Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Chichester Festival Theatre

Some of the beauty of Flowers for Mrs Harris gets lost at Chichester Festival Theatre but it remains a striking new musical

“It’s a work of art… something not real, made to make you feel”

I had much love for Flowers for Mrs Harris when it premiered in Sheffield a couple of years ago, and so I was delighted to see Daniel Evans deciding to revive it at his new abode over in Chichester. My only cavil came with the placing of this most heartfelt musical in the vast space of the Festival Theatre rather than the intimacy of the Minerva where it might perhaps have been better served.

So much of the beauty of the show (book by Rachel Wagstaff from Paul Gallico’s novel, music & lyrics by Richard Taylor) comes from the fact that it isn’t a bells and whistles epic. It is something far more subtle that truly celebrates the ordinary in extraordinary, as Clare Burt’s charlady Ada Harris dares to dream of owning a Christian Dior dress and in working to achieve that dream, illuminates the lives of those around her.

Continue reading “Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Chichester Festival Theatre”

Review: Quiz, Noël Coward

Whether you get to make your West End debut or not, James Graham’s Quiz is great fun at the Noël Coward Theatre

“It’s a 50:50 – guilty or not-guilty”

It’s taken me a little while to get around to seeing James Graham’s Quiz but it proved more than worth it as this particular matinée was undoubtedly enhanced by the West End debut of…me and my Aunty Jean! Treading the boards of the Noël Coward Theatre was an unexpected bonus to a highly enjoyable afternoon, and I look forward to the next role that Mr Graham creates for me…

But back to the matter at hand. Transferring over from Chichester, Quiz takes a cock-eyed look at the world of light entertainment, and the way in which ‘constructed reality’ has bled into the larger narrative not just of our television, but of our society. Using the ‘coughing major’ scandal of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as a jump-off point, we dive into meaty notions of truth and justice in a media-dominated age. Continue reading “Review: Quiz, Noël Coward”

Review: Caroline or Change, Minerva

“Household rules and small decrees unsuspecting bring us these secret little tragedies”

Well Daniel Evans looks set to be continuing one of Chichester Festival Theatre’s longstanding traditions, of producing musical theatre that tempts the cognoscenti over to West Sussex in droves and which leads calls for West End transfers as soon as the curtain falls (if they had curtains in Chichester that is…). His first musical for the venue is a promising one too, an adventurous choice in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline or Change, and an entirely successful one under Michael Longhurst’s direction and a genuinely superb cast.

It is 1963, the United States is in the grip of a civil rights movement but one whose effects haven’t quite trickled all the way down to the Deep South just yet. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American maid in Lakes Charles, Louisiana working for a Jewish family, The Gellmans, for 30 dollars a week. But she’s a single mother of 4 and ends are barely meeting so when stepmother of the house Rose devises a plan to teach her 8-year-old stepson Noah not to leave change in his pocket, it’s a difficult one to resist despite – or maybe because of – all the racial, social and economic tensions it represents. Continue reading “Review: Caroline or Change, Minerva”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2

“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for”

David Tennant’s opening season took the template of the opening series and ran with it, Russell T Davies’ vision finding its ideal mate in the Scottish actor. The typically adventurous sweep was tempered with a more tender vision, which considerably upped our emotional investment (previous companions returning, romantic connections whether past or present).

Bringing back the Cybermen was an interesting move, as was the introduction of the notion of parallel worlds (and how important that became…). And if the series-long motif of Torchwood didn’t really pay off, especially not when one considers what Torchwood the show became, the finale to Doomsday is pretty close to perfection. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2”

Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible

“There is more to life than you ever knew, than you ever dreamed,”

Sheffield feels the right place for Flowers for Mrs Harris to come into bloom, its delicately understated charm and musicality making this a world away from the brash, cut-throat commercialism of West End musicals. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see this show come down to the capital, for it does deserve such wider attention, but rather to celebrate the creation and nurturing of musical theatre from all parts of the country, a recognition of a theatrical ecology that thrives far beyond the M25.

Daniel Evans’ artistic directorship of Sheffield Theatres, which ends with this production, has been a key part of that over the last few years and it is pleasing to see that his presence in the overall picture will continue as he departs for Chichester Festival Theatre. As for now, we get a gorgeous piece of unmistakably British musical theatre that is as heart-warming and tear-jerking as they come, a tenderly sentimental exploration of far-fetched dreams and earthily real friendships. Continue reading “Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible”

Review: Show Boat, Crucible

“We drink water from a dipper,
You drink champagne from a slipper”

Christmastime is often one for traditions and one of the better theatrical ones has proven to be the big musicals that Sheffield Theatres produce. From Me and My Girl to My Fair Lady to a never-better Company and last year’s Anything Goes that went on to tour, the outgoing Artistic Director Daniel Evans has proved a master at big-hearted, large-scale productions that skimp on nothing to create some of the best musical theatre the country has to offer.

This year sees Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat as Evans’ final show (as AD at least) and it is an undoubted success, a fitting festive farewell. It’s a brave choice too, an unwieldy beast of a story based on Edna Ferber’s novel about the backstage drama onboard the Mississippi show boat Cotton Blossom, using the performing troupe as a prism through which to view several decades of momentous change in the USA from the late 1800s. Continue reading “Review: Show Boat, Crucible”

Review: Hey, Old Friends, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Stop worrying where you’re going—move on”

Theatreland does like to make sure every anniversary gets marked somehow and so following on from the celebrations around Les Misérables’ 30th birthday earlier this month is a similar hoohah for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th year on this planet. As is de rigueur for these events, a gala concert has been put on for the occasion with the kind of rollcall you could only normally dream of and naturally, Hey, Old Friends! had the price tag to go along with it.

As with Les Mis (which donated to Save The Children’s Syria Children’s appeal), the show benefitted charitable purposes, specifically The Stephen Sondheim Society and telephone helpline service The Silver Line, harnessing the major fundraising potential of such events. That said, these tickets tend to be so expensive that there’s a nagging feeling that they’re serving a limited audience with few opportunities for regular theatregoers to be a part of them. Continue reading “Review: Hey, Old Friends, Theatre Royal Drury Lane”

CD Review: Candide (1999 Royal National Theatre Recording)

 “I’ll show my noble stuff by being bright and cheerful!”

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Both in terms of writing, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide (with its multiple literary contributors from Voltaire’s novella) dates back to 1956 and an entirely different age, and in terms of production too, Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre liked its big, grand musicals and this 1999 adaptation – co-directed by Nunn and John Caird – was lavishly done with its lush orchestrations fortunately recorded for posterity.

My only previous experience of Candide is with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production in 2013 so I can’t really comment on the different versions of the show (although having done a little reading, I realise that this is something people have strong opinions about!). Instead, I’m listening to it with pretty much fresh ears, revelling in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations and Mark W Dorrell’s musical direction which sound utterly gorgeous, especially with a cast of this calibre. Continue reading “CD Review: Candide (1999 Royal National Theatre Recording)”

CD Review: Sunday in the Park with George (2006 London Cast Recording)

“Everyone gets along with him, that’s the problem with him”

In listening to cast recordings, one can get struck wondering who are they for. For fans obviously, those who saw the show or those who weren’t able to make it along and as a legacy of those productions deemed worthy enough. But what about casual listeners, those simply dipping a toe into the world of musical theatre, could one honestly recommend the complexity of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George?

Perhaps not, but that’s not to say it isn’t an excellent thing. Some call this show one of Sondheim’s more accessible but I’m not convinced – its pointillist nature and time-jump format are inventive but still challenging and the inclusion of passages of dialogue – something Sondheim recordings often do – are as much of a hindrance as a help, they add to a fuller understanding of the story but also have an alienating effect – I was banned from listening to this out loud in the flat! Continue reading “CD Review: Sunday in the Park with George (2006 London Cast Recording)”

Review: The Effect, Sheffield Crucible

“I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect”

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect ranked as my 12th favourite play of 2012, Rupert Goold’s Headlong production for the National Theatre proving to be a quietly devastating piece of theatre exploring notions of self and identity through the prism of depression and drugs. Two willing volunteers take part in a medical trial for a new kind of anti-depressant, despite not suffering from depression themselves, and are monitored for any side effects by a doctor and a medical rep who have their own tangled history which further impacts the study.

Stuck in isolation together, guinea pigs Tristan and Connie swiftly fall head over heels – Henry Pettigrew and Ophelia Lovibond giving two stunning performances of a palpable chemistry – and Prebble raises the question of whether love is the drug or is their connection is due to the actual drugs in their veins. From that, she also probes into perceptions of depression – Stuart Bunce’s trial director believes his pill can cure or do anything but sinking into her own bleak mental morass, Priyanga Burford’s achingly fragile Dr James isn’t so sure. 

Daniel Evans’ production is beautifully cast – all four actors play the twists of character astutely and assuredly as priorities shift and relative truths come to light to shattering effect. Without giving anything away, it is a stunningly powerful ending in all its hushed beauty as science and sympathy battle and heartstrings tugged mercilessly. Amanda Studley’s design for the Crucible’s Studio space plays effectively on hospital waiting room and clinical atmospherics to suggest we could well be a part of this or the next trial, David Plater’s lighting adding to this unremitting feel.

The Effect might even be better now than it was 3 years ago, about 30 minutes or so has been junked from the running time which certainly helps, but it also really benefits from the intimacy here. Whether the anguish of Burford’s increasing inability to cope or Pettigrew and Lovibond showing us just how mysterious the human mind is with or without chemical alteration, this is an exceptional revival.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 18th July