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Starlight Express Concert Workshop Performances: The Other Palace Theatre.

September 20, 2017

Seen on 14th September 2017.

I was lucky enough to attend the original show just a few days after press night in 1984. So I recall the excitement and innovation, the sheer spectacle and the fact that while it didn’t always make sense (and was ear-splittingly loud), it was enough fun that I saw it and the 1990s updated version several more times.

The show still plays in Bochum, Germany. Andrew Lloyd Webber visited recently, found that his score had been locked away… and decided to use his London Experimental theatre to take a look at the show once again. Introducing the work (and Arlene Phillips, original choreographer), the composer said that every performance during this week would be different, as they try other things, so what I saw won’t necessarily be what others did on other dates. This isn’t a review either, more a few notes on what did go on, in a little chug down memory lane.

Using just a few props – a rucksack or two, a foam brick, some red heels borrowed from “Kinky Boots” and 16 of the biggest talents in London, this was a pretty good attempt.

Much of the music remains unchanged, but a lot of the lyric has been polished – re-written to bring it up to date, lines changed to accommodate slight variations in the story, and a few songs re-ordered in the show for greater impact.

The story remains that of a little boy’s dream – a conceit introduced for the 90s revised version, and it works pretty well. It’s still a battle of the trains for speed on the track and the right carriage to haul, but it’s become more democratic, with lady engines and the women being stronger and more independent than in the original.

The casting is impressive. Oliver Tompsett stops the show as Greaseball, George Ure looked surprised at the reaction to his own “Starlight Express” closer to act 1, while Liam Tamne’ bi-sexual Electra is everything the new show could want. Sneaky Patrick Sullivan brings back C.B. with gusto, too – and the only really dated (but MUST be left in) – lyric in the show. Poppa becomes Momma, with Mica Paris bringing the house down twice, solo with the Blues, dueting with Rusty on “Only You.”

Rusty’s love Pearl is given the full Duracell / Energiser Bunny treatment by Christina Bennington. The lady never stops moving, even when stopping the show with “Make Up My Heart” and the new final duet with her Rusty.

Always another guaranteed show-stopper, Natalie McQueen’s perfect timing brought the house down with U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D, while Sabrina Aloueche found something new in Belle, and Laila Zaidi’s Tassita suggests this extra carriage should have a larger role.

With a great ensemble around them, certainly, this was a worthwhile exercise in many ways. I’m not entirely convinced that the mixture of 1980s and current musical styles always work, but most of the change do make sense. Truthfully, I’m also not entirely sure how commercially successful a full run would be either, and I do worry that the critical reaction will be surprisingly negative. The show has its own logic, but there never will be a deeper story – even if strengthening the religious theme is rather interesting.

My own suggestion (on the in-house survey sheets we were asked to complete) is that the show be done using a purpose designed marquee. Trains are played with hovering over or standing inside the tracks, and with full control of the space – unlike a normal venue – seating and tracks could be arranged so that everybody is within 4 rows.

If this event proved one thing, it is that the show does work best with everybody close, on skates or not.

A fun, fascinating and nostalgic 2 hours and 15 minutes. Well worth the £25, and a 4 star show in itself, if it were to be judged that way – with a full 5 for a truly starlit cast.

Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

September 13, 2017

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

Better late than never is my own luck in finally getting to see this thrilling piece of theatre. Sadly, it’s also almost the theme of the play.

Based on the Spanish Lorca story of a woman whose only real crime was wanting a child to the point of obsession. Writer / director Simon Stone has updated the tale to feature London media folk, and the result is biting.

Billie Piper (Her – though I think the name ‘Louise’ was used once) is the deserved recipient of the 2016/7 Olivier Award for Best Actress. Through the fabulously voyeuristic devise of a reflective oblong (Lizzie Clachan), we see the heart and soul of a hopeful 30-something splinter. Every brave face, declaration of love, each moment of hope is just another cruel chipping away. Stone’s writing, however, manages to control the dramatic tension and hold shape over 100 unbroken minutes so that the final result is neither foreseen nor suffering the inevitability of melodrama expected of a lesser writer.

Piper may be at the centre, but partner John (Brendan Cowell) a businessman whose support is tested equals her performance. The movement of two matched career people in opposite directions while still keeping in step is fine acting – his confessions as genuine as her reactions.

Charlotte Randle (Mary) as the fertile sister with the unstable home life is a sharp counter-point, nicely relaxed about revealing the realities of motherhood. Mother of both Her and Mary, respected academic Helen (Maureen Beattie) has an even drier take on that matter – “Alien” being the simile. Beattie’s timing and characterisation are particularly impressive, capturing the development over time in fewer scenes.

Notes too for young Des (Thalissa Teixeira), friend and blog assistant, thrown in as a reminder of Her younger days. Equally Victor (John MacMillan), a small but key role in the narrative, is a neat reflection of John as things might have been.

Short scenes, with multiple impressive scene changes – applause for Rhodri Evans, Assad Jan, Tim Knight, Ryan Smalley, Sam Shuck, Sophie Rubenstein, Louise Quartermain and Ella Saunders as crew and stage management – work perfectly to give a period of life no couple would wish to live through.

Millions do, human biology defeating medical technology and triggering simple heartbreak. This tale serves the whole thing up without judgement, without glossing over facts and with an emotional punch to leave the audience staggering at the end.

 

5 Stars and a standing ovation to all involved, and more important, strength and hope to all those for whom this is less a fiction, more a living reality.

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

August 9, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 6th August 2017).


Back when the internet was young, and Theatremonkey.com even younger, a Nottingham teenager around 14 and a bit years old, emailed the Theatremonkey office to inform us that the Adelphi Theatre had an extra row not shown on our seating plan. From that, a “John Tydeman / Adrian Mole” correspondence evolved, an eager slew of reviews, articles – and occasional short plays too. All of unique, impressive quality. A decade or so later, the wider world now recognises and appreciates Jake Brunger’s talents.

This isn’t the first time Mole has been adapted as a musical. At the height of 1980s “Mole Mania,” Wyndhams Theatre hosted a hugely successful but questionably written version. It didn’t work particularly well, and nor, really, did the TV adaptations. Come 2017, however, Brunger and co-creator Pippa Cleary have found the key, and unlocked its true stage potential.

Brunger and Cleary have realised that, while the book is the cerebral musings of a frustrated nearly 14 year old, a stage version must be situation rather than character-led. That vital difference gives us not just an insight into Townsend’s imaginative characters, but an always involving, frequently hilarious, sometimes bittersweet insight into an entire world beyond his singular observations.

We follow Adrian from one booze-addled New Year’s Day to the next, as he loses and gains mother, step mother, tonsils, a bully, a pensioner and most of all, a treacle-haired girlfriend… all in the space of 12 months. Oh, and spots, of course.

Part cartoon, part drama, part, well, fly-on-the-wall, Luke “In The Heights” Sheppard gives us a (big and) bouncy energy on a crazily inventive Tom Rogers set. Rebecca Howell obliges with some terrific choreography – Adrian and Pandora getting an unforgettable pas-de-deux, Doreen Slater a chance to let rip, and more – and Alex Parker’s orchestra carry us along for the ride.

Witty dialogue and sparky lyrics, a whole bunch of cracking songs – “Perfect Mother” and “Now That I’m With You” being just two highlights – and a Nativity Play that needs to be written in full (as well as requiring to be seen to be believed).


Even better, the cast are around the correct ages of the characters. Three teams share duties, and on this occasion Adrian was calling himself Ben Lewis. Not being played by Ben Lewis, just for some reason Adrian was calling himself Ben. That’s all. I’m certain of the fact. Similarly, Pandora, undercover as “Asha Banks,” had a soft steel core to render any teenage boy helpless in her presence. Certainly one Amir Wilson, as neatly done sidekick Nigel called himself, agreed. Making up the quartet, Connor Davis (Barry Kent) is not only an able singer and comedian, but can add puppeteer to his CV. Simon Lipkin should be afraid, very afraid – and not just for his dinner money.

In the grown-up department, Dean Chisnall is ever-reliable as George Mole. How the idiot storage heater (bet nobody under 40 remembers those!) salesman let the vivacious Kelly Price (Pauline Mole) go, though, is inexplicable… John Hopkins as Mr “Creep” Lucas really got lucky there. He’s one heck of a headmaster too – “Popeye Scruton” to the max. Slipping too far into Beano territory perhaps, but fun.

As teacher Miss Elf, Lara Denning makes plenty of a smaller role too, but really comes into her own later as George’s hilariously uncouth lover Doreen Slater, with a scene-stealing song and dance routine to match. Gay Soper as Grandma Mole is her usual delight, her bracing advice to her grandson a comedic highlight. Barry James (Bert Baxter) is also fabulously cantankerous, with one of the best commentaries on a Royal Wedding, ever.

Sure, there are faults. Adrian’s trade mark “missing the point every time” isn’t always at the fore, perhaps, and there is a certain softening of general attitudes towards children, gender roles and authority that isn’t true to the spirit of the times. The show itself also takes a while to get going, with the early classroom scene a little long once the basics have been established. Having the adults play extra children so soon is both mildly disconcerting and distracting (pigtailed pensioners, Ms Price keeping the dads in the audience interested; moving on) though some good one-liners just about style it out. The second act has most of the pacier fun too, though again that is probably as it should be.

A few anachronisms also slip in. “Multi-tasking” wasn’t a 1980s phrase, nobody had nylon school rucksacks (we used sports-bags, as Adrian’s own diary notes). Cordless home-phones were a little later, as were spiffy stage-management equipment, super-soaker water-pistols and smart wooden lockers. On the other hand, I think Pandora may well have coined “BHS” as a convenient abbreviation long before Mr Green did so.

None of this matters a jot, though, in this riotously colourful, tuneful and always joyous celebration of adolescence. I admit, I’ll also add a personal pride in knowing one of the creators from “way back when,” too; but that aside, this stands as a definitive version of a much-loved book on stage. Long may it continue to be seen and performed by school and other groups, a celebration of British pre-internet adolescent anxiety – for which one Mole speaks for us all.

4 stars.

(Photographs supplied by the Menier Chocolate Factory, used by kind permission).

 

So, August is here, and I’m taking a blog break until the leaves fall, back on 13th September 2017.

Ink – Almeida Theatre

August 2, 2017

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

In 1969, “The Sun” was a failing broadsheet newspaper, owned by Mirror Group. Enter Australian Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel), a newspaper man shocked that Britain still uses “hot metal” not computers – a situation he is determined to remedy. With a rag-bag staff, poached from the company who sold him the newspaper, he sets about re-connecting with British Working People – and changes Fleet Street publishing in the process.

James Graham chooses to tell the story in similar fashion. Act 1 is the “broadsheet” as editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) puts together both team and newspaper, and we get a whistle-stop education in how a newspaper was compiled in that era. Act 2 is the “tabloid,” the story of rapid grown, the McKay Affair and yes, the creation of “Page 3.”

Truthfully, it’s engrossing and irritating by turn. For the monkey, act 1 was pretty much outstanding. It happened to be sitting next to someone who worked in the industry at the time though – and the lady wasn’t quite so sure. It almost captured the atmosphere, but she was worried about the structure. By the end of the second half, the monkey agreed.

There’s an even better play in there, somewhere, and it doesn’t quite come to the fore to lift it to 5-star historic status as it hints. Somehow, the excitement of the first half, the camaraderie and very “British” humour dissipates as the pace shifts from organic to episodic. In fact, the final 20 minutes almost seem grafted on – as if they “had to cover the girl” (or indeed, uncover her) and couldn’t somehow find a place for it elsewhere in the production.

Still, this is a hugely enjoyable ensemble event. Coyle evolves from a naïve ambition to hard-bitten editor, Carvel reveals ever-more interesting aspects of the owner in a pair of award-winning performances.

For the ladies, Pearl Chandra makes Stephanie Rahn a wonderful creation, her decision and repercussions heartbreaking. By contrast, Rachel Caffrey simply IS 1969, careless airy astrologer Diana, trophy wife Anna, sexy Chrissie and a neat apprentice too. As the voice of the working woman, Sophie Stanton (Joyce Hopkirk) can’t be bettered – her frankness making many men in the audience as uncomfortable as those on stage, which is good.

Other notable performances are Jack Holden as photographer Beverley (and a neat Christopher Timothy impression – minus cows) and Geoffrey Freshwater as a militant Chapel Father.

On a perfect, shambolic news-room set (Bunny Christie, projections by Jon Driscoll) director Rupert Goold ensures a fast moving event about the happy crew who changed British news forever, and it’s a pleasure to share their story. Do catch the transfer if you can.

Ker-ching, My Lord?

July 26, 2017

An article in “The Stage” newspaper on 13th July 2017 had Lord Lloyd-Webber stating that London theatre ticket prices were fairly reasonable, considering how expensive it is to stage theatre. It’s labour-intensive and income is limited to the number of seats you can sell, basically.

In a discussion at theatreboard.co.uk, a reader asked me, “What is your honest opinion of ticket prices compared to 10 years ago?” Given that Theatremonkey has been going nearly 17 years and recorded the prices for most of those, plus the fact I myself have been a buyer for over 30 years, it was a fascinating question. This blog includes most of my reply.

For me, I guess it has felt like a natural progression. I remember £20, then £30, then £40 being the highest price. The stab of pain when “premium seats” came in at double that… and the amusement at the empty seats they caused before theatres “wised up” a little and started to discount them (not that they tell you that).

The fact is, though, that actual prices are not that high if you can forage for the right seat on the right date with the right discount / membership. We didn’t have to do that before, as prices were fixed and the best seats were not “premium” on top of that. Solve that one, and sanity may prevail again.

That prices are high, or are perceived that way, is not, I feel, the actual cause of the death of new audiences. The way in which they are being used by the show’s marketing team will be the death instead. There are, in fact, more discounted seats than ever before – but they have become inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t know how to work the house booking systems to their advantage, and who needs to fit theatre in around their lives.

The big problem is that at popular times, the times that ordinary non-fans look to go to the theatre (weekends, holidays) the prices are in some cases off-puttingly outrageous. Convincing people that there are more reasonable prices on other dates is hard to impossible, and is the real issue here.

When I started theategoing, £10 got you a tube fare, McDonalds meal and standby ticket, with change for a programme. Those days are gone and won’t return. It is, though, still possible to do all that for under £30, so maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks. If you challenge that: Tube fare from zone 5, return, adult, off-peak £6.20. Programme, £4. McDonalds saver meal, burger, fries, drink: £3.20. Total, £13.40. That leaves £16.60 for a ticket. 10p gets you a place at the Royal Court Theatre on standby, £10 into any number of fringe venues, or a bookable £12.50 seat in the upper circle at “Les Misérables,” a £15 ticket in the National Theatre to any production, or a £12 day seat at “The Ferryman,” just as examples.

Not great, but not impossible.

Fact is, we wouldn’t settle for the production values of shows back when I started going in the 1980s. Even “The Phantom of the Opera” is sometimes criticised these days for dated staging. Theatre costs, alas, and the box office is where we all start paying… luckily, the odd short cut is still there, if you know where to look…

 

Bat Out of Hell Poster

July 20, 2017

Yes, finally got it framed and into position on the side of the stationery cupboard at Monkey Towers.

Really nice reward for just filling in their survey at the theatre :).

Bats against Willows

July 19, 2017

To coin a cricketing term, or not. Either way.

An article by top theatre reviewer Mark Shenton in The Stage newspaper of 6th July 2017 debates the wide gulf in professional reviewers’ responses to “Bat Out of Hell” at the London Coliseum and “The Wind in the Willows” at the London Palladium. Opening a week or so apart, in two of the largest (both Matcham designed) theatres originally build for “variety and popular entertainment,” one gained pretty much universal 4 star reviews, the other struggled to reach 3 in many cases.

For Mr Shenton, who incidentally reviewed exactly the opposite way around, the conclusion was that original British shows are given a harder time than imported or derived “jukebox” shows, and this “double standard” directly affected the reviews. Well argued and considered, a good article, but having seen both, I beg to differ.

To be clear, I too was invited to both shows, so didn’t pay for a ticket but was expected to submit written reports read by the production as well as both Theatremonkey.com fans. To also be clear, I genuinely don’t care who has created any production that I see (though I will spend my own cash to see work by people that I particularly admire).

I also loved British shows like “Stephen Ward,” “The Girls” and “Made In Dagenham” when others failed to do so. For this blog article, I will also note that I knew only 1 song well – and just about had heard of 2 more – before seeing “Bat Out Of Hell,” and I wasn’t all that keen to see the show as I don’t particularly like either “jukebox” or over-loud theatre. I was, though, itching to see “The Wind In The Willows” thanks to happy memories of the National Theatre version, and good word from the out-of-town original run of this production. In fact, I even re-arranged my own diary so as not to miss the date I was offered to see it.

Thus, I was as surprised as anyone to be sitting in “The Wind In The Willows” wishing I was back at “Bat Out Of Hell” – or, frankly anywhere else at all. I follow the very strict rule (as laid down by the late Barry Norman) that I must stay to the end, as often all that has gone before will make sense and create a wonderful surprise. On occasion, though, I wish I had taken the lead of most of the rest of my row, and many around me. Simply, I was bored. B.O.R.E.D. The single biggest and always fatal sin in theatre. To have characters and a production that fail to engage the audience so that the are willing to follow a tale (or, tail, in the Willows, I guess) for up to 3 hours.

To break it down, as I saw it.

Bat: Paper-thin but relatable characters – rough boy, posh pretty girl, evil father, split-loyalties mother, gang of friends. Unoriginal, but colourful both visually and in personality, reflecting youthful energy and society that we can recognise today.
Willows: Much-loved characters from childhood. The character traits, though, are all familiar on a daily basis only to someone living in the countryside without the internet, probably; and those happily brought up on similar tales.

 

Bat: Massive set that fills the sides of the stage and leaves space for dancing and impressive – often amusing – special effects at the top of theatrical ability. Costumes and lighting add to the mood. We know we are in dystopia, and it’s pretty raunchy at times, but always something going to happen.
Willows: Large set, some beautiful details – the animal burrows in particular, which are rather lost beyond 10 rows. Also some stonking short-cuts like the reduction of a mansion to a table, and a train out-of-scale with everything else. One horrible and over-used cliché special effect at the end. Costumes refuse to be anthromorphic. Toad has green hair, but that’s about it. The actors don’t even move in “animal” ways a la “Cats.” So how do we really know what they are?

 

Bat: A plot that could be written on a postage stamp, with enough space left over for Amazon’s entire book catalogue, probably twice. Yet it was done with conviction and humour, with enough peril to keep us interested. A small number of characters to track, but plenty of events to draw us into their world right from the start. Sure, the action took a dive for a bit in the second half, but the songs covered it up.
Willows: A familiar tale, oddly stripped of continuity. Endless exposition before the action got going. Characters were introduced then abandoned, the leading toad didn’t even show up until half way through the first half, and was so obnoxious even the kids didn’t care what happened to him – which was lucky as there were several other plots put centre-stage to follow, none of which were really relevant and diverted attention from the main thrust of the story, such as it was.

 

Bat: Whole Jukebox full of songs familiar to those who know the original album. For the terminally uncool like myself, totally and utterly fresh, in the main. And yet, every one sounded like it could have been written for the show, for the stage, and filled the auditorium – not just because of the amplification either.
Willows: All fresh to me, the edge being that I knew the original story. Sadly, many of the songs seemed to echo on the stage before becoming wisps as they crossed the orchestra pit. A couple of nice tunes – really, really nice tunes – but one heck of a lot of surplus ones, too, none of which did anything to cover the slowdown of the plot.

 

Bat: A totally mixed audience, old and young – and, as my own review noted, talking eagerly to each other. Moving forward to empty seats to be near the stage at the interval, knowing “the best songs are yet to come.”
Willows: Mostly bored looking couples, plus a few children with parents or grandparents. Nobody could be bothered to move, some in fact left at the interval. No happy buzz of excited chat either. More questioning if it would end soon.

 

There’s no doubting the creative teams and casts worked equally hard, but theatre is unpredictable and the results, for me at least, were very different. Going by Theatremonkey and also theatreboard readers, the 4 to 1 in favour of Bat, and 4 to 1 against Willows in feedback seems to be shared – mirroring professional review ratios.

Even if, as theatreboard contributor Baemax says, Bat, “Gets a pass for sheer audacity,” it’s enough. Theatre is about getting a reaction, and if one show can when another can’t, that’s the extra distinction between success and failure.

Put another way, I sat in similarly priced seats for both, and “Bat” would have left me satisfied for £65. “Willows,” truthfully, not. Paying “premium” prices, I would still rate the “Bat” worth it, if it comes down to it. “It is the ticket price” as a friend of mine is inclined to say; you are getting a unique experience that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

Honestly, I conclude that for the professional reviewers, there was no malice or holding to standards involved.

It’s a complicated brew that has no formula, but I do doubt it is nationality that has much to do with it. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work – audiences don’t “feel” what the creators want us to. But when it does, oh, what a feeling indeed. Like sinners at the gates of heaven, audiences come crawling on back to the box office for sure… professional reviews or not.