Review: Into the Woods, Cockpit

This production of Into the Woods at the Cockpit Theatre brings it into the 21st century, not a strictly necessary move

“To have, to wed, to get, to save, to kill, to keep, to go to the festival”

One of the main reasons that fairytales have endured as long as they have is that they are timeless, their messages recited as-is at bedsides since time immemorial. Recognising this, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods gives us a first half which takes us deep into this enchanted world as we know it and waiting until after the interval to show us what happens after happy ever after. 

So the notion of updating the show to a specifically 21st-century context is an intriguing one, as director Tim McArthur draws in influences such as The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Rab C Nesbitt. On the one hand, it offers a fresh take on well-known characters; on the other, it also provides a distracting layer onto characters that barely need it. The result is a well-performed interpretation that rarely feels essential. Continue reading “Review: Into the Woods, Cockpit”

Review: Orton, Above the Stag

“A case of cock over cranium”

The tempestuous relationship between ground-breaking playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell has long been a source of fascination for writers and retellings of their story can be found in many formats. Including now, a musical, as Richard Silver and Sean J Hume’s Orton takes its own bow on the stage of the rehoused Above the Stag, a mere studded collar’s throw from notorious Vauxhall hangout The Hoist (in a touch which would surely have amused Orton).

The show simply follows the pair from the heady excitement of the day they met at RADA through to Orton’s untimely end at the hands of Halliwell and a hammer sixteen years later. But though there is a most macabre ending in sight, the journey there ends up being rather entertaining, impressively told with humour, intelligence and no little campery. And for a new musical, it has a pleasingly strong sense of its own identity, a small-scale triumph in its own right. Continue reading “Review: Orton, Above the Stag”

Review: Nunsense A-men!, Landor Theatre

“That’s a little bit of convent humour for you”

With a dodgy pot of Vichyssoise, Sister Julia, Child of God has decimated the Little Sisters of Hoboken. But the business of burying 52 dead nuns is a costly one and the remaining sisters are left with no choice but to put on a fundraising variety show to make up the shortfall. Thus begins Dan Goggin’s habit-forming romp Nunsense A-Men! which has just opened at the Landor Theatre and marks the musical theatre debut of cabaret fixture Sister Mary McArthur.

It’s the kind of warmly affectionate silliness that lives or dies by the strength of its performances and fortunately Robert McWhir’s production has hit the mark with some astute casting which allows the show to cycle through its multitude of turns with a heady sense of mischievous glee and irreverent charm. From the moment you enter the theatre, the nuns are there welcoming you in, cracking any number of terrible jokes and generating the kind of relaxed, fun atmosphere that characterises the whole show even at this late preview.

Sister (Tim) McArthur may be the established performing nun and his Reverend Mother Regina shines best when belting vaudeville-inspired numbers, but he is at least equalled by those around him. Josh Rochford’s Sister Amnesia with her country twang and forgetful pauses is a hoot (and surprisingly effective quizmistress), Alastair Knights’ brash Sister Robert Anne brings down the house with a range of habit-based impressions and as novice Sister Mary Leo, David Kristopher Brown gets to live a Disney ballerina dream.

Paul Brangan’s Sister Mary Hubert, the Mistress of Novices with half an eye on becoming Mother Superior, won my vote though with a wonderfully assured performance and a deliciously dry sense of humour that constantly drew the attention. But this is an ensemble that works together, from high-kicks to tap, Andrews Sisters impressions to cowboy backing singers, and backed by some quality musical direction from Michael Webborn on the piano, the homespun charms of Nunsense A-Men! will leave you praying for more.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 28th July

Review: Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, Jermyn Street

Ev’ry Sunday afternoon we’ll be polite”

Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered is a musical revue, celebrating of the works of Rodgers + Hart, both those lesser known and more famous, in a similar way to how Classic Moments Hidden Treasures went through the Sondheim back catalogue last year. Eschewing any kind of formal narrative, it simply flows from song to song, some obviously paired up, some just left simply alone, as the cast of five in their louche 30s Hollywood costumes swirl elegantly around the intimate stage of the Jermyn Street Theatre.

In many respects, this was exactly how I imagined it would be: fairly traditional arrangements of a fairly traditional repertoire, sung professionally yet not quite reaching levels of inspiration that might make it a must-see, though it is charming. Stephen Ashfield brings an effortless class to all of his numbers, making his forthcoming entry into Legally Blonde seem an intriguing prospect; Katie Kerr injects some much needed personality into some of the quirkier numbers and Valerie Cutko’s beautifully subtle tone added an interesting texture. Continue reading “Review: Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, Jermyn Street”

Review: Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures, Jermyn Street Theatre

“Take me to a world where I can be alive”

Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures is described as a ‘cabaret celebration of some of the lesser known works of Stephen Sondheim’ and forms the latest in a string of celebratory events in the composer’s 80th birthday year. Directed by TIm McArthur originally under the (better) title Secret Sondheim, this show features a five person ensemble and pianist, singing a range of songs both solo and in groups, with hints of choreography and a huge amount of both talent and enthusiasm.

On the one hand, it is highly appropriate that a show like this should take place to celebrate Sondheim’s birthday and highlight some of his lesser-known works; on the other hand, since it is his birthday year, many of these ‘lesser known’ works have actually been running in London recently, Assassins is still on and Anyone Can Whistle played in this very venue. And shows like these often run the danger of leaving you wishing for at least one or two of the more well-known songs. But McArthur and musical director David Harvey have fashioned a fast-paced journey that rips through 28 songs in just over 90 minutes, without any narrative constraints or superimposed plot. Continue reading “Review: Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures, Jermyn Street Theatre”

Review: Dangerous, Above the Stag

“It is not as if I go round training young boys for any kind of self-gratification…”

Dangerous is an updated all-male adaptation of the book Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos currently running at the Above the Stag theatre pub in London’s Victoria. Moving the action from 18th century France to modern day London and Bournemouth and from the echelons of aristocratic society to a group of gay men, the story remains one of sexual power games, of seduction, betrayal, lust, revenge and malice. Marcus and Alexander are idle rich ex-lovers, now friends and rivals in trying to outdo each other in their schemes to manipulate the men and lovers who hang around them. As the stakes are raised higher and their games become ever more malicious, their battles for power threaten to engulf the innocents involved in their machinations and even themselves.

To be honest, this play had a lot to live up to as both the original book and the film of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation rank in my all-time favourites. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the great epistolary novels, it is written entirely in the form of letters between various characters, and there is a nod to this in the occasional reciting of emails between Marcus and Alexander. The updating generally works on some levels, with references to webcams, iPhones and X-Tube as the effective tools for modern day scandal, but in other places not so well. The key motivating factor, the protection of Valmont’s reputation and the risk of public humiliation, just doesn’t ring true in the modern-day context and the straight swop of French upper-class society to gay London isn’t quite enough, in order to capture the true incestuousness of the scene and to give the fear of gossip the power it needs, the play would have to be more tightly located within somewhere like Soho or Vauxhall.


The acting was mostly strong, if a little variable, Luke Harris and Matthew Blake handling their more complex leads of Marcus and Alexander well, their interactions driving the plot along and Jamie Hannon as Daniel and Richard Anthony Mason as the spurned Landon were also interesting to watch. I couldn’t warm to Jon R Harrison’s vapidly camp Jason though or more crucially, Christopher Rorke as Trevor the trainee priest, a bizarrely ‘straight’ character who as the main victim of the machinations at play should be the heart of the work, but an odd accent and a dour seriousness that felt misplaced, it was hard to care too much about him thus removing much of the tragedy. There were also too many flubbed lines for my liking given that we’re a week into the run now

Dangerous captures the emotional blackness at the heart of its protagonists, inexplicably so with Marcus, the reasons for his bitter ennui left unexplored (at least Madame de Merteuil has the excuse of being a woman in a harsh man’s world), but makes the mistake of letting its supporting characters (mostly) get away scot-free. This is partly because of how much I love the original, the sheer physical and emotional devastation of all the characters involved by the story’s end is just breath-taking, and so anything less tends to disappoint. But even with this re-telling, asking us to believe that Jason and Daniel are mere innocents, in no way complicit with their manipulation, seems a step too far: Tim McArthur’s direction therefore wisely sticks to the relationship and confrontations between Marcus and Alexander.

Fiona Russell’s set design cleverly incorporates a double bed which much of the action happens in or around (with quite a few scenes involving nudity) and making the most of the limited space, but whilst I acknowledge the limitations of fringe budgets, it was a little hard to believe that these frightfully rich gay men wouldn’t have had a little variation in their outfits over the course of the few days of the play. So all in all, a fun night to be had here, slightly silly, smutty fun with a vengeful aftertaste. But I’d definitely recommend buying the book afterwards and also renting the dvd of the film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, both will add immeasurably to your lives.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Note: male nudity throughout

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Silence! The Musical, Above the Stag

“I’ll throw her in a well so that no-one can find her,
I’ll tuck my dick between my legs and call it a vagina”

Silence! The Musical is described as ‘the unauthorised parody of The Silence of the Lambs‘ and grew from a collection of songs posted on the internet into an off-Broadway show in 2005. It had a two week run in Baron’s Court last year, but this version at the Above the Stag theatre above a Victoria gay bar is billed as the European professional premiere: it has added new material getting its first airing and retains the original director from New York, Christopher Gatelli.

It does what is says on the tin, it’s a relatively faithful rerun of the events of the film where trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling is pressed into interviewing notorious psychiatrist and serial killer Hannibal Lecter in prison in order to help catch another serial killer Buffalo Bill. However, it is mercilessly and hilariously parodied throughout with a book by Hunter Bell and music and lyrics by Jon & Al Kaplan and a chorus of singing and dancing lambs. Continue reading “Review: Silence! The Musical, Above the Stag”