Review: The Cradle Will Rock, Arcola

“This is a war to end war, we do it for peace”

The final show to take place in the main theatre at the Arcola’s current premises on Arcola Street in Dalston, The Cradle Will Rock also marks the 10th anniversary of the theatre founded by Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen which will be moving just down the road to the Colourworks building and opening there with a new Rebecca Lenkiewicz play about Joseph Turner in the New Year. With book, music and lyrics by American Mark Blitzstein, the musical is set in a fictional town, Steeltown, USA and concerns the wide rifts between workers and the wealthy at a time when millions were unemployed: in this case it is the union struggles of the interwar period and 1937, though there’s much resonance in the material of the nefarious influence of those in positions of power on the average citizen that echo through to today.

Events take place as a liberty committee made up of the great and good of this particular town are arrested by a confused rookie cop on the very evening that the workers in the steel plant are voting whether to unionise themselves, that committee having set out to stop the vote. But as a series of vignettes play out, we come to see how each of the town’s leaders have fallen under the corrupt influence of the steel magnate Mr Mister with only a previous few people able to withstand the pressure and fight for what they believe is right and fair. Continue reading “Review: The Cradle Will Rock, Arcola”

Review: Showstopper! with the West End Whingers, Kings Head Theatre

“I’ve seen all sorts of things in pub theatres…”

Tonight saw a very special version of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, currently playing Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre, as it featured none other than fairy godfathers and inspiration to theatre bloggers across the nation, the West End Whingers as special guests. As a critics show, it took a slightly different format: whereas normally the audience are encouraged to shout out scenarios, musical styles and plot developments at the beginning and a show is improvised from there by the ensemble, here our invitees had been asked to write a review of a play from their imagination that does not currently exist and so that was the show that was then developed put on by the team, who were blissfully unaware of what was coming their way.

The show was Dametastick!! a tale of two theatrical divas, narcoleptic Andromeda Dench and Philomena Smith with a wooden leg, old drama school chums from the Rah-Dah estranged after marrying the same man, though at different times but now both in the twilight of their careers auditioning for the same part in The Grapes of Froth, a production being put on a pub theatre with pretensions of becoming an opera house and directed by the man who had been married to them both. Highly silly, highly amusing and enlivened even further by the requirements of the plot, including a tap routine whilst eating cream crackers, a grape-treading number that involved yodelling and a coup de théâtre at the finale which was so amazing it couldn’t even be mentioned until the very moment it came to pass. At least those were the things I could remember, the Whingers really packed a lot into their allotted 80 minutes! Continue reading “Review: Showstopper! with the West End Whingers, Kings Head Theatre”

Review: Iolanthe, Union Theatre

“He’s a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal”

Sasha Regan’s All-Male Iolanthe marks the third Gilbert and Sullivan show to receive the Union Theatre treatment in what is fast becoming an annual tradition of great quality. Last year’s Pirates of Penzance was hugely well-received transferring to both Wilton’s Music Hall and the Rose in Kingston so expectation was high for this lesser-known (by me at least!) show. What is it about? Well, the Lord Chancellor of England is in love with Phyllis, his shepherdess ward who loves Strephon, the half-fairy shepherd whose mother, Iolanthe, was condemned by the Fairy Queen to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal, who is none other than the Lord Chancellor. Thus the House of Lords and the legal profession come in for a bit of a battering as the fairies wreak their mischievous havoc in order to ensure everyone gets their happy ending.

With such a convoluted plotline and a considerable number of characters in the ensemble, I can’t imagine there’s much room for manoeuvre in putting an effective, individual interpretation on the show but Sasha Regan really has done a fabulous job here in choosing a framework which neatly sidesteps a whole world of difficulties but provides its own emotional reference points, complemented beautifully by Stewart Charlesworth’s design . When the fairies first arrived, there was a collective intake of breath as we worked out whether it was OK to laugh or not but after just a couple of beats, as it suddenly becomes evident what the framing device is (look at what the costumes are made from…), everyone relaxed into the genial mood. Yes, the constant references to fairies and mentions of a midnight assignation in St James’ Park caused many a titter from the audience but the tone is always an affectionate one, it is silly but not too silly, it is camp but not too camp, above all it is rip-roaring great fun. Continue reading “Review: Iolanthe, Union Theatre”

Review: Bright Lights Big City, Hoxton Hall

“Now this is what you wanted, all the frolics and the frenzy”

Tucked away in Shoreditch is Hoxton Hall, a Victorian music hall which now serves as a hub for much community arts work in the local area and now brings the London premiere of the musical Bright Lights, Big City. Set in New York in 1984, the story concerns a writer called Jamie whose response to a number of setbacks is to throw himself headlong into a life of debauchery. Struggling to deal with the recent death of his mother and with the reality of his wife leaving him, hard partying and taking drugs leads to him losing his job too and it is only with the persistent efforts of those who love him, can he find his way back to normality.

Performances across the ensemble are strong: Jodie Jacobs (with some seriously amazing crimped hair and who is appearing in her third musical in as many months!) and Rachel Wooding stood out for me, George Maguire’s Tad is a convincing Pied Piper-like figure leading Jamie astray and Rietta Austin’s vocal performance was most impressive. As Jamie himself, Paul Ayres does well vocally with a character who’s rarely offstage but could do with working a little more charm into his naïveté, elevating him slightly out of the everyman role as befits a leading man. Continue reading “Review: Bright Lights Big City, Hoxton Hall”

Review: FELA! National Theatre

“It’s not just about Fela, it’s about you”

FELA! is the annoyingly capitalised and punctuated show that enters the world of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and through a blend of dance, theatre and music, it takes a highly atmospheric journey through a crucial part of his life and it arrives at the National Theatre on the back of a much-lauded run on Broadway. The book is by Jim Lewis and Bill T Jones, the latter of whom is also the choreographer, but it uses the music and lyrics of Kuti’s own Afrobeat style to celebrate his life with some additional lyrics by Jim Lewis and music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to pull it altogether into this production. This is a review of a preview so all usual caveats apply and ticket prices for this show really are not cheap, booking this performance meant I got a £44 seat for £24.50 and I make no apologies for that.

The show is set in the summer of 1978 in Lagos, the then capital, at the Shrine, Kuti’s personal nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he has fought against both as a lyricist and an activist. Fela is giving one last concert before leaving the country due to the stresses of living under this regime, the opportunities offered to him elsewhere as a musician of increasing renown and as a grieving son, his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti a noted activist herself having been thrown to her death in an attack on their premises six months previously.

It doesn’t so much start as slide into action. The amazing 12 man band (who sound fabulous throughout) are playing from the moment the doors open in the theatre and slowly dancers appear from the wings and the aisles, chatting with audience members, with themselves, throwing shapes and warming up for a good ten minutes before anything actually happens. It is a neat introduction into what becomes a frenetic evening of sensory overload. Continue reading “Review: FELA! National Theatre”

Review: Company, Queens Theatre

“Good things get better, bad get worse. Wait, I think I meant that in reverse”

Last up in the programme of Stephen Sondheim celebration events from the Donmar Warehouse was a concert version of their 1995 production of Company. As with Merrily We Roll Along, last week’s offering, this show features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth with astonishingly bright musical direction from Gareth Valentine, but directed this time by Jamie Lloyd.

 The show centres around Bobby, a single man struggling to deal with the realities of adult relationships, and the people around him, his three girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. The show is presented as a set of short vignettes randomly scattered around Bobby’s 35th birthday rather than a linear plot which meant this performance didn’t really come across too well in the concert format especially compared to Merrily… Also, with a much larger cast or rather a greater division of songs amongst the cast, it did mean that there was some considerable variation in the performance level as opposed to the solidity provided by the leads last week. Continue reading “Review: Company, Queens Theatre”

Review: Spend Spend Spend! Richmond Theatre

“I was surprised at how much it affected me”

In 1961, Viv Nicholson won the equivalent of the lottery jackpot on the pools with her husband Keith in Castleford. Spend Spend Spend is a musical that tells the story, adapted from Nicholson’s own book, of how it was subsequently all frittered away, how money doesn’t always bring happiness and certainly doesn’t grant immunity from tragedy. The action is narrated from the perspective of the older Viv, reflecting back on her life as she rebuilds her life in South Yorkshire as a hairdresser. Originated at the Watermill, this actor-musician production is directed by Craig Revel Horwood and is reprising a successful UK tour this year.

Steve Brown’s score is solid, cohesive despite picking influences from a range of English music styles; Diego Pitarch’s design is simple, an effective replication of a Yorkshire pub which flexibly turns into a bedroom when needed; Revel Horwood’s choreography is attractive though not particularly adventurous, but this really is a show where the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a perfect confluence of each element, there’s not a huge amount of dancing for example which makes the routine to the title number an absolute blast and lending it a greater impact. And with its straight-forward direction and the no-nonsense approach to life that Viv and Keith espoused, the shows rockets through the ups and downs of life with remarkable candour in its portrayal of a flawed but aspirational woman. Continue reading “Review: Spend Spend Spend! Richmond Theatre”

Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams

“Everything in life is only for now”

There’s no show really that best typifies my love for the theatre, and specifically my love for London theatregoing, than Avenue Q. From its arrival at the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006, this was a show I fell head over heels for from the opening song and one that has provided constant pleasure to me ever since. Looking back, I think this counts up as my seventh visit to the show, plus one special Valentine’s Day cabaret show, and like every relationship it has had its ups and downs, but ultimately that’s only made my love for the show stronger and I was really pleased to be able to squeeze in one last visit to the final Friday afternoon show to bid it ‘furwell’. 

As if I couldn’t have loved this show more, the grace and humour with which the closing notices were announced just melted my heart. I’ve borrowed images of the set of posters from the Avenue Q Facebook page and posted them here to show you what I mean, I particularly love the ‘Available for Panto from 30 October’ line, it is so typical of the humour of the show and whoever has been in charge of the publicity should be commended for keeping a sense of humour throughout. The YouTube clip at the bottom is also well worth a watch.

Continue reading “Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams”

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Queens Theatre

“Feel the flow, hear what’s happening”

As part of the ongoing Sondheim birthday celebrations, the Donmar Warehouse is staging concert versions of two of his shows which have previously played at the theatre, but using the larger space of the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The first one was Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 show with music and lyrics from the man himself and book by George Furth, and this performance saw 12 of the original 15 members of the original Donmar Warehouse production from 2000 reunited on the stage.

The show covers two decades in the life of three friends but tells the story in reverse, starting with Franklin Shepherd a and works back in time to show how his professional and personal relationships, especially with collaborator Charley Kringas and confidante Mary Flynn, developed and changed as his success grew. And where this show really shone was in the superlative strength of the central trio: Julian Ovenden as the smooth-voiced and piano-playing Franklin was excellent in tracing the journey from jaded bitterness back to youthful idealism, Samantha Spiro was simply fantastic as the ever-constant Mary whose professional success can’t hide her personal disappointment at her unrequited love for her friend and Daniel Evans’ silver-voiced and nicely comic Charley was delightful. Anna Francolini also deserves a mention with a brilliantly judged acerbic performance as Gussie, Frank’s second wife. Continue reading “Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Queens Theatre”

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical (cast change), Savoy Theatre

“Ohmigod youguys! Ohmigod!”

So after an impromptu visit to see Legally Blonde a couple of weeks ago as a favour to a friend, my scheduled return to the show took place this weekend in order to see how the new cast members are settling in, with the first major cast change since the show opened. Since I saw it so recently (and I saw so much this week too…), I’m linking to my thoughts on seeing it again here instead of repeating them: this post will focus mainly on the newbies.

Simon Thomas has taken over as Wagner, which marks a change from casting a more famous name in this role as has been done previously despite it not really being a major role at all. I remember being surprised first time round at how little the character is featured in the show, given that Duncan James’ face was plastered all over the publicity. He does well in what is quite a thankless role really, but I did enjoy his performance and his handsomeness definitely helps! Carley Stenson did well as Margot with a more endearing and sweet take on this girl, having already developed a great chemistry with the other Delta Nu girls but Siobhan Dillon just exudes confidence as Vivienne, seeming as if she’s been in the ensemble for ages with a great performance both acting-wise and in her singing, especially that whopper of a note in the Legally Blonde Remix at the end. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde The Musical (cast change), Savoy Theatre”