Review: Tom Brown’s School Days, Union Theatre

A musical adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days at the Union Theatre has some moments, and performances, to treasure

“Just don’t get caught”

It is now the fifth year that the Phil Willmott Company’s themed series of Essential Classics has taken over the Union Theatre and this year’s season takes on the mantle of V.E. Day, 75 Years On, looking at Britain and WWII through the lens of Noël Coward, musical theatre and this opening production of Tom Brown’s School Days.

Full disclosure, I have to admit to knowing basically nothing about Tom Brown…, Thomas Hughes’ novels and its subsequent adaptations never having figured in my childhood. So the fact that Willmott’s new version moves the action from the 1830s to the 1940s has no impact on my expectations, though it has raised an eyebrow or three from those to whom I’ve mentioned it. Continue reading “Review: Tom Brown’s School Days, Union Theatre”

The finalists of The Offies 2020

The finalists for the 2020 Offies (for performances in 2019) have been announced and congratulations to all 89 mentioned below. A tip of the hat too to the 400+ nominees who you can find here.

DESIGN

Design: Costume
Adrian Gee, Amour, Charing Cross Theatre
Emily Bestow, 42nd Street, Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Hannah Wolfe , Great Expectations, National Youth
Theatre, Southwark Playhouse

Design: Set
Diego Pitarch, Night of the Living Dead – Live!,
Pleasance
Justin Williams, Whistle Down the Wind, Union
Theatre
Lee Newby, The View UpStairs, Soho Theatre
Rachael Ryan, Thrill Me, Hope Theatre

Design: Sound
Benjamin Grant, The War of the Worlds, New Diorama
Lex Kosanke, Hunger, Arcola
Matt Eaton, All’s Well That Ends Well, Guildford Bard,
Jermyn Street Theatre
Xana, Blood Knot, Orange Tree

Design: Lighting
Christopher Nairne, Preludes, Southwark Playhouse
Clancy Flynn, An Act of God, Vaults
Jessica Hung Han Yun, Equus, English Touring Theatre,
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Nic Farman, Night of the Living Dead – Live!, Pleasance

Design: Video
Andrzej Goulding, The Unreturning, Theatre Royal
Stratford East
Ben Bull, Baby Reindeer, Bush Theatre
Douglas Baker, Moby Dick, Jack Studio Theatre Continue reading “The finalists of The Offies 2020”

Review: Whistle Down the Wind, Union Theatre

A gently lovely production of Whistle Down the Wind makes for a tender Christmas treat at the Union Theatre

“He’s not a fella, he’s Jesus”

Do miracles happen in Burnley? You might not have immediately thought so but Whistle Down the Wind begs to differ. Russell Labey and Richard Taylor’s adaptation, as distinct from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s, draws variously on Mary Hayley Bell’s novel, Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse’s screenplay and Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes’ film to tell its own version of Jesus appearing once again in a stable, kinda sort of maybe. 

Cathy, Nan and Charles are three Lancashire schoolkids who one day find a strange man in their barn. Rumours of a convict on the loose are swirling around their village but Cathy immediately clocks him as our Lord Jesus Christ and swears her siblings to secrecy. Sure enough, word soon spreads around the other local kids but as they all decide to keep the secret too, delighting in the rapturous devotion he, or He, inspires in them. Continue reading “Review: Whistle Down the Wind, Union Theatre”

Review: The Green Fairy, Union Theatre

New musical The Green Fairy is a bleak but bold experience at the Union Theatre, featuring the unmissable, almighty voice of Julie Atherton

“So how are you, aside from being an alcoholic”

The Green Fairy announces itself as “a queer pub musical” which sounds like a genre that should have existed for years already and certainly feels like one rich with potential. And in the hands of debut musical writers Jack Sain (book, music and lyrics) and Stephen Libby (lyrics) together with dramaturg Hannah Hauer-King, it proves intriguing, even if the final effect is considerably more Once than Old Compton Street.

Which is a good thing because this musical fully embraces its intimate actor-musician ensemble and  in a still all-too-rare occurrence, focuses on the L (or perhaps the B) in LGBT+. It is open mic night at newly refurbished pub The Green Fairy and knowing her estranged daughter is going to be singing, Jo turns up to the place where she used to work and live and drink, and where the ghosts of her past – her girlfriend, her husband, her childhood best friend – still linger on. Continue reading “Review: The Green Fairy, Union Theatre”

Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Union Theatre

Some cracking choreography and two barnstorming lead performances make Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a musical treat at the Union Theatre

“Do they discuss romance
Or is the subject high finance?”

A kiss on the hand may indeed be quite continental (see, Brexit really does get everywhere…!) but a classic musical that is just straight-up uncomplicated good fun is everyone’s best friend. Sasha Regan’s revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fully embraces all its candyfloss campness but anchors it with the crucial decisions to forefront the easy musicality of Jule Styne’s fantastic score (ably assisted by MD Henry Brennan) and in casting its two female leads just right, to remind us that it isn’t actually as throwaway as all that in the end.

True, the book, by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields from her original novel, is mainly frothy fun as it follows Arkansas showgirl Lorelei Lee to Paris and back with any number of wealthy suitors in her wake. But by keeping her friend and ‘chaperone’ Dorothy high in the mix, a certain brand of female solidarity shines through. And with Abigayle Honeywill and Eleanor Lakin, the show proves riotous good fun. Tackling the role made famous on film by a certain Ms Monroe, Honeywill nails the offbeat humour and charming warmth of a budding superstar. And Lakin offers up some stunningly confident vocals as her charismatic confidante – one to watch out for, mark my words. Continue reading “Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Union Theatre”

Review: Hello Again, Union Theatre

Round and round and round we go. La Ronde surfaces again as Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again at the Union Theatre

“I’ve been searching high and low
For you but then
What does it matter?
Hello again”

It is a universal truth that you’re never too far away from some adaptation or another of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. It’s been gay, it’s been musical, it’s been gender-neutral, it’s been Hollywood, and now it is back to being musical again, with the Union Theatre’s revival of Michal John LaChiusa’s Hello Again

LaChiusa’s adaptation sets each of its ten scenes in a different decade of the twentieth century, aiming for a broad investigation of how, if at all, love and sex have changed over the years. This also allows him to cherrypick from a much wider range of musical styles than if he’d stuck with the original’s 1890 Vienna. Continue reading “Review: Hello Again, Union Theatre”

Review: Can-Can!, Union Theatre

As a dance musical, Can-Can! is a high-kicking delight at the Union Theatre

“My cheeks are clenched”

Courtesy of choreographer Adam Haigh, there is some seriously impressive dance going on at the Union Theatre right now. You might expect some good moves from a musical Can-Can! but the full company sequences that book-end the show are full of verve and vitality and some jaw-dropping moments, which are all the more impressive for taking place on a stage as intimate as this.

Phil Setren’s production wisely scatters more dance performances throughout the show, ensuring that we’re never too far from a routine, as the rest of the musical is something of a mixed affair. A grab-bag approach to its construction means it often feels scattered – based loosely on Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells but moved to Paris, its populated with both real life figures from La Belle Époque and fictional characters. Continue reading “Review: Can-Can!, Union Theatre”

Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre

Brass the Musical at the Union Theatre is a powerfully moving celebration of sacrifices made, of service offered, of music itself – beautifully done

“Just until our lads come back”

There’s a neat symmetry to the life of Brass the Musical thus far. Originally commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, its professional London premiere now marks the Armistice Centenary. Benjamin Till’s musical, with additional lyrics from Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker, thus serves as a powerful tribute to those who served, both at home and on the frontline.

What is particularly gorgeous about Brass is how it is suffused with the joy of music. Its power to bring people together (as in the characterful ‘Forming a Band’), its potential to lift spirits (the marvelous storytelling of ‘Whistle Billy’), its ability to express something deeper beyond just words (the haunting vocalese at the trenches). And as an expression of the musical theatre form, it works beautifully in deepening an already profoundly moving piece of history.  Continue reading “Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre”

Review: Midnight, Union Theatre

A striking new musical at the Union Theatre based on Elchin’s Citizens of Hell, Midnight is enthralling, entertaining and exciting 

“If these walls could talk, well they’d probably just scream”

We all like to think that we would be part of the resistance if we were living under a repressive regime but the truth is, that kind of pressure is unimaginable unless that suffocating terror is a part of every waking moment, where life or death decisions mean exactly that. This is the milieu that Midnight exists in – Soviet Azerbaijan as 1937 draws to a close – where every knock on the door brings with it the threat of the secret police.

Based on Elchin’s play Citizens of Hell, Laurence Mark Wythe (music and lyrics) and Timothy Knapman’s (book and lyrics) musical adaptation is so very good at translating the eerie strangeness of this world and is a supremely confident new musical to boot. Essentially a three-handed psychological thriller, Kate Golledge’s production is superbly enhanced by the use of a ghostly actor-musician ensemble who complement and complicate the existence that our central couple have set up for themselves. Continue reading “Review: Midnight, Union Theatre”

Review: It’s Only Life, Union

A revue done right. Aria Entertainment’s It’s Only Life brings John Bucchino’s work to beautiful life at the Union Theatre

“There is a sidewalk in California
Where they put the stars right at your feet
And people delight in stepping on them…”

It’s trickier than you might think to make a revue really work. Putting together a programme of unconnected songs to showcase a composer’s work is one thing, but breathing genuine theatrical life into it is entirely another. Fortunately, the folks behind It’s Only Life, produced by Aria Entertainment at the Union Theatre, have done just that.

The US composer and lyricist John Bucchino is the man of the moment here, in a show conceived by himself and Daisy Prince. But it is tempting to consider director Tania Azevedo the real star, leading a superb company of cast and creatives to elevate what could be something quite slight, into a couple of hours of something really quite moving. Continue reading “Review: It’s Only Life, Union”