Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Queens Theatre

“Feel the flow, hear what’s happening”

As part of the ongoing Sondheim birthday celebrations, the Donmar Warehouse is staging concert versions of two of his shows which have previously played at the theatre, but using the larger space of the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The first one was Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 show with music and lyrics from the man himself and book by George Furth, and this performance saw 12 of the original 15 members of the original Donmar Warehouse production from 2000 reunited on the stage.

The show covers two decades in the life of three friends but tells the story in reverse, starting with Franklin Shepherd a and works back in time to show how his professional and personal relationships, especially with collaborator Charley Kringas and confidante Mary Flynn, developed and changed as his success grew. And where this show really shone was in the superlative strength of the central trio: Julian Ovenden as the smooth-voiced and piano-playing Franklin was excellent in tracing the journey from jaded bitterness back to youthful idealism, Samantha Spiro was simply fantastic as the ever-constant Mary whose professional success can’t hide her personal disappointment at her unrequited love for her friend and Daniel Evans’ silver-voiced and nicely comic Charley was delightful. Anna Francolini also deserves a mention with a brilliantly judged acerbic performance as Gussie, Frank’s second wife. Continue reading “Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Queens Theatre”

Review: Blue/Orange, Arcola

“Why do you think you’re here?”

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange is the penultimate production to be played in the main space at the Arcola Theatre before their enforced move to new premises. Celebrating its tenth anniversary with its first London revival, Tiata Fahodzi, a UK theatre company set up to provide an African cultural perspective to British theatre, have reworked this three-hander into an all-female production, changing the gender of all three of its protagonists. This is a review of the final preview performance.

Set in October 2002 in an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, Juliet, a young black woman, has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and is coming to the end of her period of commitment. Emily, her psychiatrist who is in her first year of practising has her doubts about Juliet’s suitability to be released, suspecting that she may have schizophrenia and has invited her superior, Hilary, to witness her final interview with her patient with the hope of having her recommitted. What we soon come to realise though is that Juliet’s interests are not necessarily at the forefront of the minds of the doctors as there is much more at stake here for these two women. Continue reading “Review: Blue/Orange, Arcola”

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical (cast change), Savoy Theatre

“Ohmigod youguys! Ohmigod!”

So after an impromptu visit to see Legally Blonde a couple of weeks ago as a favour to a friend, my scheduled return to the show took place this weekend in order to see how the new cast members are settling in, with the first major cast change since the show opened. Since I saw it so recently (and I saw so much this week too…), I’m linking to my thoughts on seeing it again here instead of repeating them: this post will focus mainly on the newbies.

Simon Thomas has taken over as Wagner, which marks a change from casting a more famous name in this role as has been done previously despite it not really being a major role at all. I remember being surprised first time round at how little the character is featured in the show, given that Duncan James’ face was plastered all over the publicity. He does well in what is quite a thankless role really, but I did enjoy his performance and his handsomeness definitely helps! Carley Stenson did well as Margot with a more endearing and sweet take on this girl, having already developed a great chemistry with the other Delta Nu girls but Siobhan Dillon just exudes confidence as Vivienne, seeming as if she’s been in the ensemble for ages with a great performance both acting-wise and in her singing, especially that whopper of a note in the Legally Blonde Remix at the end. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde The Musical (cast change), Savoy Theatre”

Review: Legacy Falls, New Players

“Call it fate or call it karma, I was made for daytime drama”

Legacy Falls is a new musical from James Burn, with assistance on the book from Ian Poitier who also doubles as director and choreographer. It is a tongue-in-cheek look at the on-screen and off-screen antics at an American daytime soap opera, Legacy Falls, which is suffering from falling ratings and so when a new producer is brought in to shake things up, the bitchiness and back-stabbing is ramped up as the actors begin to question their security and their happiness in life, especially Edward the long-suffering leading man with a big secret.

It starts off brilliantly with the great title track which is lyrically very sharp and nicely tuneful, enhanced by a witty video of the opening credits for the show which nails the windswept posing which makes them so ridiculously comical! When pursuing the soap side of things, this show is really very good and laugh-out-funny on a number of occasions. It mixes up the Acorn Antiques-style parody of comically bad soap acting with missed cues and overacting with the sheer ridiculousness of US daytime soap operas with their classic catfights, smell-the-fart acting, rapidly ageing child characters and their propensity for outrageously complex personal relationships. It also borrows the device of portraying the actors playing the characters to show the neuroses of this group of actors who see their steady paycheck being threatened. The best songs are here, with witty group numbers (I particularly liked the female trio on Somebody’s Gonna Get Killed and the duo on Normal People) and powerhouse solos like Larger Than Life all having huge amounts of fun and genuine comedy that make it a delight to watch. Tara Hugo’s huge voice makes her performance as Stephanie the leading lady one of the highlights of the show but she is well matched by Joanne Heywood’s conniving Madison and Aimie Atkinson’s incredibly ditzy Brandy.

It is perhaps slightly less successful at mining its more serious storyline of its leading man struggling to deal with the stagnation of playing the same role for 30 years, all the while concealing his homosexuality. By comparison, these sections are relatively flat, too ballad heavy and don’t really build the requisite emotional engagement that is needed to stop you from wishing we were back in the comedy sections. Mark Inscoe does well with the material but I felt his perma-tanned Edward needed to be a stronger-drawn, more dramatic character in order to really capture the attention as a leading man and build up more passion and connection with the most handsome Tim Oxbrow as Daniel, the man who leads his journey out of the closet. And to be honest, there’s no new insight or believability in the way this gay storyline is played out which comes across as really quite dated. 

It is a well-drilled company throughout though with no weak links: Rosalind Blessed is great fun as Frankie the producer brought in to improve the ratings; Davis Brooks’ dim and frequently shirtless hunk Ridge has excellent comic timing and from the front row, Ezra Axelrod caught my eye in a distractingly tight pair of trousers. Georgia Lowe’s set uses the same idea utilised in the NT’s Hamlet of movable panels to create a range of locations quickly quite effectively: I did think that it took too long to get them into place though, the whole show could be a lot tighter by speeding up these transitions, getting people to come onstage as others are leaving which would give more of a feel of a bustling tv studio. And I’m not sure the finale needed the simplistic choreography which looked a bit awkward and ultimately adds little to the situation.

Michael Bradley’s five man band played brightly if slightly overpoweringly at times, but overall the feeling was one of great confidence on all sides which bodes well for the run. Musically, Burn shows talent in writing a raft of interesting songs here and with his ear for a witty lyric, the upbeat numbers are just a delight. It is a tad solo-ballad-heavy for me and I longed for a little more vocal complexity with group numbers and harmonies but there is enough here to impress, not least in the effort that it must take to a get a new musical by a little-known writer produced in London and there are plenty of laughs in here to make this an enjoyable show.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50 (and it’s quite funny, I loved the mock bios for the actors in the show)
Booking until 20th November

Review: Novecento, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

“When you don’t know what it is…it’s jazz”

The second play in the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios showcasing their Resident Assistant Directors is Novecento by Italian Alessandro Baricco. Narrated by a single man, Tim Tooney a scruffy trumpet player who tells of a six year period in his younger days spent on a transatlantic liner called the Virginian. It is there where he strikes up a friendship with a pianist called Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novecento who, despite having been born on the ship and never having left it in his lifetime, happens to be one of the greatest jazz musicians the world never knew. This is a review of a preview performance, for better or for worse I still stand by my comments here.

Irish director Roisin McBrinn has just the one actor to work with, Mark Bonnar who plays Tooney and delivers his recollections over 100 minutes in a sustained virtuoso performance. This is a feat of great stamina as Bonnar’s intense energy never really flags at all and in certain scenes, like the account of a music duel between Novecento and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton, he is just electrifying. But to be honest, these moments were few and far between for me. The play is centred on the premise that one is fascinated by this main character whom we never meet but once it has been established that he is a sociopathic recluse, and that comes very early on, there is little other place we go with him and there’s only so much description of amazing jazz playing that one can take before it becomes crushingly repetitive.

The life of a tortured artist in itself is not enough without delving into it but Baricco’s writing is sadly uninterested in digging deeper into his upbringing that has led to this chronic fear of the unknown, the unwillingness to embrace change, maintaining instead an unearned reverence which keeps us at arm’s length from the man behind this legend which is being painted for us. By the time the absurdist twist that comes with Novecento’s arrival in heaven is played out, I was thoroughly disengaged which made for a difficult time as in the intimate space of the Trafalgar it is hard to escape the gaze of the performer.

As with Lower Ninth, there is a good transfer of the Donmar aesthetic to this space: Paul Wills’ design is visually effective making much use of chains but it is Paul Keogan’s lighting that really provides the quality touch. Olly Fox’s score is interesting but is only ever really background music, which in a play about jazz musicians just ends up being frustrating.

Sadly, my abiding memory of this show is the fact that the theatre was absolutely freezing, to the point where people were putting their coats and scarves on, and when I made the suggestion that this could be looked at for future performances to an usher as we left, I was brushed off with a sneering, dismissive ‘that has nothing to do with me darling’. I realise that she might have rather been anywhere else on a Friday night, but being rude to a customer really does leave the wrong impression and as I said, this is now my enduring association with this show.

But even with heating switched on in the theatre, I don’t think that this is a show I would ever enjoy. Despite the best efforts of Bonnar, and he really does work extremely hard, there’s no disguising the paper thin content which is stretched out here over the uninterrupted running time.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval) this was a preview so could well be tightened up before opening night
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 20th November

Review: When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre

“Marriage isn’t perfect”
J.B. Priestley’s farcical comedy When We Are Married arrives at the Garrick Theatre in London for a limited season with a substantially star-studded cast donning their finest Edwardian gear. Set in 1908, three middle-class couples in Cleckleywyke, Yorkshire have their world turned upside-down when, in preparing to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries, the validity of their marriages is called into question and they face certain social ruin but also huge personal issues as the very nature of their relationships is called into question.

There’s no doubt that it is extremely strongly cast with stalwarts of screen and stage forming the ensemble, especially in its six leads. I enjoyed Susie Blake and David Horovitch as the Helliwells with a particularly believable partnership, but the most fun is had by Maureen Lipman as the redoubtable Clara and Sam Kelly’s hen-pecked Herbert who have great fun playing out the role reversal when he is freed from the shackles of her imperious gaze and withering put-downs. Michele Dotrice does well as the long-suffering Annie who revels in her freedom from her dour councillor husband as played by Simon Rouse with some delicious comic timing, but is then slightly compromised by the need for a neat happy ending to the play.

There are constant hints of something more: the beginnings of revolution in the serving classes; the potential for female emancipation; even domestic violence, but none are explored for this is indeed a comedy, a rambunctious farce which is fine for the most part but a little frustrating for me and I personally struggled find the humour in a man slapping his wife. As for the rest of the play, I found there were just too many extraneous characters: the presence of Helliwell’s young niece is completely unnecessary and her relationship with Forbes is not used to counterpoint any of the marriages so I struggled to see why they were there and others like the Reverend and the reporter simply cluttered the stage. And I wasn’t really a fan of the broad comedy essayed by Roy Hudd’s drunken photographer with his end-of-the-pier routine and Rosemary Ashe’s brash, vulgar Lottie, but this is thoroughly old-school stuff.

It is uncomplicated fun and at times quite amusing, but ultimately it does have to be said that this is aimed at the upper age bracket. Whereas it was a entertaining diversion for me, it was rapturously received with rounds of applause coming at the end of every flourish by an actor, even the set got a good clap as the curtain rose at the beginning but to be honest, I was by far the youngest person in the stalls as far as I could see. All in all, if you appreciated 1970s sitcoms, or indeed enjoy watching re-runs of them these days, then this will be the perfect show for you.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 26th February 2011
Note: some smoking of cigars and cigarettes onstage

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Palace of the End, Arcola

“I’m beginning to think that it’s the greatest sin of our time. Knowing and pretending that we don’t know… I knew… Oh, the things I knew… And I did nothing”

Timing is everything and whether by coincidence or design, this production of Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End arrives at the smaller Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre, right at the moment when 2 of its 3 strands about Iraq and the conflict there have resurfaced at the top of the headlines with Wikileaks uncovering the shocking scale of prisoner abuse and civilian deaths and the recent publication of the post-mortem report into David Kelly’s death. Thompson’s play pulls together three monologues, fictional in terms of the actual words but thoroughly based in reality as they are all based on real-life people: Lynndie England, the young US soldier whose grinning face whilst abusing Iraqi prisoners became an enduring image of the US intervention; David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who broke cover to reveal that the position on Weapons of Mass Destruction had been hugely overstated, the pressure of which caused him to take his own life and Nehrjas Al-Saffrah, the wife of an Iraqi Communist politician who lived in Baghdad as Saddam Hussein’s regime took hold.

In the first section, Jade Williams portrays the trailer park girl turned soldier elevated into a position of huge responsibility at the Abu Ghraib prison and patently ill-equipped to deal with it. We see her back in West Virginia, heavily pregnant, awaiting trial and seething with rage at the internet commentary on her, although she’s more offended by being considered ugly than the reaction to her conduct. Williams does well at suggesting the indoctrination of military personnel in order to allow them to devalue human life in such a way but also how suggestible they would have to be to carry out such deeds: it is a complex piece and it is testament to Williams’ performance that s one really does have to begin to question whether or not sympathy might be due to this girl. Continue reading “Review: Palace of the End, Arcola”

Review: Contractions, Theatre Delicatessen

“How was your day at the office?”

Mike Bartlett’s play Contractions is presented here by Fly Theatre in a new production which takes place in a real office at Theatre Delicatessen, currently housed in a venue tucked away just off Oxford Street . The show is made up of a series of meetings between employee Emma and her line manager starting off an appraisal process but swiftly becoming something darker as this is a company that takes a very keen interest in the personal lives of its workforce and will go to seemingly any length to ensure productivity isn’t affected. As it turns out, the period it covers is quite substantial as we follow the burgeoning relationship between Emma and a male colleague Darren as it develops into something more despite company policy.

It is all about the ownership of employees in a tough corporate world, the level of intrusion into their private lives that is acceptable and how far people are willing to go for job security, money or indeed love, and it is captured brilliantly in the interplay between the two characters. Bartlett has such an amazing ear for the verbal games that people play, for the brutal power that words can have when applied with the surgical precision that they are here in this world of corporate legalese and double-speak, and indeed the way in which one’s own words can be used against oneself, which is by turns comic and horrific, yet always utterly believable. Continue reading “Review: Contractions, Theatre Delicatessen”

Review: Blasted, Lyric Hammersmith

“It all has to mean something; otherwise there’s no point”

Running with the tagline “Reviled. Respected. Revived.” Sarah Kane’s Blasted is the latest play to open at the Lyric Hammersmith under Sean Holmes’ artistic direction. I was aware of some of the controversy around this play, the flyer proudly quotes the Daily Mail’s original review “this disgusting feast of filth”, but had avoided reading too much about it as this was my first experience of Sarah Kane’s work and wanted to approach it with fresh eyes. Thus this review (of a preview FYI) is mostly reactive to this production and accompanied by the few nuggets of biographical information procured from my companion over a pre-show slice of cake.

Set in a nondescript hotel room, well designed by Paul Wills in a letterbox format, we meet Ian, a sleazy unreconstructed tabloid journalist who has invited Cate up for the evening to seduce her. We soon ascertain that Cate is a naïve young woman, given to epileptic seizures and not a fully compliant partner in what Ian has planned. After a traumatic night, Cate eventually escapes but Ian is left to pay the consequences and then some as an armed soldier storms the room and events take a mightily explosive turn. Hereafter lies spoilers, so be warned.

So after the extremely uncomfortable scenes where Ian forces himself on Cate sexually in all manner of ways, culminating in a brutal rape, the tables are turned as what seems like a civil war is raging outside the hotel and its impact is soon felt as the hotel is blown up. This allows for a starkly effective dismantling of the set and the utilisation of the full depth and height of the Lyric’s stage, enhanced by menacing lighting from Paule Constable, to represent this apocalyptic scenario. And boy do I mean apocalyptic as with this war has come barbarity and so the soldier who invaded the room sodomises Ian and then sucks out his eyeballs. When the soldier then takes his own life, the broken Ian is left to fend for himself in this nightmare world, a confused Cate returns with a baby who then dies and in the most disturbing scene of a play made up of disturbing scenes, Ian is driven by extreme hunger to eat the corpse of the baby. Only in the final moments, does an unexpected show of humanity lift the spirits slightly and suggests the way forward from this darkness.

Kane pulls no punches in her depiction of civilisation gone horribly wrong, the implication being that the capacity for human cruelty stretches from the rape of one individual and inconsideration for others to the annihilation of society through the type of behaviour excused by the pretext of war: it is all just a matter of scale. Given that Blasted was written in 1995, it presages the post-terrorist-atrocities world with an eerie resonance; its warnings being applicable to all sides, a point reinforced by the recent revelations from Wikileaks of cover-ups in Iraq. And in its portrayal of the events: non-consensual sexual activity, masturbation, urination, anal rape, cannibalism, mutilation, Holmes’ production is uncompromisingly bleak: much is unflinchingly, painfully realised right in front of us.

It is shot through with a darkly humourous side too though lest we get too depressed: whether it is the funniest use of the exclamation ‘shit!’ towards the end; Cate surreptitiously turning over the pillow which she has just helped Ian to ejaculate onto or the deadpan comments which accompany many of the atrocities, there’s a bleak comedy, a sense of the ways in which people have to rationalise their behaviour in order to just keep living no matter how hard it may seem, as best portrayed by Aidan Kelly’s intruding soldier. Lydia Wilson plays the stuttering Cate with an unnerving intensity, taking us through manic episodes and her childlike wanderings and Danny Webb is uncompromising in his strident Ian, unafraid of exposing both cancerous body and cancerous soul whilst simultaneously desperate for attention and then suggesting the slow discovery of hidden depths as he is forced onto the most desolate of journeys.

I’m not sure if it was the nature of the audience on the night, the fact that the show provokes comment or a deliberate choice by director Sean Holmes to keep it almost episodic or some combination of all of them but the atmosphere in the theatre was quite peculiar. Whereas the Tricycle’s Broken Glass used live cello music in its interludes to maintain its contemplative air, as the curtain descended for each of the scene changes here, the mood was broken by the instant chatter around me. This production ends up working as a series of thrusts rather than a sustained assault on the senses, possibly better for the nerves this way but it did mean that the evening felt quite disjointed. Hopefully the changes can be speeded up (a definite possibility by opening night I would think) but I’d be tempted to ramp up the volume of the interlude sound effect to preclude too much talking and maintain some of the atmosphere that has been built up. I wasn’t convinced by the use of silences either: used too often and to too little effect, one assumes the intended effect was gravitas but it ended up feeling like delaying tactics.

It is hard to not to view Kane’s work without considering her suicide: indeed many reviewers changed their mind, after reviling its first run, when it was revived at the Royal Court after her death; the literature describes this play as seminal but one does wonder if that reverence has been earned entirely the right way. Coming away from Blasted I was left with the sneaking feeling that there was a little too much of the childish desire just to shock in what I had seen where there could have been more of the deeply moving, as in the montage of images that form most of the final scene which is just hauntingly beautiful to look at. That is not to deny that there is some extremely powerful writing in here, a sense of compassion for humanity no matter how twisted and cruel it gets and the kind of daring imagination that, combined with this clear-sighted production, makes this a confrontational and challenging night at the theatre that will live in the mind.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 20th November
Note: where to start! Full-frontal male nudity, smoking and scenes of a disturbing nature from start to finish, the Lyric advise a 16+ age limit.

Review: Broken Glass, Tricycle

“If you’re alive, you’re afraid…but how you deal with fear, that’s what counts”

Broken Glass is one of Arthur Miller’s later works and so has often suffered by association from the weaker tail-end of Miller’s output, but this production at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, cast to the hilt, certainly makes the case for this play. Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Sylvia has lost the use of her legs after being traumatised by images in the newspaper from Kristallnacht and the news filtering through about the ever-growing extent of anti-Semitic activity in Europe under the Nazis. Her doctor diagnoses a hysterical paralysis but as he begins to investigate her life, he discovers that the problems may lie closer to home, in the truth behind her relationship with her fastidious husband, Phillip.

The Holocaust connections are actually secondary to the real storytelling here which is entirely about the Gellburgs’ marriage. And it is this point which has informed director Iqbal Khan’s interpretation: although ostensibly set in a specific time and place, the emotion involved is timeless and so rather than being a period piece, this production takes a metaphysical, ruminative approach. To ensure the contemplative mood, the interludes between the scenes are filled with Laura Moody’s expressive cello-playing, beautifully composed short solos from Grant Olding which are explosive with emotion and counterpoint the repression evident on stage. Continue reading “Review: Broken Glass, Tricycle”