Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.
 
And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story.

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Re-review: Follies, National Theatre

“Darling, shall we dance?”
Not too much more to say about Follies that I didn’t cover last time, suffice to say it’s just such a luxuriously fantastic show and I think I could watch it over and over! The head-dresses! Everything Janie Dee does! The orchestra! How no-one seems to be falling down that staircase! The staging! The shade of mint green in Loveland! The Staunton’s icy bitterness in ‘Losing My Mind’! The amount that Josephine Barstow has now made me cry, twice! The Quast! Just get booking now, while you still can.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November

Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

Review: Follies, National Theatre

“All things beautiful must die”

Well this is what we have a National Theatre for. For Vicki Mortimer’s set design that both stretches towards the heights of the Olivier and lingers some 30 years back in the past; for the extraordinary detail and feathered delights of the costumes; for the lush sound of an orchestra of 21 under Nigel Lilley’s musical direction; for a production that revels in the exuberance and experience of its cast of 37. And all for what? For a musical that, despite its iconic status in the theatre bubble, is more than likely to raise a ‘huh?’ from the general public (at least from the sampling in my office!).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Goldman’s (book) Follies is a show that has a long history of being tinkered with and more often than not, is as likely to be found in a concert presentation (as in its last London appearance at the Royal Albert Hall) as it is fully staged. Which only makes Dominic Cooke’s production here all the more attractive, not just for aficionados but for the casual theatregoer too. Using the original book with just a smattering of small changes, this is musical theatre close to its most luxurious, and a bittersweetly life-affirming thrill to watch.
Follies is set in the decrepit surroundings of the Weismann Theatre in 1971. Scheduled to be demolished the very next day, a party is being held for the performers who once graced its stages but as present company reunite and reminisce over champagne, ghosts of the past haunt their every move. And what Cooke does is to remind us that we’re all surrounded by memories, the might-have-beens and the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, it’s how we deal with them that differentiates us. And for long-suffering couples Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, it’s almost too much. 
The doubling device is achingly beautiful and threaded so assuredly into the production it seems a no-brainer. So as the 11 showgirls being celebrated make their entrance in ‘Beautiful Girls’ in the present day, we also see their past selves mirroring their movements, making their own arrivals in their own time. The glorious tap routines and kickline of ‘Who’s That Woman’ sees 7 of them hoofing it magnificently with their respective young’uns. And in the case of Josephine Barstow’s Heidi, there’s emotional interaction, a duet (with Alison Langer) on a simply exquisite ‘One More Kiss’, a gorgeous making of peace with the past.
For our central quartet though, things are much more tangled. Past and present frequently collide as Sally’s long-held passion for Ben bursts free with shattering consequences for all concerned, cutting through any notions of faded showbiz grandeur. Imelda Staunton invests her contained ‘Losing My Mind’ with so much psychological damage it breaks the heart, Philip Quast’s Ben is no less shattering as his swaggering Ben steadily loses his composure, and Janie Dee (getting to show off how great a dancer she is) is dry as a bone throughout and cold as ice in a brilliantly furious ‘Could I Leave You?’.
I could go on listing the things I loved – Tracie Bennett’s stunning reinterpretation of ‘I’m Still Here’, Di Botcher’s adorable take on ‘Broadway Baby’, Fred Haig, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen and Alex Young as the younger quartet…but I’ll stop and encourage you to get booking while you still can. There are still some slight weaknesses inherent in Follies itself – its sprawling dramatis personae some of whom we barely meet, the leap of faith you have to take as the show ruptures into its final third – but played without an interval as it is here by Cooke, you can’t help but be carried along a gorgeous wave of marabou, melancholy and musical theatre at its best. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

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CD Review: From Here To Eternity (2014 Live Cast Recording)

“All along knowing that no-one has returned to care”

Barely managing six months in the West End in 2013/4, I think it’s fair to say the musical adaptation of From Here to Eternity underwhelmed. And though I was reasonably fair to it at the time, I can’t say that it has aged well, upon returning the live cast recording that was made before the final curtain fell, blame seeming to fall evenly between composer Stuart Brayson, lyricist Tim Rice and book writer Bill Oakes. 
And with weaknesses on all sides like this, very much exposed in the medium of record, it’s not too hard to see why the show didn’t achieve anywhere near the levels of success it was aiming for. There’s so little sense of the main thrust of the story coming through, or indeed any of the strands put forward being sufficiently developed, to make you care about any of the relationships or the plight of the men. 
Oakes’ book moves inconsistently around all of them and Brayson’s score does little to provide any covering connective tissue. His musical influences pull from too broad a canvas to provide aural cohesion and far too few of the songs are focused on advancing narrative – the coupling of Warden and Karen (whose surf-soaked bodies provide the iconic image) are given hardly any musical time together, quite Darius Campbell and Rebecca Thornhill are meant to do to generate chemistry in solo numbers is beyond me. 
Robert Lonsdale and Siubhan Harrison as the other couple fare a little better but again, are more apart than together musically. What we’re left with is a grab-bag of tunes, barely scratching the surface of anything, least of all the men of G Company whose tragic fate ends up feeling like divine retribution for being horrific human beings. There’s undoubtedly some halfway striking musical moments – the startling melody of ‘Thirty Year Man’ provides real interest, Ryan Sampson’s sardonic ‘I Love The Army’ threatens to show some character but all in all, it’s little surprise we’ve gone from here to obscurity.

Review: Mrs Henderson Presents, Theatre Royal Bath

“Where’s that damn woman?”
That woman is of course Laura Henderson, a rich widow who in 1937 decides to save the Windmill Theatre from closure and together with Jewish entrepreneur Vivian Van Damm, introduces a continuous variety revue called Revudeville. And seeking to keep their nose ahead of their competitors, nudity is added to the bill, a la Moulin Rouge though unprecedented in the UK, but the censorship battles with the Lord Chamberlain’s office pales into insignificance once war breaks out and the theatre becomes a landmark, refusing to close even as London is battered by the Blitz. 
Terry Johnson’s book for Mrs Henderson Presents wisely adapts Martin Sherman’s screenplay from the film of the same name to create a more tightly encapsulated world centred on the backstage lives of the theatre folk. It dives straight into the main story from the outset and switches things about just enough to keep anyone familiar with the film on their toes. And George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s score dances around the period beautifully, pastiche songs evoking the 30s spirit perfectly with a smattering of vaudevillean fun here and driving musical theatre anthems there, always remaining tuneful. 

Johnson’s direction also hits exactly the right bittersweetly British tone. From lighter moments like the actual lightbulb moment to the elegiac beauty of the ghost of Laura’s first love turning into a newly enlisted male character, the shadow of war is expressively explored rather than exploited. And even the potentially dodgy ground of persuading women to strip on the stage is elegantly told here, the decision being reached by the performers themselves and in one of the show’s best scenes, supported by the men of the company begrudgingly stripping in solidarity.

Andrew Wright’s choreography swirls beautifully around the show like the warmth of Mrs Henderson’s fur coat. The Windmill routines are predictably fabulous but it’s the relationships that his dance elucidates that stand out – Laura and Vivian’s amusement of each other in ‘Anything But Young’ or the elegant contours of the putative romance between Maureen and Eddie in ‘What a Waste of a Moon’ (Emma Williams and Matthew Malthouse really impressing in this gorgeous sequence). Here, Wright continues to cement an ever-growing sterling reputation.

It helps that he’s got such a good company to play with. Tracie Bennett’s imbues Mrs Henderson with a magnificent joie de vivre, equal parts mischief and melancholy and her stunning voice remains an absolute pleasure to listen to. Ian Bartholomew’s kindly Vivian is a strong counterpoint, haunted more than most by the outbreak of war. Emma Williams’ Maureen emerges as the star of the show though, blossoming from klutzy tea-lady to the Windmill’s beautifully bold figurehead and in the sustained climax of ‘If Mountains Were Easy To Climb’, nails a genuinely show-stopping moment.

If Mark Hadfield’s end-of-the-pier quasi-narrator doesn’t quite hit the mark, (the stylistic similarity to his divisive Made in Dagenham character didn’t help matters) I had the nagging feeling that the show didn’t really need this component. But it’s a small niggle in what is otherwise a glorious piece of British musical theatre that must surely be in line for a West End transfer sometime soon. Best be safe and make a trip in its final week in Bath.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 5th September

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”
 
The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
 
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

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Re-review: From Here To Eternity, Shaftesbury

“I got the ‘ain’t where I wanna be’ blues”

Suffering the fate of a fair few musicals that have taken up residence in the slightly-too-out-of-the-way Shaftesbury Theatre, From Here To Eternity announced its early closing last year and since then the end has drawn even closer with the final date being moved from the end of April to 29th March. I wasn’t blown away by it on first viewing but I had thought I might be tempted to see it again to see how it stood up to repeated viewing and also to get another listen to Stuart Brayson’s naggingly persistent score. But to be honest, it didn’t really work out that well. 

A sadly small audience robbed the theatre of atmosphere despite the cast’s best efforts – it was however nice to see Marc Antolin doing well standing in for Ryan Sampson as Maggio – and there is no escaping the strange weighting of the show towards trying to make empathetic figures out of a largely objectionable group of people, especially in the racist, adulterous, misogynistic, homophobic bullying G Company. 

Perhaps it will fare better on Broadway where it will be able to tap into the vein of domestic patriotism that would always be lacking here, but suffice to say it probably be much missed in London. So here’s some lovely pictures instead.  

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)

Photos: Matt Crockett (bottom one courtesy of Attitude)
Booking until 29th March

Review: From Here To Eternity, Shaftesbury Theatre

“Don’cha like Hawaii?”

From Here to Eternity marks the return of noted lyricist Tim Rice to the London stage with this new adaptation of this World War II story, probably best known in its film incarnation and its iconic shenanigans in the surf. This treatment harks back to the original novel to introduce darker elements to the story yet it has also been transformed into a traditional West End musical, which brings with it a certain style that doesn’t always sit too well together with the material.

Set in the adulterous, misogynistic, homophobic, racist and bullying atmosphere of the G Company barracks in Hawaii in the summer of 1941, Bill Oakes’ book – based on James Jones’ novel of his own experiences – has a strangely disjointed quality as it struggles to weave together its three main strands. First Sergeant Milt Warden is hot for his captain’s lascivious wife; new arrival Private Robert E Lee Prewitt is less concerned about joining the corps’ boxing team and falls in love with call girl Lorene instead; and Private Angelo Maggio spends his time ducking and diving, making a quick buck by fraternising with the island’s gay population.


Oakes fails to intertwine these stories successfully with the result that people just disappear for long periods, their reappearance often a surprise reminder, so fully is the focus taken away from them. And little work is done to deepen the characters meaning the ensemble have to fight valiantly to make us care – Darius Campbell and Rebecca Thornhill are too stiff as the illicit lovers, with nothing done to explain the heat of their passion; Robert Lonsdale’s Prewitt and Siubhan Harrison’s Lorene fare much better as the fateful pair, resigned to their respective difficulties; and Ryan Sampson’s Maggio is an enlighteningly charismatic presence.


Musically, West End debutant Stuart Brayson manages a solid job, his relatively traditional style of composing a safe pair of hands and frequent reprises mean you can leave the theatre humming at least two of the tunes. But there’s little sense of thematic continuity – it feels like a pick and mix assortment at times, an ill-advised blues number being the stray bad one – and hardly any harmonic complexity. With such a large company, the opportunity feels ripe for soaring ensemble numbers and rich choral work but these rarely appear, this music is tunefully pleasant rather than soul-stirringly good. 

Likewise, Tim Rice’s much-feted lyrical contributions (Minnesota gets rhymed with quota, Alabama with panorama in the most playful song that opens Act 2) don’t have the epic quality needed to really engage us with the fates of all concerned (and just who is Joe?). Because ultimately none of them are particularly deserving of our sympathies, even as the skies darken tragically for the momentous events of the finale, the exhortation to care for ‘The Boys of ‘41’ is undone by the all too fresh memories of what they were really like. 


Tamara Harvey’s production does have a visual flair though, Soutra Gilmour’s set design an effect use of the large stage of the Shaftesbury. The use of projection has a varied hit rate but Javier De Frutos’ choreography takes full advantage of the talented ensemble with a range of eye-catching sequences, the boxing match and the slow motion work late on – Prewitt even gets a Light Princess moment – both particularly impressive. And the combined effect of all the elements does cohere into something fitfully effective, if rarely outstanding.


Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th April

Originally written for The Public Reviews