Review: The Frogs, Jermyn Street

“Gods of the theatre, smile on us”

No matter the star quality of the names associated with The Frogs – Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver were in the original student company who performed it in a Yale swimming pool in 1974, Nathan Lane was one of the co-writers who expanded it for a Broadway run in 2004 – but there’s no escaping the fact that it is one of Sondheim’s rarely performed musicals. It’s a descriptor that rightly causes a deal of trepidation – more often than not there’s a good reason that works collect dust on the shelf and the hunt for worthy rediscoveries only rarely turns up a diamond.

Another way of looking at it is that you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince and if this isn’t an outright amphibian, it’s also by no means royalty. Loosely based on a 405 BC play by Aristophanes but sending up Greek comedy at the same, we follow Michael Matus’ Dionysos and his slave Xanthias, played by George Rae, as they journey to Hades to find someone who can “enlighten the easily misled and coerced masses of Earth”. They light on George Bernard Shaw as a saviour but Shakespeare has something to say about it, as do Herakles, Charon, Pluto and a chorus of frogs… Continue reading “Review: The Frogs, Jermyn Street”

Review: Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse

“That’s what you get for all your trouble”

On the face of it, you could see why reviving Promises Promises would be an appealing prospect – written by Neil Simon from a Billy Wilder film and featuring a score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But digging even just a little deeper – a running time of nearly 3 hours and an antiquated set of gender politics made it a tough one to watch, and an even tougher one to excuse in today’s society.

If you were so inclined, you could argue that Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s original screenplay for the 1960 film The Apartment is “a triumph of 1960s sexual work-place politics” but quite what that has to say to audiences today is very unclear, (apart from gentlemen d’un certain âge craving the good old days natch). I have liked much of director Bronagh Lagan’s previous work but I can’t help pondering the choice here. Continue reading “Review: Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: The Secret Garden, King’s Head

“For in the earth, the charm’s at work”

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story The Secret Garden was first made into a musical in the early 1990s with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon but despite an RSC production in 2000, it remains a rarely-performed work. Aria Entertainment and Knockhardy Productions are seeking to redress that with a concert version playing Sunday and Mondays at the King’s Head Theatre Pub. The story focuses on Mary Lennox, the sole survivor of a cholera attack in her home of the British Raj who unceremoniously shipped back to her closest remaining relative, a disinterested uncle who lives in a vast stately home in Yorkshire. Initially ill-tempered and stubborn, she finds her calling in the restoration of a neglected garden which awakens not only her own good nature but the ailing spirit of her uncle and her sickly cousin Colin 

Although billed as an intimate concert, the reality of Matthew Gould’s production is closer to a semi-staged performance, a choice that has both its benefits and drawbacks. It allows a company of 18 to be utilised effectively, flowing around the small stage space and giving full voice to the sweeping harmonies of Simon’s score. But it also unnecessarily complicates matters as it introduces more elements of the show without their full context, meaning the relationships between the characters aren’t always clear, the nuances of the shifting time periods are lost, the budgetary constraints highlighted.

Which is a shame as when the focus is on the music, The Secret Garden really is an excellent production. Simon’s compositions have a graceful drama and a playful humour, akin to some of Howard Goodall’s work, and they are played exquisitely by David Keefe’s four strong band, wind instruments and cello combining beautifully. And there is excellent singing onstage too, across the board. From the earthy Yorkshire humour of Rachael McCormick’s Martha and Jordan Lee Davies’ Dickon – both names to watch out for – to the experience lent by returning original RSC cast members Amanda Goldthorpe-Hall and Freddie Davies, a vivid sense of emotion comes across from the inhabitants of the Yorkshire manor, elevating this children’s tale into something genuinely stirring.

Zoë Curlett’s Lily haunts the show with a benevolent presence and a crystalline vocal – the use of ghosts and spirits really is a fascinating part of the show, Mona Goodwin’s Ayah also impresses – and as her still-grieving widower, Alexander Evans is highly affecting with a hushed vocal wracked with guilt and pain. And in the roles of Mary and Colin which are alternated, Ana Martin and Zac Donovan came pretty close to stealing the show. Donovan’s wide-eyed charm is just lovely to watch, but there is something exceptional in Martin’s performance that makes me sure that we will be seeing much more of this actress in the future. Mary is a challenging role, onstage for large swathes of the show during which she undergoes a considerable emotional journey but Martin took it all in her stride with a confidence and professionalism that belies her 13 years. Of particular note was the way in which she sang with her various duetting partners, always closely working with them and the ensemble around her, demonstrating an impressive maturity that will surely stand her in good stead for the future.

Minor misgivings about the semi-staging aside, this production of The Secret Garden really does offer a remarkable opportunity to hear an excellent, if somewhat neglected, piece of musical theatre, delivered to an excellent standard. What one might miss in narrative clarity is more than made up for by the exhilaration of hearing such a large, un-miked company in beautiful harmony at close quarters.

Booking until 17th March

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Romeo & Juliet, Leicester Square Theatre

“I will show myself a tyrant”

This version of Romeo and Juliet moves the action to 1938 when Italy was under Mussolini’s fascist rule. Produced by the Ruby in the Smoke company and taking up residence in the small basement of the Leicester Square Theatre until 11th July, this offers a largely inventive take on the familiar story of the “star-cross’d lovers”. A cast of eight cover the much edited version of events with a reduced number of characters too, there’s a little doubling up but there’s still only 11 characters featured in this production, the main casualties are the parents, only Capulet remains.

The literature around the show talks of the Race Law instituted by Mussolini in 1938, forbidding Italians from marrying Jews, and by making Romeo a son of David, the focus of the show is shifted away from family feuds over to anti-Semitism, Juliet is the daughter of a militant member of the secret police thereby creating the tension that forces the play along. This is a neat reconception, but I’m not 100% sure that it worked or that it was supported by the text: I could see Romeo’s small Jewish necklace as I was near the front, but I rather suspect for some the first indication that he was a Jew would have been towards the end when he put on an overcoat marked with a yellow star. Continue reading “Review: Romeo & Juliet, Leicester Square Theatre”