Review: The Life, Southwark Playhouse

“I’ve done everything that a body can do.
But how goddamn much can a body go through?”

There’s a moment early on in The Life where Sharon D Clarke’s been-around-the-block-and-then-some Sonja has a moment akin to Jenna Russell’s ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’ in Grey Gardens where she utterly and completely steals the show with an outstanding musical number, the likes of which will scarcely be bettered all year. Here it is ‘The Oldest Profession’, a world-weary but witty run through life working on the streets which is just bloody fantastic. But lest you worry that this is a musical to glamourise prostitution, all that good feeling is instantly shattered by a scene of brutal cruelty from her pimp which leaves you in no doubt as to how (melodramatically) serious The Life is.

Set on the seedier side of 42nd Street in 1980s New York, David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman’s book remembers Times Square before it became tourist-friendly and follows a group of people just trying to get by in this callous world. Queen is turning tricks and saving money to move on out of this world but when her lover Fleetwood, a troubled Vietnam vet with a habit, blows half her stash on his stash, it’s clear that something drastic needs to happen. Angered by new arrival from the sticks Mary, aided by longtime friend and co-worker Sonja, and abetted by the malicious Memphis, Queen is spurred onto a course of ambitious but tragic action. Continue reading “Review: The Life, Southwark Playhouse”

Re-review: Beautiful – The Carole King Story, Aldwych

“Remember when you used to play Mozart?”

I’ve been lucky enough to see Cassidy Janson in a number of productions over the years and I’ve been a fan from the start, from stepping into Julie Atherton’s not-inconsiderable shoes in Avenue Q onwards, so I was mightily pleased when she was announced as the replacement for Katie Brayben in the lead role in Beautiful – The Carole King Story. I really enjoyed the show when it opened last year and thought Janson would be a good fit but in finally getting to see her, I couldn’t have imagined how perfect a marriage of performer and material this would be.

As Carole King, one of the most successful songwriters of the last century, she thoroughly imbues the character with an engaging sense of life and vivid musicality that just bursts from the stage. Through a decade of huge change as this ebullient Manhattan teenager becomes a wife and mother as well as writing some of the biggest pop hits around, Janson keeps us thoroughly engaged with Douglas McGrath’s sometimes-a-bit-too-functional book whether acting, singing or acting through song – if she weren’t already a star, I’d say it’s a star-making performance.  Continue reading “Re-review: Beautiful – The Carole King Story, Aldwych”

Review: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Aldwych Theatre

“Everything seems to be
Some kind of wonderful”

Where Broadway leads, the West End will surely follow and so it is little surprise that Tony-winning Beautiful – The Carole King Musical found its way over here to the Aldwych Theatre. And I’m pleased to report that the transatlantic passage has gone most smoothly indeed to deliver an absolute treat of a show. When three of its four leading personnel are still very much alive and kicking, it is perhaps no surprise that Douglas McGrath’s book treads a rather respectable path through the first ten years of King’s career. But then she would be the first to say, with typical self-deprecating charm, that her life is hardly the most exciting, her dreams never the loftiest – it just so happens that beneath this veneer of ordinariness lay an absolute treasure trove of extraordinary music. 

And as musical gem follows musical gem – both from the collaborations of King and sometime partner Gerry Goffin, and also from their friends and writing rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann – this feels utterly the point. Life isn’t always chock-a-block with drama, motivations don’t always have to spring from some momentous event, the cult of the tortured artistic soul is far from the be all and end all (Billington seems to suggest being “a shy, well-adjusted woman struggling to reconcile a career with a failing marriage” is something of a crime!) and I’d say that Beautiful is no weaker a biopic for not having such narrative peaks and troughs, reinventing personal history in the name of drama.  Continue reading “Review: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Aldwych Theatre”

Review: Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Once in golden days of yore”
 
In a year celebrating the centenary of Joan Littlewood’s birth, the Theatre Royal Stratford East that she did so much to develop with Theatre Workshop can be forgiven for having a distinctly nostalgic tinge to its programming. But though this 1959 musical was both a critical and commercial success for Lionel Bart before he really hit the big time with Oliver!, it is also very much of its time and so proves a much less likely choice for revival than say, the glorious revisit of Oh What A Lovely War at this same venue earlier this year.
 
Even at the point of its writing, Fings… basked in a glow of barely earned nostalgia, a picture postcard version of the Soho underworld with an almost cartoon-like like approach to violence and absolutely no sense of responsibility or repercussions at all. The book was written by an ex-convict no less, Frank Norman, so one can see from where this longing for the good old days has sprung but it doesn’t undo the unpalatability of the material as it stands. And excusing it because it is a musical and so is all just good fun feels lazy and near irresponsible.

Continue reading “Review: Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: Lost Boy, Finborough

“Kissing is better than acorns”

It seems like Peter Pan had the right idea. For in new musical Lost Boy, those that left Neverland and started to grow up end up variously as gay trapeze artists, opium addicts, Parisian showgirls, miserable bankers, wannabe Jungians and prostitutes. The concept of growing up is at the heart of Phil Willmott’s new show which largely takes place in the dreamworld of Captain George Llewelyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired JM Barrie to write one of the most iconic pieces of children’s fiction but whose shadow is hard to escape. 

A few years on from the writing of Peter Pan, Llewelyn Davies finds himself preparing for battle on the eve of the First World War, emotionally unprepared for military leadership yet societally conditioned with a gung-ho war mentality. And as he closes his eyes for a moment, he dreams of being Peter Pan, all grown up in London with Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tootles and the rest but now they’re no longer in Neverland, the dilemmas they face are those of humdrum normality, that is until war is declared.  Continue reading “Review: Lost Boy, Finborough”

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”