Review: Ruthless! The Musical, Arts

Not even Tracie Bennett can save Ruthless! The Musical from itself

“Not a reason on Earth as far as I know
To write, mount and open a musical show”

Ruthless? Charging up to over £70 for a show at the Arts. Ruthless? Advertising yourselves as an all-female musical when you’ve a man in the cast. Ruthless? Putting said man above the title because he’s a talent show judge. Ruthless indeed. I didn’t mean to start off so grumpily for at times, Ruthless! The Musical is a riot of campy nonsense, your perfectly acceptable off-West-End fare. And with its kaleidoscope of nods to pretty much every example of the showbiz mom/bratty kid genre you can think of, you can see how its niche appeal might build up into cult status.

Richard Fitch’s production, the first major one in the UK, seems determined to achieve bigger things though and it doesn’t always come off. The story centres on strong-willed eight-year-old Tina Denmark who is determined to get the lead in her school play and egged on by a talent agent and a suspect family history, pursues that ambition mercilessly.     Continue reading “Review: Ruthless! The Musical, Arts”

Album Review: Cabaret (2006 London Cast Recording)

“No use permitting some prophet of doom”

Cabaret is a show which has had many a revival and many a cast recording made from those productions but it is Rufus Norris’ 2006 interpretation that seems to have lingered the longest, a new touring version starring Louise Redknapp and Will Young starts at the New Wimbledon in late September, one of many such revivals of this revival (I caught it in the West End in 2012 and the 2013 tour). And just to be clear, my comments are UK-based, for it is Mendes’ 1993 production that was most recently revived in the US (which I saw with Emma Stone at Studio 54).

And I have to say I love this particular cast recording – the sharpness of David Steadman’s musical direction is captured brightly and well on the record, and the performances sound pointed and fresh, a real testament to the recording process here. It’s a strong cast to be sure, led by the canny decision to cast Anna Maxwell Martin in the lead role of Sally Bowles. By no means a predictable choice, the decision to go for a shit-hot actress who can really focus on the character elevates the role entirely from all Liza Minnelli-based connotations and its notions that the role should be belted. Continue reading “Album Review: Cabaret (2006 London Cast Recording)”

Review: The Dresser, Richmond/Duke of York’s

“Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?”

The outdated ramblings of a doddery old man – funny how art can reflect life… Any opinion I might have had about Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser inevitably comes tainted with his apparent inability to open his mouth without spouting some kind of crap or other. Last month it was claiming casting women in male Shakespearean roles as “astonishingly stupid”, earlier this year it was using his will to ban women from playing the lead role in this very play. At 81, he’s clearly of a different generation but I’m certainly not inclined to indulge him in a way one might one’s own casually intolerant older relations.

His 1980 play The Dresser is based on his own experiences as a personal stagehand to actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit and closely too. Wolfit was known for his wartime Shakespearean tours, particularly his King Lear, and so Harwood gives us an increasingly decrepit thesp (Ken Stott) on an interminable regional rep tour in the midst of the Second World War. ‘Sir’ is due onstage (in Lear, natch) and his long-suffering dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith) is the only one who can get him there, for he is caught in the throes of mental and physical disintegration. Continue reading “Review: The Dresser, Richmond/Duke of York’s”

Guest review: The Girls, Lowry

There’s not many people I’d let have a guest review on here but Robert Foster, aka my father, is certainly one of them. I was (pleasantly) surprised when he (and my mum and Aunty Jean) declared that they had really enjoyed The Girls in Manchester and so I thought it would be fun to contrast our reactions – here’s my own review from Leeds and read on for his.

“Look in the eye of your dear fucker uppers”

There cannot be many of you out there who do not know the real-life story of the Calendar Girls. It made national news at the time; the film has been around for more than a decade; and the stage play followed not long behind. Now, author Tim Firth has joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That (a popular beat combo, m’lud) in a musical version, which mysteriously has shed the ‘Calendar’ and is just called The Girls. For those recently returned from Mars, the story is set in a small Yorkshire town where Annie loses her husband, John, to cancer. Her best friend, Chris, and other Women’s Institute friends rally round to find a way to pay tribute to the man they all loved and decide on a nude calendar. The profits will buy a new settee for the Relatives Room at the hospital where John was treated.

Could this story stand yet another retelling? Well, my answer is a resounding if slightly surprised yes. Firth and Barlow have created a richly entertaining evening, at times gentle, sad and moving whilst being overwhelmingly joyous and funny. Continue reading “Guest review: The Girls, Lowry”

Review: The Girls, Leeds Grand

“It’s not naked, it’s nude”

If all you do each night is pray that you can see a Gary Barlow musical in the UK (I do find it surprising that Finding Neverland hasn’t made its way back over here from Broadway yet) then you’re in luck as The Girls has now arrived. Opting for a premiere at the Leeds Grand and then skipping over the Pennines to the Lowry in the New Year, the show is clearly testing the waters with regards to any potential future plans as it only takes a minute to end up with a big theatrical flop on your hands. 

Not that that seems likely for The Girls (though whoever made the choice to lose the ‘Calendar’ from the title must be living in a world of fools). For it is a musical adaptation of the now-famous story of that group of Yorkshire WI women casting off their inhibitions, and their clothes, to create a nude calendar for a very personal fundraising campaign for Leukaemia Research. Tim Firth has already adapted his film into a successful play and remains onboard here – could it be magic third time round?  Continue reading “Review: The Girls, Leeds Grand”

Film Review: The Lady in the Van

“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”

It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.

This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life. Continue reading “Film Review: The Lady in the Van”

Re-review: Great Britain, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“They weren’t lies, they were well researched stories that later turned out not to be true”

Just a quickie for this unexpected revisit to Great Britain. I hadn’t intended to go back to this Richard Bean play, which made a rapid transfer from the National Theatre to the Theatre Royal Haymarket after its up-to-the-minute emergence on the schedule after the culmination of a certain trial involving a certain Eastender-star-bashing redhead. But the offer of a good ticket and the chance to see Lucy Punch – of whom I’ve heard much but never seen on stage – tempted me once again into this murky world of tabloid junkies.

My original review can be read here and if anything, I think I might have been a little kind to it. The play hasn’t aged well, even in the six months since it opened as the fast-moving world of political, institutional and journalistic scandal moves on so quickly IRL that this fictional version already seems quaint. Add in that its bite has been evidently neutered by legal threats and its intelligence barely scrapes the surface of the ethical issues at hand, and it’s a bit of a damn squib for me. Punch was good though.

Album Review: The West End goes MAD for Christmas

“I don’t need to ask for much this Christmas”

One of the more worthwhile festive releases this year is also pleasingly one of the more interesting. The Make A Difference Trust brings together the British entertainment community and its audiences to raise funds to support people living with HIV and AIDS and with The West End Goes MAD For Christmas, has brought together a host of new musical theatre champions to offer up a compilation of Christmas songs that offer a fascinating alternative to the age old carols and standards that proliferate at this time of year.

And producers Nikki & Joe Davison at Auburn Jam Records have done a brilliant job in matching composers to performers across the eight songs, curating pre-existing tracks and new, and shining a light on some serious talent. The plaintive simplicity of Stuart Matthew Price’s self-penned ‘This Christmas’ is characteristic of much of his oeuvre of classic songwriting, Gina Beck’s crystalline soprano dances beautifully around the timeless melody of Alexander S Bermange’s ‘Praying For You’ and Nadim Naaman‘s ‘A Soldier’s Christmas’ treads an equally emotive path, sung charmingly by Gerónimo Rauch and Naaman himself.
 

Continue reading “Album Review: The West End goes MAD for Christmas”