Review: Sleeping Beauty, Richmond Theatre

“Was that a smirk, Margaret?”

Richmond Theatre’s pantomime Sleeping Beauty was originally scheduled to feature Brian Blessed as a wicked wizard but he was forced to withdraw at late notice due to a health issue and fortunately long-time friend of the theatre Anita Dobson was able to fill in as the show was reworked to turn the wizard back into an evil fairy: the show must go on!

It really is a mixed bag from top to bottom. Dobson is just brilliant as the wicked fairy Carabosse, displaying a terrifying amount of energy and a terrific pair of pins, with a performance which is certifiably bonkers and deliciously good fun as she works the audience expertly. And then there’s Tim Vine as court jester Jangles whose turn could have been lifted almost straight from one of his stand-up shows and herein lies its weakness. Whilst he is undeniably extremely funny (even if much of the audience were a little more equivocal), his constant patter of quick one-liners throughout the show didn’t always feel particularly well-integrated as he is most often playing Tim Vine rather than Jangles: a curious choice in this traditionally mounted family pantomime. Continue reading “Review: Sleeping Beauty, Richmond Theatre”

(Not really a) Review: The Nutcracker, English National Ballet at the Coliseum

As a child, it just wasn’t Christmas in our family without a trip to the ballet, but this is not a tradition that I have maintained, largely because it is not an art-form that has wormed its way into my heart as theatre has. I don’t dislike it, but I just don’t have the same passion and so it is a rare occasion indeed that I would venture to the ballet these days. But it turns out I am more a creature of tradition than I had realised and when the opportunity to see The Nutcracker, danced by the English National Ballet, presented itself, I couldn’t resist. But given my lack of knowledge in the field and the presence of much greater commentators than I just a click away, this is just a collection of thoughts rather than a review per se.
As is often the case when revisiting things from the past, it just didn’t live up to expectations: it generally lacked the magic that I remembered from my childhood: whether this is just rose-tinted on my part or a genuine reflection of this production, I’m really not sure, I rather imagine it will be something of a mixture of both. There were only really two moments that caught my undivided attention: the skating on the frozen path in act I and the pas de deux where Clara and Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov, danced the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince with huge flair and showiness.

Elsewhere it just came across as a bit too confused: the role of Drosselmeyer is diminished almost to the point of irrelevance, but he is still forced to hang around, introducing each act in the Land of the Sweets (and I must say I wasn’t keen on the applause after each one, is that usual?). The way in which the Nutcracker and the nephew kept switching from one to the other just left me perplexed: in retrospect we discussed that it was obviously part of showing Clara’s subconscious mixing up the two, but it really was not clear that this was what they were trying to achieve. The forced comic stylings of the Mouse King left me cold and the battle lacked real focus, but I did enjoy the contributions of the younger cast members, especially the young Clara and nephew.

All told, I left the Coliseum a little disappointed but ultimately, not really that surprised. The world of traditional ballet productions is not one that fills me with the same wonder that it did as a boy and without the sterling recommendation of those in the know, I don’t think I’ll be rushing back in a hurry, there’s always too much theatre to see in any case!

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £6
Booking until 30th December

Review: The Nutcracker, Pentameters

“This little girl inside me is retreating to her favourite place”

Taking the fairytale novella ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ by ETA Hoffman and putting their own rather darker and Tim Burton-esque twist on things, upcoming theatre company Butterfly Wheels, Alice Old and Kayleigh Allenby, are providing an alternative way to spend Christmas with this adaptation of The Nutcracker at the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. They aim to specialise in multi-sensory performance and production and so what we get are elements of theatre, dance, song, video and performance art fused into an abbreviated whole, the show skips through without an interval in just over an hour.

The music by Cosmos goes a long way to setting the eerie atmosphere, opting for a kind of electro-folk sonic palette which is highly effective. A remixed version of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy theme is nicely judged but I also enjoyed the live contributions from the piano and from Julia Stone’s expressive violin playing. And the design work is excellent for what is a tiny venue, huge attention to detail in a richly decorated set with its fun forced perspectives, nightmarish (well to me anyway) clowns and an amazing electrified candy-floss wig for Drosselmeir.

But whilst the creative risks taken here provide a hauntingly effective aesthetic, taking an adventurous approach to presentation requires a narrative strength that is not always present here. The story tells of little girl Marie, who receives a special present from her eccentric Godfather Drosselmeir of a Nutcracker soldier doll and who subsequently gets transported to a dream-world where they must defeat the evil Mouse King and his army with the help of her dolls. But there are layers of fantasy in here which remained too obtuse for my liking, clarity sacrificed for atmosphere too often, meaning it was sometimes hard to connect with what was going on.

Part of this is due to the source material, but part of it is also the way this show is presented. As in the ballet, where the story is by and large over and done with by the interval and the second half is mainly taken up with the various dances of the sweets, the action tends to be arrested by the multimedia interventions, rather than being seamlessly integrated. Personally I think the production would have been stronger for focusing on a smaller number of aspects and threading them through the show more rather than spreading itself thinly over several bases.

That said, it makes for a nicely different Christmas show which does not outstay its welcome, and one which ought to appeal to the more grown-up kids (probably age 7 and upwards).

Running time: 1 hour (no interval)
Booking until 9th January

Review: Kin, Royal Court

“Small dogs in packs and pairs, doing what small dogs do”

Set in an all-girls boarding school in the 1990s, EV Crowe’s Kin is the last show of 2010 to show upstairs at the Royal Court. Crowe’s writing was also featured in Clean Break’s Charged at the Soho Theatre with the short play Doris Day about the challenges for modern policewomen but this show looks at what could happen when young girls are cooped together in the claustrophobic atmosphere of boarding school, away from familial guidance.

It focuses on two girls Mimi and Janey who have a complex friendship which is further complicated by another girl Nina accusing Janey of bullying. And so rivalries, burgeoning sexualities, precociousness and fraught emotions bubble up. The narrative is non-linear here though, a complicating factor which adds nothing and actually detracts from things as it all adds up to very little, fragments of scenes threatening to come to chilling life but hardly any actually achieving that and given the short running time combined with this structure, I didn’t feel like Crowe’s writing actually said anything and left me unmoved and completely indifferent to what I had just seen. Continue reading “Review: Kin, Royal Court”

Review: Salad Days, Riverside Studios

“We mustn’t say these are our happiest days, but our happiest days so far”

Despite leading with the tagline of ‘one of Britain’s best loved musicals’, I must admit to never having heard of Salad Days before this Riverside Studios and Tête à Tête production. Composed by Julian Slade and with book and lyrics by him and Dorothy Reynolds, it was apparently the longest-running musical in the West End until My Fair Lady so quite how it has passed me by until now I do not know, but I am ever so grateful that its cheery optimism is now in my life .

Set in 1954, Timothy and Jane have both just graduated from university and are facing pressure from their respective parents for him to find suitable employment through one of his influential uncles and for her to find an appropriately advantageous marriage. But anxious to make their own way in the world, they decide to get engaged to each other and to accept the first job that comes along, which just happens to be…looking after a mobile piano that when played, makes people dance uncontrollably. Predictably, the government in the form of the Minister of Pleasure and Pastime want to get their hands on this instrument of social disruption but in their efforts, the piano disappears and then events take an even more wonderfully insane turn. Continue reading “Review: Salad Days, Riverside Studios”

Review: Christmas with…Rebecca Caine & Nathan Martin, Waterloo East

“If I’m in town I want to be the toast of it”

Trying to carve out a niche in the crowded South Bank market, the Waterloo East theatre has turned its eye to cabaret with a set of Sunday night gigs leading up to Christmas. With their special guests, this Sunday saw Rebecca Caine take to the stage, fresh from an afternoon run in Salad Days, with Nathan Martin accompanying her on the ivories and lending vocal support too.

Much of the first half was taken up with showcasing material from her album Leading Ladies which celebrates leading ladies from the musical theatre stage from the first half of the twentieth century, names like Gertie Lawrence, Jessie Matthews and Lizbeth Webb. So we were treated to Coward classics like ‘One Life To Live’, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, ‘You Were There’ and a beautiful ‘I’ll See You Again’, dedicated to the late great Joan Sutherland and her sparkling cadenzas alongside excerpts from the Jessie Matthews repertoire like ‘Over My Shoulder’, ‘Tinkle Tinkle’ and ‘Gangway’. Caine recounted several anecdotes about these women between songs clearly demonstrating her passion for this era and these women and adding nice subtleties to her interpretations. Continue reading “Review: Christmas with…Rebecca Caine & Nathan Martin, Waterloo East”

Review: Potted Panto, Vaudeville

“Why am I talking to a French fairy god-chicken?”
Potted Panto is CBBC presenters Dan and Jeff’s offering to the family Christmas show market, featuring their inimitable interpretative approach to festive favourites. After distilling JK Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels into 70 minutes in Potted Potter, it is pantomimes that get the treatment this time round as seven classics are concertina-ed into 95 madcap minutes at the Vaudeville Theatre: the show perches in front of the resident An Ideal Husband set and the schedule works around that show too, offering more family-friendly viewing times.

What really works about the show is that is observes all the conventions of pantomime whilst lampooning them: the irreverent humour and boy does it get irreverent, is frequently hysterical yet it always remains affectionate and so not alienating the young’uns. Dan delights in pointing out that ‘happily ever after’ rarely means that for the baddies, there’s fun in seeing Prince Charming’s short attention span when it comes to his brides and the general ridiculousness of so many of the plots. There’s a great deal of audience participation as all the call and response routines are dissected and observed and the ground-breaking 3D section is a work of genius.

The pantos covered are Jack and the Beanstalk with the back half of pantomime cow, a Boris-fied Dick Whittington and his Cat, Sleeping Beauty with a Prince who tries all sorts of ways to wake her up before giving the kiss, Cinderella with a Prince who finds his ideal partner in the audience and Snow White done hilariously to a recording on the ‘gramnophone’. And the finale, a mash-up of Aladdin and A Christmas Carol featuring Abanazar Scrooge (it’s like it was always meant to be) with a small but hilarious assist from a chestnut seller ends things perfectly.

The pair of them clearly have a great relationship and their energy really helps to keep the whole show bubbling along, especially when trying to make each other laugh. There’s such a fresh feel to the material, combined with a real ability to respond to both the audience and events happening onstage as mayhem threatens to take over, that makes you feel that each performance will be unique and well worth catching.

Running time: 95 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th January

Review: John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration, Royal Albert Hall

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”

Although considered deeply unfashionable by many in the world of music, I have always had a soft spot for John Rutter. As a young choirboy (I know, right) I loved his simple arrangements of Christmas carols and the sweet sentimentality of his own compositions like ‘Candlelight Carol’ and I’ve never really fallen out of love with them despite people telling me there’s much more artistically interesting people around. And so with a visit from my aunt and older sister to mark our annual festive gathering, we took the opportunity to go to the Royal Albert Hall to see Rutter conduct his own Christmas Celebration, a gathering of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bach Choir and Young Choristers of the Year playing a range of music, songs and carols.

Soprano Ella Taylor and treble Liam Jones, winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Choristers of the Year 2010 brought their beautiful voices to several numbers, Rutter having written them a new song, ‘The Colours of Christmas’ but I preferred their version of his ‘Angels’ Carol’ to be honest. But on ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘Silent Night’, their harmonies were simply glorious; I would only say that I wished Jones could learn something from Taylor’s relaxed natural approach to singing, there was something a little too affected about his movements that was uncomfortable to watch at times. Continue reading “Review: John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration, Royal Albert Hall”

Review: Just So, Tabard

“Why are those things you admire most in others the hardest to find in yourself?”

Stiles+Drewe occupy a funny place for me: a musical writing pair, I’ve several of their soundtracks in my collection as well as their West End concert and I’ve been to a charity gig they hosted this year but I have never actually seen a show they have written. Fortunately, the Tabard Theatre took it upon themselves to rectify this by putting on a production of Just So.

Written in the mid 1980s by George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics), this is actually the professional London premiere of this show after a successful 2006 revival in Chichester which featured Julie Atherton. Director Andrew Keates has aimed big with this production, the biggest ever at the Tabard, which celebrates both the 25th anniversary of the show and the Tabard itself.

Just So pulls together five of Rudyard Kipling’s famous stories into one epic journey through the jungle as the Elephant’s Child and the Kolokolo Bird, guided by the wise Eldest Magician, travel together to stop the evil crab Pau Amma from flooding everything and on the way meet all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures as they learn to face their fears, be truly courageous and the real value of friendship. With a live band and a cast of eleven, the story is brought vividly to life on the stage of the Tabard in what makes for a most entertaining family musical. Continue reading “Review: Just So, Tabard”

Review: Sincerely Noël, Riverside Studios

“The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse”

Sincerely Noël is a show both devised by and starring Alistair McGowan showcasing a wide range of Noël Coward’s works, both spoken and sung, with assistance from Charlotte Page. It is an extended version of the Cocktails with Coward show that McGowan and Page took to Edinburgh last year and which played a short run here at the Riverside Studios at Easter. Mixing together songs, bon mots a scene from one of his best-known plays and verse poems, some well known, some obscurities and even some which they believe are being performed publicly for the first time.

After a slightly self-indulgent introduction featuring several of the impersonations for which McGowan is well known, we move swiftly into the flow of the evening with the pair splitting lines of dialogue and songs between them as well as each working solo. Ably accompanied by George Dyer on the piano, they whirl through these insights into the lives of both everyday people and the upper classes with many tales of the endless capacity of love to confuse, wound, amuse and capture hearts and minds alike.

What comes across is the breadth of his writing but also how timeless much of it is. One often thinks of Coward as being so firmly rooted in his own time but the marital fears of Honeymoon 1905 could have been written today, listening to 1901, the account of the death and funeral of Queen Victoria, one is struck by the comparison to Princess Diana’s death and the epic poem Not Yet The Dodo with its well-to-do parents struggling to accept their beloved son’s homosexuality shows that no matter how far we think we’ve come as a society, there is always more progress to be made.

Page really comes into her own in the second act, with beautiful deliveries of songs like Mad About The Boy and If Love Were All but also showcases a wide range of accents (wider than McGowan even) amusing particularly whilst on the therapist’s couch. McGowan also impresses at wielding the sharp witticisms and playing the repressed Englishness of so many of these characters. And together they suggest the world of pain, hurt and emotion behind the infamous stiff upper lip.

Sincerely Noël makes for an enjoyable, if a little slight, experience. In showcasing Coward as one of our finest writers though, it does an excellent job, revisiting old favourites with both a new eye, like a witty Teutonic take on Mad Dogs and Englishmen which breathes a wonderful new life into the well-known classic and the familiar, like the beautifully played balcony scene from Private Lives.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1
Booking until 23rd December
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews