Review: Frank’s Closet, Wilton’s Music Hall

I’m not always the biggest fan of fringe theatre: often I find it overpriced and undercooked in terms of quality, but I do try to give some things a chance, as I did with Frank’s Closet, at the instigation of a dear friend last Thursday. Unfortunately the show has now closed and does not currently have future plans, but I loved it so much, I still had to write about it on here.

A new musical written by Stuart Wood, it features Frank, who on the eve of his wedding, has been set the challenge of clearing out his closet which is full of rare dresses which belonged to some of the greatest divas of our time. Each dress has a story (or song) to tell and Frank is helped to revisit elements of his past by a procession of divas who help him to fully understand the gravity of the commitment he is about to undertake, and whether indeed this is the right commitment for him to take.
The music goes from witty pastiches of Marie Lloyd, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Karen Carpenter, Judy Garland to Agnetha Fältskog, but the quality does not drop for a moment despite this range. Carl Mullaney is jaw-droppingly good as the multi-faceted Diva, with some what must be lightning quick costume changes, and fully inhabits each of the characters to the extent that one sometimes wondered whether it really was the same guy on stage. His vocal delivery was impeccable and he also showed some excellent movement for each of the divas. The songs are tuneful (a quality sometimes misjudged in new musicals, cf: Too Close To The Sun), but importantly have very funny lyrics as well, so the humour is not just from looking at a man in a range of dresses!
Donna King as the titular Frank is also good. I must admit it took me a little while to get used to the fact that she was playing a gay man, but once the whole music hall vibe of the piece kicked in, it made perfect sense. Portia Emare, David Furnell and the lovely Debbie McGee provided sterling support as the Fabulous Gaiety Girls and there was even some eye candy in the form of Cleo Souza Oliveira and Bruno Serravalle who did a lot of looking pretty in their pants. The ensemble looked very comfortable together and really seemed to be having fun and it made it even more of a pleasure to watch.

The setting of Hoxton Hall is spot on for this show. It is beautiful, and looks just the part all dressed up with a set that looks like an old-fashioned, almost toy-like theatre, perfectly evocative of old-time music hall adventures. The costumes were suitably witty, with Ethel Merman’s swan-bedecked outfit a standout. In fact, the only weakness in the whole piece for me was the somewhat unexplained image of the two boys sleeping which both opened and closed the show, I never really understood who they were meant to be and how they related to Frank, but this was a minor quibble.

I also have to mention that after the show, in the nice pub opposite, we chatted to several of the cast and they were all lovely people, happy to share their experiences (and in the case of the Lovely Debbie McGee a chip!), and it put the cherry on the top of what was a delightful evening. I truly hope that the producers are able to find another home for this play as it really does deserve it.

Review: Too Close To The Sun, Comedy

Too Close To The Sun is a new musical which looks at the final days of the life of Ernest Hemingway before he committed suicide and makes up some things that might have happened then. Set in an isolated part of Idaho, Hemingway lives with his wife and his slutty secretary, when an old friend Rex de Havilland comes to visit with the intention of convincing the writer to sell the film rights to his life. Sounds like fun eh, well you don’t even know the half of it!

It is difficult to know where to start, there were just so many terrible elements to this thing. The songs were simply horrific: not a tune in sight and just the weirdest progressions, I don’t think any of them actually contained a chorus, it was kind of like twisted musical freestyling combined with verbal diarrhoea. I have to say that the two women, Helen Dallimore and Tammy Joelle, did their best with the material and at least had strong voices, but the two gentlemen, James Graeme and Jay Benedict, were just jaw-droppingly bad. They were landed with the worst songs for the most part, but their delivery was just so bad, that I struggled to keep a straight face any time either one opened their mouth to sing (which given I was on the front row, was a real trial). There was no sense of integration between the play and the songs at all, quite often they would just pop up and then disappear as quickly, leaving you dumbfounded.
Not even the story could save this either though. It is just chronically bad, and this was crystallised for me in the exchange between the two ladies about blue cheese and hot sauce: it went on forever and ended somewhat cryptically with Dallimore saying “I don’t trust that pirate girl”.

Perhaps as a portent of the play’s prospects, I witnessed one of the funniest things I have seen on the stage in quite some time, a genuine blooper. Midway through the first half, two of the cast members sat on a wicker table and went right through it, they quickly extricated themselves and carried on regardless, but soon lost it completely when a line something along the lines of “came down like a ton of bricks” was uttered and there was some serious corpsing going on for a few minutes. We were then treated to repeated references and jokes about the table for the rest of the first half, as many things had to be altered due to the table being altered. They should probably work this in to the actual play, God knows we needed the comic relief.
Too Close To The Sun truly is a treat: it is so bad that it is unbelievably good fun to watch, you just cannot believe that it is being performed in the West End. Catch it quickly before it is snuffed out!

Review: The Black Album, National

Based on Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel of the same title, The Black Album takes up residence in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. It’s a look at a Asian student’s experience of going to university in London in a pre-9/11 world, specifically around the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the beginnings of the radicalisation of some extreme groups. Originally from Kent, Shahid is torn between the fun student life, complete with affairs with lecturers, that he discovers there and the pressures of his Muslim friends who want him to retreat from the excesses of Western living.

The story has taken on a much more powerful resonance in this post 9/11 world and as such, has the potential to be an incisive examination of British Muslim identity and the pressures it faced at a time of crucial change. And whilst the play does deal with some of these issues, it never really tackles them head on and it sometimes felt like there was a little lack of conviction about the proceedings. There’s never a real sense of just how ominous the direction that the extremists are heading in is and whilst I can’t say that I did not enjoy the play, I just feel like it is a bit of a missed opportunity.

As the student Shahid, Jonathan Bonnici makes an impressive stage debut, initially full of wide-eyed naïveté and enthusiasm for university life, but soon becoming weighed down by the gravity of the choices that he is forced to make. Tanya Franks is good as the lecturer in some horrific nineties threads, but Nitin Jundra was guilty of some excessive hamminess as the brother, and I hope he tones it down before the opening night.
The play is staged quite inventively, with three blank walls having a range of video projections on them to demonstrate the different locations (it looks better than it sounds honest!) but the constant hefting around of the desk by the cast drove me mad by the end. One issue was that the lighting was extremely dark: I could barely see onstage and I was in the fifth row, so I can’t imagine how people further back fared. And the soundtrack, provided by Sister Bliss of Faithless, is quite obstrusively loud at times and sometimes misplaced.
Hopefully some of these issues will have been ironed out by the end of the preview period, as I do think there is a good play in there somewhere.

Review: Hamlet, Donmar at the Wyndham’s

When the Donmar first announced its West End season, taking residence in the Wyndhams theatre, there was a special offer if you bought tickets for ll four productions at the same time, so incredibly, I’ve had a ticket for Hamlet for over 18 months! Indeed the entire run had been sold out for quite some time before it even opened, such was the draw of Jude Law’s name as Shakespeare’s eponymous Dane.
The weight of expectation must have been huge on Law’s shoulders. Not only was he following a superlatively-received Hamlet at the RSC with David Tennant, there has been a case of somewhat diminishing returns on the Donmar’s experiment, with Madame de Sade in particular disappointing many after Ivanov’s excellent start. So the sound of gleeful knives sharpening was strong, with a lead actor more known for his looks than acting talent these daystaking a lot of flak before he had even started his run. And so how does he do? Well, I was hugely impressed. Many forget he is a classically trained actor, and he appeared in many great films before his failed attempt to break into Hollywood’s leading man category (the Talented Mr Ripley is a personal favourite), and this performance should help to remind people of his talent. He has a great mastery of the text, and so the many uber-famous passages that this play contains seem fresh and new and intensely personalised to Law’s Hamlet. “To be or not to be” in particular is convincingly rendered, against a startling backdrop of falling snow, uncertain at first but increasingly confident, mirroring his own movement along the path of self-discovery throughout the play. His is a very physical performance, there’s a lot of movement as he constantly rages against the situation, and if one were make any criticism, then it would be that there needed to be a touch more vulnerability introduced into the register to better show the torment that means that play last for over three hours, rather than being done with in one swift act of revenge.

Amongst the supporting cast, Penelope Wilton stands out as a truly superb Gertrude. She is quite often onstage without speaking, but her looks are she takes in what is happening around her are simply priceless, and when she does open her mouth, she is more often than not heartbreaking: her line about “you have cleft my heart in twain” was almost worth the entrance fee alone. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ophelia with a nice subtlety, almost underplaying it too much perhaps, one doesn’t feel her presence quite as much as I thought we would. And Kevin McNally strikes the perfect note as Claudius, brimming with a confident arrogance until Hamlet’s actions start to chip away at his position.
The staging is typically Donmarish (Donmarian?): simple, pared-back and with eye-catching flourishes which do wonders in evoking atmosphere. Here the bare stones of the castle of Elsinore are beautifully enhanced by some superb lighting, switching us from room to room inside the castle with the minimum of effort. The dropping of highly coloured curtains provides drama: a see-through one is used as the hiding place for Polonius, which allows us to see his tragic death all the more clearly, and the aforementioned snowfall is most effective, all the more for it being quite unexpected.
So the Donmar can congratulate themselves on a job well done. Hamlet provides a fitting conclusion to what was quite a daring experiment which has been highly successful in terms of box office with very affordable ticket prices, if not always with its choice of production. As already mentioned, the run is sold out, but returns and day tickets are available and I would make the effort to see it as it is a most accomplished addition to the West End.

Review: Jerusalem, Royal Court

My heart sank when I saw the running time for this play: another play at the Royal Court over 3 hours long. After Grasses of a Thousand Colours sucked the life out of my companion (he left after two hours) and numbed my bum unforgivably, I even thought about shifting these tickets to someone else. But upon reflection, I remembered that the playwright, Jez Butterworth, was also responsible for the excellent Parlour Song which I enjoyed hugely at the Almeida earlier this year, and so off I trotted to Sloane Square.
Jerusalem is a new play, a dark comedy, which purports to be a critical look at what it means to be English in these times and specifically explores this issue of identity in rural England. Set on St George’s Day, the central character is a man called George Byron who lives in a caravan, and who has built up a little community of sorts around him, living a life of general hedonism and with little care for traditional ideas of society. However, Byron’s easy life looks to be coming to a halt as the walls start closing in on him: his children, eviction notices and angry fathers are just some of the things he has to face up to.

The banter between the cast is excellently scripted and excellently acted. It is funny, extremely so in places, and the shared comic timing amongst the ensemble was spot on, apart from a few fumbled lines by Mackenzie Crook, but they’ll have been ironed out by the end of the previews. And this, combined with the incredibly authentic looking set, creates a great sense of atmosphere and camaraderie within the group. The humour makes the time fly by, and so there was no clock-watching, at least not for the first two hours.

However, once the more dramatic elements of the story kick in, my mind did start to wander, and I became rather keen for the final curtain to drop. The main problem for me was the unlikeability of the central character of Byron. Mark Rylance is very good and utterly convincing as the Pied Piper-of-sorts, but he is such an irresponsible waster, that I wasn’t sure whether one was meant to sympathise with him or not. Since I did not, then I had no real interest in his plight and so I left the play somewhat dissatisfied.

The play raises some interesting questions about the nature of national identity and what it means to be English, but to be fully engaged with the material, one has to connect more with the central character underpinning the whole show, and so for me, it was ultimately a little disappointing, despite the rich vein of humour running through it. And although I didn’t really notice the length of the play for the most part, I consider 3 hours and 20 minutes is still too long when the majority of that time is spent on comedic banter, which whilst entertaining was ultimately non-essential.

Review: Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Featuring two very acclaimed actors in the lead roles, Waiting for Godot has been somewhat of a surprise success in the West End this year, extending its run right through the summer. This is clearly partly down to the calibre of the leads, Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are two major dramatic heavyweights, but it has also been a bit of a triumph for a straight drama production in these troubled economic times.
Apparently voted the most significant English language play of the twentieth century, Waiting for Godot is a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon who are, unsurprisingly, waiting for someone called for Godot. We never get to meet Godot, or find out who he is, and so the titular ‘waiting’ forms the backbone of the play as we watch these two men pass the time in a multitude of ways, whilst debating the meaning of life and existence. Twice, they are visited by a man called Pozzo and his slave Lucky.
Out of the two leads, Ian McKellen gave the stronger performance for me as Estragon: he inhabited his role with greater ease and seemed more at home with the physical comedy side of things. Patrick Stewart was good too as Vladimir, but seemed to hold himself a little stiffly at times and lacked some of McKellen’s easily shambolic nature. Simon Callow seems to be having a ball of a time as an almost pantomime like Pozzo, and Ronald Pickup as his slave does an amazing job with an incredibly complex stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.

In the end, I think I just want a bit more from a play. I was a little bemused to find numerous different potential interpretations on the Wikipedia page for the play, and I think this kind of summarises the problem that I had with it. The material is just so open to any manner of interpretation that unless one goes with some preconceived idea of what it is about, the play will just leaves you scratching your head, and wondering what it was all about. I have a similar problem with much of modern art, I know what I like, and quite frankly this just isn’t it!

Top five plays of June

Here are my top 5 plays for the month of June (not counting second views of things):

1. Arcadia
2. Sister Act
3. Phedre
4. The Cherry Orchard
5. Carrie’s War

and the top 10 (+5) plays of the year so far, seeing (La Cage again made me reconsider its position):

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. La Cage Aux Folles
3. The Pieta
4. Arcadia
5. A Doll’s House
6. Duet For One
7. Sister Act
8. The Last Five Years
9. Burnt By The Sun
10. Parlour Song

11. All’s Well That Ends Well
12. The Observer
13. Dancing At Lughnasa
14. Phedre
15. Time and the Conways

Review: Carrie’s War, Apollo

From the Nina Bawden book of the same name, Carrie’s War is the latest play to open at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Telling the story of a sister and brother who are evacuated to Wales during the Second World War, they get swept up in a Gothic world of ghosts, curses, and skulls and when the intrigues of the family with whom they are billeted spill into their lives, decisions are made which haunt Carrie well into adulthood.
It is quite a gentle production, but I do not mean that in a patronising way. It really reminded me of the kind of dramas one used to get on a Sunday afternoon on the BBC, like Tom’s Midnight Garden, Moondial and The Railway Children. This is enhanced by the fact that the 15 characters are played by just 9 actors, so there is a little exaggeration of characterisation, especially with the local yokel types, but not to any negative effect.

Sarah Edmondson is excellent, very convincing as both the older and the younger Carrie, and she has great chemistry with John Heffernan as Albert Sandwich, her fellow evacuee in the village. Prunella Scales is good as a ghostly Miss Haversham-like aunt, and Kacey Ainsworth exudes real warmth (and a great Welsh accent) as the kindly Aunty Lou who takes in Carrie and her brother.

The set is quite compact, but both of the houses look very effective, and the space inbetween becomes very evocative of a battlefield at times, which never lets us forget this is a wartime piece. But my favourite innovation is the constant use of Welsh hymns and songs, performed live by the cast, which provide a fantastic sense of atmosphere.

Carrie’s War is quite a curious piece: I was totally enchanted by it and really enjoyed the nostalgia it evoked, both of the time and my own childhood. And the message it carries (no pun intended) is really quite a good one, about how we are all human and make mistakes, and it is never to late to atone for them. For people, in particular children, who are new to the material, I wonder if it might not prove a little too old-fashioned for them, although it would surely be a shame if they were to choose going to see the new Transformers film over this.

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.