Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Further Than The Furthest Thing - Review

Young Vic Theatre, London


Written by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Jennifer Tang

Jenna Russell

If ever Arts Council England require reasons to justify their axing of funds for London projects, they need look no further than the Young Vic’s current revival of Zinnie Harris’ 1999 play, Further Than The Furthest Thing. 

As an exploration of exploitation, the story is a tedious study in how a remote island community is destroyed by the evil wider world. Drawn from the 1960s history of Tristan da Cunha, this production could have been so much more. Indeed, the supporting essays in the programme make for an excellent read.

It turns out that the essays are better than the production itself, for what Harris and director Jennifer Tang offer is overblown and lengthy, with disappointingly two-dimensional characters. The usually brilliant designer Soutra Gilmour offers up a set that inexplicably (and quite possibly expensively) spins on the Young Vic’s revolve at a pace that’s as lethargic as the narrative. If Harris’ script had been filleted as ruthlessly as the island’s harvested crawfish then it might, just might, have had the potential to be an hour-long radio play. That around a third of the audience vanished at the interval is one of life’s easier to solve mysteries.

Jenna Russell, as always, delivers a top-notch performance. It is only a shame that the material she has to work with is so trite and dire. Further Than The Furthest Thing ain’t far enough for this dismal disappointment.

Runs until 29th April
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Guys & Dolls - Review

Bridge Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Celinde Schoenmaker and Marisha Wallace

There comes a time in the life-cycle of a new build modern theatre on London’s South Bank, usually around six years after opening, that they put on their first musical, invariably settling on Guys and Dolls.

So it is right now at the Bridge Theatre with Nicholas Hytner’s production and so it was a couple of miles upstream at the National Theatre in 1982, when Richard Eyre put on the show that turned into the National’s first blockbuster hit. Six years is a theme here, for six years after Eyre’s moneyspinner opened he went on to become the venue’s artistic director and six years after he stood down from that role, Hytner took over. So clearly, Guys and Dolls is a great musical, much favoured by the nation’s great directors.

But do great musicals and great directors lead to great productions? 

Played immersively in the round and with New York-style neons rising and falling from the flies, Hytner’s Guys and Dolls sets out to be a distinctive interpretation of this classic show.  What is delivered however is a combination of the sensational but also the decidedly average that Hytner could have avoided. 

The female leads are both outstanding with Marisha Wallace as Miss Adelaide nailing the perpetual fiancĂ©e. In both spoken word and song, Wallace captures the frustrating, bittersweet predicament of Adelaide’s 14-year engagement. At her best in solo and duetted numbers Wallace is, as always, is a joy to watch. Equally, Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown is another delight. Hers is a challenging character to pull off, the straight-laced Sergeant at the Save A Soul Mission falling for the roguish Sky Masterson. Schoenmaker however confidently captures Sarah’s complexities, and the vocal beauty of these two women singing together in Marry The Man Today proves to be the evening’s unexpected musical highlight.

The male leads are all competent but not memorable. Daniel Mays doesn’t quite get the New York shtick of Nathan Detroit and while Andrew Richardson smoulders as a very cool Sky Masterson, he fails to make the dramatic highs that his big number Luck Be A Lady requires. The programme notes suggest that neither Mays nor Richardson have significant experience in musical theatre and it shows.

Cedric Neal plays Nathan Detroit’s buddy Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Typically Guys and Dolls demands that the role is played as a groceries-gobbling, absent-minded slob albeit with a heart of gold, who in the prayer meeting at the show’s endgame metamorphoses into a show-stopping hero. Neal is a gifted performer, but struggles to convince as a slob. Big Jule (Cameron Johnson) calls him a “fat water buffalo” at the prayer meeting but in this production that description just does not ring true. If Hytner had thought to have had Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s brother Boris step up to the role, it may have proved a far more satisfying casting choice. 

And there are tiny gems in Loesser’s Runyon-esque dialogue that Hytner has steamrollered. Sky Masterson’s exclamation of “Cider!” after Nathan suckers him into taking Sarah to dinner, together with Lt Brannigan’s (Cornelius Clarke) wry wish that “I hope there’s nothing in heredity” are both tossed away with no attention paid to the lines’ comic potential. Loesser was a genius, with every word of his libretto painstakingly crafted. Hytner and his cast need to pay more attention to the detail.

This may not be one of the great Guys and Dolls, but with Tom Brady’s 14-piece orchestra up in the circle, it does make for a night of fun theatre. Go and see it, for it’s a probable 12 to 7 that you’ll come out grinning.

Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 3 March 2023

The Merchant of Venice 1936 - Review

Watford Palace Theatre, Watford


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Brigid Larmour

Tracy-Ann Oberman and cast members

For the second time in six months, the dramatic whirlwind that is Tracy-Ann Oberman has seen a play open that has not only been her brainchild, but has boldly and bravely put antisemitism firmly centre-stage. Her first foray into this field was at the Royal Court in September in what turned out to be a flawed piece of modern writing. This time however, by setting The Merchant of Venice to a backdrop of British fascism in the 1930s, Oberman has hitched the wagons of her creative firepower behind probably the greatest ever writer of English literature and the result is impressive.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is an exciting interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most troubling comedies and set against the era of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, one sees how easily the Jew-hatred of the Venetians can be translated across the continent to the British Isles. Pause longer, to consider the real impact of Jew-hatred in Europe that blazed in furnaces at that time and the reflection becomes even more chilling.

In a gender swapped Shylock, Oberman transforms the Jewish moneylender into a thickly accented matriarch. An immigrant from eastern Europe, her Shylock is drawn from her great-grandmother who hailed from Belarus and with an opening scene that includes lighting the sabbath candles and blessing a glass of kosher wine (dozens of which are shared with the audience in an opening mise-en-scene) Oberman makes a bold statement that this production of The Merchant of Venice will be firmly rooted in Shylock’s Jewish heritage and the hatred that she and her community endured then and to this day.

Oberman makes fine work, not just of Shylock’s complex motives, but also of some of the most cracking monologues in the canon. Hearing a woman complain of being spat upon, kicked and mocked takes the play’s already present antisemitism and fuels it with a deeply disturbing misogyny. That the homosexual love between Antonio and Bassanio is so strongly signalled in Brigid Larmour’s direction, only adds a troubling depth to the woman-hatred that this Shylock suffers.

The supporting cast are all sound, with standout work from Raymond Coulthard as the fascist Antonio and Hannah Morrish as an icily Mitford-esque Portia. Indeed, when Jessica (Graine Dromgoole) finds herself having eloped to Portia’s Belmont, the diffidence with which she is treated by her hostess together with her coterie, offers a subtle further take on the immigrant Jew as an outsider, never to be truly adopted into their country of residence however hard they may try to assimilate.

Erran Baron Cohen has composed an intelligent musical  soundtrack to the play – part schmaltzy Jewish melodies that reflect the scenes in Shylock’s home contrasted with ingeniously Cole Porter-esque tunes that reflect the profound antisemitism of the champagne-quaffing patricians. Liz Cooke's design work on set and costume offers up an effective transition between London’s East End poverty and Belmont’s beauty, while her fascists are elegantly clad in black, as Oberman’s Shylock sports a stunning fur trimmed coat.

If there’s a flaw it’s that perhaps the finale’s segue into the 1936 Battle Of Cable Street is an overly abrupt jolt that follows hard on the gentility of Belmont. Equally there’s a disappointing use of the Union Flag draped around the shoulders of a fascist thug. While the flag may well have been adopted by some uglier aspects of society, it has also been a symbol to immigrants as they stepped off the boat, especially those fleeing persecution, of a land that represented hope and opportunity. 

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s production is fine, informative theatre. The Merchant of Venice 1936 offers up not just classic verse, but also a history lesson on this country in the early 20th century. Well worth seeing.

Runs to 11th March and then tours

 Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Oklahoma! - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Directed by Daniel Fish

Patrick Vaill

"You’re doing fine Oklahoma!” goes the title song but truth be told, the transfer across the Thames from the Young Vic to the Wyndhams has not proved an easy passage.

Daniel Fish’s production (originally reviewed to acclaim last year) was a groundbreaking interpretation which when set in the Young Vic’s versatile space, stunned with its bold and innovative take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Moved to the Wyndham’s proscenium confines however and Fish’s wizardry evaporates into mist, much like the billowing cloud of haze that fills the West End auditorium for the Dream Ballet that opens Act Two.

The cast is almost the same troupe as played at The Cut last year. The notable absentee is Marisha Wallace whose Ado Annie was accurately tipped for Olivier recognition - she is missed.

Huw Evans’ band remains magnificent - a nine piece strings, accordion and percussion combo that give the memorable melodies a vigorous interpretation - equally, the singing is perfect across the cast. But it remains Patrick Vaill as the complex loner Jud Fry who steals the show. His Lonely Room is the evening’s vocal highlight and only Vaill truly manages to stamp a distinctive artistic impression on this West End transfer.

The ending of this show is gruesome - with a special effect that worked in Waterloo but is clumsy here. Stage management need to address the hole located centre stage, that’s clearly bloodstained from previous performances and which fires the gore into the cast.

Marie-Astrid Mence energetically dances the Dream Ballet. Again, this was enchanting at the Young Vic but on the Wyndhams’ stage, the cascade of cowboy boots that fall upon her from the rafters seems little more than the work of pretentious cobblers.

Booking until 2nd September
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Shirley Valentine - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Willy Russell
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Sheridan Smith

There’s a fusion of genius at the Duke of York’s Theatre where Willy Russell’s wit meets Sheridan Smith’s knockout performance as Shirley Valentine.

This two-hour one-hander, magnificently created on the West End, Broadway and on screen by Pauline Collins is now truly handed on to the next generation in Smith’s interpretation.

Her handling of Shirley, landlocked to a life of chips and egg and a neighbour who if you’ve been to paradise, has got a season ticket there but who, by a happy turn of fate, goes on to discover her emotional emancipation on a Greek island, is up there amongst the greatest performances to be found in London right now.

Only last week this website championed Russell’s brilliance in the touring production of Blood Brothers. Lest there be any doubt, Shirley Valentine, a study of a Merseyside mum escaping mid-life mediocrity, is up there in the pantheon of great British writing. Russell sees the essence of everywoman in his script, captured without pretension or pomposity. His is wry perceptive observation that sparkles with humour. Yet scratch the surface of the play's countless written gems and you'll find an equally dark pool of pathos.

Sheridan Smith reclaims her title as one of the most talented performers of her age. Matthew Dunster has coaxed her performance into a perfectly timed comedy, punctured with points of poignancy and all with barely a pause for breath. Smith holds the audience in the palm of her hand throughout.

Paul Wills designs ingeniously capture Liverpool’s suburbia that after the interval, merge into an Ionian idyl. Equally Lucy Carter’s enchanting lighting, particularly in the second act, serves well to create the Mediterranean magic of Shirley’s journey of self-discovery. 

Don’t miss it!

Runs until 3rd June
Photo credit: John Wilson

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Tracy-Ann Oberman in Conversation

Tracy-Ann Oberman in rehearsal

Opening next week at Watford Palace theatre is The Merchant of Venice 1936, a production that is the brainchild of actress Tracy-Ann Oberman who, for a number of years, has nurtured the idea of taking one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays and pivoting it into the 20th century.

I caught up with Tracy-Ann in the middle of rehearsals and we spoke about its conception and development. Describing The Merchant of Venice as a very difficult play, she does not think that the text is taught properly in schools today, observing that a lot of people argue for it to be removed from the syllabus. Oberman however wants to make the play accessible, offering a fuller understanding of antisemitism, as well as reclaiming aspects of the Jewish history of London’s East End, an area of the city long associated with poorer immigrant communities. Her own roots go back to the East End and she remains inspired by her great grandmother and the matriarchs of her family who all stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists at the Battle of Cable St in 1936.

She comments that Shakespeare wrote the The Merchant of Venice at a time of huge antisemitism, when the Jews had already been banished and the few that were left in England were frequently seen as devils. The emergence of mediaeval antisemitism was strongly fuelled by Jews often being the money collectors for the king.

Around this time the myths about Jews and blood libels were to emerge, myths that have never really left the English sub-conscience, Oberman wryly comments. And so the Jew, as a sort of evil villain she continues, was absolutely where Shakespeare wanted to place him, much like Marlowe had done with his creation of Barabas for The Jew of Malta. 

With all due humility, Oberman does credit Shakespeare as a very good writer. She acknowledges that in Shylock he has created aspects of humanity which are frequently absent from other portrayals of Jews in literature, notably The Jew of Malta where Barabas, in her opinion, is simply a cartoon villain. She comments that in The Merchant of Venice the “’hath not a Jew eyes” speech is brilliant, describing it as an absolute call to humanity to say that we are all the same, that we are all human.

Hannah Morrish as Portia

Oberman has long been fascinated by Britain’s history in the 1930s, a time that saw flirtations from the country’s aristocracy with the parties of fascism both at home and in continental Europe. It is no small coincidence that Mosley’s march of fascists that led to the Battle of Cable Street, occurred during the brief reign of Edward VIII, himself strongly suspected of harbouring fascist ideals. Oberman sees the play as shining a spotlight into some of this country’s darker crevices. 

She is also proud of having reinvented Shylock as a female role and in so doing, reclaiming a different aspect of the narrative. Referencing how within the text, that Shylock is referred to as a dog and Antonio, the merchant to whom Shylock has loaned money secured on a pound of flesh, kicks at her and spits at her, Oberman sees a clear link between misogyny and antisemitism. She is well qualified to make such an observation. Away from the stage Tracy-Ann Oberman is one of the UK’s leading campaigners in today’s fight against antisemitism, a role that has seen her subject to some of the vilest abuse imaginable. Oberman has seen all too clearly in her inbox and her social media streams the seamless link betwixt the hatred of Jews and a hatred of women.

On the subject of women I quiz Oberman on Shylock’s relationship with daughter Jessica. Penned by Shakespeare with a father/daughter perspective in mind, how is the mother/daughter dynamic evolving? The mother of a teenage daughter herself, Oberman observes that Jessica has the capacity to range from being her mother’s best friend to her worst enemy and she is relishing that parental aspect of the role. 

Exploring as to how this interpretation of the play may be received by people who don’t share Oberman's Jewish heritage, she comments that she’s already observed people who’ve seen the play in rehearsals, friends of hers from working class backgrounds or diverse immigrant backgrounds, who are are recognising aspects of her Shylock in their own heritage and also with Shylock as a matriarch, identifying strongly with the strong woman that Oberman portrays. 

The conversation would not be complete without an understanding of the supportive role that Watford Palace Theatre have played in bringing the play to fruition. Oberman speaks with an affection towards the venue that is almost tangible. Growing up in the London suburb of Stanmore, close to Watford, she would visit the theatre often as a child and it was there that her passion for acting was encouraged and nurtured. In later years and meeting up with Brigid Larmour, the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, it was Lamour who asked the actress what she was doing, to which Oberman replied that she was working on “this idea of a female Shylock”. From there the two of them took the idea forwards, receiving developmental support from the RSC, with Oberman reflecting warmly that Larmour has proved to be an incredible ally both creatively and politically.

In the first scene of The Merchant of Venice Antonio famously says the world is “A stage where every man must play a part”. On the Watford Palace stage Tracy-Ann Oberman will be upending Antonio’s words in what promises to be an exciting evening of Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 runs from 27th February to 11th March and then tours

The cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936

Rehearsal photos by: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Blood Brothers - Review

Richmond Theatre, Richmond


Music, lyrics and book by Willy Russell
Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson

Niki Colwell Evans and Richard Munday

The House Full signs were out at Richmond Theatre and notwithstanding that Blood Brothers is now a fixture on the GCSE syllabus leading to coachloads of schoolkids in the audience, to experience a show out-of-town and in a packed theatre was a pre-show treat in itself.

It is 40 years since the show first opened in the West End, with Willy Russell’s ingenious tale still packing a powerfully poignant punch. Niki Colwell Evans plays Mrs Johnstone, the poor young Liverpudlian mother who, on learning that she is pregnant with twins, signs a hellish pact with Paula Tappenden’s barren Mrs Lyons, to give her one of the newborn babies.

Richard Munday is the show’s grim Narrator (this Greek tragedy’s Chorus) steering the narrative, with panache, towards its infernal ending, while Sean Jones and Joe Sleight play respectively Mickey and Eddie, the hapless Johnstone twins whose lives will end so tragically. Olivia Sloyan completes the sextet of key players as Linda, the young girl who grows up as the best friend of the twins and who is to be so tragically connected to their deaths.

All six players are magnificent – with Colwell Evans proving outstanding in her take on the impoverished but loving Mrs Johnstone. Given some of the show’s best songs, she delivers them powerfully and in the finale of Tell Me It’s Not True, with heartbreaking pathos.

But it is not just the principals, it is their excellent supporting troupe that make this a grand night of theatre. The ensemble play an array of little more than two-dimensional characters, there to advance the story and it’s context and not much more. Each tiny vignette however, almost cliched in their creation, is a work of genius in itself such is Russell’s writing talent.

Russell not only captures the ghastly Johnstone/Lyons contract, he offers a chillingly perceptive dissection of English life that echoes with relevance today. Class and snobbery prevail, with the educated privileges that are showered upon Eddie, contrasting with Mickey’s far tougher journey. Eddie goes to university and becomes a city councillor, while Mickey feels the sharp end of deprivation alongside much harsher justice from the local policeman than middle-class Eddie receives.

Set in Liverpool during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the socio-economics of the time for the city’s working class were brutal. In Russell’s excruciatingly brilliant song Miss Jones the recession is cruelly juxtaposed against Mickey and Linda’s shotgun wedding, borne out of her unplanned pregnancy. And look closely at this musical, because there’s more than a nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel here too.

Throughout, Matt Malone’s six-piece band rise to the occasion with slick interpretations of Russell’s memorable melodies.

Quite simply, Blood Brothers remains sensational musical theatre. Catchy tunes, perfectly performed, and all framed around a book that is virtually flawless. This production tours for much of the year and when it comes to a town near you, don’t miss it!

Plays until 25th February, then continues on tour
Photo credit: Jack Merriman