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”

Review: Iolanthe, Richmond Theatre

A much welcome revival for Sasha Regan’s all-male Iolanthe, bringing Gilbert and Sullivan to Richmond Theatre as part of a UK tour

“What’s the use of being half a fairy?”

Delving into deep into your wardrobe can get you into all sorts of bother. With CS Lewis, you could end up in the wintry woods of Narnia and with Sasha Regan, you might find yourself in the dress-up fantasy world of light operetta. Of all of her all-male Gilbert and Sullivan productions, Iolanthe is the one which I remember most fondly (its transfer to Wilton’s Music Hall perfectly done) so the news that it was the choice for this year’s revival for a UK tour left me tripping hither and thither in excitement. 

And though I was a little apprehensive to revisit so beloved a production, this Iolanthe has stood up well. Mark Smith’s choreography with its suggestions of sign language for fairy speak, Stewart Charlesworth’s design making full use of the jumble box aesthetic, and Regan’s astute direction milking a show that’s more than a century old for all of its considerable comic potential and finding room for her own innovations as well. With MD Richard Baker controlling the music from his solo piano, this remains an arresting take on your G&S. Continue reading “Review: Iolanthe, Richmond Theatre”

Review: H.R.Haitch, Union

New musical H.R.Haitch at the Union Theatre has a feel of knockabout fun which begs not to be taken too seriously

“We are hoping for a happy outcome”

As Kensington Palace gears up for one royal wedding, Iris Theatre are jumping down the aisle first with their musical take on stately nuptuals H.R.Haitch, now playing at the Union Theatre. And though it features a mixed-race woman (like Meghan) marrying a prince, such is the development time for musicals that is actually the fact that she is a ‘commoner’ (like Kate, apparently) that proves the inspiration here.

For aspiring canapé-chef Chelsea is Barking born and bred, and a strident anti-monarchist to boot. And she’s pretty excited about her suspicions that her nice-but-dim boyf Bertie is going to propose! Thing is, Bertie is actually Prince Albert – heir to the British throne and (for reasons I’m not sure we ever really understood) living incognito among the people. Will Queen Mary accept her? Can the older Princess Victoria thwart the line of succession? And what is it with politicians and pigs…? Continue reading “Review: H.R.Haitch, Union”

Review: Privates on Parade, Union Theatre

“Everyone knows it’s the start of the Third World War”

Written in 1977 about events in 1948, there can be a temptation to dismiss the campery and dated gender politics and racial stereotyping of Privates on Parade as outdated and offensive. An argument could be made – and it is one that I have made myself before – that such notions need to be interrogated and challenged by productions. But equally, when the writing is intelligently nuanced and the direction sensitively done, audiences can be left to do this for themselves.

And so it is – I find – with Peter Nichols’ play with songs, presented here by Kirk Jameson at the Union. Take the time to delve beneath the surface and you’ll soon see there’s incisive commentary about the insidious nature of colonialism, about the personal freedoms that can be explored when released from the social strictures of home, about the contemporary lack of opportunities for women, about how war is an equal opportunities offender when it comes to shattering happiness, whether gay or straight.  Continue reading “Review: Privates on Parade, Union Theatre”

Review: Imagine This, Union

“There’s singing, there’s dancing, and all the Jews die in the end”

The West End production of Imagine This lasted for barely a month in 2008, so it usually one of the first shows named when it comes to lists of notorious flops. Which might explain, at least partly, why it has taken nearly a decade for anyone to go near the show again, that honour going to first-time director Harry Blumenau who is now mounting the musical at the Union Theatre, in a well-cast production seeking to reassess that reputation.

For me, as a first-timer to the show, it didn’t feel hard to see why it didn’t succeed. Glenn Berenbeim’s grimly stoic book is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 where a group of actors are trying to lift spirits by staging a play. And not just any play, it’s the story of the siege of Masada, a historical act of Jewish resistance and thereby flicking the v-sign to the Nazis. But Berenbeim attempts to gild the lily by throwing a would-be epic romance which ultimately cheapens the narrative fatally. Continue reading “Review: Imagine This, Union”

Review: Lucky Stiff, Union

“A hero on the run
And a woman with a gun
And an ending with a twist
And a brother who is pissed”

What would you do for six million dollars? That’s the question underlying Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty’s (music) 1988 musical farce Lucky Stiff, based on the 1983 novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth. And being a farce, it’s not a story to examine too closely as a Home Counties shoe salesman, a Brooklyn dog home employee and an Atlantic City optometrist and his legally blind sister converge on the South of France in pursuit of the money.

Shoeshop Harry is the one with his nose in front – it is a bequest to him from his late uncle that kicks off all the shenanigans. A sizeable inheritance with an all-expenses-paid trip to the French Riviera to boot, with just the one catch – Harry has to take his uncle’s body with him on every step of the holiday. As several other interested parties get wind of the news, the scene is set for all sorts of supremely silly capers and your enjoyment of the show may well depend on your tolerance of daftness. Continue reading “Review: Lucky Stiff, Union”

Review: Salad Days, Union

“I’m gay and I’m breathless and I’m jubilant and I’m dancing”

As fizzy as a sherbet dip, as baffling as the rules of cricket, as delightful as the finest afternoon tea, Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days is quite possibly the best classic British musical you haven’t heard of. I only came across it for the first time myself with Tête à Tête’s superlative production at the old Riverside Studios in 2010 but instantly tumbled for its many charms and when the show came back in 2012, so I giddily went back. Now it is the turn of the Union Theatre to revive the musical and hopefully win over some new converts.

And it well could do so, given how successful Bryan Hodgson’s production is here. Much of its beauty comes from the thoroughness of his vision, the detail and thought that has gone into its every aspect. Creatively, Catherine Morgan’s design wisely maximises space, the better to let Joanne McShane’s gorgeous choreography with its cherry-picking of early twentieth century dance influences let rip. And placing the band at the rear addresses a good deal of the sound issues that affected The Hired Man, as well as providing a nifty solution to getting into outer space. Continue reading “Review: Salad Days, Union”