Friday, June 23, 2017

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
at the Dominion Theatre
21.06.2017


After successful runs in America [and Paris] this new musical is now settled in to the lovely 1920s Dominion for the rest of the year at least.
It's based, of course, on the classic 1951 film. But given that the director/choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, it's no surprise that the focus is squarely on the dance. The performers are mostly dancers first, singers second. But it is a very close second – Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope, who dances superbly in the Leslie Caron role of Lise, is a confident, pure-toned singer. She's partnered in this matinée by Max Westwell, relishing the chance to slip into Robert Fairchild's dancing shoes as Jerry. And he does so brilliantly, a youthful, energetic GI. The other two “musketeers” are the cabaret chanteur Henri [Haydn Oakley] and grumpy war-wounded artist Adam [David Seadon-Young]. They join towards the end in a poignant They Can't Take That Away From Me, one of several major changes from movie to musical. Nice to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a nice character study as the mother from the haute bourgeoisie, who eventually drops the icy mask and joins in the dance.
Wheeldon has transformed the basic plot, though the characters all survive, more or less true to the original. Lise is now an aspiring ballerina, Milo [Zoe Rainey] is the ballet company's benefactor, Adam writes their scores, and Jerry – eventually – is retained as designer for the sets and costumes. And so, instead of the dream sequence, we see this performance - from backstage initially – danced in full to the Gershwin piece that gives the show its name.
Right from the stunning opening, the post-war setting is stressed; occupation, and collaboration, a very recent memory for the Parisians, just as the fighting is for the Americans. But this added depth is counterbalanced by the escapist dancing, and the glorious Gershwin score – not only the original numbers, but a generous injection of songs from earlier works: Beginners' Luck, Fidgety Feet … In the pit, with his white tie and cream telephone, the debonair MD John Rigby.
And the final ingredient is Bob Crowley's set design. Jerry's sketches are spectacularly brought to life, in a heady combination of moving flats – manoeuvred with balletic precision by dancers – and animated projection. Stunning. One of the most striking numbers is Henri's hesitant cabaret act – Stairway to Paradise. A lot rides on making an impression – “think Radio City” the advice – and suddenly there's an old-fashioned production number, worthy of MGM; there's even a kick line, but, alas, no actual staircase ...


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

HANDBAGGED

HANDBAGGED

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court
20.06.17

Moira Buffini's entertaining conceit lets us eavesdrop – a fly on the fourth wall – as Liz talks with Maggie. They met weekly over tea for eleven years.
Of course, “no notes were taken”, so this is all “crass surmise” and speculation, but it does give a unique insight into the politics of the Thatcher years, as well as fabulous opportunities for the actors.
Director Lynne Foster fields a top team of six actors. Mrs T and HMQ have two each – like the Bennett twins in Lady in the Van – allowing for amusing meta-theatrical exchanges. The Thatchers especially are given to bickering. The men are relegated to minions, with two jobbing actors taking on a huge variety of walk-ons, from Hezza to the Gipper. They are impressively done by Mark Preston – Kenneth Kaunda and a convincing Nancy – and Kevin Stemp – Gerry Adams and both consorts. Preston's role provides political balance, reminding the younger audience member about the importance of, say, the miners' strike or Greenham Common.
Where did she get that accent ?”, muses her Maj. Vocally, all four women are unnervingly accurate – Maggie's breathy sincerity, Liz's thin patrician. They are intended to be a younger and an older incarnation, I think, though it was not always apparent in this casting. Debbie Miles begins with an entirely convincing speech; Andrea Dalton is frighteningly forceful. Jane Smith is excellent as the grumpy, frumpy Queen, riffling through the Royal Ascot guide kindly provided by today's Times. And Laura Hill engagingly plays the somewhat younger – in her fifties – monarch when her hair was still resolutely dyed Chocolate Kiss.
There are occasional dips in energy – musing on jam, faffing with trolleys in black-out – but generally the pace is good, our attention captured by these six excellent performances.
I can remember when the Lord Chamberlain's Office strictly vetoed any stage depiction of the reigning monarch. Now of course the Queen is ubiquitous on the boards, from A Question of Attribution to The Audience. Buffini's piece is a welcome addition – not just a history lesson, and not simply knockabout satire. Both the Monarch and her eighth Prime Minister are often sympathetically portrayed; the Brighton Bombing and the death of Mountbatten genuinely moving moments.

MICHAEL MORPURGO'S FARM BOY

MICHAEL MORPURGO'S FARM BOY
A Made in Colchester Production
at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
18.06.2017

for The Reviews Hub


This is the sequel to Morpurgo's phenomenal War Horse. It's a very different animal – a couple of actors, a costumed musician, and, centre stage “an old green Fordson”, the tractor which turns out to be at the heart of this story. But it succeeds on its own terms, since, as in War Horse, the author's skill as a story-teller carries the narrative, and keeps the audience enthralled.
This ingenious adaptation is by Daniel Buckroyd, now the Mercury's Artistic Director, and it was first seen here in 2012. This new production, directed by C P Hallam, has been touring local schools, with just one weekend on the Mercury main stage.
The two actors take the roles of Grandpa, who's actually the son of Albert from the earlier piece, and his grandson, who as a young child played at farming seated on the ancient tractor, and eventually takes over the farm. The relationship between the two is beautifully drawn – teasing, encouraging, and, in the play, unselfconsciously sharing all the other roles, including the Corporal, as the adult Albert is known in the village, the grandmother Maisie, and rival farmer Harry Medlicott. 
The old man loves to remember, and loves to tell his stories. But illness and idleness have left him illiterate, and after his wife dies, he persuades the boy to teach him his letters. As a reward, his grandson gets £100 and a story, ten pages of painstakingly pencilled capital letters.
This story of the ploughing match, pitting horses against horse-power, is the thrilling climax of the piece. The staging is simple, stripped-back. The two horses are step-ladders, the cockerel a rubber glove, Medlicott's paunch the cushion from the tractor's seat. Ru Hamilton's music underpins the action beautifully – flute for the flight of the swallow, harp for midnight Christmas Eve – the old ballad Dives and Lazarus effectively quoted here and elsewhere. And for the competition on Candlelight Field, a cello, joined by a bucket for a drum, the jingle of the harness and percussion on the Fordson.
The two actors – Danny Childs as the boy, Gary Mackay as the old man – draw us in to the story, and seem to relish bringing the scenes to life. Nothing is over-stated. We use our imaginations as they use theirs – they talk of horses, and we see them. The old man speaks of death, as he recalls his father's terrible trauma in the trenches. The boy, who pulled the cornsacks off the old tractor at the back of the barn all those years ago, returns to the farm after college, and finally restores the Fordson, which triumphantly bursts into life as this lovely sixty-minute show ends.
It's good to be reminded of the power of words to carry a story; the magic of theatre does not have to rely on technical wizardry and special effects.

production photograph: Robert Day

THINGS TO COME – CHELMSFORD SINGERS

THINGS TO COME – CHELMSFORD SINGERS

The Chelmsford Singers celebrate their 90th anniversary with a gala concert on July 1st. Sung in Chelmsford Cathedral, traditionally their principal venue, it's an ambitious, but popular, programme, with Britten, Orff and Borodin in the mix.
The Singers were formed by William Bush back in 1927 – he was their conductor until 1945, when he was succeeded by Roland Middleton, the first in a distinguished line of Cathedral Masters of the Music to hold the post; James Davy, the present incumbent, will conduct this gala concert, when the Singers will be joined by voices from the Cathedral's choirs, as well as soloists and the Chelmsford Sinfonietta.

picture shows the Chelmsford Singers on their tour to Belgium earlier this year.

Monday, June 19, 2017

BRING ON THE BOLLYWOOD

BRING ON THE BOLLYWOOD

Phizzical in association with Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Vivacity Key Theatre
at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch 

13.06.2017

for The Reviews Hub

A colourful tribute to the Bollywood genre, this big-hearted show explodes onto the Hornchurch stage in a riot of song and dance, gorgeous costumes and songs from the big screen. A little bit camp, a little bit kitsch, but great uncomplicated fun from the title song to the wedding finale.

The setting is simple – stylised Himalayas for a backdrop, and a suggestion in front of Lakshman Villa, the comfortable family haveli in warm colours. There are many scenes, involving the shifting of trucks and some awkward fades to black, but the story moves along almost seamlessly.
Like many juke-box musicals, the plot is secondary to the numbers. Here we have a typical romance, borrowing cleverly from She Stoops to Conquer, in which there is conflict between the old ways and the new, India and the UK, the big city and the quiet life up-country.
Katrina (Nisha Aaliya)is an over-worked doctor in the UK. She's flying back to her roots in India for her brother's wedding. Across the aisle sits Ronny (Robby Khela), on a pilgrimage of his own. We sense, as they do, that their paths will cross again …
But Katrina's mother is anxious to fix her up with “a suitable boy”, and little brother Lucky – the Tony Lumpkin of this version, played by Anthony Sahota - has biceps to die for and issues of his own as the plot unfolds.
But it's not really about the story. Both the writing and the acting are often little more than adequate. As Katrina reminds us, Bollywood is 100% escapism, the sort of thing that movies used to do, back in the day that La La Land sought to recapture. There are fine comic performances from Sakuntala Ramanee as the match-making mother, and Rohit Gokani as the crusty whisky-drinking Colonel. Nice work, too, from the trio of house-servants, and Yanick Ghanty as Amit, the film star with the London accent.
It's all about the exuberant song and dance – Khela particularly impressive in his numbers. And what a variety there is, from the pumping bass of the opener to the almost operatic temple scene, and the traditional puppet dance up on the roof.
It would be nice to have some live music, maybe even one or two actor/musicians, but the glitzy staging and the feel-good fairy-tale will certainly please the Essex fans as it has Coventry and Doncaster – this tour takes its final bow in Peterborough at the end of August.
There's even merchandise – we could all use a Happy Happy tee-shirt, couldn't we ?

production photograph: Nicola Young

Friday, June 16, 2017

FOOTLOOSE

FOOTLOOSE
Springers at the Civic Theatre
15.06.17

The musical of the 80s movie is as popular as ever, with another national tour this year. But Gareth Gates' fans could surely not be more warmly enthusiastic than the audience in the Civic.
Springers give them a colourful, lively show, nicely sung, beautifully dressed, with dance delights a-plenty.
The dialogue is snappy, though the lyrics sometimes get lost in the sounds from Ian Myers' rock-combo pit band.
A quality cast make the most of the opportunities offered, from Mat Smith's sleazeball Chuck to Colin Shoard's sincere but blinkered preacher. Deborah Anderson is outstanding as his long-suffering wife, vocally assured, with a strong stage presence. The Learning to be Silent kitchen trio was one of the best things in the show.
The audience warm to Daniel Schultz's slow-witted Willard, while Alexandra Phillips shines as a superbly sung Rusty.
Jon Newman brings an easy Chicago charm to the role of Ren, the incomer who gets Bomont back on its feet, with Mae Pettigrew as a lovely rebellious Ariel in her scarlet boots. 
The staging is ambitious, with pews, burger bar and kitchen trucked on, and the lockers flown down. The railway bridge is impressive, too, beautifully lit for Almost Paradise.
And there's plenty of space for those big production numbers – the barbecue, the gym, the junkyard, and of course Holding Out for a Hero, with a trio atop the counter, a chorus of unliberated ladies and superheroes, plus a random hot-dog …
Footloose is directed for Springers by Gary Jarvis and Susan Corina, with choreography by Helen Arber.

photograph: Aaron Crowe

HAMLET'S BASTARD

HAMLET'S BASTARD
The story Shakespeare didn't tell

A novel by Mick Foster
first published 2017



The title recalls that old German joke –
Q: Why did Herr Hörner name his son 'Hamlet'? A: Sein oder nicht sein …
And that's the thing about Shakespeare's tragedy of the Prince of Denmark. Everybody knows it, at least a little. Maybe that's why it's been so popular for parody, pastiche and para-literature. On stage, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the lesser-known but just as funny Wittenberg by David Davalos. And Fortinbras, an American wise-cracking comedy in which most of the play's characters return as ghosts. On the page, there's McEwan's much-acclaimed Nutshell, or Ophelia, in which our heroine is only pretending to be mad, and survives, or, just this year, Saving Hamlet, in which a sophomore girl falls through the trapdoor into the original production at the Globe.
Mick Foster's novel has its genesis in a production of the play he co-directed in 2013.
It was an intelligent, original reading. One of the ideas which emerged concerned the differing ways of looking at the central character. His nobility seems as odds with the awful way he treats those around him. So, instead of literary criticism, Foster turns to fiction to set the record straight.
The bastard of the title is Mattias [Noonesson]. We meet him first slipping in to a performance of The Murder of Gonzago with his elder brother Anders; his feckless father is there too, with a woman. As the dénouement plays out – the entire royal family dead, and no obvious successor – the adolescent Mattias is increasingly curious about his own identity. His blond hair gives rise to rumour and speculation. He learns the truth, but swears not to tell. He encounters the ghost of Gertrude – a strongly drawn character – who encourages him to write her history and talk to the survivors. And so a series of interviews is woven into the action. He seeks out Marcellus in the tavern; he meets the First Player – in this alternative universe the poet behind the great tragic play – the spymaster Reynaldo and the tiresome Polonius “cold as the castle walls in winter”. A cloud of witnesses, all offering new insights and fresh speculation to colour the story we thought we knew. Politics mingle with private lives, Osric describes the fatal duel – a very vivid passage, this. Must other duels be fought to determine the future of the state of Denmark and the son of its Prince ?
Mattias brings together his explosive findings in a book, whose fate, too, hangs in the balance. Gertrude's ghost finds it “adequate”. “You tell a plain tale simply”. She feels that, like Judas perhaps, they were all caught in a story that had to happen so that it could be told.
In Chapter 29 - “Endings”, loose ends are tied up and the fate of the characters is revealed. Horatio, for instance, returns to Wittenberg, the Player to the stage. Mattias achieves greatness, giving Denmark a few years of peace and prosperity. Like Fortinbras, he has no monument. Unlike Fortinbras, he does not achieve even fictional immortality.
Mick Foster sets that omission right, and much else besides, in an ingeniously worked novel which manages to combine a coming-of-age story, suspense, insight and original thought.

Photograph from a 2007 production of Fortinbras, by Joliet Junior College


Thursday, June 15, 2017

TRISTAN AND YSEULT

TRISTAN AND YSEULT
Kneehigh at Shakespeare's Globe
13.06.2017


This daring deconstruction of an ancient legend is one of Kneehigh's greatest hits. It's been at the Cottesloe as well as in Cornwall, it's toured the States, and this latest outing slots in the Globe between Glasgow and Mold.
It fits well in the wooden O – the cast relish the contact with the audience, and the circus ring sits comfortably on the stage.
The show is an intoxicating mix of genres and styles: circus, music-hall, stand-up as well as moments of intense intimacy. An all-you-can-eat, kid-in-a-sweetshop gallimaufrey of effects which some of us remember being so radical in Ariane Mnouchkine's work back in the 70s. It's unashamedly physical, with perhaps rather too much choreographed violence. Even those who know Kneehigh only at the Globe – where Emma Rice presents her final season this winter – will recognise the naïve rhyming verse [Little Match Girl] the bitter-sweet airs (and the flying) [The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk] and the marvellous Mike Shepherd [Adolphus Tips] here playing King Mark of Kernow.
He's one of a very strong company, with Hannah Vassallo and Dominic Marsh as the lovers, audience favourite Niall Ashdown as the handmaiden Brangian, touchingly complicit in the bed-trick, Kirsty Woodward as Whitehands, the other Yseult who does most of the story telling, and an agile Kyle Lima as Frocin [the Dwarf in earlier versions] who betrays Tristan and ends up as one of the Unloved. They provide a geeky Greek chorus, Love Spotters in hoods, armed with binos, cameras and notebooks, the reluctant members of the Club of the Unloved, whose excellent house band – Martin and the Misfits - sits in the musicians' gallery.
The score is eclectic, its cultural relativism putting Nick Cave up against Richard Wagner, Only the Lonely against Oye Negra in a powerful, emotive soundtrack.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

THE EVENTS

THE EVENTS
A Made in Colchester Production at the Mercury Theatre Studio Colchester 
06.06.2017
for The Reviews Hub


First seen in 2013, and inspired at least in part by the Anders Breivik massacre of the year before, David Greig's powerful piece has been revived many times since.
Dan Sherer's production in the Mercury Studio is intensely visceral, its impact enhanced by the intimacy of the staging.
James Cotterill's set suggests a church hall; a uniform, monochrome grey for the walls and all the furniture, fixtures and fittings. There are skeletal trees and creepers, also grey. Grim reality mingles with the darkly surreal. The threads of the narrative emerge gradually. The text is often abstruse or elliptical, highly effective, but making considerable demands on the audience,
The euphemistic “events” of the title involve the murder by a lone gunman of the members of an inclusive community choir. One of the many strengths of this production is the formation, especially for the show, of a choir that reflects the make-up of the fictional choir in the script, trained and directed by Scott Gray. They sing the chillingly appropriate Sound of Silence, and Blur's Tender. They have lines to deliver; they are involved in the expressive movement. Great work, community choir !
At its best, Greig's dialogue is moving, disturbing, terrifying. Claire, victim and survivor, fantasises about adopting “The Boy” - the killer – dreams of terrible revenge, of smothering him at birth. The young man - “a Europe-wide malaise”, a tribal warrior – lives out his first “berserking” with frightening force. Their meeting – the desperate “forgiveness lady” sitting opposite the nervous, awkward boy in specs, confusing Claire with some girl in a silver car – is utterly gripping.
Not all the scenes have quite so much dramatic strength; not all of the characters Claire meets – all played by The Boy – are as convincing as The Father or the racist Politician. And it is not clear why Greig conceives Claire as a priest. The character is strong and believable, the psychology underpinning it is entirely credible. But religion has very little role, and she simply fails to convince as a woman of the cloth.
Both actors are phenomenal. Anna O'Grady inhabits Claire's haunted face very movingly – impossible not to share her distress, her mixed emotions, her trauma. And Josh Collins – memorable as the young squaddie in the same team's Bully Boy here in 2015 – handles the very challenging role of the terrorist sensitively. Is he mad ?  evil ?  “empathy-impaired” ?  An engaging presence, he also takes on nearly all the other roles, with almost imperceptible changes in voice and demeanour. He's The Friend, The Journalist, and Catriona, Claire's yurt-builder partner – this detail one of the few, very welcome, moments of humour in an otherwise unrelenting study of the CoD enthusiastic who kills to protect his tribe.
There is a glimpse of redemption at the end of this descent into madness; new red chairs are unveiled, and Claire's colourless world is further brightened by the new choir, gaily clad, singing a capella “We're all in here ...”
production photograph: Robert Day

Thursday, June 08, 2017

HOT MIKADO

HOT MIKADO
Shenfield Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre
07.06.17

The simplest of sets: a staircase, with rope lights, lanterns, banners for the Rising Sun and Yum-Yum's moon, and Ian Southgate's splendid swing band just visible behind.
This jazzed-up G&S is set in the 1940s, and the six dudes in shades – Gentlemen of Japan – could have walked straight in from Guys and Dolls. This keen sense of style is maintained throughout Louise Byrne's hugely enjoyable production.
Maximum space for the nifty choreography – no passengers, no prisoners in this show – and we're treated to Lindy Hop, Jitterbug and a fabulous tap routine in Act Two.
A talented cast handle the tricky hybrid with élan. Jack Lloyd is the young second trumpet Nanki-Poo, Liberty Watts his Yum-Yum – shades of Judy Garland, in her artless Japanese way, for her big solo. The comedy roles include Allister Smith's energetic KoKo, his Little List firmly 40s-based, with Revivalists, FDR and Garbo in the frame, sporting a top-knot for Tit Willow. Iain Johnson is a suave Mikado; Jamie Fudge an engaging Pish-Tush. Lloyd Bonson makes an imposing Pooh-Bah, bringing all of his many offices to life. Superb vocals from the other Little Maids – Kate Smith and Rachel Watson, polka dots and parasols for their introductory Andrews Sisters trio. And, stealing the scene with her vampish torch songs, Kerry Cooke's wonderful scarlet Katisha. They all work together with practised ease; the trios for Howdy Do and I Am So Proud very neatly done.
The music comes off best in this adaptation. The lyrics could usefully have been updated with more imagination, though many of Gilbert's original jokes still score their laughs.
A stylish, polished production, with the impressive chorus given lots to do, and choreographed smoothly on and off the awkward Brentwood stage.

image: Claire Collinson photography

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

PATIENCE

PATIENCE
English Touring Opera at the Theatre Royal, Norwich
03.06.2017

This sparkling G&S ends its tour here in Norwich, with its 21st performance.

A real treat to see the piece so well revived. The score is one of Sullivan's most musical, and Gilbert's none-too-subtle satire on Aestheticism gives the designer [Florence de Maré] a chance to reference William Morris in a stylish set which incorporates a slightly awkward flight of steps and arcades affording a glimpse of statuary.
The Saturday night audience revel in the comedy, and the excellent singing, especially some of the ensemble work, like the Act Two dragoon trio and the lively quintet which follows it.
Director/Choreographer Liam Steel has a fine young cast to work with, led by Australian soprano Lauren Zolezzi as the innocent milkmaid of the title. She's unaware of her allure, and her strength, carting churns and a stone plinth with practised ease.
For this farewell performance, Susan Moore replaced Valerie Reid as the doughty Lady Jane. Her “rugged old bosom” harbours a splendid traditional contralto, and she makes a great job of her solo, accompanying herself not on a cello, but on a double bass whose generous curves echo her own.
Aled Hall is an amusingly despondent Duke, with Jan Capinski and Andrew Slater as his fellow officers. The rival poets are Bradley Travis (Bunthorne) and Ross Ramgobin  (Grosvenor),  accomplished comedians both, with an outstanding patter duet: "A most intense young man, A soulful-eyed young man, An ultra-poetical, super-æsthetical, Out-of-the-way young man". Travis is a superbly narcissistic, angular, fleshly poet, Ramgobin the picturesque man of property, idyllic poet and rich-timbred baritone, using his Grecian urn for the lottery, and having his flowing Darcy shirt ripped off him by “several” lovesick maidens.
The music is very well served by a pit orchestra under Timothy Burke; the bright, crisp sound lets Gilbert's every word be clearly heard - even the choruses - so that we were left wondering if we really needed the surtitle screens.