Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Handel's Messiah The Live Experience - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London


The production's dancers, orchestra, choir and projection

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. 

Or to be specific Gregory Batsleer the Artistic Director of Classical Everywhere and conductor of tonight’s Messiah is a very naughty boy. He has taken Handel’s work, a piece of exquisite beauty that to be fair is performed by his musicians to a fabulous standard and wrapped it in the mediocrity of migraine-inducing projections and pretentious dance and poetic add-ones.

The English Chamber Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus, together with the evening’s four soloists are all magnificent and beyond criticism. However, in a ridiculously self-indulgent programme note, Batsleer takes it upon himself to make classical music respond “to the times in which we live”. If this production is an interpretation of making music respond to the present day then Batsleer needs to take a long hard look at himself.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane may be a work of architectural magnificence, and after Andrew Lloyd-Webbers magnificent refurbishment, a comfortable venue too, but its acoustics do not lend themselves to major choral presentations. And quite why Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill were rolled out, complete with Mad Max costumes, to spout obscure blank verse that they hadn’t even been able to memorise (unlike the magnificent soloists) is a modern Mystery tale,

And then there was Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography, funnelled into a narrow gap between the on-stage orchestra and Drury Lane’s pit. The movement was clearly precisely rehearsed and delivered by talented dancers, but it bore no apparent relevance to Messiah and together with the ghastly projections, served not to complement but to distract from Handel’s genius.

The evening’s musical money-shot was duly delivered with aplomb, as half of the audience rose (almost akin to a pantomime singalong slot) as the other half scratched their heads in bewilderment, to salute the famed Hallelujah Chorus.

This production sees one of the canon’s most magnificent works reduced to a pound-shop opera. A Christmas turkey.

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Ennio Morricone - The Official Concert Celebration - Review

O2, London


Conducted by Andrea Morricone
Curated by Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone

It is rare that London’s massive O2 Arena hosts an evening of intimacy. But so it was last month when The Official Concert Celebration of the work of Ennio Morricone played for one night to a full house. For this writer, the evening held a particular poignancy as in 2019 I had interviewed the legendary composer at his home in Rome. Under the baton of Morricone’s son Andrea, a selection of extracts from just a few of the 500+ scores that the Maestro had penned were played by the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra, the programme having been largely devised and curated by Morricone himself prior to his sad passing in July 2020.

The evening’s intimacy came via a number of channels: Firstly, the music itself, with Andrea offering a profound and flawless understanding of his father’s work. A composer himself, it was clear as the various soundtracks filled the evening, that Andrea was immersed in his father’s music. 

Andrea Morricone

Secondly – the clips of the movies that were screened above the orchestra. For those familiar with Morricone’s work, it is always a special joy to revisit an old favourite. Films are cultural milestones, each locked into the] era of its individual release, ageless and frozen in time while we the audience journey through our mortality. And so whether one watched the extract from Quentin Tarantino’s relatively recent Oscar winner The Hateful Eight, or the far more mature extracts taken from Sergio Leone’s filmography, each and every clip will have triggered unique and personal memories and recollections across the audience.

The third aspect of intimacy came from the filmed contributions that were played between the pieces. Ranging from some revealing, and at times self-deprecating reflections from Morricone himself, through to contributions from some of the great directors who are still alive for whom he composed. The comments made were warm, respectful and so deeply full of love and admiration for a man whose career spanned 60 years. Guiseppe Tornatore, Tarantino and Roland Joffe all spoke with a revered insight into Morricone’s style and flair. But it was probably Jeremy Irons, one of the stars of Joffe’s The Mission, who spoke most frankly when describing Morricone’s scores as having an  uplifting effect on the underlying movies, that rank alongside Shakespeare for their place in the pantheon of great art.

And then, of course, there was the evening’s programme. Opening with extracts from The Untouchables, one was immediately reminded of Morricone’s genius in writing exquisite melodies that could accompany the most brutal on-screen violence. Robert De Niro in a starring role segued from The Untouchables to Once Upon A Time In America, where Deborah’s Theme and the Main Theme played to a powerful string of clips from the movie. Up next was The Legend Of 1900, the first of the evening’s nods to director Tornatore.

An interview extract with the Maestro saw him speaking of his structural approach to composition, that musically links scores as diverse as The Sicilian Clan and Metti Una Sera A Cena, the former featuring some delicious solo work on bass guitar from Nanni Civitenga.

Nanni Civitenga

The work of Sergio Leone returned in the lead up to the interval with a fascinating filmed explanation from Ennio Morricone of his simple use of three notes for the harmonica, which naturally led into Harmonica from Once Upon A Time In The West, mournfully and beautifully delivered by Daan Wilms on solo harmonica. That movie, together with The Good,The Bad and The Ugly teased the audience in the run up to the interval, with the stunningly heartbreaking soprano Vittoriana De Amicis taking the stage for Jills Theme, before wrapping up the first half with a truly ecstatic Ecstasy Of Gold.

Vittoriana De Amicis

The orchestra returned to play Andrea Morricone’s tribute to his dad, Theme For Ennio, which with a prerecorded Hauser on cello was a magnificent tribute to his father’s work. Then a few filmed words from Tarantino and we were straight into The Last Stagecoach To Red Rock from The Hateful Eight, a piece of music almost symphonic in its length and beauty. They truly don’t write ‘em like that any more!

What was particularly touching about the film clips played while this tune played out, was the inclusion of film of the Maestro himself conducting the score at London’s Abbey Road studios. To see him on screen, baton in hand, was as if he had never died. 

Leandro Picconi with Hauser on screen

Cinema Paradiso – where the film’s touching Love Theme had been penned by Andrea – and Chi Mai were up next, with the latter holding a special place in British hearts from back in the day when the BBC made good drama and in 1981 bought the tune (originally penned for Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie Maddalena) as the theme for The Life And Times Of David Lloyd George, where it then went on to reach No.2 on the UK Singles Chart.

There are other soloists who demand a mention for their contribution to the evening. Leader of the strings Anna Buevich was outstanding throughout, particularly in her solo work during The Working Class Goes To Heaven. Leandro Piccioni on piano, Rocco Ziffarelli was magnificent on guitar, while Massimo D’Agostino was a tour-de force of energy on drums. A nod too to the tour’s choir conductor Stefano Cucci who for this London gig was conducting the Crouch End Festival Chorus, a local ensemble who have first-class form in providing the Maestro’s vocal backing.

Rocco Ziffarelli

A filmed interview with Roland Joffe signalled that The Mission was up next, with yet another appearance from De Niro above the orchestra. Gabriel’s Oboe was as exquisite as ever, with The Falls and then On Earth As It Is In Heaven tingling spines across the arena.

The enchanting Miss De Amicis returned for a cracking encore of the Ecstasy Of Gold and as the crowd called out for more, Andrea lifted his baton for the final time, to reprise On Earth As It Is In Heaven, only this time played as a montage of the Maestro, from baby to nonagenarian, filled the screen. Rarely has a piece of music been so aptly titled for the moment, as throughout the O2 tears were shed at the beauty and the genius of the music of Ennio Morricone.

Photo credit: Hanout Photography

12:37 - Review

 Finborough Theatre, London


Written and directed by Julia Pascal

The cast of 12:37

Julia Pascal’s 12:37 is a multi-layered exploration of nationalism in the mid 20th century, that follows Paul and Cecil Green, two Irish-Jewish brothers, from 1935 Dublin through to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, via a 1936 encounter with London’s fascism.

Pascal’s research is detailed, spotlighting a hatred of the Jews on both sides of the Irish Sea that prompts the brothers, via separate circuitous routes to find themselves in Palestine under the British Mandate.  Paul (Alex Cartuson) is lean and fit, a boxer in his youth, who works his way into the nascent army fighting for the establishment of the Jewish state and ultimately into being part of the terrorist gang who, at 12:37 on 22nd July 1946, bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, a key base for the British Forces. That devastating action that was to prove influential in the UK’s withdrawal from Palestine and the subsequent creation of Israel. Cecil (Eoin O’Dubhghaill), less of a fighter than his brother and a kinder soul with a beautiful voice, finds his own journey to the Holy Land via ENSA, the British military’s entertainments division.

Perhaps the most intriguing character in Pascal’s play is the young Rina Goldberg (Lisa O’Connor) who we first encounter in London as a firebrand communist raising funds for Moscow’s Yiddish Theatre, and who by 1946 has survived the Holocaust, experiencing horrendous sexual violence having been moved around between concentration camps by the Nazis. The love triangle that Pascal creates between Rina and the brothers may lack credibility, but O’Connor’s interpretation of Rina’s horrific journey is a masterclass of powerful understatement.

The quintet of actors is completed by Ruth Lass and Danann McAleer and across the two hours of the drama all five put in outstanding and compelling performances, with Pascal’s direction making ingenious use of the production’s evidently modest budget and the Finborough’s compact space. An observation on the casting (albeit a company of excellent performers, doing their job superbly) is that the producers appear to have put more effort into ensuring the ethnic authenticity of actors playing most of the Irish characters, than they have as regards those playing the Jewish characters.

Dr Pascal is at her best in her slow, harrowing reveal of Rina’s story and equally talented in the bold technical construction of her play. Politically however she loses objectivity, her writing suggesting that she is uncomfortable with the concept of national identity per se. That this production’s printed programme/playtext itself ignores the time and location of the play’s final scene, set in 1948 in the newly-formed Israeli state, speaks volumes.

Runs until 21st December

Friday, 2 December 2022

Mother Goose - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written by Will Brenton
Directed by Clive Rowe

Clive Rowe

Hackney Empire is celebrating its 120 year anniversary with Mother Goose, an absolute cracker of a festive pantomime. Hackney’s (never hackneyed) perennial Dame, Clive Rowe returns in the title role (and in the director’s chair too) and he has never been better on this stage.

Set in Hackneywood, a parody on Tinseltown, the storyline is a simple fable of love and humanity being worth more than fame and money, with an appropriately 21st century morality pitch that shows up the shallow selfie-seeking values of the mobile phone age. There’s goodies and baddies, slapstick, perfectly pitched comedy and a slickly choreographed company, all contributing to an evening of glorious entertainment.

Kat B (another Hackney regular) is great in the comedy role of Mother Goose’s son Billy, Tony Marshall is fun as a hapless landlord (the chocolate bar routine between those two is one of the night’s comic highlights), while Rebecca Parker as the Demon Queen is as evil a villain as you could hope to boo at.

In this special 120th year there’s also a fine tribute to the history of the Frank Matcham venue, with a 5-minute whirl in the second act that pays a nod to some of the greats who’ve graced that stage - from Marie Lloyd and Harry Houdini through to Morecambe and Wise and Louis Armstrong.  

But the evening of course belongs to Rowe, whose years of panto experience allow him to direct the show brilliantly. His stand-up and put-down work is perfectly timed, a hallmark of his consummate professionalism. Rowe’s costumes are gorgeous (credit to Cleo Pettitt) and as for his voice, when Clive Rowe gets his chops around Ain’t No Stopping Us Now and later on, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, one is reminded quite what a star of musical theatre he is.

The sets by Imagine Theatre are colourful and lavish the five piece band under Renell Shaw are equally wonderful. Steeped in and proud of its local community, Hackney Empire’s family pantomime does not get better than this!

Runs until 31st December

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Spectre In Concert - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Composed by Thomas Newman
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele
Directed by Sam Mendes

At the Royal Albert Hall and conducted by the gifted Anthony Gabriele, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed the world premiere of Thomas Newman’s 2015 score for the James Bond film Spectre, played live and synchronised to a screening of the movie.

Composed by Newman alongside filming, the score is both inspired by and honours many of the film’s locations. Memorably, the opening sequence set in full swing at a Day Of The Dead festival alongside local bands in Z√≥calo Square in central Mexico City, gives the orchestra and in particular the percussion section, full opportunity to embrace the vibe of the occasion.

The titles play to Sam Smith's ballad The Writing's On The Wall, with its dramatic strings content deliciously echoing Monty Norman.  For lovers of the famous franchise, Newman’s work incorporates those familiar, almost expected Bond-sounds and the orchestra deliver magnificently. The powerful accompaniment of the musicians provides added excitement, a supercharged experience in the form of waves of pleasure, aesthetic chills almost, from the musical vibrations generated in the acoustically perfect auditorium. Under Maestro Gabriele’s seasoned baton, the orchestra add another nuanced layer to the viewing experience.

The afternoon closed with the familiar Jazzy big band sound of Norman’s original "James Bond Theme".  One could feel the audience relax into their seats, succumbing to that timeless leitmotif, the applause and standing ovation only defining their appreciation and fondness for this classic music, wonderfully and flawlessly performed.

Reviewed by Lucy Bex

Friday, 11 November 2022

My Fair Lady - Review

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff


Music by Frederick Loewe
Lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner
Directed by Bartlett Sher

Charlotte Kennedy and company

It is rare that a West End production improves on the road, but so it is with Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady, touring the UK and Ireland after a short summer residency at London’s Coliseum.

The show, now with Michael Xavier and Charlotte Kennedy playing Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, is a sensational take on the Broadway classic. The two leads fizz with a chemistry that fills the Millenium Centre, their complicated relationship evolving before our eyes. Michael Xavier is one of the country’s finest leading men of his generation and, aside from his top-notch vocal delivery he cracks the complex emotional dysfunctionality of Lerner and Loewe’s Professor.

Kennedy’s Eliza however is the show’s revelation. Not just in her stunning vocal presence, but in how she inhabits every song. Her transformation from cockney Covent Garden flower-girl to powerfully spoken young woman is mesmerising.  Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and I Could Have Danced All Night are long recognised as Eliza’s highlights – here however, not just smashing those all time favourites out of the park, Kennedy grasps the second act cracker of Show Me, transforming it into a fusion of rage, frustration and passion rarely seen on stage. Kennedy’s elegance and presence is equally astonishing, with her entrance just before the interval bejewelled and ballgowned (take a bow costume designer Catherine Zuber) ready for the Embassy Ball, proving literally breathtaking. There is more than a hint of Audrey Hepburn to this Eliza.

Adam Woodyatt makes the delightful transition from Albert Square to Lisson Grove as he takes on the role of Alfred P. Doolittle. Albeit a supporting role, Eliza’s father is a larger than life caricature of London’s working class and it takes a performer of massive character to play the role to its full, with Woodyatt a delight in both voice and persona. John Middleton’s Colonel Pickering makes for a faultless foil to Higgins, while Annie Wensack, stepping up to cover the part of Mrs Pearce on the night of this review is another treat. Tom Liggins as Freddie Eynsford-Hill gives an excellent performance of On The Street Where You Live that only adds to the evening’s delights.

The set design is ingenious, with Michael Yeargan’s scenery working well for a touring production. Londoners – who are often spoilt for cultural choice – have missed out on a local chance to catch this cast. Now touring the regions until April next year, Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady is, at last, unmissable musical theatre.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

From Here To Eternity - Review

Charing Cross Theatre, London


Music by Stuart Brayson
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes
Based on the novel by James Jones

Jonathon Bentley and Desmonda Cathabel

This autumn is all about musical theatre based on movies that featured Burt Lancaster on a beach. Last month it was Local Hero at Chichester and now From Here To Eternity returns to London’s Charing Cross Theatre for a short residency in the run-up to Christmas.

This production marks the first UK revival of the Tim Rice and Stuart Brayson show, drawn from the classic film and set on Hawaii in the two weeks leading up to the Japanese attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The power of the story derives from the pressure cookers of passion building up on the island – love, cuckoldry and honour are all at play here – that are to be swamped by the tsunami of death and destruction that rained down upon the island on December 7th.

Brett Smock directs a literally well-drilled company that offers another glimpse of London’s musical theatre fringe at its finest. Jonathon Bentley is the principled Private Prewitt, a gifted boxer who’s hanging up of his gloves and who irks his company Captain, the misogynist Holmes (Alan Turkington). The Captain’s wife Karen (Carley Stenson) finds love in the arms of company Sergeant Warden (Adam Rhys-Charles) as Prewitt falls for local prostitute Lorene (Desmonda Cathabel).

The whole affair makes for a well observed tale of humanity, sung beautifully by the aforementioned leads. In equally fine support are Eve Polycarpou as brothel-keeper Mrs Kipfer and Johnny Amies as troubled soldier Maggio.

Tim Rice’s lyrics are as ever astute takes on life. Witty and perceptive, Rice teases out the characters’ strengths and weaknesses, with The Boys Of ’41, sung as the attack on Pearl Harbour is in full spate, proving a devastating summary of war’s brutality – marred only by the unfortunate, almost invisibility, of the show’s three women who deliver it.

Nick Barstow’s arrangement and direction of his 5-piece band is classy as are Louise Rhoades-Brown’s projections, effectively capturing Karen and Warden’s passionate clinches in the Pacific surf. Equally Adam King’s lighting and Stewart J Charlesworth’s set, make good use of the theatre’s compact space to create Hawaii’s various scenescapes. Cressida Carre's choreography and Renny Krupinski's fight direction (there's a lot of fighting!) are top notch too.

Beautifully performed, From Here To Eternity makes for a tragically gorgeous evening.

Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


For one night only and under the baton of Simon Dobson, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. In some ways any orchestral performance of Oldfield’s groundbreaking album will always be ersatz, as back in the 1970s it was the composer himself who played every instrument in the work layering the recording together over weeks, track by track. When one considers that this was in pre-digital times, with Oldfield only having access to multi-track analogue recording equipment, this makes his original album all the more remarkable. Dobson however is a gifted musician with an intimate understanding of Oldfield’s work. His arrangements of the two Tubular Bells pieces, together with a collection of Oldfield’s other lesser-known recordings, make for an evening of fine music.

The concert initially comprises the first parts of both the Ommadawn and the Hergest Ridge albums with the music and perfectly hazed lighting plots creating an atmosphere of wonderfully mellifluous melody. Moonlight Shadow, Oldfield’s chart-topping single concludes the pre-interval proceedings with Ella Shaw powerfully delivering the vocal honours.

The second half kicks off with the hallmark opening bars of Tubular Bells, the 15/8 time melody that was to define not only The Exorcist's score but also lay the foundations of Richard Branson’s Virgin Records fortune. The RPCO are augmented by featured soloists throughout the performance, with Pete Callard’s Lead Guitar work particularly stunning through many of Tubular Bells’ challenging riffs.

Tubular Bells of course requires a charismatic Master of Ceremonies. Oldfield’s original MC, Vivian Stanshall set the bar high (it was Stanshall’s distinct pronunciation of “tubular bells” that prompted Oldfield to name the album thus) and there are few finer voices than that of Brian Blessed to provide the wry bombast that the role demands. Proud of his 86 years, Blessed bestrides the stage like a colossus through Part One of Tubular Bells, with his Caveman in  Part Two proving an equal delight.

If there is one criticism of the gig it is of the video projections that are (sometimes dimly) shone onto a screen above the orchestra. Ranging in style from what looks like a Lloyds Bank black horse advert through to what could be a Microsoft screensaver based on the Tubular Bells 50 logo, the imagery is tacky. The Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s grandest venues and while the players magnificently fill the space with their music, the video work proves to be an uninspiring detraction, dwarfed by the hall’s imposing grandeur. If projections are to be used going forward they should be grander and LED based or not used at all. A waggish suggestion, overheard on leaving the venue, was that maybe scenes from The Exorcist could be shown!
The whole affair is wrapped up with Dobson’s energetic arrangement of the Hornpipe – sending the audience out into an autumnal Kensington with feet tapping, hands clapping and grinning at the evening's wave of nostalgia that has flooded over them.

Friday, 28 October 2022

Goodbye Easy Street - Review

Vout-O-Reenee's, London


Lyrics and book by Julie Burchill
Music by Robin Watt
Additional dialogue and lyrics by Jim Owen and Daniel Raven

Goodbye Easy Street, Julie Burchill’s new musical, made its debut in the capital at the intimate Vout O Renee’s club on the fringes of the City of London. Burchill’s first iteration of the show, Hard Times On Easy Street had played in Brighton earlier this year. Since then she has taken a sharp pencil to her prose and the result is a slicker, tighter, wittier show.

Featuring a cast of just two, Deborah Kearne and Temisis Conway return as Elle and Anna, two former nightclub singers now the resident turns on a cruise liner. Both in love with each other, the younger bisexual Anna is taking the cruise gig to escape her unrequited love for gay club manager Otto. The worldy-wise Elle has a far more sanguine view of the world. Together however, the pair’s relationship is passionate, credible and fuelled by sharply-tongued banter

In stripping her original show down to the two women only, Burchill’s scripting scalpel re-arranges her earlier love triangle into a far more plausible parallelogram. The interval has been ditched too with the whole piece coming in at just under the hour. Best of all, away from the original over-complicated structure, this simple little love story allows Burchill’s wit to take flight. She’s a gifted writer and her lyrics and dialogue sizzle with sexual frisson and just a hint of political edginess too.

Early on in the show Conway stuns with the numbers Lazy Kind Of Love and Incorrigible You, with Kearne soaring in Speculate To Accumulate. There is a hint of Gershwin in Conway’s There For You, while the pair’s endgame duet of Let’s Be Selfish /Self Care sparkles in its wit and rhythm.

Burchill’s amassed years of premier league writing are on display throughout the piece – her understanding of sex and relationships is blistering, making her points through the most economic use of English. Elle speaks of having had her past love life “fringed by crime tape” – a fabulous metaphor!

Burchill’s Woke-sceptic and staunchly feminist take on the world blaze through this show that demands a bigger audience.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Local Hero - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


Music & Lyrics by Mark Knopfler
Book by David Greig
Based on the Bill Forsyth film

Hilton McRae

The twentieth century gave us few finer rock musicians than Mark Knopfler, whose talent both as a writer and guitarist place him as one of the UK's greats. In 1983 Knopfler wrote the score for Bill Forsyth’s BAFTA-winning film Local Hero and he has now now taken those themes penned some fourty years ago, weaving them into a musical based upon the movie.

Local Hero is a whimsical tale of humanity and the cosmos set amidst the Scottish Highlands. Offshore oil was big business for Scotland in the 70s and 80s and Forsyth’s story focussed on a Houston based oil corporation sending out Mac, a high-powered executive, to acquire the coastal village of Ferness together with its beach for the purposes of constructing a refinery. Mac arrives amongst the canny villagers who are quick to sense the fortune that may be coming their way, and in an era that long pre-dated the internet or even mobile phones, one of the story’s most cosily comforting images is the village's old red telephone box on the beach that proves Mac’s only way of privately communicating with his USA Head Office. Of course the plans do not proceed as anticipated – love, charm and a respect for nature and the stars combine to chart a course that leads to an unexpected but decisively happy and inspiring ending.

Broadway's Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert makes his UK debut in the role of Mac. His is a performance of charm and assured voice, completely believable as the Texan city-slicker who falls for the beauty of Ferness' remote idyll. Opposite Mac is Paul Higgins as Gordon, the village’s pub-landlord cum accountant cum lawyer, who is appointed to negotiate with the oilman and strike the best deal possible. The musical’s triangular love interest comes from Lillie Flynn’s Stella who forges an emotional connection with both men. Arguably stealing the show however is Hilton McRae’s beachcomber Ben, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the stars in the Scottish skies serves to bring together the narrative’s various strands.

Daniel Evans directs a sensitive ensemble piece from his company which is only enhanced by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design that ingeniously transforms into a sandy, pebble-strewn beach. Ash J Woodward offers up video projections that strive to create the aurora borealis in deepest West Sussex – an effect that relies heavily upon the audience’s ability to imagine the Northern Lights.  

The production's star of course is unquestionably Mark Knopfler’s rich score. His original movie soundtrack offered up a raft of melodies, most of which have been fused into the stage show and it is a mark of the man’s talent that he has been able to create so many songs from these gaelic and celtic themes. The music is powerful, stirring and fresh, containing a heady mix of beautiful balladry and rousing numbers written for guitars and violin. That musical director Richard John’s seven piece band contains no less than three guitarists speaks to Knopfler’s love affair with strings.

This is a show built around Knopfler’s love for Local Hero, itself one of the finest British movies. It makes for an evening of charming, gorgeous theatre.

Runs until 19th November
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 14 October 2022

Good - Review

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Written by C.P.Taylor
Directed by Dominic Cooke

David Tennant

The moral narrative that underlies Good is as sound as its title. David Tennant drives the piece as Halder, CP Taylor’s German gentile protagonist, an academic, who we see from 1933 through to 1941 being slowly seduced by and drawn into the Nazi machine.

Tennant’s performance is outstanding and the glimpses of ordinary mundanity that he offers, as at first he disbelieves and then ultimately succumbs to Hitler’s horrific ideology are fine acting. Taylor’s writing however vacillates between the discombobulating psychodrama of the first act, and a second half that sensationalises horror over dramatic structure  As Halder implausibly shins the greasy pole of the Nazi machine, over the course of an hour or so Taylor takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the Holocaust that starts with book-burning, moves on to Kristallnacht and ends with a grim finality at Auschwitz. Taylor even includes some conversations between Halder and Adolf Eichmann, just in case the audience hadn’t got the message.

The noble strength of the play is its argument that all it took in Germany was for “good” people to essentially enable Hitler’s horrors and allow the fomenting of antisemitism along with a euthanising contempt for the elderly and infirm.

The flaws of the play – or possibly this specific production – are the bewildering multi-roles foisted upon Tennant’s two fellow actors Elliot Levey and Sharon Small. Levey (himself only recently out of the excellent Cabaret that charts subtly yet brilliantly the Nazis’ rise to power) plays Maurice, Halder’s Jewish doctor friend. There is sound work from Levey, but there was little on-stage credible chemistry of friendship between the pair. And whenever a strand of consistency was developed, it was instantly shattered as the penny-pinching producers swapped Levey into yet another role.

Equally Small, who has to tackle the triumvirate of Halder’s mother, wife and lover as well as a senior male official in the SS fails to suspend our disbelief with so many confusing facets to her onstage work. When late in the second half, and in the role of Halder’s lover, she complements Halder on looking so handsome in his SS uniform, the line is as expected as it is cliched.

Fans of David Tennant will not be disappointed. 

Runs until 24th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

The Crucible - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Erin Doherty and cast of The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible was penned in 1953 as an allegory to Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s work is horrifically exquisite as his drama meticulously dissects the history of the Salem witch-hunts of the late seventeenth century. This stain on the history of the pre-United States saw a toxic confluence of church and government in which the word of children, accusing their elders of witchcraft, grew into an almost unstoppable untruth in the communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Based on these allegations of sorcery, 19 adults were hanged, countless others imprisoned and it was not until some 20 years later that government compensation was awarded to the families of those executed or convicted. 

Miller proves himself to be not just a historian, but as this website has long recognised, a dramatist whose understanding of the human condition is virtually unmatched. Much like Shakespeare, he can offer an analysis of events that may well be hundreds of years old and give them a context that is not just timeless, but timely and chillingly relevant.

Lyndsey Turner directs a show that presents the subsidised National Theatre at its very best, with lavish production values. This is what Arts Council money should be spent on: brilliant (albeit vintage) writing; imaginative stagecraft and a luxuriously massive cast list.  Entering the auditorium Es Devlin’s stark, striking staging sets the scene with the Olivier’s magnificent thrust boxed in on three sides by a curtain of cascading water and for the thousand or so souls in the audience, there will be at least a thousand different interpretations as to what this deluge of a mise-en-scene suggests. My take on this shower-curtain is to see it as the most transient of barriers between us and history. It appears tangible but is in an instant, permeable – a powerful suggestion that there is in fact no difference between a terrible history and the world of today.

Brendan Cowell leads as John Proctor, a noble yet flawed citizen who resists the accusations of the children, calling it out for what it is. Proctor is a striking character, saintly in his principles and courage yet profoundly and fallibly human too. The detailed, complex crafting of his relationship with wife Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh) defines Miller’s writing genius.

Another gem of characterization is in Karl Johnson’s take on the curmudgeonly, upright, elderly Giles Corey, with Johnson winning our love for the defiance he displays in the face of the madness enveloping his community. Erin Doherty plays the young Abigail Williams, her excellent performance reminding us that evil actually lies not in the Devil, but in mankind. 

There isn’t a weak link in the entire cast. Rachelle Diedericks as Mary Warren has us rooting for her as she strives to swim against the tide of her peers. Nick Fletcher’s Reverend Parris defines the odious hypocrisy so often found in the clergy while Matthew Marsh as Deputy Governor Danforth, effectively the supreme head of the local judiciary is equally, marvellously, malignant in his role. Credit too to the remarkable Nathan Amzi who, in an understudy step-up so last minute that the National Theatre (disgracefully) failed to inform the audience of the cast change, played Reverend Hale so well that it was not until studying the programme later that one realised that there had been a cast change. Hale is a complex character, starting off as a “bad-guy” inquisitor who goes on to find redemption in the second act and Amzi commands our sympathies throughout.

Paul Arditti’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s ingenious lighting plots combine to make the sensory experience of the evening nothing less than immaculate.

Many of today’s writers would do well to study Miller’s work. There is not a sloppy sentence to be found in the text and amidst much modern mediocrity, it is a breath of cold, sobering air to be presented with such genius. McCarthyism and its accompanying mob-terror may have inspired Miller, but it is a tragedy of our times that his words are so relevant in today's era of polarising culture wars and internet-fuelled cancel culture. Much as it took immense moral courage for John Proctor to face his own destiny, so too can we see modern-day heroes bravely weathering the slings and arrows of outraged, vile opposition. 

The Crucible is unmissable theatre for everyone. 

Runs until 5th November and screening live via NT Live on Thursday 26 January2023
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday, 7 October 2022

Noises Off - Review

Richmond Theatre, London


Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Felicity Kendal, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Matthew Kelly

Every now and then the planets align to create a production of sheer theatrical genius. So it is with Lindsay Posner’s touring take on Noises Off, currently playing at the Richmond Theatre.

Firstly, the script. Michael Frayn’s farce, penned 40 years ago, is a work of meticulous accuracy as it lays down gags, plots, sub-plots and nuance as we follow a touring theatre company rehearsing and performing the play-within-a-play Nothing On, around which the narrative plays out. Without ever resorting to corniness, Frayn mines the traditional farcical components of slamming doors, trousers around ankles and plot-lines of delicious sauciness. But its not just that Frayn’s text make us laugh, it is that he also offers a witty and at times poignant critique of the human condition – from the frailty of ageing through to alcohol addiction. No word of the script is wasted in the show’s three acts that treat the audience to whirlwind tours backstage and front of house as the plot’s calamitous events unfold.

Next up, the direction. Lindsay Posner has a visionary talent who understands the structure of each of the shows countless laughlines. Posner has form with the play, having directed the Old Vic production in 2011 and it shows. This production is slick, seamless and lifts the audience with its brilliance.

Finally, the cast, and Posner has been gifted a platinum-plated company to work with. The show’s seven key roles (the six characters of Nothing On together with that show’s director) include some of the nation’s finest comic pedigree - and in Noises Off there is no real star. The play only stands on the strengths of its company working as a team, and this team is strong. Felicity Kendal, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Matthew Kelly, Alexander Hanson, Joseph Millson, Jonathan Coy and Sasha Frost are all sublime in their roles that span a raft of characters aged from 70-something through to a glamourous starlet in her 20s. Their timing is honed to split-second accuracy and it is a credit to both actors and director that the show’s physical comedy, that in lesser hands could just be a ridiculous and clumsy distraction, is here delivered to side-splitting perfection. Pepter Lunkuse and Hubert Burton complete the cast list as the stage management team of Nothing On and though less accomplished than the show’s bigger beasts, are equally faultless in their work.

After Richmond, Noises Off heads off to Brighton and then Cambridge. Don’t miss it!

Runs until October 15th, then tours
Photo credit: Nobby Clark

Friday, 30 September 2022

Jews. In Their Own Words - Review

Royal Court Theatre, London


Written by Jonathan Freedland
From an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Co-created by Vicky Featherstone, Tracy-Ann Oberman & Audrey Sheffield
Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone & Audrey Sheffield

The company of Jews.In Their Own Words

Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play Jews. In Their Own Words sees a company of seven actors perform a hundred minute one-act verbatim drama that has been drawn from the words of twelve British Jews interviewed by Freedland earlier this year. It is their true stories that form the framework for much of this play that seeks to examine the history and present state of antisemitism.

The play is born from from the Royal Court’s own troubled relationship with Jews. Smarting from being caught out over the stereotypical naming of a villainous billionaire in the Court’s 2021 production of Rare Earth Mettle (a non-Jewish character curiously named Hershel Fink, an admitted lapse that the Court blamed on “unconscious bias” before renaming the character as Henry Finn) Freedland was swiftly hired by the theatre to expiate their sins, taking Tracy Ann-Oberman’s original idea and setting it to paper.

The dozen interviewees who include politicians Dame Margaret Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) all brought sound testimony, some of it terrifyingly mundane in the racism they spoke of and much of it harrowing. What these individuals have suffered and endured is not to be criticised at all. It is however Freedland’s stitching together of their stories that has created a flawed play.

The flaws lie in the structure of the piece that at times relies too heavily on exposition, lacking dramatic initiative. The historical depictions of the tragedies of York and Lincoln are treated with a patronizing simplicity that diminishes their horror and equally, a musical number that pops up half-way through the work is both incongruous and childish. If one is going to satirise Jews on stage and in song then recognise that both Monty Python and Mel Brooks have done it before, to perfection. Freedland’s verse pales in comparison.

And then there are the glaring omissions and bias of Freedland’s work in a play that may have been better titled Some Jews. In Their Own Words. Those of his original twelve whose political stance was known, were all from the Left. It may well be the Labour Party that has had to challenge its own problems with antisemitism, but in excluding Jews from the other shades of our political spectrum, where was the balance? The clumsy and dangerous impression that has been created here is that political antisemitism only exists on the Left.

Where was the reference to the ghastly, commonplace antisemitism that so many Jewish students face on campus today? And where was any reference at all to the vile antisemitism that sees frequent calls for the destruction of the State Of Israel and which was so clearly thrown into relief last year, with calls in London for the murder of Jews and the rape of Jewish women? 

Notwithstanding Hodge’s remarkable and tragic personal history, where was there any argument to counter her harsh criticism of modern Israel? By all means let Dame Margaret have her opinion, but for Freedland to have omitted any balanced debate on current Israeli policies simply letting Hodge’s criticisms stand as an unquestioned truth, could be charitably described as his own unconscious bias. Others may call it a useful idiocy.

There has to be a good play waiting to emerge from Oberman’s original idea. This isn’t it.

Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Rehab The Musical - Review

Playground Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young
Book by Elliot Davis
Directed & choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Keith Allen

Rehab is one of those rare finds in the world of new musical theatre writing. A strong story, supporting stunning songs, brilliantly performed and all expertly directed.

In a story that’s drawn from writers Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young’s personal mental health journeys, Jonny Labey plays Kid Pop, a rock star at the height of fame who gets papped doing a line of coke and is promptly sentenced to 60 days rehab at The Glade. Pop’s journey from denial to recovery is subtly yet brilliantly defined, alongside 3 other patients, with songs defining their respective addictions and flaws that capture a wryness of wit, honesty and humour and which show sensitive perception from both writers and performers.

The Glade of course is a supposedly safe and therapeutic place. Outside the clinic’s confines blows the cruel winds of the paparazzi and the media, with the villain of the piece, PR guru Malcolm Stone wonderfully defined by Keith Allen, delivering what has to be the greatest tribute act to Max Clifford ever. Pop is Stone’s client, with the PR man concocting vile and corrupt manipulations (no spoilers here) to keep his client in the headlines. As part of Stone’s deviousness he recruits Lucy Blake, a young mum who’s down on her luck (played wonderfully by Gloria Onitiri), as a honey-trap, paying her to check herself into The Glade. Onitiri has a magnificent presence and she takes the roof of the Playground with her second act number Museum of Loss

There are moments of musical theatre magic - and literal cheesiness - in the story that evolves, but such is the talent on display that the pathos evoked by the story is both credible and at times, deeply moving.

Supporting the story’s three principals are a cast that seamlessly segue in and out of various roles. John Barr as patient Barry Bronze, a man addicted to tanning is, as always, outstanding.  Phil Sealey as obsessive eater Phil Newman is equally compelling, while slightly more thinly-sketched is Annabel Giles’ Jane Killy. All of these three deliver top-notch musical theatre work, not least in their introductory number At The Glade. There is also a fine turn from Dawn Buckland in two modest cameos, firstly as Phil’s wife, singing the haunting Still Here and later with a comic masterpiece as an oligarch’s wife.

Jodie Steele is another of the evening’s treats as Stone’s assistant Beth. With her number Die At Twenty Seven And You’ll Live Forever, Steele steals the show (almost) with her breathtaking power and passion.

Above all, Rehab displays a bold, brave verve and vigour. With songs that range from first-class duetted balladry in Two Broken People through to the stadium-powered Everyone’s Taking Cocaine, slick lyrics are melded with Gary Lloyd’s pinpoint choreography and precise direction. This is a show that has invested as much in its production values as in its libretto (take a bow designers for set, light and sound Andrew Exeter and Chris Whybrow respectively) with Simon Lee’s 4-piece band, hidden atop the stage, making gorgeous work of the exciting score.

Rehab is destined for a larger future. With its brave narrative, exciting score and a company that define musical theatre excellence, catch it in The Playground for an outstanding night out.

Runs until 17th September
Photo credit: Mark Senior