Review: Mack and Mabel, Hackney Empire

“I’ll pull the greatest stunt this business has seen”

I can’t be doing with supermarkets who are already starting to stock mince pies but it was hard not to feel that Christmas had come early, such were the heady delights of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s latest venture Mack and Mabel, directed by Shaun Kerrison. Ostensibly, these are concert presentations of musicals but the joy in what you actually get, the bonuses that get incorporated into the creation of genuine one-off experiences makes LMTO one of the more valuable recent additions to the London theatre ecology.
So you’ve got your cast of West End names (David Bedella, Natasha J Barnes, Tiffany Graves headlining), you’ve got your orchestra of 32 (conducted by Freddie Tapner, led by Debs White), you’ve got a chorus of 16 too. And of course you’ve got the marvellous musical, written by Michael Stewart and composed by Jerry Herman, in the atmospheric surroundings of the Hackney Empire. But not content with such riches, we also get cream pies, chorus lines, and two properly gobsmacking coups de théâtre that brought the audience to their feet.
The story of ill-fated lovers Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, against the backdrop of the early Hollywood years is an engaging one, truly elevated by Jerry Herman’s inordinately tuneful score. And told in flashback as it is, it makes a good choice for a concert staging. David Bedella’s innate charisma and charm, once again proving he has the chops to be one of our best leading men, anchored the show well, pulling all and sundry into his orbit but only stopping to pay attention when a forthright Brooklyn waitress crashes into his studio one morning.
Natasha J Barnes’ Mabel was a nifty bit of casting, a diminutive package perhaps at first glance but offering an instant jolt of electric personality from the moment she opened her mouth, and growing, blossoming into the tragic heroine who did nothing short of ripping the roof off the theatre with a simply astonishing ‘Time Heals Everything’. A real I-was-there moment, I can’t imagine anyone else packing the song quite so full of heart and hurt – Barnes deserves every credit for the way her career is now justly flourishing, make sure you don’t miss a thing she does.
And it’s a mark of how good this production was that this wasn’t the first time we’d all jumped to our feet. The first came with the surprise guest appearance of what appropriately felt like over a hundred dancers from Bird College, flooding the stalls (and the circle!) during ‘Hundreds of Girls’ providing another wow factor. And even then, there was fabulous work too from the glorious Tiffany Graves’ Lottie tapping all her troubles away with 12 dancers supporting her, Liam Tamne being all kinds of adorable as Frank, Matt Harvey and Will Arundell working some real humour into their financiers, the amount of fun the cellists seemed to be having… 
Packing your one-off events with actual one-off moments is much easier said than done and if they continue in this vein, the future will surely be bright for London Musical Theatre Orchestra.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Nick Rutter (and what beautiful pics they are)
Booking until 23rd September

Review: Songs and Solidarity, Trafalgar Studios

“We could see this was a bad one immediately. The sky was glowing.”
Touted as an evening of song, dance and poetry, Songs and Solidarity was a remarkable event indeed. A fundraising gala evening pulled together in the space of a week by the superhuman efforts of actor Giles Terera and producer Danielle Tarento, it was a concert for the hundreds of families made homeless and the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Hosted by Claire Sweeney, musically directed by the enormously talented Tim Sutton, 
The balance of the programme was just right too. From pure musical loveliness like the gentle harmonies of Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ and the simplicity of Rachel Tucker’s acapella take on ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, to the more intense emotion of Terera’s own ‘Ol’ Man River’ and a visibly moved Clare Foster’s ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ (a song with which I wasn’t familiar but rather destroyed me). From the much-needed comic relief of Stiles & Drewe skipping through ‘A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate’ to the soul-warming ‘Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness’ performed by the ever excellent Julie Atherton.
The more stirring emotional moments came from those performers talking about their more personal connection to the tragedy. Musician Earl Okin spoke movingly about living in the shadow of the tower itself before a stunning version of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, polymath Rikki Beadle-Blair turned his experience of being evicted from his own tower block into something akin to performance art before an impassioned ‘Change Is Gonna Come’, Mark Thomas had us in tears of laughter with his comedy set before expertly twisting the knife with his fervent defence of public servants, particularly the firefighters whom he had visited just to say thank you.
Musical numbers were interspersed with powerful extracts of verbatim testimony from some of the survivors of the fire, read by the likes of Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rakhee Thakrar and Vikesh Bhai, even Dame Judi Dench got in on the action with a recording. But for me, the most memorable part of the evening came with Noma Dumezweni’s recital of this Facebook post from a firefighter who attended Grenfell. Gently asking us to close our eyes and to consider this a radio play, it was a sobering reminder of exactly what we ask of our much beleaguered emergency services and of the scale of the tragedy which should not, can not, must not be forgotten.
It was also instructive and inspirational to hear from Eartha Pond, the Queens Park councillor who set up this GoFundMe page to help provide a focal point for support and whose tireless efforts on the ground to help those affected by the fire are being fitted around the responsibilities of her day job. In the words of Heather Small, a surprise addition to the bill, ‘what have you done today to make yourself feel proud?’ Well, you can still donate money and if you are quick, you can also still participate in the silent auction (entries close on Friday 30th). 

Had I A Golden Thread – Alexia Khadime
Total Praise – West End Gospel Choir
We’ve Lost Everything – Vikesh Bhai
True Colors – Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns
I Said Listen, We Have To Go Back – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Natural Woman – Cassidy Janson
Extract from The Hotel Cerise and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – Bonnie Greer 
God Bless The Child – Earl Okin
Your Face – The Olai Collier Company feat. Caitlin Taylor and Ayden Morgan
Mark Thomas
Change Is Gonna Come – Rikki Beadle-Blair, accompanied by Jami Reid Quarrell
Ol’ Man River – Giles Terera
She Moved Through The Fair – Rachel Tucker
Wind Beneath My Wings – Rachel Tucker

A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate – Stiles & Drewe
One Thing I’ll Say, I’m Proud Of The Young People – Rakhee Thakrar
Don’t Worry About Me – Clare Foster
It’s Not About Muslim Or Christian – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Redemption Song – Tyrone Huntley
Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness – Julie Atherton, accompanied by Curtis Volp
The Fire Fighter – Noma Dumezweni
Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries – Claire Sweeney
Sweet Thing – David McAlmont accompanied by Curtis Slapper
Proud – Heather Small
You’ve Got A Friend – Cassidy Janson and Company

Review: Jingle Bell Christmas, Royal Albert Hall

“With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings”

Just a quickie for this slice of Christmas party fun at the Royal Albert Hall. Never having been to one of these before, and so not realising quite what a tradition it is for some people as witnessed by the level of tinsel, fairy lights, and light-up Christmas jumpers and hats on display, Jingle Bell Christmas was an unexpected delight in its unashamedly retro way. A concert made up of Christmas pop hits from yore, plus the inevitable Mariah Carey, its non-stop festivity proved pretty much impossible to resist.
An energetic John Rigby conducted the London Concert Orchestra and vocal ensemble Capital Voices to great effect in this iconic venue, and there was something rather wonderful about being inside the Royal Albert Hall in party mood. The times I’ve been, like for Björk, Follies, even a Christmas carol concert six years ago, have always been more serious affairs and so it was just nice to be in there with such an informal, and fun, atmosphere for once, something akin to what the last night of the Proms might feel like.
Soloists Laura Tebbutt and Tim Howar took us through a selection box of Christmas treats – ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ etc etc but for me, the best moments were the more participatory ones. The traditional run through ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ with different sections of the audience doing the actions was huge fun and the entire place belting out ‘Last Christmas’ along with Howar with shining mobile phones aloft was an unalloyed pleasure.
My only real quibble came with the Jingle Belle Dancers, a dance troupe whose choreography (perhaps deliberately) aped 70s variety shows with a lot of floaty wafting, that didn’t always fit with the music or feel needed tbh. And with the women dressed in bum-skirting tunics while the men flashed nary an inch of skin in long-sleeved shirts and trousers, there was something weirdly retrogressive about their presence – is this really what people are nostalgic for? The 70s rather than the actual classic Broadway feel that would have worked better (for me at least). Who knows, it was all good fun in the end – Merry Christmas!

Music Review: Björk, Royal Albert Hall

“Moments of clarity are so rare

I better document this”

It takes something special to get me to a gig rather than a play these days, but Björk is that something special as I racked up my 8th time seeing her live in nearly 20 years of concert-going (here’s reviews of number #6 and #7. This acoustic concert was billed as a one-off (though due to the speed with which it sold out, a second date at Hammersmith Apollo was added) and marked the first time that the Icelandic singer has taken the stage at this austerely beautiful venue.

The show coincided with the launch of the Björk Digital exhibition at Somerset House, featuring her groundbreaking forays into virtual reality videos but in contrast with the high tech there, this concert stripped things back to just strings. And for the heart-sore, emotionally bruising material of most recent album Vulnicura, this was a marriage made in heaven, the arrangements making you appreciate just how complex a composer she has matured into.

Consequently this isn’t the kind of music that will win over new fans, but Björk has never been the kind of artist to cater to any form of commercial impulse, pursuing instead the sort of artistic vision that is hardly seen in the world these days. And from the extraordinary costumes to her inimitable way with a lyric – “Family was always our sacred mutual mission which you abandoned”, “Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse” – she is aurely one of the most charismatic performers out there.

The second act sees her come as close to crowdpleasing as she does, incorporating some of the back catalogue hits like an ecstatic ‘Jóga’ and the glorious multi-layered ‘Pagan Poetry’, and the closing ‘Pluto’ was a genius way to end the set, repurposing its industrial tumult to fascinating effect. On this evidence and this ever-inventive vein of creativity, I can see myself coming back to watch Björk for another 20 years and more.

History of touches
Black Lake
I’ve Seen It All
Pagan Poetry
Mouth Mantra
Anchor Song

Review: Ramin Karimloo, London Palladium

“Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind”
To the casual viewer, Ramin Karimloo might seem like your average, insanely buff leading man with a voice of honeyed gold, but his artistic vision lies far beyond musical theatre into the world of music at large. For he’s a singer/songwriter as well as a performer and as his tastes incline towards the folk and country side of things, the phrase Broadgrass has been conjured to capture his inimitable style – a portmanteau of Broadway and bluegrass doncha know!
And though a couple of less-well-informed reviewers were taken by surprise, it is far from a new venture in Karimloo’s career. His band Sheytoons, formed with fellow MT star Hadley Fraser has been going since 2010, and he’s released 2 EPs since then, The Road to Find Out East and The Road to Find Out South, so his commitment to the cause is most definitely sans doute and live at the London Palladium, it was abundantly in evidence. 

Backed by his sterling band of Fraser, Sergio Ortega, Alan Markley, and Katie Birtill on guitar, banjo, fiddle and drums, the predominant feeling was one of easy musicality, Karimloo and his pals effortlessly switching from the comfortable groove of his original tracks to the re-imagined musical theatre classics that the audience lapped up – you haven’t ‘Oh! What A Beautiful Mornin” like this before. And you have to admire the ballsiness in going with a bunch of new tunes (South was only released at the beginning of the month) to accompany the ‘hits’ – it makes for a different kind of gig but one which undoubtedly has more integrity to it.
So the likes of ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ (complete with amusing blooper from Fraser) are stripped back gorgeously to their very soul, ‘Ol’ Man River’ gains a powerful resonance, and Chess‘ ‘Anthem’ has arguably never sounded better. An interlude from Louise Dearman was fun, if not quite essential, as I’m quite the fan of the original material and the direction it has taken Karimloo. Tracks like ‘Broken’ and ‘Letting The Last One Go’ are perfectly crafted songs and they shimmer with the sense that this is a performer doing what he really, really wants to do.

Review: Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre

“Make just one someone happy,
And you will be happy, too”

It’s hardly Audra McDonald’s fault that the audience for her long-awaited return to the London stage with these two concerts was so de trop but for me, the adulation was exactly that, too much. For the (relative) intimacy of the Leicester Square Theatre, for the cultivation of a cabaret atmosphere, for the genuine appreciation of this her performance here as opposed to the bottled-up idolisation for a body of work from over the ocean.

Which is not to say that the reputation isn’t well-deserved, not at all. A hugely accomplished actor and singer, her record six Tony Awards unprecedently span all four acting categories. And her choice of material here, along with MD Andy Einhorn, demonstrates a real commitment to American musical theatre, delving back into the classic songbook but showcasing newer composers too, never letting an opportunity to explore her social conscience slide. 

From the Gershwins (an incendiary unmiked ‘Summertime’) and Irving Berlin (‘Moonshine Lullaby’) to Jason Robert Brown (‘Stars and the Moon’) and Adam Gwon (an impassioned ‘I’ll Be Here’ from Ordinary Days), the range and depth of performance is undeniable, McDonald’s supple soprano forceful and fierce where it needs to be but also capable of warmth and intelligence too, surrendering the spotlight momentarily for a singalong to ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’.

And as with much cabaret, the highlights come in the moments that feel more personal. Here, it’s the stories of being a girl, of being a mother (a gorgeously tender ‘Baby Mine’), of being a black woman (The Scottsboro Boys’ ‘Go Back Home’), that held my attention spellbound, coming close to inspiring the rapture that so many got from just seeing her walk on stage. Thankfully, a wider swathe of London audiences are lucky in that McDonald will be returning for a full run of her acclaimed turn in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in the summer, just make sure you listen properly as well as applaud wildly.

Review: Hey, Old Friends, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“Stop worrying where you’re going—move on”

Theatreland does like to make sure every anniversary gets marked somehow and so following on from the celebrations around Les Misérables’ 30th birthday earlier this month is a similar hoohah for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th year on this planet. As is de rigueur for these events, a gala concert has been put on for the occasion with the kind of rollcall you could only normally dream of and naturally, it had the price tag to go along with it.

As with Les Mis (which donated to Save The Children’s Syria Children’s appeal), the show benefitted charitable purposes, specifically The Stephen Sondheim Society and telephone helpline service The Silver Line, harnessing the major fundraising potential of such events. That said, these tickets tend to be so expensive that there’s a nagging feeling that they’re serving a limited audience with few opportunities for regular theatregoers to be a part of them.

Then there’s also the fact that it’s hard to make these events truly special when they happen fairly regularly. I mean it’s a nice problem to have but it is getting harder to get excited about similar ground being retrod every few years or so, even when it is celebrating such musical theatre talent as Sondheim himself – ‘Being Alive’ is undoubtedly a very good song and Michael Xavier did a fantastic job here but on the larger scale, it just feels like it’s been done before, many times. 

A birthday tribute is the wrong time to complain about retrospectives but I’d love to see a company of this calibre tackling new musical theatre writing and shining a much-needed spotlight on composers who might yet achieve a modicum of the success that Sondheim’s career has accrued. Which all makes me sound rather grumpy I know, and ungrateful for having been lucky enough to attend, but I’m just being honest. 

And when all is said and done, there was lots to enjoy and appreciate, not least Rosie Ashe’s powerful ‘Last Midnight’, Daniel Evans and Anna Francolini’s soaring ‘Move On’ leading into ‘Sunday’, Bonnie Langford’s every acrobatic movement and the final sequence which saw Tracie Bennett, Haydn Gwynne, Charlotte Page and Kim Criswell take on the oddly named “11 O’Clock Numbers” (ie the most famous ones) – Broadway Baby, Send In The Clowns, Losing My Mind and I’m Still Here respectively. 

So a fitting tribute to one of our most esteemed musical theatre composers and well supported by the Arts Ed ensemble, Gareth Valentine’s orchestra and Bill Deamer’s choreography and direction – now we move onto next month’s one-off, the Kings of Broadway concert spectacular celebrating Sondheim, Jule Styne and Jerry Herman.

Review: Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure in Concert, Adelphi

“There’s something in the air tonight”
Just a quickie for this semi-staged concert version of Stiles + Drewe’s Peter Pan as my afternoon was pretty much ruined by the young family next to me, two toddlers quite literally running amok, uncontrolled by a mother who didn’t care that her children were repeatedly climbing over me. I’m all for theatres being more inclusive and welcoming to young’uns but the other side of that is that you have to prepare your children for the practicalities of sitting down for a couple of hours along with everyone else.
Which is a shame, as this is a rather sweet musical version of JM Barrie’s evergreen story of the boy who never grew up. Even with weird man-boy Ray Quinn in the lead role and the pantomimish Bradley Walsh as Captain Hook, there’s something really quite affecting about the child-like wonder of Stiles + Drewe’s interpretative skill, which still simultaneously offers up a more mature worldview – it’s easy to forget the deep sadness that lies at the heart of the story, Sheila Hancock’s Narrator providing some deeply moving moments.
Her forthcoming Grey Gardens co-star Jenna Russell was also present (and a big reason for booking) but somewhat underused here as the show’s focus is more on the younger characters. And Evelyn Hoskins’ Wendy rises to the challenge beautifully, an assured performance building on her work in Carrie, and Jack North’s excellent Nibs, a Lost Boy to rival even Peter in command. There’s fun to be had with the pirates too, Cameron Blakely’s Smee a stand-out, making this Peter Pan one that surely deserves a fully staged in a theatre sometime soon, albeit with a recommended age limit…    

Review: Sweet Charity in concert, Cadogan Hall

“You’re a blockbuster buster”

It’s been five years since the Menier’s glorious revival of Sweet Charity so London has been waiting a wee while for the misadventures of Charity Hope Valentine to return to our stages but with this semi-staged concert version at Cadogan Hall, it’s been largely worth the wait. A cast led by Denise Van Outen, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and an ensemble of bright young things from ArtsEd Ensemble combine to joyous effect and with barely a week’s rehearsal, it’s all the more impressive for that.

Van Outen makes a great Charity, infusing a wonderfully wry sense of humour into her demeanour which cleverly reinforces her indefatigable spirit. Supremely confident vocals and a smooth move or two in Matt Flint’s choreography make her a constant joy to watch and one could well imagine her nailing the role in a full-blown production too, especially if she were joined by Michael Xavier as the various men she encounters. Never mind the frozen peaches and cream, HE’S the stuff of dreams whether the appealing nerdishness of Oscar or the hapless lothario that is Vittorio, his lusciously rich voice undoubtedly one of the best in British musical theatre.

I was impressed too by Kimberley Walsh (the connoisseur’s favourite Girls Alouder) and Kerry Ellis as Charity’s pals Nickie and Helene, despite memories of the divine Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves in Southwark. Ellis’ sardonic wit and Walsh’s warmer honesty matched up perfectly, especially in ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ and supported by the girls of the ensemble, showed us plenty of fun and laughs as well as a cracking good time in ‘Hey, Big Spender’. Rodney Earl Clarke’s Daddy Brubeck also deserves a special mention for putting a tingle in our collective extremities in ‘The Rhythm of Life’.

Flint’s choreography captured much of the iconic Fosse magic whilst allowing his young team to impress with their exuberance, especially in ‘Rich Man’s Frug’, Richard Balcombe’s spirited musical direction kept Cy Coleman’s inimitable score sounding fresh as a brassy daisy, and stage director Paul Foster made great use of the Cadogan’s upper balcony to add interest to the semi-staging. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 hours (with interval)

Booking until 22nd August 

Music Review: Björk, Castlefield Arena

“At last the view is fierce

All that matters is”

It is four years since Björk launched her Biophilia installation with a residency at Campfield Market Hall and she now returns to the Manchester International Festival with the first European show of her Vulnicura tour. An open air gig in the north-west is a risky enterprise even in the midst of a July heatwave and sadly my nephew’s birthday party earlier in the afternoon had to draw the sting of the forecast rain so that we could get a blessedly dry and sunny evening in the Castlefield Arena.

And what an evening. Blending the intimacy and innovative song structures of her latest album Vulnicura, charting her break-up with Matthew Barney, with an exhilarating rummage through the back catalogue (look and learn, Kanye West), the seemingly indefatigable Björk remains as fresh and vital a live presence as she ever has – the uniqueness of her onstage emittances and indeed movement, the intense musicality that comes from her collaborators, the stunning clarity of that voice.

Given the rawness of the emotion of the new material “my soul torn apart, my spirit is broke” it is unsurprising that it is front-loaded here – a suite of five songs (chronological if not complete) from the stirring strings of ‘Stonemilker’ to the scorching epic scope of ‘Black Lake’ make for a magisterial if slightly muted beginning, the crowd itching for something more explosive and in the angular energy of ‘Notget’ with its accompanying fireworks and coloured smokebombs, it got it. 

The sonic world of Vulnicura probably most recalls Homogenic of her earlier albums and ably assisted by the swirling strings of The Heritage Orchestra, Manu Delago’s percussion and the enigmatic electronica of The Haxan Cloak (the night’s one mis-step, asking a Mancunian crowd to give it up for his native Wakefield!), the icy grandeur and crunching beats of ‘Hunter’ and ‘5 Years’ were the perfect natural fit, the driving drama of ‘Bachelorette’ an ecstatic high.

And reshaping other songs into this template resulted in equally incendiary results – muscular arrangements of ‘Where Is The Line?’ and ‘Mutual Core’ increased their vibrancy and paired well with the slowly reviving spirits of late Vulnicura cuts ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Mouth Mantra’ – “I am not hurt…”. And if one longed for a track from Debut, the trio of Post classics more than made up for that – the martial stridency of ‘Army of Me’, a neo-classical take on ‘Possibly Maybe’ and a simply euphoric ‘Hyperballad’ as a single song encore wrapped up a hugely satisfying gig.

In a year in which she will turn 50 and a solo career which has spanned three decades thus far, there’s still something deeply reassuring about seeing Björk live. You know you’re gonna get a crazy outfit (serving up butterfly realness here), but you also know you’re gonna get fierce musical and performative integrity. Seeing an artist so utterly subsumed in their craft yet remaining accessible, approachable even (if one dared to ever pin such a butterfly down), remains an absolute privilege. 

That’s why I’m up to my 7th time of seeing her in nearly 20 years and can’t see that stopping any time soon.