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

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.