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Aspects of Love: Southwark Playhouse

February 13, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th January 2019)

Like many others, I was left in despair with the original London production. To call it a let-down wasn’t even close. The later Gale Edwards touring revival was far superior. I was older too, with a few more of my own aspects on the clock. Re-visiting the show for the first time after around 25 years, and with further aspects explored, turned out to be an interesting experience.

Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment, Hope Mill Theatre and Jim Kierstead have pulled out all the stops mounting a lavish production. Jason Denvir’s set and costumes are outstanding, Aaron J Dootson clearly understands the light of the Pyrenees as well as the technical stuff of producing magical theatre effects.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle in his programme notes admits never having seen a production of the show, and takes a fresh approach. He is mostly successful, in particular bringing out individual character detail lost in larger and faster-moving versions. The problem is that original director Trevor Nunn realised the show needed a cinematic sweep and cohesion. He was ultimately sunk by over-staging (as was leading lady Ann Crumb, alas) but Gale Edwards picked up that baton and succeeded. Here, O’Boyle’s dancing scene-change interludes as chairs and tables are flung about become tiresome and detract rather than assist the atmosphere he otherwise creates rather well.

The story too seems to have regressed in acceptability in the current moral climate. Richard Stilgoe famously turned down the lyricists job as he didn’t want to write about such immoral people. In these #metoo conscious times, the tale of a 17 year old boy seducing / being seduced by an older woman, who in turn is seduced by the boy’s older uncle (who is having an affair with an Italian sculptress) but marries the actress and has a daughter whom, at 15 the original boy is possibly seduced by (her mother has a lover too, as does dad)… well… you get the idea.

Luckily, the cast are mostly outstanding. As young man Alex, Felix Mosse loses round one “Love Changes Everything” to James Nicholson’s crazily reverberative sound system. Luckily, he goes on to not just charm but reveal increasing maturity as the show continues.

Initial object of his desires Rose (Kelly Price) has a calculating hardness and vulnerability in equal measure. “Anything But Lonely” is her finale showstopper, and she means every word, a tribute to her characterisation that the lyric sums her up exactly.

Mistress Giuletta (Madalena Alberto) provides the other show-stopping number “Hand Me The Wine and The Dice” with Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography hitting and exceeding West End heights with a talented company’s energy so late in the show.

Elder seducer Uncle George Dilingham (Jerome Pradon) is delivered with studied panache. Pradon’s determination to age disgracefully is impressively achieved with ageing before our eyes – a change from brash to reflective “Other Pleasures” about his young daughter is a quiet higlight.

Daughter Jenny (Eleanor Walsh) follows a similar pattern from particularly young to not-quite-mature woman. Walsh has us engage with her hurt and confusion, her final pose with her mother a fitting frame to the show.

In minor roles, Minal Patel made a decent producer of Marcel Richard, his pride in his final smart suit obvious. Housekeeper Elizabeth (Julia J Nagle) shares a lovely vocal moment, while lover Hugo (Jason Kajdi), Jerome (Jack Churms) and Waitress (Eleanor Jackson) are particularly sound in both character roles and as dancers.

A difficult show to present, this team managed to create something to be quite proud of. If it lacked some emotional depth of previous productions, that was down to the inferior revised script they were forced to use and also changing times making the story less palatable for the moment. Still, impressive and probably the last professional production to happen for a while. If so, it’s as good a memory of a happy moment as any, and one worth making.

 

4 stars.

The Goodmonkey Awards for 2018

January 30, 2019

Another year, another round of visits with much to remember. Plenty of awards recognised the best in acting and writing. Most miss those things in between – the stuff normal audience members experience. As ever, Theatremonkey is here to fill a gap that doesn’t really need to exist.

So, with even less ado than usual, and before anyone notices that we got in here…

 

Given that nothing merited the award of a Gold Medal for something that really impressed the monkey in its selflessness, here we go with a couple of Silver medals before the fun stuff…

Theatremonkey Silver Medals to:
The mixing desk team at the Victoria Palace Theatre on 3rd November 2018. Auditorium lights went down to start the show, and the audience cheered. Then silence. Then more silence, then the lights went back up. Announcement to stay seated as there were technical difficulties. From a side box, Monkey was able to watch as a row of audience members in front of the sound desk were asked to wait in the foyer, and three technicians armed with torches groped about beneath the desk to fix the issue in 20 minutes, to let the show happen in the room that afternoon.

Also to:
Steph Parry, who on 8th June 2018 went at 18 minutes notice from understudy at “42nd Street” to play “Donna” in “Mamma Mia!” at the Novello Theatre next door, thereby saving the performance when the original Donna was injured a few minutes into the show.

 

And now, let the fun begin.

The Dilly Dally: to Vicky Featherstone. For temporarily cancelling “Rita, Sue and Bob Too,” at the Royal Court Theatre, thus making diary space for me to finally see the utterly, incredibly astoundingly brilliant “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.” Can’t thank her enough.

Foghorn’s Leghorn (for vocal ability): to Michael Byrne as Talbot in “Mary Stuart” at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Deciding to deliver his line from the stalls as he approached the stage, Mr Byrne did so at full volume right down the monkey’s right ear, as it sat at the end of row B. An ear thus left ringing for hours afterwards….

Lucas Industrial Light And Magic (for fabulous set and lighting effect): to Es Devlin and Oliver Fenwick. Their blue to colour set for “Girls & Boys” at the Royal Court in February 2018 was unforgettable in every way. Concurrently, a Duelin’ Banjo (for best Hicksville set) to Grace Smart for her amazing Trailer Trash mobile home in “Killer Joe” at the Trafalgar Studio 1.

A chorus of “Goodbyee”: to the genius who put a mermaid in the glass case at the exit door of the Menier Chocolate Factory for everyone to pass as they left “Barnum.” And very friendly and lovely the lady was too.

The school note from home (for best latecomer excuse): to the lady who excused herself to an entire row with, “Sorry, emergency granny sitter to sort out.” A prize in next year’s awards (yes, the monkey will publish this page again in January 2020, try stopping it) for anyone throwing more light on that particular situation.

The Joanna (for creating a Perfect Dark character): to Jason Watkins for Ralph in “Frozen” at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Had the monkey not been the centre of a row, the play could have ended two hours early, as it wanted to punch out the pedophile drooling over his child porn video collection.

A Private Dancer (for enhancing our entertainment): to the mixing desk at team at “Tina The Musical.” The sound was perfection at the preview the monkey attended.

“Old Sparky’s Fuse” (for most dangerous seat) to: Stalls B26 at the Piccadilly Theatre for “Strictly Ballroom.” When not dodging actors pounding down the stairs in front, it was flying lightbulbs and hair clips. Concurrently, D27 Open Air Theatre for “Little Shop Of Horrors.” When the seed began to fly, they substituted the cannon-balls from “Peter Pan” with disastrous effect on this audience member for one.

Pooh’s Ponder (for most random thought-inducing scene): to “Macbeth” at the National Theatre. When Macduff placed Macbeth’s head into a plastic carrier bag, the instant thought was, “did he have to pay 5p for that?” Apologies to all concerned who heard the slight snigger in the front row.

The Dench / McKellen Elocution Lectern, for best delivery: to Nimax Theatres for the wonderfully sparkly blue envelope they delivered the “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” London cast recording in.

Abe Lincoln Memorial for honesty: to the Bridge Theatre for giving us £10 credit due to stage height at “Allelujah.” Not even a problem really, but a lovely gesture all the same.

The Cecil B. DeMille lens for cinematic staging: to “The King And I” for a wonderful “Moving Pillar” effect to create a fabulous ballroom for “Shall We Dance.”

The Shenton Kindergarten Scholarship (for aspiring critics): to the delightful 6 year old girl piping up, “that journey was a right pain in the bottom” to the carriage at the end of a fraught tube journey. Having just come from 2 hours of adults pretending to be kids at “Dance Nation” (Almeida Theatre) the impact was doubly fun.

The Peter Kaye Fox (for employment of “emergency chairs”): to the Victoria Palace Theatre. The chairs in Royal Circle Box B were clearly temporary when the monkey used them. One had foam spilling out of the worn out cover, the other was so saggy the thighs were on the wooden surround, butt below on the seat. Well done to Front of House for spotting that chairs were missing during pre-show checks, and coming up with a fast substitute.

The Grand Canyon Gap (for best opening): to Craig Cash and Phil Mealey for the brilliant “Rogers and Hammerstein” reference to kick off the live stage version of “Early Doors.”

Peter Hall Diary (for Shakespearean Scholarship): to Polly Findlay for discovering that Lady Macbeth uses honeysuckle talcum powder. Well, the front row at the RSC Barbican production got covered in it as she tried to remove the spot, anyway.

The Kaleidoscope from a great height to the skull: to the total idiot in the marketing team at Qdos Pantomimes, who decided that putting drinks into cups that light up and flash when lifted was a great idea to be taken into the auditorium at the New Wimbledon Theatre this year.

And on that festive note, here’s to another year. The monkey already has three notes made, in fact, so who knows what else 2019 will bring. Until then, please gather up your trinkets and make your way quietly to the exit before anyone spots us where we shouldn’t be, thank you.

2018 Round-up

January 23, 2019

First Entry of the new year, and it’s a simple run-down of the best and worst I saw in 2018. Subjective as ever, the list runs as follows:

Out Of This World
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue) (Standing Ovation – SO)
The Divide (Old Vic Theatre) (SO)
The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse)
Summer and Smoke (Almeida Theatre)
Elkie Brooks (St Albans Arena) (SO)
Caroline Or Change (Hampstead Theatre) (SO)
Bat Out Of Hell (Dominion Theatre)
Red (Wyndham’s Theatre)
Peter Pan (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park) (SO)
Beautiful (New Wimbledon Theatre)
The Prudes (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs)
The Rink (Southwark Playhouse) (SO)
Fun Home (Young Vic Theatre)
As You Like It (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park) (SO)
The King and I (London Palladium) (SO)
Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck (New Wimbledon Theatre) (SO)
Once (Queens Theatre, Hornchurch) (SO)
The Inheritance Parts 1 and 2 (Noel Coward Theatre) (SO)
A Christmas Carol (Old Vic Theatre)
Snow White (London Palladium)

The Wonder Years
Barber Shop Chronicles (Dorfman Theatre)
Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s Theatre)
Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre)
Network (Lyttelton Theatre)
Harold and Maude (Charing Cross Theatre)
Frozen (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (Richmond Theatre)
The Great Wave (Dorfman Theatre)
Pippin (Southwark Playhouse)
Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)
Brief Encounter (Empire Cinema)
Tina (Aldwych Theatre)
Twang!! (Union Theatre)
Sheridan In Concert (Royal Albert Hall)
Absolute Hell (Lyttelton Theatre)
Masterpieces (Finborough Theatre)
Crave (Pit Theatre)
The Moderate Soprano (Duke of York’s Theatre)
The Jungle (Playhouse Theatre)
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Bridge Theatre)
Machinal (Almeida Theatre)
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (Donmar Warehouse)
The Lehman Trilogy (Lyttelton Theatre)
The Lieutenant Of Inishmore (Noel Coward Theatre)
King Lear (Duke Of York’s Theatre)
Bring It On (Southwark Playhouse)
Imperium Part 1: Conspirator (Gielgud Theatre)
Aristocrats (Donmar Warehouse)
Holy Sh!t (Kiln Theatre)
The Lover / The Collection (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Early Doors (Apollo Hammersmith)
A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Bridge Theatre)
Measure For Measure (Donmar Warehouse)
Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre)
The Wild Duck (Almeida Theatre)
Moonlight / Night School (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Dirty Dancing (New Wimbledon Theatre)
True West (Vaudeville Theatre)
Lea Michele and Darren Criss In Concert (Apollo Hammersmith)
Lily Allen: No Shame Tour (Roundhouse)

California Dreams
Belleville (Donmar Warehouse)
Julius Caesar (Barbican Theatre)
Rita, Sue and Bob Too (Royal Court Theatre)
John (Dorfman Theatre)
Pinocchio (Lyttelton Theatre)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Wyndham’s Theatre)
Girls & Boys (Royal Court Theatre)
Sondheim On Sondheim (Royal Festival Hall)
The Birthday Party (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Fanny and Alexander (Old Vic Theatre)
Macbeth (Olivier Theatre)
Strictly Ballroom The Musical (Piccadilly Theatre)
4.48 Psychosis The Opera (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)
The Way Of The World (Donmar Warehouse)
Chess (London Coliseum)
Killer Joe (Trafalgar Studio 1)
An Octoroon (Dorfman Theatre)
Kiss Me Kate (London Coliseum)
Heathers (Other Palace Theatre)
£¥€$ (LIES) (Almeida Theatre)
Alleujah! (Bridge Theatre)
Imperium Part 2: Dictator (Gielgud Theatre)
Home, I’m Darling (Dorfman Theatre)
One For The Road / The New World Order / Mountain Language / Ashes to Ashes (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Othello (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre)
The Height Of The Storm (Wyndhams Theatre)
Company (Gielgud Theatre)
Wise Children (Old Vic Theatre)
Landscape / A Kind of Alaska (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Macbeth (Barbican Theatre)
White Teeth (Kiln Theatre)
Aladdin (New Wimbledon Theatre)
The Tragedy of King Richard II (Almeida Theatre)

Saved By The Bell
Jubilee (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)
Quiz (Noel Coward Theatre)
Little Shop Of Horrors (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park)
Spamilton (Menier Chocolate Factory)
Dance Nation (Almeida Theatre)
Hadestown (Olivier Theatre)

Bug Juice
Nightfall (Bridge Theatre)
Mood Music (Old Vic Theatre)
Julie (Lyttelton Theatre)

The Annual “Goodmonkey” Awards, rewarding the things no other awards ceremony mentions in polite company, will arrive next week. Before that, just based on the above list, there are a few notable mentions.

In musical theatre, the real action was mostly on the fringe, large and small. At the tiniest end, the loveliest ensemble work could be seen at the Union Theatre. The young cast of “Twang!!” just blended – and it was a delight to see a prediction come true with a few names cropping up in panto later in the year. Moving up a little, “The Rink” at Southwark Playhouse burned indelible on the memory. Such talent, such a revival. Finally, on the largest scale, “Once” at the Queens Hornchurch had me trying to decide whether to hug the entire cast for moving me to tears, or give them a right ear-bending for the same.

For plays, not so much new work – “The Divide” was impressive not just for length but also the performance of the leading lady Erin Doherty who was on stage for most of it. “The Prudes” at the Royal Court Upstairs was likewise original and startling, and I enjoyed my little interaction with Wonder Woman there.

Revivals dazzled. Plays had “Summer and Smoke” and “The York Realist” – the latter probably the finest atmosphere of the year. At the Palladium, “The King and I” was a diamond, while it was so sad “Bat Out Of Hell” fell foul of every bit of bad luck imaginable.

For my own pleasure Elkie Brooks in concert proved that age and experience are the greatest assets in showbiz when it comes to knowing how to entertain an audience, and it was fun to see two favourite sitcoms – “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” and “Early Doors” in well-crafted stage returns.

With very few total failures again this year (“Julie” sadly bottom of the pile – why, just why?) another year and 103 shows down. Here’s to 2019.

 

Lilly Allen: No Shame Tour (Roundhouse)

December 19, 2018

(seen at the performance on 17th December 2018).

New albums mean a new tour for many artistes, and Ms Allen is no exception. Rather glad she did. As a long time fan I’ve never quite managed to make it to a live show until now. It is worth the effort.

The evening actually kicked off with the support act SX, a performer from Wolverhampton with a strong voice (acapella at one point) and even stronger song-writing talents getting to the heart of simple everyday issues like love and mundane work.

On stage 20 minutes after her scheduled time, we know Lily has arrived with her storming introduction, “Come on Then.” A summary of faults called by the media, her repost from her new album is frank and fiery. Was slightly struck by how tiny the lady is in real life – but she packs a punch a million times larger.

Moving on to “Waste,” a contrasting reflective and then we get “LDN.” Crowd-pleaser (with us chanting along on cue), fun original Allen. Back to the newer material with the bittersweet “My One,” showing just how she has matured.

“What You Waiting For, “Lost My Mind” and “Knock ‘Em Out” explore the price paid for that maturity. Aspects of love and loss, delivered with the passion of knowledge.

“Smile” leaps right back to the other way to handle such matters of the heart, trade mark Allen wit.

Totally new song “Party Line” had instant impact on the crowd, and a cover of Lykke Li’s “Deep End” made the pair a welcome mid-show change of pace.

“Apples” and “Pushing Up Daisies” are a return to her own work, both strong numbers about security and repeating patterns of attachment and loss. Perfect segue into “Three” – my personal favourite from “No Shame.” Who can resist the plea of a three year old child busier than her own mother?

“Everything to Feel Something,” an electronic sounding studio number works surprisingly well on stage, but, let’s face it, “The Fear” simply is made for public performance – ranted with vigour here. Later work “Higher” seems a pretty good answer too, while “Family Man” (another favourite) is less a solution than it first appears, and really well sung.

“Who’d Have Known” and a blistering “Not Fair” are another couple of favourites combining honest and entertaining Allen at her best.

Encores “We Could Be In Love” duetting with FX showcased his talent once again. “Trigger Bang” then took us to the final confetti-cannon “F*ck You.” Allen’s politics given an airing, an extra verse bridging the time between writing it for “George Dubya” and today’s “The Don.”

Almost 90 minutes of non-stop hits added up to a pretty satisfying evening. Frankly, the lady deserves a better backing than she had. Not the musicians, just more of them on a variety of instruments rather than relying on electronics. Truthfully, too, why was she playing a small venue on an obviously restricted budget? Does selling out two 4000 seat concerts not justify the bigger and better equipped spaces and investment again in her work? Oh, and it would have been nice to have something seasonal in the mix, “Somewhere Only We Know” perhaps. But then, Ms Allen doesn’t do corny, so maybe not.

Anyway, great to have finally seen this talent in her natural environment, and to know that a recording artist is capable of effortless live performance too.

 

4 stars.

 

___________________________________________________________________________

 

And on that note, the year ends. Taking a break for the season, back on 23rd January 2019 with the round-up of the year.

 

To the Christian community who celebrate on the 25th, a very happy Christmas, to the other Churches whose festivities come later, likewise for their special day. And to all, best of the holiday season and a very happy 2019.

White Teeth: Kiln Theatre

December 19, 2018

(seen at the evening performance on 27th November 2018)

Zadie Smith’s tale of growing up in Kilburn, North London is a modern classic. Spanning decades from World War Two to 1992, it’s a complex story following immigrant families across generations.

Rather like “Les Misérables,” there are plenty of difficult choices for any adaptor to make. Stephen Sharkey does a pretty decent job of cutting surplus characters and focussing on the story of a dentist Rosie Jones (Amanda Wilkin on sound observational form) put into a coma by one of her patients and questing to find her true parentage.

It does take too long to set-up that scenario, partly down to the insertion of musical numbers. Music was apparently incidental in early drafts, but developed into the “musical” (inverted commas intended) it is now. Not really enough of it, and nothing much constructed to drive the story forward either – though a number about the 1980s is fun and adds to the atmosphere.

A choreographer being beyond the budget, reliance on a movement director (Polly Bennett) is insufficient to stage the numbers, mostly resulting in some oddly shuffling crowd movement rather than anything expressing or interpreting the text satisfactorily.

It’s a bit of a meander to the finish line too, the drama of the final scene not really coming into focus, though the epilogue is acceptable. Between, it’s a mixture. On a functional (photograph of Kilburn High Road in 3D) set by Tom Piper, Indhu Rubasingham evokes with some success local atmosphere of the place over the years.

Mad Mary (Michele Austin) is our hostess with the er, shopping-trolley on wheels. Hostile at first, but friends by the end. As time-keeper, she scrolls us forward and back through the years, highlighting revelations. Occasionally indistinct, but dominating and eventually winning.

Irie Jones (Aysha Antoine) is the catalyst, her path requiring a range of ages that she effects with more depth than the script sometimes allows.

Best pairing is Archie Jones (Richard Lumsden) and Samad Iqbal (Tony Jayawardena). Their meeting and future are a mixture of comedy and pathos, both actors handling their scenes with light touches that lend utmost reality.

There’s strong work from Joyce and Marcus Chalfen (Naomi Frederick / Philip Bird) too – instantly recognisable as “West Hampstead.” Both undertake other roles, with Frederick a seductive teacher and moral guardian – difficult to do, but this is an adaptable actor – and Bird a chilling Nazi geneticist.

Pairing Magid and Millat Iqbal (Sid Sagar / Assad Zaman) is another good idea, with a lovely moment early on as the twins have their futures speculated about by their future mother. Later, Zaman brings a brooding menace and Sagar a cool assurance; both demonstrating quite an emotional range.

Alsana Iqbal (Ayesha Dharker) is a notable stage presence. While her character isn’t permitted by the plot requirements to be at the fore, her impact is disproportionately effective.

Similar can be said of Josh Chalfen (Karl Queensborough) with a neat characterisation.

To control these main characters and stories is difficult, and it is to Sharkey’s credit that despite the odd flat moment the audience invest for much of the time. There are some truly horrible gaps in his research “Year 3, Year 6” didn’t exist in the 1970s, nor did “Booty Call” mean anything in 1992, and there are a few other loud clangers for those who remember, well “The Clangers” really.

Given that this had lengthy development to get this far, I’m not sure spending more time on it would be worthwhile. Unless planning to reform it fully as a musical – in which case more plot and certainly a little more humour could be used – the exploration is proven here that the book is just about stageable.

Uneven, but well-performed and holds the attention for the most part.

 

3 stars.

The Wild Duck: Almeida Theatre

December 19, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th November 2018)

Ibsen. Yawn. Icke. Yay. Pretty much my instant reaction on opening the Almeida’s email announcing the show. Not even close to my favourite dramatist… but if Robert Icke sees something in doing this old saw one more time, I’m willing to take the chance. My faith was well rewarded.

This is more “The Wild Duck, Dissected” than anything else. The protagonists are present. Parents and their daughter, a grandfather, a doctor, a returning friend. Dark secrets spill out at a rate that has an engrossed teenager gasp “oh no” in the silence of revelation. That alone tells us how the show hits the mark.

Better yet, a deceptively simple and effective device allows us to explore more fully character motivations – or understand why they are unable to express their emotions fully.

And so three hours moves along at fine pace. The empty stage (Bunny Christie on the finest form, Verity Sadler assisting) fills with emotion as a contemporary home is revealed as a war-zone and eventual mortuary of all emotions, not least hope.

Kevin Harvey (Gregory Woods) and Edward Hogg (James Ekdal) set up a battle that cannot avoid casualties. Their carefully modulated counter-stances are fundamental to the success of Icke’s concept, performances to be admired.

Lyndsey Marshal (Gina Ekdal) is the catalyst, a mother and wife doing what a mother and wife should – Marshal’s egg-shell characterisation only slowly being realised to impressive effect. Her interaction with daughter Clara Read (Hedwig Ekdal – who handles the last seconds of act one decently) are always telling. Same with Grandfather Nicholas Farrell (Francis Ekdal), besotted and himself hiding much beneath a military façade. Deluded yet consciously mendacious a difficult act that unusually does not lose sympathy.

In smaller roles, Nicholas Day (Charles Woods) hits the right balance of overbearing without making the production top-heavy. Rick Warden (John Relling) does likewise as an ambivalent doctor with clarity of vision. A note too for Andrea Hall (Anna Sowerby) for making much of a pivotal moment without making drama melodramatic.

The filleting and updating of the text, in common with previous Icke work, never slacks in intensity. Perhaps a little more time for reflection, without actors explanations, would have allowed the audience a trifle more analysis during the performance, but then that would deny the pleasure of the after-show mulling over. And there is a lot of that.

Ibsen can be exciting, relevant and carry strong messages for our own times. This production proves the point. Combined with fine performances it may not be quite the mega-revelation that was “Oresteia” or “Hamlet,” but it comes close to both. Try not to miss it.

 

4 stars.

Aladdin: New Wimbledon Theatre

December 12, 2018

(Seen at the first preview performance on 8th December 2018).


Under the management of Qdos Entertainment, the New Wimbledon Theatre pantomime is fast becoming the “pantomime driving test centre” for bigger stars venturing into the world for the first time. Last year Al Murray passed with flying colours on his debut. This time around, it is one Paul Merton in the dress and driving seat as Widow Twanky in this tale from Old Peking.

At the dawn of the “alternative comedy circuit,” I spent many happy hours at the Comedy Store’s second venue – under Leicester Square, watching the droll, laconic and fanciful Merton and friends in a venue where nobody was more than a few feet away. On “Have I Got News For You” his face fills the screen in many a home. Can he scale up to a 1600 seat venue, and reach an audience of all ages?

The answer is that he still requires “P” plates, really. Unable to memorise the entire script – but improvises beautifully (something that bit him hard in the second half when his relentless mockery of another actor’s ‘corpsing’ in act one was repaid with her requirement to prompt him in act two). Also, highly questionable adult joke shouldn’t be covered with “ask your parents,” underlining the main point that he just didn’t connect with the younger audience in the way co-star Pete Firman (Wishee Washee) made look simple.

Merton did manage some excellent asides, local references, and one long (frankly superfluous and time-filling padding speech) well enough, but he lacked the camp extrovertness required to sell the classic “man as a woman longing for a man” required of all great dames. That he was willing to try hard, though, is firmly to his credit. By the end of this run, he may get there.


“Son” Pete Firman built a good rapport with his “Mother” and also the audience, achieving the rare feat of having his greeting returned throughout the show rather than petering out (no pun intended) by the interval as most do. Thus he can be forgiven a genuinely awful “shoe-horned in” tired bunch of magic tricks – one malfunctioning “big box illusion,” electromagnetic handcuffs and one dull ‘audience interaction’ card trick where the volunteers were funnier than he was. Lacking the club experience of Paul Daniels to weave it in, he unsportingly kept them off-microphone and didn’t repeat anything for our benefit.


Empress (Linda John-Pierre) has the right imperial bearing, and does a nice second act turn as game-show compere.


Daughter The Princess (Lauren Chia) has a sweet toughness too. If a rather unedifying decision by the show’s designer to put her in pink and THEN show her as a tough fighter “girls can too” is a rather mixed message, no matter, the lady did well in her brief scenes.


That Aladdin (Lee Ryan) in a “nice but dim” way ended up with her is fair enough, that too is expected.


Shame director Kerry Michael couldn’t find the pair more to do than the old “falling off a wall” routine and make more of their voices.

Best of the team were Abanazar (Adam Pearce) and Scheherazade (Cassandra McCowan). This pair truly understand panto, and had the audience with them from the start.


Pearce managed a delightful villain that never lost audience sympathy. His regular taunting scenes drew massive audience reaction and the man is a born panto baddie for life.


McCowan’s energy is non-stop, still swaying enthusiastically through the finale until the final curtain falls. A chance to sing “Defying Gravity” on a big stage is grabbed, her effort far outshining the rather disappointing The Twins FX carpet. If they are reading this, the boom is all too visible from the side stalls, gentlemen.

Sadly, this year’s ensemble appeared tentative in their first public outing. Probably coming up to speed as the run continues, there was little pep or panto stardust flowing. The same can be said of the entire show’s pacing, and the Alan McHugh script seemed over-stretched. In fact, the whole show feels far less lavish than usual and rather last-minute in places.

The extra Merton / Firman additions padding, the 3D films, though well-executed, another means of extending the running time rather than adding to the vital theatricality. The animated genie in particular was a horrid rip-off Disney / Poo Emoji hybrid. The peculiarity of confusing several “non-Western” cultures visually and in music (Jasmine entering to “March of The Siamese Children”?!) rounded off the oddities.

Not a vintage year for Wimbledon, but some truly great performances and potential by the end of the run for the teamwork to come together and become a nucleus from which to build in the future.

 

3 stars.

 

Photo credit: Craig Sugden. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre.