Sunday, 26 June 2022

Superman In Concert - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Composed by John Williams
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele
Directed by Richard Donner

Christopher Reeve

Yet again, accomplished maestro  Anthony Gabriele picked up his baton to conduct a cracking orchestra, delivering the cracking score of a cracking movie.

For one night only at the Royal Albert Hall, he offered a rare chance to see Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, not only amidst the hall’s crowded “movie-theatre’ audience but, for the first time in the UK, with John Williams’ legendary score played live in accompaniment. The score is so evocative and impressive that even as the opening credits, along with the final bars of Williams’ accompanying opening theme faded, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Those credits themselves were a reminder of the talent that Donner had assembled for his movie - truly a platinum-plated cast.

Superman is one of those movies that blends acting, screenplay and score into a fusion of excellence, with the Royal Albert Hall proving to be the perfect venue. The hall’s darkness provided a perfect contrast to the perfectly pitched luminance of the digital projection and the acoustics of the place, with its ceiling-suspended domes, gave a magnificent body and depth to Williams’ score, as played by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

The evening also offered a chance to look back in time, not just at how much the movie-makers of that era were able to accomplish without the helping hand of CGI, but even more so, at how much our cultural norms have evolved. Superman may have journeyed through thousands of our years on his journey from the planet Krypton to Earth, but in just a few short decades here, one could be forgiven for feeling that our world has changed even more rapidly. The movie sees Marlon Brando (as Superman’s father Jor-El)  imbuing his parting words to his baby son Kal-El (the would-be Superman) with no reference whatsoever to his wife, as though single handedly he had brought his progeny into the world would never be even contemplated by today’s screenwriters. Although, with Susannah York (as Marlon’s missus) resembling little more than a muted Julie Christie on a bad day, one could, perhaps have had some understanding of Brando’s supreme egocentricity. Likewise, the movie’s sexual politics are equally and some may say deliciously, dated. Superman’s x-ray vision (on Lois Lane’s request) can see through her dress while she in turn goes weak-kneed speculating on “how big” he is.

It wasn’t just Brando though, nor the much-missed Christopher Reeve in the title role. Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Margot Kidder are all gems, with even the likes of then-veteran Trevor Howard lobbing in a 5 minute cameo. And of course the screenplay bears the imprimatur of the godfather of great-writing, Mario Puzo.

But at the Royal Albert Hall last night the deserved stars of the evening were Williams, Gabriele, and the 80+ strong ensemble of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. When this evening returns as it surely must, don’t miss it. With Williams’ wondrous score in your ears, you’ll believe a man can fly.

The Maestro's Superman socks

Monday, 13 June 2022

Ray Gelato and his Giants - Review

Pizza Express, Dean Street, London


A packed Dean Street Pizza Express enjoyed Ray Gelato and his Giants perform a two-hour set that criss-crossed the Atlantic with its content in a glorious celebration of the power of music to entertain. An old-school bandleader, Gelato led from the front switching effortlessly between vocals and sax throughout the gig with his six fellow musicians (three on wind, a bass, piano-player and drums) delivering classy support.

The energy fizzed from the moment Gelato opened proceedings with a speeded up When You’re Smiling. Up tempo and uplifting, feet tapped and faces grinned as the band delivered immaculately rehearsed takes on American Songbook classics that ranged from Louis Jourdan to the Rat Pack. Memorable moments from the evening included Gelato’s saxophone take on Sinatra’s Angel Eyes and his outstanding lead in Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Elsewhere, drummer Ed Richardson’s sensational three-minute (!) riff in Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E had to be seen to be believed.

A witty songwriter himself, it was a joy to hear Gelato’s self-penned gems Bar Italia and My Last Meatball played live - maybe next time he’ll treat us to some gangsta with Who Stole Ronnie’s Pickle?

This is London music as it should be. On for two more sold-out evenings, but well worth trying for returns.

Performing until 14th June

Saturday, 11 June 2022

The Car Man - Review

Royal Albert Hall, London


Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Music by Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite (after Bizet's Carmen)

Will Bozier

More than twenty years after Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, his ballet inspired by Bizet’s Carmen, premiered in Plymouth the show returns to London playing at the Royal Albert Hall as a part of its 150th anniversary and marking the first time that Bourne has ever staged a production in the landmark London venue. No expense has been spared in this revival, with the director/choreographer fielding a cast three times the size of his original 2020 company.

The plot’s inspiration may hail from Carmen, but the aura of The Car Man hails from Hollywood. Set amidst an Italian-American community in the USA’s Midwest, the action plays out in the fictitious town of Harmony, a name that is as ironic as its images are iconic. This is a town of billboards, tumbleweed and Dino’s eponymous automobile repair shop, where the car men work. The music is from Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite supplemented by additional composition from Terry Davies, with the opera’s fabulously familiar melodies delivered to perfection under  Brett Morris’ baton, fused into mouthwatering leitmotifs that emerge through the two hour show.

Zizi Strallen

Bourne’s protagonists are a quintet made up of the abusive Dino who is also the owner of the town’s diner, his wife Lana, her sister Rita together with Angelo, a hired help and Luca an itinerant drifter whose arrival leads to the destruction of Harmony’s harmony. This review will not reveal how the five’s smouldering passions ignite, but remember that this is Carmen-themed where lust, jealousy, and murder have to fuel the narrative. Bourne’s vision is as bold as it is beautiful and bloody, with his characters’ sexualities straddling their desires and all leading to an inevitable and heartbreaking revenge.

Will Bozier is Luca the titular car man, with the practically perfect Zizi Strallen opposite him as Lana. Both of these performers are outstanding in their dance and acting and where the intimate nuance of stolen glances can so easily be lost in the Royal Albert Hall’s vastness, the billboards that double up as projection screens show occasional snatches of beautifully filmed lingering glances in true Sunset Boulevard style close-up. Strallen is wondrous in portraying both her allure to Luca and also in capturing quite how irresistible she finds him to be. Mary Poppins she ain’t!

Will Bozier and Zizi Strallen

Bozier is all muscle and movement. A guy who cannot keep it in his trousers and to whom any hole is a potential goal. Oozing testosterone, his is a role of almost perpetual or potential conflict or coitus. Physically demanding, Bozier’s performance is breathtaking.

Paris Fitzpatrick’s Angelo is the more diminutive of the younger guys, clearly vulnerable and at times violently violated and abused. Integral to the plot, his is a carefully delivered role. Likewise Kayla Collymore’s Rita. While hers may be the more marginal of the principal roles, Collymore dances with an assured and nuanced sensitivity.

Kayla Collymore and Paris Fitzpatrick

The middle-aged, flabby Dino is played here by Alan Vincent, a neat touch being that back in the day at the show’s Plymouth premiere, it had been Vincent who created the role of Luca. At the Royal Albert Hall however, Vincent captures the rage of the cuckolded Mediterranean exquisitely. And as is so often the way with a New Adventures production Lez Brotherston’s design work shifts the audience from London’s south-west to America’s mid-west effortlessly. 

For more than two decades The Car Man has been lifting the hood on modern dance, treating its audience to a powerful spectacle of music and dance that stirs the soul and pulsates the emotions. If you’ve seen it before, then you need to revisit this outing to wonder at how Bourne’s company fill the Royal Albert Hall. And if you haven’t seen it, then all the more reason to grasp the opportunity right now. Either way, just go!

The Company

Runs until 19th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Jersey Boys - Review

Churchill Theatre, Bromley


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

The cast of Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys returns to the UK touring circuit, with this stand-out musical about The Four Seasons playing at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre for this week only. 

What is so attractive about the show is that not only does it offer a chance to hear the band’s hit songs played live, it also reveals how much they were ordinary people. With their own flaws and troubles, the show reveals what happened in their lives and what formed their music.

Michael Pickering plays Frankie Valli, showing the lead singer's journey from a humble Italian family to worldwide stardom. It isn’t easy to sing like Frankie, with his unique lead falsetto voice and Pickering performs well, matched by his acting. 

Dalton Woods’ Tommy DeVito unfolded more stories of the band’s history, from his initial co-performance with Frankie, with little success, to the full team-up of the Four Lovers, as the band was originally known that was to raise them and him to chart fame.  Lewis Griffith as Nick Massi and Blair Gibson as Bob Gaudio complete the quartet, with the show providing a glorious showcase to classic hits including Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, My Eyes Adored You, Dawn, Go Away and Who Loves You

For South East Londoners, Jersey Boys at the Churchill Theatre is a must see, especially if you want to enjoy a show that is all about the highest West End standards in musical theatre, but at a far more affordable ticket price!

Runs until 11th June, then continues on tour

Friday, 3 June 2022

The Lion - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music, lyrics and book by Benjamin Scheuer
Directed by Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels

Max Alexander-Taylor

There are likely to be few more impressive performances than Max Alexander-Taylor’s turn as Ben in The Lion now playing in Southwark Playhouse’s Little space. In the 75 minute one-act piece, Alexander-Taylor, aided only by 5 guitars (4 acoustic, 1 electric) takes Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical look back at the first 30 years of his life, in a virtuoso combination of acting and musicianship.

Alexander-Taylor’s first class performance however is stifled within a structure that barely gets beyond the two-dimensional. The Lion is more scripted cabaret than theatre, with Scheuer treating the audience almost as his therapist, The show's narrative (comprising both lyrics and their linking monologues) is almost entirely expositional, with minimal dramatic substance to lift the tale. We learn that Scheuer had a troubled relationship with his father and subsequently his mother, a failed relationship and that at 30 he was blighted with a (thankfully cured) debilitating cancer. While this may be an undoubtedly sincere and humbling narrative, as presented it is neither gripping nor memorable drama. All too often modern musical-theatre writing can descend into little more than self-indulgent, introspective balladry. The Lion descends deeper than most.

Scheuer’s journey will resonate with many as dysfunctional families, depression and cancer are sadly all too common. But worthy causes alone do not a musical make. Outstanding work from Max Alexander-Taylor, but this lion fails to roar.

Runs until 25th June
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Friday, 27 May 2022

The Unfriend - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Mark Gatiss

Frances Barber

The Unfriend takes a zany idea that’s been based upon a germ of lived experience and blows it up into a two-hour farce. Along the way there is some outstanding performance work, but the story fails to engage.

Peter and Debbie meet Elsa on a cruise. They are a typically mild-mannered English suburban couple, she is a larger than life American widow from Denver with a monstrous past. In a programme note Steven Moffat describes the tale that he has penned as “comedy gold”. Well maybe there are some nuggets lurking in the text, but there is a fair amount of tedium to endure too.

Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington play the hapless Brits, the straight guys around whom the comedy happens. But there is a skill in creating understated English characters who work well in comedy, that Moffat doesn’t possess. Peter and Debbie are no Ben and Ria from Carla Lane’s 1970s TV series Butterflies and given that Moffat is currently a prolific UK TV screenwriter, the narrative he has created here is an example of quite how far the standards of British comedy writing have fallen. Some of the toilet gags in the second half are just downright puerile.

What is magnificent about this play however is Frances Barber’s Elsa. Her character is a female version of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock fused with Jack Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne. Barber bestrides her scenes like a Colossus, devious, larger than life and irresistibly evil. Alongside Barber, Michael Simkins in the most modest of cameos is another perfectly crafted comic creation, years of experience manifest in his perfectly timed delivery.

Mark Gatiss helms the piece. Directing farce is the toughest of gigs and is clearly a craft that (the otherwise highly accomplished) Gatiss has yet to master. Robert Jones and Mark Henderson, Chichester’s current wonder duo of design and lighting, make the Minerva’s presentation of this drama look stunning. 

And as for Frances Barber's performance, kill to get a ticket!

Runs until 9th July
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Henry Goodman talks about bringing Hercule Poirot to the stage

Henry Goodman has received near universal acclaim for his portrayal of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express that opened in Chichester last week. Describing the Belgian sleuth as “a cop with a conscience, a detective with dignity”, earlier this month Goodman took a break from his hectic rehearsal schedule to speak with me about the production.

Henry Goodman returns to the Chichester stage this month, leading the cast on a newly-written version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. One of the crime-writer’s classic yarns, the story has been committed to screen numerous times. Now, for the first time, in Ken Ludwig’s adaptation, the murder mystery is to be performed live on stage, with Goodman waxing up his moustache to step into the role of famed detective Hercule Poirot. 

“What is so exciting about the challenge of this story is Poirot. We all know I’m standing on the shoulders of giants – Kenneth Branagh, David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, John Malkovich, Albert Finney and Alfred Molina have all played him on screen – but lockdown gave me the time to read quite a lot of the novels and look at all the films. I didn’t do this to nick ideas, although there might be the odd thing that inspired me, but to soak myself up in Poirot and try to understand why he is so important to people. Why did Christie fall in love with him? I see Poirot as a figure of hope and this adaptation enhances that. I’m in my 70s, so it’s an older man who is saying: ‘This was the case that really was unique in my life. Come back and have a look at it with me.’

“Why is Poirot so refreshing, and why is he able to say things about the British that the British can’t say about themselves? It’s not just that he’s got an odd walk, or that he’s slightly eccentric in his speech, or that he is a foreigner out of place amongst all these people because in this story there are a lot of foreigners all trapped on a train who are from Russia, Sweden and Hungary. No, the interesting, exotic thing is it that this blend of cultures makes him act differently to how he does when he is with the English. Ludwig has been very clever about keeping alive the whodunnit and the questioning, but also in allowing me to observe different nationalities and different presumed attitudes. He’s not just a cop with a conscience, he is a man with a moral strength, and that’s why this case is so important to him as he invites the audience to go back and explore it with him.”

Previous Poirots have all been on film or TV where the camera can be close-up on every hair on his moustache. Here, we are in a 1300-seat auditorium, which Goodman last appeared at in 2010 when he played the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Prime Minister. “Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean melodrama, because it’s a wonderfully powerful and intimate space, but it’s theatre not film,” says Henry. “That means not ‘bigness’, but a different type of laser-focus on certain things that a camera can cheat on. The camera can suggest a little shot through a window or a lingering dolly shot or all sorts of things, but we have to make it happen in a different way.”

Speaking about the historical context of the story, Goodman continued: “I am very conscious that it’s set in the 1930s just after the Nazi rise of 1933. Although it’s a murder mystery, and Ken’s been very strong on the thriller element of working out what happens when and where, there are certain social attitudes built into Christie in her time. Some of these tend towards the colonial and imperialist. However, these people are trapped on a train in the ‘30s. I don’t want to give anything away, but towards the end of the play they are revealed to be acting in a particular light of current events. There are the attitudes of the thirties: of nobility, royalty, a Russian princess, an American actress. These are the characters in the novel, so they’re nothing new, but we have intensified the contrast between them, creating a strong insight into the attitudes of the time, which speak to us now because here we are with Russia invading Ukraine. In the ‘30s that’s exactly what was going on – an invasion of Europe.”

In 1997 Goodman brought Broadway’s Billy Flynn to London in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. I ask if there are any parallels between playing a ruthless criminal defence lawyer and an investigating detective?

“I’ve played a lot of manipulative nasty people, but the reason these roles are so interesting to play, and why people enjoy reading criminal novels and dealing with dark stuff, is that there’s something charismatic about them. Flynn is manipulative, while Poirot discovers other people’s manipulation, and that is a joy to play. Poirot is passionate about his moral certitude in a world that is in danger.”

Goodman grew up in the East End and worked a pitch selling watches on Petticoat Lane. He landed his first role in 1960 in a film called Conspiracy of Hearts. He was 10. “The film was about little kids being rescued from a concentration camp by nuns. My picture was in Woman’s Weekly – the first image of myself on film was standing behind barbed wire as a little boy in a concentration camp. These things go very deep.

Runs until 4th June at Chichester, then tours to Theatre Royal, Bath

This interview was first published in the Jewish News

Photos of Henry Goodman by Johan Persson