Friday 29 September 2023

Close Up - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Written & directed by Ben Elton

Elena Skye

It’s a tad ambitious for Close Up to be described as a ‘musical’ written by Ben Elton. It is indeed a cutely observed biopic of Lesley Lawson aka Twiggy, Neasden’s most famous daughter and the world’s first supermodel - but in reality it’s an Elton playlist drawn from the 1940s through to the 80s, with the writer interjecting short bursts of dialogue to link the numbers.

But credit to the man - Twiggy’s story is a fascinating one and set against Elton’s choice of songs, the end result is an evening of slick and polished entertainment. More than that, Elton must have had his dreams come true in directing the show, for not only is his show’s playlist a banging complication, the cast that he has assembled are simply outstanding.

Elena Skye leads the line as Twiggy, capturing the woman from gauche teenager through to her global (albeit troubled) stardom. Shamefully there’s no songlist printed in the programme so there’ll be few song specific credits in this review. Suffice to say Skye takes the role and makes it her own, with her act one closer of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me proving a moment in the show that is as moving and poignant as it is powerfully performed.

As her working-class parents (and Elton deftly comments on Britain’s class system) Norman and Nell, Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox are a treat - Serlin capturing the humility of the man, while Fox mastering the complexities of Nell who suffered PTSD following the 1940 Blitz of London and post-natal depression some 9 years later with Lesley’s birth. Serlin also turns in some cracking cameos of David Frost, Woody Allen and Melvyn Bragg.

There is equally fine work from Matt Corner and Darren Day. Corner  as Justin de Villeneuve, Twiggy’s first love and the Svengali-influence who managed and manipulated the early years of her career, while Day plays Michael Witney, the American actor who Twiggy married, presaging his slow descent into alcoholism. 

All of the cast sing flawlessly, accompanied by Stuart Morley’s 7-piece orchestra. The acoustics of the Menier can sometimes prove unforgiving but Gregory Clarke’s sound design works magic from his talented singers and musicians. Similarly Jonathan Lipman’s costumes catch the zeitgeist of the Swinging Sixties with Jacob Fearey’s choreography making fine work of the Menier’s space.

In a show that’s most likely to appeal to Twiggy and Ben Elton’s age groups, Close Up is an unpretentiously fabulous evening of musical theatre.

Runs until 18th November
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Frank and Percy - Review

The Other Palace, London


Written by Ben Weatherill
Directed by Sean Mathias

Ian McKellen and Roger Allam

It is said that Ian McKellen could enchant an audience if he simply ready a telephone directory aloud. The man’s physical and vocal presence is unmatched, as is his versatility and good job too, for without McKellen’s finely honed craft Frank and Percy would make for a far less entertaining night in the theatre.

Frank (played by Roger Allam) and Percy (McKellen) are two men in their third-age who meet by chance encounter while walking their dogs on Hampstead Heath. Allam, another fine performer, proving the perfect foil to McKellen’s razor sharp timing and wit. There’s a spark of interest between them that blossoms into a tender love and as a study of latter-years romance, Ben Weatherill’s drama had the potential to be quite the power-play.

That chance is squandered however as notwithstanding some episodes of finely nuanced pathos - Percy describing the angst of being outed in his youth, or his fragile vulnerability as he awaits a frightening medical appointment - too much of the dialogue comprises moments of maudlin mediocrity, seasoned with a skimming of contemporary hot-topics so shallow it almost insults the talent on stage delivering the script. There is some well observed comment on the importance of dog ownership to a person’s emotional well-being, sentiments that will fall warmly on the dog-lovers in the audience.

See it if only to catch that rarest of masterclasses, in which McKellen and Allam breathe life into a well-intentioned but surprisingly flawed text.

Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Friday 22 September 2023

Forgiveness - Review

White Bear Theatre, London


Written by Tyna Taskila
Directed by Sam Edmunds

Tyna Taskila

Drawn from personal experience, Forgiveness is a story of the generational trauma experienced by a daughter from her abusive mother. Unable to let go of the memories and childhood experiences that still haunt her adult life, Tessa highlights how hard it can be to move on. 

Tessa shares the pain of her own mother seeking to have pursued her personal dreams through Tessa's youth - particularly her mum's gymnastic aspirations - and she also recognises the importance and as now a mother herself, the challenge of not transmitting her lived trauma onto her own young daughter Lily.

Written and performed Tyna Taskila, Forgiveness is a thoughtful and harrowing work on the physical and psychological harm that can be inflicted upon a child. As a play however, coming in at just under the hour, the pace feeels rushed. This is not helped by Taskila's frequent changes of character that interrupt the flow of the narrative, reducing the drama's suspense.

When it's all over Taskila asks for donations to the NSPCC, a 5-star idea.

Runs until 23rd September
Photo credit: Ali Wright

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Pygmalion - Review

Old Vic, London


Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Richard Jones

Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel

George Bernard Shaw may have written Pygmalion for the England of 1913, but in Richard Jones’ production that fuses Shaw’s original script along with his 1938 screenplay, this classic tale proves timeless. Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran are Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in what has to be one of the finest pairings to be found on stage.

Carvel’s ability to capture Higgins’ absolute genius in the world of phonetics,yet a bumbling, stifled fool when it comes to expressing his passion is sublime. It’s not just his pathos though, for, much like Higgins himself, Carvel exudes excellence in every word he annunciates - and look closely in act one, for there’s the occasional hint of his Miss Trunchbull on show too.

Ferran’s Eliza is more than a match for Carvel. Her transformation from a ‘deliciously low guttersnipe’ to a refined young woman is a masterclass of both talent and assured femininity, defining strength and independence in a world where the odds were (are?) so heavily weighted against her sex. 

The curious chemistry between Eliza and Higgins is one of theatre’s most delicate relationships, requiring actors of profound talent to capture Shaw’s delicately nuanced interplay. To witness these two performers at work is to capture a rare moment of on-stage excellence.

The supporting cast are top-notch too. Michael Gould as Colonel Pickering and Sylvestra Le Touzel as an inspired, wise and withering Mrs Higgins, are both wonderful.  John Marquez as the play’s other inspired creation Alfred Doolittle, a man who “can’t afford morals, guvnor” deftly mixes humour with satirical social comment in his outstanding cameo. A neat touch sees the play’s background music taken from the 1938 movie.

Pygmalion is drama at its finest. Perfect writing, perfectly performed.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday 19 September 2023

The Father And The Assassin - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar 
Directed byIndhu Rubasingham

Hiran Abeysekera

The Father And The Assassin is a well researched look at Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Ghandi. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play charts Godse’s life, exploring what may have sparked his right-wing nationalist Hindu beliefs that were to set him so fatally at odds with Ghandi. On stage throughout, Hiran Abeysekera turns in a top-notch performance as Godse. 

But 10/10 for history doesn’t translate to 5-star drama. Chandrasekhar’s narrative plays out more like a shallow Godse biopic rather than an engaging dramatic analysis. 

History’s lesser known characters have often proved good meat for skilled dramatists - think what Peter Shaffer made of Salieri in Amadeus, or the makeover that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber afforded to Eva Peron in Evita, both A* studies of B-grade people. Chandrasekhar's work is not in the same league, with The Father And The Assassin proving a very lengthy 2 1/2 hours in the Olivier. Compounding matters, Indhu Rubasingham’s direction focusses more on her actors’ shouting than on having them explore their characters’ depth. The script’s frequent fourth-wall breakouts prove to be a lazy gimmick. The 1940s partitioning of the subcontinent is respectfully played out, however the bashing of the colonising Brits is a tired, expected cliché.

A good history lesson but a dull night at the theatre.

Runs until 14th October
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Saturday 16 September 2023

Police Cops The Musical - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music by Ben Adams
Lyrics, book and direction by Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson and Tom Roe

The cast of Police Cops The Musical

A banging fusion of music, movement and scorching satire, Police Cops The Musical is just down from Edinburgh to take up a month-long residency at the Southwark Playhouse.

The inspired creation of Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson and Tom Roe who have not only written the book, the lyrics and co-directed piece, they also play the three male roles. Brilliantly. The trio have a long history with the Police Cops brand of humour but this year’s musical marks their first collaboration with composer Ben Adam. 

A pastiche on 1980s American TV cop shows and action-hero movies, the 2-hour long show lampoons kitsch Americana, set to a kooky plot that ranges from mid-town USA to a Mexican orphanage amidst rookie cops, corrupt police chiefs, Latin American drug chiefs and frustrated nursery nurses. Melinda Orengo and Natassia Bustamente complete the quintet of players - with all 5 zipping their way through numerous changes of character.

The gags are slick and ingenious – look out for some inspired moments with a floating gingham tablecloth and a hilarious Mexican wrestling match. The evening is tightly written and slickly rehearsed with Matt Cole’s choreography only enhancing the show with his immaculately drilled dance routines.

Police Cops The Musical is fringe theatre at its finest.

Runs until 14th October
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday 7 September 2023

Macbeth - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Abigail Graham

Max Bennett

There’s a moment just before the (long-awaited) interval in Macbeth when Banquo’s  ghost stalks the stage. To be honest it’s a miracle that Banquo’s spirit is not accompanied by that of the great Sam Wanamaker (whose legacy is this magnificent theatre) or even Shakespeare himself, such is the artistic travesty of much of Abigail Graham’s production.

Where to begin? The script has been tinkered with and for no apparent reason Duncan and the three witches have been gender-swapped, although quite why Duncan is referred to as the Queen, but the three hags, played here by beefy men, are still referred to in the script as the Weird Sisters is beyond me. And inexplicably, hospital gurneys are solemnly wheeled on and off the stage at times when there are no bodies to be borne.

By all means set the piece in modern dress. The witches’ cauldron being replaced by an electric blender was a nice touch. (Fenny-snake frappucino anyone?) But don’t play fast and loose with the basic constructs. With Macbeth a hardy perennial on school syllabuses across the land, the Globe was mobbed with pupils, all eyewitnesses to the slaughter of a classic.

Amidst the evening’s cultural carnage there were a handful of standout performances. Max Bennett’s Macbeth will not be remembered as one of the greats but credit to the man, he soldiered on like a trouper nursing a recently broken finger, with only the swordplay reduced (I guess) to dagger fighting. Fine work too from Matti Houghton as Lady Macbeth whose descent into madness was harrowing to see. Equally, the howls of grief from Aaron Anthony’s Macduff were heart rending and convincing. And to be fair the production's blood and gore was fun.

Sleep no more - The Globe hath done a far better job of murdering Macbeth than Macduff could ever dream of.

Runs to 28th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sunday 3 September 2023

My Radio Broadcasts - A collected anthology

I present a fortnightly radio slot on The Daily Show on (alternate Fridays at 12noon)

Listed below are the recordings to date, together details of the shows that were discussed and links to my original reviews of those shows.

Have a listen and enjoy!

January 26th 2024

Shows discussed:

January 12th 2024

Shows discussed:
Peter Pan - Pantomime at the Palladium

September 29th 2023

Shows discussed:
Starlight Express

September 15th 2023

Shows discussed:
Back To The Future - The Musical

September 1st 2023

Shows discussed:
A Strange Loop