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Jack And The Beanstalk: New Wimbledon Theatre

December 13, 2017

 
(Seen at the afternoon performance on 9th December 2017).

The week before last’s blog was a personal “wish list” of things that make the only form of theatre that I take deadly seriously, special. I rather wonder if Qdos Pantomimes read it… because this year Wimbledon’s show pretty much ticked the lot. Fun-packed, shiny cast… sweets thrown… yay!


The marquee name this year is Al “Pub Landlord” Murray, and I can only say that it was a real pleasure to be there and witness him lose his “panto cherry” (but find an apple – “in” joke, cough up for a ticket). Can he do “family entertainment.” Oh yes, he can. He really, really can – and he clearly loved doing so. Quick wit, his initial slight hesitancy made it even better as he grew in confidence at every moment. Compare and contrast to the odious Jarred Christmas of two years ago (and yes, I will keep bringing it up for so long as Wimbledon fail to give a written guarantee it’ll never happen again). Mr Murray should clear his diary for many Christmases to come. He has earned his place behind the panto bar, and is now licensed to serve seasonal mirth at all hours.


Import from Hackney Empire Clive Rowe (Dame Trot) really needs no introduction. Widely acclaimed as one of the best in the business, with more multicoloured outfits than Joseph, more bounce than Tigger and a lustiness to make Madonna look like an untouched… anyway, if you are handsome and in the front stalls be afraid, be very afraid (also those with attractively spiky hair – ho, ho, dear Dad). Everybody else just relax and bring a waterproof cover to protect the seat, out of courtesy for the next occupant.


Liam Tamne (Jack Trot) is best known to me from two successful fringe events this year. He can add Panto Leading Boy to the list. Brave, a singer, dancer and nicely timed comic, it’s no wonder Charlotte Gooch (Princess Apricot) said… again, buy a ticket. Gooch makes her Apricot a peach.


The fair panto princess of your dreams, with a nice streak of resistance in the only slightly questionable scene (Weinstein, perhaps not appropriate this year).


Equally strong, Spirit of the Beans (Robyn Mellor) has a voice that almost stops the show, and a lovely opportunity to demonstrate it.


With Fleshcreep (revoltingly scary to go with the other bit of his name, John Jack) the pair had the difficult task of opening proceedings, and managed to bond with the audience enough to make the next opening choral number go with a swing.


That itself is worthy of mention. Ken Dodd always maintains a show should open on a “happy village.” We get it, and this year’s ensemble – Pamela Blair, Taylor Bruce, Emilie Hope, Bronte Lavine, Gareth Moran, Jessica Oakman, Christopher Ribz-Gordon and Ross Russell are as talented and energetic a bunch as you will find. Particularly attractive too, with one exception (just teasing, but I like to put that in, as it worries the lot of them in the dressing room for the rest of the run).


A nod too to the Babes of South London Dance Studios, who double as a wonderful farmyard.

Not since the Peter Hall years at the National Theatre have I attended two productions by the same director in a single week. After an appropriately seasonal haunting with “The Woman In White” at the Charing Cross Theatre (see it), Thom Southerland turns up here – and proves again what a ‘no nonsense’ director he is. Firm hand on the script, but always letting the performers shine.

Ian Westbrook’s 3D Creations, The Twins FX and Mike Coltman give us visuals that are as unexpected as they are brilliantly realised, while Gary Hind has selected some cracking old favourite tunes, and Barry Robinson and the musicians also pull off a neat stunt as Matt Flint keeps even those not known for moving on stage bouncing around.

For them, Alan McHugh’s script is short (2 hours, including 20 minute interval) but it packs in plenty of traditional routines, and delights in the expected call-and-responses. Add the personalising quirks for the stars, the vital jokes of all kinds (the obligatory topical Royal Wedding one being nicely near-the-knuckle but still clean) and proper rhyming opening, closing

plus delightfully happy ending – the result is a sore throat on the way home for all. Exactly as it should be.

The return of Qudos to Wimbledon is, in short, a triumph. If only they could restore the hilarious “pre-show” video screen with it’s mocking of the audience, it would be complete. A measure of how good it all is: first, a – well, the – reader of this blog was at the same performance. At the interval, the person informed me that a “first time visitor to theatre, ever” – a youngster sat in the row behind – had been simply amazed and entranced at what theatre can do. Second, I personally booked at the interval for next year. How’s that for a recommendation? Oh yes, it is!

5 stars.

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Going To The Theatre*

December 13, 2017

*But we’re too sloshed to ask, dear.

By West End Producer.
Publisher: Nick Hern Books.

All producers put on shows, some even put on shows in their own theatres. West End Producer now puts theatres on show. Think you know how to be an audience member? That you know everything about some of the most famous musicals ever – and the buildings they were performed in? How to address properly an actor? Then this sequel to the famous “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Acting (But Were Afraid to Ask, Dear)” will come as quite a surprise.

Prosecco fuels a long and mildly unsteady look at how to chose a show, select a seat, buy the ticket, pick an outfit, devise snacks, navigate the auditorium, deal with unwelcome behaviour (the “Theatre Prefect” scheme is genius), avoid lavatory queues… and most important of all, negotiate the bar at all stages of the evening, pre-show, interval and afterwards.

Every drop of advice is dispensed with trade mark wit, surprising insight and (not always entirely accurate, but incredibly credible) factoids. Even better, we are given the benefit of West End Producer’s deep inside knowledge of the business; there are some wonderful mentions of lesser known sources of theatre information, including my favourite discussion board.

Once past the technicalities of getting us, the audience, to the venue, further highlights include just how what we are seeing is put together. We learn what goes into a daily “show report,” and exactly what professionals call those flaps that help focus stage lights (and no, it isn’t at all what you’d imagine).

It’s also very much about people. Never forget that most working in that industry we call “Show” and they call “The Office” do so for love – as heaven knows there’s little money for anyone below the top. There’s a definitive list of jobs that need to be done, from Alternate to Wig Department, and WEP (as friends know him) urges that those we encounter on a trip are treated with the respect they deserve – a helpful Usher can help your evening go with an even greater swing than you can imagine, apparently.

Best of all, the irreverent parody reaches new heights. My own online West End theatre seat reviewing efforts are taken to a whole new level, way beyond anything I have achieved. And that is only by page 31.

Getting into his stride, there are breakdowns of many (in)famous shows, adding a whole new dimension next time you see one; plus great one-liners – making salient and valid (if not entirely sober) points – sprinkled throughout. His finale walk / stagger around theatreland, taking a look at the great buildings (and mentioning a few wonderful venues beyond the West End) is a landmark triumph of both writing and personal navigation skills.

A heartfelt epilogue reminds us that the arts are vital to reflect our humanity, and that those in charge of educating our children must never forget it. This book is a fine start to that process.

Proof that theatre love never dies, in a sequel for once living up to, even surpassing the original. So, for WEP’s latest effort, let’s bring those jazz hands together and make a noise with them – it’s called applause, dear.

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man: DVD

December 13, 2017

Created back in 2000, Illuminations now release a live DVD, filmed at Sadler’s Wells. For dance fans, it’s unmissable, for those curious about the art form, there can be no better introduction.

After years of “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella,” Bourne’s team wanted something set in the real world. The hit on the idea of combining the story elements of a drifter arriving in small town America – key of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Obsession,” with the music of Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”

So the show opens with mid-Western small town folk going about their daily lives. Dino (Alan Vincent) runs his garage and a grubby-looking diner. Much younger wife Lana (Zizi Strallen) assists and hope for better. Sister Rita (Kate Lyons) is there for her – her kindly boyfriend Angelo (Dominic North) is bullied but loyal. And then sexy drifter Luca (Christopher Trenfield) arrives.

What follows is a twisting tale of seduction, betrayal and rough justice – entirely told by body movement, a terrific Les Brotherston set and inventive Chris Davey lighting.

The tone switches from light comedy as the crew prepare for a night out, to the thrill of automobile action, tingles of seduction, the bleakness of jail and the viciousness of avengement.

Needless to say, the dance is impeccable. Trenfield and Strallen between them have a chemistry that sets the stage ablaze. Conspirators, ultimately bound by fatal events, along the way there is also comedy and truth in what they do, providing strong contrast to the darkest moments.

North possibly gets the most interesting role. His scenes as a wronged man are played with dignity, the steps always suggesting that even in the depths, he has something to give and retain a sense of self. Working with Lyons, there are touching moments as her own formidable skills bring focus to a difficult scene as a complicated scenario is played out.

Vincent manages a truculence yet tempers it with something that keeps the audience on-side. His handling of the drama in particular are assured, pacing sequences with a skill that manages the stage and story for the company.

This is a group effort. According to the informative extra documentary, the cast can play most roles, and have done so, bringing a different perspective to each performance. This recording is thus just one of a number of combinations, but if they had to record only one, I think they should be proud of it. An interesting gift for anyone seeking a celebration of Bourne’s company at it’s very best.

All I want from Christmas Panto is…

December 6, 2017

First one this week, second the week after, and yet to decide how many more. As it is the season, I thought I’d keep it short and snappy (as a great panto dwarf should be – see, the jokes start already) and come up with a very simple list that even a panto producer insane enough to hire the obnoxious Jarred Christmas to pollute the stage might understand and be able to work with.

So, in no particular order (apart from the first one, but that’s a personal thing) the list runs something like this:

 

A pretty girl with a singing voice and charm to match her looks.

 

A handsome prince for her to fall in love with.

 

Great jokes, all types – visual, wordy, clean or slightly (but not too) rude, spoken and sung.

 

A ‘Good Fairy’ to cheer.

 

An ‘Evil Witch’ to boo.

 

A ‘Wicked step-parent’ to boo even louder.

 

A messy decorating or cooking routine.

 

A panto dame with multiple fabulously outrageous hilarious costumes.

 

A transformation scene to make everybody gasp.

 

Those songs that everyone knows and wants to join in with.

 

No banging on about “politically correct, save the world” topics, health and safety and other moaners. The season is too short.

 

And finally….

Bring back the sweets thrown into the audience (I always sit row C house left at Wimbledon, front block aisle Palladium, crèmes and soft centres, please, not coffee ones).

 

That’s the list, and now I’m ready for the start… oh yes I am…

Elaine Paige In Concert: The Alban Arena.

November 29, 2017

(seen at the evening performance on 26th November 2017).

The words “plus support” on a ticket always give me the dreads, as you can’t take the risk (as the people in front of me did) that the “support act” will provide the first half –meaning you can arrive at the interval and not miss the headliner you actually paid to see. It’s a safe bet that if you pull that one, then it’ll be one of those shows where the star opens, the support act covering a couple of times during the evening.

Here, the first half hour consisted of Musical Director John G Smith and his band demonstrating just why current “X-Factor” finalist Grace Davies is a rare find indeed. Horrible acoustics reduced able musicians to a tinny sound that persisted throughout the evening… but really, a quartet of original songs (with some soupy lyrics) and a dodgy Billy Joel orchestral didn’t do much to soften the atmosphere for the star’s arrival.

Around 55 minutes after the show began, the First Lady of British Musical Theatre finally arrived – and proceeded for the next 80 or to demonstrate just why she still has absolute hold on that title.

The final concert in a 19 date UK tour, faced with a flat audience aching for her to “get on with it,” every ounce of experience, personality and that unique “star power” were unleashed – and the well-deserved thaw began.

Being honest, I was expecting a standard “song book” – shows she had been in, a little chat. Instead, this was a far more personal exploration of the music that shaped her inner world.

Plenty of Jimmy Webb – “If These Walls Could Speak” – coupled with a phenomenal (and little known) Carly Simon number “Two Sisters” being a highlight. There were also touches of Bacharach, “Beautiful” Carol King and even a quick nod to Bread and Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”).

Particularly effective were Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” complete with a very decent story about how he left her. Also notable was a Beatles “Sgt Pepper” medley, with an infectious energy and highly unexpected ending. A youngster with learning difficulties approached the stage to welcome Ms Paige to St Albans on behalf of us all. An interruption taken with the greatest grace and compassionate kindness possible by the star, and indeed the venue staff.

Of course, what everybody was waiting for were her showstoppers. Her half of “I Know Him So Well” showed up at 8.55pm or so, and frankly sounded slightly odd without the second vocal. For “Memory” and “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” though, the wait was until the encore – and both were worth it. Clearly much thought had gone into the particular arrangements, and as a closer, “Argentina” has plenty going for it.

Support act aside, perhaps the only other gripe was the organisation of the songs. From reviews of other concerts in this tour, it’s clear that Paige shuffles her deck every night – a bold and very wise decision to keep herself fresh. The only problem is that it doesn’t always leave the clearest path for the audience to follow. Luckily, her personality (and that laugh – yes, same as the radio show) is sufficient to keep us on-side for the long haul.

Shorter than one might expect (the show, not the performer, that is already widely known and deserves no further mention) but pretty satisfying, as a final night of a long tour, celebrating a long and glorious career with warmth and new interest, this is about as good as it gets.

 

4 stars.

Inside Pussy Riot: Saatchi Gallery

November 22, 2017

(seen at the morning performance on 16th November 2017).

www.insidepussyriot.com

Those of a certain generation will remember the huge “Christmas Grotto” setups in the major department stores of the land each December (or as early as the managers thought they could get away with it). A large section of the stockroom was boarded off and the window-dressing department got the chance to create a load of wood and cotton-wool scenes (with plenty of silver foil if the theme that year was “Space.”) Parents would hand over a pretty fair chunk of cash and “Tracee from Stationery” would wear her best elf outfit and guide the tinies past the “nodding reindeer” and into Santa’s beery lap. Quick prezzy from the barrel and that was your lot. With a bit of imagination, though, it was magic.

Kind of appropriate, then, that in a festively bedecked Saatchi Gallery, Les Enfants Terribles are presenting something pretty similar, but with a political edge. Concieved by Peter Verzilov, with a script by Oliver Lansley (assisted by actual Pussy Rioter Nadya Tolokonnikova), this “immersive theatre experience” follows the process of protest through trial, conviction, hard labour and eventual release, in an hour-long series of “walk-though” interactive scenes.

To describe the actual events would be to take away the major impact of the event – the “not knowing what will happen” element. I won’t do that, but suffice to say that with a good group (sadly, mine was a bunch of disinterested young students) it’s impossible not to experience some kind of emotional reaction to the experience.

Do be aware that “shrinking violets” and those not willing to participate to a degree (nothing more than following instructions – easier than not, is the point they make – and a little solo shout) should give this a miss, and claustrophobics are also advised not to take part, for good reason.

Director Christa Harris makes time move fairly quickly, with some nice ideas – your journey really is personal, based on a few facts gleaned at the beginning, and Designer Zoe Koperski does what she can within the budget – fibreboard bars are pretty convincing, even if some of the later joinery and soundproofing are rather budget.

The script occasionally veers “off message,” and one scene in particular fails to deliver anything like the satirical impact it was intended to do. Another scene is also confused as too much is delivered too quickly (and slightly inaudibly), while poor design hampers the final pay-off – the actor sadly coming out of character rather than improvising around it, too.

The major issue, sadly, is that many of the actors lack the authority to instil the required emotions into the entire group. Two unruly teenage boys and some rather under-educated teenage girls in my group were lost by much of the surrounding symbolism, and not helped by the unaggressive approach of the cast. Their outbursts rather spoiled many of the effects for the rest.

Done with more creative energy, the result could have achieved greater impact. As it was, it was actually a relief at one point to be given private time to reflect. During that time, much of the show made a deeper sense. There is truth in this – and a strange gratitude overwhelmed me as I was on the tube home and realised just how many choices I could make even within that single journey.

The message, then, must have got through, and in a way I’d be curious to experience the whole event again once the cast have had time to go deeper into their roles, and without the same nagging fear of what might happen next…

… and that’s the point – we take it for granted that we know, and feel no need to guard it, or demand change as required. The need to riot is reserved, but certainly the will to do so if totalitarianism threatens must remain. This show, if nothing else, reasons it out, loud and clear.

Three Stars.

Cilla The Musical (New Wimbledon Theatre)

November 15, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 11th November 2017).

Apparently conceived around the same time as the noted television biopic, Jeff Pope makes deft work of adapting the same material for the live stage. Bill Kenwright and co-director Bob Tomson give the thing a smart pace, with a simple and atmospheric set by Gary McCann and some (non-period, but life-enhancing) lighting from Nick Richings.

Scott Alder and Marc McBride bowl the famous tunes to the audience, the arrangements of “Zip-a-dee Doo Dah” and “Twist and Shout” are particular highlights. If choreographer Carole Todd is a little reluctant to let the “kids” free-style to the early numbers, once they relax, they dance up a storm.

And yes, I’m playing games with the person reading this… you all want to know about Cilla herself, right? OK, so, one Kara Lily Hayworth. Sounds like Cilla, has the same warmth as Cilla and – if not the same physical stature – is pretty much perfect in the role. Had the show opened in the West End, her acclaim would have been assured within the popular press and industry as a whole. As it is, I’m certain she will find her place in the top flight in due course anyway. Her “Liverpool Lullaby” in particular confirms the talent.

There are similarly impressive performances from the other people in her remarkable life. Her Bobby (Carl Au) matures impressively through the story, and (for those who remember him from “Waterloo Road”) has a surprisingly good voice – “Shy of Love” and “Taste of Honey” a lovely moment in the show.

The always reliable Andrew Lancel (Brian Epstein) is a man on the edge, leading a double-life of which he is not always in control. The inevitability of his downfall is not just in the writing, but the clues Lancel sows in his performance. Similarly nuanced (and with added trumpet) Tom Sowinski’s scenes as precise George Martin are another highlight.

In smaller roles, Amy Bridges (Rose) and Billie Hardy (Pat) capture Liverpool youngsters to perfection, while back in the White household Paul Broughton (John White) serves up a proud “man of the sea” father to “could have been” wife Pauline Fleming (Big Cilla).

With sound work from the team impersonating the Beatles – Bill Caple (Ringo), Michael Hawkins (John Lennon), Alex Harford (George Harrison) and Joshua Gannon (Paul McCartney), and some fun from Alan Howell as Gerry Marsden and Burt Bacharach (a well-conceived “Alfie” sequence), there’s some great extra songs and decent humour too.

The necessities of giving actors time to rest between big numbers and the crew time to change the scene results in a slightly long 2 hours 50 minutes running time (counting 20 minutes interval), and it’s always pretty clear where the “breathers” are in the show, but it really doesn’t matter. The cast do their energetic best, the music is a never-ending flow of timeless hits and the star performance is a glittering diamond doing justice to the memory of a showbiz legend. A lorra, lorra fun.

4 stars.