Album Review: Godspell (1993 Studio Cast)

“See ya later I’m going to the front of the thee-AY-ter”

Full disclosure, I’ve been listening to this version of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell for more years than I care to remember and before anyone really knew what luminaries many of these performers would become – Clive Rowe, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman…though perhaps we’ll skip past Darren Day. Using the composer’s original arrangements and conducted by himself, it is perhaps a tad traditional for the taste of some but for me, it hit the marks from top to bottom. 

Henshall going full-on Mae West in a vampy ‘Turn Back O Man’, Elisabeth Sastre and Jacqueline Dankworth complementing each other well in a beautifully harmonised ‘By My Side’, Day and Glyn Kerslake’s amusing romp through ‘All For The Best’, it’s all highly slick and professional. The air of reverence is strong throughout, mark Paul Manuel leading ‘All Good Gifts’ or Dankworth’s ‘Day By Day’ for example, classically done almost note for note from the sheet music. Continue reading “Album Review: Godspell (1993 Studio Cast)”

Review: Worst Wedding Ever, Salisbury Playhouse

 “There was no happier man on the planet than me, the day I learned they’d split The Hobbit into three separate films”

In what is quite the coup for Salisbury Playhouse, Chris Chibnall’s new play Worst Wedding Ever is premiering there, a product of AD Gareth Machin’s determination to promote new writing from local sources. A resident of Dorset, Chibnall held the much of the nation’s collective attention last year in the brilliant Broadchurch which starred the beautiful Dorset coastline alongside its whodunit, and whilst this very much ploughs a different furrow, it proved to be quite engaging.

A comedy through and through, about a young couple keen to have a quiet wedding on the cheap but failing to take into account the determination of their families and in particular her mother, to get involved as much as possible. What makes it work though is the way which Chibnall manages to stretch the remit of comedy here to cover both the outrageously farcical and the touchingly human – there’s a huge emotionality at play here which means the comedy is often most moving. Continue reading “Review: Worst Wedding Ever, Salisbury Playhouse”

Re-review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter

“Me with music and you the words“

Menier Chocolate Factory Christmas musicals have a habit of making the leap into the West End and given the rapturous reception that Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along received last year, it was no surprise to hear that it would make the well-deserved transfer into the Harold Pinter Theatre for a 12 week engagement. My original review of the show can be read here and perhaps not unexpectedly, very little has changed of my feelings about this rather magnificent production. But more surprising was how little I felt it had changed in the considerably larger space of this new theatre. 

It’s a good six months since I saw it so perhaps my memory isn’t too reliable but it really does feel very similar indeed, Soutra Gilmour’s design slots into the theatre in a similar fashion and the staging – although expanded to fill the space – moves around it in the same way. Not that this is a bad thing, but rather that I’m not exactly sure about how it might play from further back or up in the theatre than you’d ever be in the Menier. Where the lack of discernible difference is a definite boon though is in the performance level. Continue reading “Re-review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter”

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

“We go way back, never forward”

Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along famously flopped on Broadway when it opened in 1981 but now refined and reappraised, it is considered amongst his finest work and this Menier Chocolate Factory production serves to bolster that reputation. Directed by Maria Friedman, no stranger to Sondheim’s work as an actor but making her professional directorial debut here, the story traces the fortunes of Franklin, Mary and Charley, three writer friends buzzing with creative energy and determined to make their mark on the world. Real life intervenes though and the mistakes, sacrifices and compromises made in their lives as success changes them in unexpected ways are highlighted and heightened by a reverse timeline which sees Sondheim and book writer George Furth move scene by scene from 1976 to 1957.  

It is Franklin who lies at the heart of the story. An unsympathetic figure who we meet as the height of his unlikeability in the midst of a soulless Hollywood party, it is to Mark Umbers’ immense credit that he makes this man such an intriguing person, transcending the limitations of the book which provides little clue as to his motivations. Umbers’ Franklin sparkles with a seductively easy charm that makes him understandably hard to resist and suggests that it not with malice that he rides roughshod over others, but rather that his head is simply too easily turned by the next new bright thing. Jenna Russell’s Mary’s slow self-destruction as unrequited love eats her from the inside is just devastating to watch, all the more so for being played in reverse and realising just how long she has held a flame for her friend, and Damian Humbley’s well-judged Charley has a geeky reticence that explodes in fine style with a delicious rip through ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc’. Continue reading “Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s a long road ahead of us”

Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory after a number of rewrites since 1999 that have seen the show take on four different titles. The story is based on a real-life one, of early Twentieth Century brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, who are exhorted by their father on his deathbed to seize every opportunity and that they do, both good and bad. Striking it lucky whilst searching for gold, the profligate pair part ways as Addison objects to the gambling that Wilson has become addicted to – despite it multiplying their fortune – and as Wilson turns his hand to all sorts of schemes like boxing promotion and Hollywood, Addison travels the world to eventually settle in Florida and become an architect. Fate draws them together again though as Wilson can’t help but try to capitalise on his brother’s success once again.

Covering so much history of two different people, which in turn is clearly meant to be representative of how the American Dream could go wrong as well as right, means that there is a very episodic feel to Road Show which precludes any real dramatic tension being built up or genuine emotional investigation into any of the characters. There are some fantastic moments in here: ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’ is as tenderly lovely a gay love song as you could hope for; ‘Isn’t He Something!’ details a mother’s love beautifully and the traverse staging, though a little tight and initially disconcerting, makes intriguing use of the space – though a few less dollar bills in the air might not have gone amiss. Continue reading “Review: Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory”

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”

Review: A Sentimental Journey, Wilton’s Music Hall

“You’re not going into that whole load of hooey are you…”

To anyone who has read this blog for a bit, it will come as no surprise that one of my favourite venues in London is Wilton’s Music Hall: a striking historical wonder in the East End, one of the most atmospheric places in the city and one that is sadly in need of much support and funding. I’ve tried to do my part by attending everything there since I discovered it late last year (Edmond and The Waste Land, both remarkable), and the latest play to be put on there is A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day.

It does what it says on the tin, tells the story of 1950s sweetheart Doris Day, who can lay claim to being one of the most successful box-office stars of all time, and how behind the carefully cultivated wholesome image lay a life of frustration, unhappiness, debt and a whole load of marital shenanigans. The story is accompanied throughout by many of Day’s famous songs, played fabulously by a quartet on stage under the excellent musical direction of Jo Stewart and sung by all the actors. Continue reading “Review: A Sentimental Journey, Wilton’s Music Hall”