Lockdown TV review: The Dresser (2015)

Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins do much to banish my bad memories of Ronald Harwood in a spectacular version of The Dresser

“One Lear more or less in the world won’t make any difference”

Despite its stellar casting and excellent notices, it has taken a while to bring myself to watch the TV version of The Dresser.  In advance of the 2016 production which toured before hitting the West End, playwright Ronald Harwood took precisely no prisoners and gave exactly no shits in giving a series of interviews (#1, #2) which, to put it lightly, did not endear him to me. And rightly or wrongly (only being human), I let that colour my appreciation of his art.

A little distance has softened me though and I have to say, I found much to appreciate in this televised version, not least the presence of Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins  and Ian McKellen in the two central roles of an ageing Shakespearean and his manservant. Its the middle of the Second World War and their production of King Lear is still touring the regions, even though its leading man is perilously close to losing his faculties. Continue reading “Lockdown TV review: The Dresser (2015)”

Review: Sweet Charity, Nottingham Playhouse

A sparkling lead turn from Rebecca Trehearn, and brilliant choreography from Alistair David, enliven this Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse

“Your game makes very good sense”

So pleased to have managed to squeak into Nottingham Playhouse’s Sweet Charity before it finished, this is what everyone uses their annual leave for, right…?! The second major production of the show in recent months following the Watermill’s strong actor-muso interpretation this summer, it is one which makes a bold move in introducing Alistair David’s choreography to give this 1966 musical a fresh lick of paint.

It’s the only real sense of updating that Bill Buckhurst’s production provides but it is an impactful one, David reimagining almost wholesale and invigorating the almost-too-familiar sounds of Cy Coleman’s classic score. In takis’ podium-based design, it looks a dream and more than justifies new AD Adam Lenson’s decision to reintroduce musicals to the programme here after an absence of more than a decade. Continue reading “Review: Sweet Charity, Nottingham Playhouse”

Review: Sunset Boulevard Curve, Leicester

“Smile a rented smile, fill someone’s glass
Kiss someone’s wife, kiss someone’s ass”

Ria Jones’ extraordinary history with Sunset Boulevard might well be entitled The Norma Conquests – from originally workshopping the role of Norma Desmond for Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton (book and lyrics) in 1991 to her headline-grabbing stint as Glenn Close’s understudy in last year’s ENO staged concert version of the show to finally getting to play the leading role in her own right on this UK tour, premiering at Leicester’s Curve, some 26 years later.

And was it worth the wait? Jones certainly is making the most of her well-deserved moment, offering a different skillset for her markedly different interpretation. Jones is undoubtedly the better singer, the lushness of her voice soaring effortlessly to the impassioned heights of the score. And she’s a different kind of actress, offering a brasher, more manic kind of energy to this former movie star caught up in a fantasy world when a young screenwriter (Danny Mac) accidentally offers hope to her faded career.  Continue reading “Review: Sunset Boulevard Curve, Leicester”

Review: 42nd Street, Théâtre du Châtelet

“Musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language!”

It may be in the English language but this production of 42nd Street is in a French theatre, the glorious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris which, under Jean-Luc Choplin’s artistic directorship, has arguably entirely reshaped the Parisian relationship with musical theatre. He’s brought Sondheim there for the first time in a big way (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) and has staged a number of classic Broadway musicals like An American in Paris (soon to open in London after its New York transfer) and last year’s Singin’ in the Rain.
42nd Street actually marks Choplin’s final show here, as the theatre will soon shutter for a couple of years to undergo major renovations, and Stephen Mear’s production certainly has the visual flair of a fitting finale. With a company of over 40, the tap-dancing routines are a absolute vision, a joyously heart-swelling parade of well-drilled precision, the likes of which we see so rarely these days even in the biggest shows. Combined with dazzling visual effects and gorgeous costumes courtesy of Peter McKintosh, the lavish aesthetic is an absolute treat.
But there’s no hiding from the fact that Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, from Bradford Ropes’ novel, is paper thin, lacking real humour or grit in its script or any real sophistication in its plotting. Set during the Depression, director Julian Marsh is launching his new show Pretty Lady and when his leading lady breaks her ankle just before opening night, will inexperienced chorus girl Peggy be able to step in and save the day? It’s all rather hackneyed and lacking in any kind of suspense, more of a problem than one might expect with a classic.
Played entirely straight as it is here, 42nd Street just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. An ironic edge might bring some humour, more earnestness might bring it real heart (although that’s questionable) and so it never catches fire as often as one feels it might. Monique Young’s Peggy sings and dances well without blossoming into the star she needs to be, Ria Jones and Alexander Hanson both play it a little too safe with their stagey characters, only Dan Burton of the leads really lives up to the star billing and Jennie Dale’s writer is a rare supporting character who stands out.
Musical director Gareth Valentine ensures his orchestra sound never less than superlative and even if you’re not buying the story, then the visual impact of Mears and McKintosh’s work is always on hand to bring the wow factor. With London getting its own production of the show next year though, directed by Bramble no less, I’d struggle to recommend making a trip especially to see this particular version, even with choreography delivered as well as this.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert 
Booking until 8th January

Album Review: Stephen Ward (2013 Original Cast Recording)

“Part of me is saying I should go”

Like many others, I imagine, I did not leave Stephen Ward thinking I particularly want to hear this score by Andrew Lloyd Webber again anytime soon and so three years later, this is the first time I’ve revisited this musical. And as the strange melody of opening number ‘Human Sacrifice’ started, I began to wonder if I’d been overly harsh, Alexander Hanson’s story-telling experience imbuing this prologue of sorts with real interest and setting me up for a potential reimagining of my opinion.

But then track number 2 ‘Super Duper Hula Hooper’ kicks in, that title makes me die a little inside every time I hear it, and you soon begin to realise why the show barely managed 4 months in the West End. Lloyd Webber may have been a teenager in the 60s but he’s looking back at them like a man in his sixties, the air of rose-tinted corrective lenses and musical tweeness proving fatal to conjuring any kind of authentic sense of the period. Continue reading “Album Review: Stephen Ward (2013 Original Cast Recording)”

TV Review: That Day We Sang

“We want all the spirit of Lancashire, but not the accent” 

One of the most anticipated bits of TV this Christmas was surely Victoria Wood’s adaptation of her musical That Day We Sang, featuring a Sweeney Todd reunion with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball taking on the lead roles of Enid and Tubby. The show is a wonderfully heart-warming tale of extraordinariness coming out of the ordinary as Wood does so well, following two lonely middle aged Mancunians who dare to dream of love when life offers them a second chance.

They’re initially brought together at a special event in 1969 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Manchester Children’s Choir recording Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds (a real life event). Having lost touch and been ground down by the drudgery of life, each puts a long awaited sparkle in the other’s eye though as ever, the path of true love ne’er did run smooth. And Wood contrasts this story with a 1929 narrative that follows the experiences of the choir as they build up to their momentous day. Continue reading “TV Review: That Day We Sang”

Review: Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre

“If I were a watch I’d start popping my springs!”

From the opening moments of an overture that demands the attention, it is clear that Chichester’s revival of the Broadway classic Guys and Dolls is going to be a scorcher. Director Gordon Greenberg utilises not only Carlos Acosta as choreographer but also Andrew Wright as a co-choreographer and the combination of the two is simply explosive – these are no two-bit routines that people are shuffling around, this is proper dance and it is thrilling to behold.

It helps of course to be connected to Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ amiable book, based on Damon Runyon’s characters, about the travails of a bunch of New York gamblers, and Frank Loesser’s evergreen music and lyrics which churns out classic after classic after classic. Greenberg wisely doesn’t interfere much at all with the material, just cultivating warmth from all of his performers and particularly his two leading couples, making them utterly adorable. Continue reading “Review: Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre”

Review: Stephen Ward The Musical, Aldwych

“Manipulation, that’s the technique, 
This conversation must not leak” 

It’s a curious thing, to take a relatively obscure figure, base a musical on him that is then named after him, yet leave a vacuum where his central presence ought to be the driving force. For all that Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton place the character of Stephen Ward at the centre of Stephen Ward the Musical, he remains far too inscrutable, far too unexplored for us to buy into the main premise of the show which is that Ward, who committed suicide after being made the scapegoat for the Profumo scandal of 1963, is a tragic victim of Establishment hypocrisy.

But for all Alexander Hanson’s sterling efforts as the osteopath-turned-social fixer who engineered the first meeting of Secretary of State for War John Profumo and wannabe showgirl Christine Keeler, the show suffers from making him narrator as well as protagonist. So he is lumped with huge swathes of exposition, made increasingly worthy due to a slavish attention to real-life events, as a huge cast of characters flash by momentarily in the service of telling a story, but leave us none the wiser as to what Ward was like as a person, what motivated him, what moved him. Continue reading “Review: Stephen Ward The Musical, Aldwych”

Review: The Pajama Game, Minerva

“Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe”

Old Broadway classics seem to flourish in the rarefied air of West Sussex and it is hard to shake the feeling that Chichester has done it again with a revival of The Pajama Game. No stranger to big American musicals, director Richard Eyre demonstrates the surest of touches to keep the improbable subject matter – the trials of working life in a pyjama factory – anchored in a world that we always care about and is aided by the kind of score that feels recognisable even if you think you haven’t heard it before. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score is full of fantastic old school tunes like Hey There (You with the Stars in your Eyes) and Steam Heat and two of the songs were actually written by Frank Loesser, although uncredited. 

George Abbott and Richard Bissel’s book is based on Bissell’s novel 7½ cents set in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Sleep-Tite factory in which new-to-town Superintendent Sid Sorokin finds himself falling head over heels for feisty union rep Babe Williams, whose stubborn initial resistance can’t ignore the mutually fiery passion between them. But trouble brews when the workers are denied a justified 7½ cent pay rise and Sid and Babe find themselves on opposing sides of a heated labour debate.  Continue reading “Review: The Pajama Game, Minerva”