Wednesday 27 March 2024

Wild About You - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London


Music & lyrics by Chilina Kennedy
Book by Eric Holmes
Directed by Nick Winston

Rarely have such a platinum-plated cast delivered a tale of such unfathomable mediocrity.

All of the actors Eric McCormack, Rachel Tucker, Oliver Tompsett, Tori Allen-Martin, Jamie Muscato and Todrick Hall are vocally magnificent, representing the cream of British (McCormack excluded) musical theatre talent. Nick Barstow’s 10-piece band are fabulous too.

It is just that Eric Holmes’ book and Chilina Kennedy’s lyrics are the shallowest cliche-fest to have made a West End stage in many a year.  Olivia (Tucker) wakes up in a hospital ward as the curtain rises, with her memory wiped. The the show then begins an exploration of her piecing together the reconstruction of her life. Frankly, it may well have been a better story if she’d stayed asleep.

The second act is a shameless steal from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, albeit without that pair’s creative genius. The actors are left with little to do other than (beautifully) sing songs that it is impossible to care about.

Thankfully only on for 2 nights, Wild About You is over now.

Opening Night - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Music, lyrics & orchestrations by Rufus Wainwright
Original film by John Cassavetes
Directed by & book written by Ivo Van Hove

Sheridan Smith

Every show has an opening night. In Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers he even included a song entitled Opening Night, so it was surely only a matter of time until a creative (step forward Ivo Van Hove) grabbed hold of John Cassavetes’ 1977 movie to fashion a two-act show around one of theatre’s most consistently nerve-wracking challenges.

In one of the boldest upendings of the genre, Van Hove’s multimedia, mind-meddling, meta-musical presents us with the decline of the fragile Myrtle (Sheridan Smith). A leading lady in The Second Woman, a Broadway play that’s four days from opening, Myrtle is already battling profound insecurities about her age and career. Early on in the narrative she witnesses the brutal death of Nancy, a fan killed in a road traffic accident immediately after having very nervously obtained the actress’s autograph. Following Nancy's death, the musical then tracks the ticking time-bomb of the impact of that trauma upon Myrtle’s mental well-being.

Smith is outstanding in a performance that mixes gravitas with fragility. The linchpin of both The Second Woman and Van Hove’s musical, it is her energy that drives the show. There are fine supporting performances too. Hadley Fraser is Manny, the demanding Broadway director who is all too happy to blur professional boundaries if it will reassure his leading lady. Nicola Hughes has the complex role of NY playwright Sarah, who is required to handle Myrtle’s mangling of her script as the actress’s mind unravels. The duet between Myrtle and Sarah, Makes One Wonder, is spine-tingling in its exploration of the pair’s respective vulnerabilities. Amy Lennox as Manny’s wife Dorothee has a modest but useful role in the narrative, providing a robust and challenging foil to her husband’s inappropriate conduct. 

The most impressive work amongst the supporting roles comes from West End debutante Shira Haas as Nancy. Haas takes this unfortunate young woman, transitioning her from a star-struck fan with issues to a ghost-like apparition that plagues Myrtle’s troubled mind. This is a bold conceit addressed brilliantly by Van Hove and lending an almost horrific edge to the second act. 

The use of video and live-action multi-camera projections (designed by Jan Versweyveld) deploys a massive upstage screen that not only plays around with cleverly storyboarded close-ups, but goes further with the merging of camera shots. In a remarkable coup-de-theatre, as Myrtle reaches her mental nadir, Versweyveld and Van Hove use time-lapse to add another visible dimension to the actress’s distress.

Rufus Wainwright’s music is, for the most part, a joy to experience taking in a range of American styles. Nigel Lilley’s 9-piece onstage band are terrific with standout work from Huw Davies on guitar. Wainwright’s lyrics occasionally drift into repetitive triteness, a feature perhaps of his rock and pop background rather than the more rigid disciplines of musical theatre.

Opening Night makes for a challenging night of unconventional theatre that is at times deeply upsetting. Sheridan Smith’s performance is one of the finest to be found on a London stage.

Booking until 27th July
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

Saturday 23 March 2024

The Duchess of Malfi - Review

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London


Written by John Webster
Directed by Rachel Bagshaw

Francesca Mills

John Webster’s classic revenge tale is well told in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Francesca Mills plays the titular widowed Duchess whose death is sought by her patrician brothers following her live affair and subsequent secret marriage to aristocrat Antonio, with whom she has borne three children.

Mills puts in a fine performance with a credible passion and desire for Olivier Huband’s Antonio. The villains of the piece are Jamie Ballard and Oliver Johnstone as the brothers, together with Arthur Hughes’ Bosola, the story’s duplicitous lynchpin, engineering much of the murderous mayhem before himself succumbing to fatal pangs of guilt.

Director Rachel Bagshaw plays a little fast and loose with the text, but mercifully her re-writes are sparse and for those school parties attending there is enough meat in the production for them to context Webster’s prose. To her credit, Bagshaw places much emphasis on the misogyny of the play which sits even more appropriately in the #MeToo era.

The music is well played and provides a sound backdrop to the narrative, while the entertaining fight choreography from R C Annie Ltd offers the violent thrills and spills that this famous blood and bodice-ripping yarn demands.

At nigh-on 3 hours there are moments when the pace flags, but for a decent delivery of Restoration Tragedy, The Duchess Of Malfi hits the spot.

Runs until 14th April
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Sister Act - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Bill Buckhurst

Lizzie Bea, Beverley Knight and company

Sister Act is everything that is great about musical theatre. The star studded cast lead the audience through the tale of Deloris (Beverley Knight), an aspiring musician who after stumbling across a gangland murder is forced to go into witness protection in a convent, all under the watchful and disapproving eye of the Mother Superior (Ruth Jones). Deloris delights as she revamps the downtrodden convent’s choir into a band of all-singing all-dancing nuns with a disco edge. 

Knight gives an utterly standout performance, her breathtaking vocals leaving the audience wanting more after every song. Her take on of Deloris is wonderfully exaggerated yet still sympathetic as the audience follow her character's journey from disco diva to a true convent sister. 

The outrageous Deloris plays excellently opposite Ruth Jones’ far more muted and restrained Mother Superior. The casting decision for Ruth Jones in this role seems to have been made more for her ‘star’ status rather than musical theatre acumen, as Jones’ vocals don’t hold weight alongside her cast members. However, what Jones lacks in singing talent she makes up for in comedic contributions to the show. Despite the supposed ‘dull’ persona of the Mother Superior, Jones brings a light cheekiness to the role with her own signature Welsh twist. It is a delight as Jones opens the show with her classic greeting of ‘alright’ and wearing Welsh dragon socks, making the role feel truly her own. 

Other notable performances come from Clive Rowe in the role of Steady Eddie and Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert who both very much hold their own as solo vocalists, as well as eliciting continuous laugh out loud moments. 

Morgan Large’s set is simple yet effective with mostly static set pieces and props, allowing the cast to really take the foreground without distraction. The stage seamlessly transitions back and forth from an austere church setting to colours and lights of the disco age with at least one mirror ball on stage at any given moment. Costuming, also by Large, is delightful with the perfect amount of sequins that you would want from a big hit West End musical (by the finale each cast member is decked from head to toe in sparkles).

The entire show is entirely charming and genuinely hilarious with the cast’s joyful performances providing such an infectiously bright atmosphere that it would be a shock if anyone left that theatre without beaming from ear to ear. Sister Act really will take you to heaven and make you want to raise your voice!

Runs until 31st August
Photo credit: Johan Persson
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh

Friday 8 March 2024

Nye - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Tim Price
Directed by Rufus Norris

Michael Sheen

Giving an extraordinary performance, Michael Sheen embodies Aneurin (Nye) Bevan in Tim Price’s new play. As Bevan lies dying of stomach cancer, Sheen takes us on a morphine-induced hallucination through the Welshman’s life, from his early career (following a brief stint down the mines) amidst the small town politics of Tredegar, through to his election as the MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929 and ultimately Cabinet Minister for Health and Housing and the visionary creator of the National Health Service in 1948.

In what is a fascinating analysis of both history and British socialism, Price’s narrative takes in Bevan’s unconventional yet loving marriage to Scottish MP Jennie Lee (fine work from Sharon Small) and sees him wittily spar with Tony Jayawardena’s brilliant cameo of Winston Churchill. Jon Furlong is equally brilliant, if repulsive, in his Mandelsonian take on Herbert Morrison (who was of course grandfather to the current Lord Mandelson). The other standout supporting roles are from Stephanie Jacob as Clement Attlee (driving a motorised No 10 desk around the stage), Rhodri Meilir as Bevan’s coal miner father David and Kezrena James as the starched yet supremely empathetic Nurse Ellie.

The story of the NHS’s formation is testament to Bevan’s strongly held belief in free health care for all at the point of need, forged from the iniquities of poverty and deprivation that he had seen in the Welsh mining valleys and throughout his career. Act Two’s revelation of the mercenary, self-preserving attitude of Britain’s doctors who fought tooth and nail against the privatisation of their highly lucrative profession makes for gripping drama.

The stagecraft on display is the National Theatre at its finest. Vicki Mortimer’s set sees hospital bedside curtains drawn across the stage in a variety of permutations including an ingenious suggestion of the House of Commons. Canny projections and an inspired use of laser-light to depict an underground seam of coal, only add to the evening’s theatrical magic.

The night however belongs to the pyjama-clad Michael Sheen. On stage virtually throughout and in a turn that includes a fabulous cover of Judy Garland’s Get Happy, Sheen is a tour-de-force treat in an evening of exquisite, unmissable theatre.

Runs until 11th May at the National Theatre and then at the Wales Millennium Centre from May 18th to 1st June
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Standing at the Sky's Edge - Review

Gillian Lynne Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Richard Hawley
Book by Chris Bush
Directed by Robert Hastie

The cast of Standing at the Sky's Edge

Transferring to the West End from an acclaimed run at the National Theatre, Standing At The Sky’s Edge charts three occupancies of a duplex home built in Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. The show’s timeframe runs from the estate’s opening as a massive social housing project in 1959, replacing a significant proportion of the city's slum accommodation, then through a period of neglect and dilapidation and finally to the estate's gentrification in the early 21st century and transition into private ownership. Park Hill was a massive development and to this day remains the largest listed work of architecture in Europe. A prominent feature of Sheffield’s cityscape, the estate's history offered a bold conceit for the musical’s narrative.

It is a disappointment therefore that Chris Bush’s book is little more than a thread of cliched agitprop observations of the duplex's three occupying households. From a newly wed steelworker and his bride escaping poverty, through to refugees fleeing civil war in Liberia and ultimately, a comfortably middle-class professional running away from London and a failed relationship, Bush shoehorns in as many passing nods to Sheffield’s social landscape of the last 60 years as she can. The collapse of the steel industry, the miners’ strike, Thatcherism and even Brexit are all acknowledged with shallow passing references, though one can only speculate as to why the child grooming scandals that also tarnished so much of the South Yorkshire region during this period, fail to get a mention.

Richard Hawley’s songs are musically beautiful but lyrically lazy - the tunes land gorgeously on the ear but their frequent repetitions of phrases suggest a lack of creative wit behind the songs’ otherwise powerful foundations. The cast, as is to be expected on a leading London stage, are all magnificent with standout performances from Laura Pitt-Pulford, Rachael Wooding and Lauryn Redding. Ben Stone's stage designs together with Mark Henderson's lighting are equally impressive.

40 years ago Willy Russell's Blood Brothers offered a far sharper musical take on the impact of Thatcherism on England's north and of attempts by planners to rehouse a city's poor. Perhaps in a site-specific venue on the estate, Standing At The Sky's Edge may have packed more of a punch. The musical opened in Sheffield in 2019 where regional ticket pricing would have made it affordable to many of the city’s residents. In the capital however, where ticket prices are comparatively eye-watering, agitprop has been replaced by champagne-socialism.

Booking until 3rd August
Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg