Review: Sunday in the Park with George, Théâtre du Châtelet

“Well there are worse things…on a Sunday”

As a rule, I have generally resisted the urge to go to the theatre whilst on holiday, preferring to actually take a proper break from it all, but with free Eurostar tickets to take care of and the promise of a cast that included Julian Ovenden, Beverley Klein and Sophie-Louise Dann, I could not resist the lure of making a trip to Paris to see the Théâtre du Châtelet’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. It is a Sondheim that I hadn’t seen before and the Châtelet’s reputation for producing his work with Lee Blakeley at the helm (previous years have seen them put on A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and next year is Into the Woods) meant that building a weekend away around it was an irresistible choice.

The show uses Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as a starting point explore the relationship between artists and the art they create, and also the impact that pursuing the creative impulse has on those close to them. Ovenden fits the role of Georges perfectly, the grandeur of his virile voice a good match both for the compulsive obsession of the artist and the demands of leading such a show as this – if he wanted to (and I’m not so sure that he does), he really could become one of the premier leading men de nos jours. As his long-suffering mistress Dot, Dann is highly appealing and sounds wonderful and there’s lovely work from supporting players like Francesca Jackson and Rebecca Bottone as a pair of flirty shopgirls and Klein’s Yvonne, negotiating the bumps of her own marriage to an artist. Continue reading “Review: Sunday in the Park with George, Théâtre du Châtelet”

Review: The Hired Man, Mercury

“You take yourself with you, wherever you go”

Sampling the best musical theatre that this country has to offer can prove to be a time-consuming business as it is increasingly the case that some of the best work is being done by theatres outside of London. Sheffield, Chichester and Leicester have all made it onto my theatres that I regularly visit now and after this stellar in-house production of Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man (in a co-production with Leicester’s Curve), it seems that Colchester’s Mercury Theatre might be joining that list.

It helps that the show can lay claim to being one of the best new British musicals of recent decades – Goodall’s sweeping, folk-tinged score marries strikingly with Melvyn Bragg’s book, based on his own novel inspired by the tough life of his grandfather in the Cumbrian hills, and what results is a work of hugely elegiac beauty. Stretching from 1989 through to 1921, The Hired Man covers a definitive period of British history in depicting the often grim realities of life in the more rural areas of the country at a time of great social and economic upheaval.  Continue reading “Review: The Hired Man, Mercury”

Review: Piaf, Curve

“A quoi ça sert, l’amour?”

Pam Gem’s play Piaf is a curious thing. As a piece of biographical drama, it barely scrapes the surface of the troubled life of the famed French chanteuse, using an episodic style to feature key vignettes as we speed through the rollercoaster ups and downs of her rise to iconic status. And inbetween these scenes, we get performances of some of her more famous songs like ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. But from these slight beginnings can come some kind of alchemic wonder as demonstrated in the superlative 2008 Donmar Warehouse production which featured Elena Roger in the kind of performance that I will remember for the rest of my life.

So no pressure at all on any subsequent productions…though Paul Kerryson’s revival for Leicester’s Curve theatre – a venue really carving out a niche for itself as one of the hottest spots for musical theatre (even if this is technically a play with songs…) – with Frances Ruffelle in the lead role comes close to capturing some of that magic. Staging the show in the more intimate studio there is an inspired decision, enabling the kind of cosy nightclub feel that is entirely right for this kind of performance. For Ruffelle really does dig deep into the emotion of the character to give an almost shocking rawness to her, a blunt directness that makes no apologies for the selfishness of her actions and which lends an even greater depth to her renditions of the songs.  Continue reading “Review: Piaf, Curve”

Review: Bull, Sheffield Studio

“If we see someone who’s really going to fuck up the rest of us because they’re stupid or slow or weak or thin or short or ugly or has dandruff or something you have to desire somewhere deep within you to take them down first”

Travelling from London to Sheffield to see a play that is 50 minutes long may seem close to madness but playwright Mike Bartlett is someone whose work I would happily go far to see and so there was no doubt that a day-trip to see Bull would be on the cards. I actually caught a rehearsed reading of the show at the Finborough a couple of years ago, so I knew the ballpark it was in – more the blistering intimacy of Contractions and Cock than the epic sprawling grandeur of 13 and Earthquakes in London – and with a top-notch cast being directed by Clare Lizzimore in the studio space at the Crucible, expectations were high.

And this production certainly met them. Bartlett locates Bull in a tense office environment where three members of a sales team are awaiting a meeting with their boss where one of them is going to get fired. The atmosphere is clearly survival of the fittest and it soon becomes apparent that Thomas lacks the killer business mindset of Tony and Isobel and in a brilliantly sustained barrage of bullying and mindgames which last the entire duration, they systematically dishearten, deconstruct and destroy their target. Continue reading “Review: Bull, Sheffield Studio”

The 2012 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations

Best Actor
Justin Moorhouse, Two, Royal Exchange
Christopher Ravenscroft, The Winslow Boy, Bolton Octagon
Clifford Samuel, Obama the Mamba,
President Of The Slums, Lowry
Ed Gaughan, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Exchange


Best Actress
Victoria Elliott, Two, Royal Exchange
Lucy van Gasse, Wonderful Town, Lowry
Maxine Peake, Miss Julie, Royal Exchange
Lysette Anthony, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Royal Exchange
Imogen Stubbs, Orpheus Descending, Royal Exchange

Best supporting actor
John Branwell, Alfie, Bolton Octagon
Antony Eden, Taking Steps, Oldham Coliseum
Russell Dixon, Macbeth, Bolton Octagon
Christopher Villiers, The Winslow Boy, Bolton Octagon

Best supporting actress
Natalie Grady, The Daughter-in-Law, Library Theatre
Clare Calbraith, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, Royal Exchange
Carla Henry, Miss Julie, Royal Exchange
Maggie Service, The Country Wife, Royal Exchange

Best Actor in a Visiting Production
Karl Davies, Henry V and The Winter’s Tale, Lowry
John Owen-Jones, The Phantom of the Opera, Palace
Ray Fearon, Julius Caesar, Lowry
Robert Bathurst, Blue/Orange, Opera House

Best New Play
The Gatekeeper, by Chloe Moss, Royal Exchange Studio
Snookered, by Ishy Din, Oldham Coliseum
Towers Of Babel, by Nick Yardley, 24:7 Theatre Festival
Obama the Mamba, President Of The Slums, by Kevin Fegan, Lowry

Best Actress in a Visiting Production
Josefina Gabrielle, The King and I, Lowry
Elaine C Smith, I Dreamed a Dream, Palace
Sian Phillips, Cabaret, Lowry

Best Performance in a Studio Production
Tricia Kelly, The Gatekeeper, Royal Exchange Studio
Fred Bloom, No Sleep For The Haunted, Lowry Studio
Reuben Johnson, Wrecked, Lowry Studio
Julie Hesmondhalgh, Black Roses, Royal Exchange Studio
Rachel Austin, Black Roses, Royal Exchange Studio

Best Production
The Winslow Boy, Bolton Octagon
Orpheus Descending, Royal Exchange
Arabian Nights, Library Theatre
Wonderful Town, Royal Exchange/The Halle/
Lowry, at the Lowry


Opera

Giulio Cesare, Opera North, Lowry
Xerxes, Royal Northern College of Music
Hansel and Gretel, Clonter Opera
The Maiden in the Tower/ Kashchei The
Immortal, Buxton Festival
Don Giovanni, Opera North, Lowry


Dance

Hofesh Shechter – Political Mother, Lowry
Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Lowry
Lyric Pieces, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Buxton Opera House
Some Like It Hip Hop, Zoo Nation, Lowry
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, New Adventures Production, Lowry


Best Visiting Production

DNA, Hull Truck, Royal Exchange Studio
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Northern Broadsides/
New Vic Theatre, Buxton Opera House
Our Country’s Good, Out Of Joint/Bolton Octagon, at Bolton Octagon
Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Company, Lowry
Blue/Orange, Theatre Royal Brighton production, Opera House


Best Musical
The Phantom of the Opera, Palace
Carousel, Lowry
9 – 5, Opera House
American Idiot, Palace
The Lion King, Palace

Best Special Entertainment
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live!, Opera House
Translunar Paradise, Lowry
Star Cross’d, Oldham Coliseum
Cinderella, Oldham Coliseum

Best Design
Manchester Lines, Library Theatre
Wonderful Town, Lowry
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Oldham Coliseum
Hansel and Gretel, Clonter Opera
Arabian Nights, Library Theatre

Best Studio Production
Days Of Light, Starving Artists, Royal Exchange Studio
Snookered, Tamasha/Oldham Coliseum/Bush
Theatre, Oldham University
Black Roses, Royal Exchange Studio
London, Paines Plough/Live Theatre and Salisbury
Playhouse, Royal Exchange Studio

Best Ensemble
Snookered, Oldham Coliseum
Star Cross’d, Oldham Coliseum
All the Bens, 24:7 Theatre Festival
Arabian Nights, Library Theatre


Best Newcomer
Tamla Kari, Saturday Night And Sunday
Morning, Royal Exchange
Anna Wheatley, Peter Pan, Octagon

Best Fringe
JB Shorts, Real Life Theatre Co,
Joshua Brooks, Manchester
All the Bens, 24:7 Theatre Festival
The Cell, 24:7 Theatre Festival
The Bubbler, Studio Salford

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“Hang the trifle, woman”

I think I only made it Stratford once last year, partly a consequence of so much of the RSC’s work playing in London as part of one festival or another, but once the casting was announced for The Merry Wives of Windsor, I knew I would be making the trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre once again. This production of Shakespeare’s comedy of middle-class trials and tribulations is in modern dress but the reference point is closer to the British sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s and as with many of those television shows, it has its high points and its low points.

Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel were thankfully the production’s highlight as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively. I’ve long been a devotee of Gilbreath and she remains an utter joy to watch on the stage. Superficially she’s something of an Essex wife here but we soon see the playful intelligence that lies behind the animal print and there’s much to enjoy as she deploys her flirtatious verve and feminine wiles – her final costume nearly converted me I tell you. And the contrast against Le Touzel is well worked: though a doughtier figure born of country life, they make believable firm friends and there’s a lovely constancy to the emotiveness with which she speaks, she touches the heart just as effectively as she tickles the ribs. Continue reading “Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

Review: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Lowry

“Just like the ones I used to know”

My last show before Christmas was a festive trip to the Lowry which maintained a long-running family tradition of being treated to a show by Aunty Jean just before the big day. This year saw us take in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas which has returned to the Lowry after a highly successful run a couple of years ago. I would have loved to have seen original stars Aled Jones and Adam Cooper return too, but this still made an engaging, if undemanding, frolic through the snow.

Based on the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, it has one of those plots it is best not to think about too much. Its premise is quite a sweet one: two ex-servicemen form a musical double act and as they find themselves chasing romance with a pair of singing sisters, end up in the Vermont hotel that belongs to their former Commanding Officer and whose future is in doubt due to a lack of snow. The only way to save the day is to…you’ve guessed it, put on a show! Continue reading “Review: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Lowry”

Review: My Fair Lady, Crucible

“Men are so decent, such regular chaps”

‘Tis a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that some of the best musicals in Britain are being produced outside of London. Places like Chichester Festival Theatre and Leicester Curve are regularly coming up with the goods, but one of the most reliable of regional theatres has been Sheffield’s Crucible and under Daniel Evans’ stewardship, their Christmas shows have become absolute must-sees. Last year’s Company was sensational, the year before Me and My Girl blew me away and this year, Lerner and Loewe’s all-time classic My Fair Lady gets a long awaited revival and it is a show I have never seen before on stage.

One of the lovely things about seeing well-known songs in their original context is that it can refocus the lyrical meaning. For me this was most apparent in the utterly gorgeous rendition of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ by Carly Bawden – rather than the grand set-piece I think I was expecting, it’s an understated exhalation of wonderment at the evening just passed and Bawden is gorgeous in it. The large-scale numbers do come though: ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ is delivered with the highly charismatic Martyn Ellis at the front and soon turns into a cracking fest of tap-dancing; ‘With A Little Bit of Luck’ has a subtler but no less impressive appeal; and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’s’ hopeful charm had me at ‘ello. Continue reading “Review: My Fair Lady, Crucible”

Review: Hello, Dolly! Curve

“I feel the room swayin’ for the band’s playin’ one of my old favourite songs from way back when”

There’s something about Dolly. When I first saw Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! at the Open Air Theatre back in 2009, I’d’ve happily sat through the show again straightaway despite being incredibly cold and damp. And though struggling to shake off the effects of an annoying bug, the same feeling caught me as we got to the end of Paul Kerryson’s production of the show for Leicester’s Curve Theatre, it is just one of those shows. This was a matinée preview full of incident though. A woman taken ill just before the end of the show was dealt with efficiently by the theatre staff, though its timing was most unfortunate as it all took place right under my nose in the final moments of the show. And a wayward underskirt threatened to topple Janie Dee mid-performance but ever the consummate professional, she whipped it off mid-song and carried on regardless. It all added to the undoubted charm of a gorgeously mounted show that is full of great heart.

Dee’s Dolly Levi is a marvellous confection, making this professional matchmaker less of an overtly comic whirlwind than one might expect. Her performance is full of subtlety: a deep sincerity in her beliefs, a minor note of melancholy that creeps in every time she mentions her late lamented Ephraim, but also a wonderful wit which makes the glint in her eye all the more playful whether she’s teasing audience members or pulling the strings of her clients. And though not necessarily the strongest singer, the arrangements have been cleverly reworked to suit her rich contralto and there’s something touching in having these songs delivered with a modicum of vulnerability rather than being belted out in the manner one assumes Caroline O’Connor would have done, her being originally cast in the title role but later withdrawing. Continue reading “Review: Hello, Dolly! Curve”