Review: West Side Story, Royal Exchange

Aletta Collins’ new choreography is just one of the highlights of a most successful West Side Story at the Royal Exchange

“Sleep well and when you dream
Dream of me”

For an undoubted classic of the musical theatre, West Side Story really isn’t revived all that often but 2019 seems determined to rectify that. The Curve have announced it as their Christmas show, Ivo van Hove is reimagining it on Broadway, and Steven Spielberg is remaking the film for good measure. But getting the (beautifully balletic) jump on all of them is Manchester’s Royal Exchange, whose revival is the first to be performed with new choreography replacing the iconic moves of original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

And only naturally, Sarah Frankcom’s production soars when it puts Aletta Collins’ new moves front and centre. They are certainly recognisably inspired by Robbins but there’s an unmistakeable freshness that is just beautiful to watch and there’s something great about the fact they’re all doing it in Converse. The repeated ronds de jambe are iconic in their own way, an emotional grace is suffused throughout, and hints of contemporary nod to the physicality of two warring gangs, coiled bodies poised on Anna Fleischle’s climbing frame design. Fleischle has also maximised the floor space of the Exchange to great effect, the aesthetic is pure dance and it works. Continue reading “Review: West Side Story, Royal Exchange”

Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story. Continue reading “Review: Network, National Theatre”

DVD Review: Hanna

 “Hanna, what did your mum die of?
‘Three bullets'”

 I have a deal of affection for Joe Wright’s Hanna, a film I saw at the cinema as part of a birthday treat back in 2011 and so watching it again for the first time has that special layer of extra memory attached to it. Which it kind of needs as I’d forgotten how loopy the revenge thriller is. Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna has been raised as a crack assassin since birth by her ex-CIA father Eric Bana but hidden away in the isolated Arctic tundra as current CIA supremo, Cate Blanchett’s insanely fruity Marissa, wants them both dead to protect a secret they possess.

One day, Hanna declares that she’s ready to take on their nemesis and the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase takes our characters from Finland to Morocco, Spain to Germany, all to the beats of a thumping soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers. Wright folds in elements of The Brothers Grimm into the story too to evoke a very dark fairytale feel. And it’s one that works intermittently, the hyper-stylised violence hits hard and provides the energy that is sorely needed in some of the quieter sequences. Ronan is a mesmeric screen presence as this impossible girl and proves a dab hand at doing her own stunts.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Hanna”

CD Review: Gypsy (2015 London Cast Recording)

“I had a dream, a wonderful dream”

From the moment Imelda Staunton shook the very foundations of the Chichester Festival Theatre as Mama Rose in Gypsy, it was pretty much a given that a West End transfer of this Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim show would be on the cards and that this incredible performance would be immortalised in an official cast recording. And it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Staunton is wowing audiences nightly at the Savoy and that we have been blessed with an album, for this is the kind of musical theatre perfection that surely only comes along once in a lifetime. 

Much of the attention rightly falls on Staunton’s astonishingly nuanced portrayal of the ultimate stage mom but it would be a mistake to label this a one-woman show, Jonathan Kent’s production is far too good for that. She is supported by an extremely skilful performance from Lara Pulver as Gypsy Rose Lee, tracing this overlooked sister’s journey to unexpected stardom and listening to the growing confidence ‘Let Me Entertain You (Gypsy Strip)’, her shyness is cast off vocally as well as physically, like a chrysalis revealing the shimmering showgirl beneath. Continue reading “CD Review: Gypsy (2015 London Cast Recording)”

Review: Gypsy, Savoy

“Ready or not, here comes Mama…”

These days, it’s more of a surprise when the big musicals from Chichester Festival Theatre don’t transfer into London (cf Barnum). And though it took them a wee while to confirm that Jule Styne’s Gypsy would be making a similar leap, after receiving the kind of extraordinary reviews (including from yours truly) that would most likely canonise Imelda Staunton right here and now, there was never really any doubt that this Rose would get her turn again, 40 years after the show was last seen in the West End.

With such a build-up and expectations sky high, Jonathan Kent’s production has a lot to live up to – and you can sense perversely-minded naysayers dying to have their turn – but dare I say it, I think the show has gotten even better. A key aspect to this is that Anthony Ward’s multi-faceted and multi-piece set design fits much better into the Savoy’s proscenium arch, its machinations felt just a little too exposed on Chichester’s thrust though the pay-off is that Nicholas Skilbeck’s supple-sounding orchestra now has to be tucked away.  Continue reading “Review: Gypsy, Savoy”

DVD Review: Hawking

“Galileo was wrong, St Albans is actually the very centre of the universe”

One of those random coincidences (of sorts) sees likely Academy Award rivals Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne going up against other this year with Redmayne taking on a role – Stephen Hawking – that Cumberbatch has already played. Peter Moffat’s Hawking aired on the BBC back in 2004 and I have to say I remember it quite vividly, though I don’t imagine anyone could have predicted the career that was to come for its star!

This biopic focuses on Hawking’s early years at Cambridge University as he battled his newly diagnosed motor neurone disease, he was initially given two years to live – and set about the research that would lead to him to discovering the origins of the universe. Having detested physics at school, I can’t pretend that much (any) of the science really sank in but it doesn’t matter as director Philip Martin focuses on the illuminating glow and inspiration it gave to Hawking himself and in Cumbersnatch’s hands, it is a joy to watch. Continue reading “DVD Review: Hawking”

Review: Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre

“You got nothing to hit but the heights”

Considered to be one of the greatest roles for a woman in the American musical theatre, Mama Rose is the twisted soul at the dark heart of Gypsy yet it is not a show that has travelled much across the ocean. The likes of Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Tyne Daly have all had their turn as Rose but my first and only experience of the show was in Leicester a couple of years back where Caroline O’Connor took on the role for Paul Kerryson’s marvellous production there. This Chichester Festival Theatre revival, surely already destined for the West End, really ups the ante by reuniting Imelda Staunton with director Jonathan Kent (at the request of Sondheim himself according to this interview) after their hugely successful Sweeney Todd here in 2011.

It’s a high bar to set but for me, I think Gypsy exceeds it with some extraordinary work here. Arthur Laurents’ book, suggested by the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, follows the path of Mama Rose’s ultimate stage mom as she drags her two daughters through the toil and grind of trying to make it in showbusiness, touring a vaudeville show around the country which stars the fading youthfulness of younger sister Baby June. But times are a-changing and Mama’s sure determined so when audiences start to disappear and June quits to do her own act, older shyer sibling Louise is thrust into the limelight. Only now burlesque is what is selling tickets and we find out just how far Rose is willing to push Louise in order to achieve her ultimate goal, whatever that turns out to be.

Continue reading “Review: Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre”

Review: Decade, Headlong at St Katharine Dock

“I get that it was…well, it is…a big deal for some people”

The tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre has and will receive a vast range of coverage through all sorts of media, but perhaps one of the most anticipated is Headlong’s new piece of site-specific  theatre, Decade. 19 writers, playwrights mostly and Simon Schama, have all contributed their own responses to the events of the 11th September, their brief purely to be a scene set in the last 10 years, and they have been woven together by director Rupert Goold and housed in a warehouse on St Katharine Docks. I hadn’t intended to see this show so soon, wanting to let the experimental stuff settle before making my visit, but I was forced to reshuffle my diary and in order to fit it in before October and still get one of the cheaper tickets, this was my only opportunity.

After passing through a security checkpoint where you are questioned and ticketed (I was mildly disappointed there was no full body search from my guard, Tobias Menzies), we’re then guided through to take our seats in a replica of the dining room of the Windows On The World restaurant, formerly on the top floors of the North Tower. It’s a quirky entrance that sets the anticipation levels high even if the whole process did take a little time to fully accomplish. Seating is around dinner tables with a large raised stage in the middle of the room and is unallocated though ‘waiters’ do take you a table once summoned by the Maître D’. (My top tip would be to try and get on the long bank of seats on the side opposite the bar as close to the middle as you can. Just before the lights went down, I was advised by our Maître D’, in this case it was the delectable Charlotte Randle, that I might want to move from my original seat to this new place as there’s a certain amount which happens on a balcony level but all on one side, and it would have been rather difficult to see from there. So thank you Charlotte!) Continue reading “Review: Decade, Headlong at St Katharine Dock”

Review: Arcadia, Duke of York’s

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia first played at the National Theatre in 1993, and this is the first revival of it since then. It takes place in a country house in England, but in two different time periods: the early 1800s and modern-day 1989. It is an extremely difficult play to try and summarise but I will try and give it a shot.

In 1809, a precocious teenager, Thomasina, is studying with her tutor, Septimus Hodge who is a colleague of the poet Lord Byron, and it is apparent that her knowledge is vastly superior to his, especially in the field of mathematics where her musings show her to be well ahead of her time. In 1989, a writer is looking into the life of a hermit who apparently lived in the grounds of the stately home, when a visiting academic stops by looking for help with his investigations into a period of Byron’s life about which little is known. Painstakingly, and with the help of the current residents of the house, including Valentine Coverley who is a student of advanced mathematical biology, pieces of evidence are recovered and we slowly begin to find out what really happened nearly 200 years ago.

Continue reading “Review: Arcadia, Duke of York’s”