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Chess The Musical: London Colisuem

May 23, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th May 2018).

To paraphrase Tim Rice’s usual sparky lyrics, ‘each production of “Chess” means there is one less variation less to be played.’ This one is quite clearly the “let’s not take ourselves too seriously” gambit. If it isn’t, then it really should be.

With any luck, Stephen Mear will choreograph the Palladium’s panto this year.


Surely nobody else on the planet could come up with more hilarious tepsichorials than his staging of “Merano” as (rather attractive) chorus members bound about in a “Heidi on Schnapps” way. Almost topping that, the Soviet* Army is in huge trouble if that’s how they march – making Julian Clary look like Rambo; while the final “walkdown” at the end is clearly representing after the board has been upset.

Luckily, the “Embassy Lament” has an amusing moment – but also a jarringly sexist one with the men treating the women as coat-stands.


Video designer Terry Scruby is clearly in on the fun, with smart animations but an odd “mirror effect” (possibly intentional, but distracting) and sound sometimes out-of-synch with the action. Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe’s “tease the cat” blobs for “Where I Want To Be” are amusing, but even better is designer Matt Kinley’s “earthquake simulator” downstage lift, that shakes most convincingly as soon as it is stepped on.

There are some pretty good intentional jokes too SPOILER ALERT the best being “Thank You For The Music” by a jet-setting accordion player, and the sad tale of an American tourist in Bangkok. Watch for both. SPOILER ENDS. Sadly, some may throw accusations of “Cultural Appropriation” at the sequence (it can’t be beyond budget to find actual Thai actors, surely) but that is by the by.

On the upside, they’ve pretty much solved the complications of the second act book, by removing most of it and leaving a linear story. Not saying it is interesting any more, but it is at least clear.

Director Laurence Connor also makes a very brave attempt at “I Know Him So Well.” The concept makes sense, but sadly the emotion is lost by the use of two very different settings that keep the women too far apart for such an intimate number.


Out of the mad choreographic clutches and set pieces, the cast fend rather for themselves. Michael Ball (Anatoly Sergievsky) sensibly doesn’t bother with the accent and vocally makes mincemeat of the score. It is a tribute to him that for the first time in years, I’ve not cringed at “Anthem.”

Opponent Tim Howar (Freddie Trumper) is equally impressive, his “Pity The Child” holding centre stage in iron grip. Cedric Neal (Arbiter) is also in good voice, maintaining a firm line. Philip Browne (Molokov) manages likewise, credible ideologist with gravity.


Cassidy Janson (Florence Vassy) shows her usual musical theatre skill, “Heaven Help My Heart” landing as it should. At this performance, I did wonder if her voice was all right, as she swallowed the odd syllable in a way she never usually does – well done for singing through the illness if so.


Alexandra Burke (Svetlana Sergievsky) is less experienced, and only that is the reason she could not always figure a way out of the static situations she was put into. Her “Someone Else’s Story” was static – vocally decent, but only half acted. Later scenes demonstrated that the skills are there, but on this occasion only sporadically harvested.

Money was invested in this, and it did fill the stage. It is also probably the most comprehensible version of the show to date, and the orchestral sound possibly definitive. Unfortunately, it also rather confirms that the show isn’t the strongest, and will, like “Mack and Mabel,” be one known for a few numbers rather than a cohesive classic.

Unintentionally amusing, but well-meaning and done with spirited gusto.

3 stars.

Not Russian at that time – as helpfully corrected by Moscow reader Stasia.

Photography credit: Bringkoff Mogenburg. Used by kind permission.

 

On a blog break next week, back blogging on 6th June.

 

Crave: Barbican Pit Theatre

May 16, 2018

 

(seen at the evening performance on 10th May 2018).


Competing a “double” with “4.48 Psychosis” last week, this leaves just one Kane play (“Phaedra’s Love”) for me to see, now.


Once again, we are in experimental territory, as Julie Cunningham and Joyce Henderson fuse drama and movement to present the most difficult of all Sarah Kane’s plays in a new form.


Four characters, A, B, C and M are each represented by a dancer and an actor – one moving to the rhythm of, the other speaking, the text. Nell Catchpole’s sound composition, a collection of sound effects, plays over it at times, the bare studio with just two chairs, a few lines on the floor and an open door given harsh angular light by Johanne Jensen.

Simple work / dance clothes dyed from white through grey to blue provide the only other colour, designer Alexa Pollman working with Julie Cunningham on them. At a post-show discussion, Cunningham admitted they were chosen for the mood more than anything, and it proved a shrewd decision against the background.

The end result is something of a treat for Kane and contemporary dance fans alike. It isn’t perfect by any means, but as a way of presenting what is basically a poem for 4 voices, it is original and solves quite a few of the inherent difficulties with quiet intuitive intelligence.


Henderson, in post-show discussion, admitted that the initial idea of linking individual dancers and actors went on the first page, third line. Monotonous and indeed undermining the objective of fusing text and movement, the chosen solution was to allow for inter-relation. Thus, if actor A is speaking, the link is made to how that affects dancer B, and so on. For the audience, it means some striking “mirror” moments, and has the desired effect of amplifying the meaning of a harsh word or callous rejection.

Growing from the first entrance of the audience, with the actors stretched out on the stage, occasionally stretching as if waking or even simply evolving, there’s some impressive staged set pieces. One seduction sequence on a chair sees two dancers share bodyweight even while moving horizontally at a distance apart.

 
A deeply moving moment representing a child being raped by her grandfather in the front seat of a car, while her father encourages from the back seat is deeply affecting, the simplicity of two cast members side-by-side radiating not just hurt but the sheer confusion, shame and injustice accompanying it.


Strong too are the therapy sequences, the cast encircling a speaker, wordless reaction as effective as spoken. work in a whole new way. Contrasting in the difficult times with a regression to foetal states only to grow again is another exciting motif.

It’s quite possible that anyone who sees this version will struggle now with a more static production. Sure, it is possible that without writhing bodies there may be more attention paid to words alone, but this is far more – not just an aural representation of the writer’s cerebral state, but a physical one as well.

Hopefully, this will be revived, but for those lucky enough to have snagged a ticket, it has to rank as high as any presentation of Kane’s work to date.

 

4 stars.

 

 

Photo credit: Chris Nash. Used by kind permission of the Barbican Press Office.

4.48 Psychosis The Opera. Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

May 9, 2018

(seen at the Evening performance on 2nd May 2018).

I don’t “do” opera. As regularly blogged on here, I find it almost impossible to understand, alas. On the other hand, I remain a huge fan of Sarah Kane. Unlike many, I can back up my assertion that I saw the original Royal Court Theatre Upstairs “Blasted” with an actual ticket stub… trust me, it’s a “Kray Brothers at the Blind Beggar Pub” situation – the place would have to have been the Tardis to accommodate all who claimed to have been there. A form of psychosis…

… see what I did there. Philip Venables is even smarter, integrating a modern opera score with this amazing swansong play.

For those familiar with the original text, it is Kane’s most personal, but also possibly least immediately accessible. It is the interaction of a woman in immense mental anguish with those who would wish to help her – but more importantly, with herself.

As a play, it has jumping rhythms, scene to scene as depression ebbs and flows. Add music, and suddenly a whole new perspective is added to the actions.

Most effective are the Pierre Martin video scenes, throwing conversation projections onto a wall as Lucy (Lucy Schaufer) attempts to analyse a distressed Gwen (Gweneth-Ann Rand. Beats, even sawing, accompany the exchanges, and are the most enthralling part of the performance.

Around them, four other performers Jen (Lucy Hall), Suzy (Susanna Hurrell), Emily (Rachael Lloyd) and Clare (Samantha Price) are friends and supporters, medical staff and sometimes interpretative chorus, amplifying feelings with repetitive noises.

Hard to make out the words – surtitles helped considerably at times – but the voices were pure, contrasting with the horrors being expressed in often the strongest language and physicality.

Director Ted Huffman and movement directors Sarah Fahie and RC-Annie split movement between the realities of restraint on a psychiatric ward, smoothness of soothing and erratic of the disturbed soul. Sometimes focussed, sometimes distracting – the set is simple, to clear it seems redundant at points (and removing shoes at the end, the symbolism escapes me) – but almost always matching the kinetic themes of music and text.

For only the second modern opera I’ve ever seen (the first was “Zoe” – go Google) I doubt I could have chosen much better. I’m still unsure of it as an art form, perhaps unwilling to risk classical opera still, but I will concede that emotions are heightened in a quite different way to a musical, even “pop opera” type, and that is fascinating.

Sarah Kane always promised a very different experience with each play she wrote, and this is certainly a different twist on even that aim.

 

3 stars.

Masterpieces. Finborough Theatre.

May 2, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2018)

Time passes far more quickly than any of us realise. Social attitudes change, ever more rapidly in our web-connected times. Indeed “internet pornography” is one of the current buzz-words of the moment, perhaps making this revival of a 1983 play even more appropriate.

Rowena (Olivia Darnley) is a social worker married to Trevor (Edward Killingback). The action stems from a dinner party they attend, hosted by Rowena’s mother Jennifer (Sophie Doherty) and partner Clive (Nicholas Cass-Beggs).

Rowena’s old school friend Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) and her husband Ron (Rob Ostlere) are also present, and the men begin swapping “rape jokes” that were inappropriate even then, fell thankfully out of favour but are now back on the ‘alternative’ circuit of today, alas (not that I’ll sit through any performance featuring one, though).

Yvonne moves on to how teenage boys produce regularly pornographic magazines (of the early 1980s era) in her class as she tries to teach. Rowena admits never having seen one, but her eventual sight of some provokes a spiral of increasingly extreme reactions. A sub-plot sees Rowena helping a prostitute back into mainstream work, only for the woman to be thwarted by the male ego once again.

On a brilliantly simple Verity Quinn “Adult Magazine Store” set, with period outfits by Leah Mulhern and effective sharp yet shadowy lighting from Jack Coleman, Sarah Daniels examines just where pornography sits in the lives of those who come into contact with it, and considers the wider impact it has on the relationship between the sexes in general.

Knowing where we have ended up some 35 years later, my reaction to this play was divided deeply. Taken as being of the time it was written, it is hard not to add a mental “if you think that’s bad,” and also to dismiss the dénouement as careless fiction – for there is no evidence of that one-time ‘moral panic’ scenario.

One line in the second act, however, is sufficient to make instant contemporary sense of the entire work. Rowena rages at her husband that to men, “women are just three convenient holes.” On so many levels it summarises the difference between genders, in perception and communication, explaining just why the debate Daniels raised all that time ago has still not even reached the foothills of discussion.

The two sides cannot even communicate. There isn’t any speech, no common language, in fact, no actual means of making noise nor hearing it nor interpreting those sounds in a way that could lead to ideas being formulated, transmitted, let alone exchanged, interpreted or ultimately acted on.

Against this, the cast are magnificent. Acting honours go to Sophie Doherty, working at a level rarely seen even on the largest and most sophisticated stage. The combination of Darnley and Orange-Tuner is also well chosen. The first is adept at spare emotion, adjusting the levels for maximum effect. The latter has a stillness drawing in an audience on pure narrative at will.

Killingback finds depth in some fairly thin writing, skilled at working off reaction. By contrast, Cass-Beggs manages a fascinating presence even when his major requirement is to be withdrawn and selfish. Ostiere rather combines the attributes of both other males, only stopping a millimetre short (probably at wardrobe and stage management request) of actually exuding physical slime. Exhausting but compelling to watch.

This could be a lesson from history, and director Melissa Dunne certainly keeps the pace of the period. Some of the key touchstones are dated, and yet, and yet… we are reminded repeatedly that we have so much still to consider, and that this mere opening of the debate remains closer than we would like it to be.

 

4 stars.

Sheridan In Concert. Royal Albert Hall

April 25, 2018

24th April 2018.

Sheridan Smith is a modern day Judy Garland. Same luminescent unique talent, same bundle of insecurities. Only difference being that in the 21st century it is OK, beneficial, to admit it on stage and even mark those struggles with an appropriate song.

Last night, in front of over 4,000 people she did so with tremendous courage, giving a performance that felt all the more special as her demons were recognised and fought throughout the evening.

Some of it was showmanship, a good deal of it was simply Ms Smith’s “off the wall” personality, but for those of us sitting close to the stage, there were genuine moments of “what comes next? What do I? How can I?” hinting that there is a long and treacherous path still ahead. Let’s hope she can stay on it.

For this was a rare opportunity to glimpse a talent on stage unconfined by the constraints of musical theatre rules, and the chance was grasped with bravery. The interval divided a show into a first half of selections from her album, and a second “naughtier” free-ranging romp.

Entering in a tomato red dress that would have done Marilyn Monroe proud, “Don’t Rain On My Parade” got things off to a lively start, with her honesty about the art of the ‘segue’ touching on the personal with her second choice, “Crazy.” A swig of “water” (as she had it, and I’m inclined to go with the joke about vodka), had her slinking around to “I Smell a Rat.”

Some comedy with mike stand and a jacket, plus a personal revelation, let her rock “Addicted to Love,”  before a change of tone gave us “Dinner at Eight” and a modern yet still timeless “Mad About the Boy,” her acting skills at the fore.

“ Superstar,” if I’m honest was perhaps too mature for her – I’ve heard it done better by others, but the first half closer, “City of Stars” in a hall lit only by the phone-torches of a thousand fans simply glittered and was arguably the highlight of the evening.

An extended interval allowed a change of outfit to gold with feather boa, for a vigorous “Hey Big Spender.” The pace slowed as projections celebrated Cilla Black with a trade mark for both artists, “Anyone Who Had a Heart.”

Well within her comfort zone, a quick swig of “water” powered “Piece of My Heart.” A true “Sheridan” bit of slapstick with an adjustable stool, Spanx and a “Cupid Stunt” moment finally got her settled to deliver “Talking in your Sleep,” making the audience wonder if there had been a substitution during the kerfuffle. Not true – just versatility.

An unsophisticated “My Man,” then back to Smith family territory with a Country and Western pink-with-blue-fringes jacket and a “9 to 5” getting half the hall up and dancing.

A moving tribute to her family and her loyal audience “This is Me” was the truth, her voice cracking with emotion. Underlining it, “And I am Telling You” followed with a tender and quite moving passion.

The show ended with a promise “I Will Survive.” Let’s hope she does.

Sheridan Smith doesn’t yet have a deep “song book” of her own, and it was a bit of a pity that this concert was shorter than one might expect and also didn’t contain anything else from her stage back-catalogue. At times, the Albert Hall seemed too large for her, but she worked hard to reach out and eventually triumphed by dint of pure hard work.

The fighting she does to continue through life is pretty evident, even on-stage her personalities are multiple and conflicting; her impressive backing band and three vocalists sometimes helping her stay focussed enough to deliver. When she does, she really does, and I hope that in a few years another show will prove that this was merely the start of her live solo career.

Meanwhile, I think many will join me in saying, “I was proud to say that I was there,” and hope equally that it will be always for the best of reasons.

 

4 stars.

Twang!! Union Theatre

April 18, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th April 2018)

 
Merrie England, where even Merrier Men are dealing with their leader who has, to put it politely, lost his “twang” at a most inopportune moment. The Sherriff of Nottingham is Perpetually Punishing Poachers, and joining with Sir Guy to egg evil Prince John into ever-greater excesses of taxation and misogyny. Can Robin pull himself together, pull his bow to win the contest and, most important of all, pull Maid Marian before she ends up spliced to a maniac?

This re-worked fabled Lionel Bart 1965 flop takes a frequently hilarious 2 hours 20 minutes to reach the obvious answers. Julian Woolford and Richard John have scraped together the remains of the original show – such as they are – stirred in some new old Bart favourites and hung the whole on a simple story stitched through with tongue-in-cheek laughs and literally “camp” humour.

A two-tier Justin Williams and Jonny Rust set gives us castle or woodland encampment at the swish of a curtain, while Penn O’Gara manages both fun “period” (with a contemporary nod or three – nice tights) costumes and an ingenious Ugly Scotsman. Under Henry Brennan, Nick Anderson and James Hudson form a useful pit-band, helped out on occasion as required…


To a noble and peasant, the gang on stage are high-energy, a tightly drilled crew under director Bryan Hodgson, with timing, dance and acting talent making the very most of the lavish Sasha Regan production. Qudos Pantomimes need look no further than this cast for all its 2018 seasonal casting needs.

 
Robin Hood (Peter Noden) is very much a nominal leader. Probably in control never, yet always retaining the loyalty of his outlaws and audience alike. Confidant Little John (Christian Lunn) hides his exasperation with friendly goodwill and outstanding stage presence.


Campest in camp Will Scarlett (Kane Verrall) is more than a nod to a Jamie everybody is talking about, and will by rights end up there, hopefully soon. Alan-A-Dale (James Hudson) may be a rotten lyricist, but is a talented guitarist and likeable actor too.


Friar Tuck (Louie Westwood) endures the oft-repeated schoolboy joke about his name with good humour, and brings even more to a difficult patter-number.


Newcomer to the gang Much (Joe Rose) is all innocence but ‘gets with the program’ by the end,

 
and handles romance rather better than the esteemed leader, but all measures.

In this story, the ladies are, frankly, as unruly as the gents.
 
Marian (Kweeva Garvey) is a maid best untrifled with – her grasp of self-defence is as strong as her singing voice. Her posse of frustrated Ladies – Elphaba (Victoria Nicol – facially expressive enough to cut steel without words required) and Dolly (Francesca Pim – excited to a point requiring either medication or therapy) are hilarious, and thier attendant love-lorn Delphina (Jessica Brady) a lucky catch for Much; warm and gifted with instinctive light timing.

On the dark side, Prince John (Lewis McBean) takes a “Hamilton” approach with more success than the original. Sir Guy (Ed Court) manages creepy without insidious.


Sherriff of Nottingham (Christopher Hewitt) makes his professional debut in this show, his confidence growing throughout the performance. If by the end of the run he can bring his later energy to bear on his earlier scenes, he’ll be doing outstandingly well.

Not forgotten either are Dance Captain Micah Holmes, who not only keeps everybody moving but has the best exit jump to watch for. Chris Draper in the Ensemble shines when giving his touch of Wales,


and Hob of the Hill (Stephen Patrick) is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole show. A sprite with his own language, quite possibly the main Joan Littlewood invention still left in the piece, and all the better for it.

There are faults. Woolford and John arguably still have work they can do to lift this from hilarious to unforgettably absurd. The slightly unoriginal, but vitally helpful, musical theatre parodies have room to be expanded; and there are numerous opportunities for extra contemporary one-liners that could well polish and lift further the odd moment.

Much of the original music isn’t strong either.


“Silver Arrow” is perhaps the stand-out, “Welcome to Sherwood Forest” passable thanks to staging. It’s the interpolation of a few hits that keeps that end up, and provides one of the stronger “thorough jokes” too.


In short, this is the kind of rarity that Union Theatre fans rely on their favourite venue to provide, and that anyone who has ever bought a cast album should be seeking out. Not only a little bit of musical theatre history made to feel fresh, but a talented team making new theatre history themselves in this right blast, set in the past.

 

Five Stars for their efforts, for sure.

 

 

Photo credit: ©Anton Belmonté. Used by kind permission.

Pippin. Southwark Playhouse

March 28, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 24th March 2018).

This piece of whimsy makes its way to a prestigious London fringe venue having originated in an equally prestigious Manchester one. The partnership between Hope Mills and Aria Entertainment has already borne fruit, and magic has now been done at both ends of the country.

Ostensibly the story of despot King Charlemagne’s younger son Pippin, a dreamer trying to find his own “Corner of the Sky” and perhaps do some good on the way, this is really a fantasy of short episodes as told by a travelling theatre company.

The difference in this production is director Jonathan O’Boyle and his team’s decision to go with a “Victorian Playhouse” setting, a pretty proscenium arch and thrust stage with the ladies in fishnets and all in monochrome (Maeve Black). Clever stage inlays and a lot of streamers, a pair of ladders, bale of hay and a few hand props are all that is required to get us through the evening, visually.

Leading Player (Genevieve Nicole) has an extensive professional CV, and her experience shows. Truly horrible ‘biscuit tin’ sound cost me both her opening number and dialogue, and also my attention. As the show continued (and the sound mix improved exponentially), her hard work – particularly “On The Right Track” set me back on it.

An equally horrible start for the title character followed, the iconic “Corner of the Sky” lost to sound cloud for Jonathan Carlton (Pippin). His crafty swig of water on the stairs by my seat didn’t endear either, but again, as he was allowed to re-wind his life on stage, so his performance displayed a depth that grew ever more touching as he found love with Catherine (nice solo from Tessa Kadler) and son Theo (Scott Hayward in a heartfelt few moments).

As comic relief, Mairi Barclay was handed the perfect advantage of playing both stepmother and grandmother to Pippin. Dramatically, her Fastrada – the scheming mother – had the edge for her to run with, particularly faced with effectively despotic Charles (Rhidian Marc). Her joyously rambunctious Berthe gave her full reign to grow old disgracefully, and involve the audience with vigour.

Bringing up the rear of the family, Bradley Judge (Lewis) is a perfect bone-head… and that’s meant in the nicest possible way.

Also worthy of mention were hard-working Michelle Andrews and Ellie Seaton, the players responsible for providing everything from glamour to practical support of a movie screen.

The last is perhaps the production’s only true mis-step. A certain incongruity about real soldiers going to their deaths, in a stage musical. Bordering on tasteless even if the song is about war.

Stephen Schwartz’s show has a long track record with the American public. It’s beloved and been a smash hit on Broadway, twice over. For this Brit at least, it’s rather more in the “Finian’s Rainbow” category – acknowledged as a classic, but trickier on the British palate than over the pond. It’s not just sugary and lighter than duck down, it also takes a while to display its raison d’être. Once it hits its stride and justifies itself on its own terms, though, it is a relaxing couple of hours, given here a wildly inventive interpretation.

Hopefully, a forerunner of even more successful transfers to come from the partnership.

4 stars.

 

 

And that’s it for this season. Taking an Easter break – so Happy Easter to all Christian readers. Back on 18th April 2018.