Review: 9 to 5, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“I might just make it work”

As frothy as 9 to 5 the Musical may seem, it shouldn’t be underestimated as a piece of theatre that puts three women front and centre in its narrative – it can feel like these sadly remain as few and far between in the 1980 of the original film as it does in the 2017 of the UK fringe premiere of its musical adaptation. And reflecting that, director Joseph Hodges and casting director Harry Blumenau have really done the business in selecting a terrific trio to lead their show.

Pippa Winslow’s Violet leads from the front with a wonderfully wry wit and poised determination, Amanda Coutts’ Judy blossoms in self-confidence throughout to nail her 11 o’clock number, and Louise Olley’s Doralee is an utterly radiant stage presence, delivering the kind of direct eye contact that could leave a boy questioning his sexual preferences. And together, these three secretaries at Consolidated Industries tackle workplace misogyny in their own inimitable way. Continue reading “Review: 9 to 5, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Paper Hearts, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“What would Barbara Cartland do?”

After a successful run in Edinburgh last summer and ahead of a tour in Germany this coming summer, new British musical Paper Hearts arrives in Highgate at the always charming Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre. Written and composed by Liam O’Rafferty, it is a boldly conceived piece for a debut musical and one which takes an ambitiously fresh spin on the rom-com genre.

Set in The Final Chapter, an independent bookshop with a devoted local clientele, Atticus Smith splits his time between working in the shop and being a frustrated writer. But when an online retail giant threatens to swallow the business whole, he is finally spurred into action, not least by the fact that his estranged father is behind the takeover, but also by the arrival of attractive management consultant Lilly Sprockett.

Paper Hearts’ twist comes with the way that this contemporary narrative is interspersed with scenes from Atticus’ novel-in-progress about Russia on the verge of WWII. As historical romance and tragedy plays out at the same time as modern-day shenanigans (there’s romantic entanglements aplenty here!), the parallel worlds feed into each other as fictional characters start to give advice and real-world events inspire new plot dynamics in his book. Continue reading “Review: Paper Hearts, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Anything Goes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“If love affairs you like. 
With young bears you like. 
Well, nobody will oppose!”

Last year’s Christmas musical at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse – Legally Blonde – was a break from recent tradition which has seen them lovingly recreate classic Broadway musicals like Guys and Dolls, Crazy For You and Singin’ in the Rain in miniature. Though smaller in scale, Ovation’s productions have never been lacking in ambition and so I was most pleased indeed to see Cole Porter’s Anything Goes on the slate for this festive season.

And as per usual, John Plews’ distillation of the 1934 show is a thrill from start to finish, slickly directed in its traverse staging which allows both for a practical paciness and a real fluidity of movement, especially in the cleverly constructed choreography of Chris Whittaker. With plenty of tap, a whole deal of razzmatazz and some absolute corkers of a song (‘You’re The Top’, ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’, ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’), it’s near song and dance heaven. Continue reading “Review: Anything Goes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Othello, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“O god that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains”

Playing in rep with Twelfth Night at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre, Arrows and Traps’ Othello sees them take a slightly different approach to the tragedy, one which is closer to the way in which they reimagined Macbeth earlier this year. Modernised and musicalised, Will Pinchin’s movement plays a key role in the elegant tenor of Ross McGregor’s visually stimulating production.

Much less of an ensemble show than Twelfth Night, Othello offers an interesting contrast in featuring leading performances, even if they are somewhat uneven. Spencer Lee Osborne’s Othello is fascinatingly insecure which offers a route into his emotional journey, if not quite convincing that he could ever become a general. And Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona responds well to this intensity, playing up her innocence but never cloyingly so. Continue reading “Review: Othello, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Twelfth Night, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“If music be the food of love then play on”

It may be music that feeds love according to Shakespeare but it is lust that drives Arrow and Traps’ interesting production of Twelfth Night, playing in rep with Othello at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate. Sebastian and Antonio have been shagging for three months, Feste is pining for Maria, Olivia’s loins are thrustingly on fire for Cesario, Orsino and Cesario all but do it on the bed and on the floor – what country friends is this? Well it’s a most libidinous Illyria.

Ross McGregor’s production thus puts sex firmly on the table, a bold move and one which pays off in the first half, upping the stakes in familiar relationships and teasing insights into lesser explored ones. So whilst it is no surprise that Olivia and Orsino want to get laid, it’s good to see it acknowledged so explicitly for once. But it’s also intriguing to see the depth of Malvolio’s feelings for Olivia as shown here and to consider the dynamics of a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Antonio. Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Legally Blonde, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“You need to see me in a brand new domain”

A bit of a change over at Upstairs at the Gatehouse has seen their customary Christmas musical take on a more modern bent after recent successes with classics such as Guys and Dolls, Crazy For You and Singin’ in the Rain. Over the past years, many a West End musical has been cleverly refashioned for this intimate space in Highgate, where fringe premieres of The Drowsy Chaperone, Buddy, and Avenue Q have previously been seen, and it is to the latest of these that the in-house Ovation Theatres have turned with Legally Blonde the Musical.

Like protagonist Elle Woods herself, the show might easily be dismissed on superficial grounds but it is worth remembering that it managed over three years at the Savoy in the cutthroat world of the West End musical and also took home the Olivier for Best New Musical. A good deal of that was due to the winning charms of Sheridan Smith but there’s also no denying that Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s ebullient score and Heather Hach’s adroitly pitched book from Amanda Brown’s novel and the Reese Witherspoon-starring film taps into something irresistible. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Singin’ in the Rain, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“I’ve a smile on my face”

As unlikely as it may seem, you could easily make the case that some of the best musical theatre happening in London right now is taking place above a pub in Highgate. John and Katie Plews’ Ovation Productions have a sterling record in small-scale smash-hit musicals at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and their festive shows are usually the pick of the bunch. This winter sees them take on the perennial classic Singin’ in the Rain and naturally, it is a gloriously resounding success. And yes, of course there is rain – you gotta go to see how they do it though.

The key to the Plews’ triumph lies in the uncanny ability to both distil and reimagine Broadway classics perfectly for this 120-or-so seat space and often in traverse. That means choreography (from Chris Whittaker) so audacious that audiences applaud mid-song, that means design (by Sarah June Mills) that hits all the key notes – a lamppost to lean on, steps to hop up and down on, seats to tip back – without cluttering the stage, that means musical direction (from Matt Ramplin, leading a band of six) unafraid to just exude Broadway pizzazz as it delivers the superbly evergreen score. Continue reading “Review: Singin’ in the Rain, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: When Midnight Strikes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“Making resolutions we’ll hold on fast”

Abigail may have been the one holding the party in the 70s but on Millenium Eve, it is Jennifer West who is the hostess with the mostess as she invites friends and family over for a dinner party in her swanky Manhattan apartment. But unexpected guests throw her seating plan awry, the booze is flowing just a little too liberally and more importantly, she’s found an incriminating note in her husband’s coat pocket – it is clear this will be a New Year’s Eve to remember… Kevin Hammonds and Charles Miller’s musical When Midnight Strikes first played at the Finborough in 2007 and those stalwart defenders of new British musical theatre Aria Entertainments, along with co-producers Penny Rock Productions, have put on its first revival at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre pub.

At a time when the future of the new British musical is bemoaned, it is a wonder that this score isn’t better known. Miller marries a pop sensibility to the rigours of a book musical and has produced something that flows with a vibrancy and urgency through Hammonds’ story, hooking us in with swirling balladry (there’s at least two songs that could become cabaret standards), perky comedic numbers, and a genuine sense of the storytelling power of this form. ‘Shut Up’ is a marvellously frank song which sees various characters voice their inner thoughts about the inanity of making small talk with random fellow partygoers; I Never combines the raucous revelations of a drinking game with candid insights into the emotional lives of those playing, Continue reading “Review: When Midnight Strikes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Crazy For You, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“I’ve just got a feeling, tonight’s the night!”

Much of the attention on London fringe musicals goes to the pocket powerhouses south of the river like the Union and the Landor but some of the most exciting productions are to be found above a pub in Highgate. Under John and Katie Plews’ artistic directorship, they have regularly secured the rights to host the first London fringe productions of such massive shows like Buddy and Guys and Dolls and have done so to great acclaim. And they’ve done it once again by putting on the fringe premiere of Gershwin songbook musical Crazy For You, last seen here at the Open Air Theatre and then the West End.

Although based on the Gershwin production Girl Crazy, this is a relatively new show that was reconceived to feature more gems from the Gershwin back catalogue. Ken Ludwig’s book is a frothily light thing, a boy and a girl from different worlds fall for each other even though his family bank is about to close down her family business, including a theatre, and the only way to save the day and any chance of love is to put on a show. It’s silly but charming, wit and warmth are the order of the day and John Plews’ production never loses sight of that. Continue reading “Review: Crazy For You, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Guys and Dolls, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“What’s happening all over? I’ll tell you what’s happening all over”

2011 really has been a fantastic year for fringe musicals in London. Theatres south of the river like the Landor, the Union and Southwark Playhouse have delivered works of great precision and concentrated passion, but at this late juncture in the year, the team Upstairs at the Gatehouse have redressed the balance northwards with an audaciously thrilling production of Frank Loesser’s classic Guys and Dolls, the first fringe version of it to be seen in London. Noo Yoik gangsters, gamblers, showgirls, missionaries and compulsive eaters all come together as guys chase unattainable dolls and other dolls try to get their guys down the aisle whilst they’re trying to organise a little gambling tournament. And of course it is all accompanied by one of the most glorious scores in musical theatre – no mean feat for a fringe venue to attempt.

The space above the Highgate pub has been opened up marvellously in Racky Plew’s traverse staging which allows Martin Thomas’ free-flowing design to cleverly work in the limited space yet make it feel ideally suited to the purpose. But the main beneficiary of the staging is Lee Proud’s choreography which is outrageously daring (people in the front row are safe, but may flinch!) and breathtakingly executed with style and accuracy by the 12-strong ensemble, the tall drink of ginger ale that is Paul Bullion stood out most for me. From the striking opening routine to the iconic leaping dance of the dice-rolling men to the teasing turns from Miss Adelaide and her counterparts, this is pure quality across the board and incredible to see at such close quarters. Continue reading “Review: Guys and Dolls, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”