Review: King Lear, Minerva

“He hath always but slightly, known himself”

As I wrote when the full cast was first announced, “the world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting”. And now that the time has come to trek over to Chichester Festival Theatre to catch Ian McKellen revisiting a role he has already been most renowned for playing, you’re left in awe once again at the luxuries casting director Anne McNulty has brought to bear in Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress and modern-spirited production.

Chief among them is Sinéad Cusack’s Kent. It’s a casting decision that deserves the emphasis for Chichester has long been a venue where female representation has struggled across the board and though it is still early days yet for Daniel Evans’ tenure here, any steps are welcome. Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is another example and a powerful contrast too. Where Cusack brings all her experience to bear as a superbly nuanced Kent (whose disguising gains real resonance), Lawrance brings a freshness of spirit to her most compassionate reading of Lear’s youngest daughter.

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Casting for Chichester’s King Lear announced

“Reason not the need”

The world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting (all credit to casting director Anne McNulty here). Jonathan Munby’s production had already announced Ian McKellen as part of the ensemble (teasing an interesting casting breakdown that didn’t actually come to anything) but that’s a small niggle in what is otherwise some excellent news.

  • Sinéad Cusack as Kent
  • Dervla Kirwan, Kirsty Bushell and Tamara Lawrance as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia
  • Jonathan Bailey and Damien Molony as Edgar and Edmund
  • Sinéad Cusack as Kent
  • Michael Matus (Oswald), Dominic Mafham (Albany) and Patrick Robinson (Cornwall) in there as well
  • Danny Webb as Gloucester
  • Did I mention Sinéad Cusack as Kent?
  • I can take or leave Phil Daniels as the Fool but he may well surprise.

Tickets are all sold out so you might want to monitor regularly for returns or hope for the transfer which one suspects is already in the making.

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”

CD Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015 Original West End Cast Recording)

“I’m halfway up a tree and completely in a jam.
I’m out here in a desert and nobody gives a damn”

After the abortive first run on Broadway, dubbed “a very expensive out-of-town try-out” by composer David Yazbek, a reconceived version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown made its way to the West End in early 2015 but it only managed the same 4 months of a run there before closing in ignominy once again. Some things just aren’t meant to be it would seem.

I saw the show at the Playhouse and saw first-hand how ill-conceived this reconceived conception was and listening back to the score, you’re just reminded of how very random the whole thing is. At times, it seems on the verge of working – the manic patter of ‘Model Behavior’ is well delivered by Anna Skellern and Haydn Gwynne brings her customary class to Lucia and her lament to ageing in ‘Invisible’.  Continue reading “CD Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015 Original West End Cast Recording)”

CD Review: Lend Me A Tenor (Original London Cast Recording)

“Life is like opera, it’s hard to keep the drama from seeping through”

The West End is a tough nut to crack at the best of times and despite its best efforts, the musical version of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor lasted barely 2 months at the Gielgud in 2010. It’s strange, especially in light of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ relative success, as it occupies a similar groove with its traditional, even old-school, vibes, aping a classic era of musical theatre with japes and jolliness but somehow, it just didn’t connect with audiences – not everyone loves a farce…

Its old-fashioned humour and madcap antics are well served by Brad Carroll’s score and Peter Sham’s lyrics and book, which follows the trials of the Cleveland, Ohio Grand Opera Company as a world famous tenor scheduled to sing in their Otello goes AWOL in the hotel just hours before he’s due onstage. Is there a schmuck who can step in at the last minute and pretend to be Merelli, of course there is, but there’s also jealous wives, lovelorn girlfriends and conniving co-stars aplenty to thicken the plot. Continue reading “CD Review: Lend Me A Tenor (Original London Cast Recording)”

Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse

“The car’s OK but where’s the wheels…?”

The Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was less than a stellar success so it is little surprise that it is a majorly reworked version of the show that has opened at the Playhouse Theatre four years later. But even after all the reconstruction and renovation that has been done to Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbek’s score, it is hard to feel that director Bartlett Sher has really nailed it here either.

For something based on a Pedro Almodóvar film, there’s a shocking uncertainty of tone, or more accurately a lack of any real sense of tone at all. The story in set in late 80s Madrid but there’s little concession to either this particular decade or country (though there is bafflingly one incongruously Hispanic accent). One could argue that this is a wise decision but the issue lies in that no overarching conceit of any substance has replaced it. Continue reading “Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse”

Review: West End Recast 2, Phoenix

“I wonder why they didn’t just change their story”

There’s always gotta be a sequel right? After the success of West End Recast earlier this year, director Adam Lenson and musical supervisor Daniel A Weiss have once again gathered a cast of West End talent with nothing better to do on a Sunday night than perform songs they wouldn’t normally get the chance to sing. And once again, they hit the jackpot with West End Recast 2, an extraordinary range of performers and performances that offer a revelatory take on what places musical theatre could go to when a few risks are taken.

Imagine Cynthia Erivo as Bobby in Company, her rendition of ‘Being Alive’ was genuinely sensational (although nothing will ever convince me that a mid-song standing ovation is acceptable) and somehow found something new in this classic that literally raised the roof. So too did Gina Beck utterly own West Side Story’s ‘Maria’, an unexpectedly affecting take that also deserves to be explored more, not least as a fascinating challenge for her vocal range. Cassidy Janson deserves a mention for going green again, though this time as Shrek rather than Elphaba, well for the most part at least… Continue reading “Review: West End Recast 2, Phoenix”

Review: The Return of the Soldier, Jermyn Street Theatre

“War is hell
Why rebel
You can’t change things on your own”

There’s something simply exquisite about The Return of the Soldier, an intimate chamber musical tucked away into the Jermyn Street Theatre that might just be one of the best things I’ve seen this year. Granted, it may contain a checklist of some of my favourite things – the experience of women in wartime, a score for piano and cello, Laura Pitt-Pulford – but they combine into something above and beyond, a powerful meditation on the psychological effects of war on those not at the front, a valuable reminder in a year that commemorates the start of the First World War that the impact of war ripples through all levels of society.

Tim Sanders’ book adapts Rebecca West’s novel from 1918, a piece of literature that emerged directly from the author’s experience during wartime, to give us characters – but particularly women – with rich emotional lives. Captain Christopher Baldry has returned from the frontline with shellshock and instead of falling into the arms of his upper-class wife Kitty, his memory has obliterated her and so it is the earthier charms of early love Margaret that he craves. She’s stuck in an unfulfilling marriage herself so is faced with conflict when asked to help cure his amnesia, knowing full well that to do so will end her nostalgic fling.

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Review: Hostage Song, Finborough

“Why won’t God deliver me, oh I may never know”

You don’t get many hostage stories in musical theatre so the allure of the Finborough’s Hostage Song was one that proved intriguingly strong, sufficiently so to overcome my natural antipathy to anything that describes itself as an indie rock musical. But though the band onstage is full of boys dressed in black who look like they need a pie, the music of composer and lyricist Kyle Jarrow, in conjunction with Clay McLeod Chapman’s abstract book, makes for a pleasingly different piece of musical theatre.

In an unspecified country (albeit one which has experienced some kind of US military intervention), reporter Jennifer and Pentagon contractor Jim have been blindfolded, handcuffed and kept prisoner by unseen captors. To pass the time and to help try and keep a hold on their sanity, they play games of I-Spy, tell stories of their lives in flashbacks (and forwards), even go on pretend dates to help keep spirits up. Chapman’s book shudders around this timeframe with a hallucinatory energy that always keeps us on our toes and thus makes the amplified indie rock seem a more appropriate choice. Continue reading “Review: Hostage Song, Finborough”

Album Review: The A-Z of Mrs P – Original London Cast Recording

“Could you ever be happy mama?”

In a musical theatre landscape that often seems risk-averse when it comes to new writing, even in the face of the recent efforts of old hands Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice both closing early, it is always pleasing to hear new voices being championed. And that is exactly what producer Neil Marcus did in securing idiosyncratic British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert to write the music and lyrics for The A-Z of Mrs P, along with Diane Samuels for the book. The show recently premiered at the Southwark Playhouse in a production directed by Sam Buntrock, and the soundtrack has now been released by SimG Productions.

Herbert had never seen a musical before starting to write this show five years ago and there’s a definite freshness to the way she has approached the material. The show was inspired by the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, a woman who led a complex personal life but is best known for mapping and creating the famous A-Z streetmap of London that so many still use today. Her relationship with her map publisher father was a troubled beast though and so the canvas of the story widens out beyond the streets of London, to delve into the family history of Mrs P and how it proved a driving force for her whole life. Continue reading “Album Review: The A-Z of Mrs P – Original London Cast Recording”