Review: The Secret Garden, The Barn Theatre Cirencester

A lively and emotional actor-musician production of The Secret Garden marks a fantastic debut for the brand new Barn Theatre in the Cotswolds

“I heard someone crying…
Maybe it was me”

After three years renovation and development work, the Barn Theatre in Cirencester opens its doors with a fresh and spirited actor-musician take on The Secret Garden. A passion project of artistic director Iwan Lewis (who once appeared in a youth production of the musical in the town), the 1991 Tony-winning musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel (book and lyrics by Marsha Noman, music by Lucy Simon) has been curiously under-served in terms of major revivals (I saw a fringe version back in 2013) and so proves a canny choice for a new venue seeking to attract an audience. 

It is clear to see that time and thought, and resources, has been invested into the Barn to make it to help it succeed. So Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting design, with all its delightful hidden surprises, benefits from a properly swanky lighting rig that would be the envy of pretty much any off-West-End theatre; so too PJ McEvoy’s projections looking highly professional as they move us around Misselthwaite, from dusty, disused ballrooms to briar-filled nooks.

But for all the technical strength, this Secret Garden blooms because of the creative work that has been ploughed into it. The physical aspects of McEvoy’s design have a deliberately rustic feel, suiting time and place well, reflected in the nature of Elliot Ditton’s puppets. The evocation of an inquisitive robin is gorgeously done but it is the way in which Simon’s score has been thoroughly reinvented that reinforces how this production, and the venture at large, is about about mimicking the Great White Way than creating a new Cotswolds Way. Continue reading “Review: The Secret Garden, The Barn Theatre Cirencester”

CD Review: Thérèse Raquin (2014 Original London Cast)

“You are not still, you are not still Thérèse”

There are times when listening to cast recordings can sometimes feel like a chore, and others when they are a glorious reminder of shows gone by. For me, hearing the utterly gorgeous waterfall of voices on ‘You Are Not Still Thérèse’ from Craig Adams’ Thérèse Raquin is very much in the latter category, one of those moments of musical theatre perfection that work as music, as drama, as theatre, as pure art.
Adams and Nona Shepphard’s adaptation of Zola’s novel played at the Finborough in 2014 and then transferred to the larger Park in one of those really sensible moments theatreland sometimes has. Musically complex and dramatically interesting as a radical interpretation of the book, it delved deep into Thérèse’s psychology and aided by a stunning performance from Julie Atherton, worked beautifully.

The score stands up well on disc, its through-sung narrative clear as a bell and really assisted by the introduction of a sonorous Greek chorus of Claire Greenway, Ellie Kirk and Lucy O’Byrne who provide commentary and alternative takes on the tragic events. Atherton connects viscerally with illicit love Laurent, a virile Greg Barnett and contemptuously with husband Jeremy Legat’s Camille to bring real fire to their love triangle and its consequences, the climactic ‘If I Had Known’ is just devastatingly good.
But it’s the combination of them with the complex choral work of the company that really makes this an extraordinary musical, rich and evocative in a way that is all too rarely seen in new musicals, certainly on larger stages, and so it’s a real boon to have this recording to remember the show by and hopefully spearhead a fine set of revivals to come.

Re-review: Thérèse Raquin, Park Theatre

“They are drawn by the inescapable promptings of their flesh!”

A well-deserved transfer for this hit Finborough musical although coming a few months after that original run, the production has had to be recast a bit along with being reconceived for the larger space of the Park Theatre. On a personal note, whilst I loved being able to listen to the pleasingly textured score once again, it was also interesting to come back to the show with a much greater knowledge of the story, having recently seen both a play and a film of Thérèse Raquin, thus enabling me to compare and contrast adaptations.

This version hedges its bets from the beginning by describing itself as a “radical adaptation” by Nona Shepphard but what is interesting is that Shepphard is the only one who tries to replicate something of Thérèse’s interior life, which is so richly portrayed in the novel, by using a chorus of three river women. It works both dramatically and musically, creating additional layers to the vocals and these hints of Greek tragedy with its chorus passing commentary is used effectively elsewhere, most notably in reporting the news of Camille’s tragic ‘accident’.

Continue reading “Re-review: Thérèse Raquin, Park Theatre”

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical, New Wimbledon

“You need to see me in a brand new domain” 

Legally Blonde The Musical turned out to be something of a surprise: a show that I grew to really love over my three visits during its West End run (review#1, review#2, review#3), whilst making a bona fide star out of its leading lady Sheridan Smith. I may not have been blown away by it on first viewing, but it worked its way into my heart and its soundtrack is one that I listen to quite often even now. Capitalising on its finish in London, a national tour of the show has taken up shop in the New Wimbledon Theatre, giving Londoners another chance to dip into the world of Elle Woods, if they’re willing to go to zone 3 that is.

Revisiting something that was so enjoyed though can have its pitfalls, as comparisons are invariably drawn. Some of it is about the realities of seeing a touring version of a show – the set will never be as impressive as in a West End house, but the design here really does come up short on a couple of occasions and the sound quality was shocking in parts. Elsewhere, some performances left me disappointed especially as the casting decisions don’t always seem to have hit the mark. It feels a little churlish to criticise Faye Brookes for not being Sheridan Smith, but her Elle doesn’t capture the loveability that is needed to keep the show swinging through its slower parts and to keep the audience invested. Gareth Gates takes on the thankless role of Warner very much against type and I’m not sure I bought him as the heartbreaker. Both sounded excellent though. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde The Musical, New Wimbledon”

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: Passion, Donmar Warehouse

“How can I have expectations? Look at me…”

Expectations are a funny thing. When Passion was first announced way back at the beginning of the year I was completely over-excited, Elena Roger returning with Jamie Lloyd directing to recapture some of that Piaf magic and a Sondheim musical I’d never heard, it really was one of my most anticipated theatrical events of the year. Fast forward to September and I am quite frankly close to being Sondheimed out with all of the productions celebrating his 80th year and there had been dark murmurings about how good Passion actually was.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondehim and book by James Lapine, Passion is based on a film (Passione d’Amore) which was inspired by a book, Fosca. It centres on an unlikely love triangle: Giorgio, who is a soldier engaged in an affair in Milan with Clara, his married mistress, is billeted out to a provincial outpost where he meets his new regiment. He also meets Fosca, the sickly, obsessive cousin of his commanding officer with whom he strikes up an uneasy connection which soon changes his very understanding of the nature of love. For this production, some of the score has been cut by Sondheim, lyrics amended and even Lapine has got in on the action, reworking some of the book. (As it is the first time I’ve seen this show, I can’t comment on any of these changes and for your information, this is a review of a preview on 13th September) Continue reading “Review: Passion, Donmar Warehouse”