Review: Legally Blonde, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“You need to see me in a brand new domain”

A bit of a change over at Upstairs at the Gatehouse has seen their customary Christmas musical take on a more modern bent after recent successes with classics such as Guys and Dolls, Crazy For You and Singin’ in the Rain. Over the past years, many a West End musical has been cleverly refashioned for this intimate space in Highgate, where fringe premieres of The Drowsy Chaperone, Buddy, and Avenue Q have previously been seen, and it is to the latest of these that the in-house Ovation Theatres have turned with Legally Blonde the Musical.

Like protagonist Elle Woods herself, the show might easily be dismissed on superficial grounds but it is worth remembering that it managed over three years at the Savoy in the cutthroat world of the West End musical and also took home the Olivier for Best New Musical. A good deal of that was due to the winning charms of Sheridan Smith but there’s also no denying that Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s ebullient score and Heather Hach’s adroitly pitched book from Amanda Brown’s novel and the Reese Witherspoon-starring film taps into something irresistible. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: Parade, London Theatre Workshop

“Not much survives of the old hills of Georgia

Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade is a brutally effective piece of musical theatre, based on a harrowing turn-of-the-century true story of racism and anti-Semitism, child-murder and mob mentality, set to a wide-ranging and often challenging score. Last seen in London at the Southwark Playhouse, Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop go for another small-scale staging, directed by Jody Tranter, the intimacy of which again plays to the strength of the piece. 

Bringing a 13-strong company into such a small space is something of a challenge but a necessary one in order give the real sense of the full scope of a community at odds with each other. Tranter manages it well though with a fluid sense of pace swirling around Harry Johnson and Justin Williams’ inventive set design and ably assisted by some ingeniously conceived choreography from Adam Scown, bringing a real intricate power to the ensemble numbers. Continue reading “Review: Parade, London Theatre Workshop”

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: A Winter’s Tale, Landor

“A sad tale is best for winter”
 

The last two adaptations of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (Propeller and the Unicorn’s recent version) have left me rather distraught with their takes on this problem play, and Howard Goodall similarly had me reaching for the tissues with his Love Story and last year’s revival of The Hired Man at the Landor Theatre. So it’s safe to say that there was a certain degree of expectation as I returned to the Clapham North pub theatre to see the final preview of Goodall’s latest project, A Winter’s Tale – a musical inspired by Shakespeare’s play with a book by Nick Stimson. 

The first act is just glorious. This Sicilia is a dark, military world and this is obvious from the off with a magnificent multi-layered opener of goose-pimpling intensity which sets the scene perfectly. Pete Gallagher’s Leontes and Alastair Brookshaw’s visiting Polixines make a fine pair of kings, all good-natured joshing until Helen Power’s Ekaterina enters the scene to persuade Polixines to extend his visit whereupon the red mist of vicious jealousy descends on Leontes with devastating consequences for all concerned. Goodall’s swirling melodies and impassioned lyrics are ideally suited to this emotional whirlpool and all three leads excel, backed up by a large but impressive ensemble who bear witness to the tragic consequences of Leontes’ blinkered viewpoint. Continue reading “Review: A Winter’s Tale, Landor”

Review: Little Shop of Horrors, White Bear Theatre

“Seymour sweetheart, tell me darling, what’s been going on?”

Much like the plant at the heart of its story, Little Shop of Horrors has become something of a monster success rising from its Off-Broadway beginnings to cult classic to household name, thanks in no small part to Alan Menken’s sparkling score and Howard Ashman’s sharp lyrics and witty book. A spoof of 50s sci-fi films, it follows shy young Seymour, a florist with a huge crush on his colleague Audrey, trapped in an abusive relationship with a laughing-gas-guzzling dentist. When a mysterious plant lands on his doorstep offering him the solution to his problems in return for food, things seem like they might finally start to look up for this downtrodden couple, but Seymour fails to recognise the Faustian dangers of selling his soul as the plant, Audrey II, gets hungrier and hungrier.

It is silly and fun, but the show has endured due to its gigantic heart, one cannot help but root for this couple grasping at their chance of happiness and thwarted by a renegade flesh-eating vegetable, all to the tune of Motown-inspired ditties. This production at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, South London has taken the unusual step of pulling together two teams of actors who will alternate performances, the key difference being that the three Ronettes who also double up as Audrey II between them are guys the one night, and girls the next meaning there’s different experiences to be had here from one night to the next. Continue reading “Review: Little Shop of Horrors, White Bear Theatre”