Review: Midsummer (a play with songs), Soho Theatre

“It’s Midsummer, in Edinburgh, it’s raining, and there’s these two people having sex”

After being blown away by how good Legally Blonde was at the weekend, I was little expecting to see something that made me feel as good (and possibly even better) so soon, but Edinburgh transfer Midsummer (a play with songs) did just that last night, tucked away in Dean Street’s Soho Theatre. I’ve seen a couple of musicals already this year and I can overwork a metaphor along with the best of them, so here a dubious extension thereof: if Priscilla was a frothy marshmallow on top of a cup of the best Viennese hot chocolate which was Legally Blonde, then Midsummer was the long weekend in Vienna that made it all possible, it is spontaneous, joyous, energetic, uplifting: something truly special.
Written by David Greig, the play is set over a whirlwind weekend in Edinburgh: Helena (Cora Bissett) a divorce lawyer and Medium Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) a small-time crook have a chance meeting in a bar which leads to a one-night-stand. They part the next morning, but events conspire to throw them back together and a crazy rollercoaster of a weekend ensues. The action is then enhanced throughout with a set of lo-fi songs by Gordon McIntyre which are performed by the pair onstage with guitars, Bissett in particular has a beautifully pleasing voice, putting me in mind of Tracey Thorn with a hint of Joni Mitchell.
And it is Bissett who is the star here, as so much more versatility is demanded of her as she frequently doubles up as a range of characters who the couple meet on their way and displaying a surprisingly effective wide range of male voices. Her mimicry is also well-served with a hysterical weather forecast scene which should crack up anyone who’s ever lived in Scotland. Pidgeon is also strong though as the everyman character who one cannot help but root for and equipped with a fine voice as well. They both carry the show with aplomb, as themselves, as the supporting characters and also as narrators: Dea Loher should also take note of how to utilise the third person narrative effectively, it’s extremely well done here.
But what makes Midsummer great is that underneath all of the comedy, the obvious love for Edinburgh and the gentle lilting songs, is a huge emotional depth. Swept away on the highs of the illicit thrills of the story, Greig is also unafraid to show us the struggles and the loneliness of being thirty-something and single and not necessarily happy with the decisions that one has been taking. In the end, all combines to give a touchingly authentic portrayal of two people attempting to decide what they really want from life and who finally take the philosopical advice offered by a parking meter, ‘change is possible’.

This is the show for people who say they don’t like musicals, (especially if they’re fans of indie music) it should convince even the hardest of hearts of the glorious power of theatre to transport you and move you deeply, even if you will never look at Elmo the same way again.

Running time: 105 minutes, with no interval
Playtext cost: £3.50

Review: Regolith, Finborough

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

“This we have craved. This is our nightmare. This is tomorrow.”

Running in repertoire for just six performances,
Regolith is a chance to catch a world premiere of a play by the Irish Chris Lee, a former Playwright-in-Residence at the Finborough.

There’s just the two characters, Sharp and Bitter, dressed the same, and they play out a twisting and turning mother-daughter relationship over the space of an hour in a number of short scenes. The play is set in some unspecified dystopian future, “the wrecked ruined rubble of the world” as described in the programme (which is also the meaning of Regolith: rubble), and the closest point of reference it called for me was the film ‘Children of Men’.

Harriet Ryder as Sharp is marvellously assured in just her second professional production, possessed of a great stillness which really captured the attention, especially in the quieter scenes: her description of the different types of intensive care was just heartbreaking. Janine Wood as Bitter was also good, with the slightly harder job of a much more abrasive, abusive character with perhaps a shade too much ‘bitterness’ given to her by the writing. They have great chemistry together though, and the opening scene of mother/daughter rituals is beautifully and nicely echoed in the final scenes with an unexpected twist.

Performed as it is on the set of Generous, the staging is minimal, just a swathe of black curtain and 3 chairs and the occasional prop. This really serves to focus on the language being spoken, which at times is darkly poetical and beautiful and highly revealing of the power that words can have over those we love and the way in which they can be used to manipulate people.

Enhanced by a subtle musical score and directed with a light touch by Ken McClymont, Regolith is an intriguing piece of work. I cannot honestly say that I understood it all, there are times when the attention wavered slightly, but it does not outstay its welcome and is very well acted.

Running time: 60 minutes with no interval
Programme cost: 50p

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical, Savoy

“You can’t come in here with all your singing, dancing and…ethnic movements”

If Priscilla Queen of the Desert was the marshmallow on top of the whipped cream on top of your cocoa, then Legally Blonde is the full mug of the best Viennese hot chocolate you can imagine. Sticking closely to the story of the film, with just a little streamlining, we follow Elle Woods, a Malibu princess and sorority queen whose world is rocked when her boyfriend leaves her for Harvard Law School and the pursuit of someone more ‘serious’. Elle then follows him but ends up finding out a lot more about herself than she anticipated. The book is completely original and I found it surprisingly good, the opening numbers of ‘Ohmigod you guys’ and ‘What you want’ were both great tunes, ‘Ohmigod’ in particular will not leave your head for hours! There are of course some weaker numbers in there, but never any boring ones which is achievement enough.

This show should be the making of Sheridan Smith as a real star. Channelling less Reese Witherspoon and more Anna Faris (of Scary Movie etc), her Elle sounds great, captures the heart and plays with it effortlessly. Interestingly, she’s quite goofy as well and I liked this almost screwball feel. Ms Smith should be commended for an excellent turn here, but also for her generosity of performance as well, she’s often to be found doing back-up dancing and singing during her colleagues’ numbers: a rare sight from a lead in a musical and a very welcome one.

One of its main strengths is that it is cast almost perfectly, not just with the leads but amongst the supporting roles as well. Aoife Mulholland (who appears to be pure muscle) made a great impact as the accused Brooke, singing effortlessly whilst skipping which can’t be easy; Alex Gaumond’s scruffy love interest is perfectly charming; Susan MacFadden brought great warmth to Elle’s cheerleading buddy; Jill Halfpenny’s lovelorn Paulette is funny and gets a brief hilarious opportunity to show off her dancing skills; Peter Davison as the sleazy legal profesor; Caroline Keiff’s icy Vivienne is nicely played too, I could go on! In fact the only real mis-step for me is Duncan James, he’s not bad, but his singing is so pop that it really does stand out and I do wonder what level of heartthrobness he actually brings to the show.

This care for the casting has also been extended to the rest of the company, even the swings, with a diversity of look which really works as it means that a different and authentic feel can be achieved in all of the scenes. One of Priscilla’s weaknesses was that the highly tanned, very muscular look that seemed to be the prerequisite and which looked fantastic in the outlandish costumes struggled to convince when trying to play the very essence of Australian heterosexual blokehood.

In the end, it is just really good fun: funny throughout with good original songs, but it is also tethered to an engaging story and the message of not judging people on first appearance and of the potential of self-discovery cheesy as it sounds, elevates this above the crowd of jukebox musicals. The fact that I am still beaming thinking about this show, more than 24 hours after I saw it, is testament enough for me that this is a winner. Omigod you guys, snaps for everyone, gays and Europeans!
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes, with one interval
Programme: £6(!) and there’s cocktails in flashing glasses for £8 but resist them, I have flashing ice cubes and flashing shot glasses from previous Christmasses languishing in a drawer…you will never use it again!

NB: There’s a lottery held before each show to get top price tickets for a tenner until the 13th January and for £25 thereafter, just turn up two hours before the show starts, pick up a ticket and then cross your fingers!

Review: Generous, Finborough

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

“What do you think politics is? It’s ‘a little bit here’ and ‘a little bit there’, it’s all short-term measures.”

Generous, by Michael Healey, won the Best New Play award in its native Canada in 2007 but has been somewhat neglected here in the UK, so the Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court with its long tradition of supporting Canadian playwrights has given it its first full run.

Structurally, it is described as 2 four-act plays which is just a fancy way of saying there’s four stories on show here. It’s an examination of altruism, the desire to help people and the motivations behind this. The first act of each story makes up the first half and then after we return from the interval, we see the concluding parts, some of which take place 15 years later, and suddenly we see that these disparate stories actually have some connections.

Healey has an eye for strongly drawn, complex, powerful female characters, and both Jane Perry as the amoral businesswoman Julia and Karen Archer as the judge with a murky family history are brilliantly cast and have great fun toying with and deconstructing the motivations of the men in their scenes, a hungry journalist and an overenthusiastic young lover respectively. Fortunately they are both matched by strong actors: Scott Christie as the reporter who shows the effect of 15 years in the business with great skill and Richard Beanland, the highlight of the whole show for me, as the nervously post-coital legal clerk who just cannot stop talking.

The other two sections pale by comparison, the first is a madcap political scrum which felt like a poor imitation of The Thick of It and didn’t really receive a proper second act, instead being lumped in with another strand, and the other had a strong second act, but the first half, a weird wordless fight over a bucket of fried chicken felt out of place, and an odd choice to take us into the break.

As a play about the politics behind decision making, this has a lot to say, in particular around the question of is there such a thing as a selfless good deed. What this play does is not just to ask this question of people in the political arena, but also of ourselves, of ordinary people in everyday life and this is helped by no end to the reconfiguring of the already intimate space of the Finborough into a miniature thrust stage, so that the action really is happening all around you. It wants to be a black comedy as well though and this has the unfortunate effect of making it less thought-provoking than it should be.

Running Time: 2 hours with one interval
Programme costs: £2

Review: Red, Donmar Warehouse

“One day the black will swallow the red”

Red, at the Donmar Warehouse, is a new play by John Logan about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his fictional new apprentice (Eddie Redmayne) and is spread over a couple of years so that we get a chance to see how their relationship progresses from that of master and pupil to something more as we come a crucial point in Rothko’s career: his acceptance of a massive commercial commission for the Four Seasons restaurant.

Alfred Molina is mesmerising as the darkly intense painter, his unpredictable eruptions are convincingly protrayed, his flawed confidence in himself unshakeable and he is evenly matched by Eddie Redmayne whose portrayal of the intimidated apprentice with his own personal demons. We see him growing into someone unafraid to challenge his master, unwilling to let Rothko off the hook and hence matches Molina’s energy with a wiry burgeoning intellect. Swiftly directed, it’s over in just over an hour and a half and I never once got bored, the lighting is also an excellent contributing factor to this, helping the canvases to pulsate as Rothko desired and constantly drawing the eye in, shedding a whole new light (pardon the pun) on his work for me.

Red is as interesting a play about art as I think I’ve ever seen. More successful than the recent The Line which utilised a similar famous painter (Degas) and apprentice relationship but suffered from a lack of real dramatic purpose whilst attempting to shoehorn in 30 years worth of events, this play benefits from being much more focused and unafraid to back up all of its verbosity with the presentation of art as a physical activity too (as typified in the priming scene, as top-rate a scene of theatre as you can get), resulting in a convincing authenticity of an artist at work.

Review: Innocence, Arcola

“I, confused by this white dialectic…”

Opening a season of German plays at the Arcola Theatre is Dea Loher’s Innocence and I attended the first preview last night. Translated by David Tushingham, it is a series of vignettes about people struggling along on the edge of society, separate stories that slowly being to intertwine to form a portrait of a dark and depressed urban existence.

Things get off to a very sticky start with a horribly awkward scene where two characters consistently refer to themselves and their actions in the third person, whilst the other character delivers her lines in a regular manner. The cumulative effect of this is disorientating and really quite annoying, I was most definitely not a fan of this style, fortunately the rest of the first half was free from this strange device. It does recur for one scene in Act 2 but the rest is mercifully delivered straight. One would imagine things will be tightened up before opening night, the current running time is 2 hours 45 minutes which could be shaved down with a much needed injection of pace into the second half, bhe main problem though for me was the lack of a dramatic hook to bring the piece together. The different strands amble slowly throughout the play, some of them connecting, some remaining discrete, but it lacks a defining moment to bring it all together and make it genuinely coherent and as it currently is, there’s not enough energy driving the stories along.

The ensemble cast is mostly strong: Ann Mitchell is predictably strong as the mother-in-law from hell with diabetes eating away at her leg and a caustic humour which provided some much needed levity and Meredith MacNeill as a blind pole dancer named Absolute and Nathaniel Martello-White as illegal immigrant Fadoul were both equally touching as lost souls tentatively reaching out to find some solace in each other. Maggie Steed did some fine work as a frustrated philsopher with some soul-searching monologues, but it was a shame that she never got to interact with any of the other characters.

There’s something here, in the stark, corrugated iron covered set that does well to capture the desolation and isolation that can happen to city-dwellers, but also too the rays of hope that can come out of chance human encounters, they could just do with getting there a little bit quicker (and never in the third person).

Review: Rise and Fall of Little Voice

“You have to speak up, Little Voice”
The last time I saw Diana Vickers was in the less than salubrious surroundings of the delightful Nightingales nightclub in Birmingham and I was less than sober. Having just been evicted from the X-Factor semifinals, one might have expected the predictable slide into obscurity but she surprised many when announced as the titular character in this revival of
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.

The story is of the painfully shy LV who lives a hermit-like existence at home with her horrendous mother, Mari, and her only release is singing along to the vinyl records of female singers left to her by her deceased father. She has a prodigious talent for this which is only recognised by one of her mother’s latest pickups who then sees this as an opportunity to be exploited for his own personal gain. Despite the name of the play, this is Mari’s show. Sharp opens with a 20 minute blast of self-absorbed narcissism which exposes the full heartlessness of her character and she only becomes more vindictive as we and LV progress. It is stunning to watch, but sadly becomes a little repetitive, a fault of the play rather than Sharp though.

Vickers is actually really good: sufficiently frail and sparrow-like in her shapeless clothes to genuinely surprise when such a big voice emerges from within, and her opening Judy Garland number made the hairs on my arms stand on end. Indeed most of her mimicking is excellent, only Piaf was (quite some considerable way) beyond her. Elsewhere I really enjoyed Marc Warren’s hustler on the make, sleazy and manipulative in some lovely cowboy boots, but the hidden star of the show for me was Rachel Lumberg’s Sadie. Friend to Mari, she stole practically every scene she was in with a bare minimum of lines and a great gift of doing the splits. Her drunken acting scene in particular was genius and had me focused entirely on her throughout, despite all the action and lines taking place elsewhere on the stage!

I did enjoy this, but somehow it didn’t quite add up to the full sum of its parts for me. It’s too long which wears the patience due to the abrasive nature of much of it, and having the antagonists of Mari and Ray as the main protagonists just doesn’t work, even when the performance is as strong as the one Sharp gives here. Still, it was an entertaining diversion, the revolving house set does look really good, but I think I’d recommend renting the dvd instead.

Review: The Waste Land, Wilton’s Music Hall

“Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow”
Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner first performed T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem
The Waste Land here at Wilton’s Music Hall back in 1997 and have returned to these special surroundings as part of the fundraising initiatives trying to keep this interesting venue open and in a usable state of repair. It is presented simply in the crumbling main hall and given a great sense of atmosphere by Jean Kalman’s beautiful and effective lighting, the shapes and shadows thrown behind Shaw are endlessly interesting.

But this is Shaw’s show and it is a magisterial performance, it’s 40 minutes of intense showmanship giving her the opportunity to stretch her vocal muscles as she inhabits all of the different images, ghosts and characters of this work. Shaw effortlessly evokes the multitude of locations contained within Eliot’s work, taking us on a quite a journey in a way I never imagined a poetry recital could: a personal favourite was the scene where she brought to life the entire populace of a noisy London pub, quite spellbinding.

Not being familiar with the poem, it did feel a little overwhelming at times. I could have done with proper pauses between each of the five sections to fully absorb it all and luxuriate in what had just been seen, but as it is, there’s just so much thrown at you in a short space of time, I’m sure there’s bits I’ve already forgotten! Still, this was a magical experience and once again, a great use of this venue.

Review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Palace

“Everyone likes to dress up, wear some sequins, get in touch with their feminine side…apart from lesbians that is”

When I found out a great Canadian friend who just happens to be a huge musicals fan was stopping in town briefly in the festive season, I had little doubt of what would be the best thing for us to see: Priscilla Queen of the Desert. For this is not a show about about subtlety: using a carefully judged collection of familiar pop songs, some amazing costumes and a production design team whose maxim was clearly ‘more more more’, this is a fun-packed, crowd-pleasing spectacular that was the perfect anecdote to the horrible weather.

It’s based on the film of the same name, where three ill-matched drag performers take a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs to meet up with the estranged wife and son of one of them, and little has been changed. Of the three leads, Tony Sheldon is superb as the transexual Bernadette, armed with a lifetime’s collection of quick one-liners, a steady grace and an unerring conviction in who she is. The trumpet anecdote is one of the funniest things you will hear all year and Sheldon’s performance holds the show together, elevating it beyond a series of drag turns. He is matched by Oliver Thornton as the overtly flamboyant Felicia who sweeps onto the stage in a spectacular opening number and almost steals the show again with the culmination of his particular journey. His performance practically reinvents the word camp but crucially he reminds us of the boy beneath the make-up throughout, and the relationship between Felicia and Bernadette is nicely portrayed with their acidic barbs finally making way for a grudging respect. By comparison, I found Jason Donovan underpowered and horribly affected, his campisms were way OTT, it looked like he thought he was in a pantomime.

There’s no attempt to really mine any emotional depth here, many of the key issues raised are skated over smoothly and that is probably right, given the atmosphere of this show. It is a party, and it all lends the one genuinely moving moment, Tick reuniting with his son over a tenderly sung duet, all the more emotional wallop. My only real bugbear, Jason Donovan’s mannerisms aside, was the lingering doubt of how much real singing we were hearing in the theatre. It may just have been the sound design but hardly any of it sounded live, not to say that it wasn’t but rather that I prefer my live singing to be a bit more obvious.

I’ve kept the specifics of this review a little vague as if you haven’t seen it already, there’s tons of pleasure in discovering the next tune you hear or the next outrageous costume to appear, even the arrival of the amazing singing divas, and I want people to experience that as I did. If you’re suffering from the January blues, then you could do a lot worse than grabbing a few friends and making a trip on Priscilla yourselves.