Film Review: Nativity Rocks! (2018)

The fourth instalment in the Nativity film series, Nativity Rocks! restores a little of the goodwill squandered by the previous two sequels

“I’m wishing Father Christmas doesn’t forget where I live like he did last year”

I can’t think of a film franchise that has squandered such promise as the Nativity series. Debbie Isitt’s original film was such a sweetly unexpected success, but its magic sadly proved rather elusive as its subsequent sequels lost any of its sense of purpose or improvised charm. So the arrival of a third sequel in the shape of Nativity Rocks! (released in cinemas in 2018) came with a healthy dose of apprehension, even if the musical adaptation has rescued some of its lustre (though is that also now in danger of oversaturation , as the musical is now in its third consecutive winter tour).

For all my reservations though, Isitt had zero problem in attracting a quality ensemble as the cast undergoes something of an overhaul. So Marc Wootton’s Mr Poppy is dispatched to Australia and replaced with Simon Lipkin’s Mr Poppy (his long-lost brother), Daniel Boys is the fresh-faced teacher taking St Bernadette’s school choir through the rigours of yet another competition, with Helen George as the putative love interest, Gabriel Vick as the posh rival schoolmaster. Plus there’s Hugh Dennis and Anna Chancellor as some well-to-do parents, Ramin Karimloo as a refugee father, Meera Syal and Celia Imrie too, plus Craig Revel Horwood… Continue reading “Film Review: Nativity Rocks! (2018)”

Album Review: Love Never Dies (2010 Concept Album)

“The world is hard, the world is mean

It’s hard to keep your conscience clean”

I hadn’t listened to Love Never Dies since seeing its very first preview (oh how we laughed when ALW ran furious from the stalls when the set broke down) and having popped on the concept album that was released in tandem, I was soon reminded why. The not-a-sequel to Phantom of the Opera too often feels like a lazy retread of familiar ground, demonstrating zero musical progression and revealing a stagnation where there once was innovation.

The Coney Island setting undercuts any attempt to get close to the gothic horror of the opera house, the ‘freak show’ elements are desperately tame there. The swerves into rock are ill-advised in the extreme. Lyrically, there’s no ingenuity here at all, the words play second fiddle to the music to their peril And above all, the interpolation of themes from Phantom serve as a constant reminder of what this is not, and also the ultimate folly of the enterprise. Continue reading “Album Review: Love Never Dies (2010 Concept Album)”

Album Review: The Woman In White (2004 Original London Cast Recording)

“There’s only one thing one has to have
One has to have no shame”

Hitting the West End just before I moved to London and well before I started blogging, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman In White has the ignominy of being one of his less successful shows. With lyricist David Zippel and book-writer Charlotte Jones, this adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel failed to capture the ongoing attention of UK audiences, shuttering after 19 months, but downright flopped on Broadway where it lasted just 3. 

The Woman In White has now been announced as Thom Southerland’s major project over Christmas, running for 12 weeks at the Charing Cross Theatre with Laura Pitt-Pulford onboard, and it got me to thinking that I hadn’t actually ever listened to the show at all. The cast recording was made on the opening night and as the show underwent considerable redevelopment even whilst playing, the ending on this record does not reflect the ending that audiences saw in theatres. Continue reading “Album Review: The Woman In White (2004 Original London Cast Recording)”

Re-review: Love in Idleness, Apollo

“I hate her being the mistress of a rich, old voluptuary”

I wasn’t intending to revisit Love In Idleness, newly transferred to the Apollo Theatre for a limited 50 performance run, as first time round, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I got a little caught up in the strange genesis of the show and the fact that I was half-remembering the plot of Less Than Kind in real time, which proved to be rather distracting. But there’s no denying the sheer star quality of Eve Best and who am I to turn down any chance to see her.

And I’m glad I returned as I found myself enjoying the play a lot more second time round. Taking it for what it is, which is a Rattigan curiosity rather than a revelatory (re)discovery, this light-hearted comedy is actually an interesting addition to the West End’s early summer. Its main joy remains the relaxed but realistically palpable chemistry between Best and Anthony Head, as widow Olivia and government minister Sir John Fletcher whose relationship comes under strain when her son Michael returns from four years evacuated to Canada. Continue reading “Re-review: Love in Idleness, Apollo”

Review: Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk”

Overlord of all that is authentic in British theatre, Trevor Nunn is now further redefining authenticity by presenting us with a Terence Rattigan premiere, cobbled together from two pre-existing versions of the same play. Love in Idleness was originally known as Less Than Kind (which itself was seen at the Jermyn Street back in 2011) but was rewritten at the behest of its stars, a commercially minded decision which proved fatal to Rattigan’s reputation. And rather than choose one or the other, Nunn has fashioned something new (but assumably still authentic), named for the later version.

Sadly, that sense of compromise lingers strongly here. Fans of Rattigan were utterly spoiled by pitch-perfect interpretations of After the Dance and Flare Path (also by Nunn) at the beginning of this decade and again last year with an excoriating The Deep Blue Sea, so knowing the emotional force with which he can devastate us can only leave you disappointed at the tonally strange and inconsequential comedy of sorts with which we’re presented here. Only the long-awaited return of the marvellous Eve Best to the London stage imbues the evening with the quality it scarcely deserves. Continue reading “Review: Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: After Miss Julie, Richmond

“Don’t confuse my appetites”

After a momentous political decision, some people celebrate whilst others ponder the uncertainty of their situation. You don’t have to strain too hard to find touches of resonance in the opening scenes of After Miss Julie even if the subject matter is ultimately quite different, the febrile atmosphere of that moment of the beginning of huge political change proving to be recognisable no matter the period.
Patrick Marber’s reimagining of August Strindberg’s tragedy Miss Julie moves the story from Sweden in 1888 to England in 1945, maintaining an environment where the class struggle is real but is on the cusp of great change after Labour’s landslide victory. And in the country house that her father has left for the night, the aristocratic Miss Julie has set her sights on a cheeky pas de deux with her father’s chauffeur John, scandalising the whole household with this transgression of the social order.

Leading the power games yet never quite in full control of them, Call the Midwife’s Helen George takes on the role of Miss Julie with real emotion and elegance. Her Strictly Come Dancing experience comes in useful for a beautifully realised dance sequence where she advances her designs on John but as she stumbles tipsily into the kitchen to where he’s retreated, we see just how brittle and damaged she is, capricious and dangerous and girlish in every sweep of her long limbs.
But not only is John the wrong class, he’s also affianced to Christine, the cook whose territory is being invaded, and as he surrenders to Miss Julie’s sexual games, the war-weary and newly politically aware John tries to cling onto what he knows. The handsome Richard Flood plays out this conflict well, exerting physical power over his mistress to counter the psychological power she wields over him as his boss and Amy Cudden is quietly fearsome as the church-going, no-nonsense Christine. 
In the realism of Coin Richmond’s detailed kitchen set, Anthony Banks’ touring production is sure-footed until a late slide towards melodrama. The business with the budgie is poorly executed (no need for any Young Vic-style disclaimers here) and things do become somewhat overwrought rather than genuinely affecting as we reach a dark climax. Still it’s a powerful examination of the intersection of sex and class and power and politics and how little we’ve changed, even whilst seeming to change a lot. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Nobby Clarke
Booking until 16th July, then touring to Milton Keynes

20 shows to look forward to in 2016

2016 is nearly upon and for once, I’ve hardly anything booked for the coming year and what I do have tickets for, I’m hardly that inspired by (the Garrick season has been ruined by the awfulness of the rear stalls seats, and I only got Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets due to FOMO). Not for the first time, I’m intending to see less theatre next year but I do have my eyes on a good few productions in the West End, fringe and beyond. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2016”

11 of my top moments in a theatre in 2014


I’ll be doing a regular top 10 alongside all the other end-of-year totting up of the theatrical delights on offer in 2014 that will eventually be written up but I thought it might be interesting to first look at it from a slightly different angle, thinking about the single moments – rather than the productions as a whole – that took my breath away (or were hair-raisingly good…) Undoubtedly there will be some crossover between the two lists, but there are things here that crop up the mind just as often as the plays I’ve labelled my favourites so here we go – naturally, some production spoilers abound…
(c) Jan Versweyveld
The final scene of Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge
I don’t think anyone who saw this would disagree that this was one of those hugely special moments of theatre that will pretty much live forever in the memory. An outstanding 1 hour 40 minutes had already passed by this point – marking out what I’ve been saying for a while now about the extraordinarily vision van Hove brings to his work – but the final scene crystallised all the operatic grandeur and scorching emotion in one excoriating, sense-assaulting image that I dare not spoil even now – the perfect confluence of Jan Versweyveld’s design and light, Tom Gobbin’s sound and an exquisitely cast company. Book for its return to the West End now and experience it for yourself, this will sell out.
Waltzing at The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy of Secret Cinema 
My first experience of Secret Cinema was one of the atypical ones in that we knew in advance what the film would be – Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in this case – but it didn’t stop me from having a top night out, rounded off by one of the most thrilling moments of the year. Just before the film started, we were gathered in the circular hotel lobby and though I don’t recall exactly how it began, those of us on the ground floor started to waltz round and round as flurries of snow fell from the sky. It was a hugely gorgeous moment, not least because I’d never waltzed before (and intriguingly enough for me, I was the waltzer rather than the waltzee, which is how I always thought it would play out!)

Lee Curran’s lighting for the Royal Exchange’s Hamlet 
Though all eyes were on Maxine Peake for her mesmerising take on Shakepeare’s part of parts, director Sarah Frankcom ensured all aspects of her production were firing on all cylinders and for me, it was Lee Curran’s lighting design for the ghost scene that provided the most breath-taking moment of the evening. In amongst a tangled forest of lightbulbs, Peake’s Hamlet moved to an otherworldly place in pursuit of the ghostly fatherly figure and the eerie luminescence provided really elevated the scene into something special.
(c) Simon Annand
Helen George in The Hotel Plays 
Gethin Anthony’s thighs will be rightly celebrated in another of the end-of-year posts that will follow this one, but the thespian highlight of The Hotel Plays was Helen George’s hard-done-by mistress – the first performer I saw in this site-specific promenade piece and by far the most memorable. George is of course one of the stars of (the not-at-all-guilty-pleasure) Call The Midwife but she showed no signs of difficulty in swapping mediums as she fearlessly pinned us all down with sustained eye contact in an intimate hotel room of Tennessee Williams’ swirling imagination.
(c) Manuel Harlan
Tom Scutt’s design/the general awesomeness of the third act of Mr Burns
It is comforting to think that a show never gets better after a first act you don’t like, especially if you’ve made the decision to leave at the interval. But for those poor unfortunate souls who left at either of the intervals in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, which woke up audiences at the Almeida over the summer, there will be no chance for them to make amends for the gravity of their mistake. The three acts of the show differed strongly but it was the pseudo-opera of the final act that blew me away with its spectacular vision, aided by Tom Scutt’s glorious set and costumes (not taken from his personal collection, he assures me) which adroitly captured the entirely distinct worlds of each act.
(c) Marc Brenner
The general awesomeness of the third act of Our Town too
For the second time in three shows, the Almeida managed to deliver an absolute “doozy of a third act”, this time managing to cram not one but two stunning coups de théâtre into the short but superlative final segment of this all-American classic. Not having seen a production of the show before, the uniqueness of David Cromer’s interpretation might have been a little lost on me but there was no doubting how inventive and illustrative his bare-bones approach was from the start. And as the (metaphorical) curtain rose on the last act, suitably titled ‘Death and Dying’, Cromer and designer Stephen Dobay took the breath away with a first evocative piece of staging and then raising the actual curtain, went in for the kill with a second which perfectly brought home the power of Wilder’s message.

Anton Tweedale’s ‘Losing My Mind’
Sondheim revues can begin to feel a little repetitive with the enduring popularity of the composer and their frequent appearances in our theatre, and so it takes something special to really make them stand out from the crowd. And for Ray Rackham’s Just Another Love Story at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop, it was Anton Tweedale’s beautifully bitter take on ‘Losing My Mind’ that has long stayed in my own mind and left me wishing for a recording thereof.
(c) Tristram Kenton

Ashley Martin Davis’ set design for Wonderland
Signs were ominous when the first couple of previews for Beth Steel’s Wonderland were cancelled but upon walking into the Hampstead Theatre, the breath-taking scope of Ashley Martin Davis’ transformative set design made you fully appreciate why time was taken to ensure everything was just right. Carving out a working space that stretched over three storeys, the operational mine shaft was an audacious but essential part of a thrilling production that emphasised just how much the pit itself had a part to play in forming the fierce communal bonds that Thatcher fought so hard to tear asunder.
(c) Mark Douet
The fate of Adrian Scarborough’s Fool 
Directors often enjoy finding new twists on Shakespearean classics and Sam Mendes was no exception with his long-awaited take on King Lear. The most arresting of these came with the sheer brutality with which Adrian Scarborough’s Fool met his end, the rage-fuelled fugue state that took over Simon Russell Beale’s Lear a shocking but entirely convincing extension of character and a fiercely fresh take on a well-known plot.
‘Let The Grass Grow’, hell, the whole damn score for Free As Air
Given my love for Salad Days, it should come as little surprise that I adored Free As Air which also came from the pens of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade, but it does take a sure hand to ensure that the delightfully retro feel of this 50s musical doesn’t tip over into twee nostalgia. Fortunately it got this in Stewart Nicholls’ hands at the Finborough so that even by this second number – ‘Let The Grass Grow’ – my face was beginning to hurt from smiling so much.
(c) Sanne Peper

Bob Cousins’ design for Simon Stone’s Medea in AmsterdamA late entry but one I couldn’t possibly ignore as one of the last shows I saw this year ended up being one of the best and certainly one of the most fascinatingly designed. Bob Cousins matched the fearless invention of Simon Stone in updating Medea to a contemporary time and place but still keeping an abstract timelessness to his work. The huge white space of the set thus formed the perfect backdrop for the fierce dramatics and a slow-burning coup de théâtre that still gives me shivers when I think about it now.

Review: The Hotel Plays, Langham Hotel

“The world is a circle, and everything comes back to where it started”

A soldier on leave, a lover in the cupboard, an actress in her dotage; newlyweds, mistresses, hucksters; satin pyjamas, warm croissants, endless liquor. Such is the stuff of many a hotel and in the plush surroundings of the Langham, London, all of the above and more can be found in Defibrillator Theatre Company’s revival of The Hotel Plays, a suite of three Tennessee Williams short plays performed in three suites in the hotel itself.

Site-specific performances are sometimes guilty of square peg round hole syndrome but here, the marriage of material and setting is perfect. The seating may not always be the most comfortable but that’s only right as we’re the ones eavesdropping on the private affairs unfolding in these most intimate of surroundings, flies on the wall of Williams’ mini-universes full of heartbreak, hedonism and heists. Continue reading “Review: The Hotel Plays, Langham Hotel”