Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse

“Come begin in old Berlin”

Finally, a traverse staging that feels properly justified. It’s still highly dependent on where you sit – despite being a little late, I was able to secure a great vantage point from the middle of the back row from where the full length of the stage for Grand Hotel was suitably visible and I was glad for it. Thom Southerland’s musicals at the Southwark Playhouse have become something of an annual fixture now, becoming big hits for them (Parade) even if they haven’t always floated my boat (Titanic…).

Based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, the book by Luther Davis swirls around the residents of this Berlin establishment in 1928 over one fateful weekend. A grande dame of a faded ballerina, a typist dreaming of Hollywood, an aristocrat who has lost his fortune, a businessman facing ruin, a man who has little time left to live, their stories and more intertwine elegantly and fluidly in a constantly moving state of flux which captures some of the unpredictability and increasing darkness of interwar Germany. Continue reading “Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Love Story, Union

“Hey, I never liked it when you cried”

The Howard Goodall season at Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre continues with a revival of what could possibly be one of my favourite new musicals of recent times so no pressure there then. It is a tricky show to get right though, Stephen Clark’s book (from Erich Segal’s original story) speeds through the entire life of this tragic relationship at a relentless pace and so care does need to be taken to ensure the audience is fully engaged from the off and are kept fully onboard throughout.

In some way, the overall approach to Love Story here lacks the kind of propulsive energy that Clark’s book sorely needs. Regan curiously leaves lots of dead space in and around her scenes, far too many moments of awkward silence during transitions which are difficult in such a small space as this – the impact of Jenny communing with the spirit of her dead mother is somewhat muted by the sound of her heels as the ghost walks away… Continue reading “Review: Love Story, Union”

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: Burlesque, Jermyn Street

“What are you going to do, tap dance me to death?”

Burlesque is a new musical with book and lyrics written by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles and music by Meggido as well. Adam Meggido might well be a recognisable face as he is part of the Showstopper! ensemble, a team that improvise a new musical from scratch every night, but he finally decided to write one down and over several years, Burlesque has developed into its current format at the Jermyn Street Theatre where it now has its world premiere. Set in 1952 America, it looks at how the culture of fear encouraged by McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts impacted on the lives of a set of performers in a burlesque show.

At the heart of the story is Johnny Reno, a comic trying to keep his head down after being black-listed due to his father’s connections and his unwillingness to co-operate with the FBI. His girlfriend, one of the dancers, has just announced she’s pregnant, his comedy partner Rags is hitting the bottle way too hard and the lusty theatre owner Freddie is struggling to find financial backers whilst being distracted by one of his new recruits. With the pressure on him increasing on all sides in an increasingly paranoid society, Johnny is forced to decide what, and who, is most important to him. Continue reading “Review: Burlesque, Jermyn Street”

Review: Parade, Southwark Playhouse

“It means the journey ahead might get shorter, I might reach the end of my rope”

Hardly the sunniest of topics for a musical, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is based on the true 1910s story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who is accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 year old employee in his factory. How the trial unfolds in Atlanta, Georgia and its impact ripples out, characterises a Deep South rife with virulent anti-Semitism, whipped up by a sensationalist media and fomented by opportunistic politicians and Leo, with his wife Lucille, are swept along with the inescapable tide. This new production is presented in the Vault at Southwark Playhouse, a dark spare space of shadowy arches and echoing sound.

It is a beautifully complex score – one which would reward repeated listening I imagine – pulling in influences from a diverse range of sources, evoking emotion well but more crucially constantly pushing the story forward. Because if there’s a weakness it is that the central premise is fairly limited, the same points are made repeatedly in lieu of much by the way of actual drama. But directed by Thom Southerland, the show really sparkles when it centres on the marriage between Brooklynite Leo and Southern gal Lucille, his bookish dullness captured well by Alistair Brookshaw and contrasted by the openness of Laura Pitt-Pulford’s stunningly-voiced wife whose relentless drive to clear his name wakens a new, deeper love between the two. Continue reading “Review: Parade, Southwark Playhouse”