Review: The Pirates of Penzance, Wilton’s Music Hall

“’Stop, ladies, pray.
‘A man!’”

So just a few days after seeing the touring production of Pirates in Brighton, another production appears in London: for such a fan of this show as I am, heaven! This particular Pirates of Penzance is a transfer of the all-male Union Theatre production from last year which has been remounted at the atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End, one of my favourite venues in London. And in a blatant attempt to make me fall yet further in love with the idea, preview ticket prices were set at £10, less than half the regular ticket-price.

To be honest, it did take me a little time to adjust to the different production: having seen (and completely loved) a highly professional version by an opera company so recently, this presents an interesting alternative take which was no less professional. What it perhaps lacks in the vocal side of things, it more than makes up for with a much greater sense of the comic potential contained within Gilbert & Sullivan’s work. And what makes this such an effective take on this show is that despite the conceit of an all-male cast, it actually has very little impact on the production itself. It is played as straight as a die, no (well, hardly any) camping it up or tipping the wink and so this becomes a refreshing new look at a musical already full of natural wit and genuine comedy, rather than being painfully self-aware and post-modern.

Accompanied by Chris Mundy’s excellent piano playing, the ensemble of 18 create a rich sound that fills this old-time music hall which feels like the perfect venue for G+S. Adapting such a lyrical piece for a different (and much more echoey)theatrical space clearly has its issues and it seems to have been done largely successfully here, the four sisters in particular combine voices to a surprisingly beautiful effect. I would only advise putting Fred Broom’s Major General further forward throughout his eponymous number as much of his lyrical content did not travel well to the back of the hall which is a shame as he delivers the song with real panache. Elsewhere, Alan Richardson is at times breathtaking good and remarkably consistent with both speaking and singing voices as the soprano Mabel, Russell Whitehead’s slave of duty Frederic is strongly and manfully played and Samuel J Holmes comes close to stealing the show as nurse Ruth, gamely dowdying up in a cast of beautiful young things.

Costumes have been nicely realised with a minimum of fuss and frippery, simple white linens abound and it looks effective. With a mostly bare stage, focus is maintained on the vocal and chorographical skills on show (the policemen’s dance moves along with their portable moustaches were a personal favourite) and there’s some nice use of the venue’s idiosyncracies, the maidens arrive from the back of the balcony so we hear them long before we see them and playing “With Cat-Like Tread…” in the dark with the groups of police and pirates spread throughout the whole hall, barely illuminated by a few torches was a brilliant touch.

It was most educational seeing it with a group of people who had no previous with this play. Where I thought they had skipped through a few plot points too quickly (i.e. establishing the importance of Frederic’s sense of duty), most everyone seemed to have little problem in following the story and loving the whole show, proving my assertion from earlier in the week that this really is one of the best Gilbert+Sullivan shows for novices. Of course it is helped by productions which are of as high quality as this one, at once a pleasingly faithful yet delightfully irreverent take on this old stalwart.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: no programme available in preview period, but there is a free cast list.

Review: Porn – The Musical, Theatre503

“Fate was about to unload on him like a football team on a lapdancer”

First off, if you’ve arrived at this page by googling one of the words above, then sorry to disappoint but Porn – The Musical contains no actual pornographic material. What you do get though is a really quite funny, high-energy madcap Maltese musical, via a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009. Young Stefan is happily engaged to Jade and living a quiet life as a carpenter in Malta but when it turns out that Jade is actually a huge slut who has slept with everyone on the island, the distraught Stefan packs his bag in search of a new life in the USA. When he is mugged as soon as he arrives, he ends up being sucked (fnarr fnarr) into the world of porn, but finds that it’s not quite what he expected.

It really is very funny. The music by Boris Cezek (who is, according to the programme, well know in the Maltese music industry, how could you not love him!) and Kris Spiteri is tuneful enough, but the book, written by the same two plus Abigail Guan and Malcolm Galea who acts as the narrator is consistently laugh out loud funny. Galea drives things along with his interjections and there’s a real sense of his stand-up roots in the frequent slips out of character as the actors complain about one thing or another. This provides an almost anarchic feel to proceedings which works very well as it means it has the sharper edge of a comedy routine, especially in the role of Miscellaneous Man who plays a vast number of supporting characters, often in the same scene, which keeps the laughs coming.

Sophia Thierens’ tart-with-a-heart Sanddy (with a double DD) and Brendan Cull’s nerdish Stefan make a winningly engaging central couple, both with strong singing voices and good comedic timing. Jody Peach’s slutty Jade is hysterical and her bitch-off with Sanddy is brilliantly done, anything that incorporates the running man dance move should automatically win awards. Star of the show for me though is Alain Terzoli’s very well endowed Dr Johnny, a brainless hunk of meat with a MILF fetish and some very funny lines and the song of the night, P.H.D. (it doesn’t stand for what you think it does). David Burt and Ahmet Ahmet also provide good performances, indeed the whole ensemble felt very well established with no weak links.

There’s a great use of the limited space, using the single aisle to create some dynamic movement, and the panels used to represent a multitude of locations are inventively recalibrated, culminating in a great sequence for the penultimate number, It’s Hard Being Me. Elsewhere, there’s some great humour in the suggestive use of shadows and the reveal of a glitterball from…well I wouldn’t want to spoil just where it emerges from!

The only slow moments come when the composers try to dial down the comedy and stretch their dramatic song-writing skills: one overlong song in each act was guilty of this and without the humour, the songwriting was a little too exposed. At the same time, there’s a brilliant final flourish which ensured one left the theatre with a huge smile.

Theatre 503 is basking in the glow of the surprise Olivier Award win for The Mountaintop which was premiered here and whilst this is a completely different kettle of fish, I rather imagine that this will be quite a successful little number. As is often the case with new musicals, few of the tunes will stick with you, but you’ll be laughing hard all the way through: recommended.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: 50p
Note: predictably there’s bad language and sexual references throughout

Review: Studies for a Portrait, King’s Head

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

“The situation I find myself in will be endured to a point, and no further”

After a run at the White Bear Theatre and another at the Oval House Theatre both last year, Studies for a Portrait takes up residence at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre for an 8-week run. Interestingly, its director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher will soon take up the role of Artistic Director at the King’s Head so this could be seen as a taster of things to come on Upper Street.

Julian Barker is one of the greatest modern American painters, on a par with Warhol and Bacon, but when he is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, he retreats to his summerhouse in the Hamptons to make preparations for his death, but also with the help of his much younger boyfriend Chad in creating a foundation, for his enduring legacy. There are not the only ones though, as an ex-boyfriend of Julian is hungry for both artistic and financial recompense and things are further complicated by Chad’s other boyfriend Justin, an even younger underwear model, is also staying with them.

What follows is a strange mixture of a discussion about to whom the legacy of a major artist belongs and a peek at the über-rich gay lifestyle of the Hamptons, and they don’t always make easy bedfellows. The battle over Julian’s legacy is by far the most interesting part of this play, these men who have influenced his life in different ways all lay claim in some way and desire some reward, just how altruistically any of them are minded is very much up for debate. On the other hand is this odd love-triangle of conflicting loyalties as Chad is pulled between his two lovers, but quite what the younger Justin was expecting when he moved in I do not know, his petulance at being ignored, whilst amusing is misplaced, especially given his alleged deep intelligence.

Travis Oliver does well as Chad, whose motivations do ultimately seem genuine towards a lover he’s not ready to let go of and whose legacy he really does want to preserve. His interactions with Simon Wright’s Marcus are also well-judged, wittily played and revelatory of a deeper connection between the two than Chad would ever acknowledge.

Reitz clearly has a great line in writing sharp snappy repartee, and it is excellently delivered, especially by John Atterbury’s barbed tongue as Julian, but there’s just too much of it. The banter is relentless and gives little room for pathos to develop, so that when the façade drops unexpectedly as Julian finally confronts his mortality or Marcus holds up a bag of his ashes, we’re still laughing and expecting a joke when it should be genuine emotion being felt. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the writing, the acting, the direction or even us the audience, but the tone of the whole play fell far too heavily on the comic side of tragicomic.

Matters are not helped by the amount of flesh on show here. With the house being by the sea, I forgave the early scene with a speedo-wearing Chad but making Justin an underwear model just seemed like a gratuitous way to have a fit young man wandering around in his pants and when it got to the point where they were both spending most of the first half in their designer boxers, it really began to cheapen the drama. One was glad for them emerging fully-clothed after the interval. And the less said about the full-frontal nudity scene the better, completely unnecessary.

Ultimately I was left unmoved by Studies for a Portrait. Despite much going for it: incidental music and sons from Boy George, good acting and an interesting set-up about defending artistic legacies written by someone who clearly has a passion for art, the play degenerates into ‘just another gay play’ with little new to say.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Note: full frontal male nudity

Review: The Pirates of Penzance, Theatre Royal Brighton

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews
“About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse”

The Pirates of Penzance is arguably one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s best-known works (and in my house, best-loved) and has been revived here by the Carl Rosa Opera Company as part of a national tour, starting off at the Theatre Royal Brighton. Truth be told, I love this musical: I had a video of the film version with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt as a child which I used to watch endlessly and can sing along to most all the songs! This is therefore a special week for me as I’ll be seeing two different versions of Pirates as the all-male production at Wilton’s starts previews at the end of the week.
Probably best described as a romp, it involves a group of tender-hearted pirates in their quest to conquer the hearts of a bevy of blushing maidens, daughters of the local Major General, the efforts of the bumbling local constabulary to apprehend them, a love triangle between a former pirate’s apprentice, his old nurse-maid and one of the daughters, oh and a most ingenious paradox.

The 18-person Carl Rosa Opera Orchestra, under Martin Handley’s musical direction did a fantastic job of playing Sullivan’s memorable score and the wonderful tunes. The first half in particular of The Pirates of Penzance is blessed with an almost non-stop array of knockout numbers and the overture is just a delight as so many of these familiar songs are quickly sampled, whetting the appetite for the delights ahead of us.

And what delights. This is sung nearly perfectly by a very talented ensemble, complemented by some excellent individual performers, including two members of the original cast of Phantom of the Opera. Everyone sang well with brilliantly clear diction too, something so very necessary in getting across the full humour and cleverness of the lyrics. Rosie Ashe as pirate wench Ruth was superb, dexterously handling her exposition-heavy lyrics yet still hitting all the right comedic notes; Barry Clark’s Major General and Bruce Graham’s Police Sergeant were both nicely bumptious and Katy Batho impressed with a piercingly clear voice, hitting those top notes with a beautiful sound.
The only weak part was unfortunately with the star name, Paul Nicholas. I’m not sure if it was first night rustiness or if he was under the weather, but he was struggling vocally right from the first song. All credit must go to his Lieutenant Michael Kerry who did much of the heavy lifting in the songs and delivered the big notes and delivered such a good performance one couldn’t help but wish he’d been cast as the Pirate King.
The entire show is filled with numbers that involve large groups of cast members onstage and Peter Mulloy’s direction along with Steve Elias’ choreography is excellently realised by the cast who negotiate the steps well and in some cases, show off some brilliant routines: A Modern Major-General was a particular highlight with everyone onstage, but Oh! Better Far To Live And Die (aka I Am The Pirate King) and When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment (aka A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One) were both great to look at too. (One company member needs to work on his poker face though, suffering badly from the giggles as his flag flew off its pole!)
The staging is fairly basic but effective, changing from the rock-strewn clifftops in the first half to the ruined mausoleum in the second act, and a silly but amusing sketch during the overture with a toy boat and a piece of cloth representing the sea setting the tone perfectly. The costumes however are of an excellent standard, pirates costumes and Victorian dresses alike looked both lavish and appropriate, in one case revealing as hairy a chest as I’ve seen recently.
As a big fan of this musical anyway, I loved this faithful revival which delivered on everything one would want from the production of a classic. And jam-packed full of tunes, humour and a wealth of great performances as it is, this makes a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan too.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Programme cost: £3

Review: Polar Bears, Donmar Warehouse

“Where’s Kay, is she in Oslo? No, she’s in the cellar.”

Polar Bears is quite a coup for the Donmar Warehouse, being the first play written by celebrated novelist Mark Haddon. After the huge success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which featured a lead character with Asperger’s Syndrome and its follow-up A Spot of Bother, Haddon has now turned his hand to the theatre.

If you can, I would recommend going into this play with as little knowledge of it as possible, as it really does enhance the whole effect of it to no end. The review that follows does not contain any plot spoilers per se but it does discuss the nature and structure of the play which in itself is a bit spoilery, so if you’ve not seen it yet and you intend to, look away now! (But do come back afterwards xx)

The play centres around Kay, a young woman suffering from a bipolar disorder and the impact that her condition has on those around her. In particular, there’s John who is determined to maintain his love for Kay in the face of the struggle to live with and manage the volatility of their life, but we also see how Kay’s mother and brother have dealt with and continue to live with it.

Polar Bears employs a fractured narrative device so that scenes are played in a non-chronological order, stopping and starting abruptly, keeping us constantly on our toes. On top of that, there’s also some doubt as to the veracity of peoples’ accounts leaving us unsure if what we’re witnessing is real, or in Kay’s head, or indeed in any other character’s head. Utilising a clever two-tier set, with a glass fronted corridor at the rear and wooden floorboards, the lighting design is extremely effective in the erratic scene changes and maintaining the dreamlike state of much of what we see. This all combines to great disorientating effect as would seem appropriate in a drama about mental illness, but not too much as to leave one completely disconnected from the material. Haddon skilfully reveals nuggets of information at key moments that keep adding pieces to the jigsaw, but we don’t know what shape the jigsaw is or indeed what the picture is of, the full truth of the situation remains just out of reach.

Haddon’s writing is bleakly funny at times, best shown in Paul Hilton’s brother testing out John’s suitability as a boyfriend for his sister, but more often than not the laughter is a nervous reaction to the searing honesty that permeates this play. The struggles in dealing with a loved one coping with such a condition are laid bare here along with the unspeakable thoughts that come at the darkest times. And I really liked the unasked question which was ‘who of us is really sane?’. The suggestion here is that everyone has their own personal demons whether diagnosed or not, the brother has issues from his childhood clearly haunting him and the opening scene suggests that it is John who is the one who is mentally afflicted, babbling wildly as he does.

Jodhi May’s portrayal of the tormented Kay is sensitively done, showing the mercurial highs and the deepest lows with a deftness of touch and she has a wonderfully expressive speaking voice, highlighted beautifully in the haunting telling of a story about a beautiful girl with a monster inside her. Richard Coyle is powerfully moving as the well-intentioned John whose limits are seriously tested by the woman he loves and Celia Imrie is as strong as ever as an overly protective mother.

Polar Bears is by no means an easy play, but then little about bipolar disorder is. Here we have a mystery wrapped up inside a puzzle and no clear answer provided to either, it is left to us to probe at the murky ambiguous layers to interpret our own version of events. It is all skilfully done, genuinely thought-provoking, brilliantly directed by Jamie Lloyd, and something that will linger long in the mind.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3

Review: The Notebook of Trigorin, Finborough

“You understand how the world turns on successfully practised duplicity? On cunning lies?”

I think Phil Willmott and I would be very good friends. Creator of two of my favourite musicals in recent months, joyous works both, and whilst I may not have entirely approved of F**king Men, I can see where he’s coming from as it were. So I was quite upset when Phil went and ruined our friendship by choosing Chekhov as his next project, why Phil why? Still, all is not lost as it is at least Chekhov once removed.

The Notebook of Trigorin is described as a ‘free adaptation’ of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull by American playwright Tennessee Williams. It’s quite the moment for Williams rarities in London with one of his earlier plays Spring Storm at the National Theatre and this Notebook both being performed for the first time in the capital. It mostly follows the plot of Chekhov’s original, so Masha loves Constantine who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who is also loved by Arkadina. Williams’ conceit is to make Trigorin the focus of the play and with more than a hint of autobiographical detail, makes him a closeted homosexual. So the tangle of relationships, with the destructive mother/son dynamic between Arkadina and Constantine at its core, becomes centred around the self-possessed Trigorin who is in the midst of all the tragedy in the play, yet remains unscathed by it.

It is a strange mixture, with all the requisite Chekhovian tragedy but heavily suffused with Williams’ trademark dialogue and languorous atmosphere. It is familiar yet different and it mostly makes for an interesting evening. The sharper characterisations are a welcome addition, there’s a greater sense of purpose to many of the players, but at the same time, there’s oddities. In making Trigorin’s sexuality ambivalent, Williams adds very little to the play, this thread is not pursued to any depth and it changes nothing ultimately. Tennessee Williams spent a lifetime haunted by The Seagull and finally realised his dream of adapting it two years before his death, and so perhaps there’s a touch more vanity in this project than is strictly acceptable.

The performances were all good: standouts in the ensemble were Andrea Hall’s Masha, deeply unhappy and never without a glass in her hand, she communicated her pain as much with her eyes as with her words and Morgan James’ drawling Dorn, a lascivious, seedy doctor. Great attention has obviously been paid to the vocal work and it shows in a range of impressive convincing and constant accents. The only weak point was in the slight miscasting of Rob Heaps as Constantin: he looks perfect as a Russian and would fit right into a regular production of The Seagull, but his pale looks and curly locks meant his accent was just at complete odds with his appearance. His performance was still strong though, painfully intense and unable to deal with his mother’s inability to connect with him.

As the vain, self-centred Arkadina, Carolyn Backhouse does well, capturing the narcissism of this actress who wants the world’s attention at all times, full of nice touches (I adored the moment when she held a note as far away from her as possible to read it, unwilling to admit to her failing eyesight) but it would have been nice to see some genuine vulnerability in amongst all the over-acting and vamping. And as Trigorin, Stephen Billington brings a curiously mannered performance, all stiff upper lip and not enough allure in order for us to buy his appeal to the ladies of the house. And on a final note for all those Doctor Who nerds out there, after Donna’s mum in Spring Storm, Trinity Wells the American newsreader is in this! Lachele Carl is practically unrecognisable in the small role as Polina, but still effective.

The set is simply dressed with some wrought iron detailing and wooden floorboards suggesting the balcony of a grand house and a touch of furniture at the back representing the study in which Trigorin does much of his writing. After the interval, the set is flipped so that we’re now in the office looking out onto the veranda. Initially this was quite effective, but it soon came to pass that it was really quite an awkward staging decision. With a bench and a desk and chair facing the back wall, the cast constantly have to twist round and put themselves in odd positions so that we’re not constantly watching their backs. It looks wrong, at one point there’s six people on stage and yet we can only see the face of one of them. The voiceover trick, used to describe the new scene at each scene change was as annoying here as it was at the National Theatre in Spring Storm. And whilst I’m being critical, almost all of the satin dresses need to be fitted better on Arkadina and Nina, being so close to the actors means that details like these are more glaring than usual.

The Notebook of Trigorin is an odd one to categorise, it is both a Chekhov play and a Tennessee Williams play but at the same time it is neither fully and so it may leave fans of either feeling a little short-changed though I do think it is worth a visit. Those with no knowledge of The Seagull will find this an interesting piece too, just as long as the blocking in the second act can be sorted out a bit.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2

Review: Spring Storm, National Theatre

“I don’t know anything about Strindberg but it don’t sound practical to me”

The other part of the Young America mini-season at the National, Spring Storm is Tennessee Williams’ second play, written whilst still at college and this is apparently the first time the play has been performed in Europe. Set in the Mississippi delta, Southern belle Heavenly has almost everything a young woman could desire, but when she’s forced to decide between dull and respectable suitor Arthur and her handsome, wild lover Dick, her actions cause a chain of consequences that tear their lives apart.

I loved the fact that the central love triangle was cast the same as in Beyond the Horizon. As the impassioned Heavenly, Liz White is superb, throwing herself about with gay abandon in search of the grand amour that will satisfy her beating heart but also aware of the need to secure her position in life to avoid spinsterhood. Her performance here could have been the younger cousin of Rachel Weisz’s Blanche DuBois, one can definitely see how Williams’ incubated that character here. As her suitors, Michael Malarkey does better as the dull and mannered but rich Arthur, playing him with a real note of sadness , carrying much baggage from childhood. As the more masculine, rugged Dick, Michael Thomson brings such a real sexuality and physicality that one can see why Heavenly is reluctant to quit him, but it would have been nice to see more to him than the dumb jock.

Funnily enough, one of my notes from the O’Neill play was how I wanted better drawn adult characters, not least so that we could see more of Jacqueline King and Joanna Bacon, and lo and behold we got them! And in scenes together too, displaying some more of their great chemistry together as the snobbish matriarch of the house concerned for reputation above all and her spinsterish sister-in-law barely tolerated in their fading mansion, for daring to accept her lot in life as one of the ‘old maids’ Heavenly fears becoming.

The set initially quite cluttered and ugly, but evocative of a Deep South sensibility, and the reasons for the clutter soon become apparent in creating a nice array of locations. Although not as jaw-droppingly amazing as the scene changes in The White Guard, the transitions here are excellently handled and I particularly loved the way the library was set up. With a view to ease of switching between two productions in rep, the walls were dressed with flimsy white curtains, but even these allowed for some nice atmospheric moments in shadow.

This was by no means a perfect show though. The direction tended towards the heavy-handed on a number of occasions: the appearance of Hertha after her death and the echoing scream for instance were unnecessary additions, and I struggled to see the point of the voiceovers. And some of the supporting characters could have been better written, no matter how well they were acted, they also needed to be better integrated into the fabric of the play itself.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Spring Storm, especially in light of having watched Beyond the Horizon so recently. On its own, it is a fascinating look at Williams’ early attempts to find his dramatic feet, nowhere near the finished work yet for sure, but there is much of interest here. I think I preferred Spring Storm slightly, but for all the commonalities, these are two different beasts. And watching the two plays in quick succession was a great pleasure with a real thrill in the sense of potential coming from both of these young playwrights.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50

Review: Beyond the Horizon, National Theatre

“You and me ain’t like most brothers”

As part of a ‘Young America’ season, Beyond the Horizon, the first play by Eugene O’Neill is being performed in rep with Tennessee William’s second play, Spring Storm at the Cottelsoe at the National Theatre. Originally produced by the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, the two works have been transferred down with their original casts, who play roles in both works, showing the connections between these two American playwrights as they formed their artistic visions.

Set on a rural New England farm, we follow the lives of two brothers Andy and Rob Mayo. Andy has taken on his father’s mantle with a great knack for farming and an understanding of the land whilst Rob is a dreamer with no interest in farming and a hankering for discovering life and the world beyond the horizon. When a declaration of love intervenes with the plans that have been made in order for the brothers to follow their dreams, a chain of decisions is set in motion and the play then traces the consequences of these actions through the ensuing years.

The brothers Andrew and Rob played by Michael Thomson and Michael Malarkey respectively are both extremely good. I particularly enjoyed Thomson’s performance (and not just because of the inordinate amount of eye contact I got whilst he was washing his shirtless torso!), full of affable geniality and it is from him that we get the strongest sense of the unshakeable bond between these two brothers. Malarkey also does well but has a harder role in tracing the journey from carefree dreamy poet to browbeaten hard-done-by farmer, yet maintaining the loving qualities of a husband and father throughout. And as Ruth, the main woman in their lives, Liz White does admirably with what is at times a beast of a character. The fraternal bond shown here is really quite moving portrayed and Ruth’s entanglement with them both adds a real depth, but it is the determination to carry on with life no matter what is thrown at them that drives this play.

With the focus squarely on these three folks, the rest of the company is left with a set of two-dimensional characters: Jacqueline King (always the most under-rated member of the Noble family in Doctor Who in my opinion, overshadowed by Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins) and Joanna Bacon are both great as their matriarchs, Bacon’s god-fearing wheelchair-bound Sarah is a particular joy, but with little stage time, their impact is limited.

Altogether though, I thought this was a very good effort. The simple staging with its stark bare tree at the centre focuses us entirely on the brutality of the events and the far-reaching impact of those ill-advised decisions on all around them. Much darker and bleaker than I had been expecting, one death in particular is heartbreakingly swiftly despatched, but it is none the worse for it.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50

Review: Hair, Gielgud Theatre

“Gliddy gloop gloopy nibby nobby nooby la la la lo lo”

Bloody immigrants coming over here and stealing our jobs… The Gielgud Theatre finds itself taken over by the musical Hair, but in what is described as a history-making transfer of the entire original Broadway cast. This was also a first encounter for me with this musical: I’ve never seen it or knowingly heard anything from it either, indeed when I mentioned this to people this week, they all proceeded to sing something about the age of Aquarius at me which rang precisely no bells whatsoever!

Hair is an examination of 1960s hippie culture, looking at a group of young adults struggling to define their identity in the face of generational pressures, the temptations of drugs and sex and most significantly, the dark shadow of the Vietnam War. The story as such that exists centres around Claude, a leader of sorts of the Tribe, a group of friends hooked on easy living with drugs and sex and who are all avowedly anti-war, determined to avoid being shipped to Vietnam. Claude’s sense of duty however means he is conflicted about the correct course of action for himself and it is his journey that drives the little narrative there is.

There’s no doubting the general exuberance of the production. From the first moments, the boundaries between stage and audience are blurred by the ensemble and all the way through, cast members move from the stage to the aisles, clambering over people, sitting on their laps (I had Will Swenson’ Berger sitting on me for almost a whole song, encouraging me to stroke his hair and love everyone around me) singing out and welcoming us into the Tribe.

As Claude, Gavin Creel is fabulous: very handsome, strong of voice and entirely convincing when playing the tormented songs of his indecision. He’s also excellent when playing the strong intense relationship with his closest friends Berger and Sheila, Caissie Levy, both of whom also bring huge amounts to the table (in Swenson’s case, perhaps a little too much over-exuberance!)

Bryce Ryness’ Mick Jagger-obsessed Woof was one of my favourite performers, very sweetly played, and Kacie Sheik’s pregnant pothead also stood out, whilst Darius Nichols is wonderfully fierce, I was glad to avoid him grinding in my face, a fate not escaped by my companion! However, although undoubtedly possessed of a mighty fine voice, Sasha Allen’s Dionne did not gel with the rest of the company, a fact not helped by her constant vocal riffing which set her apart from the Tribe, quite horribly so in the final rendition of Let The Sunshine In, I felt it really took away from the mood of the moment.

It’s an experience rather than a play, the musical side of things is entirely focused on creating the mood in the first half and it takes ages for any sense of a real story for emerge. And whilst this in itself is not a bad thing, the rush in the final scenes of the second act to provide depth and tragedy feel too little too late in terms of creating any sense of a real dramatic arc. And although the resentment of an unjust war may feel current, little of the genuine fear that was created by the draft can be felt by today’s society and I felt a bit uneasy at how little explanation was given about events especially around the burning scene. Ultimately, part of me thought it was all a bit too American, at one point I asked my companion why Napoleon was on the stage, to find out it was actually George Washington, and the rest of the hallucination sequence featuring American historical figures fell a bit flat for me and left me really quite bored.

And part of this is due to the music. It was clearly a major nostalgia kick for many people who are familiar with these tunes, but to these fresh new ears, I found the faux-rock and folk-rock posturing a bit relentless. With so little story, and so many songs coming one after the other, I sometimes found it blending into one bland mass with little to capture the attention, despite the songs covering a huge range of styles. I Got Life and Let The Sunshine In were the two notable exceptions, and it is probably no coincidence that these were the two songs I recognised but had not realised originated from this musical. The band, situated onstage, were excellent, the brass section in particular deserve a mention.

I do worry slightly about the ticket pricing. I paid £40 with a special offer for a seat in the stalls that should have been £70, but even the front row of the top circle still costs £40. Some day seats are available at £20 a pop but I do wonder how sustainable this pricing is. Perhaps the cost of a wholesale Broadway transfer necessitates this I don’t know, but it does seem expensive. As it was, the audience around me was very tourist-heavy and rather poorly behaved: I’m not connecting these two things, but two different groups of people are their way through takeaway burger and fries just before the start and proceed to noisily slurp their way through large drinks once it had started. Where are over-officious ushers when you need them?!

All in all, I found this to be a bit of a conflicting evening. I didn’t love it half as much as I thought I might, though I found a lot to admire. We’re clearly reaping the benefits of seeing a well-established company that has connected with each other wonderfully and their enthusiasm carries much of the show.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Note: there’s nudity, references to sex and drugs and some strobe lighting in this. Also, if you’re one of those people who spend hours on their hair and/or can’t abide others touching your hair and you find yourself on the end of a row, swap with a friend!

Review: Beyond the Pale, Southwark Playhouse

“Welcome to the South Wark Rescue Centre”

If you want to sit down whilst at the theatre, then you’re probably best keeping away from the theatres just south of the river at the moment: one can trek through the Old Vic tunnels, stand at the Young Vic’s recreation of a submarine space or explore the Southwark Playhouse in full at Beyond the Pale. This is an interactive theatre piece, so the audience is invited to participate in the drama by speaking to the characters at any point. Sometimes we’re observers in a scene; sometimes we’re active participants; either way, there are opportunities to find your own way through the story and influence the events that happen.

It is set in a dystopian parallel world where violence in South London has swelled to epic proportions leading the government to build a wall around the borough of South Wark to try and contain the problems. Without proper government, anarchy soon came to reign and all connections were severed. 15 years later, the borders have been tentatively reopened and some charitable workers have made attempts to try and make a difference to these abandoned people. We come into the picture a further 5 years later as part of a new effort to recruit volunteers and to solve the ‘problem’ of South Wark. I can’t say much more as I don’t want to ruin it, and in any case, everyone’s experience ought to be unique as they engage in different ways with the performance.

I found it huge amounts of fun. After the disappointment of Your Nation Loves You, this was altogether of a better class. Using the location to its fullest, areas behind the auditorium were utilised as well as the main theatre, and although we were in different groups witnessing different scenes, one could see how the threads were interlinked and connected ensuring that we didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything, which was my abiding feeling upon leaving the Old Vic tunnels. And there was a strong interesting story being told which the format supported, resulting in an entirely satisfying experience.

It is well acted throughout, and certainly the actors with whom I engaged directly had a strong grasp of their characters, able to respond convincingly to the random questions I plucked out of the air and carrying their scenes forward with confidence. Special mention has to go to Ciaran McConville with whom I had my first interaction in the bar beforehand and whose whole demeanour completely sold me on the whole shebang before we’d even sat down: he also has a great stage presence as the Rescue Centre Manager. I also enjoyed Richard Atwill’s would-be philanthropist and Simon Nicholas’ manipulative businessman.

I highly recommend Beyond the Pale: it has been cleverly conceived, but crucially also excellently executed. Put your reservations aside and plunge in as soon as you get the opportunity, you’ll regret it if you don’t and it’s the way to get the best out of the whole experience.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free single sheet
Note: try and get there a little bit early as the performance actually started unofficially in the bar from about 7.15, which really sets the mood of the piece. Oh, and wrap up warm, with the weather as it is, it does get quite chilly in some of the spaces