Review: The Threepenny Opera, National

“There will be no moralising tonight”

Whatever you think a national theatre should be for, I bloody love that Rufus Norris seems to determined to keep diversity near the top of the billing. Whilst it is curious that he’s only committed to ensuring gender equality in terms of the directors and living writers the National Theatre uses by 2021 (I’m sure there’s a reason it takes 5 years), there’s also change happening now in this new production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

The first actors we see and hear are George Ikediashi and Jamie Beddard. So what you might say? But they are respectively a cabaret artist better known as Le Gateau Chocolat and a wheelchair-using director, writer, actor, consultant, trainer and workshop leader who has worked across the arts, educational and social sectors (his website). And you begin to see one of the ways how Norris is opening up this venue in an important and hopefully lasting manner. Continue reading “Review: The Threepenny Opera, National”

Review: The Smallest Show on Earth, Mercury

“Forget this gateau, this means war”

When is a new musical a new musical, especially when it has music by Irving Berlin? The Smallest Show on Earth manages it by adapting the 1957 film of the same name and then sprinkling it with a selection of Berlin hits, both well-known and the not-so-much, to create something really rather adorable. Writers Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander have tailored this raw material beautifully, dovetailing the gently bittersweet humour of the British film with the instinctive melodiousness of Berlin’s songwriting into a heart-warmingly lovely new musical comedy. 

Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spenser and his new wife Jean are agog when they discovered a long-lost relative has bequeathed them the Bijou cinema but aghast when they discover it is a total flea-pit. In order to get a decent offer from the rivals at the Grand cinema across the way, they pretend to be doing it up to make it a going concern but as they restore and repaint and get to know the eccentric locals that work there, the couple soon find that the picturehouse offers more opportunities than just old movies and oddballs. Continue reading “Review: The Smallest Show on Earth, Mercury”

Review: High Society, Old Vic

“Not bad for a 35 year old”

Kevin Spacey’s swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic doesn’t open officially until next week but I only have a handful of days left for the above quote to remain pertinent to myself so I’m writing up High Society now – the usual disclaimers about previews apply. Maria Friedman’s directorial debut was the highly critically acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along so it makes sense for her to return to the world of musical theatre with this Cole Porter classic, given added spin here as the venue remains in the round.

It’s a funny old piece though, Arthur Kopit’s book is based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story and follows the trials of Tracy Lord (I didn’t know they had Tracys in the 1930s), a rich socialite about to get married who suddenly finds herself with three suitors – her dull fiancé, a charismatic tabloid journalist and her dashing ex-husband. As the pre-wedding parties start and the champagne flows liberally, there’s decisions to be made and some of Porter’s finest songs to be sung but little real fizz, to start with at least. Continue reading “Review: High Society, Old Vic”

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”

Review: The Baker’s Wife, Union Theatre

“Cake in the oven, champagne on ice
Much as I hate to I may even shave twice”

The Baker’s Wife with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein is a musical that managed to develop something of a cult following despite flopping in the West End in 1989 and never actually having run on Broadway. Director Michael Strassen has now given it a rare outing at the small-scale powerhouse that is the Union Theatre. Based on the Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giano film La Femme Du Boulanger, the show is all about what happens in a rural French community when Geneviève the young wife of the village baker leaves her husband Aimable for a sexy piece of rough. He loses his baking mojo which sufficiently outrages the villagers to put aside their multifarious squabbles to come together and try to reunite the couple.

There is usually a reason that shows are left on the shelf and true to form, The Baker’s Wife pretty shows us why. Schwartz’s score is largely strong with some genuinely sublime moments but the book is stolid, unimaginative and fatally fragmented. Too much time is spent on the villagers around the love triangle but there’s so many of them, all contributing to the larger metaphor of the show, that none get a fair crack of the whip. And consequently, there’s not enough room to really focus on the main protagonists either. Indeed, Geneviève’s story doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic at all, it is so hurried: it is revealed that she married Aimable on the rebound from being rejected by her married lover but she’s going to put up with him. Having left him shortly after singing this, she then dumps her new paramour after five minutes on the run and a roll in the hay – one can’t help but feel the baker is better off without her! Matters are not helped by an additional horribly overdone metaphor of her cat running away and returning contemporaneously, subtle it is not. Continue reading “Review: The Baker’s Wife, Union Theatre”