Skip to content

Are ‘Mischief Theatre’ the new ‘Crazy Gang?’

April 27, 2016

At best, the name Bud Flanagan now means to most people the singer of the “Dads Army” theme – recorded just days before he died. Older generations, and those interested in Variety, though, will nod in recognition at “The Crazy Gang.” A band of comedy makers who could fill the London Palladium and Victoria Palace Theatres twice nightly for years on end… and did.

They mostly wrote their own material – they had to, anything by anyone else required ‘bashing around a bit, until it suited us” according to Bud in his autobiography. Wordplay, knockabout physical comedy, the odd song and ‘chasing a chorus girl up the aisle with a chopper’ (easy, missus), kept audiences entranced for decades.

Hmm, “wordplay, knockabout physical comedy, the odd song, invading the auditorium…” Sounds familiar today…

I’m talking about Mischief Theatre. A gang of drama school graduates who decided to write their own play when nobody else would employ them. Now it looks very much as if they will have THREE running simultaneously, come Christmas this year – “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” and newest effort “The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.”

In the original cast we see the familiar faces, sometimes playing the roles they’ve done previously – Fawltyesque, Funny Big Man, Nervous Wimp, Glamour Girl and Mrs Bean – and other times playing firmly against anything they’ve done before.

The point is, they come as a team, an ensemble. The material has been written by and for themselves, and their joy is in performing it for us. If you seek the essence of the “Crazy Gang” in a modern setting, here it is.

Or maybe are they something else, as the sad passing of fellow fan Victoria Wood reminded me. Regular readers know I’m a life-long fan of Pamela Brown’s “Blue Door” books – about a group of teenage youngsters who open their own theatre – and I admit I do wonder if “Mischief Theatre” would be their grandchildren. I hope so, for Lynette, Maddy, Bulldog, Jeremy, Sandra, Nigel and Vicky would surely appreciate the mutual trust, creativity and companionship they exude.

Do we still have such a need for a company like this? The days of the West End troupe are long gone – even the “Branagh Season” and before it the “Jude Law” season didn’t use the same actors; the last I can remember in London was when the National Theatre operated individual troupes under several directors back in the 1980s.

My argument is that I think there is a place for it still, as Mischief Theatre demonstrate. Yes, we see the same names in various West End roles cropping up all the time (musicals, especially, where money dictates a ‘safe pair of hands’ is better than taking a chance). The joy of seeing a performer regularly is that, though we can predict the quality of a performance reasonably well, it’s fascinating to see the new character they play each time.

What Mischief Theatre, and their astute producer have done is create a brand based on that, more than that, a entire team inspiring a devoted following. Certainly, I recognised some members of the audience from previous performances, and on the day I attended most of the chatter was about how we were so pleased to see our “friends” once more – and anticipating how their latest efforts would be.

Whether “Crazy Gang,” “Blue Door” or (I’d say) a bit of both, I hope the team stay together for a long time to come, success holding them together – and I for one cannot wait for the magical day when an announcement may come that “Mischief Theatre will present something new.” Let’s hear it for the Mischief Makers, long may they last.

 

 

 

No blog next week – taking a “Bank Holiday Week break.” Back on the 11th May.

Sunset Boulevard: London Coliseum

April 20, 2016

sunset
Pictured, L-R: Michael Xavier, Glenn Close, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson in rehearsal.
(Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th April 2016).

23 years, or half a lifetime or so ago – it feels – I saw the original cast at the Adelphi Theatre at their first matinee after press night. The tale had me hooked, and I saw Patti Lupone’s final matinee (the one where she gave us a concert to cover time needed to release a jammed curtain and get the show running again), Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige over the years. To see this once more on a huge stage, with star leads and full orchestra was an unmissable opportunity, so I grabbed it… and I’m so glad I did.

This is impeccably, and I mean, impeccably directed by Lonny Price, and staged by Linnit & Grade. The advertising suggests a “semi-staged” performance. Frankly, I’ve seen less staging in a full West End run. Think “Chicago” and you have a similar design concept, but a far larger cast and more props. And did I mention the orchestra?

A framework of galleries and two staircases, one side simple, the other elaborate, weave around the sides and above the orchestra. In a vast open space in front, action unfolds with well-selected props and projections used as required. James Noone and Tracy Chrisensen / Anthony Powell (set and costumes) should be proud. Only a dud “spider on a string” corpse is a misjudgement, though amusing for those in the balcony who have to stare at it throughout the show, perhaps.

Glenn Close means I can “tick off” another Norma I have seen. Not able to hit the diva heights (or musical notes) of Patti Lupone, but certainly able to find deep meaning in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and engaging – and keeping despite homicide – our sympathy from “With One Look” onwards. A beautiful performance.

Even more engaging is the wonderful Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, writer and victim of Desmond. His survival instinct and selfish exterior, which often overwhelm the character, are here shown for what they are – simple protection against the harshness of Hollywood life. We believe that he has seen the underside of the dream, yet chooses it anyway. With Siobhan Dillon (Betty Schaefer) they make one of my favourite Lloyd Webber / Black numbers “Too Much In Love To Care” even more the Rogers & Hammerstein II tribute that I think it is. To see Ms Dillon looking so well and producing such an attractively driven Schaefer is another delight.

Fred Johanson as Max gives us the perfect “Greatest Star Of All.” Butler, castoff, yet steadfast in all things. If he’d had the breaks of DeMille (Julian Forsyth’s witty, truthful performance is remarkable) who knows.

A word for the superbly used chorus of the ENO; the “New Year’s Eve” party sequence of drunken actresses hoping for a better year was a joy. Even funnier, their exuberant “party poppers” fired streamers high into the proscenium arch at the end of Act One. This lead to a fabulous “Laurel and Hardy” tribute cameo by the stage crew, who sent a pair out during the interval with an almost too short ladder to retrieve it. Naturally, when they finally succeeded, the Great British Public duly rewarded them with an ironic round of applause.

Contrasting with the humour, Price produced two of my favourite sequences ever on a stage. To shadow a dancing couple during “The Perfect Year” was haunting and inspired, to create a montage at the end of act two was neigh-on perfect theatre. In a show which is, ultimately, rather a cold story, finding raw emotion is an impressive achievement.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this couldn’t transfer to the London Palladium, the perfect dream-palace setting for this living fantasy with a rotten core. If economics mean we’ll never see this show again in this lavish and appropriate a production, that’s sad, but gosh, I’m so pleased we have been given this all to brief moment to experience ‘the magic in the making’ just once more as it should be seen.

It’s the Quality that Counts

April 13, 2016

I had an email conversation with a reader the other day. The discussion began with a debate on my feelings about “Phantom of the Opera,” but moved on to “Bend It Like Beckham.” Specifically, ‘did all those “five star” reviews happen because the reviewers didn’t wish to offend a minority group?’

My honest answer was “no.” Certainly, the media has to be careful in its choice of words, indeed, posting this blog will probably offend someone for some unknown reason – but nobody would give extra credit for the content of any show being the latest “politically correct” cause. If “Beckham” were to have had that treatment, then by the same reckoning “Bollywood Dreams,” “Bollywood Nights,” and even the National’s play “Beyond The Beautiful Forevers” would have also been lavished with undeserved praise, and those involved in the productions would be first to abhor it.

Still, as I said to the reader, it’s a really good subject for a blog. If we extend the idea that the appeal of the subject should dictate form, that “Kiss Me Kate” should be marked down for domestic violence, or “Annie” for child abuse for a start. “Miss Saigon” could run forever based on its message of hope for orphans, or be closed permanently for its exploitation of women.

“Blood Brothers” is basically about defying social services, “The Phantom of the Opera” about sexual harassment in the workplace, and “Barnum” simply celebrates conmen.

Back to “Beckham,” and I do genuinely believe that some reviewers did find in it something that most of the rest of us missed. I felt that it JUST fell on the 4 stars, rather than 3, thanks to the warmth it generated. Repeated listening of the cast album confirmed that for me, and I still love “Look At Us Now,” a joyous hymn of survival that I too will sing. In fact, you can happily replace the Singh family with any other immigrant group and the show will remain relevant.

Rather like “The Beautiful Game,” I’m inclined to think that quite simply the show will live again… once it has solved the issue the Andrew Lloyd Webber show also had to overcome. It’s really hard to put football on stage – even after overcoming “audience resistance” to the idea of football in the first place (theatregoers not always being lovers of anything to do with the sport).

Football is a field game, with spectators surrounding a vast playing area, watching a lot of players move at high speed – often clumped together to reach the ball.

Theatre these days is often confined to spectators on one side, and the actors spread to fill as much of the stage as possible.

The Union Theatre revival of “The Beautiful Game” solved the problem by having the stage “traverse” so that it felt like a football pitch – playing scenes at the ends of the stage when “home” backgrounds were needed.

“Beckham,” once the Union (or other fringe venue with a flexible stage) will work – I think – perfectly in that same layout. Jess can actually kick a ball and not injure anyone, and the impact of the final match will be greater. Further, using ends to show divides may point up the symbolism of the show.

So maybe the stars were deserved after all. They recognised the strength of the work over the current staging. In other words, it wasn’t just the subject matter – my musings suggest a different staging could get closer to allowing its true quality to shine, as “The Beautiful Game” did. Thus I do think that it really is the quality of the art, whatever the subject, that indeed is the thing that actually counts.

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Young Vic Theatre)

April 6, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd April 2016).

 

Do you remember a few years ago, when newspapers regularly gave away CDs free? Quite often, they would be of songs you’d never heard before, or want to – but you’d “give it a listen” so that you could feel you were “broadening your horizons.” Well, this was a bit like that. And it shouldn’t have been.

Billed as a fusion of 80s music and dance, the music was the oddity. As I was leaving the theatre, a woman exclaimed loudly, “I’d never heard a single song they used.” I thought it was just me, as the 80s was my era. Even though I had little interest in the music of the time, I knew what was “around,” or so I thought. I guess the “North / South divide” extended to ‘bands we listen to’ as well.

Anyway, quite honestly most of the songs sounded like each other. “Empire State Human” and “My New House” were a bit of relief, as was the ballad “I Know It’s Over,” but the rest just melded into one not very engaging blur (no pun intended, too early anyway). Credit to Jane Horrocks, though, her voice is better than ever as she sang her way through the songbook of her youth.

Horrocks “tops and tails” the piece with (I found out by reading another review – the programme was pretty hopeless on such details) quotes from “The Smiths.” This is all about what love feels like, and how it seemed in her teenage Northern room, then at the end, how it seemed looking back. Well, that was the theory.

The actual book of this presentation was absent, at least to those like myself who like, but don’t fully ‘read,’ modern dance that well. It rather struck me that there was little cohesion or coherence to the flow of songs, interpreted by the hard-working dance troupe; and nothing much developed beyond one couple having a, er, very “athletic” time of it.

That said, the dance was pretty outstanding, Lorena Randi and Daniel Hay-Gordon in particular as memorable movers. The trouble was that the few times it was simple to pick up on any narrative, there was no real progression to follow on to the next song and accompanying routine. I probably missed it, but that’s what it felt like.

Bunny Christie comes up with a fun plug and socket design, a “show” cut-out, and at various times a table, chair and fridge rumbling on and off, too. Andreas Fuchs manages almost always to produce the lighting intended, but it seemed curious to use strip-lights suspended from the grid, which left noticeable shadows on the floor below as other effects painted it. If that was intentional, well and good, but my feeling was that it was simply something that couldn’t be worked around and became, “well, it was meant to be like that, really” in the end.

A loud (I used ear-plugs, worked fine) show; reasonably engaging for the most part – vocals and dance more than the actual music – but ultimately a bit more of a concept than a permanent success. Rather like its decade and subject, really.

About 2 and a half stars, rising to 3 for the odd sequence. At over 50p a minute, there are other ways of learning about love for the same cash, probably…

Paul Daniels

March 17, 2016

For me, the magic has gone out of my life this morning.

I became a fan when I was only about 7, and his office was kind enough to send a long reply to a letter we wrote to him asking him questions for our school’s newspaper. they didn’t have to, he was a huge star then, but they did, and I still have the signed photograph they sent with it, too.

I saw all of his West End theatre runs – 3 at the Prince of Wales theatre (he broke records which stand to this day, there) and 1 at the Savoy, which promptly burned down after he left. In fact, I have posters from two of the shows,  signed by him and Mrs Daniels, that they found only a couple of years ago and put on E Bay. Then, I thought they’d just be a nice memory, now, they are precious reminders.

I was lucky enough to meet him twice, and interact with him online. As recently as 2014, he cheekily (and very rightly) suggested he could have done a better job than an actor I criticised on this blog for playing a magician very badly. Always a charming, polite, and very direct man, he made time for people – because, quite simply he loved an audience and we loved him.

For those who don’t know, “Phantom of the Opera” will remain his signature in London and around the world, with his illusions still delighting fans of that show today.

My heart goes out to Debbie, Martin, Paul Junior and their families. Again, lovely people whom I have spoken to several times. What a family should be, close and sharing a common bond of fun, laughter and sheer joy of living with all around them.

I loved him, such a lot, I loved him.

Sleep well, Mr Daniels, sleep well.

Send In The Crowds

March 16, 2016

What do Benedict Cumberbatch, Harry Potter, Billy Elliot and probably a Groundhog and Katniss Everdeen have in common? All fictional characters? All fighting for the poor and unequal? All use the stage to make a political point? Possibly.

For the purposes of this blog, the answer is that to get a ticket to see any of them was / will be a struggle, with the odds not always being in your favour (see what I did there, I don’t just chuck these blogs together, you know. Well, I do, but).

To have seen “Hamlet,” book in for “The Cursed Child,” attend the final night of “Billy Elliot” or (if and when it happens) catch “The Hunger Games” live on stage involved / will involve a degree of luck and planning… but also hope that the box office will have systems in place to cope with demand.

That doesn’t always happen.

As previous blogs have recorded, we’ve come a long way from the teenager I was, in line at 4am at Wembley Stadium in the hope of “Who’s That Girl” tickets. Those who used the only alternative – the phone – didn’t have a (little) prayer (see, told you I don’t chuck these together – much). Even then, “mail order” was finished, so it was wait or hope.

Not sure we’ve come that far since then… except it’s warmer to hover over your computer than stand in the cold. The phone is still hopeless, of course.

So, recently (well, within shuddering memory time) I’ve done the lot. And I thought I’d make a few notes on which system offers the best experience.

For me, “Que-it” seems about the best. That’s the system with the little green walking person, holding you in a line until there’s space to deal with you on the main website.

Nimax Theatres handled Potter the best they could using it, as did the Barbican Centre for that “Hamlet.” By randomly allocating a number in line to those who log on, it beats those with multiple computers (though even I admit to having 2 on the go, and most people use several different browsers on one machine – different browsers mean separate cookies and more chances to get a spot in line. Just opening a window in a single browser may not work as the cookie is shared by each window and could be seen by the system and rejected).

With lesser, but high, demand, the National Theatre and Royal Albert Hall, to cite two, also do fine, with a “waiting room” and countdown until they let you in. No random numbers, but you are in line according to arrival, not bad.

ATG Tickets just hold you on a page, with a timer counting down until they can deal with you. Not bad, but has been known to kick you out, rather than transfer you to book occasionally. Frustrating or what.

And then there are the “lunatic fringe” of websites, which are designed to provide maximum tension and caused me to write this entry. The final performance of “Billy Elliot” went on sale last week at 2pm. Promising to do a friend a favour (not going myself, not my thing), I was poised to book… on the normally impressive Delfont Mackintosh website.

As per the email announcing how it was going to work, I was hovering from just before the start time. 2pm came and went, no performance on sale, despite the email promising it would happen. The phone line announced it was too busy – and then cut folk off, so the web it was to be. Frantic refreshing, trying other browsers (The ENO ‘Sunset Boulevard’ booking site didn’t like Internet Explorer, and I had to use Chrome to get in line for that) and several words miners know (and minors, too, going by the afternoon tube conversations) later… nothing.

2.15pm. Suddenly, the time appeared! Clicked on. ”No can do – click proceed.” Luckily, I did. Back to the date and time… this time… the seats appear, and I got exactly what I wanted.

No, not the ticket, lunch. Which I’d missed, thanks to that. I did get the exact seat my friend wanted, though, which was also good, I guess.

Still… it rather showed that even when they are a little rickety, some sort of online queue system is better than none, I feel.

It’s probably just me who can’t really cope with more than one or two of these events per year, but it would be so much easier if there were a stress-free system, so, answers on a post-card (read in order of receipt) please.

 

 

 

 

Taking a break to eat chocolate eggs, back on 6th April. To those who celebrate them, happy Easter / Passover. To those who don’t, feel free to send unwanted chocolate eggs to the usual address, thank you.

Bar Mitzvah Boy (Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre)

March 11, 2016

(seen at the preview performance on 6th March 2016).

bb3
“Bar Mitzvah Boy” lasted just 77 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1978.

It has, to date, lived on only in recordings, workshops, and the memory of those who saw it. Now “revisicals” (revised versions of flops) are in style, us fans of the CD get a glimpse of what we missed… or do we…

… Comparing the original recording and liner notes to this version, this Bar Mitzvah boy gets the major haircut his parents were urging. The team goes back to the 1976 award-winning TV drama for its script and dramatic structure, cuts the cast to 8, the band to 4 and circumcises the odd wonderful number (sorry, fans, “Thou Shalt Not” is gone, but trite “The Sun Shines Out of Your Eyes” is still in, alas) in favour of newly-written stuff from the original composer’s bottom drawer.

Fortunately, it’s mostly the better for it.

Adam Bregman (Eliot). Bar Mitzvah Boy Production Stills March 2016 Bar Mitzvah Boy Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment. Directed by Stewart Nicholls. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Don Black. Upstairs at the Gatehouse Thurs 4 March to Sun 10 April 2016. Press perf 10 March 7.30pm. Box Office 0208 340 3488. Running time 2hrs 15.
Eliot (above) is about to turn 13, his synagogue Bar Mitzvah service happens tomorrow morning, with a catered party for 117 (even the Cohens are coming!) to follow. We first encounter young Eliot (Adam Bregman) at home, introducing his family and squabbling with sister Lesley (Lara Stubbs), as Rabbi Sherman (neatly observed by Jeremy Rose) looms.

Following a brief chat with friend Denise (Hannah Rose-Thompson) on the differences Jewish boys and Christian girls experience in their rites-of-passage, we see the Greens settling to their “Eve of Bar Mitzvah Friday Night Meal.”

LR Robert Maskell (Victor), Sue Kelvin (Rita). Bar Mitzvah Boy Production Stills. March 2016 Bar Mitzvah Boy Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment. Directed by Stewart Nicholls. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Don Black. Upstairs at the Gatehouse Thurs 4 March to Sun 10 April 2016. Press perf 10 March 7.30pm. Box Office 0208 340 3488. Running time 2hrs 15.
Panic rises as parents Rita (Sue Kelvin) and Victor (Robert Maskell) (pictured above), Granddad (Hayward B Morse), plus Lesley’s boyfriend Harold (Nicholas Corre) contemplate tomorrow (and the bills)…

Through the night, parents alternately worry more and congratulate themselves and Eliot trembles, until ‘the day’ dawns.

LR Lara Stubbs (Lesley), Sue Kelvin (Rita), Robert Maskell (Victor). Bar Mitzvah Boy Production Stills March 2016 Bar Mitzvah Boy Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment. Directed by Stewart Nicholls. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Don Black. Upstairs at the Gatehouse Thurs 4 March to Sun 10 April 2016. Press perf 10 March 7.30pm. Box Office 0208 340 3488. Running time 2hrs 15.
Just when it’s all going right, Eliot’s big moment arrives. He makes good his escape in front of the entire community, and gentle mayhem ensues.

And those paragraphs are the major issue with the show. The entire first half is a very long set-up – and act two doesn’t quite repay an audience following really quite mundane happenings.

LR Adam Bregman (Eliot), Lara Stubbs (Lesley). Bar Mitzvah Boy Production Stills March 2016 Bar Mitzvah Boy Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment. Directed by Stewart Nicholls. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Don Black. Upstairs at the Gatehouse Thurs 4 March to Sun 10 April 2016. Press perf 10 March 7.30pm. Box Office 0208 340 3488. Running time 2hrs 15.
The resolution of Eliot’s funk happens three times in the second half, dissipating our emotional reactions over nearly 30 minutes, rather than giving a single glorious release, as a good musical should provide, to leave all happily deflated and glowing in the aftermath.

Still, there’s plenty of good along the way. Foremost, the adult male casting is faultless. Rober Maskell’s patriarch is gloriously observed, the archetypal Jewish father reduced to a ‘non-speaking / wallet carrying role’ by his womenfolk. Hayward B Morse is a Jewish Granddad straight from ‘Central Casting,’ and if only they had cut his ‘joke’ to a punchy (or at least less hoary) tale, he’d have achieved perfection.

Nicholas Corre, already a “Victor in training” deserves special mention for his act 1 highlight song-and-dance solo “The Harolds of This World.” Later, his facial reaction to a casual insult is a joy to behold. He also makes a decent cup of tea.

Sue Kelvin and Lara Stubbs take longer to find their characters, but when they do, this mother and daughter combination are a formidable team. Kelvin in particular was still working on her emotional pitching at the preview I saw, not quite achieving the perfect level of mania until too late in proceedings, denying her the opportunity to go further when required.

LR Lara Stubbs (Lesley), Adam Bregman (Eliot). Bar Mitzvah Boy Production Stills March 2016 Bar Mitzvah Boy Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment. Directed by Stewart Nicholls. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Don Black. Upstairs at the Gatehouse Thurs 4 March to Sun 10 April 2016. Press perf 10 March 7.30pm. Box Office 0208 340 3488. Running time 2hrs 15.
Stubbs sings beautifully, becomes the sister Eliot needs (both pictured above), and almost doesn’t deserve Harold – who will do very well for himself with her.

Of the two youngest cast members, Hannah Rose-Thompson is perfection, oozing early teen angst and hilarious bluntness with a maturity both in character and performance style that steals every scene from young Adam Bregman. If director Stewart Nicholls could only re-stage their interactions so more than 10% of the audience could see them, it’d be perfect.

Bregman tries hard, but doesn’t always find himself in the 1970s. A hugely inappropriate early smirk distances him from our affections, but he wins through eventually, the audience joining in the cry of “Mazeltov” as the curtain falls.

Grace Smart (who had the extreme misfortune to be forced to sit next to me at the performance, as all other seats were taken – sorry, Ms Smart) produces an impressively detailed set. If you think “Back in Time for the Weekend” was accurate, Smart goes further, producing a single wall ingeniously containing authentic wallpaper and synagogue window, two bedrooms, a kitchen, beaded curtain (concealing the band) and playground. Expect authentic 70s hairdryers, “Jackie” pin-ups, flying ducks, cutlery and crockery (IKEA, noch, so she confided!) too. One very impressive piece of stagecraft and costuming, adding immeasurably to the piece, and worth all that careful research.

Less careful, I had several quibbles over the handling of the Jewish prayers (a holy name is used – potentially gravely offensive to some of the audience), and atrociously edited synagogue sequence (overlong enough to be cut anyway). Also inexplicable, even the Rabbi confusing “bar mitzvah” with “being bar mitzvahed” (one exists, the other does not – Bar Mitzvah is automatic on the 13th birthday, “barmitzvahed” is the circus of celebration at the core of the show). Given the faith of most of the team, they may have been able to adjust a little more, perhaps?

Clawing things back, here are marks to be had for the decent band, authentic sounding arrangements and well-chosen pre-show and interval music, though.

Still, something happened that afternoon that I never thought would. I got to see a version of “Bar Mitzvah Boy: The Musical.”

What more can I say, I’m happy, I should cry?

4 Stars of David, Mazeltov, Eliot.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers