"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Desperate Housewife

Menier Chocolate Factory
30 March 2009

There can be scarcely a Chardonnay-drinking woman on the planet who failed to be inspired by the story of Shirley Valentine, a Liverpool housewife whose confidence and personality were so submerged by her marriage until she rediscovers them on holiday in the Greek Islands, fulfilling an ambition to ‘drink a glass of wine in the country where the grape is grown’.

Struggling manfully to contain her own livelier personality beneath Shirley’s housecoat, Meera Syal is the latest in a long line of actresses to spend the first act cutting chips for Joe’s tea. Except this is the first of the production’s failures since it seems an utter waste not to give Syal, one of the most brilliant of Asian actresses, an opportunity to introduce an Indian element to the cowed housewife’s character.

Instead, she gives us a bumpy tour of the M6 as her accent wanders from summer stock Scouse to her native Birmingham and back. If she’d been knocking up onion bhajjis whilst worrying what her husband would say when he came home instead of egg and chips, this could have been a springboard to illuminate domestic oppression in a far more contemporary and challenging way, and allowed her to develop a third dimension to her Shirley which is lacking in some of the scenes.

This version is directed by Glen Walford, who first commissioned Willy Russell to write Shirley Valentine when she was artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman in 1986 so you’d think she knew her onions. Or chips. But she may be resting on laurels as she directed local comedienne Pauline Daniels in a similarly boxy production there in 2009.

To say that Syal is much better in the second act, when Shirley’s soliloquy takes place on a sunny Greek beach and her personality is also warmer is to suggest she’s not quite ‘got it’ in the first half. This is perhaps slightly unfair since there’s a lot to enjoy in her performance, but there were moments when you might notice that Syal’s experience is grounded in TV, film and comedy and that (thanks Wikipedia) this is only her fourth ever stage appearance, particularly when she’s doing Shirley ‘doing’ the voices of the other characters with rather more technique than the average Merseyside housewife.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Scally In Our Alley


Writer/Director : Phil Willmott
Choreographer : Andrew Wright
Set Design : Charlie Cridlan
Costume Design : Geri Spencer
Lighting : Steve Miller

Ever since Garbo leaned against the door-jamb of her luxury suite and murmured ‘I want to be alone’, the glamour and intrigue of Grand Hotels has captured public imagination. In Liverpool, the landmark Adelphi Hotel had its profile boosted by carriage trade from the ocean liners arriving from the New World and statesmen, gangsters and Hollywood stars all passed through its revolving doors.

Against this background, writer and director Phil Wilmott sketches out an affecting love story between hotel employees, complicated by a timewarp between 1930 and the present day and affording opportunities for contemporary musical theatre songs as well as dynamic big-band numbers and choregraphy that sets the stage alight every time with the second-act opener ‘Thompson From Accounts' being particularly inventive.

Once Upon A Time had a successful debut at the Liverpool Playhouse during the city’s term as European Capital of Culture, and whilst this production makes use of every inch of the tiny Union Theatre’s stage, it would be enriched by a bigger budget for set and orchestra to put over the lavish décor and thirties big band sound.

But that’s not to detract from what is a sensational chamber production – there are no weak links in the ensemble, every one of whom sings (unmiked) and dances up a storm – but the star of the show really is Andrew Wright’s brilliantly executed choreography, eclipsing anything I’ve seen on the London fringe.

In the lead, John-Paul Hevey plays Thompson as a loveable scally and although it’s a bit of a stock character he gives it credibility and warmth particularly in the nostalgic ballad about Liverpool which brings the show to its romantic climax and when there was scarcely a dry eye in the place.

You couldn’t say the same for that ‘other’ Adelphi - the theatre in the Strand, currently showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s turgid sequel to Phantom where £6 million investment doesn’t tug at your heartstrings half as much.

Saturday, 6 March 2010


Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is not a well man. His operation for prostate cancer before Christmas led to complications and Love Never Dies may be his last composition, since he’s now producing Wizard of Oz rather than developing new material. I hope not, because the author of Sunset Boulevard and Evita deserves a better epitaph than the load of old rope currently on full-price £65-a-seat preview at the Adelphi Theatre.

We are in Coney Island, and if Lloyd Webber’s claim that the events are set ten years after Phantom of the Opera is accurate, it’s about 1891. The Phantom has become a sideshow illusionist, bringing with him Madame and Meg Giry, and three henchpersons called something like Felch, Squelch and Gargle whose sole purpose is to strut about in Cirque de Soleil costumes. In a barely comprehensible plot, he invites now-famous Christine Daae to sing in his theatre and she arrives aboard the Lusitania with Oscar Hammerstein (who would have been four years old at the time), Nancy Astor (eleven) and Cornelius Vanderbilt (born 1898). Improbable or what?

Christine’s son turns out to be fathered by the Phantom who entertains the ten-year-old in what looks like Michael Jackson’s bedroom, complete with Bubbles the ape maniacally playing a pipe organ. Other elements of scenery are like an Art Nouveau explosion in a resin factory, interspersed with trapeze and rope twirling from a provincial circus.

ALW’s form is distinctly variable: whilst Cats and Evita pushed the envelope of musical theatre his recent appearances on low-rent television stunts like ‘Any Dream Will Do’ have diminished his profile which was equally dented by penning the dire Eurovision entry 'It's My Time' which I have previously suggested took him precisely three idle minutes to write, including standing up, flushing and washing his hands afterwards.

It now seems outrageous that he should be the recipient of a peerage for his contribution to the nation’s musical heritage, an honour not accorded Purcell, Delius or Elgar.

He does, however, deserve some sort of national award for recycling.

The lead-up to Christine’s performance of the theme song is interminable and gives you time to reflect it’s not a new tune. Setting aside the internet gossip which invites comparison between ALW’s composition and the theme from 1960’s Shirley MacLaine movie ‘The Apartment’, ‘Love Never Dies’ is itself a re-hash of ‘Our Kind of Love’ cut from his musical ‘The Beautiful Game’, stripped of its meaningful lyrics, jacked up an octave and given ludicrous operatic pretensions and drowningly lush orchestration.

Whilst Serena Boggess looks stately – the pink crystal-studded frock is simply gawjus – and sings right to the top of her soprano range until you wonder whether bats will fall from the rafters with their wings over their ears, it’s a soulless performance made even less engaging because it’s so difficult to care about any of these characters.

It’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if Christine had been made fully three dimensional, and the piece sung in a normal register with emotion by Hannah Waddingham – as she did on Parkinson some years ago - then this could have been the most electrifying sequel.

The pretence that this is somehow an opera score trips ALW up time after time – Ramin Karimloo’s voice seems to have only one setting: ‘stentorian’, and all his interactions with Christine are overblown and overloud. The recitative sounds directly snatched from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and is endlessly repetitive, whereas a few lines of spoken dialogue and a couple of jokes would have been more than welcome.

The counterpoint popular numbers like Summer Strallen’s Miss Adelaide style vaudeville routine, a fatuous rock anthem, and a chronically forgettable ‘beach’ ensemble seem jarring, as if they belong in three different musicals.

In the bare-stage climax (hm, seen any Bizet, Andrew?) and for no apparent reason, Strallen’s character shoots Christine and a blood capsule explodes in her bra. She dies in the Phantom’s arms as they kiss one last time.

It takes her six minutes, during which she reprises four different tunes before the orchestra wells to the sort of climax normally reserved for the last night of the season at Verona as Tosca chucks herself off the battlements.

Lloyd Webber probably thinks he’s written Carmen.

I think car-crash.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Sex and a Different City

Production photo by Nobby Clark

Can she or can't she? Most of the first-night audience were secretly betting Kim Cattrall wouldn't be able to shake off the shadow of 'Samantha Jones' from 'Sex and the City' and turn herself into Noel Coward's wittiest and most romantic heroine.

In assailing the best-constructed comedy in the English Language as well as the first to openly portray sexual attraction, Cattrall sets herself the highest of bars: Private Lives has pin-sharp dialogue which falls flat if a syllable is mistimed, her predecessors in the role include Maggie Smith, Greta Scacchi, and Lindsay Duncan, and the whole play balances on the essential chemistry between the co-stars, reunited divorcees on their respective honeymoons who are supposed to be fatally attracted “like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle”.

This version is more like the YouTube experiment wherein Cattrall is the Diet Coke - fizzy, colourful, sweet but ultimately not ‘the real thing’, and harmless until Matthew MacFadyen provides the Mentos which make the explosive effervescence.

Eschewing the archness with which Elyot is normally played, MacFadyen opts for an earthier, butcher foil to Amanda’s shrillness and once you accept the famous Coward epigrams won’t be delivered with camp theatrical flourishes, his conversational delivery adds depth and credibility to the character, and makes it more magnetic.

Despite looking the part and staring down any discussion of their age differences, Cattrall doesn’t quite match him - hers is a performance with circus skills: when Elyot shoves her she bounces on to the sofa in an acrobatic parabola. She also walks the tight-rope of English diction: never actually falling but the strain is visible. It might have made for a more laconic and nuanced Amanda if she’d played it in her natural American accent.

Casting the new partners, Sybil and Victor, is notoriously difficult: the parts are written as ciphers, but Simon Paisley-Day gave Victor a chocks-away Squadron Leader background Coward clearly hadn’t envisaged, and in the third-act face-off with MacFadyen provided one of the best comic moments.

There are some issues with the set - in the first act on adjoining hotel balconies, the cast had to fight their way through muslin curtains or round tightly-placed wrought-iron furniture, and in the second act Amanda’s Paris apartment looked cheap and gimmicky instead of coolly art deco and stylish. In Coward, style really is everything.

A Load of Cobblers'


A sparking well-paced revival brings fresh life to a family drama with feminist overtones in Thom Southerland’s revival of Hobson’s Choice at the cosy but comfortable Broadway Studio in Catford.

The piece follows three daughters of a bullying shopkeeper struggling to achieve independence and identity against a background of male supremacy, alcoholism and Victorian mill-town poverty.

And it’s very funny.

Its author Harold Brighouse might have been inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters when he was at Manchester Grammar, but deserves credit for pioneering the ‘Northern Drama’ twenty years before his contemporary J. B. Priestley. What’s interesting is how modern audiences react differently to the ‘issues’ in the play: it would have been considered completely normal at the time for a master to thrash his apprentices with a belt, and highly comical that a young woman should have the temerity to set up in business in competition with her father.

We identify strongly with the self-improving Maggie, played with conviction by Tegwen Tucker and delivering some of the best comic lines - although she could extend the range of her emotions and gestures without losing the controlled determination of the character, and it’s harder to feel compassion for the ‘abuser’ as we’d probably call him today, despite Anthony Wise‘s fine interpretation of Henry Horatio Hobson which is as authentic and vulnerable as possible within the confines of the script.

As Maggie’s gawkily reluctant fiancée Will Mossop, Sean Pol McGreevy makes an excellent start and his body language is perfect, but as the character grows in confidence his accent takes a trip across the Pennines finishing somewhere in the suburbs of Newcastle, canny lad. Otherwise, the Salford inflections hold up well throughout the faultless supporting cast, defying any potential to slip into Victoria Wood parody.

The mauve silk dresses with tight bodices and bustles sported by the Hobson sisters seemed more appropriate for the Wild West than the North West, but the play is set in 1880, the same year as Southerland favourite Annie Get Your Gun which is also about a strong woman making her way in a man's world, and makes you wonder whether there’s a wonderfully surreal combination show to be cobbled together from the two …

… until then, this is a real and refreshing slice of Lancashire life well worth the journey to Catford.