Monday, 31 October 2011

Review: The Pitmen Painters, Duchess

“And when I stopped to look at what I'd done, suddenly I realised it was light - it was morning - time for work ... And I was shaking - literally shaking - cos for the first time in me life I'd really achieved something ..."

I spent an inexplicably long time resisting The Pitmen Painters, even though several people had recommended it to me but I was insistent that I wouldn’t like it, mainly because I thought it seemed too worthy. But after its highly successful runs at the National Theatre, on Broadway and a recent UK tour, it has now taken up shop in the West End at the Duchess Theatre and I finally succumbed to the lure of a ticket. And as the cries of ‘I told you so’ ring in my ears, somewhat predictably I really enjoyed myself with this sparky piece of writing from Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall.

More accurately, I fell totally in love with it at the interval, the first half having moved me to tears on more than one occasion and being about as well written as I think anything could. The play is based on the true-life story of a group of gruff Northumbrian miners whose interest in painting, initially stoked by a less-than-successful art appreciation class, leads them to start creating their own art which, unexpectedly, over the coming years becomes highly regarded by the establishment.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

CD Review: Acoustic Overtures - The Songs of Dougal Irvine

“Nothing's simple at all"

Acoustic Overtures is the debut album from writer/composer Dougal Irvine, one of the group of up-and-coming musical theatre composers with address books full of West End stars that we’re blessed with at the moment, featuring a selection of his songs recorded by a bunch of familiar faces. Irvine’s show Departure Lounge played at the Waterloo East theatre last year, but this CD wisely steers clear thereof (the soundtrack for that show has already been released anyway) and focuses on new material, including new shows which have been developed through the Perfect Pitch development scheme.

Irvine came to musical theatre from a rather circuitous route and resultantly comes across as a breath of fresh air, Departure Lounge was accompanied by just two guitars but it doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick but the organic development of this sound. These songs have been more fully orchestrated but there’s still a raw freshness to the voice coming through in most of the songs. I have to say I was a little disappointed with the way the album opens with two jaunty cabaret-type numbers, it’s not that they are bad but rather they don’t feel representative of the musical theatre compositions that make up the bulk of the recording. Ashleigh Gray’s 'Two Faces' and Daniel Boys and Cassie McIvor come together well on 'Silence in the Rain'.

DVD Review: Chess in Concert

“Looking back I could have played things some other way"

And so the charity shop bonanza continues: this weekend I was given Chess in Concert which cost 50p from the British Heart Foundation in Reading as it had no box! I’ve never actually seen Chess and so was mildly intrigued by the prospect of it especially as it featured Idina Menzel in the cast but the presence of Josh Groban and Marti Pellow had turned me off from previously engaging and I’m no great fan of Kerry Ellis either to be honest. But I gave the show, a concert version from the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, a try and found myself quite enjoying it despite everything.

For the uninitiated, the music for Chess was written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA with lyrics by Tim Rice and is based around a love triangle between two players in the Chess World Championship and Florence, a woman who manages one of them but falls in love with the other: the Cold War dramatised through chess and set to music, how else could this story have been told?! On first time viewing though, I have to admit to being quite surprised at how effective it was at telling a rather intimate story whilst simultaneously capturing much of the paranoia and ill-feeling that characterised this ideological conflict. 

Cast of Chess in Concert continued

Review: Collaborators, National Theatre

“It's man versus monster Mikhail, and the monster always wins"

Apparently the play Collaborators was sent to the National Theatre on spec and as it is now opening in the Cottesloe (this was a preview) in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings amongst others, it would perhaps suggest that anyone could be in with a chance of getting a play on the stage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem and although this is the debut play from John Hodge, he is a highly experienced screenwriter whose credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach. His play riffs on historical fact to portray an imagined relationship between Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and one of his biggest fans, Joseph Stalin, who commissioned him to write a play about his life for his sixtieth birthday.

Set in Moscow 1938 with the repressive regime well established and the secret police encouraging people to inform on dissident neighbours, Bulgakov had been forced into the difficult position of compromising his biggest success – The White Guard (a recent great success here at the NT) – to make it politically palatable for Stalin and accepting the banning of many of his other works due to their subversive message. Thus when he was offered the chance to write the Stalin play, it made both artistic sense – in finally getting his work on the stage again, and economic sense – in that he was able to negotiate a new apartment and a much better standard of living for him and his wife. The play imagines a series of meetings between the two, getting to know each other as the play gets written but whilst Bulgakov seems to get closer to Stalin and his viewpoints, his friends and associates are left living a life of increasing fear and intimidation.

Review: Macbeth, Crypt of St Andrew, Holborn

“Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment?”

The rise of theatre taking place in found spaces is constantly revealing hidden treasures in locations both familiar and unfamiliar to me: making my way to St Andrew church in Holborn took me through the perplexing (to me at least) geography of Holborn Viaduct where London seems to be on two levels at the same time – it’s like something out of Inception I tell you. Once I’d got past my befuddlement, I made my way to the dark depths of the crypt to take in a production of Macbeth that also poses challenges, but ones my brain was slightly more equipped to deal with.

Baz Productions’ rather unique approach sees the company of five actors dressed in civvies - Scott Brooksbank, Lucy Bruegger, Ffion Jolly, Geoffrey Lumb and Katherine Newman – share text and character out between them in a fluidly changing whirl, actors often switching roles mid-scene and passing on the simple props that denotes their character – a gilet for Macbeth, a red shawl for Lady Macbeth, red gloves for the witches etc. Breaking the play down and piecing it back together this way creates something of a kaleidoscope effect, the fragments constantly turning, changing and refracting the picture back to us in a multitude of ways, some immediately recognisable, others ever so slightly altered.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Review: Skåne, Hampstead Downstairs

“It all got too much and we did something we shouldn’t have”

Continuing the season of new writing downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre is Pamela Carter’s play Skåne. I was particularly interested in this when it was first announced as having previously lived in Sweden, I was able to recognise the title ‘Skåne’ as the southernmost region in Sweden – basically the equivalent of calling a play Dorset – and advise all and sundry on the correct pronunciation: it sounds something like Skor-ner with the emphasis on the first syllable. But sadly there wasn’t the shedload of Swedish references that I could have nodded sagely at nor the attention to detail with props that I longed to recognise. Instead, there’s a tale of the repercussions of a heady affair as both parties belatedly decide return to their respective partners and families.

We open in the midst of a joint family conference, called by the wronged partners, Siri and Kurt, to allow the adulterous Christian and Malin to explain to their children and spouses exactly why they disappeared off together, and more significantly, why they have opted to return. It is a fascinating beginning, full of tension and intrigue, contrasting family dynamics and whole worlds of emotions as everyone reacts differently to the news that things will be returning to just as they were. What then follows is [spoiler alert] a journey back in time as scenes play out showing how the characters had been affected by the impact of the affair and how they all interacted – in some cases, providing surprising revelations – ending up at the beginning of the liaison in all its bare sexuality. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Review: Death and the Maiden, Harold Pinter

“People have died from an excessive dose of the truth”

Ariel Dorfman’s play 1990 Death and the Maiden is set in an unspecified country in which a military dictatorship has just fallen: as a Chilean citizen, it is not hard to see where the inspiration might have come from. This tale is of a former political prisoner who unexpectedly encounters a man, who happens to have given her husband a lift home, who she comes to believe was one of the hooded men who tortured her in her captivity. She then turns the table, taking him captive and puts him on (mock) trial to elicit the confession she needs in order to move on with her life though her husband, a lawyer who is part of the Commission dealing with the legacy of the repressive regime, has his doubts.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is notable for marking the first stage role for Thandie Newton, an actress best know for her film work (and also for making ER unwatchable for a couple of series, poor Dr Carter…) One could sugar-coat the comments and talk about the fact that it is her theatrical debut and so perhaps a little leniency is in order, but we’re past press night and as a paying customer I have to say I was disappointed. Newton doesn’t seem to have the language to fully portray the profundity of her character here: not physically, as in the unconvincing opening scene where she just doesn’t come across as haunted enough nor emotionally, she just exudes too much composure even whilst ostensibly unravelling and so never convinces at showing the depth of the psychological damage that drives Paulina to her extreme actions.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Review: Earthquakes in London, Richmond Theatre

“These aren’t the results we were expecting”

Of all the new plays that I saw last year, it would have taken me a long time to arrive at Earthquakes in London as being the one which would receive a national tour. Not because it wasn’t good, in fact I really enjoyed Mike Bartlett’s slightly flawed epic ambition, but because the National Theatre production was intrinsically linked to the way in which Headlong utterly transformed the Cottesloe auditorium with Miriam Beuther’s design with its serpentine catwalk, trapdoors, bar stools and cutaway stages. But never ones to shirk a challenge, Goold and Headlong, along with touring director Caroline Steinbeis, have remounted the show into a tour-able format which I caught at Richmond Theatre.

My original review can be read here and it was actually quite nice to be able to revisit the show a year later in the context of his other 2010 work Love Love Love and especially in a week when I had also caught Bartlett’s latest epic work 13. Knowing what to expect makes a world of difference: I didn’t feel the length of the show – 2 hours 55 minutes here – whereas people new to it all commented on it; one was able to take in more of the detailed work of the company alongside the razzmatazz which was sometimes a little distracting; and even the final sequence, something that I wasn’t hugely keen on last time, made more sense this time round and felt like the necessary balancing of tone to keep the play from being too despondent. The central conceit of the intertwining stories of the three sisters remained strong and the jumps around time were also effective, possibly more so for knowing exactly what was going on in them from the off! The scale of the storytelling is occasionally unwieldy in reaching to be epic , but I don’t think any other writer in the UK is stretching themselves this much and whilst it may not all come off, I thoroughly admire the scope of his ambition.

Cast of Earthquakes in London continued

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Backbeat, Duke of York’s

“Do you want to be part of the group, or do you want to be an individual?”

Telling the ‘origin story’ of the Beatles, how they paid their dues as a rock’n’roll covers band in Hamburg with their original line-up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, Backbeat is actually less Beatles-centric than one might expect. The focus of the show, written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys from Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, is actually the relationship between original bassist and visual artist Stuart Sutcliffe and the two main figures in his life: best friend Lennon who teaches him guitar so that he can join the band on their trip and abandon art school, and Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer who falls passionately for him and recognises his true artistic potential.

It is this conflict that forms the backbone of the show - Sutcliffe struggling to balance his best friend and his lover, the band and his art - all underpinned by the knowledge that his cruel early death from a brain haemorrhage came just as the Beatles were about to hit the big time. And it is clear that these are the only really fully-fleshed characters in the show: Nick Blood’s achingly cool and handsome Sutcliffe strikes a magnetically seductive pose, connecting beautifully with Ruta Gedmintas’ coolly composed Astrid and sparking well with Andrew Knott’s bolshy, hero-worshipping Lennon. They make an intriguing threesome and in some ways it is a shame that the show doesn’t get to delve more deeply into these relationships, particularly between Sutcliffe and Lennon.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Continuation of the cast of 13

  • Continuation of the cast of 13

Review: 13, National Theatre

“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling this country...across the world...”

Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings... And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.

What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs.

Monday, 24 October 2011

CD Review: Matilda the Musical

“When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown-up"

Darn it darn it darn it. I had pretty much decided that I wasn’t going to go and see Matilda the Musical once it had made its long-awaited West End transfer from the now-defunct Courtyard in Stratford to the Cambridge Theatre. Not because I didn’t like it, I really did (though not quite as much as others) - you can read my thoughts here - but because of the eye-watering ticket prices: the vast majority of the stalls and dress circle are £60 or more, rear stalls coming in at a mere £50. That pretty much made up my mind for me but on purchasing the original cast recording which has now been released on CD, I have fallen well and truly back under the spell of this show and so it looks like I will have to do some careful budgeting next month!

When it was first announced, the marriage of individual Australian comic Tim Minchin with Roald Dahl’s source material seemed the ideal match but I don’t think anyone could have imagined just how well it would work. The score is simply joyous, the lyrics perfectly crafted – witty enough to make adults laugh and carefree enough to perfectly evoke childhood thinking and the combined package fits together in a way that one imagines that Roald Dahl would be proud of. Chris Nightingale’s full-bodied orchestrations give depth to the music, especially in the swirling sections of incidental music that are included (that’s probably my one criticism is that not enough of that is kept in here) and an enthusiastic cast give marvellous voice to these quirky but perfectly suited songs that will undoubtedly leave a smile on your face.

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.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Review: You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, Tabard

“I really don’t think you have anything to worry about Charlie Brown”

Out in West London, the Tabard is a theatre that hasn’t really managed to work its way into my regular theatregoing: I’ve enjoyed things there, last Christmas’ Just So in particular, but it’s always been a bit on the wrong side of town for me to merit multiple trips, the nature of fringe theatre being essentially so variable. But an interesting looking cast for You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown meant that I made the trip to Turnham Green once more. A musical comedy based on the famous Peanuts comedy strip, this is a revised version of the show by Clark Gesner, with additional songs and dialogue from Michael Mayer and Andrew Lippa and in another factor that convinced me to go, is directed by Anthony Drewe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn’t a particularly intellectually demanding show but then neither could it easily be dismissed as froth. There’s a wry charm to the way in which these stories of young children growing up and all their trials and tribulations are sweetly portrayed, a knowing innocence is probably the best way to describe it and wrapped in a fair deal of fun and silly songs. And in securing a rather top-notch cast, the sometimes slight material is given more of a dramatic weight that lifts the production from just being funny to an intimate delight.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Review: Last of the Duchess, Hampstead

“I’m trying to get at the truth.
‘Your truth, not hers.’”

The Hampstead Theatre continues its trend of featuring plays concerning real people with The Last of the Duchess by Nicholas Wright, which is based on the book of the same name by Lady Caroline Blackwood detailing her attempts to secure an interview with the Duchess of Windsor towards the end of her life in 1980 to complete her literary profile of her. But though it is Wallis Simpson who is at the heart of the issue, the central figures are her lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum who staunchly defended her client from any outside influence or visitors with something of a siege mentality and Lady Caroline Blackwood herself, commissioned by the Sunday Times to interview the reclusive Duchess but also battling her own personal demons. This was the second preview so feel free to disregard everything written here if you are so inclined.

The play focuses on the battle of wills between these two women as Caroline senses a scoop in the mysterious atmosphere that permeates this Parisian household, intrigued by this powerful figure who now completely dominates the life of the Duchess and sees an opportunity to tell the story a different way. Anna Chancellor plays the disheveled aristocrat beautifully, determined to unravel the mystery she begins to uncover but barely able to keep herself from unraveling too, the glass of vodka that is never far from her hand failing to keep the turmoil of her personal life at bay. And in the other corner, Sheila Hancock exudes a Gallic imperiousness as the fiercely protective Blum, her every breath inexplicably dedicated to protecting the legacy of her employer and clearly relishing the power of attorney she now possesses, yet even she cannot resist the lure of a moment in the spotlight, becoming increasingly susceptible to the overtures to have herself interviewed and photographed by Lord Snowden instead. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

Review: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Union

"Now my good friends, it behooves me to be solemn and declare,

I'm for goodness and for profit and for living clean and saying daily prayer"
I’m not the kind of gentleman who normally ends an evening with a lady in his lap but that was what (nearly) happened last night at the Union Theatre’s revival of US musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Inspired by a true story of a similarly-titled brothel , the Chicken Ranch is a well-established institution that has been passed down to Miss Mona from the original owner, who runs it with a veneer of classy respectability wherein she looks after her girls well and gets on with the local law enforcement to keep things running smoothly. But the decision of crusading news reporter Melvin P Thorpe to try and get the establishment closed down threatens everything.

Sarah Lark plays Miss Mona, the role made famous by Dolly Parton in the movie of the same name, all big brassy blonde hair piled up on her head and possessed of a wardrobe stuffed with fringes and sequins and quietly understated as a warmly maternal figure. Her singing voice is lovely though lacked a little volume in places and there was a little gravitas missing from her portrayal, though that could square with her being pushed into the position of Madam through unexpectedly inheriting the place. And around her are her scantily-dressed girls who service the townsmen’s needs – mainly portrayed here through shadow-play – and most of whom are running away from something, assumedly also using the somersaulting skills that got one lady closer to me than I was expecting! Together they make a strong group – the harmonies of Girl You’re A Woman most lovely, the mix of personalities entertaining and as a starting point for a show, it feels like a fascinating premise.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Review: The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hours”

Very occasionally I see a play which saps the life of my desire to write about all the shows that I see. Good ones are great, bad ones are fine as they often provoke much thought and opinion, but some are just so crushingly dull that they simply inspire nothing. Trevor Nunn’s production of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket was such a play and what is worse, I already knew that that would be my response to it due to the feedback from people who had already gone. Fortunately, I was gifted the ticket for services rendered so there was no financial cost but things can tax you severely in other ways.

Mainly it is due to the extreme lack of pace, the play is stretched out laboriously over more than three hours for no discernable reason than to fill time, there’s no reason contained within the interpretation that justifies this lack of speed and it becomes painfully obvious that we’re in for the long haul from the outset with precious few sparks of life animating events onstage. As Prospero, Ralph Fiennes was actually better than I was anticipating, the sole beneficiary of my lowered expectations, with a vocal performance that was colourful and commanding.

Cast of The Tempest continued

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Review: The Queen of Spades, Arcola

“I thought I saw the Countess quiver.
‘Fret not, it was just the start of rigor. 

There are some things I know a fair bit about and there are others I do not and Alexander Pushkin is one of those. Ask me to name a couple of Russian writers then I’d give you Chekhov and Tolstoy, but Pushkin has never really crossed my radar before despite him apparently being the Russian Shakespeare, according to t’internet. So the adaptation of his short story The Queen of Spades that has just started at the Arcola Theatre’s smaller Studio 2 held a little intrigue for me but for once, absolutely no preconceptions about how it ‘should’ be done or indeed any knowledge of what it was about.

What unfolded in Fusebox’s imaginative production was a kind of twisted dreamscape in which creepy circus performers ushered us to our seats, half-naked men appeared from the artfully arranged mountain of sheets that filled the stage and grasping hands tried to pull him back. As we come to find out, the man is Hermann – an officer in the Russian army – who has been committed to a mental asylum and the circus figure is an old woman who torments his psyche. The story of how Hermann ended up here is then told in nightmarish flashback through a range of theatrical devices.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Review: Stand Tall, Landor

“You're stronger than this..."

Fringe musicals are notoriously fickle beasts: some adapt to the format extremely well to create moments of gloriously intense, theatrical wonder, others have their shortcomings cruelly exposed by the intimacy of such a small space. The Landor has been responsible for two examples of the former with their last two shows, The Hired Man and Ragtime being two of the best shows of the year so far, but their new incumbent, Stand Tall, falls somewhere inbetween. It is a new show, book and lyrics by Lee Wyatt-Buchan and music by Aldie and Sandy Chalmers – all newcomers to musical theatre – which was written to promote its persuasive anti-bullying message.

It does this by creating a modern-day version of the David and Goliath story - David here is a shepherd by day and a rock star by night who gets chosen by the mystical Black Sheep to become the new King but is forced into a winner-takes-all guitar battle by fierce rival Goliath – so just like the Bible really. Taking a rather gentle approach, we follow David as he learns to ‘stand tall’ to claim what is rightfully his, including his relationship with the high-maintenance Mia, but we also delve into Goliath’s troubled family history to discover why he’s such a bully. Resultantly, the story is pulled out wider from its anti-bullying focus and not always to the best effect as the humour prevents things from getting too dark or close to the heart of the emotions at play – the show consequently never really seems to take its subject seriously enough.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Review: Bunny – Soho Theatre

“I imagine the other future...”

Jack Thorne’s Bunny first played at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was exceptionally well received, winning a Fringe First award. This 60 minute monologue has now taken up residence in the intimate space upstairs at the Soho Theatre, nabokov’s production reuniting cast and creatives on this excoriating tale of a day in the life of an eighteen year old girl, Katie, caught on the emotional rollercoaster of young adulthood.

Rosie Wyatt’s Katie is mess of contradictions: a sixth-form good student, clarinet player in the school orchestra and solidly middle class with her Guardian-reading parents but frequently acts out with them as riven with gnawing self-doubt and identity issues. She doesn’t have too many real friends in her life, she’s well known at school for giving anyone a blowjob and she’s currently seeing an older guy Abe, and it is when he gets involved in a street fight that Bunny really kicks off. Sucked into a trail of violent revenge and sexual menace, we follow headstrong Katie as she struggles to keep her head afloat and make the important decisions that could impact the rest of her life.

CD Review: Elaine Paige and Friends

“This is the nearest thing to crazy I have ever known”

There’s something rather amusing about the idea of Ms Paige leafing through her address book to decide who made the grade to appear on her latest duets album, last year’s Elaine Paige and Friends. We are most definitely in MOR territory here instead of musical theatre and the guest list reflects that with names like Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka, Michael Bolton and Paul Anka popping up. There’s a couple of nods to her theatrical background too with John Barrowman and Idina Menzel on board too but the idea that either US country star LeAnn Rimes or controversial Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor stretches credulity just a little – it is however not surprising that Ms Dickson does not return here...

I must state for the record that this CD was purchased in the AgeUK charity shop in Sheffield for the princely sum of £1.99 – it was not one that I had envisaged buying previously but the combination of the unlikely aspects of the tracklisting and the simply delightful cover images meant that it was irresistible. And boy am I glad it was bought for me as it is one of the most amusing things I have ever listened to, as well as being one of the greatest crimes in recording history. The ways in which this CD, produced by Phil Ramone, offended are many and varied so I’ll just get right in there.

Review: Off Cut Festival – The Final, Riverside Studios

“And the winner is...”

After a successful run over the last few weeks at the Riverside Studios, the Off Cut Festival reached its finale tonight and prizes awarded, including the coveted Audience Award which carries with it a commission to develop the winning play and receive a full production here in Hammersmith. The 28 plays were whittled down to the 8 most popular which then made it through to the final week to perform again and audiences were able to vote on their favourite, the announcement being made at this final showcase. A panel of industry professionals also awarded honours for the best company of actors, director and writer to complement the main prize as the audience watched each of the finalists for one final time.

Having missed Group 4, I was keen to see the two plays that had made it through from that selection so that I could make up my own mind about who I thought should win. The first of these was Andrew Biss’ The Craft – a hysterical two-hander about two mutually loathing actors playing a scene with their every inner thought being spoken out loud. I loved it, it was immediate, punchy writing and crucially extremely witty. Tracy Ann Wood and Dan March were ideally suited to their roles, the only thing I would say about it was that as it was such a perfectly-formed 15 minute short, I wasn’t too sure how it could have been further developed. The other, Tanja Mariadoss’ Let There Be, I was less keen on. A scatty artist having something of a breakdown starts an illicit affair with her landlord who is something of an uncle figure in her life whilst his 14 year old daughter watches on with disgust, kissing her teeth and spitting lyrical barbs as a would-be rapper. It wasn’t that it was at all bad, I just didn’t really engage with the piece or really want to see much more of how the story might develop, although Hannah Wood’s white-girl rapping was a delight to behold.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Review: Office Party, Pleasance

“What happens at the office party, stays at the office party”

Immersive theatre experiences can be extremely variable in content, style and quality but they all rely on an audience that is willing in interact in one way or another and make the most of their time. Office Party, taking place in and around the Pleasance theatre in North London, is no exception with its hosting of Product Solutions’ Christmas party to which we are all invited as employees of this organisation. And basically you get back what you put in: it is the kind of experience that rewards full-blooded participation – if you stay on the sidelines, then you honestly won’t have half as much fun than if you throw yourself right into the middle of things.

Upon arrival, one is allocated into a staff team: executives, creatives, domestic services amongst others and then ushered into a bar. From there, the staff teams peeled off into their respective groupings in various rooms around the complex to get the party started. After a bit of team bonding, you then enter the party proper in the main hall where a disco has been set up, stages at either end for the entertainment and, you’ve guessed it, another bar and then the party starts. There are party games where teams compete against each other to pass balloons and eat cream doughnuts without hands, there’s some fun entertainment from the heads of departments which spills out into little mini dramas which reverberate throughout the evening and also cabaret turns from the likes of show creators Ursula Martinez and Christopher Green amongst others.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Review: Fit and Proper People, Soho Theatre

"Gonna tell me next that the game is all about the comfort of social habit and a worldwide need for tribal ritual and worship within the parameters of global capitalism..."

There’s a great sense of fun around the Soho Theatre’s new show, the RSC-commissioned Fit and Proper People by Georgia Fitch: the theatre has been transformed into a miniature football stadium with East and West stands, terrace seating and flashy advertising hoardings; turn up in a football shirt and you’ll get a free drink and there’s even free pies and a prize raffle at half-time. But as Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now swells loudly over the PA system and the cast launch into choreographer Spencer Soloman’s stylised slo-mo movement, it soon becomes apparent that whilst there’s a lot of show on display, the content unmistakably leaves a lot to be desired.

Fitch’s meticulously researched play has taken much inspiration from real life events in the world of football and particularly the murky backroom dealings as ethics are increasingly pushed aside in the race to top the league. The rush to secure foreign investors, the sweeping of numerous scandals under the carpet, the exploitation of young players, the experience of women in such a male-dominated industry, the treatment of loyal fans as profit margins are pushed, there’s a plethora of issues which Fitch folds into the narrative but they just meld into a cacophonous mess that whilst brimming with enthusiasm, lacks any sort of clarity.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Review: Drama at Inish, Finborough

“We do serious plays – Russian plays and that sort of thing”

The pleasures of theatregoing, especially in London, are many and varied but amongst my favourites are the chances offered to see some of our best actors in the most intimate of surroundings. So the opportunity to see the glorious Celia Imrie in the 50 seater Finborough Theatre in Earls Court was one I was never likely to miss. She is part of a large company performing Drama At Inish, a 1933 Irish comedy by Lennox Robinson which has not been seen in London for 60 years, in a strictly limited engagement. Also known as Is Life Worth Living?, the play is something of a farcical comedy, set in the small village of Inish where a travelling repertory company arrive for the summer, replacing the usual circus with their weightier fare of Ibsen, Tolstoy, Strindberg and Chekhov. But their serious drama soon begins to impact massively on the mood of the town with the inhabitants sinking into a melancholy morass of neuroses, unduly influenced by the theatre going on around them.

Fidelis Morgan’s production is full of hustle and bustle as the cast of thirteen swirl around the Seaview Hotel, where the entire show takes place, spread over a week. The actor couple of Hector De La Mare and Constance Constantia – a delightfully expansive pair of performances from Rupert Frazer and Juliet Cadzow – watch on bemusedly as their drama plays out in real life with character after character affected by what they see: political consciences, long hidden romances and secret dead children are exposed, people are moved to attempt suicide and murder, but it is all played with a jovial silliness that lifts the heart.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Review: Soho Cinders, Queens

“Wishing for the normal kind of dream,
Trouble is they're harder than they seem”

Soho Cinders is a Stiles + Drewe show which has long been in development, 11 years since the original concept was devised, during which they’ve worked on Mary Poppins, the sadly departed Betty Blue Eyes and their new show Soapdish. But all the while, this modern-day gay retelling (of sorts) of the Cinderella tale has been burbling away, some of the songs were previewed at the A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe concert in 2008 and subsequently released on CD – one in particular, (They Don’t Make) Glass Slippers becoming a favourite amongst young male singers, Gareth Gates being my particular favourite rendition. Having the book retweaked one more time by Elliot Davis, Stiles + Drewe decided to launch the show in a one-off concert version at the Queen’s Theatre, in an evening in support of, and maintaining their long-standing connection with, the Teenage Cancer Trust, following last year’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall.

Our Cinderella is Robbie, a young Londoner who works as an escort in order to fund his way through law school so he can contest his mother’s will which apparently left her coffee shop to his wicked stepsisters. Our prince is James Prince, a prospective London mayoral candidate, who has a glamorous fiancée but as it turns out, has been conducting a secret affair with Robbie, although unaware of his other activities. When they are flung together unexpectedly at a fundraising party, secrets tumble out, truths are exposed and though no shoes are left behind (it’s a phone instead), the fairytale ending does not necessarily seem guaranteed.

Review: Off Cut Festival Group 3, Riverside Studios

“Hey, let’s put on a play”

Due to a manic schedule this week, I was only able to attend one of the final two groups of plays in the Off Cut Festival, a fact which will annoy the completist in me something rotten, but I was pleased to at least have made it to three of the four. Reviews of Groups One and Two have already been posted, and here is a quick collection of thoughts about these plays before we head into the final week when the top two plays from each group will play for the week, ahead of the final at which the winners will be decided.

Head and shoulders above the rest for me was Mark Wright’s Looking for Vi, a gently cautionary tale about the effects of obsessive fandom on both the super-fan and on the subject too, as geeky Julia tracks down reclusive former soapstar Vi in an old person’s home in order to complete a set of signatures from her favourite TV show. But behind this simple task lies deep wells of emotion for both women and they are given beautiful depth by Maroussia Frank and Joy Blakeman. Another of my favourites was Hannah Williams Walton’s Memories of Loss, an intertwining tale of two stories of tragic loss and the histories behind the relationships. It was a quietly moving piece and given interesting direction by Ali Anderson-Dyer and it was something I felt that could be developed into something quite intriguing.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

CD Review: Evita 2006 London Cast Recording

“Just a little touch of star quality"

I haven’t done many reviews of soundtracks to shows since starting to cover CDs on here, focusing more new writing and solo albums from MT performers, but I don’t know why not as I listen to them just as much. The first I’ll cover will be the OLCR of the 2006 revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, a production which revitalised this stalwart of a show in a way that I didn’t think possible and introduced me, and the rest of London’s theatregoers, to the glories of Argentinean star performer Elena Roger.

The soundtrack, edited highlights rather than the full score, captures much of what made that production so vibrant so that it doesn’t really matter that we don’t have any of the striking visuals and choreography that accompanied this Latin American infused remounting. The orchestrations have been totally refreshed in line with this re-envisioning and with Roger’s singing leading the company, there’s just a greater sense of authenticity about the whole shebang.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse

“Here’s a snip and nip and cut and slish and slash”

Robin Norton-Hale has been responsible for reinvigorating (or even inventing) the genre of pub opera with the wildly successful La Bohème, followed up by Don Giovanni this year and now turns her hand to Shakespeare with this adaption of The Taming of the Shrew at Southwark Playhouse. The modernisation sees us located in 21st century Brixton, the train map in the programme guiding us through stations such as Mantua Hill, Old Naples Road and Milan House allowing the Italian place names to remain in situ. And in Cherry Truluck’s cluttered market stall design, there’s a raft of amusing little touches: Katherine is first seen reading Margaret Attwood, Hortensio woos in his music lesson with a rendition of Mad World, Grumio serves up microwaved lasagne for dinner and there’s a mobile phone gag which is still making me chuckle now.

But the updating is merely cosmetic in the final analysis, the text – although considerably trimmed and reshaped here – doesn’t really impose any new interpretative framework onto the play and so the problems that can be found remain, and in some cases are exacerbated. Times have changed (although some might say not enough) and so the story struggles to connect in the modern-day context: Katherine doesn’t need to get married and could strike out on her own whenever she wanted – the opportunities available now are worlds apart from the 17th century, the economic and social pressures just aren’t there and so the motivation behind her actions is not particularly evident in this production.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Review: Sweeney Todd, Chichester Festival Theatre

“No denying times is hard sir, even harder than the worst pies in London"

This may surprise some people but Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is actually the same age as me given that I have been 29 for the last 3 years! As one of the few not to receive a major production in London in his 80th birthday year, the 1979 show Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street now receives attention from Chichester Festival Theatre with an excellent revival that will surely end up in the West End in due course. Jonathan Kent’s production relocates Hugh Wheeler’s book to the 1930s, playing on the overtones of economic crisis and undertones of emotional fascism, whilst Sondheim’s classic music and lyrics create worlds of emotional intensity. The story centres on Benjamin Barker, a skilled barber falsely charged and sentenced to transportation to Australia by a corrupt judge. Fifteen years later he returns to discover he has lost his wife and child, and so reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, searching out for ways to be avenged. A chance meeting with former landlady Mrs Lovett sees him set up shop again as a barber in the room above her pie shop and the unlikely pair find a mutually convenient business arrangement as Todd finds it impossible to control his murderous urges and Lovett is in desperate need of cheap fillings for her pies...

Imelda Staunton is ideal casting for Mrs Lovett: younger readers will certainly recognise her as Dolores Umbridge but may not be aware of her outstanding musical theatre credentials which formed a major part of her earlier career, including an Olivier award winning turn as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, also by Sondheim. The comic business of the first half with her discovery of the first body and the later A Little Priest is as good as you would dare hope it could be, but where she really excels is in the second half as she delves into the darker side of this woman. The desperation exposed by Todd’s lack of enthusiasm for her seaside dream cuts deep but then as her young charge edges ever closer to the truth of what is going on, the ugly truth rears its head with a frankly terrifying rendition of Not While I’m Around – don’t make eye contact with her at the end of the song, it will scar you for life! And Michael Ball as the titular Demon Barber is also terrifically good, he’s undergone quite the makeover and is virtually unrecognisable, looking more like a brownshirt than anything. He captures the laconic cruelty and the glowering menace of a man shorn of his moral framework and his rich voice swoops around Sondheim’s score with consummate ease. 

Cast of Sweeney Todd continued

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Rose Kingston

“When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.”

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest follows the Rose Theatre Kingston’s tried and tested formula of mounting classic plays for their homegrown productions. We’ve had Dame Judi in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Celia Imrie in Hay Fever and now we have Jane Asher taking on Lady Bracknell and her handbag under Artistic Director Stephen Unwin. Hayden Griffin’s spare design on the wide stage is framed within a proscenium arch of sorts, a giant picture frame containing a few pieces of furniture scattered around, but largely the stage is left free to be dominated by Wilde’s witticisms.

And how witty it is. Wilde’s play may not tackle any deep societal issues or serious topics but his clever plotting and incisive humour skewers the English obsession with class and the grasping social ambition of those who have clambered their way up the ladder, keen to keep others in their place. There’s also a touch of feminism in a trio of strong female characters determined to get what they want and fully cognisant of how to get it whilst the men mess around with their false identities and get increasingly flustered.

Review: Farewell To The Theatre, Rose Kingston

“Shall we go and get lunch?”

At the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Importance of Being Earnest is playing in rep with another play, Farewell To The Theatre by Harley Granville Barker. A short 50 minute one-act piece, it stars Jane Asher as a famous actress who has decided to bow out from the theatre who visits her lawyer, Richard Cordery, to explain her reasons and revisit their shared past of missed opportunities. Written in 1916, this is the European premiere of this play and I am not sure that it is one which really merits this production: it is hard to see any real connection with Wilde’s piece, it is only on for just a handful of performances and it completely failed to engage me.

Granville Barker’s writing has some attractive moments but the abiding theme of the importance of the theatre feels a little too self-regarding and quite frankly, not as interesting as all that. Asher does wear a fabulous aquamarine satin dress in it and I do love Richard Cordery, but the static nature of this piece, also directed by Stephen Unwin, worked against it. So it was hard to shake the feeling that this was a curiosity that perhaps could have continued to collect dust on the shelf, though there may be some interest for theatre historians.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Review: Joseph, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“All those things you saw in your pyjamas are a long-range forecast for your farmers”

I don’t really remember a time when theatre wasn’t in my life. I was lucky enough to have parents and aunts who took me to see shows from an early age (indeed I heard Blood Brothers from my mother’s womb!) and so I caught the bug early. And of those shows that I saw as a young’un, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is one that has recurred throughout my life whether watching Dad direct a school performance, being a part of my own primary school production, playing piano for both high school and drama group versions and of course going to see it multiple times at the theatre – I don’t actually recall if we saw Jason Donovan but I do remember Philip Schofield and Darren Day, whoop! 

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat has become something of a mainstay for touring theatres, it comes and goes from the West End yet Bill Kenwright’s tour has lasted for over 20 years due to its enduring appeal with audiences of all ages across the entire nation, not least this reviewer who remembers seeing both Philip Schofield and Darren Day. Latest to take the loincloth is Keith Jack who plays the biblical Joseph, a confident young man whose favourite status with his father does not go down well with his 11 brothers, especially after he receives the gift of a marvellous coat, and once banished from his homeland, only his dream interpretation skills can save him from a life of servitude.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Review: Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse

“Candy floss and caravans, kiss me quick and hold my hand”

I have long harboured a secret desire to go and see Dreamboats and Petticoats: not so much in a ‘I must go and see this rightaway’ kind of sense but more in a ‘I bet that’s actually quite good fun’ way. It is easy to be instantly dismissive of jukebox shows, I have been guilty myself of not seeing any for a long time and of those I have now seen, there’s been a mixed response in the Clowns household: the charm of Buddy done on the fringe won me over but the brash hard sell of Jersey Boys left me cold. Dreamboats has floating around for a couple of years now, starting in the Savoy and subsequently finding a new home at the Playhouse; a concurrent touring production working its way around the UK too. But the main attraction for going now (alongside tickets falling into my hand) was the West End debut of Des O’Connor, virtually every appearance of whom was welcomed with screams and cheers of delight from the audience – I don’t think I got the memo but I think he may be a National Treasure now.

The show was famously inspired by a series of compilation CD of late 50s and early 60s hits and carries with it a rather lightweight book, centred on a group of teenagers at a youth club in Essex. Geeky Bobby wants to become the new singer of the band but is gazumped by the slick older Norman who also catches the eye of the buxom Sue for whom Bobby holds a candle. On the sidelines, Laura – a talented musician – pines after Bobby unnoticed but a trip to Southend and a song writing competition offer an opportunity to shake things up. It’s all sweet and wholesome with nary a knowing wink or nudge to be found.

Cast of The Tempest continued