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Blues In The Night: Kiln Theatre

October 30, 2019

(seen at the evening performance on 20th August 2019)

This summer, it appears that the Kiln Theatre has been running a “summer camp” for the cream of West End musical theatre talent to have fun, relax and enjoy themselves in front of an audience.

Sharon D Clarke (The Lady), Debbie Kurup (The Woman), Clive Rowe (The Man) and Gemma Sutton (The Girl) work their way through 27 blues numbers in an evening originally created by Sheldon Epps.

The impressive Robert Jones set is a lounge and three bedrooms in a run-down hotel. “Oscar and the Strollers” are the on-stage band, while in each room the ladies take stock of their lives past, present and future, while The Man cruises the lobby in search of whatever he can find.

The singing really is the best, and each character gets at least one solo chance to shine. Sharon D Clarke brings the house down with “Wasted Life Blues,” Clive Rowe has “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So” just for starters.

Trouble is, there’s nothing to hang the evening on, really. It’s pretty much not only plot-less but repetitive plot-lessness. You have to be a very hard-core fan of old-time blues to distinguish between some of the numbers at times, and it all becomes overwhelmingly soporific if you can’t. The first couple of times you hear how hard life is, you sympathise. After a while, it all just blurs and even the wonderful voices become a bit of a drone.

There’s the odd humorous line – the bleakest about how older black actors can’t get work from the booking agents – and if you think a trumpet going “wa-wa-wa” is funny then that’s hilarious too.

Truth is, it’s a fantastic team and a wonderful set with talented musicians and songs which are classics of the genre. If those songs are not to your taste – as they really weren’t to the monkey, then even a two hour evening feels far longer. Five stars to the four singing stars and the Kiln for staging it, but for this monkey…

3 stars.

 

And that rounds up the “summer” reviews. Taking a blog break for 2 weeks, back on 20th November 2019.

The Bridges of Madison County: Menier Chocolate Factory

October 23, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 18th August 2019).

Never read the book, seen the film, or heard a note of the musical. On the other hand, Jake “Adrian Mole” Brunger introduced me to the CD of “The Last 5 Years” and I’m a huge fan of “13” too – so Jason Robert Brown isn’t an unknown to me, even if this particular show is.

What to make of it? According to the programme, the storyline has been simplified considerably from the novel. Italian Francesca meets soldier Bud in Naples. Her fiancée was killed in the war, so she agrees to emigrate to Bud’s farm home in Iowa, USA.

For 20 years she lives small-town American farming life, raising two children. One wins a prize for her steer, the other rejects his agricultural heritage. While they are away with her husband at a county fair, a photographer – on assignment to record the famous local bridges – pulls into her driveway to ask directions… and her life changes for a few brief days.

It takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes to tell that story – and the downside is SPOILER ALERT there is no twist to resolve the tale. SPOILER ENDS. With that situation, you’d expect something pretty sensational from the show in the way of music, acting and characterisations. Well, as “Bat Out Of Hell” has it, two out of three ain’t bad…

As Italian Francesca, Jenna Russell is astoundingly brilliant. Worth the quite substantial ticket price just for her performance. Those who haven’t seen her before would believe she was indeed an Italian American housewife with a good singing voice who just happened to be around that afternoon.

Photographer Robert Kincaid (Edward Baker-Duly) had the women and gay men around me drooling; a sympathetic air yet something that could easily be predatory. His voice holds pretty well too – “It All Fades Away” his strongest number.

Father Richard ‘Bud’ Johnson (Dale Rapley) is suitably gruff, while children Michael (David Perkins) and Carolyn (Maddison Bulleyment in a sound profeessional debut) are convincing enough to be related.

Strong work from supporting couple Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F. Monaghan as neighbours Marge and Charlie – her nosey but protective, him phlegmatic as only an Iowa farmer can be (if Bill Bryson is to be believed).

Lively work as well from Georgia Brown and Shanay Holmes, the former particularly in opening the second half with a bit of a clap-along, the latter a sympathetic waitress and other characters as required.

Jon Bausor’s designs makes superb use of the enormous stage space and period dress, Tal Rosner’s projections add immeasurably to the effect. Trevor Nunn resists (mostly) his urge to throw in everything including the (pretty deep) kitchen sink in directing, and Lynne Page likewise keeps the movement real.

The trouble is, after all that effort, there’s just not enough plot to hang the length of the show on, and it didn’t really move so much as it should. Worth seeing, but really it is only Jenna Russell’s performance that would make this monkey rush back again.

 

4 stars.

The View Upstairs: Soho Theatre

October 16, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 24th August 2019)

How far have we come with LGBTQ+ rights? This Max Vernon show makes for an uncomfortable summary, and a deeply moving exploration.

Young New York fashionista Wes (Tyrone Huntley in the performance of his life) moves back home to New Orleans and buys a burned out building for half a million dollars. In 1973 that same building was a gay bar that burned down at the cost of 32 lives – about which the city and media cared not a jot. Wes ends up back when it happened, and meets those who were there.

It’s a ghost story, a gay romance, certainly a Mass in their honour, and the whole is a privilege to watch as well as an education. Around 105 minutes without an interval is enough to learn a little about just how tough gay lives were back then – and how despite years of protest and calls for equality they are really not much better now.

The cleverness is in a book that gives each character a contrasting background linked by sexuality and the need for companionship and support that sexuality brings.

Wes has the confidence and knowledge of 2017, whatever that turns out to be. Against waif Patrick (Andy Mientus) he finds himself manipulated and manipulating, Mientus playing contrast with weight and intelligence without swamping his background situation.

Bar Keeper Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer) has (SPOILER ALERT, if a key lyric is taken literally, gender transition SPOILER ENDS) to deal with, with philosophical fierceness. Her pianist Buddy (John Partridge) is more classic, the man with a wife at home and shreds of both relationship and career to cling to.

Freddy (Garry Lee) is a talented drag artist with sympathetic mother Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt soloing with usual ability on “The Most Important Thing”).

Dale (Declan Bennett) is on the edge, wonderfully powerful-controlled acting in a pivotal role easily over-done.

Then there’s Rev. Richard (Joseph Prouse), whose prayer meeting and “Are You Listening, God?” hold meaning emphasised by well studied sympathy in performance.

Other senior Willie (Cedric Neal) provides balance and a little campness… and struck up an amusing running gag with the monkey on the corner of the front row.

Maybe not all the music lands first time on hearing (and Adam Fisher’s sound design didn’t help in the bigger numbers), but Lee Newby gives us a bar room set to be proud of, for Jonathan O’Boyle to direct very real people on.

Fabian Aloise scores another triumph with choreography on a tiny stage building huge characters, and a note too for Nic Farman whose lighting is appropriately dingy but concealing nothing.

The closing scenes are devastating, the final coda moving. There’s a full-scale two act show in here, perhaps, or maybe this thoughtful contemplation is enough. Either way, it’s a reflective experience that will sear your consciousness as much as your conscience.

4 stars.

Calendar Girls The Musical: New Wimbledon Theatre (and touring)

October 8, 2019


In an interesting quirk of fate, the monkey caught this tour in a theatre designed by the same person who designed the show’s 2017 West End home, the Phoenix. It loved the show then, apart from the depressingly army-green overbearing set. That’s now gone, replaced by a beautifully understated rural Yorkshire scene-scape from Robert Jones. With Oliver Fenwick working seasonal lighting magic, the actors have somewhere mood-perfect on which to build the story.

Nothing changes in Yorkshire, as cancer victim John “Clarkey” Clarke (Phil Corbitt) sings to open the show on a simplified – and far more effective – note than the original. This decent man-of-the-soil and his devoted wife Annie (Sarah Jane Buckley) face the worst and lose. Buckley’s “Scarborough” contrasts with “Very Slightly Almost” to rip the heart from the audience even before the show gets to its well-known theme.

Anarchic friend Chris (Rebecca Storm, with comedy magic timing) comes up with the idea of the staid Women’s Institute producing the now famous nude calendar, and the rest is how the community make it happen.

Some have the figure – Celia (Lisa Maxwell) with a neat “I’ve Had A Little Work Done.” Some find eventually liberation, Ruth (Julia Hills, wonderful depth of characterisation and duet with her Russian Friend) and retired head teacher Jessie (Ruth Madoc on intense good form). Fascinating too is vicar’s daughter and single mother Cora (Sue Devaney) whose calculations of just where the boundaries lie are an interesting watch.

A sub-plot for the various children gives Jenny (Isabel Caswell) a particular chance to shine, with Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Danny (Danny Howker) powerless as teenage lads are with young ladies who know. Actually, in this village, the other men – Colin (Sebastian Abineri), Rod (Ian Mercer – usual reliable amusement) and Denis (Alan Stocks) aren’t doing so well either, as their act two trio demonstrates.

Director Matt Ryan realises that the overarching theme is the series of snapshots – a world frozen in time, yet each image effecting change. The key moments are thus captured, each one – including the now legendary calendar shots themselves – made memorable as the staging reflects the concept.

The show is noticeably tighter and funnier than its West End incarnation, with a particularly good use for home-made wine suggested (if one can see to do so). With a first-rate musical score containing beautiful harmonies and the odd hilariously raucous number, the entire audience become involved enough to cheer spontaneously as photographer Lawrence (Derek Elroy with nice hesitancy) creates each month’s pose.


It’s human, very British, with deeply moving storyline, haunting music and brutally honest lyrics. Putting coins in the bucket in the foyer afterwards for the charity feels like hope on the strength of it, that even in the face of such personal suffering there are sunflowers that may grow.

If the show comes near you, don’t miss your chance to see it.

 

5 stars, standing ovation.

Once On This Island: Southwark Playhouse.

October 2, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 17th August 2019).

Once again, the British Theatre Academy present a musical of professional quality, featuring a hugely talented cast aged under 23 who, to a young person, will be the backbone of the West End once they graduate.

The monkey only remembers the disaster that this show was, presented by a pretentious producer at the (now) Peacock Theatre in the early 1990s, with the stalls re-labelled “beach-side” or something similar. It won awards, but didn’t last; and pretty much put an end to that theatre as a mainstream musical house.

This keeps it simple, and squeezes the maximum out of what is really a pretty slim folk-tale. Orphaned in a storm, Ti Moune is adopted, re-pays her survival by saving the life of another, and learns how cruel love and life can be. Told by the gods and the islanders who believe, it’s a slice of French Antilles culture set in the Caribbean sea.

Simon Wells provides a beautiful floor map and bold island scenery at either end of the transverse stage, plus inventive “bin liner” formal party-wear that may catch on should he open a beach-shack shop somewhere. Andrew Exeter gives us storms and sunshine, but Andrew Johnson’s sound design takes longer to kick into gear, swallowing much of the early lyrics.

Lee Proud keeps the cast moving with the rhythms you would expect, yet he avoids cliché and opts for characterisation from every member of his ensemble. The car crash is neatly done (and the bed even more so), and smaller touches like the pre-show greetings and bamboo seller demonstrate thought.

Key performances from Chrissie Bhima (Ti Mourne) and Sam Tutty (Daniel) are detailed and Bhima in particular is heart-breaking.

Around them, there is remarkable work from Odelia Dizel-Cubuca as Andrea, hugely impressive Aviva Tulley (Erzule), towering connectivity with the audience from Martin Cush (Papa Ge) and notable voices every cast member – those sitting by the monkey’s seat to sing, in particular.

Lynn Ahren’s book isn’t complex, but there is charm in the episodic construction, and the lyrics are stronger. Stephen Flaherty gives a couple of strong songs, “The Human Heart” may break it, and both “Waiting For Life” and “Some Girls” are decent numbers. This isn’t Sondheim or even Boublil and Schonberg, but it’s diverting and suits this particular company well.

Probably not a show that will be presented commercially in London again, this is a rare chance to see it. Can’t make the French Antilles this year? Don’t worry! This stunning ensemble – all under 23 – bring the huge heart, warmth, rhythms, sights and sounds direct to London. The only holiday you need.

 

4 stars.

Bonnie Tyler In Concert: London Palladium

September 25, 2019

(18th September 2019)

One of those artistes who has been around “forever” yet you never quite get around to seeing her “live.” Remedied, and worth the effort.

“Cats In Space” were the support group, their unique feature being Arthur Askey’s grandson on keyboards – standing on the stage where his grandfather was always welcomed by full houses and the approbation of the public. A sort of “Status Quo” without mega-stardom, they clearly play for the love of doing so – and “Mr Heartache” and “September Rain” are pretty decent rock numbers. The enchanted Palladium stage kicked in, and magnified their efforts into a show.

9pm, and the Welsh Lady of Rock strolls onto the stage where she stood first in 1976. Plenty of family and friends in the audience (one absent friend missing getting “Happy Birthday” sung to her – something she will kick herself for not hearing live) and Ms Tyler reminds us throughout the evening of their presence.

Using pretty much the same song-list as a recent appearance in Finland (according to Setlist.fm) it was a slightly too heavy mix of recent latest album with the favourites we had really come to hear. In fact, it became noticeable just how wide the gulf was in audience reaction between them. Seated for the new stuff, rapturous on-your-feet crowd for the favourites.

Visible relaxation came once “Total Eclipse of the Heart” ticked the “see Bonnie Tyler sing this one live” off the monkey bucket-list. The Palladium rocked as it seldom does, the lyric and powerful performance with it crashing down on the stage from the back of the upper circle.

Before that, “It’s A Heartache” was an assurance we’d at least get some classic material among the newer stuff. A pretty good cover of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” pleased Creedence Clearwater Revival fans, while “Flat On The Floor” is a lively number to open on.

Of the newer stuff, “Bad for Loving You” and title track “Between the Earth and the Stars” are an encouragement to buy the album, with “Move” and “Slow Walk” songs that will no doubt be memorable in her repertoire in the future.

The second half of the concert really upped the game, with well-chosen “The Best” (yes, Tyler flopped with the original some two years before Tina Turner got the hit with it) re-energising the crowd for “Holding Out For A Hero” delivered as only Bonnie Tyler can.

Finishing on the new, reflective “Older” we all remembered that stars celebrating some 50 years in the business will go on for so long as the can, but taking the opportunity to see them while still in their prime is something all fans must do.

Bonnie Tyler cares for all her fans, delivering a show and also thanking everybody off-stage (husband included) in the manner of a true star. A very satisfying evening.

4 stars.

The Doctor: Almeida Theatre

September 18, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 28th August 2019)

A doctor’s act of mercy sets off a string of events offering an opportunity to explore the roles of race, gender, power and religion in society today.

For Robert Icke’s last production for the Almeida, he takes a scalpel and carves the Statue of Liberty from pure ice with immaculate detail over the course of almost three hours.

A free adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Professor Bernhardi,” the monkey is keeping the entire review deliberately vague, as to reveal too much would spoil entirely the delight of discovery. Simply, this tackles many issues by demonstrating effortlessly how inter-related they are.

The first half sees the actors define themselves with fluidity in a mixture of race and gender assignments shifting as much as their loyalties to themselves and their beliefs.

The second act is a confrontation of those things, as resolutions are reached and the epic set-ups crumble to reveal final shapes.

Casting is immaculate, with Juliet Stevenson’s doctor creating a world so real there are sighs of sympathy for things not ever present, and even greater ones as her life is revealed. Hildergard Bechtler’s design is no more than tables and benches on a revolve, yet once populated the audience has no choice but to believe.

Fine work too from, in particular, Ria Zmitrowicz as a feisty juvenile, Mariah Louca as a manager without power, Naomi Wirthner as a neurosurgeon with race issues and Nathalie Armin as a politician with moral ones.

Playing with situations, the angles changing rapidly as the days continue, what could have become a morality piece digs far deeper into the fundamental divisions between “rational science” and today’s atmosphere of wilful mis-interpretation of sub-text / substitution of self-believe and self-serving narcissism, for consideration of the wider communal good and the normative of mainstream religion.

Even better, this is unafraid to question even the solidity of what we think of as historic bases. An admission that such things are changing in a way clear even to clergy is offered in this balanced take on our modern world.

It is quite possible that this play will prove to be very much “of its time” and even be unintelligible in a few years when our speed of life has moved on and perhaps the attitudes here have either taken hold or been forgotten. For the moment, though, it feels needle-sharp accurate and relevant to our times.

Explosive, compelling theatre.

 

5 stars, standing ovation.