"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.