripts on stands and microphones on stage and even an old-fashioned radio atop a cabin trunk centre stage. What makes this production unique however is that the show’s twenty-five-plus characters are played by just two actors!

A tour de force indeed, and it has to be said that the duo of David Benson and Jack Lane, dressed in khaki uniforms as befits the Home Guard, rise to the challenge admirably. The latter’s portrait of Private Pike, the wet-behind-the ears youngest member of the platoon is spot-on and he segues, seemingly effortlessly, into the voice of the unit’s Captain Mainwaring. Equal kudos must go to Benson, brilliant as the voice of laid-back Sergeant Wilson and more. The comic timing is excellent and any inadvertent pauses are well covered up by ad-libs, much appreciated by the live audience.

Even the female voices are well managed and if there was the occasional corpsing it was in the main managed well. Interestingly the evening's radio play format allows for an amazingly comprehensive picture of the mores of the time. Opening with Churchill’s famous ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ speech and with atmospheric musical interjections, it is all very effective.

Dad's Army Radio Show makes for an evening of charmingly witty nostalgia, immaculately performed.


Touring across the UK from September. Tickets via this link
Reviewed by Barbara Michaels

Monday, 2 August 2021

Janie Dee In Cabaret - Review

The Pheasantry, London


****

 

Janie Dee


 “Leave your troubles outside!
Life is disappointing? Forget it!
Here, life is beautiful!”

And with those immortal Kander & Ebb lyrics, Janie Dee opened her cabaret set to a full house at The Pheasantry. Indeed, set against a world still battling the ravages of the pandemic, to say nothing of the horrendous London weather, life did appear to be briefly beautiful in the gorgeous intimacy of that Kings Road basement.

Dee is one of London’s finest musical theatre and cabaret performers. Her wisdom, experience, talent and sensational voice imbue her with a presence that not only earns our attention but rather commands it, allowing her to take the audience’s emotions on a rollercoaster ride of perfectly pitched pathos and playfulness, masterfully supported by musical director Stephen Higgins.

A selection of Kander & Ebb numbers followed their Wilkommen opener, with Dee sharing how the composers’ 1971 song Yes! had recently seen John Kander graciously permit her to tweak that number’s lyrics so as to accommodate Dee’s passionately held concerns over climate change, a belief that allowed her to seamlessly segue into a delicious delivery of What A Wonderful World.

An early guest slot saw Dee's guitarist son Alfie Wickham play a brief set, commencing with an enchanting take on the classical melody Spanish Romance. Wickham played with confidence, skill and an on-stage assuredness - the young man has remarkable potential.

Dee closed her first act with her first Sondheim number of the night, Send In The Clowns. Close-up and cocooned on this Chelsea stage, and having played Desiree Armfeldt on a number of previous occasions, Dee gave the song a rare intensity in her interpretation. Indeed, having heard the song sung live on countless occasions I found that listening to Dee's Desiree, the one that I wanted was hers.

Sondheim's Another Hundred People got the second act underway in what was to prove another carefully crafted setlist that fused merriment with melancholy. Copytype was a sharply satirical look back at the days when typewriters were a thing, while Dee again gave a hauntingly contemporary resonance to Jerry Herman’s Time Heals Everything. Wickham returned to the stage to accompany his mum on Fly Me To The Moon, as Janie wrapped up events with a resounding The Ladies Who Lunch.

Everybody rise? – such was Dee's commanding gravitas that we very nearly did as we were bade!

It’s great that cabaret is back in town and helmed by their supremely well-connected resident host Ruth Leon (herself an 'Emcee' who could give Joel Grey more than a run for his money), The Pheasantry is destined to be packing them in over the next few months.


Photo credit: Angie Lawrence

Sunday, 18 July 2021

South Pacific - Review

 Festival Theatre, Chichester


*****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan


Sera Maehara

“Most people live on a lonely island
Lost in the middle of a foggy sea
Most people long for another island
One where they know they will like to be…”
In his haunting lyrics to Bali Ha’i, Oscar Hammerstein II could have been writing of our world today, tenatively seeking to emerge from the pandemic and longing to re-ignite its cultural heartbeat, so cruelly suspended in springtime last year. So it is that Daniel Evans’ take on South Pacific offers an evening of classic musical theatre, staged to perfection.

Much has been made of the show’s political narrative resonating with our times. In some ways this is true and in seeking to avoid spoilers, it is unquestionably uplifting to see Ensign Nellie Forbush (stunningly played by Gina Beck) achieve moral redemption as she spurns the racist foundations of her Little Rock upbringing. Likewise, as we witness Lt Joe Cable’s (Rob Houchen) inner turmoil as he battles his love for the Polynesian Liat, against his knowledge that she will never be accepted within his Princeton-steeped heritage, we can see that Rodgers and Hammerstein were brave in recognising the racial intolerances of their USA. The sadder reality of course is that nearly 70 years later, many of the show’s themes are as relevant today as they were then.

But on close inspection, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s moral compass is flawed. While planter Emil de Becque (Julian Ovenden) will happily reject the requests of the US Navy to go on a spying mission for them in enemy territory while Nellie Forbush is in his life, the moment he realises that she could be leaving his island, he signs up for Uncle Sam with barely a thought at all for his two young children who he risks making orphans should the mission fail. Hypocrite or what? Maybe de Becque’s ultimate vacuity as a responsible parent is an inconvenient truth - but it is sufficient to cast a significant fault line across this classic show’s conscience.

This criticism however is to be levelled at the show’s book alone, for what is unquestionable at Chichester is that Evans has assembled an outstanding company who deliver musical theatre excellence. The famous numbers are legendary making spines tingle and amidst an immaculately socially distanced audience in the Festival Theatre, toes tap too.

Ovenden’s de Becque makes glorious work of Some Enchanted Evening, so frequently reprised that it becomes the  show’s signature motif. Smouldering with a chiselled gravitas, it is simply a delight to listen to him coax the song’s passion and majesty into the limelight.

As regards Gina Beck, Evans has previous form in coaxing flawless magnificence from his leading lady. This website was wowed in 2015 with Beck’s turn in Evans’ Sheffield Showboat and there is a clear chemistry between the/ pair that sees her glide through songbook classics with an assured brilliance that makes the songs seem as new as they are familiar. Evans doesn’t disappoint with the show’s stock numbers either. I’m Gonna Wash That Man right out of my hair - second only to to Hitchcock’s Psycho for a cracking shower scene - is led magnificently by Beck, while her solo moments elsewhere in the production fill the auditorium with vocal gorgeousness.

Elsewhere, the cast are gems. Keir Charles as Luther Billis captures his character’s comic complexities to a tee - no easy task - while Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary is another stunner. Ampil’s role also comes with some challenging moral ambiguities that are mastered by this talented woman. She takes Happy Talk into a troubling lament, discovering hidden depths to the song.

Likewise Houchen masters Younger Than Springtime and the cautionary duet of You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught - itself another number that resonates alarmingly with the present day.

Production values are magnificent throughout with Evans and designer Peter McKintosh making fine use of Chichester's massive revolve. Ann Yee’s dance routines, including some inspiring solo balletic routines from Sera Maehara’s Liat are just divine, while high above the stage Cat Beveridge’s luxuriously furnished 16-piece band makes fine work of David Cullen’s new orchestrations of Rodgers’ classic score.

Some enchanted evening? Not ‘arf!


Runs until 5th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Starting Here, Starting Now - Review

Waterloo East Theatre, London


***


Music by David Shire
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr
Directed by Gerald Armin


Gina Murray, Noel Sullivan and Nikki Bentley


As London’s fringe theatre emerges from lockdown into the current limbo-world of partial freedoms, any venue summoning up the cojones to put a show deserves praise and recognition. That they can muster a stunning array of onstage talent such as can be found at Waterloo East right now, only adds to the occasion.

So it is with the cast of Starting Here, Starting Now, a one-act, 80 minute three hander that stars Gina Murray, Nikki Bentley and Noel Sullivan and sees all three actors deliver five-star turns that take their vocal and acting skills to the limit, with even a smattering of carefully choreographed movement too. The trio offer up a cracking display of West End excellence. It is only a shame that the producers failed to deliver neither programme nor song-list for the evening - and thus individuals cannot easily be credited for their own moments of particular excellence. Accompanying the talented trio, Inga Davis-Rutter puts in a non-stop shift of flawless delight at her keyboard.

The flaw however is this vintage revue’s material, a self-indulgent arc of a song cycle that only offers up an occasionally perceptive snipe at our modern world. Maltby Jr. is no Sondheim and it shows.  Too many songs and not enough narrative make for an 80-minute haul that seems to drag far longer than the performers deserve.

That being said, for those who have longed for months to hear a cast of the country’s finest sing their hearts out in an array of perfectly weighted pathos and spine-tingling belts, then the evening offers enthralling entertainment.


Runs until July 18th
Photo credit: Gareth McCleod

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Hairspray - Review

London Coliseum, London


*****


Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Directed by Jack O'Brien


Lizzie Bea, Michael Ball and Les Dennis



A cast comprising both stalwarts and debutantes of the West End make Jack O’Brien’s revival of his original take on Hairspray a must-see for anyone who has craved musical theatre during lockdown’s cultural drought.

Hairspray is of course all about the power of well-integrated diversity, where life’s typical outsiders become the heroes and the bigots are the baddies. In a socially distanced London Coliseum, where the covid-compliant capacity has been shrunk from 3,000 to 1,000 it was Michael Ball who summed up the audience’s roars of rapture, by saying at the curtain-call that they had cheered like 10,000, such was the throng’s pent-up passion.

Making her West End debut – albeit with a string of regional work to her credit – Lizzie Bea  leads with a stunning Tracy Turnblad. From the moment she bursts from her vertically transposed bed, straight into Good Morning Baltimore, Bea sets the evening’s pulsating tone. Confident and charismatic, Bea wins her audience and without ever resorting to kitsch or mawkishness, she masterfully enacts Tracy’s story, winning love and empathy as she hurtles towards the show’s sublimely happy ending.

Opposite Tracy is of course her domineering mother Edna and yet again for a London Hairspray, it is Michael Ball who returns to the padded suit to reprise what must surely (after Les Miserables’ Marius) be his second signature role. The years have seen Ball age disgracefully into his Edna with him proving all the more delectably monstrous for it too. The show’s eye-wateringly brilliant comedy highlight remains Ball and Les Dennis (as hapless hubby Wilbur) duetting (You’re) Timeless To Me. The song demands perfection in its timing and nuance for its shtick to work – with the seasoned professionalism of Ball and Dennis providing a masterclass in hilarity.

The always excellent Marisha Wallace delivers a magnificent Motormouth, with a performance that both rouses and enraptures the Coliseum’s crowd. Her take on the show’s eleven o’clock number I Know Where I’ve Been sending the audience into a spontaneous standing ovation, such was her power of performance and emotion.

Rita Simons brings her 2-dimensisional character of arch-baddie Velma Von Tussle into wonderfully comic relief, while squaring the circle of the show’s key love arc, Jonny Amies (another West End newbie) offers an assuredly chiselled performance as TV show host Link Larkin.

O’Brien and his choreographer Jerry Mitchell, know Hairspray intimately and yet they still infuse a freshness and vitality into the production that makes it as relevant a comment for today as for its original target of 1960s civil rights torn Baltimore.

Outstanding musical theatre!


Runs until 29th September
Photo credit: Tristan Kenton

Saturday, 26 June 2021

A Cold Supper Behind Harrods - Review

****


Written by David Morley
Directed by Philip Franks




With a live performance staged at the Oxford Playhouse by the Original Theatre Company in association with Perfectly Normal Productions and screened for one night only, A Cold Supper Behind Harrods, was originally broadcast as a radio play in 2012. Fast forward nine years and the play has now been staged. streaming until September, with the original leads of Stephanie Cole, David Jason and Anton Lesser returning to their roles.

David Morley’s complex storyline, sees the three principals as SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents meeting up again some fifty years after the World War Two to be interviewed for a television documentary investigating the wartime murder by the Gestapo of their late female and much-loved colleague.

Initial pleasantries between the three-give way to more disturbing issues as a web of lies and deceptions emerges, leading at last to the real truth.  Inspired by real life characters and events, it makes for gripping entertainment, made even better by an outstanding cast and Adrian Linford’s deceptively simple set.

The venerable David Jason is agent John Harrison, proving once again that age is no barrier when it comes to sheer brilliance. As Harrison crumbles beneath the weight of knowledge revealed, Jason is utterly believable.

As the female agent Vera, Stephanie Cole is at her irascible best, her roguish smile shining through at odd moments, while Anton Lesser projects a cool calm that later erupts into menace.

Adhering to Morley’s original script, which was inspired by the playwright’s meeting with two WWII veterans, the story is fictional, with love, revenge and feelings of guilt at its core.   

Finely written and superbly performed, this is a play that will pull you in from start to finish.



Streaming until 22nd September 2021 via this link 

Reviewed by Barbara Michaels

Monday, 15 March 2021

Nemesis - Review

****


Screenplay by Adam Stephen Kelly
Story by Jonathan Sothcott and Adam Stephen Kelly
Directed by James Crow



Billy Murray


Nemesis is the latest offering from producer Jonathan Sothcott. Evidencing his canny eye for today’s zeitgeist, Sothcott’s picture delivers 90 minutes of unpretentious, thinly-plotted movie brilliance that’s guaranteed to cheer-up a locked down evening!

Character hardman Billy Murray, he of The Bill and EastEnders fame but with a string of cockney credits in TV and film stretching back to the 1960s, is London gangster John Morgan, recently exiled to Turkey. Flying in from his sun-drenched villa accompanied by moll/wife Sadie (ably performed by Sothcott’s real-life missus, Jeanine Nerissa), Morgan’s trip to London is ostensibly for he and Sadie to be introduced to Zoe (played by Lucy Aarden), the girlfriend of their daughter Kate (newcomer Ambra Moore). Of course as the plot spins out one learns that there is much more to this long-term villain, together with his nearest and dearest, than meets the eye.

Sothcott has assembled a cracking cast to flesh out his story’s deliciously two-dimensional characters, with family vengeances proving to be a recurrent theme. Nick Moran plays second-generation copper Frank Conway, an alcoholic who blames Morgan for his father’s death. And giving what turns out to be a very brutal twist on sibling rivalry, Frank Harper puts in a grisly performance as Morgan’s brother Richard, transforming a family get together around the dinner table into a charnel house of slaughter that would make Titus Andronicus blush. James Crow deftly directs and with a hint of 21st century noir thrown in, the story makes for a ripping (literally at times) yarn.  

Some of Nemesis' photography captures London in those heady pre-pandemic days (was it barely a year ago?) when the city’s streets teemed with activity, double-decker buses bustled and London was just, well, London. One can only pray for those days to return….

Until then, Nemesis will have to remain a home-viewed thrill. And with pop up cameos from the venerable and always classy Julian Glover, together with the Capital’s original Flying Eye Russ Kane, what’s not to love about this blood-drenched treat of a movie.


Available on DVD and digital download from 29th March