Review: A Damsel in Distress, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I’m a poached cake without a piece of toast
Yorkshire pudding without a beef to roast”

It’s no secret at all that I love a good old-fashioned musical but it is hard to feel that we need more of them in the world. PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress started life as a novel in 1919, has been adapted on both stage (with Ian Hay) and screen, where it was augmented by a suite of songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and now finds itself as a piece of musical theatre with a new book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson and vibrantly directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. 

With a cast that contains Richard Dempsey, Isla Blair, Nicholas Farrell, Sally Ann Triplett, plus the requisite Strallen (Summer, in this case), there’s little about which to complain. Yet I find myself grumbling a little, the bar at Chichester has been set so extraordinarily high with their recent successes, that even a very good production can seem a little lacklustre by comparison. And with so many great ‘traditional’ musicals of this form in the canon, do we really need new ones to be constructed?  Continue reading “Review: A Damsel in Distress, Chichester Festival Theatre”

Review: Thérèse Raquin, Finborough

“Blood and nerves…blood and nerves”

Rather oddly, I’ve already seen the first half of Craig Adams and Nona Shepphard’s powerful new musical Thérèse Raquin. It was featured as part of the Vibrant play readings festival in 2012 with the promise that the rest of the show would follow swiftly and sure enough, the full production has now materialised in the intimacy of this West London venue (supplemented once again with a drinking venue beneath).

Musically, it is a beautifully rich and pleasingly intricate piece. Adams’ score has near-operatic quality, a denseness of recitative that conjures up worlds of feeling more effectively than traditional song-writing could ever do. It can be challenging at times, especially on first listen, but there’s something exciting about the scope of ambition here, a determination to tread a singular path that bodes well for British musical theatre writing. Continue reading “Review: Thérèse Raquin, Finborough”

Leading Man of the Year 2013

Theatre, theatre, hot men, theatre – as the festive season draws to a close, my annual late present to y’all is the Leading Man of the Year post. Without fail, these are the most popular posts that I do (2012, 2011, 2010) so who am I to argue against the will of the people. Happy new year!

The list is not ranked in any way, purely in terms of an assortment of men who have turned my eye one way or another on the stage this year.

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Review: Candide, Menier Chocolate Factory

“Come and dwell where Satan’s hoof has never trod”

Leonard Bernstein’s take on Voltaire’s philosophical attire has had many incarnations, thus labelling it as something of a problematic musical. But given their pedigree for musical theatre, the Menier Chocolate Factory are never one to shirk from a challenge and with director Matthew White editing his own new adaptation from the 1988 Scottish Opera version, this production does a great job at enhancing its particular strengths. Candide is a young man, a student of philosophy in love with the higher-born Cunegonde but when forced out into the harsh reality of the outside world, he finds his learning – “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” – is increasingly tested.

Switching the Menier’s seating into the round (and running off some nifty seat covers and numbers from the sewing machine) draws the audience into the show at every turn and takes us along to every far-flung corner of the globe to which it skips in Adam Cooper’s expressive choreography. Not a moment for potential audience interaction (of the gentlest sort, mind) is missed and platforms, gangways and balconies (even suspended chairs) scattered throughout the auditorium ensure that one is never left straining one’s neck for too long.

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Review: Blood Wedding, Courtyard Theatre

“There’ll be blood again”

Lorca’s writing is suffused with the heat and passion of his Spanish homeland and his 1932 play Blood Wedding is one of his most famous and oft-performed works. Aria Entertainment’s production uses Tanya Ronder’s recent translation but director Bronagh Lagan often struggles to combine the lyrical poetry and brutal realities of this play, introducing a too-wide range of elements that crowd the essential simplicity of the story.

The show is at its best when it allows simple but striking images to emerge – Miles Yekinni’s Death – a presence haunting the action from the off – appearing unexpectedly from behind a door; the true desire of the Bride breaking free in the middle of a densely choreographed wedding dance; the erect pride with which the Mother conducts herself at all times. And in these moments , this tragic tale of love and betrayal captures the right level of magic realism. 

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Review: Alice in Wonderland, St Paul’s Church

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”

Iris Theatre’s 2013 summer season got off to a cracking start with a viscerally imaginative take on Julius Caesar and much of the same company has stayed put to present the more family-friendly, but no less inventive semi-musical take on Alice in Wonderland. The audience fall into the rabbit hole as soon as we arrive, ending up in a Victorian fairground where a number of sideshow acts entertain the crowd until a young lady comes tumbling through behind us and the play begins. That girl is of course Alice but she has lost her identity and in order to try and reclaim it, she has to journey deep into Wonderland, meeting all kinds of strange creatures and fulfilling all manner of tasks to try and help her on her way.

The varied grounds of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden serve as an excellent starting point for director Andrew Lynford to let his imagination run wild with Andy Pilbeam-Brown’s set design and Emma Devonald’s costumes evoking a near-Gothic Victoriana which feels wonderfully lively. And key to this is the frequent encouragement of audience participation – so many of the younger members of the audience (and indeed some of the older) got to take part, whether in the dizzying madness of the Caucus race, the hilarious antics of a game of croquet or the simply delightful Mad Hatter’s tea party with its over-friendly dormouse. It is utterly charming and never loses sight of exactly who it is trying to entertain.


The flipside to this is that it does always possess a dramatic sharpness. The playing style occasionally veers to the overly broad, Candida Caldicot’s songs meander a little instead of advancing the story and some scenes – the Mock Turtle’s for instance – lack a real sense of purpose. But the sheer enthusiasm of a cast of seven throwing themselves whole-heartedly into this most whimsical of worlds is near-impossible to resist. From an extraordinary turn as Brutus, it is refreshing indeed to see David Baynes’ anarchic March Hare and screechily camp Queen of Hearts, likewise Nick Howard-Brown’s Mad Hatter finds profundity as well as playfulness.

And at the heart of it all is Laura Wickham’s Alice – her innocent wonderment plays as a great foil to the madhouse in which she finds herself, but also grounds the more poignant aspects to her journey – the search for identity, what it means to know oneself, how the darker side of life cannot be avoided but can be dealt with – in a place of genuine truth. And as with Julius Caesar, the production transcends itself in its final moments, set inside the church, with a simply gorgeous tableau that is infinitely moving. 

The performance I attended was pleasingly full with children and they genuinely seemed to love it, and I love that I got to witness this. Too often (and more so than usual), press nights for family shows present a stolid audience who don’t, or won’t, respond in the way that the production deserves and that robs us all of an additional pleasure which really helps the show to fly so now is the ideal time to go. There’s only a few days left to fall down this particular rabbit hole though so hurry hurry, follow that white rabbit. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)

Programme cost: £3
Booking until 31st August

Review: Julius Caesar, St Paul’s Church

“Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome”

It starts off like Shakespeare meets Mad Max, but Iris Theatre’s inventive and contemporary reimagining of Julius Caesar at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden gradually unfurls a much more intelligent reading and builds into something infinitely more moving than Tina Turner atop the Thunderdome could ever hope for. In their fifth year of designing site-specific productions for this tucked away Central London venue, there’s a clear sense from Iris of the possibilities and practicalities of putting together a piece of gently immersive theatre that genuinely works but this has been paired here with a deeply considered retelling of the play that surely makes it one of the Shakespearean highlights of the summer.

Daniel Winder has translated this Roman epic into a near-future dystopian version of the world, with riot shields and a dubstep soundtrack setting the scene for the opening as a cast of seven pull us into a tale of political struggle and violent betrayal that sadly rings true in any period of time. The shaven hairstyles and lean muscularity of the rebels, led by Nick Howard-Brown’s manipulative Cassius and David Hywel Baynes’ more nobly-inclined Brutus contrast well against the beefier aesthetic of the neo-imperialist rulers, Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and Matt Wilman’s outrageously stacked Mark Anthony. And as they all fight for the hearts and minds of the people, as well as reconciling their sense of duty with the love they bear for those closest to them, the production successfully negotiates the ambiguity that often accompanies the corrupting nature of power and the journey to seek it.  
It’s a boldly ambitious vision and one which is forcefully delivered. Mellalieu captures the swaggering arrogance of the title character, Howard-Brown’s Cassius is beautifully spoken as he lays the plans for Caesar’s seizure in motion and Daniel Hanna excels as a feral Casca, proudly blood-soaked throughout. But David Hywel Baynes is sensationally good as Brutus, increasingly overtaken by remorse and touchingly concerned with how his actions will impact those around him. That includes us as members of the audience, variously called upon to be cup-bearers, mourners at Caesar’s tomb, lords in the Senate, the baying masses in the Forum. But this is participatory theatre of a moderate nature, warmly involving rather than leaving anyone feeling exposed and in the various setting in and around St Paul’s Church and its grounds, it is a clever way of making the crowd work as part of each scene.

Changing Cinna the Poet’s fate may outrage purists but having Laura Wickham’s brutalised silent witness a key presence in the climactic scenes becomes almost unbearably moving, the focus being on the quiet desperation of war espoused by Brutus rather than the grandiose machismo of Caesar himself. And by the time the production’s final grace note is played as we’re seated in the church itself, only the flintiest of hearts could remain unmoved. Filipe Gomes’ sound design, directed by Candida Caldicot, is a little over-insistent at times though, too often striking boldly where a sense of subtlety might serve better as the setting and performances offer more than enough atmosphere to make this a most striking piece of theatre.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 26th July

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: The Tailor-Made Man, Arts Theatre

“A man amongst men”

 

Described by Joan Crawford as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood”, new musical The Tailor-Made Man focuses on the 50 year love affair between Hollywood star of the 1920s William Haines and interior designer in the making, Jimmy Shields. Discovered in a talent competition, Haines signed for MGM, who accepted his homosexuality as long as he kept it under wraps. When a liaison with a sailor led to his arrest, MGM boss Louis B (LB) Mayer demanded he marry a woman to save his career and maintain his clean-cut image but Haines, with the support of his lover Shields, walked away from Hollywood and together they set up a hugely successful interior design business.

Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor’s book whips through events with a keen sense of pace, the story covers a substantial number of years, and uses a flashback framing device of an older version of Jimmy is interviewed by a keen young reporter who makes him reflect on a life past. There’s an element of drama for sure, but where the show really blossoms is in the evocation of the gossipy environment of Hollywood stars off-duty and the perfectly pitched depiction of a loving gay relationship. Dylan Turner makes a chisel-jawed Haines and Bradley Clarkson is a puppyish Shields but they both show several sides to the lovers, making them complex but likeable individuals who are clearly better together and they have a sincere, beautiful chemistry together.  Continue reading “Review: The Tailor-Made Man, Arts Theatre”

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: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre

“Here we live, here we love, this is the place for self-expression”

Providing a much needed, strong reminder that large-scale musical revivals can come from north of the Watford Gap as well as below, Wonderful Town marked a major collaboration between Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Orchestra and The Lowry on this Leonard Bernstein show, which I have to admit to never having heard of before. As many a musical that has gone before and come after it, it is gossamer-light in plot but this is more than made up for with a richly evocative score, some nifty design and best of all, sparkling choreography from Andrew Wright who is now consistently making the case to be considered one of the best choreographers working in the country.

Connie Fisher and Lucy Van Gasse play Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Ohio who are determined to escape their boring lives and move to New York City. Of course, on arriving in the Big Apple, following their dream ain’t quite as easy as it seems but in their quest for success, romance and a free meal or two, they meet and charm a wide range of colourful new friends and neighbours who help them through their trials. And matching the creative and production expertise on hand, director Braham Murray assembled a cracking ensemble which included particular favourites around these parts (albeit for different reasons) Michael Xavier and Tiffany Graves. Continue reading “Review: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre”