Review: Sister Act, Palladium

I am nothing if not contrary, and whilst weighty fare such as Lantana features in my Top 5 films, Sister Act is also up there amongst my all-time favourites. I have seen it numerous, numerous times and absolutely adore it, so I had mixed feelings when I heard that it was being made into a musical and arriving at the Palladium. My fears were then heightened when I found out that the songs from the film would not be featured in the show, and so I was quite sceptical as I approached the theatre.

Sister Act The Musical first came into being in the States in 2006 and has been developed since then, with the book being written by multi-Oscar-winning songwriter, Alan Menken. The story is still fairly similar to the film, lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier is placed in a witness protection programme after witnessing her hoodlum boyfriend shooting someone, and so she finds herself in hiding in a convent, disguised as a nun. Her only connection to the sisters with whom she is sequestered is through music, and she inspires the choir to hgh levels of success, but in doing so threatens to ruin her cover, and the safety of the nuns, as she has a contract out on her head.

I am glad to report that my doubts were completely unfounded and I absolutely loved the show. The action has been transplanted to 1970s Philadelphia, and this is reflected in a much more disco-inspired soundtrack. The songs are mostly great, and very hummable. I can’t wait to see the show again and get the soundtrack as I think there could be some classics in there which need to get onto my iPod! It is just a huge feel-good musical, often funny, often silly, but above all just great fun.

As the lead, Deloris, Patina Miller has a role that suits her down to the ground. Filling the stage with her vibrant energy from the word go, she simply does not quit until the curtain call, infusing the whole production and auditorium with her infectious enthusiasm. Her singing voice is strong, though perhaps not particularly spectacular if one were being harsh, but is well suited to the funky disco numbers that she has.

With the supporting roles, at first glance it looks like the main priority in casting was the physical similarity to the film counterparts, especially with the Monsignor, Sister Mary Patrick and Sister Mary Robert, but thankfully their individual strengths are given ample opportunity to shine through. Claire Greenway invests the jocular Mary Patrick with just the right level of cheeriness and dispays some wicked comic timing, Katie Rowley Jones does well as the meek Mary Robert who eventually blooms under Deloris’ watch and Julia Sutton also deserves a mention here as she has many very funny lines as Sister Mary Lazarus.

And last but by no means least, Sheila Hancock who plays the Mother Superior role, memorably portrayed by Maggie Smith in the film, is an absolute riot. She’s not the best singer and may not be the most agile dancer, but she attacks the role with such gusto and is so obviously having a whale of a time onstage, I found it hard not to smile every time I saw her. As with her turn in Cabaret, she is continuing to prove her huge versatility and should surely be cemented as a national treasure.

By comparison, the few male parts are really quite underwritten. Ian Lavender as the Monsignor has barely anything to do at all, quite amazing considering his name is on all the posters, Chris Jarman struggles to inject the necessary murderous malice into the main baddie Shank, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is a family show, and only Ako Mitchell as Eddie the policeman has a really good song, replete with some amazing outfit trickery.

The various sets are cleverly designed, with some great transitions with the revolve, and the cathedral is magnificently gaudy. The costumes are also good fun, as the nuns’ habits get increasingly sillier, culminating in a complete glitter and spangle-fest by the umpteenth change for the finale.

I can totally understand why this show has not been received well by the critics, but a lot of it can be dismissed as pure snobbery. Yes, it is silly and doesn’t always make complete sense, but then it is not a gangster film nor a searing indictment of witness protection schemes. And as for the alleged incongruity about the nuns being able to sing before they’ve met Deloris, that is simply people projecting the film’s plot onto the show and not payng attention. The choir in this show can sing already, they are just very muted and quiet, and what Deloris does, as in the name of one of the key songs, is to teach them to ‘raise their voice’.

Pleasingly, this was one of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen at a West End show, and maybe this is something that the highbrow theatre critics should bear in mind, the next time they bemoan the white-middle-class domination of audiences at other straight theatres. And I have no shame in admitting I was on my feet at the end of this show, indeed I was one of the first out of my seat!! Highly, highly recommended.

Review: Arcadia, Duke of York’s

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia first played at the National Theatre in 1993, and this is the first revival of it since then. It takes place in a country house in England, but in two different time periods: the early 1800s and modern-day 1989. It is an extremely difficult play to try and summarise but I will try and give it a shot.

In 1809, a precocious teenager, Thomasina, is studying with her tutor, Septimus Hodge who is a colleague of the poet Lord Byron, and it is apparent that her knowledge is vastly superior to his, especially in the field of mathematics where her musings show her to be well ahead of her time. In 1989, a writer is looking into the life of a hermit who apparently lived in the grounds of the stately home, when a visiting academic stops by looking for help with his investigations into a period of Byron’s life about which little is known. Painstakingly, and with the help of the current residents of the house, including Valentine Coverley who is a student of advanced mathematical biology, pieces of evidence are recovered and we slowly begin to find out what really happened nearly 200 years ago.

At every opportunity though, Stoppard introduces intellectual discussions about all sorts of matters: classicism versus romanticism; the nature of time; landscape gardening; and possibly most important of all, chaos versus order. Whilst this may seem a little heavy-going, it is treated with such a deftness of touch that it never overwhelms the play, rather an air of intellectualism hangs over the production and the viewer can delve as deeply as they wish into the minutiae of the issues. The dynamism with which we move from one era to the other, carrying the themes with us, also keeps the action lively and I for one, was not bored at any point, despite quite a lengthy running time.

The whole ensemble cast is simply excellent, it hardly seems fair to single out anyone for praise, but there are some performances which deserve special mention. In the modern day era, Samantha Bond and Neil Pearson have great chemistry as the squabbling academics, Bond in particular has such elegant poise and as her would-be suitor Valentine, Ed Stoppard has a fantastic intense brooding quality, all the more impressive given the extremely dense text he has to deliver about subjects such as chaos theory and entropy or the second law of thermodynamics.

In the earlier period, Nancy Carroll’s Lady Croom is haughtily highly amusing and Jessie Cave makes an assured West End stage debut a the young Thomasina, which should lay to rest any concerns that Harry Potter fans may have (she plays Lavender Brown in the upcoming Half-Blood
Prince). But for me, Dan Stevens as the tutor Septimus Hodge just inches it as the stand-out performance in the show, and not only because he looks stunning in a pair of britches! His relationship with his pupil Thomasina is wonderfully played, there’s a genuine feel of the emotional pull between the two which is increasingly sexual but never sleazy. His interactions with the other characters are also strong: witty with his rivals, flirty with Lady Croom, Stevens acquits himself with real aplomb and I feel he should be recognise for this performance come awards season.

The set is quite bare, with just a long table on it, and does not change when we flit from one era to the other, but this only serves to strengthen the nature of the play. The table slowly collects artefacts from each period, kind of representing the way in which the differences between the two strands are beginning to blur and the connections become stronger. The lighting and music also subtly suggest this and all of these combine to make the piece all the more moving.
So despite knowing nothing about it beforehand, Arcadia proved itself to be quite the rarity for me: a highly intelligent play that makes you think but also moves you emotionally. I may still not be entirely sure what it was all about, or indeed be able to say what kind of play it is, but in covering so many subjects with such skill, and with performances as strong as these, it is simply a pure pleasure to watch.

Re-review: When The Rain Stops Falling, Almeida

Believing that it was quite likely that I would love When The Rain Stops Falling as already covered in my original review, I had already booked a second set of tickets to see it on the evening when a post-show Q&A was also scheduled. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to see this play again. Knowing the story meant that some of the emotional impact was lost, but for me this was a benefit since it had affected me so deeply last time and now I was able to focus on other aspects of the play. This knowledge also meant that one could make a much greater appreciation of the structure of the play and how intricately worked the plot is, echoing through the different locations and timezones, and recognising how some of the later events are presaged in earlier scenes.
Performance-wise, I still think that this is one of the strongest ensembles I have ever seen on a stage: there isn’t a single weak link in the cast and each actor delivers performances of such intensity which is all the more admirable when one considers how relatively short most of the scenes are a we flit around the timezones. On second viewing though, I think Phoebe Nicholls and Lisa Dillon possibly edge it as the older and younger incarnations respectively of Elizabeth York. Through some subtle mannerisms and the lightest of touches, they leave the watcher with no doubt that we are watching versions of the same character, yet fully flesh out their roles so that they remain sufficiently distinct. Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley also manage this same level of synchronicity between their incarnations of Gabrielle York without resorting to ham-fisted imitation and I look forward to the opportunity to see all of these actors again.

The Q&A session at the end of the play with most of the cast was, naturally, one of the most interesting I have attended. Obviously I had great interest in the play, but the questions asked and the answers given were really quite illuminating so I was glad to have been able to participate. I asked the first question, which was to the female actors about how they had gone about creating older/younger versions of the same character. Interestingly, they said that they had actually rehearsed mainly in isolation at first, creating their characters first and only close to the preview period did they actually meet each other and even then they still worked hard to maintain clearly defined characters, even though they were portraying the same person. There were a few questions about the genesis of the play and I was a little surprised to find out that there is a concurrent production running in Australia which has some differences, both textually and production-wise.

When The Rain Stops Falling finishes its run at the Almeida in early July which is a great shame, as I don’t think nearly enough people will have had the opportunity to see this play, which even on second viewing, remains one of the best plays I have ever seen.

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Bridge Project at the Old Vic

Accompanying The Cherry Orchard as part of the Bridge Project’s first run of plays which arrived at the Old Vic last month, is The Winter’s Tale, often considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. Starting off in Sicilia, the play follows childhood friends Leontes and Polixenes, Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia respectively, as Leontes allows his jealousy and paranoia over his pregnant wife to take over. Imprisoning his wife and ordering the murder of his friend, Leontes pushes everyone to the edge to destructive effect, even sending his newborn daughter to her death, a fate from which she is thankfully spared. The second act then jumps ahead 16 years in time to Bohemia, where we see a young couple falling in love and their peculiar parentages equip them with the power to heal the terrible events of the past.

Whilst it was of course performed excellently, I have to say I don’t think I liked the actual play all that much. It isn’t one I am familiar with, but I just didn’t connect with the material. Leontes’ jealousy and subsequent reaction seemed rather over the top and a bit too much of a dramatic device rather than being too rooted in reality. Also the move from Sicilia to Bohemia, from the first to the second act, felt quite disjointed. To me it as almost as if another play had started, I know 16 years had passed, but I took a very long time for me to feel any real connection to the events of the first act. All’s Well That Ends Well worked very well for me as a problem play because it mixed the different elements throughout the play and so it was consistently a dark comedy. Here however, I just felt that the tragedy and comedy were just too disparate to create a convincing whole play.Regardless, I was very impressed with most of the acting on stage. Rebecca Hall is stunning as the ill-fortuned Hermione, maintaining a great sense of dignity despite being shell-shocked from the turn of events, and has a great ally in Sinéad Cusack’s Paulina who’s a beautifully judged simmering pot of rage, never letting Leontes forget his actions, and eventually proving instrumental in the dénouement. Ethan Hawke is the star of the second half as the guitar-strumming Autolycus, hamming it up just the right degree.

It is staged beautifully, the snuffing of the candles being particularly effective, and one does get the real sense of a well-oiled company from the whole production, revelling in what they are achieving. I am definitely looking forward to the second round of the Bridge Project where we have Three Sisters and As You Like It to look forward to.

Re-review: La Cage aux Folles, Playhouse

Visit number two for me to La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre for a number of reasons. My first trip earlier this year was an absolute hoot but perhaps a little more wine-soaked than was advisable, I wanted to surprise Aunty Jean with a fun night out (as opposed to the previously advertised Aunt Dan & Lemon) and finally I wanted to see Philip Quast and Roger Allam as I had heard great things about their performances. I saw Douglas Hodge and Denis Lawson in the main roles last time, and could not imagine them being bettered, such was the quality of their ‘turns’.

However I am pleased to say that Allam and Quast were equal to the task, and I think I might even actually have preferred these two. The key to this musical is that it is actually the sweetest love story between Albin and Georges and so the relationship between the two has to be spot on and I think this is where they edge it this time. There’s such a great sense of shared romance onstage and the two actors are so comfortable with each other, you can really believe that they have spent a lifetime together.

Tune-wise, it perhaps isn’t the greatest musical, but the repitition of key numbers such as Song on the Sand and Look Over There obviously worked as I have been humming them endlessly for the last few days and they are actually good songs. The most famous of them all though is I Am What I Am, which is just superb. Stripped of all the campness that is often associated with this song, the focus is placed squarely on the lyrics and one realises just how moving a piece it really is. It also actually benefits from the fact that Allam is not the most gifted singer, much like Send In The Clowns from A Little Night Music, it is made a hundred times more poignant from a more human delivery.

As ever, the Cagelles gave great support with their often astonishing dance moves and their ability to maintain a routine in the face of giant pink balls coming at them (you really need to see it to get it…) is hilarious to watch. The rest of the cast are also good, Jason Pennycooke as the maid gets some good laughs, but this is a show all about the two leads. There is something so powerful about having two men as unashamedly romantic leads and when they are performed so well, as they are here, it gives this production a real sense of power. There’s some amazing deals available for tickets to see this at the moment and so I could not recommend it any more: go and see it people!

Review: Phèdre, National

In surely one of the most anticipated theatrical events of the year, Dame Helen Mirren returns to the stage for the first time in five years, to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre. Phèdre was written by Jean Racine back in the seventeenth century, and this production uses a translation by the late Ted Hughes in his typical free verse style. As it is my second Dame in three weeks, my companion for the evening was once again Aunty Jean, and this review was greatly helped by our post-play discussion over a nice cool G&T.

It is a quintessential Greek tragedy: the queen Phèdre lusts after her stepson, and in the absence of her husband Theseus for several months and the dubious advice of her nurse, eventually succumbs to her desire. Unsurpisingly, the revelation is not well received and then matters are made immeasurably worse by the return of Theseus. In her desperation to conceal her illicit attraction, Phèdre then makes a terrible accusation which sets in motion a chain of disastrous events.

The play takes a little time to settle down; there is a lot of setting up to be done and a great deal of parentage is explained which does require a little knowledge of Greek mythology, although not a lot. But after about 25 minutes or so, something just clicks and I was hooked. Mirren is electrifying in the title role, she has total command of the stage, prowling around in her anguish and her reading of the verse is utterly engrossing. Dominic Cooper as Hyppolytus, the object of her desire, does well to match her intensity with a controlled performance, never overplaying his revulsion at the actions of his stepmother.

As the nurse who advises Phèdre down the path to destruction, Margaret Tyzack is superb. I have to admit that I was not particularly impressed with the Chalk Garden at the Donmar last year and so was a little surprised when Tyzack swept a large number of awards for her role in that play, but she definitely won me over here. Her chemistry with Mirren is so convincing and one totally believes in her devotion to her mistress, even as the situation deteriorates out of control. John Shrapnel as Théramènes is also mightily impressive: his astonishing speech towards the end of the play has to be seen and heard to be believed, very impressive indeed! Ruth Negga and Chipo Chung also deserve honourable mentions (Chung is in two of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes: geek alert!) in their relatively small roles, providing sterling support. My only criticism around the acting would be that Stanley Townsend’s performance as Theseus was a little wooden, and his voice was really rather monotonous.The set looks amazing, all sun-bleached stone and Aegean blue skies, a rather harsh landscape under a merciless sun and this, combined with the bare minimum of props, places the emphasis squarely on the verse and the acting. The play runs for touch over two hours with no interval, but the intensity of the acting and the production meant that I did not even notice. Very highly recommended, and whilst the initiative to get this play shown in cinemas is very commendable, if you have the chance to get tickets, this is a live experience not to be missed.

63rd Tony Award winners

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play 
Geoffrey Rush – Exit the King as King Berenger
Jeff Daniels – God of Carnage as Alan
Raúl Esparza – Speed-the-Plow as Charlie Fox
James Gandolfini – God of Carnage as Michael
Thomas Sadoski – reasons to be pretty as Greg

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Marcia Gay Harden – God of Carnage as Veronica
Hope Davis – God of Carnage as Annette
Jane Fonda – 33 Variations as Katherine Brandt
Janet McTeer – Mary Stuart as Mary Stuart
Harriet Walter – Mary Stuart as Elizabeth I

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical 
David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish – Billy Elliot the Musical as Billy Elliot
Gavin Creel – Hair as Claude
Brian d’Arcy James – Shrek the Musical as Shrek
Constantine Maroulis – Rock of Ages as Drew
J. Robert Spencer – Next to Normal as Dan Continue reading “63rd Tony Award winners”

Review: The Cherry Orchard, Bridge Project at the Old Vic

The Bridge Project is a rather ambitious venture: an Anglo-American theatre company formed specially for three years and performing 2 plays a year in repertoire, touring across a number of venues over the world. With Sam Mendes as director, it has attracted a very strong group of actors, who have already formed a cracking ensemble, and I had my first experience with them this week in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic, the final stop in this first year of the Project.

The play has a new translation by Tom Stoppard, but given this is the first time I have seen it, I cannot really comment on its merits or otherwise, but the lovely lady sat next to me reassured me it was much more comic than than the last time she had seen it. It tells the story of the return of an aristocratic Russian lady, Ranevskaya, and her family to their hereditary estate since it is being sold off to pay for the mortgage. They are presented with different ways in which the estate could be saved and kept in the family, but the family do nothing and events overtake them as it emerges that their social status no longer affords them the protection that it used to.

I know there is a lot of Simon Russell Beale love going round at the moment and he is good as the upwardly mobile Lopakhin, but Sinéad Cusack as Ranevskaya is far and away the star of this show for me. The scene in Act III where she finds out the fate of the orchard whilst sat on her chair without saying a word, is simply awesome. She is dramatic without being melodramatic and maintains the aristocratic hauteur of this fading matriarch right through to the bitter end. Rebecca Hall is also excellent as the ‘plain’ adopted daughter Varya, she has amazing stage presence and a great stillness about her which makes me very excited to see more of her work, and Richard Easton is very funny as the manservant Firs. Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton also gave good performances, indeed the entire company seem very comfortable in the roles and with each other, and it makes me extremely keen to see further productions which can also display the strengths of this group of actors.

An interesting choice has been to leave the actors using their native accents, so there is a real mixture of English and American voices on show, but after five minutes, I didn’t even notice this difference, such is the force of the acting, it’s really not an issue.

It is a very atmospheric production, with some great lighting and I adored the opening to the second half. But I have to say that despite the first-rate acting, I am not a fan of the actual play: the fate of the Russian aristocracy just doesn’t interest me that much, and I felt that Burnt By The Sun at the NT dealt with it in a more engaging manner (by aligning it to a more interesting sub-plot as well). That said, this was a great opportunity to see a tightly-knit company working together so well, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the plays under the Bridge Project banner, starting with A Winter’s Tale in a couple of weeks.

Review: Grasses of a Thousand Colours, Royal Court

Hmm, well this was an odd one. As part of the Wallace Shawn season at the Royal Court, this is a premiere of a play which has been 25 years in the writing, and features the playwright himself, alongside Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly and Emily McDonnell in the intimate space upstairs at the Royal Court.

Grasses of a Thousand Colours is the memoirs of a scientist called Ben which covers the three, well four, major love affairs of his life, whilst the world around them collapses due to the negative impact of human meddling with nature. Miranda Richardson is superb as his wife Cerise, full of dreamy seductiveness and feline sensuality, Jennifer Tilly is also excellent as the statuesque New Yorker mistress Robin and Emily McDonnell is quietly strong as the subsequent lover. And the fourth love affair, well that is with Ben’s own penis with which he, and this play, is obsessed.

The main problem for me was with the structure of the play. It is full of interminable, rambling monologues from Ben which simply sap the life from the piece (and the audience), since they become increasingly obtuse and fantastical, as we slip further into this dystopian dream-like fairytale world, dominated by his sexual prowess and a cat called Blanche. The use of video clips at key points adds a slightly surreal note which in the end is pretty much in keeping with the play. Looking back, there does seem to be the material for a decent play in there, but some severe pruning is necessary.

On a practical note, with a running time of just over three hours, cushioned benches are just not sufficient as seating. Even if it had been the most engrossing play, the collective posterior of the paying audience deserves better as these seats are seriously uncomfortable. The only saving grace was that due to the rate of people leaving during the intervals, it was possible to spread out more and more in the later acts!

Essentially, this is just too long and self-indulgent to earn my recommendation, despite the unique opportunity to see talent such as Richardson and Tilly at such close quarters. It is directed by a long-time collaborator of Shawn, Andre Gregory, and one does wonder if someone brought in from outside might not have been more able to wield the knife to make the necessary cuts to make this more palatable. Oddly enough though, it has been rather well reviewed by many of the papers but I have yet to meet a ‘regular’ person who has been as effusive as any of the critics.

Top 5 Plays of May

I am, by nature, quite indecisive, so the whole business of Top 5 Plays is fairly arduous for me, but this past month’s ranking was especially hard since there was just so much amazing theatre on offer. Nevertheless, I present the Top 5 Plays for May (slightly extended to 10 since I couldn’t bear not to feature The Observer which came in at #6)

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. The Pietà
3. A Doll’s House
4. The Last Five Years
5. All’s Well That Ends Well
6. The Observer
7. tick…tick…BOOM!
8. Madame De Sade
9. Les Misérables
10. F**king Men

and the Top 10 Plays of the year so far (slightly extended to 15)

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. The Pietà
3. La Cage aux Folles
4. A Doll’s House
5. Duet for One
6. The Last Five Years
7. Burnt by the Sun
8. Parlour Song
9. All’s Well That Ends Well
10. The Observer

11. Dancing at Lughnasa
12. Time and the Conways
13. His Dark Materials
14. Kafka’s Monkey
15. Tusk Tusk