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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.

In Conversation with Margaret Atwood: Lyttelton Theatre

September 11, 2019

10th September 2019.

Sometimes you just get lucky, this was one of those times. Drawing number 1 position in the queue when tickets went on sale, I landed one of the £25 tickets on row D. Given that the price included a copy of Atwood’s new book “The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments” with a cover price of £20, that had to be a deal, right?

On the night, organisation was superb. Before the main event, a desk staffed by cheerful folk from Waterstones were checking tickets and dispensing copies of the book. Beside them, another team from charity “Equality Now” (www.equalitynow.org) handed out free programmes, bookmarks and “Misogeny Bores Me” stickers.

Inside, on the “Hansard” set, the stalls bristled with video cameras waiting to beam proceedings to over 1500 cinemas “live” and tens of thousands more later on as global time-zones caught up.

Prompt at 7.30pm, Samira Ahmed welcomed us, and suggested turning off phones as otherwise “The Eyes” would get you… sadly, this was ignored by several folk, and black vans could be seen pulling away from Upper Ground later on…

A brief autocue introduction from Ms Ahmed welcomed the cinema audience, a little sound extract from the original “The Handmaid’s Tale” and video extract (watched on a screen above the stage) from a new documentary about the author’s life and work. This will be seen first in her native Canada, but hopefully broadcast elsewhere at a later date. Particularly interesting were the scenes from the Hay-on-Wye book festival, where Ms Atwood was followed by fans dressed in the familiar red robes.

Back to the live stage and the first major surprise of the evening. An actor stepped onto the stage to read the opening chapter from the new book. The audience was so surprised it didn’t even gasp. Why? Because we couldn’t be entirely sure… we thought it was… it couldn’t be… yes, it actually could… AUNT LYDIA!!!!! Ann Dowd herself, reading about her glorification in Gilead. Obviously worth the ticket price alone, and quite a revelation that the (un)holy terror of the Handmaids in reality is far younger, slighter and considerably less harried in person – but more of that later…

Time for the real star, as Samira Ahmed led Margaret Atwood to a pair of armchairs set to the audience’s right on the stage. The interview proper began with Atwood’s account of writing the first book in 1984 Berlin. Pre-unification, the enclosed atmosphere echoed that of the times she wrote about. The film had shown us how the first 60 pages were written long-hand, with many revisions and notes, before being typed on a rented German-language typewriter. Somehow appropriate, another level of creative restriction to be overcome.

The discussion ranged over the reasons for the new novel being set later – the author wanted to bring in new voices and angles that couldn’t be discussed by a “handmaid” who would have known nothing of the regime’s inner workings. Parallels were drawn with historical figures including Oliver Cromwell, and Atwood demonstrated her breathtakingly wide knowledge of history and political science as well as anthropology.

What particularly struck me was how different she seemed when able to present in the relaxed auditorium. Frankly, from previous television interviews, I’d expected a rather wild eccentric caricature “elderly mad-woman writer.” Margaret Atwood is none of those. Quietly spoken soft Canadian accent, exceptionally quick-minded and thoughtful yet direct and concise with each answer, utterly fascinating.

Time for two more readings. At microphones on stage to the audience’s left, Sally Hawkins read first, one account – testament – from a youngster of Gilead. Lengthy, but with sustained interest. Lily James followed, a second testament delivered with relaxed confidence.

Following them, Ann Dowd took the stage once more, with a terrific moment. Before commencing with her final reading, she fixed both young women with an “Aunt Lydia” stare. Yes, out of nowhere, Dowd transformed with a simple lift of the head into that dragon. The hard appraising look made both victims flinch visibly – and had exactly the same effect on those of us sitting that side of the auditorium. The moment passed, and we heard a few more chilling words.

Back to the interview, and the final segment became philosophical as Atwood discussed meeting “Resistance” workers from World War Two. Why did they risk themselves to shelter victims of an evil regime? The only conclusion one survivor could suggest was that it was so that they could live with themselves afterwards.

Concluding with a trio of audience questions, Atwood couldn’t think of a indicator that Female Equality had been reached. Her feeling was that we would simply know. Having read her books, seen the television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and been present at this remarkable event to launch her new book, perhaps a suggestion: maybe it will be when women feel free – and are allowed to be free – to be themselves? That they can go about their daily lives as men do, without fear or judgement. It’s a thought.

Quite an evening, and what a way to begin a new chapter in the world-renowned universe one woman has created.

5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Lea Salonga In Concert: London Palladium (and touring)

July 24, 2019

(seen at the evening performance on 21st July 2019).

Explaining the postponement of this much-anticipated concert from February until now due to a skiing accident, Salonga remarks ruefully, “what is a Pilipino doing on a ski-slope anyway?”

Her first huge laugh of the evening, and the Palladium theatre magic kicked in. For those who don’t know, the Palladium’s stage is enchanted and always has been. It will make anyone who makes the effort look better than they are, and magnify the faults of the lazy. A good show will be great, a mediocre one humbled. This night was firmly in the first category.

Unusually for a concert, musical director Larry Yurman gave us an overture – a potted history of Lea’s life in music, familiar snippets setting the scene for her arrival on stage in a beautifully-cut jacket outfit. Thirty years on, the lady is as fresh as the girl who took London by storm in 1989, and she was going to make the most of it.

“Feeling Good” told us of her mood, and “Go the Distance” her intention for the night.

Chat, how she hopes her work will inspire others of her ethnicity to live their dreams as she does hers is underlined by “Reflection” from “Mulan” – one of three Disney movies which lead to Disney declaring her a “Disney Legend” in 2011.

A slightly odd change of pace with “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman) and “Drops of Jupiter” (Train) follow. The latter slightly more effective and an introduction to both for this monkey.

“Human Heart” from Broadway show “Once On This Island” brought us back to show-tune territory, rather suggesting how strong a song must be for a theatre professional to get the most out of it.

Another “left field” selection, “Story of My Life” – a “One Direction” number demonstrated her range and also some risk-taking that paid off. Another risk – her own on relationships resulting in her beloved daughter – lent personal meaning to her spotlight moment closing act one, “I’d Give My Life For You” from “Miss Saigon.” And the audience knew she meant it.

Some Sondheim opened act two, with “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” Arguably the strongest performance of the night, simply up there with the original, Bernadette Peters and a very select few others. “In A Very Unusual Way” was a sensible lower-key transition into an amusing audience sing-a-long “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” Even without a small daughter, yep, knew all the words… but couldn’t get up to anything like the notes our hostess managed.

Inviting musical theatre performer Rachelle Ann Go onto the stage, “I Know Him So Well” had the monkey wishing this duo had been cast in last year’s London Coliseum revival. Both women demonstrated acting skills and understanding of the song way beyond the usual cabaret cover it has become.

Another whiff of 1980s nostalgia followed with Chris Allard on guitar accompanying a ballad arrangement of A-Ha classic “Take On Me.” One that should be recorded if it hasn’t been already.

“Burn” from “Hamilton” signalled the final run-in as show business called again – and if they are looking around for a third sister, they have one here.

Looking around the auditorium, New Zealander Charlie was chosen to duet on “A Whole New World.” Fortunately, a bit of a wit as well as able to carry a tune, the result was a fun interlude.

Back to the real business, with a “Les Miz mash up” of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Both delivered with the weight of someone who knows the show intimately, and sagging only with the endearingly naff on-stage school disco lighting design (fortunately un-credited). The Palladium’s own wonderful team on spotlights were perfection, the rest, well, amusing anyway.

Two encores, yes, two, for the crowd. “This is Me” stood up well against the original the monkey had heard just a month ago at the Hugh Jackman concert. “The Greatest Love of All” closed the show, reminding us that whatever else, Lea Salonga’s voice is still up there with the best – high and crystal clear. If anything her diction has become even more polished with time, more than capable of dealing with the occasionally punchy sound design obviously intended for a lesser venue’s capabilities.

A special evening with one of the leading ladies of musical theatre, played to a crowd of adoring home ex-pats and British musical theatre enthusiasts. Salamat musika, salamat Lea Salonga.

 

5 stars, standing ovation.

 

And that’s it for the summer. Taking a “ blog break” now until 11th September. Back when the leaves start to fall. Watch twitter for details.