Friday, 15 October 2021

The Cherry Orchard - Review

Theatre Royal, Windsor


Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias

Ian McKellen

There is a timeless allegory to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and in Martin Sherman’s adaptation the classic story's essence is maintained even if Sherman translates serfdom into the more recognisable description of slavery. The tragedy of bereavement and the fabric of life and heritage are woven into this tale of one family’s decline from a life of wealth and grandeur, and of another man's conquest over his family's one-time masters. It is a rich narrative and in Sean Mathias’ production much of Chekhov’s literary genius is maintained.

Francesca Annis’ Ranyevskaya is a tormented soul, bankrupted financially and fled to Paris to try and escape the grief of her young son’s tragic death, yet inextricably bound to the heritage of the Russian mansion of her earlier life and its cherry orchard. Annis is compelling, but fails to hit the sweet-spot that would truly bring the audience into sharing her deepening pain and loss.

Opposite Annis is Martin Shaw as Lopakhin, her nouveau-riche compatriot and ultimately her nemesis, in an equally measured performance, but with a shade more credibility to his character’s journey.

The glue that holds the story together is Ian McKellen’s elderly serf Firs. McKellen’s mastery is such that with the slightest word and nuance we empathise with his plight and his frailty, his humanity and above all his history, in a mastery of his craft that the two lead actors fail to match. 

The Cherry Orchard’s strength, particularly when set against our modern era, is that it speaks with such elegance on issues that our contemporary, curriculum-bashing activists tackle so crassly. Similarly, Mathias’ company replete with its gender-fluid diversity, distracts. This is unquestionably a quality night at the theatre – but it could have been so much more.

Runs to 13th November
Photo credit: Jack Merriman

Friday, 1 October 2021

Witness For The Prosecution - Review

County Hall, London


Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey

Emer McDaid

Director Lucy Bailey writes in the programme for Witness For The Prosecution how when she first visited the “long discussed council chamber at London’s County Hall it was covered in dust”. In today’s  Covid-safe theatres the playing space may well be spotless and the dust is no longer, but County Hall still oozes just as much atmosphere and grandeur and that’s before a cast member has even said a line.

Despite the status of such a grand playing space setting the piece off in many ways from the moment you set foot in the auditorium, the first half is at times a slow burner, but audiences beware... pay attention and listen closely, you don’t want to miss a trick, let alone a line or piece of evidence that may later prove vital in the audience-jury verdict.

Leading the cast is Joe McNamara who plays Leonard Vole and is the accused on trial, a debut West End performance for Vole and yet he nails the character to a tea, flitting from panic to calm, anger to devastation with each development and very much taking the audience with him. Emer McDaid arrives on cue as the elusive and mysterious Romaine Vole and seems to lead the proceedings with her witness for the prosecution. 

Yet the leaders of the court room in this case are Miles Richardson and Jonathan Firth as Mr Myers QC and Sir Wilfrid Robards QC respectively. The court room provides the perfect stage for these two fine actors to lock horns throughout with a particularly assured performance from Robarts whose wit and dexterity is impressive. Teddy Kempner’s Mr Mayhew is equally fine as the pair work together throughout the court case.

A rare observation but indeed one worth noting was such a large company, many with extremely minimal moments of action yet so many on stage throughout the piece all contributing to the atmosphere that times could have been cut with a knife.

While the set design allows some flexibility in location throughout, at times it seems to get in the way with. That said Bailey’s direction allows for scenes to be played with a natural focus despite the in the round seating and truly leaves the audience not knowing what will happen next.

Off the West End geographically but not by much Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness For the Prosecution’ really is a fine treat, and very much an established one. Amongst the comings and goings of shorter runs for many plays in and around town, this production now in its 5th year truly is a thrilling night of whodunnit, classic drama.

Booking to 20th March 2022
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz
Reviewed by: Matt Hooper

Back To The Future The Musical - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard
Book by Bob Gale
Directed by John Rando

Olly Dobson

In a dramatic gesture matched only in magnitude by the invention of the flux capacitor itself, so have the cast and creative team behind Back To The Future The Musical delivered one of the best new musicals to hit the West End in recent years.

Bravely opening as the pandemic (hopefully) fades, the Adelphi was packed to a cheering audience savouring a show that wasn’t just based upon a classic 1985 movie but which takes that film’s narrative to a fourth dimension amidst a veritable nuclear-powered fusion of effects wizardry, video projection, and good old-fashioned human talent.

It’s not just a tough gig to set a science-fiction yarn to music, Back To The Future also demands of its leads that they can inhabit characters including the leads that were so memorably brought to life on screen by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox . This show however pulls it off with an inspired casting that sees accomplished Broadway actor Roger Bart create the stage version of Doc Brown. Opposite Bart, Olly Dobson is equally convincing as teenage time-traveller Marty McFly.

Nearly 40 years old, the story is a classic. Marty gets sent back in time 30 years by the madcap inventor Brown, where he stumbles across his pre-marital parents. And as his youthfully gorgeous mother Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland) falls for the new kid in town, unaware of course that he is her son, it is down to Marty and the (younger, naturally) Doc to engineer the plot that sees Lorraine fall for her unlikely suitor George McFly, so that in time the pair can marry and beget Marty… 

Roger Bart

Throughout, the acting is flawless, not least with Hugh Coles’ George McFly, a veritable masterpiece of physical comedy. Coles’ perfect interpretation of the hapless George delivers not only perfectly timed hilarity but also immaculately pitched nuance that must surely stand him in good stead when the Olivier for Best Supporting Actor is being considered. There is pathos too in the bond between Marty and the Doc - again, never milked, just perfectly pitched.

And, for the most part, the show’s new songs are also rather clever. In a time when new musical theatre writing can often disappoint, the numbers created here combine humour and passion together with perfectly pitched insight into the human condition. Hello - Is Anybody Home? as Marty gazes despairingly at his (1985) family, is matched in wit by his (youthful) dad’s My Myopia. Whichever of Silvestri or Ballard thought to rhyme myopia with utopia is another deeply talented soul.

Actors and lyrics aside, Back To The Future has always been about the car! So much more than just a ripping yarn, what is needed here has been the translation of a 20th century blockbuster movie crammed full of (non-CGI) special effects and squeezing it into the confines of a proscenium arch, beyond which is a theatre brimming with the expectations of a tech-savvy 21st century audience.

Director John Rando pulls off this task magnificently – aided by Tim Hatley’s design work, Chris Fisher’s illusions, Finn Ross outstanding video projections (Doc Brown’s climbing of the clock tower towards the show’s finale is a hilarious coup-de-theatre in itself!), Gareth Owen’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting. The staging is imaginative, stunning and clearly expensive – everything that a big West End show should be – and, above all, imaginative. There will be no spoilers in this review – just go and savour what these guys manage to do with a classy company of actors and a DeLorean. (And if this 2021 iteration of the story sees those pesky Libyan terrorists from 1985 get canned in the name of politically correct progress, well hey that's showbiz!)

Jim Henson’s 14 piece band make fine work of the newly scored stuff – theres a great leitmotif running through the show that is a nod to the movie – with the more recent songs standing up well to the timeless gems of Johnny B. Goode and Huey Lewis’ The Power Of Love. The dancework is wonderfully tight too, with choreographer Chris Bailey lobbing in some wonderful moments of pastiche that only add to the evening's splendour.  

It says much for London as a global centre of theatre that the producers have chosen to workshop and launch this All-American show over here and with a predominantly British company of cast and creatives. As soon as circumstances make it possible and profitable, the show deserves a swift transfer across the Atlantic. 

Throughout, Back To The Future The Musical exceeds expectations, consistently delivering excellence in acting, song, dance, and oh, those effects.  Family entertainment in musical theatre does not get better than this. Just go!

Booking until 1st July 2022
Photo credit: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

Monday, 27 September 2021

Luminosa - Review

Jacksons Lane, London


Lawrence Swaddle and Tasha Rushbrooke

Luminosa from the UK’s Lost In Translation circus company is a novel interpretation of the classic circus show with a wonderfully executed combination of acrobatics, gymnastics and comedy, all set off with a cabaret-style band in accompaniment throughout.

For the most part this is a family-focused show that starts with a high octane aerial performance that sets the tone for the remainder of the evening. As is to be expected, the skills of the Luminosa troupe combine jaw-dropping human talent with, at times, death-defying bravado! 

Accompanied by three assistant reviewers aged 6, 8 and 10 the entire review squad were held enthralled throughout. Praise from the three children included:

“The foot juggler impressed with the number of balls she juggled without dropping any of them!” 

“The astonishing human trapeze filled Jacksons Lane with awe, as the acrobat somersaulted in the air”

“After an exhilarating performance, I was amazed as to what this group of acrobats can do. They showed plenty of teamwork and resilience in making this exciting performance” 

Shortly to tour the UK, Luminosa makes for a fantastic evening’s entertainment.

Plays at Jackson Lane until 29th September, then tours - details here
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Thursday, 23 September 2021

The Last Five Years - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Molly Lynch

For The Last Five Years, the last eighteen months have seen this show albeit skewered by the pandemic, transfer from a glorious run on London’s fringe at the Southwark Playhouse to the commercial bear-pit of the West End, taking up a month’s residence at the Garrick.

The artistic genius of its performers remains. Slightly matured from their south London opening, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson remain excellent as time-crossed lovers Cathy and Jamie, famously charting their five year relationship in opposing time dimensions. As Jamie moves forward from impetuous passion to duplicitous deceit, so does Cathy follow a reverse arc, opening with the grief of a shattered marriage and closing with her deliriously sincere and hopeful Goodbye Until Tomorrow. 

Molly and Oli are indeed magnificent - but not for no reason has this curiosity of a show struggled to even open on Broadway. The intense magic of Jonathan O’Boyle’s work at Southwark dissipates under the scrutiny of a multi-tiered West End house, its cast now removed to behind their proscenium arch. What this production defines is that The Last 5 Years is essentially a chamber work and that Brown’s ingenious dissection of a love’s birth and subsequent demise is best savoured up-close. While some of his show’s numbers are barnstorming roofraisers (Lynch delivers a knockout I Can Do Better Than That) overall, the piece struggles to captivate.

This Garrick production is one for the fans, undoubtedly a gathering of genius in both its cast and creative crew. But much like Jamie and Cathy’s love, something has died here.

Runs until 17th October
Phot credit: Helen Maybanks

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Aretha And Me - Review

The Pheasantry, London


Patti Boulaye

Patti Boulaye’s cabaret Aretha And Me, is as much a glimpse into Boulaye’s own life story as it is a tribute to one of soul music’s most astounding singers. Offering us glimpses into a childhood that saw her bear witness to the horrors of the Biafran War , through to her teenage arrival into London and a whirlwind entry into musical theatre and then a recording career, Boulaye’s journey is a testament to both faith and talent. Her faith is important to her, but so too is the bedrock of her conservative family values and the respect and love that she shows, not just for her familial roots but in her manifest pride in her husband, children and grandchildren, runs through her cabaret patter like a stick of rock.

Notwithstanding Boulaye’s personal strengths, the evening is of course about classic songs, sung to perfection and if Aretha Franklin was the Queen Of Soul then Patti Boulaye is her heir apparent. She takes some of Franklin’s most memorable musical highlights – and one or two lesser know gems including a spine-tingling Nessun Dorma – and delivers them with a consistent level of flair and genius, that it is impossible to fault her singing. Boulaye gets the evening going with some crackers including Think, I Say A Little Prayer and Son Of A Preacher Man and with a mixture of pre-recorded backing tracks and live piano accompaniment, Alan Rogers her musical director, provides impressive support.

But it is in her soul interpretations that Boulaye holds us all in the palm of her hand. Her take on Amazing Grace and Etta James’ signature recording At Last (of course covered by Aretha) leave one moved way beyond expectation – while her second act opener of the Habanera from Carmen Jones is quite simply a delight.

Boulaye is taking her show on the road throughout the autumn – Go see her, you will not find a finer voice touring the land!

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Cirque Berserk - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Returning to London's West End, Cirque Berserk deliver an evening of timeless human genius.

Bursting onto the stage like a pride of lions huddled together in perfect unison, were 7 agile men that hooked the audience into the very first extraordinary act of the night. The Timbuktu Tumblers, so aptly named, dazzled the crowd with their acrobatic prowess. The way they held each other up creating several different and quite literally, man-made structures, with such ease is a sight to behold. The danger was ramped up later in their routine when they danced under fire limbo sticks, with nothing short of a whispers breath between the floor and the flaming bar! A marvellous and rare performance to behold.

Another mesmerising act of the night comes from a more traditional circus acrobatic troupe, heralding from Mongolia these acrobats were flying through the air as a fish swims through the ocean. Traditional trapeze artistry accompanied by death defying gymnastic stunts kept the audience clapping through there whole act. One of their stunts being so dangerous a safety mat is required to prevent serious injury or death. Demonstrating both beauty and skill, their ribbon bound performance mesmerised adults and children alike. The tranquil, yet energetic music matched the way they moved so perfectly entwined with the silk, it was impossible to look away. A pin drop could have been heard amongst the audience, for all eyes were entranced by the talented act. 

Special mention must be given to 3ft 6inch tall comic, acrobat and showman Paulo Dos Santos who inadvertently came on stage between acts. His is a silly yet charmingly brilliant turn, one which engaged the children and kept them on their toes, with nuances that only the adults would understand to keep them giggling. It truly was a fulfilling sight to behold when a man who was from first initial reception seen as merely there to fill some laughs on stage, was also able to also perform some of the most challenging circus acts of the night. A touching tribute to the show.

The finale, a diesel fuelled spine tingling danger act was truly the definition of ‘Berserkus’. The Lucius team a group of professional dirt bike riders and the Globe of Death. Up to three riders flying inside the globe riding upside down while practically touching elbows as they zoom past each other at upwards of 60mph. A wild finish to an exhilarating show that, for family entertainment in the West End, is up there with the best.

Runs until 11th September. Tickets available here
Reviewed by Christian Yeomans
Photo credit: Piet-Hein Out