Review: Chess, London Coliseum

Nobody’s on nobody’s side – an all-star cast can’t save this game of Chess from itself, for me at least

“From square one I’ll be watching all sixty-four”

It’s taken over 30 years for Chess to return to the West End (though it was seen at the Union in 2013) and though it has a huge amount of resource thrown at it in Laurence Connor’s production for English National Opera, it doesn’t necessarily feel worth the wait. An 80’s mega-musical through and through with an intermittently cracking score from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Richard Nelson’s book hasn’t aged particularly well and bears the hallmarks of the  substantial tinkering it has had at every opportunity.

It’s not too hard to see why it has needed the tinkering. The mix of Cold War politics told through the prism of rival US and Soviet chess Grandmasters, love triangles and power ballads is a tricky one to get right and part of the problem seems to be just how seriously to take it all. On the one hand, the chess matches are backgrounded with montages of the real-life tensions of the 80s; on the other, scenes that take us through the various locations of the tournaments are a cringeworthy riot of cultural stereotyping that revel in their utter kitsch. Continue reading “Review: Chess, London Coliseum”

How to solve a problem like a compilation – my alternative Unmasked

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Unmasled

I make my own suggestions about interpretations of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that could have been included on his new compilation album Unmasked

“They must have excitement, and so must I”

In a world of Spotify and iTunes and other online music services, compilation albums ought to have died a death. But the enduring success of the Now That’s What I Call Music series puts the lie to that, showing that while the idea of curating your own content is tempting, many of us prefer to let someone else do it for us.

So Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to release new anthology Unmasked is a canny one in that respect (read my review here), tapping into the desire to have a nicely pleasant set of musical theatre tunes to pop on in the car. And as with any compilation, it’s as much about what hasn’t been included as what has, that stands out. Continue reading “How to solve a problem like a compilation – my alternative Unmasked”

Album Review: Leading Ladies – Songs From The Stage

“Lock the door and stop complaining
Gather ’round and listen well”

Between them, Amber Riley, Beverley Knight and Cassidy Janson have racked up Olivier Awards and accolades aplenty and their mutual respect has led to them joining forces to create musical supergroup Leading Ladies. And working with producers Brian Rawling and Paul Meehan through East West Records (Warner), their debut album Songs From The Stage is about to be released.
 
Across the 14 tracks of the collection, there’s a variety of approaches as they tackle songs from a wide range of musicals. Each singer gets a couple of solo numbers, and they all chip in with backing vocals on some of those, but the highlights come when the trio sing together. And none more so than on an utterly transcendent version of Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ whose close harmonies are goosebump-inducingly extraordinary, the marriage of their voices a perfect alchemy.

Interpretations of Rent’s ‘Seasons of Love’ and Once’s ‘Falling Slowly’ also capture a similar sort of spine-tingling feel, the vocal arrangements by Beverley Knight emphasising a restrained but no-less-emotional delivery, recognising that deep feeling can be just as effective as fireworks even from such powerhouse singers. Even in old stalwart ‘Memory’ from Cats, there’s a purity to the performance that is a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary vogue for riffing.  

There’s also fun to be had here too, in more light-hearted numbers like the energetic ‘Raise The Roof’ from Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party and the head-over-heels giddiness of Hamilton’s’Helpless’ (with the assistance of Sky Adams) – the delivery of “I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him” is pretty much worth the price of the album alone. And those shimmering harmonies are used to great effect in a sparkling version of Dreamgirls’ ‘One Night Only’.

And though each performer revisits the shows that have made their reputations – Janson and Beautiful, Knight and Memphis – there’s arguably more interest in the other songs they pick. Janson’s breakneck race though Funny Girl’s ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ is genuinely thrilling and the album’s closer, Riley’s gentle ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (from Meet Me in St. Louis), showcases just how beautiful her voice is.

A tour-de-force from three remarkable singers then but most excitingly, the perfect example of something being greater than the sum of its parts, how authentic collaboration can reap such rich rewards. Just fantastic.

 

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

How to respond to a week such as that? Defer to those more fearlessly eloquent, and listen.

— Sean Kent (@seankent) October 12, 2017


Emma Rice’s tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe is winding to its close – the outdoor season is done but there’s still a winter’s worth of programming in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to get through. Musical Romantics Anonymous will be one to watch out for and now that casting has been released for Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre, directed by Matthew Dunster, looks to be another fascinating entry.

Aidan McArdle plays Sir Francis Walsingham, while Tara Fitzgerald plays Elizabeth I, and the rest of the cast is made up of Abraham Popoola as John Ballard, Cassie Layton as Frances, Edmund Kingsley, Sam Marks, David Partridge, Ian Redford and Colin Ryan.


I’m pleased to be able to share the first track from the Leading Ladies – Beverley Knight, Cassidy Janson and Amber Riley – in advance of the release of their debut album Songs From The Stage. It’s a glossy take on Dreamgirls‘One Night Only’ and the shimmering harmonies that kick in at 1.04 make me most excited for the possibilities of this record (which you can pre-order here).

© Mark Sepple
The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch is proud to be producing a world premiere of a new adaptation of H.G.Wells’ sci-fi classic, The Invisible Man, which runs from 27 October – 18 November.

This new commission is written by Clem Garritty, Artistic Director of Kill The Beast. Garritty’s adaptation explores H.G.Wells’integral theme of the pursuit of knowledge and how Griffin, a smart man exploring a strand of physics, can end up going mad at the potential power it gives him. One of the ways in which Clem is utilising his aesthetic, bringing a breath of fresh-air to the iconic novella, is by creating the character of scientist Lucy, a strong female counterpart to Griffin. Set against a backdrop of a Victorian, gothic London and completed with thrilling illusions and live music, this classic thriller will be innovatively bought to life by using an ‘anything is possible’ approach.

Kill the Beast is a multi-award-winning theatre company formed in 2012. The company has mounted three full-length, critically acclaimed productions (The Boys that Kick Pigs, He Had Hairy Hands, Don’t Wake the Damp) that have played to sell-out audiences across the UK. Combining darkly comic scripts, slick physical stagecraft and inventive use of projection, the Beasts have created their own recognisable brand of exciting, original comedy theatre and are fast building a reputation in the industry.

The cast includes Matthew Spencer (1984, Playhouse Theatre & International Tour; The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre & Tour); Paul McEwan (The Seven Acts of Mercy & The Two Noble Kinsmen, Royal Shakespeare Company) and Eleanor Wyld (Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre; The Alchemist, Royal Shakespeare Company).

The production is directed by internationally-renowned Ryan McBryde (Faust, Altes Schauspielhaus, Stuttgart) and designed by Lily Arnold (Snow in Midsummer, The Jew of Malta, RSC) with lighting by Nic Farman (Working, Southwark Playhouse), movement director Ellen Kane (Tony-award nomination for Best Choreography on Groundhog Day the Musical), sound and music by Rebecca Aplin (first female winner of the Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer Scheme), illusions by John Bulleid (The Star, Liverpool Everyman), fight consultant Bethan Clarke (Rc-Annie Ltd) and casting by Matthew Dewsbury (Royal Shakespeare Company).

The Invisible Man runs at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch from 27 October – 18 November. Tickets are £12.50 – £29 with £10 tickets available for Under 26s at certain performances. Bookings can be made by calling the Box Office on 01708 443333, in person at the theatre or online at queens-theatre.co.uk.

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

So much news, about so many exciting women, that I had to put together a second bulletin for this week…
Chief among them is the confirmation of Marianne Elliott’s reworking of Company, featuring the return of the glorious Patti LuPone to the London stage, playing Joanne to Rosalie Craig’s gender-swapped Bobbi. Initial reports suggest less of an interesting queering of the material and more of a straight gender-flip but it still seems set to be a highlight of next autumn.
(c) Dan Kennedy


Not content with taking the theatre world by storm (I can’t wait to see her in Mack and Mabel this weekend), Natasha J Barnes is now setting her sights on the music biz with the release of her debut single ‘Supermodel‘, ahead of an album Real, due early next year, and a cracker of a song it is too. I love that she’s exploring original music with this project too.

Also looking to break the charts are the Leading Ladies, a musicals supergroup made up of Beverley Knight, Cassidy Janson and Amber Riley, who have put together an album of musical theatre standards just in time for Christmas! Here’s an interview with them:

And to balance all that feminine energy, here’s some shameless publicity pics for the tour of Sunset Boulevard that has just started in Leicester.
(c) Manuel Harlan

Other people wearing clothes also appear in the show.

Album Review: The Route To Happiness (2014 Original Cast Recording)

“Better we’d not met”

I saw a festival presentation of Alexander S Bermange’s The Route To Happiness at the Landor back in 2013 and a year later, an original cast recording was made available through Auburn Jam, albeit with an entirely different cast. So in place of Cassidy Janson, Niall Sheehy, and Shona White, we get Kerry Ellis, Ben Forster and Louise Dearman taking on the roles of this three-hander.
The story follows the pursuit of fame, money and love and how the three intersect in the intertwined stories of Trinity, Marcus and Lorna. But where the show has maintained a fairly positive place in my memory, listening to the double-album of the score felt like a bit of a chore. Musically it is accomplished but far too similar-sounding, there’s little sense of progression to carry you through.
And lyrically, it is rather thin, although there’s plenty of witty lines peppered throughout. Ellis, Forster and Dearman all deliver committed performances but this rarely feels like a show that is craving to be put on again, in this format at least.

Review: Songs and Solidarity, Trafalgar Studios

“We could see this was a bad one immediately. The sky was glowing.”
Touted as an evening of song, dance and poetry, Songs and Solidarity was a remarkable event indeed. A fundraising gala evening pulled together in the space of a week by the superhuman efforts of actor Giles Terera and producer Danielle Tarento, it was a concert for the hundreds of families made homeless and the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Hosted by Claire Sweeney, musically directed by the enormously talented Tim Sutton, 
The balance of the programme was just right too. From pure musical loveliness like the gentle harmonies of Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ and the simplicity of Rachel Tucker’s acapella take on ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, to the more intense emotion of Terera’s own ‘Ol’ Man River’ and a visibly moved Clare Foster’s ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ (a song with which I wasn’t familiar but rather destroyed me). From the much-needed comic relief of Stiles & Drewe skipping through ‘A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate’ to the soul-warming ‘Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness’ performed by the ever excellent Julie Atherton.
The more stirring emotional moments came from those performers talking about their more personal connection to the tragedy. Musician Earl Okin spoke movingly about living in the shadow of the tower itself before a stunning version of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, polymath Rikki Beadle-Blair turned his experience of being evicted from his own tower block into something akin to performance art before an impassioned ‘Change Is Gonna Come’, Mark Thomas had us in tears of laughter with his comedy set before expertly twisting the knife with his fervent defence of public servants, particularly the firefighters whom he had visited just to say thank you.
Musical numbers were interspersed with powerful extracts of verbatim testimony from some of the survivors of the fire, read by the likes of Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rakhee Thakrar and Vikesh Bhai, even Dame Judi Dench got in on the action with a recording. But for me, the most memorable part of the evening came with Noma Dumezweni’s recital of this Facebook post from a firefighter who attended Grenfell. Gently asking us to close our eyes and to consider this a radio play, it was a sobering reminder of exactly what we ask of our much beleaguered emergency services and of the scale of the tragedy which should not, can not, must not be forgotten.
It was also instructive and inspirational to hear from Eartha Pond, the Queens Park councillor who set up this GoFundMe page to help provide a focal point for support and whose tireless efforts on the ground to help those affected by the fire are being fitted around the responsibilities of her day job. In the words of Heather Small, a surprise addition to the bill, ‘what have you done today to make yourself feel proud?’ Well, you can still donate money and if you are quick, you can also still participate in the silent auction (entries close on Friday 30th). 

Programme
Had I A Golden Thread – Alexia Khadime
Total Praise – West End Gospel Choir
We’ve Lost Everything – Vikesh Bhai
True Colors – Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns
I Said Listen, We Have To Go Back – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Natural Woman – Cassidy Janson
Extract from The Hotel Cerise and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – Bonnie Greer 
God Bless The Child – Earl Okin
Your Face – The Olai Collier Company feat. Caitlin Taylor and Ayden Morgan
Mark Thomas
Change Is Gonna Come – Rikki Beadle-Blair, accompanied by Jami Reid Quarrell
Ol’ Man River – Giles Terera
She Moved Through The Fair – Rachel Tucker
Wind Beneath My Wings – Rachel Tucker

A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate – Stiles & Drewe
One Thing I’ll Say, I’m Proud Of The Young People – Rakhee Thakrar
Don’t Worry About Me – Clare Foster
It’s Not About Muslim Or Christian – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Redemption Song – Tyrone Huntley
Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness – Julie Atherton, accompanied by Curtis Volp
The Fire Fighter – Noma Dumezweni
Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries – Claire Sweeney
Sweet Thing – David McAlmont accompanied by Curtis Slapper
Proud – Heather Small
You’ve Got A Friend – Cassidy Janson and Company

News: Songs and Solidarity – a concert for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire

Adding to the fundraising efforts already established, actor Giles Terera and producer Danielle Tarento have put together a theatrically inclined evening of song, dance and comedy in aid of those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Songs and Solidarity takes place on Sunday 25 June at 7.30pm, and will feature performances from West End stars including Olivier Award-winner Noma Dumezweni, Rachel Tucker (Wicked), Tyrone Huntley (Dreamgirls), Clare Foster (Travesties), Cassidy Janson (Beautiful) and Alexia Khadime (The Book of Mormon).

They will be joined by a host of performers and comedians including Julie Atherton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Jon Robyns, Jason Manford, Mark Thomas, Stiles and Drewe, Rikki Beadle-Blair, Vikash Bhai, Bonnie Greer, David McAlmont, Omar F Okai Company, Earl Okin, Claire Sweeney, Rakhee Thakrar, Gok Wan and the West End Gospel Choir.

The concert will also feature contributions from Dame Judi Dench, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.


Talking about the event, Terera said:

“I’m sure for all of us our immediate response is to want to try and reach out and help, either as an individual or collectively. The community that has suffered this horror has always been a strong, close knit, diverse, creative one. As an artistic community we aim for those same values. 

“At the same time it is a community which has been marginalised and ignored for a very long time. So as well as the vital response of trying to contribute financially and materially we have an opportunity to come together stand in solidarity with those directly affected and say this should not have happened.”



Proceeds from the concert, which will also feature a silent auction with theatre-related lots, will go to
the Grenfell Tower Fire Fund set up by Eartha Pond.

Songs and Solidarity takes place at Trafalgar Studios on Sunday 25 June at 7.30pm

Album Review: Wit and Whimsy – Songs by Alexander S Bermange

“If only I were famous from the telly”
 
Across its two discs and twenty-three tracks, there’s an awful lot of whimsy to Alexander S Bermange’s latest compilation album Wit and Whimsy and not quite enough wit to sustain it. Bermange is a composer who has had as much success writing comic songs for radio as he has in straight-up musical theatre (the two shows of his that I’ve seen – The Route to Happiness and Thirteen Days were both part of festivals).
 
That said, he has an impressive contacts list as evidenced by the range of people who have joined in on the action here – Laura Pitt-Pulford, Tracie Bennett, David Bedella, Cassidy Janson, Emma Williams, even Christopher Biggins. And with a guest list of this quality, naturally there are moments that shine here.

Continue reading “Album Review: Wit and Whimsy – Songs by Alexander S Bermange”

2016 Best Actress in a Play + in a Musical

Best Actress in a Play

Juliet Stevenson/Lia Williams, Mary Stuart
It couldn’t really be anyone else could it. Mary Stuart was my play of the year and the stellar combination of Stevenson and Williams was a huge part in that, a pair of extraordinary performances (or should that be a quartet…) that burst with life from the circular stage of the Almeida. I’ve seen it twice and I’m definitely thinking about going again.

Honourable mention: Uzo Aduba/Zawe Ashton, The Maids
As murderous sisters Claire and Solange, I simply adored this pairing and am a little surprised they – and the production – haven’t received more love in the end-of-year lists and awards season. Fiercely uncompromising with every sweep of the broom, I couldn’t split them if I tried either.

Gemma Arterton, Nell Gwynn
Linda Bassett, Escaped Alone
Helen McCrory, The Deep Blue Sea
Maxine Peake, A Streetcar Named Desire
Harriet Walter, The Tempest

8-10
Kirsty Bushell/Ruth Wilson, Hedda Gabler/Hedda Gabler, Lesley Manville, Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Billie Piper, Yerma

Best Actress in a Musical

Jenna Russell, Grey Gardens
One of the first shows I saw in 2016 and from the moment Russell opened the second act with the hysterical ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, I knew that this category was a lockdown. Her casting in as Michelle Fowler in Eastenders came as a surprise and I can’t help but be gutted that we’ve lost her to the world of television but hopefully it won’t be too long before she’s gracing our stages once more. STAUNCH!

Honourable mention: Clare Burt, Flowers for Mrs Harris
Whereas the likes of Amber Riley gets notices for belting the house down, there’s an entirely different skill-set being masterfully used by the likes of Burt that is equally emotionally devastating. A performance full of gorgeous restraint and natural charm that hopefully we’ll get to see again.

Samantha Barks, The Last 5 Years
Glenn Close, Sunset Boulevard
Kaisa Hammarlund, Sweet Charity
Cassidy Janson, Beautiful
Landi Oshinowo, I’m Getting My Act Together…

8-10
Beverley Knight, The Bodyguard; Anoushka Lucas, Jesus Christ Superstar; Scarlett Strallen, She Loves Me