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

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.