Festive news #1: West End Up Close… at Christmas

‘Tis the season for goodwill to all, and proving most generous with their time are various sets of musical theatre performers who are doing all sorts of charitable endeavours this December. First up are the guys at Relative Motion have just announced West End Up Close… at Christmas, their third concert in partnership with The House of St Barnabas, a charity and members’ club in the heart of Soho.

After sold-out concerts earlier this year with Jodie Jacobs and Julie Atherton, this festive concert will take place on Wednesday 14th December at 7.30pm feature the amazing talents of Madalena Alberto, Julie Atherton, Julie Jupp, Joshua LeClair, Nigel Richards and George Ure as they bring some of their favourite songs and seasonal classics to the Chapel of St Barnabas in an intimate, acoustic concert, musically directed by James Taylor. Continue reading “Festive news #1: West End Up Close… at Christmas”

CD Review: Bad Girls (2007 Original London Cast)

“We’re all banged up without a bang”
Maureen Chadwick, Ann McManus and Kath Gotts’ musical adaptation of long-running TV show Bad Girls only lasted a couple of months in the West End back in 2007 but they still managed to get out a cast recording (and a DVD too, though I’ve not been able to track that down yet). My first experience with the show was with the Union’s fringe production earlier this year and I have to say, I really enjoyed myself.
Sadly, I don’t think this recording quite captures the joie de vivre that the show gave me. It actually highlights the randomness of Gotts’ score, both musically and dramatically. David Burt’s Jim Fenner is a case in point here – Burt plays up the devilish charisma which is his forte in suavely slick numbers like ‘Jailcraft’ and ‘The Key’ yet for all his old-school Hollywood charm, we have to buy him as the sexually predatory villain of the piece.

To be fair, that’s an extreme example but such inconsistency is indicative of Bad Girls as a whole and the songs aren’t really strong enough to stand up on their own here, switching from heartfelt spiritual to vaudeville to flat ballads. Julie Jupp and Rebecca Wheatley do their best as the Julies with comic number ‘Life of Grime’ but it doesn’t pop as it did onstage; so too with Yvonne’s glammed-up number ‘A-List’, Sally Dexter’s powerful voice deserving a better calibre of material.
But for all my head says this doesn’t work, my heart has been softened by the memories of that Union production and I can’t help but be a little seduced into this trashy life of crime – the 80s power pop of ‘The Baddest and the Best’ is pretty much the definition of guilty pleasure. Maybe one to borrow off a friend rather than buy outright.

Review: Groundhog Day, Old Vic

“I have not a bad word to say, 
about small towns. Per se.”

Expectations were high, how could they not be. Following on from the extraordinary success of Matilda, Tim Minchin’s next foray into musical theatre was to an adaptation of the 90s movie Groundhog Day, playing a two month run at the Old Vic ahead of a presumed Broadway transfer (a move that has had a little doubt cast on it by the withdrawal of major producer Scott Rudin). Now full disclosure, I saw it in its first week thanks to the PWC £10 tickets and the show went for a full month of previews before officially opening, so feel free to take my opinion with a pinch of salt.

For I did not enjoy Groundhog Day, at all. Worse than that, I was bored by it – at least hating something rouses some form of passion, but as Danny Rubin’s book cycled round and round and Minchin’s not unpleasant but in no way striking score dissipated into the ether, I wondered if Rudin might not have had the right idea. There’s a stellar performance from US import Andy Karl as the central Phil, carved out of that leading man material that is particularly American, but for me there was just too little magic emanating from Matthew Warchus’ direction to elevate the material.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th September

Re-review: Urinetown, Apollo

“When a young girl has as many lines as I do, there’s still hope for dreams”

Though Urinetown’s run at the St James Theatre was very well-received (including here by yours truly), I have to profess to being a little surprised that a West End transfer was announced. The quirky nature of the show didn’t immediately seem to lend itself to one of the larger houses but without any mid-sized theatres in town, there’s no choice but to supersize when in reality, an extended run at the St James would have been ideal. It was sad to see the house so quiet for this midweek matinée and the run has now been shortened by a couple of weeks to allow My Night With Reg to move in so perhaps it was too hard a sell but Jamie Lloyd’s production certainly has much going for it. A few thoughts follow.

It’s nice to see a company supporting its own rather than parachuting in a ‘name’ for the sake of ticket sales and so Richard Fleeshman is replaced as the show’s hero Bobby Strong by Matthew Seadon-Young who has been there from the beginning. And likewise Julie Jupp and Alasdair Buchan will be stepping up to step into the shoes of Jenna Russell and Marc Elliott when they leave at the end of November – it’s a natural and brilliant progression route and it something that should definitely be encouraged. (Naturally the show isn’t immune to economic realities and so it is Phill Jupitus who will be coming in for Simon Paisley Day, an interesting choice but as I’ve never seen him on stage one I’m a little unsure about.) Continue reading “Re-review: Urinetown, Apollo”

Review: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

“Now is the winter of our discontent”

Like an addict that really should know better, I held out from seeing Richard III for the longest time, safe in the informed knowledge that I most probably wouldn’t like it. But sure enough when a ticket became available for the final matinée performance, off I obediently trotted to that most uncomfortable of theatres Trafalgar Studios for the latest instalment in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season. And guess what, I didn’t like it.

Clearly my opinions had already been shaped by friends and colleagues reassuring me it really wouldn’t be my cup of tea but the lure of a good cast is always strong and in some respects, this was true. Gina McKee’s defiant Queen Elizabeth, Jo Stone-Fewing’s oleaginous Buckingham, Maggie Steed’s mad Queen Margaret all emerge with credit but in the title role, Martin Freeman is much more of a debit, offering up a decent enough performance but one lacking any real gravitas. Continue reading “Review: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios”

Review: Urinetown, St James Theatre

 

“You think you’ll come in here and go for free?”

The sight of a grim-faced guard demanding 20p or so at the doors to public toilets may be nothing new to visitors to train stations and museums but what if they were the only conveniences at all that you could use. That is the scenario in Urinetown, a Broadway cult hit which has splashed its way over to the St James Theatre, which envisages a dystopian future where the water table is so low that private toilets have been banned and public toilets have been privatised, meaning the only way to go is to pay for the privilege.

When Assistant Toilet Custodian Bobby Strong from the least salubrious toilet in town decides to make a stand against this corporate greed led by Caldwell B Cladwell’s Urine Good Company (ba-dum-tish), he leads a rebellion which kidnaps Caldwell’s daughter and demands the right to “pee for free”, unprepared for the violent crackdown that follows. Elements of Malthusian philosophy about the sustainability of the human race are seeded throughout and much of the story is as dark as the sewers in which much of it takes place. Continue reading “Review: Urinetown, St James Theatre”

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”

Review: Finding Neverland, Curve

“That’s what makes him beautiful, and that’s what makes him sad”

One assumes it is the reality of funding a big-budget musical these days, but there are 17 names above the title of the musical adaptation of Finding Neverland, 17! The most famous of those is Harvey Weinstein whose Miramax studio made the Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet starring film and it is his driving force that has seen the show make its world premiere at Leicester’s Curve theatre, directed by Rob Ashford. The story of how writer JM Barrie found the creative spark for Peter Pan through his growing connection, after a chance encounter, with the Llewelyn Davies family of lost boys and their smart mother Sylvia is entirely charming in Weinstein’s hands. And given his Hollywood track record, it should be no surprise that the show achieves just the right level of gooey sentimentality, whilst avoiding becoming overly twee or sickly sweet.

Peter Pan references are gorgeously threaded throughout the tale, a series of moments that provide a whole set of inspirations for his new play after suffering critical disappointment with his last. Whether a stunning bit of a shadow work or a glimpse of the night sky – which leads to one of the loveliest songs of the night, ‘Neverland’ – Ashford ensures they don’t become overplayed, especially in the restraint with which he employs the flying gear. Scott Pask’s scenic design allows for some grand flourishes in the key set pieces, some of which provide a little more stage magic than others and Ashford’s own choreography is used sparingly but with great purpose to lift the potential of scenes, especially in the pirate tango when the writer duels with his psyche – personified by Hook – as to how the story should properly end.  Continue reading “Review: Finding Neverland, Curve”

Review: Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s a long road ahead of us”

Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory after a number of rewrites since 1999 that have seen the show take on four different titles. The story is based on a real-life one, of early Twentieth Century brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, who are exhorted by their father on his deathbed to seize every opportunity and that they do, both good and bad. Striking it lucky whilst searching for gold, the profligate pair part ways as Addison objects to the gambling that Wilson has become addicted to – despite it multiplying their fortune – and as Wilson turns his hand to all sorts of schemes like boxing promotion and Hollywood, Addison travels the world to eventually settle in Florida and become an architect. Fate draws them together again though as Wilson can’t help but try to capitalise on his brother’s success once again.

Covering so much history of two different people, which in turn is clearly meant to be representative of how the American Dream could go wrong as well as right, means that there is a very episodic feel to Road Show which precludes any real dramatic tension being built up or genuine emotional investigation into any of the characters. There are some fantastic moments in here: ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’ is as tenderly lovely a gay love song as you could hope for; ‘Isn’t He Something!’ details a mother’s love beautifully and the traverse staging, though a little tight and initially disconcerting, makes intriguing use of the space – though a few less dollar bills in the air might not have gone amiss. Continue reading “Review: Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory”