Review: Pinocchio, National

“Do you want puppets?”

No matter the weather, as you walk into the Lyttelton’s auditorium for Pinocchio, you’ll find that it is snowing. A simple trick but one that inspires just the right childlike wonder for an adaptation of such a popular fairytale, but it is also a sense of magic that John Tiffany’s production of Dennis Kelly’s adaptation sometimes struggles to hold onto, as darkly disturbing as it is exuberantly heartfelt.

That darkness comes from several directions. The narrative cleaves closely to the moral instruction of a fable so Pinocchio’s struggle with the dark side is presented as a straight-up choice between good and evil – make the wrong choice in dealing with the Fox or the Coachman and things could end up pretty grim, as we witness in a particularly brutal bit of puppet mutilation (it shocked even me!).

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Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I would you were as I would have you be”

Emma Rice’s Summer of Love got off to a slightly sticky start at the Globe with a mystifying take on Romeo and Juliet from Daniel Kramer and as we move onto Twelfth Night, which she is directing herself, there’s a similarly uncompromising attitude in place. For the production reminded me nothing so much as a camp episode of Monarch of the Glen (sadly not Monarch of the Glum) and whilst it is often fun to watch, it’s not always the most effective treatment.
Rice’s iconoclastic approach is there from the get-go – a prologue set onboard the SS Unity before its shipwreck sees the company dancing merrily to Sister Sledge. And once in this decidedly Celtic Illyria, Orsino has a Lionel Richie mullet, Andrew Aguecheek is a would-be b-boy, serenades are played on cassette decks…why we’re in 1979, as good a time as any to explore cross-dressing hijinks of gender exploration. 
Too often though, the play jibes against the interpretation or rather, it doesn’t seem to gain anything from the setting, especially when wafts of contemporary dance pop up out of nowhere. The text has been bluntly cut and laughs are generally externally imposed – Toby Belch quoting Gloria Gaynor for instance, or all the Scottish country dancing – and the language left neglected, lines like Aguecheek’s ‘I was adored once too’ scarcely milked for comedy or pathos, the emotion of the final reunion is marred by incidental music and staging that pulls away any intimacy.
There are bright spots – Carly Bawden makes for a wonderfully determined Maria and her singing is full of character, Joshua Lacey’s archetypal 80s hunk of an Orsino is fun, and Tony Jayawardena and Marc Antolin connect well as Belch and Aguecheek, both delivering strong physical performances. But the sexuality of the piece is absent, Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Cesario just feels too timid, neither convincing of love for Orsino or in rebuffing Annette McLaughlin’s muted Olivia.
Perhaps I was spoiled by seeing the Royal Exchange’s superb version of the play last week which found all sorts of sexy and strange, raucous and romantic magic. Here, even the introduction of cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste doesn’t explode with all the fabulousness it should, the character barely incorporated to the action of the play at all. Not even Katy Owen’s spirited take on Malvolio is safe, a misjudged attempt at real depth in the final seconds snatched away by an incoming jig. It is an undoubtedly bold production but also an uncomfortable fit; perhaps then the fitting epitaph for Rice’s artistic directorship.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Hugo Glendinning
Booking until 5th August

Review: The Odyssey, Almeida/Live-stream

“I’m stunned with wonder”

When Rupert Goold first announced the #AlmeidaGreeks season with all its familiar titles, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how genuinely epic a sweep of theatrical innovation it would usher in. From the extraordinary Oresteia to the shattering Bakkhai and Medea, the radical main house programme has been supported by a wide range of supplementary activity, not least the 16 hour, 60+ actor retelling of The Iliad (which can now be viewed in full on the Almeida website).

So it’s only natural that as the season draws to an end, it is bookended by another Homeric extravaganza in The Odyssey, again with 60 odd actors participating in a 12 hour non-stop feat of major storytelling which was live-streamed on t’internet. And conscious of raising the ante, directors Rupert Goold and Robert Icke took us on a literal journey, putting the players in taxicabs, boats, buses, trekking across rooftops and down busy streets to bring Ithaca to Islington as Odysseus winds his way home.

The Iliad took place on the day I came back from holiday so I was only able to watch the tail-end of it so I was determined to catch more of The Odyssey, intending to drop in and out of it all day (as technically I was at work…) but it was so seductively brilliant and relentlessly interesting that there was barely a moment I was able to tear my eyes away. From an impassioned Simon Russell Beale beginning at the fall of Troy to the glorious Lia Williams bringing us to the climax 10 years later, it was an absolute triumph.

Highlights from this treasure chest of wonders were many and varied – Ian McKellen giving forth from the Council Chamber of Islington Town Hall, Stanley Tucci orating on the choppy waters of the Thames, Miranda Richardson, Janet Suzman, Toby Jones… But The Odyssey really came into its own when certain actors had to deal memorably, and unbelievably professionally, with the vagaries of live performance combined with the unpredictability of a city that doesn’t stop for anyone, not even Juliet Stevenson.

Stevenson delivered her Cyclops-bashing segment from a capsule on the London Eye and tussled magnificently with the automated voice in there, reminding her to smile and take her belongings with her to which the text gave her the perfect riposte. And a medal should also be awarded to Stephen Fewell who came up against a jobsworth who wouldn’t let him on the boat he was due to take yet barely batted an eyelid. Andrew Scott and Anna Madeley also both stood out with fiercely committed recitations, bringing blistering life to the text. Another stunningly audacious theatrical treat from what has been a five-month-long highlight of the year.

CD Review: Tomorrow Morning (Original London Cast Recording)

“How the hell could you expect us to fight and then connect”

The magic of a good set design – Chris De Wilde’s innovative use of the space of the Landor for their production of Tomorrow Morning is still crystal-clear in my mind despite being nearly five years and god knows how many shows ago. Laurence Mark Wythe’s show premiered four years before that though in 2006 at Hampstead’s now-defunct New End Theatre and that production, directed by Nick Winston and MD Matthew Brind, got the official cast recording treatment.

The show tracks a day in the life of John and Kat, 20-somethings on the verge of getting married, and Jack and Catherine who are older and about to get divorced. Are they the same couple at different stages in their relationship or two separate couples, well that would be telling but Wythe’s book, lyrics and music take us through a range of musical influences to paint the vast scope of emotional experiences on display here.

Who knew ‘The Reasons Behind Our Impending Divorce’ could be so naggingly tuneful? Or that the attempted execution of coitus could be as amusing as in ‘The Time Is Coming’. Wythe’s musical style is very much in the school of post-Sondheim composers like Jason Robert Brown, not yet quite as misanthropic as the veteran but the dynamic depth of the full spectrum of human experience fromt he mundane to the extreme explored interestingly in this/these relationship(s). 

It is of course a well-chosen cast, you wouldn’t expect anything less from an official recording, but there’s a real thrill in hearing esteemed classicist Emma Williams throwing herself whole-heartedly into the modern character of the new writing here and matched with Stephen Ashfield’s gorgeously open baritone, the future seems so full of possibility for them. The other side of the coin is no less moving though as Annette McLaughlin and Alistair Robbins pick over a marriage gone wrong with rueful rancour.

CD Review: Paradise Lost

“If I go to Heaven, my fate is assured” 
Full disclosure first, I was a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign for this studio cast recording of new musical Paradise Lost as attested on this page here (although darn that pesky line break!) I can’t really remember what prompted such benevolence from me, ‘twas just the second thing I have helped to fund in the smallest way but something about this musical treatment of John Milton’s poem clearly caught my attention and with the finished product now in hand, I can clearly see why. 
Lee Ormsby’s music and story and Jonathan Wakeham’s book and lyrics has a self-confessed aim of “epic storytelling” and through a determination to forefront character and bold, accessible music, the 24 tracks that make up this double album offer a tantalising glimpse into what has the potential to be a truly spectacular musical. Bucking contemporary trends somewhat, it looks back to a time of 80s mega-musicals but infuses it with real heart to make a beguiling confection. 
Wakeham contextualises the political and cultural turmoil of the war in heaven through the classic mechanism of a love triangle. Angelis, an ambitious newcomer to Heaven, has her head turned first by the leader of Heaven’s army Michael and then by troubled outsider Lucifer and is faced with a choice which soon extends far beyond where her heart lies. It’s a clever take on the story, an adaptation alive to a respect for its source material but crucially also to the needs of its new form. 
Lee Ormsby’s score rises to the challenge magnificently too, truly sweeping in scope as lush tunes, elegant orchestrations and some seriously killer power balladry combine to glorious effect. It’s skilfully constructed too, with repeated melodies and motifs interwoven throughout so that the hummability factor is strong. Case in point, by the time the soaring ‘There’s An Emotion/Kingdom Of Your Own’ arrives midway through the second act, you’ll be able to sing (albeit wordlessly) along to the whole tune. 
And what a tune, Ricardo Afonso’s Lucifer and Charlotte Wakefield’s Angelis duet gorgeously here as drama and passion flare up in the song I am most excited to eventually see staged (I envisage much dry ice and moving platforms). Wakefield’s delivery of Angelis’ ‘When I See His Face’ and Afonso’s raw power in Lucifer’s ‘Here I Am’ also stand out and as the third point of the triangle, Matthew Wycliffe’s Michael is equally powerful especially in the plaintive ‘Silence In My Heart’. 
Amongst the rest of the score are touches of musical comedy (Anna Francolini, Amanda Minihan, and Annette McLaughlin’s lovelorn angels having lots of fun), dramatic recitative (Julie Atherton’s tragic Oriale opening up the show in great style) and stirring choral numbers that the nearly 30-strong company here bring bracingly to life. The bombastic style of the music of Paradise Lost may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste but for me, it makes for a hugely exciting prospect for musical theatre in the (hopefully near) future and an absolute treat for your ears now.

Review: West End Recast 2, Phoenix

“I wonder why they didn’t just change their story”

There’s always gotta be a sequel right? After the success of West End Recast earlier this year, director Adam Lenson and musical supervisor Daniel A Weiss have once again gathered a cast of West End talent with nothing better to do on a Sunday night than perform songs they wouldn’t normally get the chance to sing. And once again, they hit the jackpot with an extraordinary range of performers and performances that offer a revelatory take on what places musical theatre could go to when a few risks are taken.

Imagine Cynthia Erivo as Bobby in Company, her rendition of ‘Being Alive’ was genuinely sensational (although nothing will ever convince me that a mid-song standing ovation is acceptable) and somehow found something new in this classic that literally raised the roof. So too did Gina Beck utterly own West Side Story’s ‘Maria’, an unexpectedly affecting take that also deserves to be explored more, not least as a fascinating challenge for her vocal range. Cassidy Janson deserves a mention for going green again, though this time as Shrek rather than Elphaba, well for the most part at least…

Nick Holder giving Imelda Staunton a run for her money (well, not really, but he gives it a damn good try) by seizing ‘Rose’s Turn’ by the balls; Jon Robyns remixing Rent far better than Rent Remixed ever achieved with a beautiful take on ‘Out Tonight’; David Bedella relishing the dip into a Desmond with ‘With One Look’; the boys more than represented too. Fra Free taking on Ragtime’s Your Daddy’s Son was another success, offering insight into what a talented singer he is turning out to be.

There was humour too in the evening, in the lighter touches of Julie Atherton’s sozzled take on Matilda’s ‘Naughty’ seguing cleverly into Annette McLoughlin’s Les Mis number. Or Michael Matus doing ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie, Katie Rowley Jones transforming into a Teddy Boy for a Grease segment, Rebecca Brewer’s malevolent Mushnik from Little Shop of Horrors and Robyns and Daniel Boys duetting from Miss Saigon.

The balance worked well across the programme, never becoming too heavy an evening and always remembering to keep things light. Perhaps it would have been good to mix up the cast a little bit more and I don’t know if the world needed another ‘Let It Go’ (sorry Daniel Boys) but there’s really not much complaining on as entertaining a night as this was.

Review: Our Town, Almeida

“The morning star always get wonderful bright the minute before it has to go”

Some images sear themselves into the mind, never to be forgotten and for me, the staging of the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was such a one – something so simply done yet achingly powerful in effect, all the more so given it isn’t immediately apparent. And after Mr Burns, it is the second time in three plays that the Almeida has delivered a doozy of a third act – one can’t help but feel sorry (or laugh) at the doofuses that left at any of the intervals.

It is interesting to see the strength of the reactions to David Cromer’s version of this show – in the Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford decries it as glib, desultory and that final act as smug(!) and Jake Orr dismissed it thus


which just goes to show different strokes for different silly folks eh (I was part of that audience…)