Hancock’s Finest Hour – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It’s an inspired piece of casting. Cast a son of Birmingham who made his name playing a much loved TV character in the 70s and 80s to play an equally loved Birmingham born TV comic and actor of the 50s and 60s.

Paul Henry may have become a household name playing Benny in Crossroads (the original, not the Jane Asher remake) but in Hancock’s Finest Hour takes on the mantle of Tony Hancock. It turns out to be perfect casting; while the programme notes state this show is a tribute and not an impersonation, the likeness is remarkable.

Colin Bennett’s production takes place in a dressing room before and after Hancock took part in a BBC TV interview with former MP John Freeman. Freeman pushed Hancock to examine his life, not perhaps a comfortable move for such a troubled artist.

Using a series of flashbacks to pivotal moments in Hancock’s life we get an insight into some of the contributing factors to his tragically early death. David Matthews and Clare Bloomer play a plethora of roles from Hancock’s work and personal life.

Henry’s performance is riveting; he sheds of any image of his TV alter ego and totally inhabits the role of this undoubtedly comic genius who was also a deeply flawed man.

This is the first stop on a National tour and the couple of wobbles on show should soon be ironed out as the cast settle into the runs. Some of the transitions between the supporting characters need more definition to differentiate and the device of using his voices of reason doesn’t quite hit the mark. These however a minor niggles in an otherwise splendid production. Its just a shame that so many empty seats where in evidence at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Those that stayed away or unfathomably left during the interval missed one of the strongest stage performances of the year.

Women Beware Women – Royal National Theatre

It was the second night in a row for Jacobean plays and not a situation that was approached with whole hearted joy. When the news that it was a complex story spread over 3 hours the heart sank even further.

Thomas Middleton’s work is perhaps less well known than the work of his contemporaries but is beginning to receive renewed attention. In director Marianne Elliott’s lavish production of Women Beware Women on the Olivier stage his work takes on an epic quality.

Set against Lez Brotherston’s gothic columned revolving set, this is a lavish and visual appealing production. Performances from the entire cast are impressive with Harriet Walter, Samuel Barnett and Vanessa Kirby particularly noteworthy. The difficult verse is handled with aplomb and cast seem to revel in the dark horror of the piece.

All good so far then but the problem here for anyone coming to the piece new is that is it just so complex as to render it virtually impenetrable. Revenge, mistaken identities, rape, seduction, incest, two overlapping stories… all conspire to make for a brain aching evening. Yes theatre should be challenging and perhaps Shakespeare would be equally as baffling if we were not so aware of the plots, but this production makes little attempt to make the complex assessable. Just when you think you have grasped the plot the surreal, drug induced, danced, final blood-bath scene adds on more confusion.

Bits of the plot are picked up and you can appreciated the craft of it but overheard conversations at the end of the show suggest many where left with a ‘what was that about’ feeling.

Women Beware Women is worth catching for a lesson into how to stage and act a piece from this era but do familiarise yourself with the text before you attend or risk suffering a severe brain ache as you try to follow this complex production.

The Country Wife – Suffolk Youth Theatre

So a moral dilemma, young people are the future of theatre and so any production that manages to get twenty 15-20yr olds onstage in a Restoration comedy should be applauded. What to do then when the production just fails to work? Give an honest review that reflects my opinion or make allowances based (patronisingly?) on age?

Suffolk Youth Theatre has gained a reputation in recent years for staging accomplished, visually impressive, physical theatre. Their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009 for example would have made many a professional company proud.

For this year’s production the team have turned to William Wycherley’s restoration romp The Country Wife. Written in 1675 its typical restoration fair; full of over the top characters and barely repressed sexual tension. So ideal material you would think for a young company to get their teeth into? Unfortunately in this production the sum of the parts never add up. A mish-mash of garish costumes, punk inspired make up and hair, flat lighting and an even flatter set jar. Given strong performances the staging could be forgiven but sadly the usual high standards of stage craft seem lacking this time round. Lines are gabbled and projection is lacking and performances are over exaggerated.

So back to the moral dilemma. While it is indeed encouraging to see a young cast approach a 335 year old play and perform it with energy, some work is needed by the artistic team to reign in the current over playing with detailed characterisation and work on some much needed projection skills. Director Michael Platt also needs to reign in some of the performance to stop this restoration piece verge into farce.

Now some may think that this review is harsh given this is a youth theatre, however there has to come a stage before any opening night when a decision is made on whether any show is ready for public viewing. On this occasion sadly, this is one show that needs more work in the rehearsal room. There is potential here but it needs more work

Sadly not one of Suffolk Youth Theatre’s finest hours.

Signs Of A Star Shaped Diva – New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

Recent productions from Graeae have been somewhat a hit and miss affair. Flower Girls had dramatic potential that was lost in a confusing production while last year’s Snow White never quite hit the mark.

Thankfully with Signs of a Star Shaped Diva, Graeae have returned to top form. In this comic and moving piece we follow the rise of Northern undertaker Sue Graves as she turns into international cabaret star Tammy Frascati. Tammy’s unique take on the world of cabaret is to perform the songs from the world’s greatest diva in sign language. Her talent takes her from the working mans clubs to the heights of Las Vegas but on the way she faces heartache and despair.

Writer Nona Shepphard has crafted a witty and poignant piece with plenty of opportunity for both humour and pathos but the true highlight of the evening is Caroline Parker’s tour de force performance. Her transformation from quiet undertaker to show –stopping Diva is thoroughly convincing and her performances of some of the greatest Torch Songs from the songbook are inspired. If you are a signer or not you will find new levels of enjoyment in these classic songs.

Some lighting issues, especially in act one need to be resolved but by the time Tammy arrived in Vegas any lighting problems have been rectified. Directors Jenny Sealey and Nona Shepphard could also look at making the first act less static although this is difficult in a one woman show.

Despite these minor niggles, this is one show that is well worth catching on its current UK tour and one that will send you out with a smile on your face. You will never be able to listen to Celine Dion, Bette Midler or Tammy Wynette in the same way again!

Hair – Gielgud Theatre

There is a lot of history associated with Hair, back in 1968 it was the first West End production to feature full frontal nudity, the first mixed race musical and certainly the first to include a song entitled Sodomy.

Now revived at the Gielgud, the show is once again making history, importing the entire Broadway Company to the West End. The show has had several revival attempts over the years, including a major production at the Old Vic in 1993 that (undeservedly) flopped. So will this new import fair better?

If there is a new category in the Oliviers next year for sheer exuberance and energy Hair will win hands down. From the opening bars, to the final dancing ovation, the cast throw themselves into the production with unstoppable fervour.

The ‘93 production had audience seated on the Old Vic stage, but in a reversal here the cast use the auditorium as their playground; clambering over and using many in the stalls as an impromptu performance space. It can be quite unnerving to find a cast member suddenly slumped across the seat next to you, or getting up to things in the aisles that cant be repeated in a family blog.

Unfortunately some of the exuberance does mean that some lyrics where lost in the opening numbers but this was a temporary hick up and by the time the placards are being waved for I Believe in Love the show is back on track. It’s the only minor gripe of the evening however.

Leading the tribe are strong performances from Will Swenson, Sasha Allen, Caissie Levy and Gavin Creel. Swenson in particular clearly relishes the audience interaction. This is however a true ensemble performance and quirky characteristics.

Yes the plot is thin in places but the score remain infectious and the performances win over even the most hardened cynic. By the time Let the Sun Shine in draws to its haunting end there was a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat.

The US cast are confirmed for the initial months of the run and are well worth catching and whatever you do make sure you take your chance to let your hair down at the end and boogie onstage with the cast.

So 1993 revival or 2010 – both have their plus points. 93 had a stronger focus on plot but 2010 wins hands down for sheer fun.

Woyzeck – New Wolsey Studio

There are some shows you just have to shrug your shoulders on and just admit they are not for you.

Sadly for me The New Wolsey Young Companies latest offering Woyzeck falls into that catergory. While you have to admire the enthusiasm and courage to try something different, the sum of the parts just didn’t add up.

Georg Büchner’s play was left unfinished on his death in 1837 and the Wolsey Young Company have now stamped their own mark on the piece, turning it into a full on piece of Théâtre de l’Absurde.

Played on an impressive set in the small New Wolsey Studio space this is a full on assault from the moment doors open, with the audience being sworn at as they enter. So not your usual trip to the theatre then!

There are some nice moments but the alienation techniques employed in the production make engagement with the characters difficult. Some work on the difference between projection and shouting would benefit as would some review of some of the lighting that at times leaves cast in shadow.

A valiant try but for me one that sadly fails

A blow for the glow in the dark

Some ideas are just doomed to failure from the outset and thankfully West Yorkshire Playhouse have scrapped their idea to allow audience members to use Twitter from some seats during performances.

While there is much debate on how to draw in new audiences are we really so addicted to our mobile devices that we cant be separated from our texts, tweets and email for a couple of hours?

How many performances recently have been marred by the eerie glow of a mobile screen? It was a refreshing change at Kursk last week to see ushers actively checking phones had been switched off (a necessity to preserve the crucial blackouts). It’s a pity that more theatres don’t take such a hard line – a lady at Enron a few weeks ago satin the second row and spent the majority of the show glued to her BlackBerry screen.

Sure engage with Twitter about the show but for a couple of hours when inside the auditorium switch it off!

Kursk – Young Vic

In 2000, the normally secretive world of the Russian Submarine fleet found itself the centre of the world’s media attention. Following an explosion in one of its torpedoes, the Russian Submarine Kursk sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea with the loss of all 118 crew. The chilling fact that many survived the initial explosion and went to their deaths slowly as the air ran out on the sea bed adds to the poignancy of the disaster.

So not exactly an obvious choice for a play but in Sound & Fury’s Kursk, revived at the Young Vic following a sell out run last year (a feat achieved again this year), we get one of the most moving plays of the year.

Writer Bryony Lavery has ingeniously set the piece on a British submarine patrolling in the Barents Sea. That way we get to see the tensions in the cramped confines of a submarine. By the time the British encounter the doomed Kursk the horror facing their Russian counterparts is compounded by the tragedy we know is unfolding on the British Sub.

The other stroke of genius of this production is to turn the Maria studio into an authentic replica of the submarine. The audience is then placed in the heart of the action, with actors literally centimetres away. Within this totally immersive atmosphere sounds and lighting create the cramped confines of a submarine with every rumble and sound adding to the tension – the only thing missing is the smell of a submarine.

The day-to-day routine and the separation from loved ones adds to the stresses of a submariners world and by focussing on one individual tragedy on the British sub reinforces the horror facing his Russian counterparts without having to turn to voyeuristic rubber necking.

Perhaps one of the most chilling scenes sees the audience plunged into total darkness as the fading sound of Russian voices gives way to the sound of water lapping, a truly spine chilling experience.

Kursk is touring to venues across the country following their London sell out and this is one show worth travelling miles for. You will be hard pressed to find a more original or immersive piece of theatre this year.

Kristina – Royal Albert Hall

Before Mamma Mia became a global smash, another musical penned by ABBA’s Bjorn and Benny was winning fans.

Kristina från Duvemåla started life in 1995, becoming a huge Scandinavian hit. In the intervening years the show also gained a large loyal following of English fans who have, until now, had to console themselves with the Swedish language CDs. Not anymore however.

Following three sell out concerts in New York last year, we now have the European premiere of the new English version of Kristina. Staged in concert format ahead of a hoped for stage version.

A tale of 19th Century emigrants from Sweden to Minnesota is far removed from the Greek Isles of Mama Mia and for those expecting a similar score there may be a shock. Listen carefully however and the ABBA trademark sound is here. Powerful ballads, intricate harmonies and strong female roles all feature strongly.

This concert staging lets the music stand out, and stand out it does. From the opening bars of the overture to the final notes of the emotional climax, Kristina thrills.

Conductor Paul Gemignani extracts every nuance from the excellent symphony orchestra and choir, overcoming initial sound issues in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall.

Taking centre stage are soloists Russell Watson, Louise Pitre , Kevin Odekirk and the original Kristina herself, Helen Sjöholm. In perhaps an unpopular view for his legions of fans, it is Watson who is the weakest link of the four. While impressive in vocal power and range, some diction issues lost many of his lyrics. No such problems from an on-form Oderkirk who was note perfect, with his rendition of Gold Turns into Sand receiving the first ovation of the evening.

The undoubted star of the evening however has to be Helen Sjöholm. Having played Kristina throughout the musicals history may give her an unfair advantage but she knows exactly what stops to pull out to deliver the role. Her heart-felt rendition of You Have to Be Here was rewarded with an extensive ovation.

There has been much speculation that this concert is a precursor to the anticipated English stage version. There may still be a bit of work to do before that however – some numbers could benefit from shortening and some (a song about lice) could be cut entirely without loss, but given the right director and staging this could be the next epic musical.

Despite the appeal of a stage version, in many ways this show benefits from the full symphonic treatment, and as such is a perfect subject for this concert format. While some of the audience at the Royal Albert Hall may have been meeting Kristina for the first time, the extended ovation showed that all had fallen in love with her.

The Sitcom Mission – New Diorama Theatre

A quartet of new writing, a first round of a competition, and a new theatre to stage them in …so something of night of firsts here.

The Sitcom Mission at the New Diorama Theatre is an intriguing idea – a competition that attracted over 500 entries to write a brand new sitcom.

The shortlisted 16 scripts will be showcased over the next 4 weeks before semi finals and finals eventually come up with a winner. Think X factor for sitcoms and you get the idea.

So this was round one and four brave writers stepped into the fray to stage an episode of their show, using minimal props and a small cast in front of a sell out audience. With no restriction on subjects it’s a mixed bag of offerings.

Kicking off the night was The Moo Crew by Joel Slack-Smith, set in the world of Breakfast Radio. While there is potential here for comedy there is also a feeling that it has been done before (Alan Partridge springs to mind). Some work on the characters would help this piece become more believable.

Next up was Stand and Deliver (Daniel Flinter and Elizabeth Rhodes), a surreal piece about two criminal sisters who have kidnapped a charity shop worker. Now alternative comedy is one of those Marmite subjects – love or loathe and for me the piece just didn’t work. However surreal the comedy there needs to be some grounding in reality and this absurd piece just didn’t convince.

Act Two of the night headed to Victorian London for a hilarious romp with Amy Peasegood, Fleet Street’s first lady reporter. This may be Bryn Mills first writing effort but it is an impressive debut, packing in the laughs thick and fast while also delivering believable and rounded characters.

The final excerpt of the evening moved from Victoriana to Chav with Sitting Ducks, a tale of social misfits and petty crooks. John Stylianou has created some interesting characters but perhaps we needed to see more of the back story to fully understand their behaviours. Out of all four pieces this was one that felt more at home on the stage rather than on TV.

As a writing competition it is the scripts we should be judging, so performances will go unmentioned here; apart from a line to say it was impressive to see all four casts had obviously worked hard to develop their characters.

Special mention must also go to, what on Eurovision would be described as the interval entertainment. The Scat Pack, a hilarious improv group who create a blockbuster from scratch from audience suggestions. Well worth the ticket price alone!