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

Monday, 22 August 2011

Still fresh after 40 years

at Edinburgh Fringe

Music and Lyrics: Mark Aspinall
Director: Guy Unsworth
Musical Director: Tom Curran

The Public Reviews Rating: 3.5 stars

It’s refreshing to see how Fresher’s Week hasn’t changed over the years. The insecurities over how to fit in, find your feet, seem cool and get laid could as easily have been set in the History Man era as today. Five students arrive in their allocated shared flat and through a series of drinking games and party nights discover, and expose, each other’s frailties.

The cast of young professionals and drama students are excellent, but the characters thinly drawn: the lads are variously post-Inbetweeners nerdish, nebbish or c*ntstruck and the girls too baldly contrasted pretentious Sloane and timid virgin. Whilst each actor inhabits the stereotype convincingly and with tremendous vocal ability, only Grace Eccleson‘s performance as Hayley finds emotional warmth and credibility.

As a project, Fresher The Musical has become a vigorously extended franchise with multiple productions and actively promoted performing rights. Like almost all novice musicals, its influences derive exclusively from ‘Rent’ and whilst the sub-Jonathan Larson pop-rock score is enjoyable within the theatre, the musical direction is good and the lyrics are sharp, there isn’t a take-away song or one you could recall even an hour later.

The cast sing enthusiastically “There’s More To Me Than This”, except there isn’t.

The obvious plot is monothematic and if the show’s designed to stretch beyond an Edinburgh hour might improve if the songs were harnessed to a more multi-dimensional script along the lines of Dean Craig’s tight first-year sitcom Off The Hook or the more surreal Campus devised by the Smack The Pony team.

They used to say about The Mousetrap that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t brilliant because there were enough new theatregoers born each day to keep it going for ever. With the Government’s aim for 50% of 18-year olds to get a student loan, maybe the same applies to Fresher.

Review written for The Public Reviews

Moderately Unbearable

at Edinburgh Fringe
Whatsonstage rating: 2 stars

Whilst deserving some sort of award for the most imaginative Fringe title, the show doesn’t live up to expectations. Whilst it isn’t “quite” unbearable and it isn’t “quite” shite, it came close enough for some punters to leave part-way through which is pretty condemnatory for a 35-minute piece.

Performed almost entirely by one lightly perspiring man in a boiler suit with interactive video, poetry reading, and dialogue rich in non-sequiturs – at one point he says, "if I were to explain this for 47 squllion years, you wouldn’t understand it" – and most of the audience nodded assent.

Despite the opacity of the concept, there are songs, poems and a determined rap about President Mitterrand, but your engagement is not helped by Roberts’ awkward microphone technique or the fact he reads eyes-down from the script, although I did like the ironic reworking of the Grimm's fairy tale as The Elves and the Psychotherapist.

Because of the disjunct of mashed ideas, you may come out of it with a smile raised or a memory jogged, but that feels like a too random result.

This review written for Whatsonstage.com

Into Edinburgh's Woods

Review of INTO THE WOODS at Edinburgh Fringe
TPR score: 4.0 stars

If ever a musical were designed to set traps for amateurs, it’s ‘Into The Woods’. The deceptively accessible ‘pantomime’ themes of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood disguise Sondheim’s disjunctive and difficult score full of pitfalls for the musically unwary.

Opera di Nepotist stands out for its bravery: formed in 2009 to produce Sweeney Todd, the company actively embraces people without theatre experience or ability to read music which makes its well-judged and wholly engaging production of Into the Woods all the more triumphant.

As ROH Covent Garden proved in a 2007 Linbury studio version, ‘Woods’ shrinks well to a chamber format if the production values, colourful costumes and well-crafted props are of an exceptionally high standard as they are here. Copyright restrictions mean it couldn’t be trimmed to an Edinburgh-friendly hour, but even at 2 hours 20 with no interval it kept all the audience (except one small-bladdered seven-year-old) gripped throughout.

Some of the ‘one midight gone’ routines could be taken at a faster pace, but the five-piece band drove through the score at a lick, with some exceptionally well-rendered trumpet and string work.

Cast and credits were not available, but the stand-out voices belonged to Cinderella and her Prince, and good characterisations also from the Wolf/Prince/Steward, the Witch and the Baker’s Wife – but the most engaging single performance was Jack (of Beanstalk fame) who seemed best to capture both the spirit and the mockery of the pantomime format as well as the moral dilemmas explored through his character. Topically, when he raids the giant’s home for money, a harp and a fowl that lays golden eggs: is that the action of a boyish hero to support his family and friends, or looting?

This review written for The Public Reviews

'Card' Tricks

Review of THE CARD at Edinburgh Fringe
Whatsonstage.com rating: 3 stars

Forty-year old ‘forgotten’ musicals are tough to revive but the Keith Waterhouse/Willis Hall script and Tony Hatch score come up fresh and alive in Norfolk Youth Theatre’s enterprising and imaginative production of The Card.

With the luxury of a 25-strong unafraid and well-focused cast and a fine saxophone-led band, it tells the story of Denry Machin, an ambitious youngster in the mould of Waterhouse’s own Billy Liar who rises to fame and fortune in his small Potteries town through wily charm and steely determination.

Fraser Davidson makes Denry’s journey a confident arc of discovery from schoolboy to prosperous businessman, and carries the songs with a well-supported light tenor and naturalistic performance. Edward Bartram is every bit as promising as his best mate Parsloe, Jess Davidson pulls off the complex role of machinating Ruth Earp with class, and Charley Nicol shows great comic potential as Denry’s washerwoman mother whose sardonic commentary punctuates most of the scenes.

Although amateur, all the voices are free from the karaoke desperation of teenage singers and have been well-coached in musical theatre delivery by director Adrian Connell. In the ensemble numbers the sound is strong and well-blended, and the diction excellent. The many scene changes are slickly accomplished and the show moves at a great pace.

There are two versions of this musical, and whereas this one benefits from some sharpened lyrics from Betty Blue Eyes’ Anthony Drewe, the music’s a touch repetitive and the best songs from the original have been excised. That said, this production is a credit to the company and further consolidates their Edinburgh reputation.

This review written for Whatsonstage.com

Monday, 8 August 2011


Review of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
4.5 stars
written for The Public Reviews

On the night an angry mob set fire to police cars and an Aldi supermarket in Tottenham it seemed wholly appropriate that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain should not just lead in to its set with the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ but actively encourage the entire Richmond audience to sing along with such enthusiasm.

Of course if the Rocky Mountain campfire modulations of the Ukes’ version had been the inspiration behind a Tottenham disturbance, the hoodies might have been washing the police cars and taking their empty petrol bottles back to Aldi since it’s such a calming and elegant version of the song which as well as demonstrating their extraordinarily adaptable technique also shows up the real musicality of Pistols John Lydon and Glen Matlock who composed it.

The other thing to say about the Ukes is that theirs is an act to which you really can bring the whole family, and many did – a completely full house featured many nuclear groups of mum, dad and a couple of teenagers all of whom seemed to get something enjoyable from the show.

They’re an eight-piece band but since they’ve been together 26 years they must by now have paid holidays and a pension scheme because only seven made an appearance at Richmond. Their self-deprecating humour and deadpan delivery have become a trademark and adored by their many fans, but to the uninitiated this can feel rather like all your secondary school teachers coming together with a certain amount of reticence to perform for an end of term concert.

Because most of their orchestrations deliberately contrast with the music itself, each piece becomes a ‘name that tune’ session as the audience sighs or applauds with appreciation when it finally recognizes the song. Despite vociferous enthusiasm for all the material, there were moments of repetitiveness during which we amused ourselves by identifying the ‘lookalikes’ in the orchestra – including John Major, David Tennant, Joan Bakewell and Jo Brand, plus a massive bonus in the leader George Hinchliffe who is a dead ringer for former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, although for sure the Chancellor never impersonated Kate Bush as remarkably as George.

The individual vocals are variable, the men generally better than the women, but standout hits were a folky version of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag, the theme tune to ‘Shaft’ and an outstanding 32-bar Limehouse Blues taken at the breakneck speed of duelling gypsy violins.

The group fights shy of paying homage to popular ukulele players like George Formby or Tiny Tim, but in their storming finale transformed Formby’s most popular song into a mournfully Russian, balalaika-orchestral, authentically Cossack dance which must henceforward be known as ‘Lenin on a Lamp-post’.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Comedy-SLASH-Musical. Literally.

review of Slay It With Music
written for The Public Reviews
3 stars

Would Bette Davis be seen dead on the Isle of Dogs? Could the East India Dock Road ever be confused with Sunset Boulevard? Only in the curious conjunction of Michael Colby’s comedy thriller musical with the slightly creepy, faintly gothic converted chapel which is ‘The Space’ theatre in London’s Docklands.

The two combine in an oddly atmospheric evening of schlock and parody in which a once-great film star is reduced to making a slasher picture to make ends meet, via a remarkably high body count inside her own mansion. In a mash-up of Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Psycho, Colby’s piece is a broad-brush portrait of two feuding actresses and the men who come, and die, between them.

As such it’s less well-scripted than, say, ‘Bette and Joan’ although there are some good laugh-out-loud one-liners,and the songs are momentarily catchy if a bit declamatory. Even the score of Sunset wouldn’t be best-served by one piano in a church hall acoustic, but a future revival might benefit from more varied orchestrations and a small band.

There’s an extractable number (I mean one which could be sung outside the context of the show) in the second act when Andrea Miller in a strong and attacking performance as the reclusive star Enid Beaucoup sings about ‘My Second Chance’ and introduces real pathos and warmth of feeling into what’s otherwise written as something of a cartoon figure.

The supporting cast inhabit their oddball characters with enthusiasm, Ellen Verenieks is effective as Enid’s TV-star sister in a well measured transition from strident to vulnerable across the evening, Helen Kelly’s powerful voice and Brooklyn accent makes the audience identify with tour guide Rosemarie and genuinely sorry when she becomes another body in a trunk.

For a low-budget production, the effects are surprisingly good, with a busy lighting plot and at least one genuine scream from an audience member at the dispatch of a victim.

The production’s staged in a diamond-shaped round, but played quite definitely toward the entrance doors which makes for the loss of some of the lyrics, particularly when the cast are dancing or killing someone, which is a lot of the time.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Bewitched, Bothered but also a bit blah

Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered ... a celebration of the works of Rodgers and Hart

written for The Public Reviews - 3 stars

By the time he was my age, Lorenz Hart had been dead ten years and deprived Richard Rodgers of what many musical theatre aficionadoes think was his finest collaborating lyricist. In their twenty year partnership, they created 26 musicals based on a solid belief in the integration of libretto, lyrics and music .

This makes it harder to excise songs from their contexts but Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered is a good example of the songbook show, prettily staged and the material smartly selected. Editor of Cabaret Scenes magazine Harold Sanditon suggested in the bar that when songs were presented like this you look for more in the way of interpretation, and may not find it here.

Angular, striking, glamorous Valerie Cutko – possibly the possessor of the last trademark beehive in musical London now that Amy’s gone and Mari Wilson has had a bob – opens with My Friend The Night in an expressive rendition of the first of many rarely-performed songs cut from films or from lesser-known musicals.

They’re intertwined with famous standards, and some glass-sharp comic numbers like Laura Armstrong’s To Keep My Love Alive or her excellently-pointed Way Out West … on West End Avenue which show the brilliance of Hart’s internal rhymes and lyric placement. Armstrong also displays one of the most beautiful cadences in the Rodgers canon with He Was Too Good To Me, and blends perfectly with Katie Kerr in Like A Ship Without A Sail.

The harmonies are delicious, and the piano accompaniment by MD David Harvey is excellent but some of the vocal entrances and cutoffs are mistimed.

The real treat is Stephen Ashfield, cruising elegantly through a succession of ballads including a charming Isn’t It Romantic, and partnering Cutko in a moving segue of There’s A Small Hotel and My Romance which seemed to have a tenderly unspoken sub-plot of a failed affair as Cutko’s voice tailed away to silence and Ashfield left the stage.

In an act of vanity casting, director Tim McArthur gives himself Johnny One Note, My Funny Valentine and a tap number, but as Jennifer Reischel pointed out in ‘The Stage’: as a singer, he makes a better director.

It was encouraging to see Jermyn Street so full but post-Ghost it also seems fair to question how much longer inexpensively-staged and heavily-nostalgic musical theatre will attract an audience often referred to as “the greys and the gays”.

The material may be immortal, but this style of production isn’t.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Four TImes Knightly

Review of Four Nights in Knaresborough written for www.remotegoat.co.uk 4 stars

"Thomas à Becket was a fuckwit. Discuss." Wouldn't it be great to open a GSCE History paper and see that? It makes an equally good starting point for Paul Webb's historical comic psychodrama - if that's a genre - at Southwark Playhouse.

Four Nights in Knaresborough follows the conspirators in Becket's murder as they flee adverse 'public opinion' - which travels at only the speed of a rider on horseback and takes nearly a year to catch up with them - to their hideout in a draughty Yorkshire castle. Without support from the King, Henry's men are left to contemplate their motives, their paranoia and their sexuality in an intensely-acted and ultimately enjoyable production.

It's played with anachronistic, idiomatic dialogue which is initially unnerving but works well to convey the machismo motivations to a modern audience. I also liked the incidental music: rock, metal and thrash - and was that really a bit of The Stranglers?

Rather like the dugout occupants in Journey's End, the four Knights have disparate conflicting characters: the know-it-all, the peacemaker, the laddish upstart and the maverick, brothers in arms on the surface but sexually urgent and combative underneath.

The audience seemed to side immediately with Tom Greaves' priapic Brito, the young Estuarian upstart whose chippy spirit unnerves the broodingly undpredictable Fitz played fiercely by Alex Hughes in an initially psychotic performance which gives the piece genuine pathos when he talks about his lost son. The more heartfelt writing in this section late in the piece feels like an antidote to the broader comedy which focuses on some (very good) cock and turd jokes.

As the Blair-like apologist for the political actions, David Sturzaker illuminated de Traci's struggle between duty and devotion, and public and private feelings, in an intense and intelligently centred performance.

The feelings of loneliness and despair are well-realised through Martin Thomas' shadowy design, and whilst the direction by Seb Billings gives clarity to the characterizations, the piece feels a fraction overlong.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Ghost, with a chance ...

First thing to say about Ghost is it’s a great night out.

From its filmic start, it looks and feels crafted for a new breed of theatregoer – cleverly pitched to attract the X-Factor crowd.  The set by Jon Driscoll is three full walls of LED and the New York screetscapes zip by with energy and class.  The onstage illusions by Paul Kieve are deft and fast: he really does walk through that door, and the well-remembered set-pieces from the movie like the fight in the alley, the run through the subway train and the heavenly transfigurations are brilliantly realised although when the strobes focus on the audience the show’s dazzling in more ways than one.

Baftas all round for set, lighting and special effects, no question.  But the music and lyrics and the central performances?  Dave (Eurythmics) Stewart has rejected Betty Blue Eyes-pastiche in favour of an original pop-rock score, but the lyrics are occasionally swallowed by the reverberant sound design and the only tune you come out humming is the one you hummed on the way in, Unchained Melody.

In his wife-beater vest, balconied pectorals and rigger boots, Richard Fleeshman* looks more hustler than Wall Street banker and whilst the choreography requires him to do little more than stand around feigning anger or disbelief most of the time, his is a musically accomplished performance for a 22-year old.

We found Caissie Levy in the Demi Moore role a bit blond and bland although other critics we met in the bar admired her performance strongly.  Perhaps on the day of Rebekah Brooks’ resignation, we’d had enough corkscrew curl-tossing to last us a while.  As the psychic Oda Mae, Sharon D Clarke fully matches Whoopi’s comic turn whilst putting her own naturalistic gloss on the character and, with her voice at its career best, sings up a veritable storm. Twice.

Some of the best moments belong to Adebayo Bolaji as the subway ghost in perhaps the sharpest-recreated scene from the movie when he fights with Sam on the moving train but he also has a great solo number in the second act.

If you're looking for a modern, polished movie-related musical with more spine than Mamma Mia and maybe a touch less camp than Priscilla, this is spot on.

*Notes on the leading man:

We loved Craig the teenage Goth in Corrie.

We even pardoned his early sexualisation with kohl eyeliner and leather accessories supporting Brian Sewell’s allegation that the Street is penned by pooftahs.

We cheered him through Soapstar Superstar and went appropriately “aaah” when he turned up at the semis with his clothes in a TopShop bag.

We sneaked a look and a listen at him a couple of weeks ago when he supported his mate Julie Atherton in her one-nighter at the Apollo, and marveled at both his strong vocals and Chippendale-buffed body.

We’d heard on the Manchester grapevine (actually from a freshly shamphoo-and-setted but still insightful septuagenarian called Christine we met last week on a tram to Eccles) that the provincial tryout had been a great success, the boy done good and the special effects were outstanding.

She was right.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Above the Stag, Below Par

In my remotegoat.co.uk review I wrote that you have to admire Above The Stag’s sustained support for new writing, for showcasing young talent, and for championing work on gay themes. Although that admiration’s wearing thin.

Their revival of When Harry Met Barry after comparatively recent success at the Gatehouse and the stretching of it from 75 minutes to two lengthy acts and an interval hasn’t really added much to the initial charm of the piece.

Briefly, which is a concept alien to the writer, ex-Uni mates Harry and Barry each develop a relationship: H with a boy, B with a girl, before realising they were made for each other. It’s the germ of a good idea.

Paul Emelion Daly is credited with book, music and lyrics and they’re tripartite triteness: the heterosexuals have a romantic relationship, the homosexuals have a physical one, the woman is librarian-frumpy with glasses, the gayest boy is a cipher in plastic trousers and a lisp (although that’s possibly actor’s own rather than scripted).

The music is banal and forgettable, all the songs eventually merging into one continuous round of arpeggio-laden underscore played skilfully (by Lee Freeman) but far too loudly on one electronic keyboard, and the set is one of those home-made hand-painted cartoon jobs which have become an increasingly annoying trademark at the Stag and no longer bear comparison with other low budget fringe theatres where both ingenuity and execution are of a much higher order.

The cast try hard, particularly Madeleine Macmahon as a fallen-angel-cum-taxi driver who narrates and links the piece and Holly Julier who is entirely credible as Alice and well deserves her one good comedy moment in the second act.

Fortunately, Barry is played by Craig Rhys Barlow, a recent finalist in the Stephen Sondheim Society Performer of the Year awards and a young man with an exceptional and entirely natural musical theatre voice for which there should be a bright future: when he sings all the doubts you have about the production and the venue fall away and you really don’t want him to stop.

The Maine Event

4-star review of 'Carousel' at the Landor Theatre, written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Encouraged by the success of Pal Joey written with his late partner Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers persuaded his new collaborator Oscar Hammerstein also to use an anti-hero and even darker themes of corruption and redemption for Carousel.

Often lost in sugar-coated productions, the depth and intensity of relationships, and the struggle between doing right by your family and doing wrong to help them are brilliantly condensed in Jeremy Lloyd Thomas’s impressive and intelligent production at the Landor.

Rodgers and Hammerstein toyed with the idea of writing an opera, and in Carousel they came close with soaring soprano solos and complex sung recitatives. Lloyd Thomas has wisely cast young actors with surprising power and range and the list of ‘excellent voices’ is long and the harmonies strongly delivered right from the opening vocalised Carousel Waltz.

Australian Ebony Buckle brings a studied coolness and sagacity to mill-girl Julie Jordan and covers ‘If I Loved You’ elegantly despite being obliged to climb the apple-crate mountain of Rachel Stone’s nifty set. Her partner Billy Bigelow is played by Sean-Paul Jenkinson and he’s almost a match for her vocally, although his technique is more perceptible and a slight rhotacism interferes with the well-energised ‘My Boy Bill’.

They may be the leads, but the evening belongs to Chelsea Corfield and Iddon Jones as Carrie and Enoch Snow through whom Lloyd Thomas discovers more comedy than usually seen in Carousel, and saves the production from an over-reverent earnestness which sometimes infects this show. Corfield is a plus-size girl who so overshadows Jones that you might think Tracey Turnblad just hopped a bus from Baltimore to Maine, but they work beautifully together and Jones’ singing is magnificent.

This is a cast largely drawn from recent graduates of Mountview Academy of Theatre, and steered by tutors like Lainie Baird who with Jodie-Lee Wilde recreates demanding Agnes de Mille choreography for the small stage.

There are no weak links in the ensemble chain, Lee Dillon-Stuart captures the essence of Jigger Craven despite his youth, and rather like a den mother, veteran Sue Kennet infuses Nettie Fowler with skittish warmth and a sensibly abbreviated ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which has real emotion in her cradling of the audibly weeping Julie and mercifully dispels the spectre of Lesley Garrett.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Stag Night v 3.0

Review of Blink Again! Turn On The Lights! at Above The Stag

For the third year in a row director Tim McArthur and the resourceful team at the Stag have pulled together over two dozen songs from 'less successful' musicals and you'd think by now they'd be scraping barrels. Not so, such is the back catalogue of continually flopping musical theatre that even the very recently-deceased 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' and currently-in-longest-ever-previews 'Spiderman' get a battering in hilarious parodies.

The parodies leaven what could have been a repetitive evening of show tunes delivered with just sufficient staging to resist the static.

Many of the songs are technically difficult, possibly a reason their source musicals struggled, but the young voices cope well with the demands and there's a freshness in rediscovering 'China Doll' from 'Marguerite' sung by Jamie Lee and also Paul Brangan's extremely well-judged 'Grief Never Grows Old' from an ill-fated Mike Read musical about Oscar Wilde which opened and closed the same night, and was recycled only as a charity single for the 2004 tsunami.

The standout voice belongs to Peter Navickas whose faultless high lyric tenor illuminates 'A Boy from Nowhere' from 'Matador' and 'If It's Only Love' from 'Metropolis' as well as blending beautifully with Brangan in 'Lilly's Eyes' from 'The Secret Garden'.

Linking narratives rest heavily on commenting on the short runs of many of the shows but there's a slightly ironic surreallism in hearing such pitying tones from profit-share actors in a room over a grotty pub sighing that a multi-million dollar Disney project "survived only four months on Broadway" or a critically-acclaimed show "ran for barely 100 performances in the West End" ... when they're playing to an audience of five.

But the running 'Spiderman' joke is worth the ticket price alone ...

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Lend Me Some Earplugs

Review of Lend Me A Tenor at the Gielgud Theatre

Ever since Al, Fred and George had the lucky posthumous collaboration which turned Pygmalion into My Fair Lady, producers have salivated over the lucrative idea that grafting a few songs onto a popular stage comedy could make an audience see the play twice, this time with music.

It worked for Shaw and Lerner and Loewe possibly because both the source material and the music and lyrics are equally clever and at the time, original. But suppose you woke up one morning and considered that a pretty average mid-80’s mistaken-identity door-slamming farce could be well-revived with the addition of fifteen songs by completely unknown composers (if you Google ‘Peter Sham’ it only brings up the dressmakers’ ribbon).

You might be lucky and snag a highly competent musical theatre star just out of a major flop. Cherbourg escapee Joanna Riding plays the disenchanted wife of a touring Italian tenor who misses his gala by taking sleeping pills and is impersonated by a waiter – are you laughing yet? - but with a wig by Ukrainian Premier Yulia Tymoshenko and accent by Joe Dolce, even she doesn’t stand much of a chance in her two brief scenes.

You might throw sets, costumes and gilt at it like Linda Barker loosed on Chatsworth but the resultant surfeit of mauve and hefty mobile set looks recycled from a provincial pantomime – those juddering chandeliers must have done a Cinderella or ten – and betrays the production’s origins in the Theatre Royal Plymouth where, for many London critics, it should have stayed.

You could, if you were heavily nostalgic for ITV’s Stars in their Eyes engage its mugging presenter Matthew Kelly as the embattled impresario at the centre of the farce and subject the audience to his camp and manic breathlessness in lieu of characterization or musicality. Does he prepare backstage by telling the mirror ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be dreadful’ ?

You’d be the producers of Lend Me A Tenor, which isn’t really salvaged by the fine voice of Michael Matus (another flop escapee from Martin Guerre) as Tito Merelli, or the second-act setpiece by Sophie Louise Dann as a scenery-chewing diva compacting all the great arias into one seduction audition and which may well be lost on the coach parties unless they’re assiduous followers of Soapstar to Operastar.

Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph dismissed it as ‘barely memorable ... all the sophistication of four-minute pasta’. I’d go further: in a month when London productions swept the board at the Tonys, with exemplars of excellence in straight plays and musicals it’s a disgrace to smear Shaftesbury Avenue with this great big pile of steaming stale Dolmio.

This review written for Londonist

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Not Defying Gravity

Review of The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville Theatre

Yeah, yeah, we get it: you’re not brothers, you don’t fly and no-one’s from Russia.  And you juggle, how hilarious is that?

The ‘FKB’ are a four-man troupe led - since 1975 - by ponytailed Paul Magid who has possibly the second least attractive London stage persona after ‘Sir’ Bruce Forsyth.  Certainly he found it hard to lash the sparse Thursday night audience into anything approaching enthusiasm.

He’s also the one who seemed to drop most of the balls and clubs, and we’re not counting those ho-ho-ho ‘accidentally on purpose’ moments which were too numerous to be convincing: when you drop illuminated balls on a darkened stage and they roll into the wings, no-one thinks that’s a joke.

No one thought much else in the act was a joke either – there’s a running (make that limping) gag about gathering nine ‘objects of terror’ like a hatchet, an egg and a shaken bottle of champagne which will be juggled in the finale, but by the time we got to seven someone near us suggested the eighth object of terror should be the script.

Those sight gags about blindness, the casual racism about dog-eating Koreans, the unfunny puns and the whole lame-ass pretence of being corn-pone Americans failing to understand the Brits just don’t work.  And nobody finds anything about the House of Lords amusing, certainly not just mentioning it and hoping for a laugh.

There’s music, but it’s random and often poor – Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance doesn’t by itself make plastic Indian Clubs exciting, and the ‘jazz juggling’ required such long and tedious explanation of how twirling objects is like the rhythm of a jazz quartet that most of the audience lost the will to riff.

The actual juggling routines are well-choreographed and among the younger performers, Stephen Bent is very competent and has nice hair, but it’s too like an audition for Britain’s Got Talent and you long for someone to buzzer them off and make way for a dog act.

This review written for Londonist.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Forced Rhubarb, Lumpy 'Custard'

Kit and the Widow are a sophisticated and enduring cabaret act of much skill and polish, at least when not reading the words from a music stand.  Dillie Keane, founder and stalwart of Fascinating Aida has become the sort of national comedy institution round whom people should be taken in boats to marvel at her brilliance, and Noel Coward is arguably the country’s finest theatrical composer-lyricist of the 20th century, certainly our only one to bear comparison with Cole Porter or the Gershwins.

So why does the fusion of these elements work only sporadically in the revue format Cowardy Custard currently ending its tour in Richmond? It seems to be a question of ‘trying too hard’.  Coward’s lyrics were so carefully crafted and polished that even adjusting a syllable can unbalance the delicate perfection of his phrasing, and when the principals perform it with such overemphasis – Hesketh-Harvey ices all his words like wedding cake - it feels forced.

Comparing this production with the forty-year old original is possibly unfair – at the Mermaid in 1972 the material was shared among a cast of twelve stretching from the sublime jazz singer Elaine Delmar to comedienne Una Stubbs whereas here five performers strain to produce variety in the staging, or enough light and shade in the singing.  Recalling the comic timing and gentle contralto of Patricia Routledge delivering ‘Marvellous Party’ was made more painful by watching Keane contort it into a pantomime drunk sketch, hammering each verse ever more bluntly into the eyeballs and eardrums of the front rows of the stalls whilst losing control of her limbs, clinging to the piano, and rolling her eyeballs like an electro-convulsive.

The audience lapped it up, though, and so did two mainstream critics – Charlie Spencer of the Telegraph made a pilgrimage to Lincoln and thought it “a classy delight” and Keane’s rubber-legged drunk act ‘hilarious’, although he felt as uncomfortable as we did at ‘London Pride’ being set to a background of Ken Livingstone commenting on the 2005 London bombings.  At Guildford, Mark Shenton of The Stage found the material “smart and revealing” and Keane “priceless” but overall he saw the show, like the custard of its title, as oversweetened and lumpy.

We’d mark it “not yet suitable for London” although the two young performers drafted in to sing the songs gauged too difficult for the cabaret comedians and for a couple of dance numbers, are excellent: Savannah Stevenson has a glorious voice and when not being too puppyish, Stuart Neal has a winning delivery in both the comic and straight numbers, ‘Matelot’ being his finest hour.

“Gallant old troupers, you’ve bored us all for years” cuts Coward in a satirical song about old theatrical stagers ‘Why Must The Show Go On’ … and delivers his own verdict.  To keep such glorious material fresh for the new audience, it needs newer voices.

Find another ten performers like Stevenson and Neal, and re-stage it.

This review written for Londonist.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Cross Section

Would it be churlish, even for me, to suggest that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s £32m sale of a Nazi-tainted Picasso to fund (just ten, tuition-fee only) bursaries for musical theatre students is merely another in a long line of tax-deductible publicity stunts for the noble Lord?

In a good weekend for musical theatre, I’ve witnessed two remarkable events. The first was an actual pay-day for performers in a profit-share production. Last Saturday, thanks to the generosity and good management of their producer, The Audience Club doyenne Angela Hyde-Courtney, the cast of Thom Southerland’s bouncy Jerry Herman compilation show at the Landor each received a white envelope of proper folding stuff at the after-show party.

This in itself is remarkable: few fringe productions generate more than beer money for their participants, and it often makes me feel uncomfortable that to keep ticket prices affordable so many actors and singers have to double a day job in Debenhams. When you don’t get paid, it could be argued you’re actually an amateur, except that the standard and the pool of talent washing around London for such work is so outstanding. In a cast most of whom were West-End-ready there were several shiners but none brighter than Daniella Gibb whose rendition of ‘Look What Happened To Mabel’ was impeccably focused and sung.

The second remarkable event is the SSSPOTTYs – or the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year awards in which not only performances but also new composition is recognized with a secondary prize given by Betty Blue Eyes composers Stiles and Drewe.

Sunday afternoon’s finals at the Queen’s Theatre simply blew me away. Whilst the boys somewhat outshone the girls, the standard is again beyond excellent, and interestingly many of the finalists came from classical colleges like the Royal Academy of Music and RADA rather than the usual hothouses of Mountview, Central or ArtsEd Schools which is fast becoming the ‘Fame’ academy of the UK.

Winner Taron Egerton, making so much more of ‘Giants in the Sky’ than the piece usually gets in productions, and stand-out finalist Craig Rhys Barlow whose meticulous diction and body language combined in an electrifying ‘Franklin Shepherd Inc’, both proved that Wales still produces naturally talented singers.

The winning composition – a delightful humorous and tender piece in which a superhero tells a geeky kid that muscle doesn’t outrank brains, ‘It’s Not All Kaboom, Kapow’ by Eric Angus and Paul James from their adaptation of the Ayckbourn piece The Boy Who Fell into a Book was delivered by another highly promising baritone, Howard Jenkins.

I was so elated after the SSSPOTTYs I almost didn’t go on to the evening concert at Cadogan Hall where a range of more established performers were supporting London Gay Men's Chorus and the male rape crisis charity SurvivorsUK. Part of my reluctance was fuelled by the fact that the headliner was Lesley Garrett, but given it was for a deserving cause, I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

Shouldn’t have bothered, she was terrible.

I'm not sure which made me more annoyed - her ridiculous, shrill, too-high-in-her-range singing or the clumsy, campy way she claimed allegiance to the charity. Among the other stars, Hannah Waddingham in particular showed her up with her effortless phrasing and natural projection. Everyone else seemed to make a genuine and heartfelt connection to the Survivors cause, but Garrett came over as desperate-to-be-popular, and a fake.

Her song choices were bizarre – I Dreamed a Dream, Somewhere and The Impossible Dream - since Fantine dies aged 27, Maria is a teenager, and Don Quixote a virile young knight-errant, everything she sang was irrelevant and contributed to her delusional belief in her own ability, youth or popularity, none of which were evident from the Stalls.

Garrett compares piercings with the LGMC's David Clarke. Hers is in her voice. (photo: Mark Killien)

It’s such a pity. She and I are contemporaries and both grew up in Yorkshire, but whereas I couldn't wait to get away, Garrett clings to the Doncaster coal-face as though ashamed to relinquish a background she has long transcended. She’s obviously a very kindly woman if she’ll give of her time for a worthy event, and it must be quite a come-down after her festival career to sing in a half-empty Cadogan Hall – but it’s vastly irritating to see someone who COULD be so much better, and more real, if she abandoned any pretence of being either a great operatic singer (Verdi is not enhanced by a Yorkshire accent), or a soprano.

As a mezzo, she might have had the international career denied her by languishing in the ENO too long, and if she had some acting lessons she mightn’t have disgraced herself quite so badly in Carousel, when despite having only two numbers she almost never worked a full week.

Still, for every fading or deluded diva there’s a thousand up and coming musical theatre performers to cheer on and applaud. It makes even me optimistic.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

in which I take it all back, and @JKCorden stalks me on Twitter

ONE MAN, TWO 'GUVNORS' at the National Theatre

When two reclusive, friendless shut-ins of my acquaintance begged me to take an unwanted ticket to the first preview of One Man, Two Guvnors I closed my ears to the pitiful scratch of their nails on the barrel’s already well-scraped base and, as had their other contacts, ran carefully through a list of pros and cons.

Pros : 1. directed by Nick Hytner, not often a failure. 2. contains Suzy Toase and Green Wing’s Oliver Chris whom I’ve always found decorative. 3. Original by Carlo Goldoni, author of my first school play (although not, you ageist facebuggers, a contemporary) 4. cast complaining online about difficulties of coping with entrances, props and script - could be a so-bad-it’s-good car-crash.

Cons : 1. arse-clamp Travelex second-row seats in the Lyttleton which are already the reason I don’t like Sunday in the Park with George where I think the sciatica first set in. 2. they are both enthusiastic topers and I haven’t had a glass of wine in six weeks so may well keel over on first contact with the high-octane bin end Venezuelan Merlot they tend to imbibe.


3, and possibly the superinjunction of Cons, contains James Corden whose recent career some thought exhibited an arc like a drunk’s vomitory parabola from projectile History Boys promise through glorious Gavin and Stacey zenith plummeting via footy- award- and chat-show laddish ubiquity to splashdown in a dire two-handed TV sketch show from which only a vestigial bounceback of carrot and sweetcorn may yet remain.

So I went.

How wrong we collectively were.

First off, the show is fronted by a superb skiffle band – The (homonymic) Craze – to pinpoint the setting in the pre-Beatles shiny suited sixties, cover scene changes and give several members of the cast a virtuoso opportunity on xylophone, horns or close harmony vocals.

Second, it’s scripted as a filthy pantomime by Richard Bean who both penned England People Very Nice and gagged up the flaccid prose of London Assurance in another sharp collaboration with Hytner. This is coarser cut, and played even more broadly with direct dialogue with the audience, ad-libs and what amounts to a splosh scene in the fractionally overextended second act.

Third, there are some very fine comic turns, notably by Oliver Chris as a Cameronesque Flashman who may single-handedly have repopularised the chinless wonder, by Toase who could perhaps be persuaded to bring her northern broadside down a notch or two in the interest of blending, by Daniel Rigby as Chris’s actorly love rival in a thoroughly engaging performance of an Angry Young Man conflicted with beatnik cowardice, and by Tom Edden as an 87-year old waiter whose physical comedy rivals Norman Wisdom’s and whose tureen-bearing skills challenge Julie Walters in the two-soup sketch stakes.

Fourth, there is James Kimberley (I am not making this up) Corden. Actors, especially chubby ones, are hard to pigeonhole and for every vocal sitcom fan there’s a theatre lover who wishes he’d stuck to the craft and honed his stage skills instead of spunking them up the wall in oeuvres like Lesbian Vampire Killers. However, in his portrayal of Francis the dually employed servant he fulfils not only the Harlequin role from the Commedia dell’Arte plundered by Goldoni for his characters, but also the otherwise vacant position on the London stage of Showman. Because that’s what he is, holding the audience in his palm and carrying them and the production before him. If he inhabits the character with trace elements of Smithy, that’s simply appropriate recycling and Hytner’s direction tames any excess.

James – don’t call him Kimberley – also has the good grace to engage with admirers and detractors alike on Twitter, and messaged me this morning about his sketch show regrets with Well, as Francis says in the play, “Only the man who never does nothing never makes no mistakes"

No-one has made a mistake here in casting, direction or script, and neither should you. This is as close to a sure-fire hit as I have seen in a year. Go.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Fings, for the memory ...


Book Frank Norman
Music/Lyrics Lionel Bart
Director Phil Willmott
Musical Director Elliot Davis
Choreographer Nick Winston
Lighting Jason Meininger

TPR score 4 stars

I confess it, I have previous with this show: in the mid-eighties I was in a fringe production which was selling so badly that one wet Wednesday we’d just decided to give the seven people in the audience their money back when the producer got a phone call to say that Lionel Bart was on his way.

We hastily sent half the cast out to the local pubs to offer free tickets and drag in some punters, and most of them were still there when Bart and his entourage rocked up. He was in the middle of his twenty-year drinking binge at the time, and somewhat fidgety so after a few minutes of waiting he sat down at the piano in the pit … and started to play the overture. To Oliver!.

Our performance was pretty shabby, and when at the end Bart vomited over the poster it seemed a fitting critique of the show. No need for sick-bags at the Union, though, where in Phil Willmott’s bright production the consistently talented cast and Elliot Davis‘s box-fresh arrangements bring the songs to life with a knuckle-duster punch.

Given the Union’s black box flexibility, it might have been fun to mix the audience with the action, or even transfer across the road to the Union Jack pub to make it more site specific, we are after all supposed to be in a raffish London drinking den where ex-Razor King Fred and tart-with-a-heart Lil are on their uppers like a Berwick Street market bruised-fruit half-price Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide.

If there’s a problem, it’s the scant plot. Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop in Stratford E15 received the script as a straight play by an ex-con, and she set about it with the ferocity of a razor gang - commissioning songs from Bart and literally slashing the pages before scattering them to her cast of improvising actors, including then-unknown George Sewell, Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor.

Apart from the title song there’s nothing memorable, which is probably why they reprise it so often, and it’s striking to think that only a year later, Bart – who never learned to read music – composed the lush and varied score for Oliver!. There’s little light and shade in this material and it largely sounds like a knees-up in Peggy Mitchell’s back room, but Hannah-Jane Fox as Lil finds subtlety in ‘Where Do Little Birds Go’ and Richard Foster-King leads the rollicking tapping first act closer ‘Contempery’, which is where Nick Winston's choreography really takes off, to send the audience out to the bar glowing with pleasure.

Whilst the central performances of Neil McCaul as Fred and Hadrian Delacey as Sgt Collins are convincing and committed, Delacey has a particularly strong voice, this is something of a lost period for realistic drama and there’s acting-by-hearsay as many of the women sound like Windsor and the men like Del Boy. The two who stand out are differentiated as colourful pavement caricatures: Suzie Chard as a topheavy Barbara precipitately balanced in her rigid corset, and audience favourite Foster-King as Horace the rhapsodically bohemian decorator.

If you’re in the mood for a right-old Cockerney sing-song, get dahn the Union, knock twice and ask for Fred ...

This review written for The Public Reviews

Friday, 1 April 2011

Catch Me ... Don't dare miss it

I’m typing this at the desk of my friend, a NYU literature professor, in the study of her 3000sq ft apartment watching tiny flakes of snow dress the back gardens of some low rise but high end white brick mansions here on the Upper East Side. I feel extraordinarily privileged.

I also feel extraordinarily privileged to have been in at the beginning of something great on Broadway. Hot off the plane on Wednesday afternoon I scored a brilliant centre stalls house seat for the soon-to-open ‘Catch Me If You Can’, the musical by the creators of 'Hairspray' made on the back of the successful Leonardo di Caprio movie about the life of serial and successful con-man Frank Abagnale who eventually parlayed his capture and arrest into an almost equally lucrative career as fraud advisor to the FBI.

Funnily enough, on the plane I’d read a Vanity Fair snippet of an article by Abagnale himself about how proud he was to have been impersonated by both di Caprio and the star of CMIYC on Broadway, Aaron Tveit.

I’ve swooned over Tveit before, a couple of years ago when ‘Next to Normal’ blew me away as the most original modern piece to hit town since Rent, and although his presence lit up the stage and his effortless rock voice carried the best tunes, as the imaginary son of Alice Ripley’s character, he wasn’t the lead.

Then he may have been a counter hand but now, he’s bought the store and owns the stage too. Never before have I seen such a big show carried on the shoulders of such a young man. The structure of CMIYC begins with Frank’s arrest at Miami International Airport by his reluctantly-admiring nemesis Lt. Carl Hanratty in a multi-dimensional performance by Norbert Leo Butz that paired with Tveit’s extraordinary winning presence cannot help but put you in mind of Leo and Max from The Producers. It continues as though Frank is the impresario of a big-production TV show, and demands his constant presence on stage.

Not for a second in two and a half hours does his confidence or concentration lapse, and he carries 2500 people in the audience with him every step of the way. Even those who are jet-lagged from a tube journey on which someone died and the points failed, an urgent 90 quid taxi dash to Heathrow, seven weird hours in the hands of British Airways sitting across the aisle from a client I sued this time last year, and the unusually disjointed world vision of a Bangladeshi taxi driver.

For this show, and this young man, I’d have swum here.


Michael Grandage’s production of Lear has had so many accolades from its run at the Donmar it’s unnecessary to chronicle them here. What is important is to say that if you want to see it you need to scoot to the Richmond Theatre before it disappears off to Cornwall and Brooklyn.

It’s not Shakespeare’s most accessible play, and being neither a fantasy nor a history falls in an almost unique category of being as realistic as possible about an ancient King of Britain without historical fact. Since it features a Duke of Cornwall inheriting much of the monarchy you could say it begs for updating but the conversational modernity and mediaeval-by-way-of-All-Saints costuming seems to suit the text. ‘Illuminated’ is a good adjective for the production because every actor strives for the meaning in the lines, and the setting is a fine bright white-scraped timber box beautifully lit by Neil Austin and underscored with atmospheric sound by Adam Cork.

There’s so much good in it: taut performances, a spanking pace (2h30 plus interval) some sexy effects both mechanical like the storm and acted when the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes is vivid, sadistic and totally thrilling theatre. The subsequent scene where he’s led to the brink of the cliffs is made even more touching by the intensity of his torture.

Does the central performance crown the effort? Yes and no. Because (apart from I, Claudius) Derek Jacobi has largely resisted television and film exposure and clung firmly to the boards this is possibly your last opportunity to see one of England’s finest theatrical knights strut his stuff in the tradition of Gielgud or Olivier. And it is quite strutting. His Lear captures the foolishness is his decision-making, his vanity and constant need for approbation and foregrounds the peevishness making it hard to see him as a great man, rather one in a high position marred by many human frailties. Again, you’ll be able to make modern comparisons from an historic, in many senses of the word, performance.

This review written for Londonist

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Forced Milk Wood

In the week they buried Elizabeth Taylor it seems appropriate to revisit Under Milk Wood, in which she appeared briefly as Rosie Probert at the height of her partnership with Richard Burton in the 1971 Technicolor version.

Even though playing a bit-part, Taylor was famously difficult, refusing to travel to Fishguard where the movie was being shot. Her scenes were filmed in London over the two days she had available before leaving England to avoid being collared for income tax, and the stills with a cameraman lying on the floor to get the only angle which flattered her low-slung figure and showed off the three Parisian nightdresses she’d demanded which cost half the costume budget.

Both Parisian nightdresses and Technicolor are absent from the Pentameters production. Colourlessness becomes a positive virtue in a play where the sounds are paramount, a day-in-the-life of a small Welsh fishing village seen through the eyes of a blind sea captain.

It starts well enough with a convincing blackout and a few minutes in which to let the imagery of the sleeping hamlet beside the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ unfold in your head. Even without Richard Burton’s impassioned baritone, it works. Unfortunately as the lights come up, the scene is an anticlimax: an all-purpose set comprising a badly painted door panel, the back of a piano and a cheap flat-pack Welsh dresser certainly not borrowed from any self-respecting neighbouring kitchen here in Hampstead.

There are two ways Under Milk Wood is successfully performed: with a vast and colourful cast recreating as authentically as possible in costumes and props a fishing village in the fifties, or on an almost bare stage returning to the piece’s heritage as ‘a play for voices’. This production falls uncomfortably between the two stools with the five actors straining – a lot of the vocals are shouted – to portray in snapshot 64 different characters and using the all-purpose Welsh dresser as everything from captain’s bunk to wild wooded hillside, but equally using all-purpose accents which, even to my one-sixteenth-Welsh ears, sounded occasionally English in their inflections and certainly more random than the quite specific lilt of Cardigan Bay where Dylan Thomas placed the village.

The play has been set to music, by director and onstage participant Tom Neill, but it’s the sort of self-consciously-worthy wheezing and whining compositions you might hear scraped out by a school orchestra and serves only as irritating punctuation while the actors clump on and off stage to their instruments. The music is massively better when the cast sing, finely in two- or four-part harmony for example in the first-act closer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ morning service in which Tom Neill and Thomas Heard counterpoint particularly well together.

Even when shared among only five pairs of hands, the material can shine, and the bickering of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard with her two deceased husbands, or Butcher Beynon’s taunting of his wife with the liver of her pet cat are quite nicely pointed.

It’s a heart-felt production: Pentameters founder Leonie Scott-Matthews introduced the evening with a personal memoir of Dylan Thomas’s daughter Aeronwy, who read and dedicated her own poems on this same stage, and Neill’s affection for the work is palpable. Sometimes the best that a fringe production can do is to indicate that a classy revival is overdue. Hopefully the National or the Donmar will hear this clarion call from Hampstead and give Under Milk Wood the production it deserves.

This review written for The Public Reviews

Thursday, 24 March 2011

French Leave ... preferably in the interval

Sacre Bleu, Zut Alors, Quelle Horreur, and as for the choreography: Fosse septique … pick your own Francophone diatribes, this is vachement awful.

It’s a shame, because the hand on the Kneehigh Theatre tiller is Emma Rice who helmed their extraordinarily inventive Brief Encounter but to continue the boating metaphors it’s no coincidence that Cherbourg was the port from which the Titanic steered out into the Atlantic, you can’t wait for this leviathan to hit its own iceberg.

Reworked from the Jacques Demy movie which made Catherine Deneuve a star, it's a tenderly simple story of very young lovers parted by circumstance – he’s sent to fight in Algeria whilst she covers her pregnancy marrying a rich bore.  He returns, she’s gone, he marries the maid.  The central character of the girl’s mother is played here by the much undervalued Joanna Riding as a haughty harridan in a ginger Fanny Cradock wig and the lovers limply by recent Guildford graduate Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand for some unfathomable reason imported from the US to play Guy, despite the fact the West End is crawling with unemployed lightweight younger leading men: shout across the street from the Gielgud to The Yard bar and you’d find a dozen his equal.

‘Internationally renowned’ (although not so much in this country) cabaret artiste Meow Meow – actually a harmless Australian soubrette called Melissa Madden Gray who assumes her fantasy alter ego rather like Humphries does Edna - is contractually obliged to front the soiree in a split skirt, fishnets and black beehive.  She also has to hustle the reluctant audience participation so morphs Irma La Douce with Gladys from Hi-de-Hi in a performance which is more cliché than Clichy.  Mind you, in the echoing grove of yesterday’s second press night with three-quarters of the seats unsold, not even Ken Dodd could have warmed us up.  Her ‘straight’ entr’acte solo ‘Sans Toi‘ is delivered sans taste and with so much eye rolling, r’s trilling and lardoned pathos that the producers of ‘Allo ‘Allo would have cut it from embarrassment.

Veteran composer Michel Legrand reworked his orchestrations for the production – but using the sort of random, stunted, cul-de-sac riffs which make you realise some jazz is basically musical masturbation: enjoyable for the participants but ultimately not really a spectator sport.  And it’s through-sung which means banalities to music, and no interruption for some sharp dialogue or even a joke.  There’s only one recognizable theme tune (appropriately the made-for-lift-muzak If It Takes Forever I  Will Wait For You) which repeats on such an interminable loop the audience feels it’s being battered to death with an especially stale baguette.

There’s a highly mechanized set from Lez Brotherston with tricksy use of model buildings, artful neon and an unexpected skate ramp, colourful costumes, and a seductive lighting scheme by Malcolm Rippeth, but it’s all so much empty effort when the performance doesn’t engage with the audience.

London weather’s so unpredictable but I expect folding Umbrellas before Easter.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Debs' Delight

A social-climbing middle-class Home Counties couple launch their pretty but awkward daughter on the London marriage market and eventually steer her towards the ‘right’ public schoolboy with a title to inherit …

… but enough about the Middletons.

In The Reluctant Debutante, it’s 1957 and the pushy mother is Jane Asher in a series of Butterick shirtwaisters pleading brightly into the Bakelite telephone to beg a series of MAYfair and SLOane numbers to come to dinner. Thanks to her vagueness she dials a wrong number and invites a ‘dark’ bounder rather than the Tim-Nice-But-Dim she’d targeted, but two and a quarter hours later the bounder inherits a dukedom and so turns out to be the right sort after all.

I wanted to write a scathing dissertation about the inappropriateness of snobbish and mildly racist comedy in a post-20th century theatrical brave new world but firstly the excellent Jem Bloomfield has already done it for Suite101.com and secondly I found this revival rather beguiling.

Although born to the purple and a sibling of a future Prime Minister, William Douglas Home didn’t fit the Tory mould and was something of a maverick, joining several different political parties but finding none of them met his aversions to authority and convention. The Reluctant Debutante is a satire, and his opinions about the ridiculous ‘social season’ as an expensive cattle market for middle-class parents ‘one step away from white slavery’ are voiced through Clive Francis’s drily perfected portrayal of the jaded father of the bride-to-be.

Drawing room comedies are valuable because they sowed the seeds of the most durable entertainment vehicle of the age: the television situation comedy, where domestic misunderstandings and trivial accidents are heightened to melodramatic effect in a chain of events from early The Marriage Lines or Terry and June to 30 Rock and Peep Show.

The audience certainly responded to the sitcom format of the script with enthusiasm, and this is a tribute to the fact that the entire cast plays it straight. In the recent Blithe Spirit at Richmond, a drawing room comedy of similar vintage, director Thea Sharrock encouraged the cast to overact it rather than rely on the script to entertain. Reluctant Debutante works better because Belinda Lang has the sense to let the lines and situations speak for themselves.

Asher, Francis and Lang herself are old hands at this sort of thing and their performances are consistently good although Lang’s own ‘turn’ as Mabel Duchess of Claremont borders on caricature and if someone else had been directing might have been tamed.

The ‘gels’: daughter Jane (Louise Calf) and her friend Clarissa (Lucy May Barker) are serviceable performances, but the two young suitors played by Alex Felton and Marlborough-educated Ed Cooper Clarke are excellent. Cooper Clarke is particularly good at the romantic suavity required of his ‘bounder’ character, and may remind you of a young Rupert Everett or Hugh Grant.

Don’t let mental images of Hugh Grant put you off, this is an enjoyable evening.

This review written for The Public Reviews

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kitchen Sink for the Cornbelt

Although set in the remote boondocks of Northern Illinois, on a near-derelict farm, we are not in any new territory with Sam Shephard’s ‘Buried Child’.

The possibility that an outwardly-naturalistic family shelters a dark secret which through the arrival of a stranger is revealed to devastating effect over three drawn-out acts is a theatrical motif so well explored as to have lost its power to shock even by 1979 when ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – an accolade which, incidentally, Shepard said gave him less satisfaction than winning a roping contest in the local rodeo.

Shepard’s plays chart the decline of the American dream but more angrily than Miller or Albee, and more autobiographically too: Shepard’s father, a former WWII Air Force pilot, grew up on a broken-down farmstead and supported his mother and brothers from a very young age when the farm business collapsed but later succumbed to alcoholism, living a life that was endlessly disappointing and not able to find another path.

But Shepard is not easy to pigeonhole: his works combine attempts at satire, farce, and cynical verbal attack with images of the Old West, a mourning sense of nostalgia for a lost rural idyll, and a disconnection from familial and spiritual roots.

Possibly Shepard wanted to be a Beckett or a Pinter but merely acquired Pinter’s relentless verbosity and Becket’s obscurantism which makes the play hard to listen to since the dialogue is repetitive and disconnected. This isn’t helped by the variable accents of some of the cast and their propensity to turn upstage on important lines – Tala Gouveia is simply unintelligible a lot of the time.

The ramshackle farmhouse – the location is shown as ‘a squalid farm home’ in the programme - is excellently realised in Martin Thomas’s design, and Howard Hudson’s carefully graduated lighting scheme.

There are some good performances: the play starts well enough with a verbal sparring match between John Atterbury, totally convincing as the old-timer Dodge, arguing with his irritable wife shouting from offstage. His ‘slow’ son Tilde played by Math Sams and grandson Vince by Joe Jameson are also well-studied and persuasive performances of quite unengaging redneck characters.

In Timothy Trimingham-Lee’s lurching production, the actors are required to switch urgently from kitchen-sink drama to Ortonesque farce and back to horror when the parentage of the dead infant is revealed in the too-long-coming third act denouement.

It almost works, but last night’s audience was too readily entertained by the absurd to focus on the dramatic conclusion.

In fact towards the end it was a bit like 'What the Butler Saw' with Vince chasing Bradley round the stage with his prosthetic leg. But too hard to call, the audience was an odd mix of bemused blogcritics and over-volubly enthusiastic friends of the cast: it might have been better if we'd just had a fist-fight ourselves over it.

an edited version of this review appears on The Public Reviews

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Covent Garden markets

Tuesday morning 11am and one is royally chuffed to be invited with a clutch of bloggerati by the Covent Garden media/marketing team to put ones feet up in the Director’s box at Covent Garden for dress rehearsal of the David McVicar Aida which opens on Friday. 

Apart from the close-up view of the singers’ facial expressions and a position right over the pit where we can eyeball Fabio Luisi spurring the orchestra to a spanking pace, we're all captivated by brilliance of both staging and movement.

If you’ve seen Aida before, forget those legions of spear carriers and chorines in white nighties and gold halters, crapping camels or Zandra Rhodes’ pleated silk elephants making the Nile run turquoise with fashion accessories. In Jean-Marc Puissant’s design it’s more Dune than Pyramids, and his motifs are smeared blood, scimitar and samurai. We’re in a darkly exciting metallica world framing the stories of battle, sacrifice – literally, human sacrifice – and conflicted loyalties.

In a brief chat after the performance, associate director Leah Hausman points out that Verdi was writing a serious piece about war: the word ‘guerra’ appears a hundred times more often than ‘amore’ in the libretto, so this is a story of war in which love happens, rather than the other way round.

It looks like Coriolanus but feels suddenly relevant: Amneris condemns the priests as controllers of a rotten society, Radames as head of the army is called upon to save the nation for posterity amid popular chanting and a march of bloodied and butchered foot-soldiers.  It could be played out in Tahrir Square.

The grandiose set-pieces are so much more than parades: there’s a fantastic troupe of athletic bare-breasted women whose urgent runs and synchronized thrusting seem lifted from a Soviet spartakiade, there’s ritual disembowelling and corpses dangle from the rafters.  Their male counterparts stage Kendo-inspired sword and lance fights in a dance of death under David Greeves’ genius martial arts coaching.

It’s no-one’s fault but Verdi’s that Aida shoots its load in the first two acts and what remains after the interval is the afterglow of the doomed romance between Radames and Aida, and Amneris’s slow-burning disappointment. But this is where the production really delivers as the emotional triangle is explored in scenes of tender and realistic intimacy, due to the powerful collaboration of the three principals: Roberto Alagna, Olga Borodina and Micaela Carosi whose acting is every bit the equal of their sung performances.

It’s edgy casting: Alagna was booed at La Scala in the same role in 2006, Olga Borodina famously walked out of an earlier Covent Garden Aida in a disagreement with ROH music director Antonio Pappano, so it’s a miracle not just that they are both here but that they conspire with Carosi to create such chemistry.

We went backstage for the scene change and some gossip: Swan Lake has had a box office mega-surge due to the ‘Black Swan’ effect with phone calls asking when Natalie Portman would be ‘on’.  The box office has a sense of humour because they’re tempted to answer ‘every other night alternating with Billy Elliott’.  But the best news is that ROH is trying to reprise its sensational Anna Nicole in 2013, and working on available dates with Eva-Maria Westbroek.

a version of this article appears on Londonist

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

No Betty, No Hotpot


at Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Writer: Jonathan Harvey
Director : Fiona Buffini
Designer: Liz Ascroft
Lighting Designer : Ian Scott
Reviewer: JohnnyFox

TPR score: 3 stars

We’re like that, in Lancashire. We build you up and then we knock you down … just so’s you don’t forget where you come from and get a bit above yerself down in that there Lundun. The script of Corrie! Is by much-garlanded author Jonathan Harvey, not only a long-time stalwart of the show’s writing team, but also originator of Gimme Gimme Gimme, Beautiful Thing and the Pet Shop Boys musical Closer To Heaven and well on his way to becoming something of a national treasure.

In the Bromley local paper, the headline is ‘Former Thamesmead Teacher writes ultimate Corrie experience’. It couldn’t have been a better putdown if it had been front page of t' Weatherfield Gazette.

The structure condenses two thousand Coronation Street plotlines from the last 50 years of the soap opera into a couple of hours (and a bit) and the technique follows the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s breakneck trolley dash through 31 of the bard’s works: niceties of nuance or characterization are ditched in favour of trademark wigs and glasses, and hit or miss vocal impressions. With only six actors, even though none is late for an entrance or a cue, it’s all a bit breathless.

Most of the stories are dismissed in an instant, but two Corrie anti-heroines get closer examination: Gail Potter Tilsley Platt Hillman McIntyre, in a weak showing by Leanne Best, and better when Jo Mousley has enough stage time to develop Deirdre Hunt Langton Barlow Rachid Barlow’s popping neck-veins and fag-raddled throatiness whilst chronicling Dierdre’s grande affaire with Mike Baldwin, wrongful imprisonment, spawning of devil child Tracey, acquisition of toy boy Samir, and constant grinding disappointment in Ken.

Ken as played by Simon Chadwick is the most convincingly heroic performance, as vocally and physically he manages to pin down both the Barlow character and Bill Roache’s slightly diffident acting of it, Chadwick is equally strong as Jack Duckworth and Richard Hillman.

Mousley’s also authentic as Hilda, particularly in the ‘Muriel’ scene and when she challenges Annie Walker for shortchanging her wage packet, but disappointing as Ena Sharples. Lucy Thackeray’s Elsie is visually spot on with the cinched waist, the five-inch-heel tittup and the only decent wig in the show, but her Annie Walker and Raquel are less crisply defined. Besides, anyone can ‘do’ Raquel’s French lesson – I’m sure I’ve been caught in the kitchen at parties offering ‘voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir’ in a Salford accent.

Chadwick and Best are the only survivors from the original run at the Lowry last August. The show could do with adding a couple of more mature actresses to the cast to make Ena, Annie, Vera and Audrey less cartoonish: most of the older women are played by youngish men, a device that works well enough for Peter Temple’s alarmingly Alan Bennett-like Blanche meeting St Peter at the Pearly Gates but grates when Bet Lynch is portrayed as an ugly bloke in drag, and reminds you how much more accurately impressionists like Dustin Gee and Les Dennis delivered Vera and Mavis, or Victoria Wood, Lill Roughley and Julie Walters copied the trio in the snug.

The multi-layered set by Liz Ascroft is very fine, and quite elaborate for one which will undergo a six-month tour, as are the lighting and special effects particularly the slow-motion it’s-curtains-for-Alan-Bradley on Blackpool seafront and the recent ‘Corriepocalypse’ explosion of the tram coming off the viaduct.

In Moira Buffini’s deliberately staccato direction, it’s all played as a series of disconnected vignettes and the evening feels long. But there’s a moment towards then end when the ghost of Elsie finds common ground with present-day Becky where the seed of a more durable idea seems to germinate. Pity there wasn’t more of that.

Obviously some favourites are going to be missed: there’s no Alma testing the underwater road handling of Don Brennan’s taxi, no scenes in the raincoat (later knicker) factory, no Sean or Norris, no Betty, no hotpot, no return to the Gamma Garments of Miss Nugent and Mr Swindley, no Phyllis Pearce, Alf Roberts, ‘Sunny Jim’ or Eddie Yates.

Most unforgiveably, there’s no Mavis. What do you say to that?

Well, I don’t really KNOW, Rita …

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Not Quite Spellbound

We expect a lot from our Donmar. Under Michael Grandage’s stewardship we’ve had star turns from the Jude Law Hamlet to the Derek Jacobi Lear (currently playing Llandudno which shows true dedication), fresh as paint translations of The Wild Duck, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Phaedra, envelope-pushing exports such as Red, Piaf and Creditors and a clutch of successful Sondheims.

It seems faintly bizarre that as his swansong, Grandage should select 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  For all its Gleeky zeitgeist, it’s a thin and trite one-act musical based around the slightly creepy public competitions which attract the unsporty and dentally-braced from America’s high schools.

Its cloying annoying moralising, feeble spoofing of the American competition ethic or naked ambition is too wearisome for analysis.  Relax and try to enjoy the fun which is increased by the co-opting of three or four audience members to the stage as additional spellers.

The book, by Rachel Sheinkin, follows a more simplified path than the movies Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee and the Donmar is brightly transformed into a school gymnasium adorned with blue and yellow pennants, but the characters are as one-dimensional as South Park cartoons and form a box-ticking minority list of overachieving Asian, chubby boy scout, gay geek, straight geek, neglected daughter and right-on feminist.

They’re marshalled by the under-used Katherine Kingsley in a leggy blonde homage to Sarah Palin's pageant queen vacuity, partnered by an excellent Steve Pemberton (a long way from Benidorm) as the Vice Principal with a nice line in withering put-downs and sardonic definitions for the spelling challenges.

Apart from a momentarily catchy title song, the music – by William Finn – is peppy but forgettable, which is a shame because the young actors have good voices and attack the songs with gusto.

On that subject it’s worth noting that there’s possibly no-one in West End theatre who works harder than Grandage’s long-time collaborator as Casting Director Anne McNulty to unearth aspiring talent.  From drama schools and provincial profit-shares she has found at least three highly promising young actors: David Fynn as the pudgy know-all boy-scout, Hayley Gallivan as the wistful romantic Olive and Chris Carswell as a home-schooled hayseed all exhibit strong singing, nifty footwork and a total commitment to the project. Hopefully they’ll each get better projects soon.

Incidentally, some of the words used to test the audience members don’t actually appear in Merriam-Webster’s American dictionary, and we suspect cheating. 


This review written for Londonist


There’s a whiff of mothballs at Richmond, and it’s not all coming from the audience in this starry but stolid revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit

A glossy 2009 Broadway production showcased Angela Lansbury in cracking and crackpot form as clairvoyant Madam Arcati and Rupert Everett in a role he was born to play, the suave and languid author Charles Condomine.

At Richmond on the last leg of its 'immediately prior to West End' tour, a new British production heads for the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue next week and features Alison Steadman as the medium, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris reprising their Cold Feet pairing as the novelist and his wife, and Ruthie Henshall as the ghostly ex accidentally manifested during a séance.

From the same Triumph/Theatre Royal Bath production stable as the Kim Cattrall Private Lives and helmed by Thea Sharrock who directed the brilliant Daniel Radcliffe Equus, it has all the ingredients of a surefire hit, and yet it doesn’t quite come off.

Even the indulgent Richmond audience wasn’t lapping it up, although they seemed to appreciate the physical comedy better than the dialogue which is only partially explained by the ruckus at the desk in the foyer when several complained their hearing-impaired headsets weren’t working.

It’s smartly costumed with authentic late 1930s gowns, but both script and setting feel stale: a childless and fustian middle class marriage afloat on a wash of cocktails and coffee fetched by servants is all about to be swept away by the war, and whilst there’s no spectre of the coming realities in Coward’s script, this production doesn’t sustain a constant barrage of bright and brittle banter either.

Coward wrote (and Margaret Rutherford made flesh) Madame Arcati as a tweedy countrywoman with an almost professorial interest in the occult – Steadman makes her much more strident which might be effective if it weren’t all on one note, and misses both the charming battiness and the sensitive vulnerability of the character.  Perhaps she’s spent too long in easy sitcoms like Gavin and Stacey and Fat Friends but this isn’t her best work and doesn’t compare with the excellence of her last West End outing in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy.

Where Lansbury was balletic and hummed to herself as she danced about the stage, Steadman grunts and feints hand jives that look as though she’s pioneering hip-hop fifty years ahead of its time.

Norris is the most successful in the thankless role of Ruth, the domestically-rooted second wife, but she plays it with less petulance and more elegant authority than the part usually receives and so is more fairly matched with the impishness of Ruthie Henshall’s shoeless and footloose Elvira.

The set, by the usually laudable Hildegard Bechtler has predictable art deco touches but looks cheap with a tackily painted piano and centerpiece terrible green sofa with rigid polyurethane foam cushions which weren’t around till the 50’s.

This review written for Londonist