Review: Preludes, Southwark Playhouse

An extraordinary piece of boundary-pushing musical theatre, Preludes is a special delight at the Southwark Playhouse

“Dangling on the melting edge of sleep”

You’d think there would come a point where it barely seems worth mentioning that musical theatre is a genre which contains multitudes, yet the stereotypical image of jazz hands prevails, people so easily writing off ever seeing any musical. I’m not saying that Dave Malloy’s Preludes would be the first choice to try and convince them otherwise, but it would certain shatter their preconceptions.

Malloy’s study of a crucial period in the life of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov is startlingly imaginative. Using the hypnotherapy sessions Rach endured in real life, Malloy delves into the realm of all their possibilities, to explore the demons that plague him, the complexity of his creative process, the society that trammels him, endlessly slipping between past and present, fantasy and reality. Continue reading “Review: Preludes, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: The Wild Party, The Other Palace

“Blame it on the gin”

There’s no doubting the visual flair that choreographer Drew McOnie is able to conjure in his work – In The Heights and Jesus Christ Superstar being just two recent examples – and so it is no coincidence that his move into directing has begun with dance-heavy pieces. Strictly Ballroom lit up the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse before Christmas and now The Wild Party opens up the programming at The Other Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rebranded St James Theatre.

Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version is not the first adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem to hit London this year – that title goes to the Hope Theatre’s two hander from last month. But it does have its own tunes presented as a vaudeville, a real mish-mash of every 1920s style you can think of and more, which makes for a bold and brash evening – especially as performed by this lavishly assembled ensemble – but ultimately, one of little staying power.  Continue reading “Review: The Wild Party, The Other Palace”

Album Review: Desperately Seeking Susan (London Cast)

“One way or another I’m gonna lose ya”

There’s something perverse about wanting to have been there for shows that have been deemed a flop, to see if it really was that bad (in Too Close To The Sun’s case, it really was, and worse) or more often than not, just discover that they’re not really working that well (c.f. any number of big title musicals of recent years). Arriving late 2007, Desperately Seeking Susan came at a time when I still only saw a couple of shows a month and so I didn’t get witness its full glory before it closed a scant month after opening.

Much like double denim, its twin hit of 80s classics was a lot to take: an adaptation of the 1985 film starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna with a soundtrack of Blondie songs bolted on for good measure. By all accounts it was a troubled mixture, as evidenced by its early closure but listening to the soundtrack, there is at least the bonus of not having to figure out how the book (by Peter Michael Marino) fits in. What’s left is the jukebox selection of Debbie Harry’s band’s finest tracks (plus a few others), performed by a well-meaning cast. Continue reading “Album Review: Desperately Seeking Susan (London Cast)”

Review: The Infidel, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“I’ve got some money in ISAs, 
But none of it goes to ISIS”

With songs about fatwas, foreskins and fundamentalism amongst many others, it is clear that this musical adaptation of 2010 film The Infidel has no truck with the easily offended and rightly so. Initially one may be a little disarmed by the frankness with which the opening number makes the simple but telling point that Muslims are real people too but the warm encouragement to laugh along with them soon becomes irresistible as the wickedly observed sense of humour in David Baddiel’s book and lyrics overcomes any lingering reservations.

It helps that lead character Mahmud Nasir is so wonderfully, whole-heartedly appealing in a cracking performance from Kev Orkian as a typical everyman cab driver who swears, enjoys a beer and yeah, happens to be Muslim. This relaxed, modern approach to Islam extends to his family – Mina Anwar’s fantastic Saamiya and newly-engaged son Rashid, the highly likeable Gary Wood – but Mahmud is thrown a curveball when going through the effects of his deceased mother, he discovers adoption papers that indicate he was actually born Solly Shimshillewitz to Jewish parents. Continue reading “Review: The Infidel, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: I Can’t Sing, Palladium

“It’s a no, it’s a yes, it’s a no from me”

One of the most profitable television franchises in the UK, a much-loved comedian writing the book, a £6 million budget…there’s clearly considerable heft behind the latest musical to establish itself in the London Palladium. But the marriage of Harry Hill’s bizarre comic sensibility, Steve Brown’s bright if hollow score and the ITV juggernaut that is the X-Factor makes for uneasy bedfellows, Sean Foley’s garish production eschewing any kind of subtlety for the broadest kind of populist swoop.

I Can’t Sing is a show that constantly wants to have its cake and eat it. Faux-Dermot presenter Liam O’Deary gets a laugh by exasperating at one point “I don’t know why you might be charged” when the phone lines have closed, presumably the response “because they continue to make money for the production company” was mixed in previews. The TV show’s heavy reliance on tear-jerking backstories is a running gag yet nothing dispels the myth that that is the way to get noticed on a talent show. Likewise the qualifications of the panel to be judges of a popular music contest are skewered yet they remain feted as a special brand of celebrity. Continue reading “Review: I Can’t Sing, Palladium”

Review: Mack and Mabel, Southwark Playhouse

“I’d be the first one to agree that I’m preoccupied with me”

Mack and Mabel reunites much of the creative team from last year’s very well received Parade at the Southwark Playhouse but sadly it also sees them go back into the same space of the Vault there. Despite its cavernous nature, it has become the default space for musicals at this London Bridge venue, although mystifyingly so as its first one – Company – was brilliantly played, unmiked, in the main house. To overcome the echoing acoustics of the Vault, shows tend to be heavily amplified and this has been something of a learning curve to say the least and for me undoes much of the point of going to see fringe musicals as it robs shows of the immediacy of hearing amazing voices up close and personal.

The show – book by Michael Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal – centres on the on-off relationship between Keystone Cops creator and silent film director Mack Sennett and the waitress he spotted, Mabel Normand, and turned into a star. Problem is, it isn’t a particularly gripping story, not even in its revised version, which tends towards a rather gloopy sentimentalisation, complete with annoying narration device, which never really addresses the fact that Mack is not someone you could imagine anyone ever giving the time of day to. Thom Southerland’s overlong production never really manages to overcome this deficiency in the story. Continue reading “Review: Mack and Mabel, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Company, Southwark Playhouse

“Everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”

Marking the first ever musical to play at the Southwark Playhouse, Stephen Sondheim’s Company is one of the few shows that didn’t receive an airing in London last year (aside from the Donmar concert version) but receives a fringe production here from Mokitagrit, who are riding high on the recent success of Double Falsehood which is now transferring to the New Players Theatre for a brief extended run. It contains some of Sondheim’s greatest songs, but with its tricksy structure and book by George Furth, I have found it a difficult show to love.

The story centres on eternal singleton Bobby who is just about to turn 35. He is juggling three girlfriends and the 5 sets of married couples that make up his best friends are keen for him to settle down, but as the show progresses through a series of vignettes that look at each couple in turn, we see that each couple has their own story, their own take on marriage and their exhortations for Bobby to give up his bachelorhood masks issues in their own lives. Continue reading “Review: Company, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Oscar’s World, Above the Stag

“No-one ever reaches the end wishing they hadn’t done things differently”

Born in France and brought up on Sartre and Beckett, Alex Fiori’s new play Oscar’s World is an existential treat A married couple and their son spend day after day sat on their deckchairs looking out at the ocean, eating tinned rice pudding and searching in vain for the spirit of adventure that sent them away from civilisation in the hope of something more. They talk of leaving, but never quite get round to it despite Oscar’s dreams of the world beyond the horizon.

Carol Robb and Peter Saracen as Rose and Nono are very good as the ill-suited married couple who constantly “find themselves on the wrong side of the pond” and with Steven Serlin as the titular son form the dysfunctional family unit at the centre of the play, their character traits becoming more and more pronounced as the years roll by and eccentricities abound. But it is when Teresa Jennings’ French outsider joins the party that sparks begin to fly and the way in which Jennings plays the slow slide of Ziberline into the regular routine is excellently done, the emotion she brings to the final scene is remarkable. Christopher Mark completes the cast with a nice but tiny role. Continue reading “Review: Oscar’s World, Above the Stag”