Skip to content

“Ballroom” – Waterloo East Theatre

May 24, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 21st May 2017)

I was ecstatic to learn that I would, after many years, have a chance to see one of my favourite “Broadway failures” (116 performances in 1979) on stage. Owning both the original cast album and original source film “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” to say I was anticipating this one was an understatement. I’m delighted to say, Gerald Armin and his team didn’t disappoint.

It’s a simple story. Bea Asher (Jessica Martin) is a widow selling the accumulation of a lifetime in her junk store. Friend Angie (Natalie Moore-Williams) suggests she meet “The Very Nice Crowd” at the Stardust Ballroom. There she finds friendship and more, as sister-in-law Helen (Olivia Maffett) looks on disapprovingly.

A slim book holds enough surprises to have the person next to me (hello, Karen) gasp “I didn’t see that coming”) at one point, and Armin, Nancy Kettle and Roman Berry keep the show whirling with an energetic cast of senior actors directed and choreographed to give us full benefit of their experience and talent.

There’s beautiful songs too. One of the two younger performers, Danielle Morris as Ballroom Singer Marlene delivers “Dreams” to a level that deserves a single release, and is a young performer to watch for sure. Doubling as Bea’s daughter Diane and paired with Ballroom Singer counterpart Nathan (Adam Anderson) – himself doubling as Bea’s son David – the duo too are quite a team – “One By One” another particularly successful song delivery.

The show belongs, though, to Ms Martin. Broadway classic “Fifty Percent” is given the full hundred percent treatment, and a perfectly judged “Monroe” regeneration is entrancing. Better yet, Ms Martin finds the transition from shell-shocked widow to fiercely independent lady over just two short hours and fills the theatre with a compelling determined gentleness.

It is small wonder postman Alfred Rossi (Cory Peterson) falls for her – his Italian American charm genuine. In counterpoint, Oliva Maffett’s judgemental Helen could have been over-done, but the actor finds a concern that balances to perfection the domineering aspect.

Supporting roles are all beautifully done by the ensemble. Of particular note for me were Dudley Rogers as Harry, Gerry Tebbutt’s obsessive Scooter and Colette Kelly as Shirley, to mention just three cameos that add to the pleasure of the show.

For those who have seen the original film, there are good points in that a lot of the “family” stuff has been stripped away, speeding up the action and helping focus on the ballroom itself – nicely represented here, incidentally, by Paul O’Shaughnessy’s simple parquet floor set.

Alas, there are also a few disappointments. I already knew that the best numbers in the film had gone, and yearned for them to return. Also, the ending is very different on stage, presumably because Broadway sends crowds out upbeat (the original film ending is below, for those who want to know).

Luckily, here, it’s satisfyingly enough staged not to matter – but I do wonder if one day a “revisical” might be in order, as this production proves the show to work far better than anyone could imagine.

If it were to happen, this is the cast to work with. For me and the audience last Sunday, it was an enchanting way to pass a couple of hours, and I strongly urge anyone who cares about people, particularly the generation that brought them into the world and loves them, not to miss the chance to see this. I wish you all a waltz.

Four stars.

 

ORIGINAL ENDING. SPOILER WARNING. In both this show and the original film, Bea is crowned “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” the most popular lady there, who will act as Social Hostess for the next year. On stage, the story ends with her and Alfred taking to the stage to receive the tiara.

In the original film, though, they go back to her home, and they kiss “goodnight” and will meet in the morning. Next morning, Alfred brings breakfast to her house. Bea does not answer the door so he goes inside. Bea is there, in bed… having passed peacefully away in the night.

Now, wouldn’t that have made a great ending to a musical?!

 

 

 

 

No blog next week, but back on the 7th June, I hope.

“The Treatment” – Almeida Theatre

May 17, 2017

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 13th May 2017).

In times of “fake news,” when reality and truth are two different things and, as Richard Littlejohn puts it “everybody is the star of their own movie,” this 1993 Martin Crimp play should feel more relevant than ever. Certainly the quality of both dialogue and the story he tells make the Almeida’s choice of revival entirely justifiable.

Sadly, I’m not so sure they can justify either Giles Cadle’s designs nor Lyndsey Turner’s direction. Whichever of them opted for chopping a play about cinema, that required a fast-flowing cinematic stating, into scenes with long (and, from the front row, exceptionally noisy) scene changes between needs to be on the wrong end of a solid silver fork (in joke).

Anne (Aisling Loftus), a somewhat simple young woman tells her story – in all senses of the word, perhaps, tantalizingly – to slick movie operators Andrew (Julian Ovenden) and wife Jennifer (Indira Varma). This revolting pair of artistic parasites who lack manners and morals as well as talent, instantly begin twisting everything. Actor friend John (Gary Beadle, beautifully balanced performance) and ex-receptionist punch-bag Nicky (impressive Ellora Torchia) reap the success.

Forgotten playwright Clifford (Ian Gelder, in an unforgiving role he makes instead unforgettable) pays the heaviest price for becoming ensnared, with Anne’s husband Simon (multi-faceted work from Matthew Needham) also ultimately a loser on all levels. A mention too for Almeida regular Hara Yannas as a long-suffering waitress and Ben Onwukwe’s Taxi Driver who has the heavy metaphor-lifting work to do, and does it very well. Also a cast from the Community Company, filling the stage as required.

For this is all metaphors. We are all driving blind to destinations that don’t exist. Our stories don’t always ring true and others will shape events to their own ends. The innocent suffer, there are accidents and exploitation, with moments of revenge worthy of Shakespeare – neatly mined to good effect by the author.

Unfortunately, with long breaks and clumsy changes of scene, much of the impact is lost. This is about lives crashing together, bits flying off and randomness. When it happens at the walking pace seen here, with time to ponder and indeed drift off the odd scene that isn’t immediately impactful, but has later bearing, the audience are left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Trust me, stay to the end, and it will hit just how good the writing and performances are. Sadly, though, this is very much a two star production of a four star play. Fingers crossed a small studio with less budget but an equally talented cast host the next revival – I’ll be there if I can. And that’s the truth.

Is Theatre the new “Pop Concert” when it comes to tickets?

May 10, 2017

A remark from a colleague got me thinking, as did a recent indignant exchange on www.theatreboard.co.uk.

Both regular readers of this blog will remember that back in January I compiled a page of tips for getting “Hamilton” tickets. A few weeks later, a reader of that page informed me that those same tips helped her get some much sought after “Lady Gaga” tickets at the O2 Arena, simply following the same technique I outlined for the far smaller Victoria Palace Theatre event.

More recently, “Follies” and “Mosquitoes” at the National Theatre left hundreds unhappy that the best seats were gone and many performances “sold out” before the general public got anywhere near them. Even those like myself, who “know the tricks” and have the lowest rung of “priority booking” membership found very little choice. I was lucky on “Follies” with a seat I was pretty happy with; “Mosquitoes,” well, not terrible but not the greatest. Anyway…

I wonder if it all ties in with several articles I’ve read about economists noting we are spending less on items and more on “experiences,” which all the above productions are / will be. If that’s so, there are now more people than ever chasing fewer and fewer tickets. Good for theatres, not so great for the wider public.

Personally, I’m sceptical. The most vocal complainers about “not getting seats” are not regular theatregoers who support a venue, just those chasing “fashion,” I fear. If they “feel slighted because the system is stacked against them” it’s bad for the theatre industry’s image, yes, but rather ignores those who stand by it ‘thick and thin’ in support.

Rather like the fans who follow a group from pub gigs to Wembley Stadium, or football fans team from Hackney Marshes to, well, Wembley Stadium again, maybe us “regulars” are now experiencing the same thing from our plush tip-up seats.

If we are, is there an answer? Rather like pop and football fans, there are “club memberships” to buy, which help a lot gaining access to the best seats first. We can hardly complain about others wanting to join in, because we are not enough to keep a show running long in ourselves… but is it so wrong to wish to be front of the queue as a reward for loyalty?

Perhaps theatres should work a little harder to equalise distribution of tickets, but if there is a way to balance demand from both regulars and newcomers without upsetting one and putting the other partly in the hands of the “secondary market” (ticket touts), I’m not sure that there is. Longer runs, perhaps – hard with a star in the cast – so maybe have a second star ready to take over? Bigger theatres – but they have to be filled when the circus has moved on?

Tricky, and one to ponder, I think.

Obsession (Barbican Theatre)

May 3, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2017)

The vast open space – realistic sounding but unrealistically leaky (nobody gets burned or blinded by the oil it pours) central suspended engine, bar on one side, washing trough on the other, screens either side and around – actually suits this play. For each central character is lost in a wilderness, and all lack a compass both personal and moral to find a way through life.

Or is it death? They happen in the play, but my argument is that the three central protagonists – drifter Gino (Jude Law), and bar-owning husband and wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) are long since dead already. Walking corpses, Gino keeps moving to avoid his repression, Hanna her tolerance of a man just to keep herself housed and Joseph his denial.

The toxicity of this trio should have been the key to a sharp and thrilling drama. Instead, the pervading death keeps things at dead walking pace, without revelation or inferno. There’s more drama as Gino encounters fellow drifter Johnny (Robert de Hoog), with an intriguing bi-sexuality or even outright declaration thread left hanging annoyingly. On the other hand, the arrival of Anita (Aysha Kala) could either have been a deliberate attempt at introducing life to highlight the contrasting deadness – or maybe confirm that the sexuality question was going nowhere.

Sadly, in this production, quite a lot doesn’t – despite the peculiar use of a treadmill for “Doctor Who” style athletics. Couples drift and undrift in circles, Chukwudi Iwuji builds the most convincing characters of all, as Priest and Police Inspector. The dead die or don’t, the disappointingly expected happens just when you hoped the writing would avoid shaking its credibility – and the actors play on as best they can.

Like all Ivo van Hove works, it’s impressive in scope, the economy of the staging and sparse use of artifice, even as the whole feels more dreamlike than dramatic, are enough to keep interest going. New moments recover attention around an hour in when act two flags, for sure, but the feeling that there is a shorter and tighter experience to be had remains, lush Tal Yarden video alas included.

Unlikely that a more stylish production nor cohesive small cast will emerge this year, nor that van Hove will be challenged much for his reputation, but this lacks a little of the careful text edit he is known for. Still a darkness worth exploring, but not an entirely compelling one.

3 and a half stars.

*************************

For those planning to go to the Barbican, I’d also rate the current exhibition in their art gallery “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” as a fascinating visit. Do pre-book, though, as lines are massive after matinee / before evening performances and throughout the weekends in particular.

Carousel (London Coliseum)

April 26, 2017

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd April 2017)

In that peculiar circular way of theatre, a classic musical returns to light operatic roots. The poster may read “semi-staged,” but there is nothing skimped in this luscious presentation that has the orchestra spilling into the boxes either side of the pit. Indeed, a few items of scenery aside, it is every bit as lavish – if not more so – than the definitive 1990s National Theatre production.

A tragic love story with one generation repeating the errors of the previous one, the music is timeless, the themes still relevant today. From the moment the orchestra pauses, designer Josh Rhodes carousel assembles and that magical swooping “DUH, duh duh duh” waltz rings out, it all comes alive once more.

If director Lonny Price is a little less creative in the first half than the second, the magic of act two’s ballet, outstandingly danced by Amy Everett (Louise) and ensemble, the painful death scene and a remarkable “Young Louise” (un-credited) are highlights.

Perhaps the failings of the first half are in adapting to the peculiar casting of Alfie Boe (Billy) and Katherine Jenkins (Julie) as the leading young lovers. Both considerably older than the characters as written, their success is hard-won.

Boe’s central “Soliloquy” is fatally flawed simply because he is clearly a man who knows, rather than a youngster examining his responsibilities for the first time. Fortunately, as time passes, he grows into the role and his final scene, hopefully standing in the light of redemption, and exiting defeated are evidence of both acting ability and director’s confidence in giving us this ending.

Jenkins is in fine voice, but with her lack of musical theatre experience still struggles to act the words she is singing. “If I Loved You” sounded beautiful, but lacked the internal dialogue in delivery. Still and again, as a mother, her acting carried her through the difficult act two scenes with some aplomb.

Far greater success came in the coupling of Gavin Spokes and Alex Young as Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge, sardine magnate and mother of nine respectively. The warmth and righteous determination of Spokes filled the theatre. A (probably sober, but still outrageous as usual) turn from Young drew huge laughs from her deft comic timing, while her questioning of friend Julie covered any Jordan character-establishing shortcomings in the early scenes.

Nice work too from Nicholas Lyndhurst as Starkeeper / Dr Seldon. A sneaky wink to the famous “chandelier” scene had him perched on a particular type of trestle ladder (and the audience giggling), but he has a surprising authority when required, as well as a sound grasp of humanity at the end.

Brenda Edwards (Nettie Fowler) gets the “big” number, but sadly was inaudible at times and mistook a hymn for a pop number in the final bar. Fairing better in other supporting roles were Susan Kyd’s calculated Mrs Mullin, Derek Hagen’s repellent Jigger Craigin, Jaye Bryce as the quiet but sure Heavenly Friend and a neat character turn from Martyn Ellis as local worthy Mr Boscombe.

The vast ensemble and ENO Chorus combine to give the final lavish servings of movement and spectacle – hard to beat, and justifying the price of a stalls ticket.

This may not be the most revelatory interpretation of the show, but it’s a glorious choice of revival from Linnit, Grade and the ENO, and their third success. Here’s to the next one.

 

4 (over New England) stars.

Guest Blog: “The Life” at Southwark Playhouse

April 5, 2017

A review of the first preview matinee performance from guest blogger Bob Pickett:

The Life is set around New York ‘ Times Square in the 1980s, a nadir in the moral fabric of the city, when everything was available if you had the cash (“Check it out!”). It tells the tale of hookers,  their pimps and their lives.  Narrated by JoJo (John Addison) – a white trash ‘entrepreneur’ riding the coat – tails of more successful hustlers – The Life concentrates on four main characters: Sonja  (Sharon D. Clarke), a veteran hookers who is something of a big sister to the other working girls, Queen (T’Shan Williams), who is working the streets to support her ex – Vietnam vet Fleetwood  (David Albury), a would-be ‘player’ whose drug habit drags the pair down every time they look like being able to escape, and Mary (Joanna Woodward), a fresh off the bus innocent who JoJo and Fleetwood connive to turn into an earner for them.

Vital to the story is Memphis  (Cornell S. John), the big pimp and player, who has designs on adding Queen to his ‘stable’ of girls.

The first act sets the scene. With a lot of the action coming from a bar owned by Lacy, a good hearted man who provides a warm place off the streets for the girls.  Here you see Sonja bemoan The Life, the aches and pains… and the first reference to not feeling right and doctors not knowing why (given the timeline the inference is clear).

From here the plot develops. Is JoJo really helping Fleetwood, or is he simply feeding – via Mary and Queen – his own ambitions by serving those higher up the food chain, Memphis and JoJo’s ‘mentor’ Lou, an adult film ‘producer’ looking for a blonde beauty for his biggest production yet.

Queen and Fleetwood are stretched to breaking point, and Mary isn’t quite what she seems…

Act two is set at the annual “Streetwalkers Ball” (a wicked thought here, did they have to arrange it on the same night as the policeman’s ball?) The players are pushed to the depths of despair, some steer themselves to where they want to go on the shoulders of others… and we find out, is there a way out of The Life?

Without a doubt, the star of the show is Sharon D.  Clarke. A fine actress, her voice has not only huge power, but such depth of emotion; her duets with T’Shan Williams are truly moving. Cornell S. John’s Memphis is truly frightening, a smooth-talking velvet persona hiding a ruthless underside (“My way or the Highway”). T’Shan Williams Queen is the character you want to come out in one piece, as she sinks in the game plans of others. And then there is Joanna Woodward’s Mary.  I have seen her pull off a similar character switch in Lost Boy, but the reveal is still utterly unexpected, and she draws upon her range of caberet and burlesque skills to great effect.

Great credit goes to the production crew for making full use of a tiny space. The simple set works really well (with just the one wobble of a prop), the back projection changes the location simply but effectively.

I saw the first preview matinee, inevitably there were a couple of minor niggles. A couple of times the microphones echoed and the singers voices were overwhelmed the band on one occasion. But the very first performance went as well as can be hoped, and a talented cast told The Life as a powerful tale of a low period in New York’s history and those who fought to survive.

 

************************************************************************

And many thanks to Bob for a fascinating review.

I’m taking a break over Easter, back 26th April. Have a good one all.

 

The Frogs (Jermyn Street Theatre)

March 29, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 26th March 2017)

The place is ancient Greece, the time is the present, the music is Sondheim, the writers Shevelove / Aristophanes and Nathan Lane. That probably explains everything you need to know.

The UK premiere of this 1974 (and much revised since) Yale Swimming Pool musical is simply Dionysos and slave Xanthias’s quest to bring George Bernard Shaw (yes, that George Bernard Shaw) back from Hades to help mankind. After help from Dionysos’s masculine half-brother Herakles, an encounter with ferryman Charon and finally ending up in the palace where the great literates reside… they encounter Shakespeare, stage a Bard / Bernard “lit-off” and that’s the tale. More or less. Except that Dionysos doesn’t like frogs and gets closer to them than he’d like.

Done with pace and gusto, you can get away with almost anything. And this crowd really almost do. Michael Matus may not be as corpulent a Dionysos as Nathan Lane, but he has a deft comic timing and lighter touch that works, particularly introducing the updated jokes. Sidekick Xantias (George Rae) makes Adrian Mole look masculine, but has a sex appeal to which Virilla the Amazon (Li-Tong Hsu) gives willingly – her line in persuasion pretty neat, though.

Best of the comic scenes go to Herakles (Chris McGuigan) whose hairy huskiness fills the stage, and Charon (Jonathan Wadey), a sort of Russell Brand with a brain, and superior line in wit, for sure.

There’s also good work from Pluto (Emma Ralston) who probably brought her own accessories and will probably keep the costume that goes with them – she seemed to get enormous pleasure from her scenes. Lost love Ariadne (Bernadette Bangura) has a sweet yeaning presence too.

Nigel Pilkington (Shakespeare) and Martin Dickinson (George Bernard Shaw) make a strong team, both having impressive abilities with the text of their characters, as well as imaginative movement to bring them to life as spoken.

Add a neat quintet of musicians and a functional set of stepped platforms, and the result is a highly satisfactory first encounter for the UK of an obviously difficult piece.

The music more than hints at the later “Into The Woods,” the script at the multiple contributors, but it’s a rare chance to see, and a cheering company to see it with. Worth it, if you managed to get tickets.