Review: Caroline or Change, Playhouse Theatre

The extraordinary Caroline or Change makes the leap into the West End at the Playhouse Theatre, with a titanic Sharon D Clarke at the helm

“The Devil made the dryer.
Everything else, God made”

For the assiduous theatregoer, this is the third opportunity to catch this stirring Chichester Festival Theatre production of Caroline or Change. From its original run at the Minerva last year to the Hampstead Theatre this spring, this idiosyncratic musical now arrives in the West End in the relative intimacy of the Playhouse Theatre.

And it is an intimacy that is needed to draw you into the true shape of Michael Longhurst’s production – to be confronted with that Confederate statue, the sweltering isolation of that basement, the knots of tension on furrowed brows. The winds of change may be starting to blow across the US of the early 1960s but here in this Louisiana household, societal change has yet to filter down to the individual.  Continue reading “Review: Caroline or Change, Playhouse Theatre”

Review: Caroline, or Change, Hampstead

With the magnificent Sharon D Clarke at the helm, Caroline, or Change transfers to the Hampstead Theatre London with all its power intact

“Dressed in white and feelin’ low,
talkin’ to the washer and the radio”

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s complex and challenging civil rights musical Caroline, or Change makes its long-awaited London return to the Hampstead theatre, more than a decade after its well-received National Theatre production took the Olivier for Best New Musical but found no further life.

Michael Longhurst’s production was first seen in Chichester last May (here’s my review) and whilst it is a shame that that original cast aren’t all present here (the glorious Nicola Hughes, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng all now elsewhere), it holds on to the titanic talents of Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibideaux. Continue reading “Review: Caroline, or Change, Hampstead”

Review: Caroline or Change, Minerva

“Household rules and small decrees unsuspecting bring us these secret little tragedies”

Well Daniel Evans looks set to be continuing one of Chichester Festival Theatre’s longstanding traditions, of producing musical theatre that tempts the cognoscenti over to West Sussex in droves and which leads calls for West End transfers as soon as the curtain falls (if they had curtains in Chichester that is…). His first musical for the venue is a promising one too, an adventurous choice in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline or Change, and an entirely successful one under Michael Longhurst’s direction and a genuinely superb cast.

It is 1963, the United States is in the grip of a civil rights movement but one whose effects haven’t quite trickled all the way down to the Deep South just yet. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American maid in Lakes Charles, Louisiana working for a Jewish family, The Gellmans, for 30 dollars a week. But she’s a single mother of 4 and ends are barely meeting so when stepmother of the house Rose devises a plan to teach her 8-year-old stepson Noah not to leave change in his pocket, it’s a difficult one to resist despite – or maybe because of – all the racial, social and economic tensions it represents. Continue reading “Review: Caroline or Change, Minerva”

Review: 42nd Street, Théâtre du Châtelet

“Musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language!”

It may be in the English language but this production of 42nd Street is in a French theatre, the glorious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris which, under Jean-Luc Choplin’s artistic directorship, has arguably entirely reshaped the Parisian relationship with musical theatre. He’s brought Sondheim there for the first time in a big way (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) and has staged a number of classic Broadway musicals like An American in Paris (soon to open in London after its New York transfer) and last year’s Singin’ in the Rain.
42nd Street actually marks Choplin’s final show here, as the theatre will soon shutter for a couple of years to undergo major renovations, and Stephen Mear’s production certainly has the visual flair of a fitting finale. With a company of over 40, the tap-dancing routines are a absolute vision, a joyously heart-swelling parade of well-drilled precision, the likes of which we see so rarely these days even in the biggest shows. Combined with dazzling visual effects and gorgeous costumes courtesy of Peter McKintosh, the lavish aesthetic is an absolute treat.
But there’s no hiding from the fact that Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, from Bradford Ropes’ novel, is paper thin, lacking real humour or grit in its script or any real sophistication in its plotting. Set during the Depression, director Julian Marsh is launching his new show Pretty Lady and when his leading lady breaks her ankle just before opening night, will inexperienced chorus girl Peggy be able to step in and save the day? It’s all rather hackneyed and lacking in any kind of suspense, more of a problem than one might expect with a classic.
Played entirely straight as it is here, 42nd Street just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. An ironic edge might bring some humour, more earnestness might bring it real heart (although that’s questionable) and so it never catches fire as often as one feels it might. Monique Young’s Peggy sings and dances well without blossoming into the star she needs to be, Ria Jones and Alexander Hanson both play it a little too safe with their stagey characters, only Dan Burton of the leads really lives up to the star billing and Jennie Dale’s writer is a rare supporting character who stands out.
Musical director Gareth Valentine ensures his orchestra sound never less than superlative and even if you’re not buying the story, then the visual impact of Mears and McKintosh’s work is always on hand to bring the wow factor. With London getting its own production of the show next year though, directed by Bramble no less, I’d struggle to recommend making a trip especially to see this particular version, even with choreography delivered as well as this.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert 
Booking until 8th January

CD Review: Company (1996 London Cast Recording)

 “It’s things like using force together,
Shouting till you’re hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together”

Sam Mendes’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company was a big success at the Donmar Warehouse in 1995 and subsequently transferred to the Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward). A recording of the show can be found in full on YouTube at the moment but I restrained myself to just listening to the cast recording, which I have to say was something of a disappointment in the end despite seeming promising.

It’s quite an odd thing to listen to, often frustratingly inconsistent as in the normally reliable Anna Francolini’s ‘Another Hundred People’ in which a broad Noo Yoik accent fades in and out in a most distracting manner. Sophie Thompson battles gamely with ‘Getting Married Today’ but without the assured brilliance of her acting to complement it, the vocal alone doesn’t really pass muster. Continue reading “CD Review: Company (1996 London Cast Recording)”

DVD Review: Hey Mr Producer

“Do something special, anything special…”

This charity shop malarkey is proving to be a veritable treasure trove of theatrical goodies, of variable quality I should stress, but after the delights of Ms Paige – which will be continued shortly with an upcoming DVD review – I was given this DVD of the 1998 Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza Hey Mr Producer which cost a whole 99p from a British Heart Foundation shop in north west London. A benefit concert ostensibly put together for the RNIB but also honouring and celebrating the work of producer Mackintosh (although oddly he was involved in putting the show together – honouring himself…) by bringing together excerpts from many of the most famous shows he has been involved in and pulling together an extraordinary cast of the musical theatre glitterati, many of whom originated the roles, the like of which has rarely been seen since.

And it really does come across as something special, at times a little frustrating but it is often the way with concerts like these that tantalise with little glimpses of shows and when the calibre of performer is such as it is here, one barely minds as there is much pleasure to be had. It is impressive how much was packed into the single evening, multi-song sections from shows were interspersed with single songs from others meaning that over 20 shows were showcased here. Whether it was shows I love – Little Shop of Horrors, Oliver!, Les Mis, ones I’m ok with – Phantom of the Opera, Company or even ones I’ve never actually seen – My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre, Carousel – the sequences that had more than one song worked surprisingly well, getting across something of the flavour of the shows even with the rapid pace and semi-staging. I would have loved to have seen and heard more from Anything Goes, Godspell and The Boyfriend and for Salad Days, Mackintosh’s favourite show apparently, to have gotten a proper treatment, but then I guess the three hour show would have gone on for days. Continue reading “DVD Review: Hey Mr Producer”

Review: The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s something wrong with this…”

The Invisible Man is the Menier Chocolate Factory’s winter offering this year, following on from a healthy run of transfers including Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles. The main plot is taken from HG Wells’ story of a strange man swathed in bandages who arrives at a small village pub to take a room. It emerges that he is a scientist and a victim of an experiment gone wrong that has rendered him invisible and is seeking peace and quiet in order to come up with a cure. But the nosy villagers drive him mad and he snaps, seeking world domination instead. It has the makings of a chilling sci-fi story but wrapped up in an Edwardian music hall setting as it is here by Ken Hill, with Pierrot-based clown songs creating a vaudevillian mood as the ‘players’ perform the story as above, but full of a broad nudge-nudge-wink-wink bawdiness.

The music hall framing just seemed like an excuse to shoehorn in a song or two, as if the Menier couldn’t quite put on a Christmas show that didn’t feature singing, but it was a laboured device that grated with me every time it reappeared as it served to further diminish the impact of Wells’ story. Tonally, it remained at this broad, slapstick, pratfall-heavy level throughout which I must admit raised the rare chuckle but mostly left me cold. Because there was no attempt to give the storytelling any depth, I just didn’t care about anything even when the characters were the only people preventing society from collapsing entirely (I think) and with no variety in there, it just gets so damn repetitive: there’s only so much people pretending to be punched and bum tweaks that one can take.

And though Paul Kieve’s illusions were proficiently done for a fringe venue, none of them were so spectacular in the end (though I am not sure what would have actually impressed me) and they also suffered from repetition and a lack of variety. John Gordon Sinclair’s voice was the most effective tool that this production had, along with his eerie presence on the stage (his face not revealed until the bitter end) but even the chilling aspects here were negated by an over-reliance on ostensibly spooky music which quickly grew tiresome.


But when you have quality in your cast, it can’t help but occasionally shine through and there were moments here something more was hinted at. Jo Stone-Fewings as the local aristocrat with hidden depths and Geraldine Fitzgerald as a pipe-smoking Scottish schoolteacher had a great connection together with their burgeoning relationship, Christopher Godwin was nicely droll as a jack-of-all-trades and Maria Friedman’s bawdy hostess was also well-pitched. But there was also hamminess, sometimes just about ok as in Gerard Carey’s camp vicar, but Natalie Casey’s dim maid was a screechy mess which had me cringing and I didn’t react well to Gary Wilmot’s faux bonhomie and his constant breaking of the fourth wall to remind us, as if we could forget, of the music hall setting.

It was a bit of a random decision for me to go to see The Invisible Man. I had tickets for much earlier in the run but managed to offload them to a friend so I could attend another engagement and the feedback that they and others gave led me to think I had dodged a bullet somewhat. But it is easy to have an opinion that isn’t backed up and so in some respects I am glad that I took the time to see this for myself, even if it was to confirm reports of a painfully unfunny turkey.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 13th February

Review: Acorn Antiques The Musical, The Lowry

Having seen and loved Acorn Antiques The Musical when it played in London, despite a few misgivings about the first half, I was keen to ensure that we saw the touring version when it was announced and it fit in well with my Christmas plans to go and see it at the Lowry in Salford. Victoria Wood had obviously taken the (somewhat harsh) reviews to heart though as she has performed some major surgery on the show and the whole conceit of the first half has been removed: we open straight into Manchesterford and the goings-on at the antique shop.
Some of the songs from that original first half have been shoehorned into the story, the tap number is great fun though a bit of a stretch having the am-dram society rehearsing in the shop and other ones shifted around a bit. It still made me laugh, but I must admit to not finding it quite as funny as I did the first time round. And I suppose this is largely to do with the fact that this is a new cast that has been put together for this tour, which features none of the main principles.

And I know it shouldn’t matter, the strength of the show should mean that any good actors can take us through it, but so much of the pleasure of the original was seeing the famous, familiar faces from the TV show reprising their roles, in particular Celia Imrie and Julie Walters, the latter’s Mrs O being so intertwined with herself that I found it impossible to imagine anyone else ever being able to perform the role. And I think that is what the producers also thought as Ria Jones who takes on the role here plays it as close to Walters as possible, which is probably for the best as she can really pull it off. I was less convinced by Sara Crowe’s Miss Babs and Teddy Kempner’s Clifford, but Lisa Peace’s Miss Berta and Beverly Rudd’s Mimi were good fun.

Expectations are often a killer and I think I let them get the better of me here, working myself into a state of excitement that was always unlikely to be matched. Though as the dvd of the original cast is now available, I might add that to my Christmas present list and see if it really was as good as I remembered first time round.