10 of my top moments of the decade

Ever behind the curve, I present 10 of my top moments in a theatre over the last ten years (plus a few bonus extra ones because whittling down this list was hard, and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway!)

© James Bellorini

Extraordinary Public Acts for a National Theatre

The establishment of the Public Acts programme at the National Theatre offered up something sensational in Pericles, an initiative designed to connect grassroot community organisations with major theatres, resulting in a production that swept over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier to create something that moved me more than 99% of professional productions.  A truly joyous and momentous occasion. 

Honourable mention: this year’s musical take on As You Like It proved just as heart-swellingly beautiful over at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Continue reading “10 of my top moments of the decade”

Review: The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s (#Phantom30th)

“There are worse things than a shattered chandelier”

I’ve been blogging here for a handful of years now, but I’ve never quite made it to The Phantom of the Opera in that time (I think I saw it last in 2002). Probably because it has that ‘old faithful’ air about it, especially to those of us who live in London, but also because its enduring popularity means that there’s rarely any ticket deals around for the show. Perhaps with an element of that in mind, the decision to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show represented the perfect opportunity to finally revisit as tickets were most reasonably priced at £19.86 and £30.

And I’m glad I got to go again. There’s undoubtedly a hoary quality to certain aspects of the show (the synth sound will never become a classic one…) but by and large, it is looking and sounding in pretty good shape for a 30 year old. This feels mainly down to the electric charge that comes from Ben Forster and Celinde Schoenmaker’s lead performances as The Phantom and Christine Daaé. There’s a refreshing, almost raw, emotional energy to their connection, manifesting itself in powerfully interpreted vocals, especially in ‘The Music of the Night’ and ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ respectively.  Continue reading “Review: The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s (#Phantom30th)”

CD Review: The Bodyguard – The Musical (World Premiere Cast Recording)


“Tell me what does it mean?” 
One of the more surprising recent returnees to the West End was The Bodyguard – The Musical – having played out about a year and a half at the Adelphi and then launching a subsequent UK tour, our appetite seemed sated. But where there’s an empty theatre, there’s a commercial hit to be planted therein and it arrived back in the capital at the Dominion, with Beverley Knight heading up the cast and it’s a cracker.
But as the production set out on its UK tour, that was the point at which First Night Records decided to release the world premiere cast recording of the show, meaning that it was X-Factor star Alexandra Burke who got to lay her vocals on this score of classic Whitney Houston songs and be recorded for posterity. Now I can’t lie, I enjoyed the show with Burke, with the help of a couple of bottles of wine it’s an ideal bit of Friday fun but on disc, it’s not quite the same story. 
Part of the problem – for me at least – lies in the familiarity of the score and the fact that very little is done to the majority of the songs. So the comparison between whoever is taking on the role of Rachel Marron is all the more direct with Whitney and when you’re dealing with the soundtrack of my youth in songs like ‘How Will I Know’, ‘So Emotional’ and ‘Queen of the Night’, you’d better do ‘em justice. But it doesn’t take more than 15 seconds before Burke starts to oversing, making the music ‘her own’ in the parlance de nos jours, and largely falling flat in the process. 
Houston may have become notorious for vocal embellishments, especially in her later live performances, but if you listen to the recordings, there’s a distinct purity that comes across in all parts of her register that is part of the reason why she was the success she was. Here though, you struggle to find a note Burke sustains for more than a couple of seconds, you struggle to hear her lower register as she lacks any real power there, something cruelly exposed in ‘I Have Nothing’ which lacks power even though (or maybe because) it has been transposed to a lower key. 
The saving grace of this record turns out to be Melissa James’ performance as Nicki, Rachel’s sister, as her takes on ‘Saving All My Love For You’ and ‘All At Once’ are the real deal, both outstandingly done and oozing the quality that Burke seems to be missing. And as the album closes with the iconic ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, her charmless ‘come ons’ and ‘I wanna see your hands up’ stick out like a sore thumb. Definitely a show to be experienced live with Beverley Knight rather than listened to here – you might as well just put Whitney’s greatest hits on instead.

Review: Miss Atomic Bomb, St James

“That’s just the fallout people”

Atomic bombs derive their destructive power from nuclear fission, when atoms split after being bombarded with other particles, and there’s a certain sense of random elements being thrown together in Miss Atomic Bomb, in the hope of reaching some kind of critical mass. Comedy gangsters, tap-dancing routines, comedy bank managers, dead sheep, comedy zucchini, pigs in clothes, comedy transvestites, hoedowns, comedy rabbi costumes, a Strallen and a character with a ridiculous surname because you can get a song out of it. Put them altogether and what do you get? A show that’s either a bomb or a blast.

Full disclosure, I saw a preview and I’m given to believe that a lot of work has happened to the show in the last couple of days, which is only natural for a new musical. For me though, the show feels fundamentally flawed in really not knowing what it wants to be. Writers Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long throw together satire and slapstick uneasily as a desperate Las Vegas hotel manager arranges the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant to drum up tourist trade as the US military test their atomic arsenal in the Nevada desert. Continue reading “Review: Miss Atomic Bomb, St James”

Re-review: The Pajama Game, Shaftesbury

“I like a man with spunk
‘You like a man period’”

As is often the way, a canny bit of recasting ensured my need to revisit a show I’d already seen and resolved not to revisit. In this case, it was The Pajama Game, which I caught last year in Chichester when Joanna Riding and Hadley Fraser led Richard Eyre’s productions to great acclaim, which now arrives for a summer at the Shaftesbury Theatre with Michael Xavier taking over from Fraser. I am most fond indeed of Xavier’s work, and as I enjoyed the show in all its strangely charming old-fashioned oddity, going back wasn’t too much of a trial.

My original review is here and there really isn’t much more to add. The show fits in well into the Shaftesbury, even if a little of its expansiveness feels lost in the reconfiguration, but Xavier makes a predictably excellent fit into the company, he really is one of our leading exponents of musical theatre, delivering the goods time after time. Jo Riding emerges unscathed from Stephen Ward to return to a role in which she is wonderfully comfortable to watch but the real star ends up being Alexis Owen-Hobbs’ spunky Gladys. Book soon whilst you still can.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 13th September

Review: Titanic, Southwark Playhouse

“Possibly she won’t go down 
Possibly she’ll stay afloat
Possibly all this could come to an end
On a positive note…”

Between them, producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have been responsible for some of London’s best small-scale musical revivals of recent years, so it was with interest that their production of the 1997 show Titanic was announced as the Southwark Playhouse’s first musical in its new premises. It won Tony Awards though little critical favour on Broadway, yet timed itself well to ride on the coat-tails of the extraordinary success of James Cameron’s film of the same story which opened some six months later. And as such an enduringly popular tale, Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics and Peter Stone’s book thus have much to battle against to make its own mark.

Based on real passengers and the accounts of survivors, Stone’s book focuses in on a number of couples travelling in different parts of the boat, which means that the emphasis lands heavily on the class divisions onboard. A decent decision one might think but in populating the worlds of first class, second class and third class, all within the first half, the show already feels doomed to sink. There’s just simply too many characters for us to process, never mind genuinely empathise with, and though a hard-working ensemble strive excellently to differentiate their various characters (with some surely sterling backstage help) it does take a while to be entirely sure who is who. Continue reading “Review: Titanic, Southwark Playhouse”

Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams

“Everything in life is only for now”

There’s no show really that best typifies my love for the theatre, and specifically my love for London theatregoing, than Avenue Q. From its arrival at the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006, this was a show I fell head over heels for from the opening song and one that has provided constant pleasure to me ever since. Looking back, I think this counts up as my seventh visit to the show, plus one special Valentine’s Day cabaret show, and like every relationship it has had its ups and downs, but ultimately that’s only made my love for the show stronger and I was really pleased to be able to squeeze in one last visit to the final Friday afternoon show to bid it ‘furwell’. 

As if I couldn’t have loved this show more, the grace and humour with which the closing notices were announced just melted my heart. I’ve borrowed images of the set of posters from the Avenue Q Facebook page and posted them here to show you what I mean, I particularly love the ‘Available for Panto from 30 October’ line, it is so typical of the humour of the show and whoever has been in charge of the publicity should be commended for keeping a sense of humour throughout. The YouTube clip at the bottom is also well worth a watch.

Continue reading “Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams”

Review: Avenue Q, Wyndhams

“Ethnic jokes might be uncouth, but you laugh because they’re based on truth”

Now in its third home in the West End in its fifth year altogether, Avenue Q is proving to be something of an enduring success which fills my heart with joy. It is a couple of years since I’ve seen it, but when it first came out I just fell completely in love with the show, and particularly with the opening cast, and ended up seeing it about 5 times in the space of two years. A couple of trips to later incarnations of the cast left me a little disappointed, Jon Robyns, Simon Lipkin and Julie Atherton were just the dream team for me, and plus I ran out of people to take to it, so I hadn’t thought I would go again. However, a visit from a dear musical loving Canadian friend and a slight booking snafu for Wicked with lastminute.com meant we ended up at the half price ticket booth at Leicester Square and we plumped for this familiar old friend.

Having seen it so many times and having the soundtrack on my iPod means I know the songs inside out now, but I do maintain that Avenue Q is one of the best new musicals to have been written in the last decade. So many of the songs are classics, instantly catchy and running the emotional gamut from laugh-out-loud funny (so many to choose from but my favourites are probably ‘If You Were Gay’, ‘The Internet Is For Porn’ and ‘Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist’) to tear-in-the-eye touching (the end of ‘Fantasies Come True’, the beginning of ‘It’s A Fine Fine Line’). And they are just so sharp lyrically, full of zippy one-liners and the ring of truth. Continue reading “Review: Avenue Q, Wyndhams”