Album Review: Carrie Hope Fletcher – When The Curtain Falls

Featuring a pleasing amount of new musical theatre writing, Carrie Hope Fletcher releases her debut album When The Curtain Falls

“Who you are is how you’re feeling”

Fresh from winning her second What’s On Stage Award, racking up her third novel, vlogging regularly and quite possibly plotting world domination, Carrie Hope Fletcher has now released her debut album When The Curtain Falls. A pleasingly varied tracklisting sees her cover as much new musical theatre writing (shoutout for the brilliant Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) as age-old classics, combined with a few family favourites to make an engaging collection.  

There’s a innate prettiness to Fletcher’s voice that makes it extremely easy to listen to. And it is an over-riding characteristic across the album, which is fine when it comes to the likes of the sweetly lovely ‘Times Are Hard For Dreamers’ from the short-lived Amélie or the Disney tracks here, or smoothing the edges off of Jason Robert Brown’s ‘What It Means To Be A Friend’.  Continue reading “Album Review: Carrie Hope Fletcher – When The Curtain Falls”

Review: Fiddler on the Roof, Chichester Festival Theatre

“How can I hope to make you understand”

Though my life has long been filled with musicals, Fiddler on the Roof has never been the one. I’ve only ever seen it the once (2013’s touring version) and though I quite enjoyed it then, I can’t say I was hankering after seeing another production. And though Daniel Evans’ hands are sure indeed when it comes to classic musicals, I found something rather uninspired both about the choice of programming it for his new Chichester home (although it is an absolute banker) and in his production.
It is perfectly decent, and the quality is solidly good throughout. Omid Djalili is an effective presence as Tevye, Tracy-Ann Oberman is very good as Golde, and it is always nice to see Louis Maskell onstage. But Evans is a director (and artistic director) who has made my heart sing with glorious revivals such as My Fair Lady and Show Boat (and Company and Me and My Girl) and I missed that kind of magic emanating from the unforgiving vastness of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s main stage.
The show just looks a bit too clean, Alistair David’s choreography a little too mannered, the emotion just a little too distant in Joseph Stein’s occasionally interminable book. There’s choons aplenty to be sure, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick writing this just one year after the glories of She Loves Me, and Tom Brady’s band sounds good. But as with Annie, traditional productions of classic musicals just aren’t doing it for me at the moment, I need something more to quicken the pulse.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 2nd September

Review: Jingle Bell Christmas, Royal Albert Hall

“With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings”

Just a quickie for this slice of Christmas party fun at the Royal Albert Hall. Never having been to one of these before, and so not realising quite what a tradition it is for some people as witnessed by the level of tinsel, fairy lights, and light-up Christmas jumpers and hats on display, Jingle Bell Christmas was an unexpected delight in its unashamedly retro way. A concert made up of Christmas pop hits from yore, plus the inevitable Mariah Carey, its non-stop festivity proved pretty much impossible to resist.
An energetic John Rigby conducted the London Concert Orchestra and vocal ensemble Capital Voices to great effect in this iconic venue, and there was something rather wonderful about being inside the Royal Albert Hall in party mood. The times I’ve been, like for Björk, Follies, even a Christmas carol concert six years ago, have always been more serious affairs and so it was just nice to be in there with such an informal, and fun, atmosphere for once, something akin to what the last night of the Proms might feel like.
Soloists Laura Tebbutt and Tim Howar took us through a selection box of Christmas treats – ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ etc etc but for me, the best moments were the more participatory ones. The traditional run through ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ with different sections of the audience doing the actions was huge fun and the entire place belting out ‘Last Christmas’ along with Howar with shining mobile phones aloft was an unalloyed pleasure.
My only real quibble came with the Jingle Belle Dancers, a dance troupe whose choreography (perhaps deliberately) aped 70s variety shows with a lot of floaty wafting, that didn’t always fit with the music or feel needed tbh. And with the women dressed in bum-skirting tunics while the men flashed nary an inch of skin in long-sleeved shirts and trousers, there was something weirdly retrogressive about their presence – is this really what people are nostalgic for? The 70s rather than the actual classic Broadway feel that would have worked better (for me at least). Who knows, it was all good fun in the end – Merry Christmas!

Review: Into the Woods, Menier Chocolate Factory

“I’m not nice, I’m just right”
Fiasco Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s evergreen Into the Woods was a big success over in the US and its actor-muso ethos seems ideally suited for this transfer to the Menier Chocolate Factory. It’s also an approach that pays dividends with the material, Sondheim and James Lapine’s interrogation of the world of fairy tales and what happy ever after really means.
Stripped back and doubled up, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld’s fully actor-musician production makes a virtue of the communal spirit and really makes you notice how much of an ensemble show it really is. Not just in how each of the storybook characters get their chance to shine (or not, as the case may be) but in the relationships, of both family and friends, with which we surround ourselves, just to save us from those moments in the woods.

It might not sound like much but for a show that is so familiar to so many, it just feels like a little bit of magic being unearthed, a moment of real revelation lovingly put forth that proves the quality of the writing but also the value of the enterprise, a thoroughly charming and enchanting retread. Some British talent has been brought in to replace some of the original US cast – Laura Tebbitt shining as the Baker’s Wife and Harry Hepple and Steffan Lloyd-Evans slipping in seamlessly, alongside Andy Grotelueschen and Patrick Mulryan as real stand-outs.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th September

CD Review: Nadim Naaman – Sides

“Livin’ for the moment’s rewards”

I did like Nadim Naaman’s first album We All Want The Same but with its compositions stretching over a decade of Naaman’s songwriting, it didn’t quite have the cohesion to show off his emerging talents. For his second CD though, he’s gone all-out to demonstrate the depths of both sides to him as a musician – opting for a double-length album, half the songs are musical theatre numbers which have received his own spin, and the other half are original songs written over the last year. Thus Sides reaches with larger ambition, and succeeds.

Naaman has a marvelous showman quality to his voice but it’s beautiful to hear him bring out all the colours he can – the sense of building excitement in The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s ‘Out There’, the driving, the driving swagger of The Fix’s One, Two, Three complemented by its tenderly heartfelt break. A jaunty ‘Moving Too Fast’ sees him looking back to one of his first professional roles as The Last Five Years’ Jamie whereas his current gig – Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera – is acknowledged with a startling but hugely effective Latin-inflected treatment of its title song, accompanied by the glorious richness of Celinde Schoenmaker’s voice.

Continue reading “CD Review: Nadim Naaman – Sides”

Review: Goodbye Barcelona, Arcola

“We’ll fight the repercussions with weapons from the Russians”

Inspired by a collection of interviews with British International Brigadiers, the men and women who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Goodbye Barcelona is a new musical that has taken up residence in the Arcola Theatre’s main studio. Spread over two years, it follows Jewish mother and son, Rebecca and Sammy, both left breathless by the Cable Street Riots in the East End of London and leaving Sammy inspired to go and join the fight for democracy against General Franco’s army-led coup. But once he’s gone, his mother decides to follow him and so volunteers as a nurse, hoping to track him down.

But Judith Johnson’s book is not content with this alone as the story and builds in not one but two romances, as mother and son both succumb to Iberian inamoratas. So the historical context of this unique civil war with people fighting to defend ideologies rather than national identities has to do battle with a pair of love stories and as a result, the material sometimes feels stretched too thinly in trying to do them all justice. The narrative strands swirl around but we move between them too quickly and too often, meaning that characters don’t have enough time to develop and the fascinating insights that have been teased out from the research left largely unexplored.

That’s not to say that what we have isn’t engaging. Tom Gill’s earnest Sammy is an appealing hero, learning quickly about real life as a soldier with his more experienced comrades and about love with the passionate Pilar, a commendable turn from Katie Bernstein. And Lucy Bradshaw beautifully portrays the inner strength of Rebecca, who in the course of nursing John Killoran’s charismatic anarchist Ernesto – whose experience of just how tough life is in Spain is one of those underused strands – finds a new purpose to her own life. And Mark Meadows as grizzled WWI vet Jack shines in the ensemble, his story being another one that could have benefitted from greater foregrounding.

KS Lewkowicz’s music works in Spanish influences but never in an overpowering way and whilst occasionally slipping into the anodyne, there’s also a set of strong anthemic ballads and some intriguing complementary vocal lines playing against Mark Smith’s assured musical direction. One can’t help but wish though that the creative team could have had a little more faith in its audience to connect with an interesting historical story, without overplaying the human interest that the focus on relationship brings.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1.50
Runs until 23rd December
Note: the default seating arrangement is in place yet again, so my tip is to get there early to try and get one of the few seats that actually face onto the stage
Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Les Misérables, Barbican

“Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?”

When I first started this blogging lark, I thought that what I wanted was to be ‘respected’ as a ‘serious’ theatregoer and whilst I’ve never been ashamed of being a huge fan of musical theatre amongst many other things, I’d always been uneasy about demonstrating that too much. But after great conversations with so many of my new friends in the online reviewing community, I’ve come to fully appreciate that integrity really does come from being truly honest about things that I see and the things that I love and this could not have been better illuminated than in the last two days: an obscure Sondheim revival at the Donmar and the umpteenth time of seeing Les Misérables, albeit in a new production and I can proudly say that it was Les Mis that came out as a clear winner for me despite what my inner snob may have wanted me to say!

Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg adapted it for the stage in 1980, and it first played in London at the Barbican, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Trevor Nunn, transferring to the Palace and then the Queen’s Theatre where it is still running after 25 years. And to mark that 25th anniversary, Mackintosh conceived this touring version of the show, directed by Lawrence Connor and James Powell (a decision which sadly left Nunn’s nose out of joint) and after touring the country, it has now arrived back at its original home at the Barbican for 22 performances only.

I have seen this show so many times, I really have lost count: it has been a perennial favourite and one I’ve revisited every couple of years or so quite regularly with family and friends who share my feelings. I’ve never watched it with a properly critical eye though and it is a long time since I’ve paid for decent seats to see this show, usually picking up cheap ones from TKTS or the like and so I took the plunge here and it really was a novelty and a great pleasure to be so close to the action for once and to approach it with more of a critical mindset. Although I must say, it still rankles with me that seats that are normally £10 at the Barbican are £65 for this production and the best seats are £85. But that’s about my only gripe about the whole experience which was about as good as it gets for me: be warned, I go on a bit in this review!

The story follows the struggle of one man to be true to his instinctive kindness and sense of justice in the face of much opposition and the most troubling of times as France hurtles once again towards revolution. Jean Valjean vows to start his life anew after 19 years on the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread, but his nemesis, the highly moral Inspector Javert continues to stalk him as Valjean adopts an orphan girl Cosette and is later swept up in the revolutionary fight as he is forced to help save the life of Marius, the man with whom she has fallen in love. It’s both an intimate and a grand story as it is set against the backdrop of everyday life with a huge swathe of supplementary characters adding vitality to every scene as we rip through pathos, tension, romance and tragedy in what really is quite a dark story for an alleged crowdpleaser.

The music, oh the music! With a live orchestra under Peter White’s musical direction and new arrangements and orchestrations bringing a brightness to these oh-so-familiar songs, (Master of the House became much more musically interesting than I’ve ever known it to be), it is easy to forget just how many top tunes there are in here which means the emotional wallop is consistently huge. As Red and Black segues into the even more rousing Do You Hear The People Sing, it is hard not to jump up and join them on the barricades; likewise when the quietly beautiful Drink With Me leads straight into Valjean’s Bring Him Home, sung to flawless perfection here by John Owen-Jones, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be even slightly emotional. And if there’s a better song in musical theatre than One Day More, I gladly welcome your submissions!

The decision to completely revamp the staging through Matt Kinley’s new designs is really quite daring and the introduction of CGI projections, whilst potentially a horrendous mistake, is actually one of the most striking things about this show. Taking inspiration from Victor Hugo’s own paintings, a series of tableaux take us from place to place incredibly effectively, sometimes just suggesting a mood with swirling colours, at others times shaking up our perspectives and taking us right down into the sewers on an exhilarating chase.

Being released from the shackles of the revolving drum and its stale barricades of the traditional set has really allowed the design team to recreate the world of Les Mis in a way which clearly enables ease of transport, although it is still visually extremely impressive and does not look like a travelling set at all, but also refocuses the attention on key scenes which have often been overlooked. The notable of these to me was the death of Éponine which is a tearjerker at the best of times, but here with the cast slowly turning one by one as they realise what is happening and then eventually carry her body off with soldier’s honours plays with a new emotional honesty. But several of the iconic images have been retained so that a brilliant mesh of old and new here, the waving of the red flag, the stepping to One Day More, the ‘death light’ all remain to remind so many of us why we love this show so much.

It is impossible to pick between John Owen-Jones’ emotionally charged Valjean and Earl Carpenter’s brooding Javert, both are close to perfection in their roles and look as energised in their performances as ever. The hair and make-up team must be congratulated on the way they subtly but definitively age them both throughout the show, it is done so well and so very quickly too. There’s a great vocal performance from Jon Robyns (who will always be Princeton to me) as the single-minded and coolly charismatic student leader Enjolras but also with a brilliant little cameo as a gurning footman in the wedding scene and I just love the performer that Gareth Gates has grown up into, his Marius is nerdish but compassionate even in his lovesickness and brought a nice modern touch to his vocals.
As Éponine, Rosalind James’ gorgeous rich alto was stunning to hear, standing out beautifully in the group numbers and lending On My Own a new soulful twist that really, to coin a much overused term, made the song her own and marked her as my favourite performer of the evening, though I imagine purists will be horrified. As the bawdy Thénardiers, Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot brought a nice comic touch but underlaid with their true exploitative nature, though I would steer clear of her when she’s got the cleaver in her hand, and will someone please think of the budgies…! The only very tiny disappointment was that Katie Hall’s Cosette was as traditional as they come, there seemed to be no concession to the refresh in her performance which made it stand out a little for the wrong reason, but this was but a tiny bugbear.

Just finally, one of the things I truly love about this show is that despite its huge cast of characters, so many of them are given a chance to shine, their own classic songs to sing (Fantine is barely on the stage for half an hour but Madalena Alberto still manages to squeeze in I Dreamed A Dream) and even the minor characters are granted verses in the ensemble numbers so that it is easy to see just how talented every single member of the cast really is. Amongst those that stood out for me here were Adam Linstead’s weary and sardonic Grantaire and David Lawrence’s compassionate bishop.

I honestly think this is the kind of production that could actually change people’s minds about this show. It was rapturously received by the first night audience at the Barbican, clearly appreciative of the history in its return to this venue, but it really did remind me how strong a piece of theatre it is. Blending serious moral questions with a genuine emotionality and a truly artistic aesthetic, this production places a marker for popular theatre, so often derided, to aspire to. So much of my pleasure came from seeing an old friend receive the most sympathetic and beautiful of makeovers, but it feels so fresh here with its completely new lease of life that I’m sure it will wow newcomers too, so I urge you to join the crusade, stand with me and just revel in the glory of musical theatre at its utmost best.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 2nd October
Note: loud noises, flashes and pyrotechnics all appear in the second act