Review: Godspell, Union Theatre

“C’mere Jesus, I got something to show ya”

Godspell occupies a strange place in my personal history in that it is a show whose soundtrack I have known intimately for such a long time, I had it on cassette as a boy, we even sang songs from it in our primary school choir, and yet I had never seen it on stage until earlier this year in a theatre pub production in Walthamstow. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that one, but when the Union Theatre announced a production directed by Michael Strassen, I decided to give it another shot. That the highlight of the previous show was the sexy gay Judas (yes, I know he wasn’t really gay) and that I happened to notice there was another sexy potentially gay Judas in this one who I’ve seen naked recently had nothing to do with it.

It is the 40th anniversary of the show, conceived by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which is based on parables from the Bible and leading up to the end of Jesus’ life, set to a pop-rock soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it is overtly religious as much of the messages that it portrays are ones with universal meaning of love, compassion for others and the strength of community. As well as directing, Strassen is also responsible for the minimal staging which shears it of the 1970s flower-child feel which the show is often associated with, and in conjunction with Steve Miller’s lighting design, provides an arresting visual aesthetic with its use of stylised posing and shadows, and I loved the motif of the eclipsed sun which prefigured the darkness of the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Continue reading “Review: Godspell, Union Theatre”

Review: Naked Boys Singing, Charing Cross Theatre

“There’s only one reason you’re here tonight”

The rebranding of the New Players Theatre as the Charing Cross Theatre has to be one of the least effective I have come across in quite some time. The theatre itself, the signage and the website still bear the old name, only the tickets actually say Charing Cross on them which makes for a strange state of affairs. It is now playing late-night home to Naked Boys Singing, which is proving remarkably enduring given that this is the fourth outing for Phil Willmott’s production after previous runs at the King’s Head and the Arts Theatre: what could its appeal be…?!

It’s a musical comedy revue loosely in the style of A Chorus Line, following 7 guys as they audition for and then perform in a show which requires them to be in the nude. Which they do, eventually. But before that, there’s an attempt at trying to add depth to proceedings by filling the back-story of some of the protagonists and philosophising about what it means to really get naked, but given that the height of humour here is men shouting as many different terms for male genitalia as they can, any level of sophistication is pretty much wasted. Continue reading “Review: Naked Boys Singing, Charing Cross Theatre”

Review: Legacy Falls, New Players

“Call it fate or call it karma, I was made for daytime drama”

Legacy Falls is a new musical from James Burn, with assistance on the book from Ian Poitier who also doubles as director and choreographer. It is a tongue-in-cheek look at the on-screen and off-screen antics at an American daytime soap opera, Legacy Falls, which is suffering from falling ratings and so when a new producer is brought in to shake things up, the bitchiness and back-stabbing is ramped up as the actors begin to question their security and their happiness in life, especially Edward the long-suffering leading man with a big secret.

It starts off brilliantly with the great title track which is lyrically very sharp and nicely tuneful, enhanced by a witty video of the opening credits for the show which nails the windswept posing which makes them so ridiculously comical! When pursuing the soap side of things, this show is really very good and laugh-out-funny on a number of occasions. It mixes up the Acorn Antiques-style parody of comically bad soap acting with missed cues and overacting with the sheer ridiculousness of US daytime soap operas with their classic catfights, smell-the-fart acting, rapidly ageing child characters and their propensity for outrageously complex personal relationships. It also borrows the device of portraying the actors playing the characters to show the neuroses of this group of actors who see their steady paycheck being threatened. The best songs are here, with witty group numbers (I particularly liked the female trio on Somebody’s Gonna Get Killed and the duo on Normal People) and powerhouse solos like Larger Than Life all having huge amounts of fun and genuine comedy that make it a delight to watch. Tara Hugo’s huge voice makes her performance as Stephanie the leading lady one of the highlights of the show but she is well matched by Joanne Heywood’s conniving Madison and Aimie Atkinson’s incredibly ditzy Brandy.

It is perhaps slightly less successful at mining its more serious storyline of its leading man struggling to deal with the stagnation of playing the same role for 30 years, all the while concealing his homosexuality. By comparison, these sections are relatively flat, too ballad heavy and don’t really build the requisite emotional engagement that is needed to stop you from wishing we were back in the comedy sections. Mark Inscoe does well with the material but I felt his perma-tanned Edward needed to be a stronger-drawn, more dramatic character in order to really capture the attention as a leading man and build up more passion and connection with the most handsome Tim Oxbrow as Daniel, the man who leads his journey out of the closet. And to be honest, there’s no new insight or believability in the way this gay storyline is played out which comes across as really quite dated. 

It is a well-drilled company throughout though with no weak links: Rosalind Blessed is great fun as Frankie the producer brought in to improve the ratings; Davis Brooks’ dim and frequently shirtless hunk Ridge has excellent comic timing and from the front row, Ezra Axelrod caught my eye in a distractingly tight pair of trousers. Georgia Lowe’s set uses the same idea utilised in the NT’s Hamlet of movable panels to create a range of locations quickly quite effectively: I did think that it took too long to get them into place though, the whole show could be a lot tighter by speeding up these transitions, getting people to come onstage as others are leaving which would give more of a feel of a bustling tv studio. And I’m not sure the finale needed the simplistic choreography which looked a bit awkward and ultimately adds little to the situation.

Michael Bradley’s five man band played brightly if slightly overpoweringly at times, but overall the feeling was one of great confidence on all sides which bodes well for the run. Musically, Burn shows talent in writing a raft of interesting songs here and with his ear for a witty lyric, the upbeat numbers are just a delight. It is a tad solo-ballad-heavy for me and I longed for a little more vocal complexity with group numbers and harmonies but there is enough here to impress, not least in the effort that it must take to a get a new musical by a little-known writer produced in London and there are plenty of laughs in here to make this an enjoyable show.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50 (and it’s quite funny, I loved the mock bios for the actors in the show)
Booking until 20th November

Review: Assassins, Union Theatre

“Something bewildering occurred”

Assassins is the latest revival paying tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in his 80th year, in a steady flow of productions which looks set to continue throughout the year with Into the Woods and Passion at the Open Air Theatre and the Donmar respectively. Playing in Southwark’s Union Theatre, this play looks at 9 people, all connected by their attempts to kill a President of the United States of America, some successful, some unsuccessful, as they re-enact their crimes in a timeless smoky limbo where they can interact with each other and we see their own twisted take on the American dream as they look for meaning in what they tried to do. 

I was surprised to find that I just didn’t get it. Indeed I found it quite hard work: musically I did not find it particularly tuneful (only ‘Unworthy Of Your Love’ has a melody that you could remember 15 minutes after the show had ended) and consequently rather uninvolving. And in its subject matter and structure, it assumes quite an intimate knowledge of American political history, with its array of mostly (to me at least)unfamiliar  characters, all out of their historical context to make things even easier. Continue reading “Review: Assassins, Union Theatre”