Review: Chess, London Coliseum

Nobody’s on nobody’s side – an all-star cast can’t save this game of Chess from itself, for me at least

“From square one I’ll be watching all sixty-four”

It’s taken over 30 years for Chess to return to the West End (though it was seen at the Union in 2013) and though it has a huge amount of resource thrown at it in Laurence Connor’s production for English National Opera, it doesn’t necessarily feel worth the wait. An 80’s mega-musical through and through with an intermittently cracking score from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Richard Nelson’s book hasn’t aged particularly well and bears the hallmarks of the  substantial tinkering it has had at every opportunity.

It’s not too hard to see why it has needed the tinkering. The mix of Cold War politics told through the prism of rival US and Soviet chess Grandmasters, love triangles and power ballads is a tricky one to get right and part of the problem seems to be just how seriously to take it all. On the one hand, the chess matches are backgrounded with montages of the real-life tensions of the 80s; on the other, scenes that take us through the various locations of the tournaments are a cringeworthy riot of cultural stereotyping that revel in their utter kitsch. Continue reading “Review: Chess, London Coliseum”

Review: The Stationmaster, Tristan Bates

“The train is coming…”

The third year of the From Page To Stage season of new musical theatre is now well underway at the Tristan Bates Theatre and the centrepiece of this year’s festival is a production of The Stationmaster with book by Susannah Pearse and music and lyrics by Tim Connor. The musical is an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day (last seen in London at the Almeida in 2009) but moves the action to a small town in the Lake District in 1958.

Life in Kirby is all homemade jam, cake competitions and friendly pints down the local and railway stationmaster Thomas Price is at the heart of the tight-knit community. But behind closed doors and the net curtains lies a certain disenchantment, his marriage to Catherine is under strain and a chance encounter with the equally disaffected Anna sends their lives hurtling down the wrong tracks, a disaster further compounded by the tragedy of their ensuing actions. Continue reading “Review: The Stationmaster, Tristan Bates”

Album Review: The Postman and the Poet (2011 Concept Album)

“Now is the time when the people of Chile come together” 

I’m going to put it out there, I have no idea why new musical The Postman and the Poet hasn’t received a major production yet. This concept album was recorded in 2011 and has to rank as one of my favourite things I’ve listened to over the last few weeks of all these cast recordings, if not the whole year. It’s even based on source material that has Oscar-winning connections to endear it to risk-averse audiences – if From Here To Eternity can make it to a West End theatre, I’m sure The Postman and the Poet could make a decent stab at it too. 

The show is based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, on which the 1994 Oscar-winning film Il Postino was based, but Trevor Bentham and Eden Phillips’ book keeps the story of the musical in Isla Negra, a small fishing village on the Chilean coast and in the early 1970s, when political turmoil threatened to overwhelm this South American country. And Michael Jeffrey, a composer new to me, has pulled together a hugely exciting and accomplished score that blends its Latin influences seamlessly into a grand musical theatre style. Continue reading “Album Review: The Postman and the Poet (2011 Concept Album)”

Review: The Sound of Music, Curve

“My heart should be wildly rejoicing”
 

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s undeniable classic of a score, Paul Kerryson’s outgoing musical production as Artistic Director, a shining light of the British musical theatre taking on an iconic leading role – the ingredients are certainly there for something magical to appear this Christmas in Leicester. But to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t help but feel just a little disappointed by this version of The Sound of Music, whilst recognising that it is perhaps a choice in terms of failsafe festive programming.

Kerryson has been responsible for some brilliant reimaginings of West End stalwarts – most recently Chicago and Hairspray – but it is immediately apparent here that this is going to be as traditional as they come, even old-fashioned in its insistent reliance on flying cloths in Al Parkinson’s pastel-hued design. They undoubtedly have a spatial grandeur (the stained-glass reflections in the abbey in particular) but they also sap the pace of the production terribly as they’re wangled into place time and time again. Continue reading “Review: The Sound of Music, Curve”

Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Mercury

“Time that the whole town was stirred up”

At a time when West End shows are closing left right and centre, this touring version of Betty Blue Eyes serves as a timely reminder that that isn’t always the end. Itself a victim of a curtailed run at the Novello back in 2011, this production emerges as a model of collaboration with 4 regional powerhouses co-producing – Mercury Theatre Colchester, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, Salisbury Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse – a UK tour which currently stretches into August. 

Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s book adapts Alan Bennett and Malcom Mowbray’s witty story from the film A Private Function – a northern town’s determination to celebrate the Princess Elizabeth’s wedding is kyboshed by the unrelenting yoke of post-war austerity and rationing, though chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his social climbing wife Joyce have other plans. And the beautifully constructed music and lyrics are provided by British musical theatre stalwarts Stiles & Drewe. Continue reading “Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Mercury”

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”