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Lilly Allen: No Shame Tour (Roundhouse)

December 19, 2018

(seen at the performance on 17th December 2018).

New albums mean a new tour for many artistes, and Ms Allen is no exception. Rather glad she did. As a long time fan I’ve never quite managed to make it to a live show until now. It is worth the effort.

The evening actually kicked off with the support act SX, a performer from Wolverhampton with a strong voice (acapella at one point) and even stronger song-writing talents getting to the heart of simple everyday issues like love and mundane work.

On stage 20 minutes after her scheduled time, we know Lily has arrived with her storming introduction, “Come on Then.” A summary of faults called by the media, her repost from her new album is frank and fiery. Was slightly struck by how tiny the lady is in real life – but she packs a punch a million times larger.

Moving on to “Waste,” a contrasting reflective and then we get “LDN.” Crowd-pleaser (with us chanting along on cue), fun original Allen. Back to the newer material with the bittersweet “My One,” showing just how she has matured.

“What You Waiting For, “Lost My Mind” and “Knock ‘Em Out” explore the price paid for that maturity. Aspects of love and loss, delivered with the passion of knowledge.

“Smile” leaps right back to the other way to handle such matters of the heart, trade mark Allen wit.

Totally new song “Party Line” had instant impact on the crowd, and a cover of Lykke Li’s “Deep End” made the pair a welcome mid-show change of pace.

“Apples” and “Pushing Up Daisies” are a return to her own work, both strong numbers about security and repeating patterns of attachment and loss. Perfect segue into “Three” – my personal favourite from “No Shame.” Who can resist the plea of a three year old child busier than her own mother?

“Everything to Feel Something,” an electronic sounding studio number works surprisingly well on stage, but, let’s face it, “The Fear” simply is made for public performance – ranted with vigour here. Later work “Higher” seems a pretty good answer too, while “Family Man” (another favourite) is less a solution than it first appears, and really well sung.

“Who’d Have Known” and a blistering “Not Fair” are another couple of favourites combining honest and entertaining Allen at her best.

Encores “We Could Be In Love” duetting with FX showcased his talent once again. “Trigger Bang” then took us to the final confetti-cannon “F*ck You.” Allen’s politics given an airing, an extra verse bridging the time between writing it for “George Dubya” and today’s “The Don.”

Almost 90 minutes of non-stop hits added up to a pretty satisfying evening. Frankly, the lady deserves a better backing than she had. Not the musicians, just more of them on a variety of instruments rather than relying on electronics. Truthfully, too, why was she playing a small venue on an obviously restricted budget? Does selling out two 4000 seat concerts not justify the bigger and better equipped spaces and investment again in her work? Oh, and it would have been nice to have something seasonal in the mix, “Somewhere Only We Know” perhaps. But then, Ms Allen doesn’t do corny, so maybe not.

Anyway, great to have finally seen this talent in her natural environment, and to know that a recording artist is capable of effortless live performance too.

 

4 stars.

 

___________________________________________________________________________

 

And on that note, the year ends. Taking a break for the season, back on 23rd January 2019 with the round-up of the year.

 

To the Christian community who celebrate on the 25th, a very happy Christmas, to the other Churches whose festivities come later, likewise for their special day. And to all, best of the holiday season and a very happy 2019.

White Teeth: Kiln Theatre

December 19, 2018

(seen at the evening performance on 27th November 2018)

Zadie Smith’s tale of growing up in Kilburn, North London is a modern classic. Spanning decades from World War Two to 1992, it’s a complex story following immigrant families across generations.

Rather like “Les Misérables,” there are plenty of difficult choices for any adaptor to make. Stephen Sharkey does a pretty decent job of cutting surplus characters and focussing on the story of a dentist Rosie Jones (Amanda Wilkin on sound observational form) put into a coma by one of her patients and questing to find her true parentage.

It does take too long to set-up that scenario, partly down to the insertion of musical numbers. Music was apparently incidental in early drafts, but developed into the “musical” (inverted commas intended) it is now. Not really enough of it, and nothing much constructed to drive the story forward either – though a number about the 1980s is fun and adds to the atmosphere.

A choreographer being beyond the budget, reliance on a movement director (Polly Bennett) is insufficient to stage the numbers, mostly resulting in some oddly shuffling crowd movement rather than anything expressing or interpreting the text satisfactorily.

It’s a bit of a meander to the finish line too, the drama of the final scene not really coming into focus, though the epilogue is acceptable. Between, it’s a mixture. On a functional (photograph of Kilburn High Road in 3D) set by Tom Piper, Indhu Rubasingham evokes with some success local atmosphere of the place over the years.

Mad Mary (Michele Austin) is our hostess with the er, shopping-trolley on wheels. Hostile at first, but friends by the end. As time-keeper, she scrolls us forward and back through the years, highlighting revelations. Occasionally indistinct, but dominating and eventually winning.

Irie Jones (Aysha Antoine) is the catalyst, her path requiring a range of ages that she effects with more depth than the script sometimes allows.

Best pairing is Archie Jones (Richard Lumsden) and Samad Iqbal (Tony Jayawardena). Their meeting and future are a mixture of comedy and pathos, both actors handling their scenes with light touches that lend utmost reality.

There’s strong work from Joyce and Marcus Chalfen (Naomi Frederick / Philip Bird) too – instantly recognisable as “West Hampstead.” Both undertake other roles, with Frederick a seductive teacher and moral guardian – difficult to do, but this is an adaptable actor – and Bird a chilling Nazi geneticist.

Pairing Magid and Millat Iqbal (Sid Sagar / Assad Zaman) is another good idea, with a lovely moment early on as the twins have their futures speculated about by their future mother. Later, Zaman brings a brooding menace and Sagar a cool assurance; both demonstrating quite an emotional range.

Alsana Iqbal (Ayesha Dharker) is a notable stage presence. While her character isn’t permitted by the plot requirements to be at the fore, her impact is disproportionately effective.

Similar can be said of Josh Chalfen (Karl Queensborough) with a neat characterisation.

To control these main characters and stories is difficult, and it is to Sharkey’s credit that despite the odd flat moment the audience invest for much of the time. There are some truly horrible gaps in his research “Year 3, Year 6” didn’t exist in the 1970s, nor did “Booty Call” mean anything in 1992, and there are a few other loud clangers for those who remember, well “The Clangers” really.

Given that this had lengthy development to get this far, I’m not sure spending more time on it would be worthwhile. Unless planning to reform it fully as a musical – in which case more plot and certainly a little more humour could be used – the exploration is proven here that the book is just about stageable.

Uneven, but well-performed and holds the attention for the most part.

 

3 stars.

The Wild Duck: Almeida Theatre

December 19, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th November 2018)

Ibsen. Yawn. Icke. Yay. Pretty much my instant reaction on opening the Almeida’s email announcing the show. Not even close to my favourite dramatist… but if Robert Icke sees something in doing this old saw one more time, I’m willing to take the chance. My faith was well rewarded.

This is more “The Wild Duck, Dissected” than anything else. The protagonists are present. Parents and their daughter, a grandfather, a doctor, a returning friend. Dark secrets spill out at a rate that has an engrossed teenager gasp “oh no” in the silence of revelation. That alone tells us how the show hits the mark.

Better yet, a deceptively simple and effective device allows us to explore more fully character motivations – or understand why they are unable to express their emotions fully.

And so three hours moves along at fine pace. The empty stage (Bunny Christie on the finest form, Verity Sadler assisting) fills with emotion as a contemporary home is revealed as a war-zone and eventual mortuary of all emotions, not least hope.

Kevin Harvey (Gregory Woods) and Edward Hogg (James Ekdal) set up a battle that cannot avoid casualties. Their carefully modulated counter-stances are fundamental to the success of Icke’s concept, performances to be admired.

Lyndsey Marshal (Gina Ekdal) is the catalyst, a mother and wife doing what a mother and wife should – Marshal’s egg-shell characterisation only slowly being realised to impressive effect. Her interaction with daughter Clara Read (Hedwig Ekdal – who handles the last seconds of act one decently) are always telling. Same with Grandfather Nicholas Farrell (Francis Ekdal), besotted and himself hiding much beneath a military façade. Deluded yet consciously mendacious a difficult act that unusually does not lose sympathy.

In smaller roles, Nicholas Day (Charles Woods) hits the right balance of overbearing without making the production top-heavy. Rick Warden (John Relling) does likewise as an ambivalent doctor with clarity of vision. A note too for Andrea Hall (Anna Sowerby) for making much of a pivotal moment without making drama melodramatic.

The filleting and updating of the text, in common with previous Icke work, never slacks in intensity. Perhaps a little more time for reflection, without actors explanations, would have allowed the audience a trifle more analysis during the performance, but then that would deny the pleasure of the after-show mulling over. And there is a lot of that.

Ibsen can be exciting, relevant and carry strong messages for our own times. This production proves the point. Combined with fine performances it may not be quite the mega-revelation that was “Oresteia” or “Hamlet,” but it comes close to both. Try not to miss it.

 

4 stars.

Aladdin: New Wimbledon Theatre

December 12, 2018

(Seen at the first preview performance on 8th December 2018).


Under the management of Qdos Entertainment, the New Wimbledon Theatre pantomime is fast becoming the “pantomime driving test centre” for bigger stars venturing into the world for the first time. Last year Al Murray passed with flying colours on his debut. This time around, it is one Paul Merton in the dress and driving seat as Widow Twanky in this tale from Old Peking.

At the dawn of the “alternative comedy circuit,” I spent many happy hours at the Comedy Store’s second venue – under Leicester Square, watching the droll, laconic and fanciful Merton and friends in a venue where nobody was more than a few feet away. On “Have I Got News For You” his face fills the screen in many a home. Can he scale up to a 1600 seat venue, and reach an audience of all ages?

The answer is that he still requires “P” plates, really. Unable to memorise the entire script – but improvises beautifully (something that bit him hard in the second half when his relentless mockery of another actor’s ‘corpsing’ in act one was repaid with her requirement to prompt him in act two). Also, highly questionable adult joke shouldn’t be covered with “ask your parents,” underlining the main point that he just didn’t connect with the younger audience in the way co-star Pete Firman (Wishee Washee) made look simple.

Merton did manage some excellent asides, local references, and one long (frankly superfluous and time-filling padding speech) well enough, but he lacked the camp extrovertness required to sell the classic “man as a woman longing for a man” required of all great dames. That he was willing to try hard, though, is firmly to his credit. By the end of this run, he may get there.


“Son” Pete Firman built a good rapport with his “Mother” and also the audience, achieving the rare feat of having his greeting returned throughout the show rather than petering out (no pun intended) by the interval as most do. Thus he can be forgiven a genuinely awful “shoe-horned in” tired bunch of magic tricks – one malfunctioning “big box illusion,” electromagnetic handcuffs and one dull ‘audience interaction’ card trick where the volunteers were funnier than he was. Lacking the club experience of Paul Daniels to weave it in, he unsportingly kept them off-microphone and didn’t repeat anything for our benefit.


Empress (Linda John-Pierre) has the right imperial bearing, and does a nice second act turn as game-show compere.


Daughter The Princess (Lauren Chia) has a sweet toughness too. If a rather unedifying decision by the show’s designer to put her in pink and THEN show her as a tough fighter “girls can too” is a rather mixed message, no matter, the lady did well in her brief scenes.


That Aladdin (Lee Ryan) in a “nice but dim” way ended up with her is fair enough, that too is expected.


Shame director Kerry Michael couldn’t find the pair more to do than the old “falling off a wall” routine and make more of their voices.

Best of the team were Abanazar (Adam Pearce) and Scheherazade (Cassandra McCowan). This pair truly understand panto, and had the audience with them from the start.


Pearce managed a delightful villain that never lost audience sympathy. His regular taunting scenes drew massive audience reaction and the man is a born panto baddie for life.


McCowan’s energy is non-stop, still swaying enthusiastically through the finale until the final curtain falls. A chance to sing “Defying Gravity” on a big stage is grabbed, her effort far outshining the rather disappointing The Twins FX carpet. If they are reading this, the boom is all too visible from the side stalls, gentlemen.

Sadly, this year’s ensemble appeared tentative in their first public outing. Probably coming up to speed as the run continues, there was little pep or panto stardust flowing. The same can be said of the entire show’s pacing, and the Alan McHugh script seemed over-stretched. In fact, the whole show feels far less lavish than usual and rather last-minute in places.

The extra Merton / Firman additions padding, the 3D films, though well-executed, another means of extending the running time rather than adding to the vital theatricality. The animated genie in particular was a horrid rip-off Disney / Poo Emoji hybrid. The peculiarity of confusing several “non-Western” cultures visually and in music (Jasmine entering to “March of The Siamese Children”?!) rounded off the oddities.

Not a vintage year for Wimbledon, but some truly great performances and potential by the end of the run for the teamwork to come together and become a nucleus from which to build in the future.

 

3 stars.

 

Photo credit: Craig Sugden. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre.

Lea Michele and Darren Criss In Concert: Hammersmith Apollo and touring.

December 5, 2018


(seen at the evening performance on 2nd December 2018).

Or “Rachel Berry” and “Blaine Warbler” to Gleeks. Either way, this pair of young American entertainers gave us a pretty interesting insight into the current state of the US light entertainment scene, and its populous in general. Over almost 2 and a quarter hours they ran the spectrum from Sondheim to Lady Gaga, via Judy Garland and Keane, with almost unwavering success and always striking energy. The same could be said of a (mostly young and female) audience who reacted to everything with matching gusto, adding much to the event.

Kicking off with “Broadway Baby” (from musical “Follies”) as a duet, and moving on to a hugely successful “Suddenly Seymour” (“Little Shop Of Horrors”); then came my first real surprise – Darren Criss grabbing a guitar and picking out… “Falling Slowly” from “Once.” One of my favourite musicals of all time, and the pair gave it a treatment it absolutely deserved.

Mr Criss then left the stage to Ms Michele and her vocal potions (all non-alcoholic, she assured us, and we sort of didn’t stop believing it – enough “in” “Glee” jokes – editor). A friendly interactive chat had her delighting all with snatches of songs suggested by the audience.

Then, she truly unleashed the power. Eva Cassidy’s version of “Over The Rainbow” was nothing short of sensational, Michele’s soaring vocal a chocolate coating perfection. Following it up with ‘signature tune’ “Don’t Rain On My Parade” brought the house down, and rightly – would have been amazing if she had ventured into the aisles but alas, not technically possible.

A pair of “Glee” favourites, “Poker Face” and “Edge of Glory” were nostalgic fun, before a personal “Glitter in the Air” reminded us just how good her voice is, compared with the original “Pink” version. “Run to You” from her album gave way to a ‘thrown in for the season’ delightful stool-bound “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” full of seasonal cheer, before joining Darren Criss again for “Getaway Car” and Darren’s section of the show.

Though admitting to not being a musical theatre person, “Hopelessly Devoted” has to be his audition for any re-make of “Grease,” while “I Dreamed A Dream” self-accompanied had hallmarks of Michele coaching, and was deeply satisfying.

Annoyingly, we got only snatches of “Faith” (George Michael) and “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Queen), both of which in full would have stopped the show. Still, at the piano “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane) was heartfelt and quietly wonderful, while the younger audience in particular enjoyed Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”

As a song-writer, his own “Going Nowhere,” “Foolish Thing” and “Not Alone” got a look-in, the last probably the strongest of the self-penned material.


Back together, “Shallow” (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) was fun, before a final nod to “Glee” with “This Time.”

The encore stripped the show back to just their voices and a guitar as the vast auditorium demonstrated its acoustics and the artistes their skill with an un-amplified “Don’t You Want Me” by “The Human League.” Well, actually, we do.

Sure, there are criticisms. Foremost was the constant, utterly unnecessary swearing. There were younger children in the audience… and if “Blondie” in the same auditorium could keep it clean, so could this pair. Except that they didn’t.

Second, the weird solipsism of young America wasn’t well hidden. For a pair of international stars anchoring a world tour, that was odd. A fair proportion of the audience chat was thanking us for being there, and noting how many people are from Europe. Their slight amazement that anything existed outside of the lower 48 states grated after a while, spoiling the illusion of sophistication somewhat.

Finally, a note to Mr Criss that “Les Misérables” the musical was developed in Paris and opened in 1980 (the song you sang existed, in melodic form at least, even back then) and hit London in 1985, not 1987 as stated. Rachel Berry should be very disappointed in you.

Still, the duo worked hard, and are clearly besotted with each-other’s talents, which is good to see. Well selected songs, a more than decent live band backing them, and a few “burned into the memory forever moments.” What more could anyone want to believe in? Let’s hope they don’t stop, for sure.

 

4 stars.

 

Photos supplied by kind permission of Hush PR. All rights reserved by them.

Dirty Dancing: New Wimbledon Theatre (National Tour)

November 28, 2018


(Seen at the afternoon performance on 24th November 2018).

For one reason or another, I always managed to never quite make it to the Aldwych Theatre when this ran for years in the West End. Of course, correcting it meant a trip to the other side of London… but… one of my favourite theatres, so…

And it was genuinely worth the effort. Everybody thinks they know the story from the famous 1980s movie. Francis “Baby” Houseman and her family spend three weeks at Kellerman’s Summer Hotel (a sort of up-market holiday camp to us Brits). She falls in love with lead Dance Entertainer Johnny Castle, and becomes enmeshed in the world of the Entertainments team. She learns to dance, and both her and Johnny learn a lot more about life.

Frederico Bellone and resident director Russ Spencer give us proper sticks hidden inside the seeming candyfloss. The first half is very much a set-up for the volley of sucker-punches the show delivers in the second. You may think it’s a fairly light dance show before the interval, but that’s just a false sense of security for what follows.

For fans, all the famous elements are here too; Roberto Comotti does extraordinarily well to re-create the famous scenes even on a set designed to tour. Yes, you get the “log,” the “water rehearsal” and of course well, you know what – and they are all inventive, fun and done with high-quality precision as all concerned deserve no less.

Sure, the show uses mostly recorded music, with a decent four-piece band (stay past the final curtain, they are worth it), but the big song is live and thrilling.


Best are the cast. As Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly) seems to cope with the #metoo harassment dished out by the rear stalls, and finds compelling range between dispassionate and tenderness.

Like co-star “Baby” (Mira Malou), the pair excel as dancers, Malou quite a pleasure to watch her growing self-awareness evolve with that skill.


Eye-catching Penny (Simone Covele) is more than just a stage-filling figure with possibly record-breaking extension. Her major dramatic thread is well-handled, the child / woman dynamic warm and very real.

In supporting roles, Lisa Houseman (Lizzie Ottley) almost steals the show with “Lisa’s Hula.” Her parents Dr Jake (Lynden Edwards) and Marjorie (Lorie Haley Fox) display notably strong gravitas and a decent singing voice respectively. A credible family, well cast.

As Elizabeth, Sian Gentle-Green deserves note for vocals and characterisation that should interest the casting director of “Hamilton” next season. Her boss, kindly Max Kellerman (Jack McKenzie) should move her up next season at least – and if he could hold me a cabin for the first three weeks in August, I’d be obliged.

Son Neil Kellerman (Greg Fossard) should learn from his father some manners, but doesn’t need to learn much about acting, going on his ability to create a dislikeable yet not repellent character with few scenes to do so. Robbie Gould (Tom Bowen) does likewise, his shock at the end a notably well-played detail.

Two other mentions – Tito Suarez  (Colin Charles) as mentor and musician, and Billy Kostecki (Alex Wheeler) also deserve recognition for important contributions. And not forgetting Mr Schumacher (Mark Faith) and some neat illusions.


The tightly choreographed (Gillian Bruce) ladies and gentlemen of the dance team never flag in energy, rarely miss a single step and make certain that the true atmosphere of the Catskills in 1963 reaches every corner of the theatre.


This production does exactly what it should – giving the audiences “The Time Of Our Lives” without sparing a thing to keep us entertained at all times, exactly as Kellerman would want. If it comes your way, book in for a summer you won’t forget.

4 stars.

For tour dates, see: https://dirtydancingontour.com/

 

 

Photo credit: Alastair Muir. Used by kind permission of Wimbledon Theatre.

Othello: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

November 21, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd September 2018)

The steady downpour throughout the afternoon helped considerably the melancholy final bedroom scenes in particular, in this somewhat frenetic Claire van Kampen directed production.

Othello is easily my favourite Shakespeare play, and for me, few since have lived up to the growling McKellen Iago and pleading Stubbs Desdemona of the Trevor Nunn Young Vic / RSC production.

This time, Mark Rylance makes an amiable liar – taunting the audience and insouciant (with musical instrument at one point) to the end. Oddly delivering his key “Good Name” speech with back turned to most of the house, he at least manages a less boastful “Money In Purse” than most, finding a lightness that is rather interestingly suggests a more opportunist and reactive Iago than many I have seen.

Jessica Warbeck takes time to settle as Desdemona, early scenes lacking passionate commitment. Yet later with both Emilia (attractive quiet solicitude from Sheila Atim) and husband Othello (Andrew Holland) her character takes on a dignity and humility that suddenly makes sense of her earlier dramatic choices.

In the title role, Holland chooses not to dominate, but build steadily, his errors multiplying and both anger and anguish foregone conclusions almost from the start of the second half.

Other notable performances include a fruity Bianca from Catherine Bailey. As Cassio, Aaron Pierre rather matches her playing – lucky he was able to keep up, as it were…

Steffan Donnelly and Wiliam Chubb do decent service as Roderigo and Brabantio respetively, with Chubb’s outfit one of the better costumes designed from Jonathan Fensom.

The fairly severe editing of the script could arguably veer towards the shorter of the two known versions and thus may be more authentic, but it did lack depth as we failed to really experience the pleasure of knowing the machinations behind the actions as Iago’s mind is set to work.

Indeed, reading this opinion back, it could explain why he read as “reactive” in this production. For future reference, that doesn’t help with dramatic tension across the arc of the play for this viewer, though it does allow less commitment to concentration for the whole event, of course.

Balanced and veering from engrossing to slightly dull, a more than decent introduction for many to this particular work, is the verdict.

 

3 stars.