Film Review: Les Misérables

“Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap”

For many people, myself included, it is nigh on impossible to approach a film version of stage behemoth Les Misérables with a blank slate. It’s been a mainstay of the musical theatre world since its 1985 London debut – it is most likely the show I have seen the most times throughout my lifetime – and after celebrating its 25th anniversary with an extraordinarily good touring production, has been riding high with a revitalised energy. So Tom Hooper’s film has a lot to contend with in terms of preconceptions, expectations and long-ingrained ideas of how it should be done. And he has attacked it with gusto, aiming to reinvent notions of cinematic musicals by having his actors sing live to camera and bringing his inimitable close-up directorial style to bear thus creating a film which is epic in scale but largely intimate in focus.

In short, I liked it but I didn’t love it. I’m not so sure that Hooper’s take on the piece as a whole is entirely suited to the material, or rather my idea of how best it works. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score has a sweeping grandeur which is already quasi-cinematic in its scope but Hooper never really embraces it fully as he works in his customary solo shots and close-ups into the numbers so well known as ensemble masterpieces.  ‘At The End Of The Day’ and ‘One Day More’ both suffer this fate of being presented as individually sung segments stitched together but for me, the pieces never really added up to more than the sum of their parts to gain the substantial power that they possess on the stage. Continue reading “Film Review: Les Misérables”

Review: Lost In Yonkers – Watford Palace

“It’s not so important that you hate me, it’s only important that you live”

Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers starts in August 1942 and after their mother dies of cancer and their father has to take on a job away from home to pay off the debts for her treatment, young teenagers Jay and Arty Kurnitz find themselves deposited at the door of their grandmother’s flat on top of a sweet shop in the city of Yonkers. But there’s no warm family embrace waiting for them, Grandma Kurnitz barely spoke to her son and initially doesn’t even want to take in her grandchildren. She finally relents and so the boys stay there for a year, learning a whole new set of life lessons as she rules the roost with the harshest rod of steel and they get reacquainted with the aunts and uncles they hardly know.

Trapped with no chance of escape, the trials and tribulations of Jay and Arty are highly amusingly played by Jos Slovick and the playful Keith Ramsay, the misfortune of their situation more than tempered by their teenage concerns and constant mini-battles against the strictness of their new life regime. Some light relief comes in the form of the presence of their childlike Aunt Bella, their dodgy Uncle Louie and the later arrival of Aunt Gert complete with random speech impediment and the boys find themselves fitting into an entirely new family dynamic and one which their presence subtly changes. Continue reading “Review: Lost In Yonkers – Watford Palace”

Review: Guys and Dolls, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“What’s happening all over? I’ll tell you what’s happening all over”

2011 really has been a fantastic year for fringe musicals in London. Theatres south of the river like the Landor, the Union and Southwark Playhouse have delivered works of great precision and concentrated passion, but at this late juncture in the year, the team Upstairs at the Gatehouse have redressed the balance northwards with an audaciously thrilling production of Frank Loesser’s classic Guys and Dolls, the first fringe version of it to be seen in London. Noo Yoik gangsters, gamblers, showgirls, missionaries and compulsive eaters all come together as guys chase unattainable dolls and other dolls try to get their guys down the aisle whilst they’re trying to organise a little gambling tournament. And of course it is all accompanied by one of the most glorious scores in musical theatre – no mean feat for a fringe venue to attempt.

The space above the Highgate pub has been opened up marvellously in Racky Plew’s traverse staging which allows Martin Thomas’ free-flowing design to cleverly work in the limited space yet make it feel ideally suited to the purpose. But the main beneficiary of the staging is Lee Proud’s choreography which is outrageously daring (people in the front row are safe, but may flinch!) and breathtakingly executed with style and accuracy by the 12-strong ensemble, the tall drink of ginger ale that is Paul Bullion stood out most for me. From the striking opening routine to the iconic leaping dance of the dice-rolling men to the teasing turns from Miss Adelaide and her counterparts, this is pure quality across the board and incredible to see at such close quarters. Continue reading “Review: Guys and Dolls, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: The Songs of My Life – an evening with Peter Polycarpou

“We can’t forget that they are all our children too”

Peter Polycarpou has had a long and varied career but I will always remember him as Chris Theodopolopoudos from Birds of a Feather, a show I hated yet always seemed to watch when I was younger. So seeing him in a range of roles since I’ve started theatregoing has been a case of rehabilitation of my perception of him and one which I have rather enjoyed. Thus I was quite happy to go along to a one-off concert – The Songs of My Life, an evening with Peter Polycarpou – which celebrated his life and career at the Garrick Theatre this Sunday evening with a range of special guests and choral support from London drama schools.

A proud character actor, rather than a leading man, as Polycarpou’s own programme notes start off by saying, the list of shows in which he has actually starred makes really rather impressive reading: Miss Saigon, Oklahoma!, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Love Story… So as well as being treated with songs from these shows, sometimes with a bit of a twist – I loved being able to hear some of Howard Goodall’s Love Story again, Jos Slovick and Rebecca Trehearn filling in on ‘Phil’s Song/Summer’s Day’, a rousing ‘Bui Doi’ closed the main part of the evening, ‘It’s A Scandal’ received an amusing Cockney makeover and ‘Master of the House’ was transplanted to a Greek taverna to great effect – we also got a set of amusing anecdotes, amassed from a lifetime of experience. Performers often relish the freedom in selecting their own playlist for such shows, meaning they get the chance to sing songs their characters never did. And so Polycarpou gave his ‘Johanna’, from the West End-bound Sweeney Todd, and a quietly moving ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. Continue reading “Review: The Songs of My Life – an evening with Peter Polycarpou”

Review: Soho Cinders, Queens Theatre

“Wishing for the normal kind of dream,
Trouble is they’re harder than they seem”

Soho Cinders is a Stiles + Drewe show which has long been in development, 11 years since the original concept was devised, during which they’ve worked on Mary Poppins, the sadly departed Betty Blue Eyes and their new show Soapdish. But all the while, this modern-day gay retelling (of sorts) of the Cinderella tale has been burbling away, some of the songs were previewed at the A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe concert in 2008 and subsequently released on CD – one in particular, ‘(They Don’t Make) Glass Slippers’ becoming a favourite amongst young male singers, Gareth Gates being my particular favourite rendition. Having the book retweaked one more time by Elliot Davis, Stiles + Drewe decided to launch the show in a one-off concert version at the Queen’s Theatre, in an evening in support of, and maintaining their long-standing connection with, the Teenage Cancer Trust, following last year’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall.

Our Cinderella is Robbie, a young Londoner who works as an escort in order to fund his way through law school so he can contest his mother’s will which apparently left her coffee shop to his wicked stepsisters. Our prince is James Prince, a prospective London mayoral candidate, who has a glamorous fiancée but as it turns out, has been conducting a secret affair with Robbie, although unaware of his other activities. When they are flung together unexpectedly at a fundraising party, secrets tumble out, truths are exposed and though no shoes are left behind (it’s a phone instead), the fairytale ending does not necessarily seem guaranteed. Continue reading “Review: Soho Cinders, Queens Theatre”

Review: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“All this rock’n’roll is just good clean all-American fun”

 

Previously a long-running staple of the West End, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story returns to North London for its first fringe production in Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse. It tracks the meteoric rise of Buddy Holly who managed to become one of the world’s top recording artists and shape the future of rock’n’roll music in just a couple of years before his untimely early death.

This musical puts that music full square in the centre of the show and deservedly so. Part biopic, part tribute concert, we follow Buddy and his Crickets friends on their struggles to record the type of music they wanted, their subsequent rise to fame and what it did to them. Featuring about 20 of Holly’s songs (almost every one a classic) and both acts climax in mini concerts, indeed most of the second act is a replication of the ill-fated final concert at Clear Lake, featuring Richie Valens with La Bamba and Big Poppa singing Chantilly Lace on top of Buddy Holly’s numbers to provide a bit of variety and it is all just an absolute pleasure to watch. Continue reading “Review: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Spring Awakening, Lyric Hammersmith

Spring Awakening comes to London from a successful run on Broadway, where it won 8 Tony awards and had great word-of-mouth buzz, several State-side friends had recommended it to me, saying if I loved Avenue Q, I would love this. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case, after hacking through the snow to Hammersmith.

Crucially for a musical, the tunes just aren’t memorable, and there didn’t seem to be the magical connection between the music and the lyrics necessary for this score to engage once the curtain had come down. If anything, it almost tries too hard, as exemplified by the song Totally F*****: the play seems so pleased with itself at this “shocking” material and yet it seems almost quaint that the over-use of an expletive is considered to be cutting-edge. Continue reading “Review: Spring Awakening, Lyric Hammersmith”