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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 Rice 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.

Types of Audience.

March 22, 2017

I often single out individuals in an audience for special notice. Normally of course because they are obnoxious. But there are also general audiences that I can predict, and I thought I’d list a few.

The National Theatre Crowd. Older, regular theatregoers, know how to behave and know their way around the auditorium. They take their seats quickly (they’ve booked those numbers a hundred times before) and know when to laugh, clap and remain silent.

The Almeida Crowd. Same as the National, but frankly even wealthier and better informed. Don’t attempt to talk or eat in the auditorium – one look and you will be ashes.

The Trade Night Lot. Guests of a ticket or marketing company, there on a freebie. If they turn up, the respectful are seasoned theatregoers who know how to behave. The rest can be the office juniors out on a “jolly,” and as bad as…

…The Jukebox Rabble. Drunken single-sex parties, singing along and that’s if they don’t know the words. Pity they never realise there’s anyone else in the audience.

Fangirls. Found at the long-running shows. They know to the second and millimetre what everyone will do and where they will be. And let those around them know it. Avoid the front row at “Wicked” on a “cast change” weekend, basically.

Long Runners. Not those who missed the bus and found alternative transport. Just those who wanted cheap last minute tickets and found that only shows on since Bruce Forsythe was a teenager have them available. Often tourists, with limited command of English, or obssessives who have gone beyond fangirl to actually set up home in the venue.

Time Servers. See everything, and are not impressed. In fact, almost treat what is a treat for others as “another day at the office.” An empty seat at the interval indicates their lack of impressedness with the show.

Harassed Parents. Sit still, quiet, “I don’t know, now shush.” Actually, rare. I watched in horror as one pre-teen was allowed to worm her way upside down in her seat, to place her feet on the front of the stage, head below them, at one play. Good reason to buy a seat in a box, well away from the melee…

Repeat Offenders. Again, at long running shows. Seen it, and like fangirls, can tell you to the millimetre if the current lead is standing in a different place. They don’t, though. They just look grimly at you if you happen to have been allocated “their” seat that night.

Matinee Folk. Younger at weekends than weekdays (but not by much during school terms), anyway… Will know the old classics, will be shocked by language at the new ones. Still, they will have the odd tale to tell, so worth chatting to.

And finally, the everyday. Straight from work, just want to enjoy a peaceful night out. Wish there were more of them, to be honest.

 

Pretention or just pretend?

March 15, 2017

In the space of one month last year I saw two productions, “No Man’s Land” and “Nice Fish” – plays with star-driven casts and no immediate plot.

“No Man’s Land” warranted a “The Wonder Years” rating on my scale, while “Nice Fish” ended up as “Bug Juice.” Both were about characters, rather than stories, yet one worked as it has for decades, the other had me wondering who the co-author paid to get it into town.

Pinter’s classic “sang.” The wordplay was intelligent, every syllable adding to the depth of our understanding of the person saying it. Each line justifying being spoken because it was a truthful revelation about something intangible. It didn’t have to hold immediate meaning, but it resonated on some deeper level so that long after the curtain fell, the mind went back and made some connection that made the whole event worthwhile and live again in subconscious thoughts.

“Nice Fish,” stank. Supposedly based on “lyrical poetry” – which means long descriptions of a type that would get you a decent grade in “O” Level English in my day, and a fail at University creative writing level in the UK, though probably a Masters (well, a run in a West End theatre) if you happen to be from a country that has lower standards – to say the least.

To add non-sequiturs and lines that go nowhere, fail to add insight beyond the obvious meaning, “I was found out,” – OK, and you are telling me this, why? Did it shape you, does it mean something, are you a convict enjoying the open air or an idiot or what? Annoys the audience, and gives us nothing back for our attention in trying to understand the intention of both actor and author.

The difference is that we have to believe that beneath the surface is something not only solid to hold the play up, but deeply satisfying if we are willing to look there and find it. The actors construct our mineshaft to it as we watch, and the script is conduit through which what they discovers will flow. If they sink a shaft and there is nothing there, and we know pretty soon that they are simply digging a hole as the script fails to fill the gap they are creating, the result is one black evening with nothing to show for it.

If that sounds angry and disappointed, yes, I was. I’ll happily take a piece about thoughts rather than one with a trite tale, but please, make it like Pinter and give me something to think about rather than tell me that you were able to get some messy mental output staged, just because the co-author is more than a bit famous and talented in his own right. Thank you.

 

See Me Now (Young Vic Theatre)

March 8, 2017


(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th March 2017)

From Katrina Kindsay’s inspired “Amsterdam ‘Red Light District’ Shop Window Booths” design emerge prostitutes. Real ones, not actors. Well, one is, when she can get the chance, but this is her “day job.”

There follows an hour and a half of truth-telling that is by turn funny, sad, shocking, amusing, upsetting, surprising, painful (you would not believe what a dominatrix has that can go where a man… anyway…) and always, always captivating, enthralling, and deeply, deeply moving.

Forget those sensationalist “Channel 4 documentaries” which are mostly of the “come look at the freaks” variety, or at least have a snide “we are better than you” edge to them (“Flynt” recognises and filters out their researchers when they call!). This is the real thing, and the cast are simply people like you and me, who happen to be doing a job. As “Rick” points out – it’s better than being scared and attacked at work… and he is talking about his time as a supermarket assistant.

Some chose the life, “Flynt” found that he could entertain,


“Peter” (above) at 67 works waiting, cleaning and prostitution jobs – and finds the last the least interesting (another stranger wanting to, well, anyway, when he really can’t be bothered, but has a mortgage to pay). “Beth” uses it to deal with drama school debts – and (thanks to a conviction during which police humiliated her worse than any client, she says), she can’t even work in acting much any more; while “B” used it as a sideline and “Governess Elizabeth” as a springboard for academic research (and teaching others).

Others fell into it,


addict Jane (above), and broke singer Dee found a way to make money as life crumbled. “Pan” found acceptance through it, in a world where gender identity fluidity can be a positive. Two others, “Adorable” (who lives up to her name) was trafficked from her home country, while tiny and talented dancer “Zariya” came the “abused as a child” route that might just be the one audiences most expect. The fact she is “owned” by someone for a brief period makes her feel, in a twisted way, safe.

This is no litany of “who did what to me and when,” but a fully-fledged performance.

Stories are told, equipment demonstrated, talents for music and character acting revealed. “B” – a sort of Matthew Lucas clone – plays an ancient courtesan, Nell Gynn and “Madam Cyn,” with the audience (literally) involved… for the record, I was NOT at the party as she claimed… and I can prove it… I think… if I can find the luncheon vouchers… er.. moving quickly on…

The tenderest moments are the noisiest, a party sequence with outlines on the floor; the use of light and movement to describe emotion – and a final chair-top revelation. All by real people, no performances. In fact, as I remarked to the person beside me, I’d even like to see it with actors, just to examine the text for interest. A blank look was the response, but there is a second piece here, underlying the reality, that I think would bear a parallel drama experience.

That bit of theatrical philosophy on my part dispensed with, the truth is that this can only be done with those who created it, and it makes it the unique experience that it is. If only one point can be taken, it is that each and every person on the stage is no different to the people watching. If B and Jane and Pan in particular may turn heads or cause a wider berth to be steered… this production begs seeing them – along with the work they and the others do – with fresh eyes in future.


It’s an un-repeatable and bold piece of experimental theatre, and one of those productions that makes me fall in love with the theatrical all over again. Real people being honest and communicating uninhibited, unbiased and uncensored ideas drawn from life experiences, to an engaged audience, is all that theatre should be. If only there were a way to transfer it to a wider audience, but such is true theatre, it is fleeting.

An enriching experience, that truly brings a whole new perspective on life to all who were lucky enough to see them now.

 

Photo credit: Matt Humphrey. Used by kind permission of the Young Vic Theatre, and indeed the performers, whose privacy is theirs even as they share their lives with us.

 

Evita (New Wimbledon Theatre)

March 1, 2017

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Seen at the afternoon performance on 25th February 2017.

With an extreme jolt, I realised it was exactly 31 years since I saw the original London production… and that was around 8 years after that had opened. Anyway, I am pleased to report that an old friend is in very good shape indeed.

The pernickety may feel the columns in Matthew Wright’s set are a trifle insubstantial, but they have to tour the country; and anyway, they work perfectly  – for the closing tableaux, in particular. The rest of his set is mostly highly impressive – his balcony, combined with Mark Howett’s “stellar” lighting provides a glorious dignity in the key scenes, while his “bus” and “debating chamber” match the theatricality of the originals. Only quibbles here are the rather perfectly shaped protest signs… and Evita’s dressing table being the same 1970s design as my mother’s.

The show itself holds up even better, feeling relevant in present times – occasionally uncomfortably so in its reliance on “alternative facts.” David Steadman produces a superb sound from the orchestra pit, and Dan Samson’s trade mark care ensures we hear it and the actors clearly.

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In the title role, Emma Hatton produces probably the most dissembling Eva ever. Her “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” surely ranks as one of the least truthful performances in musical theatre history – in the best possible way. Lying her head off through the entire “big number,” she was. When I find myself stifling a laughing snort at the line “All you have to do is look at me to know, that every word is true,” I know the actor has hit her target. If at times she had an odd resemblance to Elaine Paige both physically and vocally, her own interpretation was clear – and her detailed growth in confidence and raging despair at premature decline were impressive.

Her husband, Peron (Kevin Stephen-Jones) manages the difficult task of concealing who holds the real interest of the people, and makes the insertion of film-written “You Must Love Me” seem almost welcome – no mean feat.

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Gian Marco Schiaretti finds the dry sarcasm in commentator Che with ease.

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His connections with Eva are calculatingly, chillingly static – poisonous yet with the grudging admiration of one aspiring leader to another. One unfortunate “Alvin and the Chipmunks” moment in “Oh What A Circus” ignored, also a faultless vocal performance.

A special mention, too for Mistress Sarah O’Connor. An absolutely definitive “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” gave this over-done number a fresh vitality, deep meaning and show-stopping significance.

Oscar Balmaseda’s creepy Magaldi is another highlight, remaining an absolute loser to the end, in an amusingly strong characterisation.

In the smaller roles, Lewis Barnshaw’s Priest wisely resists the temptation to sling holy water in time with the music, and frankly Aristocrats George Arvidson,  and particularly snooty ladies Jessica Ellen, Kellie Gnauck, Kate Leiper and Chrissie Perkins deserve all they get. Particular praise for Bill Deamer’s choreography, their dance numbers were inventive and beautifully executed.

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Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright have created an Evita that may flow a little more Latin-paced than the busy Hal Prince original, but retains a bite hotter than a chilli-pepper when required. A large cast in a well-conceived version, this has to be worth travelling to see, if it comes within striking distance of your home town. Trust me, it’s one ticket worth rolling in for.

 

(On Tour continuing: Oxford 7th to 11th March, Salford 14th to 18th March, Cardiff 20th to 25th March, York 28th March to 1st April, Sunderland 4th to 8th April 2017). See www.kenwright.com for details.

 

Photograph credit: Pamela Raith. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre.