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

Friday 26 September 2014

Moving On

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Thursday 6 March 2014

The Light Opera In the Piazza

A review of DO I HEAR A WALTZ by Richard Rogers and Stephen Sondheim, at Park Theatre

I cannot in all conscience recommend DO I HEAR A WALTZ to any but the most forensic Sondheim fans.  It does contain a version of ‘We’re Gonna Be Alright’ but it’s the heavily cut and anodyne one where the couple actually may get along together rather than the acid picture of a disintegrating relationship when David Kernan and Millicent Martin delivered the sharper lyrics in Side by Side by Sondheim.

Not restoring this song gives a clue to Charles Court Opera’s production at the Park Theatre – it’s all about the singing, the staging feels very low-budget and the comedy isn’t given the free rein it should be to make the show more palatable.  

The story is curious – several American couples holiday in Venice but the plot revolves around maturing singleton Leona.  There are some good lines about getting by on one’s own, although she could use a stronger song which reinforces that; eventually she meets a Venetian shop owner who isn’t the handsomest of men, but she falls for him.  In a pleasantly un-saccharine ending he turns out to be in some ways false, but also accusing her for the way she treats him as a trophy to be acquired like a holiday souvenir.  If the music matched the modernity of the plot it would be better, but casting mostly opera singers makes many of the numbers sound forced.

As Leona, Rebecca Seale is the least operatically-trained member of the cast and after a shaky start is smart-mouthed and engaging; as her lover Renato, Philip Lee - a crisply starched alternate Mr Snow opposite Sarah Tynan in Opera North’s gorgeous Carousel at the Barbican - is the best singer in the show but he knows it and his solos are over-posed and unbalanced. Although he sings the beautiful ballad ‘Take The Moment’ at the end of the first act perfectly and with passion, it lacks the delicate tenderness with which Mandy Patinkin infused it on his 2002 Sondheim album.

Rosie Strobel turns in a nice cameo as the voluptuous proprietress of the Pensione Fioria with Carolina Gregory as her non-English-speaking and very reluctant maid.

It's all a bit uneven but the original collaboration was something of a mess anyway: this was a Rogers and Hammerstein chamber musical where Sondheim was drafted in as lyricist after his friend and mentor Oscar Hammerstein’s death.  It borrows heavily from Noel Coward's four-years-earlier 'Sail Away', a vehicle for Elaine Stritch as the travelling singleton, and had been designed for Mary Martin to play Leona but by the time the show was ready in 1965, Martin was 51 and Rogers felt her too old for the romantic role. Franco Zeffirelli was engaged as director but Dick Rogers, who was drinking heavily at the time, fell asleep in their first meeting. Rogers later described Sondheim’s lyrics as “shit” which did little to cement their working relationship.

Bit of a wasted opportunity, they really could have done The Light In The Piazza.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Stagey Play For Stagey People

production photo by Johan Persson

How splendidly the Donmar adapts to every new production: from the blinding pennants of the Spelling Bee school gym to the stark guns-and-gantries of the all-female Julius Caesar and now an authentically lamp-black pickled Victorian music hall with soaring columns, creaking boards and a whiff of oranges and cheap scent in the pit.

Rose Trelawny is the darling of the ‘Wells’ theatre troupe but leaves to marry a young posh bloke.  Although she finds his family stifling and eventually bolts, on her return she’s lost her ability to act. The situation is saved by a young writer in the company who’s invented a new and more naturalistic style of play which suits Rose’s new manners.

It's a vehicle for author Arthur Wing Pinero's campaign to change the nature of theatre, seeking to reflect real people in credible situations, here by ridiculing the bombastic and overdone performances of the time. Ironic, really, when you think how his farces like Dandy Dick and The Magistrate still depend on strident acting.

It’s a doubly Londony show, too: set in 1865 when Sadler’s Wells - long before it became the terpsichorean temple of the Waitrose-going classes - was the satellite TV channel of its day churning out lurid melodramas for a lowbrow audience, and the director is Islington-reared, Central St Martin’s-trained film maker Joe Wright who turned Keira Knightley into Anna Karenina.

In the same way we couldn’t wait for that train to arrive, and although both the ideas and the plot are interesting and amusing, Trelawny is a very slow burner and takes too long to develop. Patrick Marber’s script additions blend seamlessly with Pinero’s original and the cast double both the acting troupe and the frightful society family, none better than Ron Cook as the stern Vice Chancellor and a theatrical landlady who’s a close cousin of Old Mother Riley.

Playing Rose, Amy Morgan trills prettily and simpers in a white frock as readily as Amanda Seyfried in Les Miserables but the best of the casting is in the smaller roles: the wonderful Maggie Steed as a fading actress and disabled dowager, Daniel Mays as a posturing ham actor of the oldest possible school.  Finest of all is Daniel Kaluuya voicing Pinero’s own opinions on theatre and the development of the new realism as the hesitant playwright Tom Wrench: excellent characterization and subtlety in a play where most others are deliberately cartoon figures.

This review written for Londonist.com and published 28 February 2013

Wednesday 20 February 2013

THE VORTEX by Noel Coward
Rose Theatre, Kingston
* * * * 

David Dawson, Kerry Fox, The Vortex © Simon Annand

Coward's scraped-savings visit to New York in 1921 taught him two things which would serve him for a lifetime: that Broadway plays were performed at a much snappier pace than English comedies, and that if you were young and pretty and could play the piano, someone rich would invite you to a party. He was entertained frequently by the eccentric and flamboyant American actress Laurette Taylor and her diffident writer husband J. Hartley Manners and repaid them by picturing their characters in two early plays. In Hay Fever, it's affectionate and light-hearted, in The Vortex, it's cruel, and Stephen Unwin's vibrant but contradictory revival splendidly highlights the spite. 

read the rest of the review on www.onestoparts.com here

Tuesday 12 February 2013

No More, Mr Nice Guy ...

SOME GIRLS at Theatro Technis
* *

Some Girl(s) - yes, that's how it's titled - is not Neil LaBute's best work. Less funny than Fat Pig, less edgy than In The Company of Men, it's best known as a production vehicle for ex-sitcom stars to entertain their TV audiences in the comfort of a theatre. In London David (Friends) Schwimmer and on Broadway Eric (Will & Grace) McCormack played the central character referred to as 'Man', a wired, awkward, nervously energetic writer on the verge of commitment to marriage who - in four separate-but-near-identical hotel rooms across the States - meets a series of ex-girlfriends.

Ostensibly, he's out to make peace with them and settle some old emotional debts - they each seem to have a valid reason to be angry with him - but it's equally clear he, and they, have 'issues' to work out. Unfortunately in Tower Theatre's amateur production, shorn of any 'him off the telly' celebrity interest in a principal actor, it just doesn't come off the page and it's hard to engage with either the writer on the stage, or the writer of the play.

'Man' - although I'm fairly sure it was 'Guy' on Broadway - is a neurotic who's had one espresso too many, popping on the balls of his feet, twisting his hands in mid-air to make a point, forever touching his face or his forehead or his hair, verbally and physically contorting to rationalise his past transgressions and present himself as a 'nice guy'. Laurence Ward captures this accurately, but it still makes you want to punch him.

LaBute has his hero engage the women's emotions or sexuality, and occasionally make genuinely reparative offers of reconciliation for his past behaviour, but the character fails as a credible Everyman because he's so monothematically an 'average white guy' locked in a cage of whiny self-justification.

Tower Theatre is an ambitious amateur company, producing twenty or more shows in a year, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the casting or the directing; everyone knows their lines, it has good pace, the women are nicely differentiated, the set's substantial enough and the stage management work hard to make each successive hotel room distinct from the others, but on this play their efforts are largely wasted.

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk and published on 13 February 2013

Sunday 10 February 2013

Venus Rises in East 17

Ye Olde Rose and Crown, Walthamstow

* * * * *

‘Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome …’ – yes, I know that’s from A Chorus Line, but it crosses my mind every time I go to the Rose and Crown – although the dark at the top of the stairs has had a makeover with shiny new loos and there’s a fresh air of confidence alongside the Toilet Duck.

At last the R&C has come of age, and this production of One Touch of Venus ranks with the best the venue has housed.  A featherweight plot, in which an art gallery statue comes to life and falls in love with a geeky loser, but enlivened first by tintack-sharp lyrics by poet and humorist Ogden Nash and crisp one-liners by S. J. Perelman, then topped off with music by Kurt Weill.  But this is not Weill in his Weimar/Brechtian mode, as by 1943 he'd emigrated from Germany and studied jazz and musical theatre with Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein, so it’s tuneful, bright and massively enjoyable, designed to lift the spirits during wartime. 

It’s less a revival than a rediscovery, since Venus is rarely performed and the brilliance of this version is to play it crisp and straight, avoiding the camp which often undermines fringe productions by less intelligent directors, with impeccable diction and accents to capture those complex lines, and with some exceptionally strong and engaging voices.

In the leading role Marlene Dietrich once turned down because it was too risqué, Kendra McMillan’s Venus is perfect casting: tall and classically curvaceous she balances seductiveness with wit and her singing voice is warm and inviting, you can see why David Jay-Douglas as the gauche barber character falls instantly in love with her.  He too is nothing short of excellent, channelling Jerry Lewis as an endearingly hapless schmuck, with an elegant baritone.  Their duets are both beautifully realised, and beautifully realistic.

Standouts among a terrific ensemble include Danielle Morris enjoying the dialogue of hardboiled secretary Molly, and James Wolstenholme as the crafty art gallery director. Lauren Osborn as jilted girlfriend Gloria is a touch too cartoonish, but the rest of the cameos and characterisations are fine.

It’s good.  Very good.  Just well-sung, well-acted, well-dressed and well-lit.  If only all fringe shows could be this competent. 

Such an obscure musical, and one without any popular ‘standards’ among the songs, is hard to revive and the cast and production team have elevated this one brilliantly.  All credit to director and girl-to-watch Lydia Milman Schmidt.

originally written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Saturday 5 January 2013

A Shaw Thing

"Shaw shorts for those without the buttocks for Major Barbara"

“Oh, that Bernadette Shaw!” shrieks Simon Russell-Beale’s drag queen character in Privates on Parade, “What a chatterbox! Nags away from arsehole to breakfast-time but never sees what's staring her in the face.”

If you’re also in the camp that thinks George Bernard Shaw was endlessly verbose, you’re in for a treat at Wilmington Theatre’s neatly boxed production of three short, sharp and funny playlets at the Old Red Lion.

It’s as though the old boy gave up worthy polemical drama and started to write for ‘Smack the Pony’ as these extended sketches tackle marital fidelity, uppity women, wife swapping and the contrasting moralities of London and ‘the country’ from a perspective you simply wouldn’t expect of a dramatist born in the 1850’s.

In ‘Village Wooing’ a shop assistant wins a competition and takes a world cruise on which she meets a travel writer – but he’s so focused on his own writing that he’s not observant enough to experience anything ‘in the moment’.  Shaw could as easily be spoofing the Facebook and Twitter era where tourists frame the world through the postings they put online

In ‘Overruled’ itself, two adulterous couples bicker with each other and eventually agree how to swap partners: it’s rammed with epigrammatic banter and you’ll wonder whether Noel Coward read it before writing Private Lives, the speech rhythms are so similar.

Polina Kalinina’s directing is pacy and admirably well-focused, the company of six actors are universally fine: Lucy Hough especially so as the shop assistant and architect of her own future in ‘Village Wooing’ and Leo Wyndham delivering two excellently differentiated variations on foot-shuffling awkwardness as callow young romantics.

Emma Bailey‘s set is elegant and clean, washing the backgrounds in cool blue-grey and cream, with very good furniture and props, and the ladies’ costumes are beautiful – perhaps a touch too revealing for an Edwardian cruise ship although the gents in the audience didn't seem to mind and with the temperature in the auditorium, I'd gladly have stripped down to my pants.

originally written for Londonist, published 4 January 2013

Tuesday 1 January 2013

The 2012 FOXIES

We’re not a big fan of awards. Especially not the sort voted for anonymously rather than juried – so often it boils down to which tyro producer has the most Facebook mates who’ll vote for his play without having seen it, or which West End shows starring TV names most fourteen-year-old girls-who-phone-in have heard of.  So in the tradition of endorsing the inaccurate prejudices of internet trolls, here are the 2012 FOXIES.


A surprisingly tough category which ought to have been dominated by SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN where seven tons of water are sloshed and recycled nightly, although we sat close enough to scent the chlorinated detergence whose constant rinsing might account for the over-brightness of the smile La Strallen never took off her face even in the sad or serious bits.  The next contender would be MYDIDAE where Phoebe Waller-Bridge douched naked upstairs at the Soho Theatre in what every review called “a fully-plumbed bathroom”.  There were also some well-plumbed depths in the scripting and overall it felt gimmicky so this year’s winner is TWELFTH NIGHT (which we saw) and by extension the other ‘Shipwreck Plays’ in the RSC’s summer lodging at the Roundhouse. The actors are obliged to crawl under the stage and enter via a huge glazed water tank, like freshly landed fish.  Freshly landed fish is a sweeter smell than many West End offerings, so a worthy win.


Hotly contested even though there are only two nominees: OUR BOYS certainly scored on the ‘hotness’ front with a moistly pantied queue at the stage door most nights for a glimpse of Lawrence Fox or Arthur Darvill or a strangely beefed Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter, an actor who is probably destined never to be known by any other sobriquet. But the acting was as semi-stiff as some of the ‘gentlemen who moisturise’ in the audience and we preferred Sandi Toksvig’s tighter two-hander at the shiny new St James’s theatre – a Journey’s End for the Helmand generation - and so the winner is BULLY BOY.


There was a time when such activity was confined to fringe venues in Brixton or Dalston, sometimes even on stage, but not only are we talking about a nose-to-nose contest between our second premier opera house and a top off-West-End railway arch, we’re also escalating this award to Best Onstage Coke Snorting By An Eponymous Heroine In A Musical With Two Christian Names In The Title.  

It’s tempting to give the award instantly to Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi if only for the pleasure of hearing Stephen Fry stumble over the pronunciation at the ceremony in the Dorchester (oh, weren’t you invited – so sorry, maybe next year) since her vocal and physical performance as Bess in Cape Town Opera’s PORGY AND BESS were equally incandescent, but ‘happy dust’ has been mentioned in previous productions and so for originality in both snorting and characterization we’re going for Laura Pitt-Pulford’s gloriously-sung creative take on Mabel Normand in MACK AND MABEL at Southwark Playhouse.  Being from Warwickshire, she’ll be cheaper to fly in than Maswanganyi.


We are not to be bought.  Certainly not by what’s usually on offer at West End press nights – a glass of tepid chardonnay and nary a twiglet in sight.  Unless you count Premier PR’s wholesale flooding of the Stalls with plastic flutes of champagne and free programmes for the opening of CHARIOTS OF FIRE, a strong runner-up for generosity if not for intimacy although we did manage to rub up against a number of Olympicans including Sally Gunnell, firm body and what felt like a rayon frock (surely not), and pre-Tom-Daley everyone’s favourite speedo wetter Mark Foster with whom we wandered out into the night for a photo-op in a Soho alley.  But for actually creating an enjoyable atmosphere in a whole theatre from cellar to rafters, and for its ingenious Hendricks Gin and Tonic Fountain in the foyer with attendants dressed as juniper-flavoured water nymphs, it’s Wilton’s Music Hall’s production of THE GREAT GATSBY that takes the crown.


This might have been a second ‘Singing in the Rain’ award since despire the wonderful setting and display of gameness, even the charms of LIZA MINELLI were harder to appreciate in the relentless downpour that attended her open-air concert at Hampton Court.  Every time we see Liza we think “this could be the last gig” and at one point it looked like pneumonia might carry her off actually during ‘Maybe This Time’ but she, and we, survived. So looking around for a successor to Megan Mullally for the most self-indulgent and under-rehearsed performance of the year, it was an easy win for the display of gameyness in IDINA MENZEL’s over-ambitious and under-directed whole week of concerts at the Apollo.  Lazily-scripted, slackly performed, shoeless and in a dress she had to keep tugging up over her tits this was a production of such ill-conceived inanity it could only appeal to the most hardline of her fans, some of whom actually provided 20 minutes’ of the show in a sort of karaoke session which must have been a thousand times more fun to take part in than for the rest of the audience to watch. 


We’re not in favour of telly casting, but conversely seem drawn to see ex-veterans of Coronation Street strutting the legitimate boards.  Sometimes it’s because we think they were ‘wasted’ in soap and could do better work, at other times it’s because they seem so closely cast to type in the television programme they’d never be capable of anything else.  So, unfortunately, seemed the case with VICKY ENTWISTLE (Janice Battersby) partnered with CRAIG GAZEY (daft Graham) in the ATG tour of FUNNY PECULIAR which would pick up our worst play of the year award if we gave one, so relentlessly sexist, homophobic and racist it shouldn’t really be performed any more. We adored SARAH LANCASHIRE in BETTY BLUE EYES and seriously admired TRACY BRABIN’s work in MEAT at Theatre 503: we think she could like Lesley Sharp make the transition from soap to Ibsen, but they are both long-gone from Corrie and so the runner up is undoubtedly the surprise and delight that is the rediscovery of WENDI PETERS (Cilla Battersby Brown) as a musical theatre talent in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at the Landor.  Truly a potential Mrs Lovett if anyone can ever prise the cleaver from Imelda’s cold dead hands. 

But our winner, hailed by all the print critics too, is KATHERINE KELLY (Becky Macdonald) for SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER at the National, vaulting the railway viaduct in a single bound to become a legitimate leading lady.  Let’s hope she doesn’t piss it all up the wall in MR SELFRIDGE on TV.


The obvious choice is VIVA FOREVER, whose tuneless, thoughtless, clumsy production had a £3 million advance a month before opening and proved itself critic-proof.  It may yet break even, but it establishes ‘stadium shows’ as a different category from musical theatre and we may yet have to breed a new strain of critics to hate them enough.   So in our efforts to leave no avenue unexplored we made a pilgrimage to Leicester (wisely this time not staying overnight) for FINDING NEVERLAND.  Regardless of its total disregard for historical truth or honesty to the biography of J M Barrie, it was a lush staging with some excellent singing from Julian Ovenden, Rosalie Craig and Clare Moore. With a pirate ship AND a fully-operational vintage car, it was more Chitty and more Bang-Bang than you could shake a stick at, as, for Harvey Weinstein’s ELEVEN MILLION DOLLARS it bloody should have been. 

Like the car, it’s stalled and going nowhere, and may never-never find a London theatre to land.  But for the moment, it can console itself with its 2012 Foxy award.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Army Camp

Noel Coward Theatre

Coming off stage from a samba routine in which he’s obliged to remember the names of multiple South American dictators for the patter song, Simon Russell-Beale’s camp drag artiste Terri Dennis complains to his lyric writer “it’s not a fucking history lesson”.  You could empathise with the audience in Peter Nichols’ layered and autobiographical piece about his days in Combined Services’ Entertainment during the 1948 ‘Malayan Emergency’ – defending the peninsula from Communist insurgents – which couldn’t be called a ‘war’ for fear of invalidating the Lloyds’ insurance policies of colonial rubber planters whose property was threatened.

On the surface, it’s an Eastwards-shifted ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’ where a troupe of stereotype squaddies puts on cheery and cheesy song-and-dance shows around Singapore while the guerrilla war rages up-country.  All very fine and large, particularly SRB’s off-the-scale performance played eye-rollingly resolutely to the gallery, until their jingoistic commanding officer Major Flack (nice work by Angus Wright) in a mixture of home counties patriotism and Christian crusade decides to take them up the jungle to the heart of the action … “a theatre of war”.

In a programme note, Russell-Beale ponders how Olivier felt playing the vaudevillian Archie Rice in ‘The Entertainer' while required to appear second rate and said “I just did it as well as I could” which he claims is also his own intent.  With corporeal amplitude barely constrained by a corset like industrial boiler plating, his caricatures rely on the elaborate costumes and army budget-busting wigs to impersonate Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn: they’re well observed but may also feel a bit like being force-fed a box set of Two Ronnies finales.

Print critics rushed to hand out five-star accolades, bloggers were more cautious and some clearly shifted uncomfortably in their seats at the casual racism and denigration of women which may have been accurate for 1948, but post-Iraq and Afghanistan our attitude to time-serving British soldiery has also shifted, and the belly laughs weren’t as universal as they were at the original production in 1977.

Billed as a musical, it’s more a play with ‘turns’ since the songs don’t advance the action or reflect the thoughts of the characters and at two and three-quarter hours it's a stretch, although in the darker second act the ambush of the theatre troupe, the revenge of the communist-sympathising silent Chinese servants, and a poignant romance provide strength and depth to the play beneath the frills and the frocks.

Definitely worth a look, and bravo to the Michael Grandage Company for offering a range of ticketing options including 5-for-4 play subscriptions, and some reasonably priced day seats.  Shop around.

written for Londonist and published on 11 December 2012

Thursday 6 December 2012

Big Fat Gypsy Opera

Opera Review CARMEN at London Coliseum

If you saw the header ‘Opera Review’ and thought ‘not for me’, stick with us for a moment. We’ve always thought Carmen was the crossover vehicle for people who don’t think they like opera: it has lots of recognisable songs, an easy-to-follow story and it’s a landmark piece of social propaganda since, although written in 1875 and set in testosterone-crazed Andalucia, it’s the central female character who dominates the macho men and makes all the decisions on which the plot pivots.

She’s a shoeless and footloose gypsy girl for whom the rules of attraction operate in reverse: come on to her and she’ll reject you, ignore her and she’s all over you like prickly heat on the Costa del Sol. She charms innocent soldier Don Jose into desertion and crime to earn her affection, but when she dumps him for a more glamorous bullfighter, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

Traditionally, Carmen is staged with a skipload of fringed shawls, lace mantillas, fans and roses in the teeth and we were excited to hear that ‘bad boy’ Catalan director Calixto Bielto had decided to ditch these clichés in favour of an update to the last days of General Franco, which well suits the lawlessness of Carmen’s gypsy band here seen as cross-border smugglers of alcohol, tobacco and white goods. Hints at organised crime and child prostitution give it a darker tinge, too.

The crowd control (cast of over 60) and staging are truly impressive, the military brutalism highlighted from the outset with a muscular squaddie in Y-fronts and boots pounding punishment laps, but we were slightly less captivated by the leads. On paper, mezzo Ruxandra Donose ought to be the ideal gypsy with her natural dark hair and Romanian colouring, but here she’s a rather forced blonde. She’s also pushing fifty which made her sexual machinations seem more calculating, and in the song where she and her mates tell fortunes with cards, heightened the tension of ‘who will I marry, and when’ so we warmed to the idea that this predatory feline is more cougar than panther.

Up-and-coming American tenor Adam Diegel also felt a bit underpowered as Don Jose but Carmen’s two sidekicks, played by Rhian Lois and Madeleine Shaw, were straight out of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and delivered both strong characterisation and vocal energy. Star turn of the night, though, is undoubted Coliseum favourite Elizabeth Llewellyn, the glorious British Jamaican soprano whose superbly-sung Micaela, Jose’s childhood sweetheart from his home village, was transformational – upgrading her from timid peasant girl to another self-determining woman.  Llewellyn’s brilliance made you wish, for a moment, that sopranos could play Carmen.

The orchestra is tremendous, with sensitive, well-paced conducting by Ryan Wigglesworth, and hopefully this amazing staging will be in ENO’s repertoire for many years to come.

written for Londonist and published 22 November 2012

Tennant's Extra

OUR BOYS at the Duchess Theatre

Television can make gods of competent actors. The womanly throng crowding the stage door of Our Boys is hungry for Laurence Fox (Lewis), Arthur Darvill (Dr Who) and Matthew Lewis (a nicely matured Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter). But it’s to their credit that the other three actors in this six-man piece are equally good.

This may be the first time in history a play has been inspired by a pain in the arse: writer, and sometime Soldier, Soldier actor Jonathan Guy Lewis had a spell in hospital when an officer cadet on an army University scholarship, suffering from pilonidal cyst, a painful anal abscess which allowed him to observe – as much as you can when face down on your bed – the antics and personalities of the other ward residents, mostly Northern Ireland veterans.

It’s all cock in this play: Fox is the sexually-successful ‘Battersea Boner’, a ringleader whose natural ability to inspire confidence challenges that of the trainee officer also billeted on the ward, Lewis is a knob-end whose knob end has been bruisingly circumcised, and Darvill a twitchy and dangerously self-serving dick whose actions eventually provide the pivot on which the play turns from knockabout banter to something more involved and intriguing.

This is the second best play with soldiers in wheelchairs we’ve seen in a week. Sandi Toksvig’s intense and impeccable Bully Boy at the newly opened St James Theatre takes the prize – it’s a Journey’s End for the Helmand generation – but Our Boys is more openly entertaining and comic despite its now-dated racism, sexism and fart-jokes and if it takes a while to soften you up, the dramatic climax is all the more electric for that.  The scene where the sextet plays Russian roulette with beer cans in homage to The Deer Hunter is worth the ticket price on its own.

Darvill’s appearance brought the Dr Who brigade out in force. We sat in the same row as Mrs Laurence Fox, Billie Piper, and directly in front of David Tennant. Matt Smith was just across the aisle. Interestingly, those two deliberately sidestepped each other after the performance, although whether out of politeness or to avoid a split in the space-time continuum when two Doctors collide, we couldn’t say.

We know fans hang on their idols’ every word, so are pleased to report that Tennant’s immediate after-curtain reaction was “I need a wee”, although when informed by his friends they were going straight to the after-show party, he conceded “Oh, okay then, I’ll wee there”.

Hey-ho the glamorous life of your dutiful reporter among television Royalty in London’s glittering West End.

written for Londonist and published on 5 October 2012

Not So Grim, Up North

HINDLE WAKES at Finborough Theatre

Eeh by gum, ‘appen I’ll go to the foot of our stairs, this is a right bobby dazzler of a play. OK, enough of the cod Northern jargon -- although only those of us actually born in Manchester are allowed to ridicule it -- but suspend your Corrie-fuelled preconceptions about ‘Northern writing’ and you’ll be properly dazzled by Hindle Wakes at the Finborough.

Fanny Hawthorn is a pretty if sulky mill-girl who spends a dirty weekend with the mill owner’s amateurish cad of a son. Without waiting even to see if she’s in the family way, he’ll “have to marry her” and there’s much negotiation and comical debate among the parentals, including those of his longstanding fiancée, before Fanny finally speaks her own mind.

And that’s what it’s all about – letting women speak for themselves, almost an alien concept in 1912. Author Stanley Houghton was a member of the ‘Manchester School’ of dramatists which included writer of Hobson’s Choice Harold Brighouse and Alan Monkhouse whose Mary Broome, wherein a housemaid is impregnated by the young master, is currently enjoying a well-reviewed revival off Broadway.

The trio were promoted by the redoubtable Annie Horniman (of the wealthy tea and museum family) who had similarly championed progressives like Bernard Shaw and Yeats when she founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  Unlike Shaw, though, these comedies are less worthily wordy and much funnier.

In Bethan Dear’s compact but very attractive production, the unique selling feature is that for a fringe show, she’s snagged some impressively senior talent with strong theatre and television track records. Anna Carteret (Juliet Bravo herself), all angry elbows and northern grit, is Fanny’s feral mother, and Peter Ellis (Inspector Brownlow from The Bill) gives a beautifully quiet and realistic performance as her dad. As the archetypal self-made man who rose from weaving shed to King of Cotton, Richard Durden is the most rounded and credibly well-developed character, but his sidekick is Susan (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) Penhaligon whose pursed lips and raised eyebrows undermine his every pomposity, and steal many scenes.

It takes a while for the first act to establish the plot, but from then on the dialogue crackles with surprising freshness and the audience realises it’s OK to laugh. And they do.

written for Londonist and published on 17 September 2012

A Crack Production

Cape Town Opera's PORGY AND BESS at the Coliseum

We’re not ones to tut-tut about moral standards in the London theatre but this is the second show in two nights where the eponymous heroine does cocaine onstage. And you don’t expect that from the Gershwins.

In Thom Southerland’s clever and noir-ish Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse, the darker side of Mabel Normand’s character is explored and like many early Hollywood stars she relied on such stimulants to get her through a punishing schedule. When in Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi‘s incandescent physical and vocal performance in Cape Town Opera’s grandiose production, Bess asks Sportin’ Life for a wrap of "happy dust" we were struck by the similarities. Both have made unsuitable choices in life, and realization of their mistakes comes too late to save either of them.

Last seen in London as a self-assured but awkward Carmen Jones at the Festival Hall in 2007, Maswanganyi is an unconventionally great Bess. Beautiful as a pre-tantrum Naomi Campbell, angular, alert and blatantly provocative, it’s perhaps hard to understand why she’s drawn to either the lumpen and bullying Crown, great resonant strength from Ntobeqo Rwanka, or why she rejects him in favour of the sexually innocent cripple Porgy, here given equal measures of resilience and pathos in Xolela Sixaba's rich and silken bass-baritone.  Their duet "Bess You Is My Woman Now" is deeply affecting. Although at 2 hours 45 there are lulls in the action, we found a vast amount to enjoy in Christine Crouse’s epic, stage-filling production but wondered how much was added by the transposition from the American depression so specifically to 1970s Soweto. There are some well-exploited opportunities to Africanise the dance rhythms and chorus intonations, and all the invocations of Jesus make for an authentic revival meeting sound but it also makes a nonsense of the plot in the second half where a ship and several fishermen are lost at sea, since Johannesburg is 500km inland.

There are some great cameos, we really warmed to the “honey man” voice of Andile Tshoni as Peter and the fierce pride and stunning rapping of Miranda Tini as statuesque shopkeeper Maria, the scene where she upbraids Victor Ryan Robinson’s oily and sinuous sleazeball Sportin’ Life is a treat.

written for Londonist and published on 13 July 2012

Go Vest, Young Man

You know when someone says “this play will run and run”?  Well, in this one the cast certainly do…it seems rather unnecessary to re-review in detail Ed Hall’s exuberant Chariots of Fire which breasted the tape last night at the Gielgud trailing its four and five star critical track record from Hampstead.

The audience, fuelled by quite a lot of delicious free champagne, seemed wildly enthusiastic to greet it. Like the Usual First Night Suspects they undoubtedly are, Christopher Biggins was gladhanding anyone he did or did not recognize in the foyer, and @stephenfry tweeted at the end he was “still in pieces” although from what cause we couldn’t say. 

It might have been the mildly jingoistic, flag-waving, Jerusalem-singing ebullience that surrounds the simpler tale of two rival athletes, one Scots one Jewish at the 1924 Paris Olympics, which brought a tear to the Fry eye. The production trades somewhat stagily on the Britishness of the whole occasion, wrapping the shivering plot in a greatcoat of Gilbert and Sullivan, and some entirely superfluous brass and wind – haven’t we had enough of forcing good young actors to play musical instruments? – in an extended piece after the interval.

The unique selling feature of Miriam Buether's design is the running track, which makes a figure of eight through the front Stalls and some newly-built back-of-the-stage bleachers: if you’re near enough, you’ll feel the breeze in your face as the athletic young men bound past, seated further away you might spot the breathlessness of a production that needs these gimmicks to simulate a perfectly good film.  The Vangelis music will get you, though, that’s for sure.

There are some excellent performances: in the most dramatic scene where he confronts the Olympic committee, newcomer Jack Lowden shines as the Scots missionary who won’t run on Sundays although this brinkmanship is a slight deviation from reality in Mike Bartlett’s script: Eric Liddell made his decision not to compete in the Sunday 100 metres event about four months before the Paris Games. James McArdle is equally fine as his rival Harold Abrahams and despite a superb cameo as his half-Arab coach Sam Mussabini – a relationship which could have been explored in much greater depth - Nicholas Woodeson is unfortunately wasted.

It was wonderful to see some genuine Olympians in the auditorium: to eavesdrop for example on handsome swimmer Mark Foster and his date praising the choreography which turns running into a stage art – they think Scott Ambler deserves an award - and to spot Sally Gunnell taking her parents out for the evening but still showing her Barcelona '92 sprint form by chasing after a taxi in a gorgeous but extremely tight sheath dress and four-inch heels.

Written for Londonist and published on 4 July 2012

Wet, Wet, Wet

Twelfth Night, at the Roundhouse

We did Shakespeare at school in a heavily glazed South-facing classroom with an almost equally glazed expression so can’t quite recall ‘The Shipwreck Plays’ as being one of the examination-board approved sub-classifications alongside The Histories, The Tragedies, The Problem Plays and so on. But someone among the great and the good at the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly thinks there’s sufficient linkage between The Comedy of Errors (early, farcical nonsense) The Tempest (late, magical, operatic) and Twelfth Night (middle, Christmassy, lightweight) that it’s worth floating the three of them over a huge water tank first at Stratford and now hauled to the Roundhouse.

The first thing that hits you is Jon Bausor’s 270-degree sky-high set, working better at the Roundhouse where it integrates well with the gantried-and-galleried interior of the former railway shed. There’s an operational lift, revolving door, steeply angled bedroom and reception of a raffish hotel all mounted over a glass-sided water tank through which actors explode in gasping wet entrances like freshly landed fish. Despite the fact it contains almost every film noir scenic cliché from the rattling cage lift to the slowly revolving fan, it’s immediately exciting and works brilliantly.

The first act is a touch underlit and makes it harder to engage with the romantic plot – separated-by-shipwreck twins Sebastian and Viola each love a count or countess, Viola cross-dressing as a manservant in order to be closer to the object of her affection ...  oh what the hell, you’ll pick it up – but it almost doesn’t matter because the lovers are eclipsed by the comic characters, permanently plastered Sir Toby Belch (gloriously coarse Nicholas Day) and top flight Bruce Mackinnon as a tow-haired and tousled Sir Andrew Aguecheek part swaggering Bullingdon toff and part sniggering schoolboy clutching the edge of his blazer from timidity. Their baiting of the po-faced and uptight steward Malvolio is the heart and driving force of this production.

Rivalling Mackinnon for the best-acting chops is Jonathan Slinger as an outstanding Malvolio both in his prim household managerial mode and when discomfited by the teasing, and parading in the (won’t spoil the surprise) outfit they make him wear. It’s low comedy and could be crude were it not for the impressive quality of the acting: the scene where Kevin McGonagle as Feste dresses up as a monk to torment Slinger by ‘inquisition’ is pure Peter Sellers.

Just don’t take your gran if she’s shocked by fetish gear.

Written for Londonist and published on 15 June 2012

The Great American Musical

The scale of the Coming-To-America migration musical Ragtime is epic, so grandiose, so richly populated with cast that when it opened in 1998, the production budget was $11 million and two adjacent Broadway theatres were combined into one just to contain it.

The inventive team at Regent’s Park never fights shy of a challenge: their magical twig-and-twine four-tier set for Into the Woods and the massive glamorously-costumed ensemble tap dancing its way across the frequently rain-slicked stage in Crazy For You pay tribute to their resourcefulness in staging a "big" musical.

They’re also banking on its commercial success – unusually this year the season isn’t segmented into four, and just two productions (the other is A Midsummer Night’s Dream) run right across the programme from May to September. That’s longer than Ragtime managed in its critically-acclaimed New York revival in 2009.

Ragtime tells the overlapping stories of an aspirational family in New Rochelle, NY and the interlacing of their community with arrivals of Latvian Jews and African Americans: it’s usually performed in the period costume of 1906 on a stage teeming with characters in suffragette hats or britches like a boatload of extras from Titanic. Just as well the potato famine was half a century earlier or we’d have had the Irish on board too, and had to mix fiddley gigs in with the cakewalks, gospel and piano rags which punctuate Stephen Flaherty’s excitingly brassy and anthemic score.

In "Woods", director Timothy Sheader re-imagined the story through the eyes of a runaway child, and added a layer of perspective to a well-known show.  Here he has chosen a modern post-Obama scrapheap from which the actors only gradually adopt their period personas and maybe you’ll feel it makes the already complex story a fraction less accessible: an opacity further complicated by some gender-blind and racially-blind casting which we found surreal in a show largely about the contemporary politics of gender and race.

Perhaps he should have heeded the advice of his own leading lady in Ragtime Rosalie Craig, magnificent throughout and electric in her 11 o’clock number "You Can Never Go Back to Before", since Sheader's repeated theatrical device is a ‘marmite’ which threatens to divide audiences. If it irks you, you really need to abandon your irritation early to thoroughly enjoy the production. But there is an enormous amount to enjoy: the cast are universally fine, you cannot fail to be uplifted by the music, and by their energy and commitment in Javier de Frutos’ choreography which stays truer to the original Vaudeville concept.

And that torn poster of Barack Obama overlooking the whole proceedings? If it bothers you, just thank your lucky stars it isn’t George Bush.

Written for Londonist and published on 30 May 2011

Scattered Sunshine

What is that sound?  Scrunching wheels as its engine purrs effortlessly along the Strand, the whiff of expensive leather upholstery as the door opens on turning into Savoy Court?  Ah yes, the unmistakable arrival of the Star Vehicle as it parks in its reserved space for the next twelve weeks.

‘The Sunshine Boys’ is a Neil Simon comedy about two retired Vaudeville comedians briefly reunited, along with their long-standing personal feud, for a one-off CBS television broadcast.  Famously filmed with Walter Matthau and George Burns it’s often revived for high-profile actors at the peak of their career and comic powers.

The star for whom this luxurious conveyance is currently provided is Danny DeVito, chauffeured to his West End debut but so perfectly solution-dyed Jersey Shore Jewish that the lines might have been written freshly for him.  His partner is British national treasure Richard Griffiths, undoubtedly one of the finest actors in London – excellent in Equus and nothing short of immaculate in The History Boys.  However this may not be his most comfortable piece of casting as he seems uneasy with the accent and the cadences of Noo Yoikspeak.

De Vito plays Willie Clark’s sarcastic irascibility so close to the Muppets' oldtimer Waldorf that you long for him to have the equally sharp repartee of his colleague Statler, whereas Griffiths' character Al Lewis comes over rather more languid and detached than a Seinfeld-paced production could expect.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines, and even a couple of touching moments as the sadness and the long-term affection of people who’ve worked together for forty years is given stage time.  But the ending’s disappointing, as though Neil Simon calculated he’d written two hours of dialogue and could turn the piece in.

Talking of which, that must be 300 words by now. Oh, one more.

Written for Londonist and published on 24 May 2012

The Good Gatsby

Wait for ages? Buses? With the removal of copyright protection from F Scott Fitzgerald’s epic novel, we’re about to be bombarded by a – what IS the collective noun for multiple Gatsbys – a clutch, a slew, a bootleg-full?  They’re all appropriate to this enduring story of a showman and playboy from the prohibition era, and his hapless pursuit of first love Daisy Buchanan.

Some say things are best left alone citing the original perfection of the novel. Certainly Baz Luhrmann’s remake of the impeccable 1974 Jack Clayton movie which opens here on Boxing Day has big shoes to fill, DiCaprio replacing Redford and Carey Mulligan supplanting Mia Farrow. But before that, London can expect three June performances by New York Public Theater’s Elevator Repair Service company of ‘Gatz’ an 8-hour Oberammergau-styled marathon with an extended meal break, at the Noel Coward theatre. The other side of the Olympics, there’s a more compact musical version at the King’s Head, a ‘world premiere’ no less, from 7 August.

There’s music in the Wilton’s version too. When not portraying the principal characters, all eight actors don thick round glasses to identify themselves as the vocal backing group, singing a capella a whole lot of vo-do-de-oh-doh with very nice harmonies and some basic Charleston stepping. Unfortunately, as part of the immersive experience which fills the whole of Wilton's from the Green Room to the Chapel of Rest, in the interval and after the show the London Dixieland Jazz Band and a quartet of brilliant dancers provide the sort of display which contrasts the lack of band and full-on dance numbers in this ‘jazz’ Gatsby.

The acting’s mostly good – Michael Malarkey is a suave and covert Jay Gatsby, Christopher Brandon puts all the stuffing into Tom Buchanan’s city shirt, and Kirsty Besterman’s vitreous Daisy is far less waif-like than many interpretations: more Shirley MacLaine than Mia Farrow. We didn’t really have to get our A-level notebooks out to remember that The Great Gatsby is riddled with symbolism – at least two essays’ worth – for the collapse of the American Dream, the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots as the US headed into the Depression, the helpless dependency of the poor on religious symbols, and over all of them the green light on Daisy’s dock representing Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for the future.

Although ambitious, Peter Joucla’s production doesn’t convey these meanings, and for those who loved the movie or the book, something may be lost. Without giving too much away, there’s an important accident which due to the budget has to take place offstage and an incident with a gun which was feeble enough to cause laughter at what could have been a moment of real tension.

But with the jazz band in the bar, the dancers in the attic, a liberal supply of Hendricks’ and tonic from a fountain in the foyer attended by living bronzed naiads and Wilton’s filled to overflowing with people visibly enjoying themselves in their '20s Oxfam finery, such details can be overlooked and this really was a fine night out.

written for Londonist and published on 26 April 2012

Duncan Rock Opera

It’s a weekend night and we’re standing in Heaven cruising the hot bodies on stage and the trendy polysexual crowd below. The only differences from 1987 are that this time we’re not high on a cocktail of coke and poppers, and the music’s by the boy Mozart rather than the Boy George.

It’s only a few days since we were complaining that ‘railway arch opera’ was stuck in a rut, but here it escapes tunnel vision with a compelling and finely-sung production of Don Giovanni, directed at a cracking pace by Dominic Gray.

Where it scores big is in the casting and production values: Duncan Rock isn’t some third-year student from Guildhall in skinny jeans and a sailor tat but has a string of solid opera credentials from Glyndebourne and ENO and his mountainous pecs are candy for the ‘barihunk’ brigade (followers of hotter male singers). Instead of a pub piano there’s a proper 10-piece orchestra suitably string-heavy for the busy Mozart arpeggios, it’s a promenade performance with a main stage and four other set-pieces from Wimpy Bar to sex shop defining the time and place as Soho, 1987.

Best, it has a filthy modern hilarious libretto by Ranjit Bolt that not only hammers home the cruelty and vulgarity – just like the original, really – but makes an easily understandable new story out of the deconstructed and gender-bent opera: apart from the Don all the women’s roles are sung by men and vice-versa, none better than Zoe Bonner’s razor-tongued Leo (Leporello), the PA from hell whose rendition of the 'catalogue aria' enumerating his many conquests from Clapham Common to the club’s own toilets is glorious.

Then there’s the audience – instead of 50 faithful followers in the upstairs room of a pub, we’re a proper club crowd of 400 and, that rare thing in any London audience, smiling throughout. It’s true that even the ENO and the Royal Opera House now take liberties with Don Giovanni, right up to full-frontal nudity and simulated sex, and this production doesn’t go quite so far. But if you want to FEEL liberated, this show charting the ambiguous sexual freedoms of the 80s is for you.

It’s unfortunate that technical issues mean they can’t use radio mikes and the impressive sound (and lighting) rig at Heaven – but the solution is to move round with the characters, maybe a bit of ushering could be introduced, and get as close as you can to the action. It’s worth it.

Written for Londonist and published on 16 April 2012

Posh Picnic with No Knickers

Sometimes in London the venue affects your mood.  Kicking your way through the rotting veg or chicken carcases of a street market towards a dingy hall in Hoxton or Kilburn demands a wellspring of optimism to meet the play with an open mind. Not so at Regent’s Park, whose well-established and well-run Open Air venture regularly inspires critics to scour the thesaurus for epithets like ‘bosky’ and ‘sylvan’ even when the thing’s set indoors. 

Well-spoken couples bring picnic spreads which feature chermoula and quinoa alongside the ‘rather good brie’ and bottle of claret nudging a crossword-completed Telegraph in the recycled hempen tote.  A sudden chill presages symphonic zipping up of Barbours. The repertoire is a conservative blend of Shakespeare, Musical and Literary.  The seasonal staff are polite.  The ice creams are organic. If Waitrose did theatre, this is what it would be like. 

Its Beggar’s Opera is staged in a quest for 18th century authenticity.  Champion designer William Dudley (whose wife Lucy Bailey directs) has raided Hogarth’s illustrations of ‘Gin Lane’ for his portable Newgate prison jangling with nooses and chains but also tumbrils strewn with flowers, silks and pillows emphasizing the contrast between the ruffians and prostitutes who populate the story.

Arranger Roddy Skeaping (whose wife Lucie plays Jenny Diver) has orchestrated 69 snatches of folk song for period instruments including the cittern and lute. At first the audience seemed to love it, tittering at every mention of ‘jade’ ‘whore’ ‘prick’ and ‘hussy’, at the joky references to marital duty from which ‘most’ women would welcome their husband’s execution as a release, and feigning amused shock when the skirt-lifting tarts remind us that knickers weren’t invented yet. 

The first act is largely exposition and those who left in the interval missed the fun of a couple of well-staged fights – movement by Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk – including a hilarious one between a cruiserweight Beverley Rudd as pregnant Lucy Lockit and her love rival Polly played by the bantam Flora Spencer-Longhurst who seemed to fly from the fist whenever Rudd hit her. 

Act II also featured the best performance of the evening, Parklife-guesting Phil Daniels’ sly and earthy jailer Lockit. ‘Musicals’ purists will be disappointed that the short ballads never erupt into a sustained production number, but the beauty of the Regent’s Park repertoire is that all tastes are eventually satisfied and ‘Crazy For You’ opens on July 28.

originally written for Londonist  and published on 1 July 2011

This Is A Fine Romance

A classic black-and-white era 1930s romantic comedy in which the lovers chase each other from high society London to the cabarets of Pigalle, with a sparkling, tuneful score and sharp dialogue and lyrics. That Boy Meets Boy happens to be about two men is almost incidental, but also charmingly done. At the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Read All About It

An unsavourily-plotted antidote to Guys and Dolls featuring a corrupt newspaperman, the cult Mackendrick 50's movie Sweet Smell of Success was re-worked by A Chorus Line's Marvin Hamlisch for a 2002 Broadway opening that never really took off. In a more intimate setting appropriate to the New York night clubs through which the characters trawl, Arcola boss Mehmet Ergen directs a cracking, energetic production with outstanding choreography. 

Marking A Debut

A "Crowded House" of authors, actors and academics feast on goose tongues but speak with forked ones in Alison Evans' debut play The Supper Party at the Tabard Theatre. Unimaginably topical thanks to the Savile-related enquiries, the unmasking of the perpetrators gives a frisson to the second act which more than makes up for any inconsistencies in the first.