I Value the arts

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Review: Once - Phoenix Theatre, London

Blood Brothers spent 21 of its 24-year West End run at the Phoenix Theatre and, during those two decades, sent countless audience members out into the night wiping the tears away. New Phoenix incumbent Once goes for a much more subtle tug of the heartstrings but is no less powerful or effective.

The film to stage musical route may be well-trodden but, despite music being at its very core, the low budget 2006 Irish film Once initially seems an unlikely stage musical transfer. Its gentle story and score perhaps in danger of being swamped if scaled up for live performance.

Where other film to stage musicals have gone for the full out onslaught, Once takes a gentler approach but beware its quiet appearance, here is a show that packs a mighty emotional punch.

On paper it looks like it shouldn't work. A tale of a quietly brooding musician, busking on the streets of Dublin, who ends up mending the broken Hoover of a Czech fellow musician, seems to be a shaky foundation for any play. What Enda Walsh’s script does, married with original music from the film’s stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is to build a multi-layered love story. Not only a tale of love between the Guy and the Girl (we never learn their names) but an ode to the love of music.

Hansard and Irglova’s music, a fusion of Irish folk and rock, also seems unlikely musical theatre fare but their infectious melodies and brutally honest lyrics about life, love, and loss draw you completely in and stay with you longer after the show ends. Love here isn't some rose-tinted ideal, it’s cold, tough, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.

It may all sound like a dour and depressing evening but John Tiffany’s sublime production is strangely evocative and uplifting, thanks in no small part to the total conviction of the company of actor/musicians.

Onstage throughout, including a pre-show impromptu Céilidh, the company drift in and out of scenes populating the streets of Dublin, while providing the live musical accompaniment. Aided by Steven Hoggett’s subtle, dreamlike, choreography, it creates a sense of journey, a sea of humanity longing to find their path in life.

That longing and yearning from the ensemble is mirrored by the central couple. He longing for a reunion with his ex-girlfriend, she yearning for acceptance in a new country and an escape from a loveless relationship. Neither can express their feelings, though, instead relying on their music to speak from their heart. Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cviteŝić share real chemistry, despite their differences in style. Bennett gives his Guy a powerful intensity, Cviteŝić imbibes her Girl with an infectious enthusiasm. Both though temper their performances with a fragility making their faltering steps towards happiness painfully real. The duos rendition of Falling Slowly tugs at the heart while Bennett’s act one closer Gold, building in the entire ensemble, sticks long in the mind. When the song is reprised in a cappela form in the second act, it’s a powerful testimony to the power of song.

There’s no fancy scenery here, Bob Crowley’s mirror lined pub set provides the multiple locations with the barest of suggestion, no big Broadway showstopper and certainly no jazz hands, but there’s never any doubt this is a fully formed and compelling new musical.

Once offers it audience richness and texture not often seen in the West End; it is deceptively simple in structure and yet it wields immense power. Once you have been drawn into its world the sheer humanity of the piece grips your soul. Subtle and sensitive, Once certainly won’t be enough for this sublime show.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Review: The Book Of Mormon - Prince of Wales Theatre, London

It’s hard to recall when a new musical opening has been met with such anticipation in the West End. Yes, recent openings may have garnered plenty of press attention but that’s often been on the back of celebrity casting or TV talent shows. The Book of Mormon arrives at the Prince of Wales on a tide of expectation, bolstered by an impressive advance box office and almost fanatical fan devotion. Can the show actually live up to the hype? Yes it can. Does America’s home-grown religion transfer this side of the Atlantic? Yes it does.

Though The Book Of Mormon parodies the good elders of Salt Lake City, at its heart the faith doesn't matter. While the church in question undoubtedly provides the authors with much source material, it turns out to be a surprisingly effective, and often touching, look at the power of humanity to tackle life’s hardships.
Of course its rude, crude and highly offensive – you’d expect nothing less from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (together with Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez), but that profanity is beautifully observed.  While the show comes with a parental advisory over language and scenes certainly pull no punches, it is perversely all done in the best taste. The faith is mocked but it’s carried out with just enough tongue in cheek.

It’s not just the Mormon faith that Parker, Stone and Lopez are poking fun at, this is also an affectionate lampoon of the classic Broadway musical itself. There are plenty of opportunities for musical fans to spot in jokes and references with shades of Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors, The Sound Of Music and The King and I woven into the score. Perhaps as an antidote for the saccharine sweetness of Disney, The Lion King comes in for particular ridicule, culminating in the beautifully observed anthemic ‘I Am Africa’.

The score itself surprises with its depth, the witty lyrics one would expect but the musical tone of the piece more than matches the word play. From big song and dance numbers to powerful solo numbers there’s a variety here to match any classic Broadway songbook.

With any parody there’s a danger of overplaying the comedy by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker's direction (Nicholaw also choreographs) draws out universally pitch perfect performances across the company.
Leading the company as narcissistic, Orlando obsessed Elder Price, Gavin Creel provides the ultimate square jawed, sparkling white toothed missionary. There’s a chilling ruthlessness to his religious fervour, underpinned by something darker- a darkness that rises to the fore when his faith is tested. As Elder Price’s unlikely partner, Jared Gertner’s Elder Cunningham is a delight. Packed with more energy than a shook up bottle of (forbidden) cola, Gertner’s initial buffoonery is replaced by a more tender side and it’s impossible not to root for this unlikely hero.

There’s fine work from Alexia Khadime as convert Nabulungi and Chris Jarman as the imposing general. It is though hard to spot a single weak link in the entire company. Nicholaw’s choreography is delivered with step perfect precision as are the vocally performances across the entire company.

From the opening notes of ‘Hello’ to the refrain at the curtain call, this reviewer hasn't laughed so much in years. The Book of Mormon manages to be both an affectionate tribute to the classic Broadway musical while reinventing the genre into something fresh and new. It will shock, it will probably offend some but for the majority it will provide two and a half hours of pure comic delight and you can praise whatever God you wish for that! I'm a convert!

This is a review of a preview performance on 9th March 2013.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Review: Best of 2012 Theatre

The end of the year and time to once again reflect on the year’s theatrical offerings and try to assemble a list of highlights. In many ways this was a year where sport interrupted the theatrical calendar with the Olympic and Paralympic Games eating into the theatre going and providing their own unique, and hard to top, drama.

In a year when Shakespeare seemed to be on every stage in the land and venues where fighting arts cuts and the draw of the Games, it’s been a tough year to summarise. 

There’s been a lot of ‘good’ work but ‘great’ has been more elusive;  is that down to the climate and producers playing safe or just one of those years?

In no particular order then, here is my list of the best theatrical offerings for 2012.

Without You – Anthony Rapp at Menier Chocolate Factory
Based on his best-selling memoir following the creation of the musical Rent and his own mother’s battle with Cancer, Rapp’s one man show could so easily become a morbid affair. Instead the sheer warmth of the performer and the brutal honesty in which he tells his story makes this an emotional, uplifting affair that has the audience in floods of tears but in as much a celebration of life as of loss.

Mudlarks – HighTide Festival Theatre
Occasionally you stumble across a debut work that is so well crafted that you just can’t wait to see future work from its writer. Vickie Donoghue's Mudlarks looks at three desperate lads in a dead end Essex town across one fateful night. It’s a work that perfectly marries plot, language, staging and acting together in a work that packs in a real emotional punch.

Carousel – Opera North
It takes something special to take an old warhorse such as Carousel and make it seem fresh and Opera North’s reclaiming of the work as an operatic masterpiece does just that. Beautifully staged, exquisitely sung and never sounding finer, this was a Carousel you just wanted to ride.

The Crash of The Elysium -  Punchdrunk - Ipswich
Part theatre, part theme park attraction, Punchdrunk’s interactive Dr Who experience requires total participation from its audience. We run, we hide and battle monsters in an hour long adventure. It easy to be cynical in such immersive works but Punchdrunk play the piece with such conviction that it’s totally believable and totally terrifying.

Swallows And Amazons – Children’s Touring Partnership Touring
It’s a tough challenge to create a work that touches both adults and children but Swallows and Amazons manages to keep all ages enchanted. Through its mix of music, drama and humour its hard not to be drawn into a more innocent age. When Swallow and Amazon sails out over the auditorium it’s a truly magic experience.

Floyd Collins – Southwark Playhouse
A musical based on the story of a man who dies trapped in a cave sounds an unlikely subject but set in Southwark Playhouse’s evocative vaults it’s a subject that grips utterly. The score may not be easy but the work it requires pays off with a mix of blues, rock and gospel infused numbers that drive a strong narrative.

Private Resistance – Eastern Angles
What if Germany had invaded the mainland during the Second World War? It’s a tantalising ‘what if’ and one that Eastern Angles explore perfectly. A look at the now mainly forgotten resistance movement, a group who were prepared to sacrifice anything to defend their country. A poignant tribute to them and all who strive to defend their country.

Love Story – Gallery Players, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich
There may be some that query the inclusion of an ‘amateur’ production in this list but there’s nothing amateur about Gallery Players production of Love Story. Managing to scoop Broadway in obtaining the rights ahead of the USA, this faultless production rivalled the West End staging and still brings a tear to the eye at just the memory of it.

Silent – Hotbed Festival, Cambridge
It seems to have been the year for deeply personal productions and Pat Kinevane’s one man show about homelessness and substance abuse pulls no punches in its dark portrayal of the struggles Pat faced. It’s also packed full of dark humour and honesty though, instantly drawing you into the story.

Circa – Latitude Festival
There could easily be two Circa entries on this list. Their How Like An Angel came a very close contender, soaring through the gothic arches of Norwich Cathedral. Their self-titled showcase however just stole the crown with an impressive display of acrobatic skill that is almost too painful to watch.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Review: Aladdin - Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Aladdin seems to be the pantomime of choice this year, with magic lamps being rubbed up and down the country. It’s easy to see why; the spectacle and exotic settings providing a sumptuous backdrop to the onstage clownery.

The Orchard Theatre’s production, though, has added a new twist to the Eastern setting, mixing the Orient with EastEnders. With Albert Square’s Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) becoming evil Abanazar, the far East/East End fusion is complete.

Aladdin’s tale is a well-trod road, from classic tales through to Disney animation, and indeed the show uses some of Alan Menkin’s songs to underscore the action. It’s the classic boy meets girl, good versus evil tale that has plenty for the audience to cheer and boo along to.

David Burrows’ production manages to take this well-loved plot and give it a fresh twist, thanks to some ingenious staging and an on-form cast.

Steve McFadden sets the tone from the outset, his trademark gruff growl echoing out over the footlights. McFadden pitches Abanazar just the right side of malevolence, enough evil for the audience to rail against but still believable.

Luke Newton in the title role is perhaps less successful, in part due to the role being slightly underwritten. Yes, his Aladdin falls for the Princess, discovers the magic lamp, and is the good guy the audience roots for but his quest seems somewhat lost. Newton sings well and his duets with his Princess (Nicola Meehan) soar but we don’t ever really get to know this Aladdin.

Normally the Dame overshadows any panto and, while Barry Hester’s Widow Twanky is a gloriously Technicolor creation, here the comic top spotlight falls on Matt Slack’s Wishee Washee.

Slack’s performance glues the piece together, from genuine warm repartee with the audience, the classic one-liner and a real physical presence, it’s hard to take your eyes of his performance. Slack’s face is one of the most elastic in pantoland, constantly in motion and contorting into a range of expressive features. It’s an performance packed so full of energy that it’s tiring just to watch.

Equally impressive are the acrobatic skills of the Trio Serik, though only two performers were on stage on Press Night, their gravity defying aerial work eliciting gasps of awe from the audience.

In an age where cinemas are embracing 3D technology, it’s encouraging to see theatre move towards high-tech as well. Here effects company Amazing Interactive have created a stunning 3D Genie that soars out across the auditorium. This is technology fully integrated into a live action environment, effects are so well planned that audience members can frequently be seen ducking to avoid the menagerie of creatures that fly out of the screen to attack the audience. The pivotal Magic Carpet sequence also makes effective use of the 3D effects, providing a real sense of motion.

A good pantomime provides entertainment for all ages, and Aladdin ticks all the boxes with plenty of cross-generational humour. For a traditional panto with a modern twist, you couldn’t wish for anything more.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Review: Dial M For Murgatroyd - Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich

The whodunit is a theatrical staple. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has recently celebrated its 250,000th performance over 60 years in the West End but in Eastern Angles marvelous mad murder mystery the genre has been given an anarchic makeover.

The traditional ‘whodunit’ cry of ‘the butler did it’ doesn’t last long here as the menservants of Fitzall Hall tend to have an unfortunate habit of ending up murdered. Braintree, Barking and Wivenhoe all come to a sticky end in quick succession leading to the conclusion that a murderer may be on the prowl.

As is Eastern Angles festive custom, tongue remains firmly in cheek as Julian Harries and Pat Whymark’s script firmly lampoons the crime thriller. It’s all done in an affectionate way, though, with plenty of lovingly crafted references that fans of Poirot, Marple et al will revel in spotting.

When the body count threatens to rival that of Midsummer Murders, the Fitzalls decide to call in help. Queue the arrival of amateur sleuth, the deceptively masculine Miss Jane Murgatroyd and local police Inspector Jessop. Is the killer targeting butlers or is there another target? What happened to gun-toting Georgina’s monkey? What is Colonel Sir Clive Fitzall and his son, Fenton, doing in the cellar and can the family solve the problem before they run out of Essex named butlers?

Much fun is made of the small cast with some cleverly observed costume and character swapping allowing for some lightning-fast doubling. As ever with Eastern Angles clever use is made from the limited stage space, with simple props being used to ingenious effect.

There’s not a weak link in the company, all of who revel in their slightly bonkers creations. Patrick Marlowe’s butch Miss Murgatroyd, Samuel Martin’s camp as a row of tents Fenton, Deborah Hewitt’s ‘shoot it if it moves’ Georgina, and Emma Finlay’s insane Mad Meg all gloriously over the top characters. Harries himself completes a hat trick of writing, directing and performing the dual roles of Fitzall and the bumbling Inspector Jessop.

Co-Director Wymark’s music provides plenty of comic potential, whether it’s a comic ape chase scene or an accompaniment to a barnstorming wing walking routine, never let it be said that Easter Angles Christmas shows are not inventive.

It may look and feel different from your traditional festive offering but for laughs per line it would be hard to beat. Where else can you sit and suddenly find a giant monkey sitting on your knee? Judging by the enthusiastic audience response, one suspects the phone lines to the Dial M For Murgatroyd Box Office will be red hot.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Review: People - National Theatre, London

“People, People who need people”… Barbara Streisand’s famous song wasn’t the inspiration for Alan Bennett’s latest play for the National Theatre. In fact if Bennett’s theme is understood it’s more a case of people who don’t want people.

In a large, crumbling Georgian pile Lady Dorothy Stacpole is confined to one room, the leaking roof, broken boilers, and general air of decay way beyond her limited income to repair. It makes for a tragic image, the grande dame reduced to sleeping on the floor in front of a two bar electric heater.

There’s hope on the horizon,  though, the National Trust could be interested in taking on the property but Dorothy’s not convinced at the thought of the Great British unwashed trudging through her ancestral  home.
It all looks a promising premise for a play. Sadly Bennett seems to get distracted and, instead of concentrating on this plot, seems to offer director Nicholas Hytner a taster of several possible stories. Thrown into the pot are fragmentary sub plots concerning a mysterious organisation that purchases historic buildings for the exclusive use of their members, a superfluous bishop, a 1970s porn shoot farce, and a look at the social stigma of the gentry.

All of these plots in their own right could have made good plays but, by combining them into one piece the effect seems muddled. An idea is just established before it is abandoned for the next plot. Bennett’s trademark dark humour is present but it’s often swamped in the need to establish characters and backstory.
As the three central female characters, Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell work well together, Bassett in particular moving as the ‘companion’ Iris. De la Tour works hard to give Dorothy some depth but there’s a feeling that the role needs more acid to balance the eccentricity.

Away from the central triptych remaining characters seem sketchier. Miles Jupp’s auctioneer turned developer and Nicholas le Prevost’s National Trust representative are perhaps the most formed but, even so, we really only get a glimpse into their motives. Peter Egan’s porn director Theodore, on the other hand, seems little more than a comic device without any real centre.

There is though, another major character here, that of Bob Crowley’s Georgian splendour of a set. Filling the Lyttleton stage, anyone who has wandered the rooms of a stately home tour will feel instantly at home, even if as here the room is in severe terminal decay.

There are moments to enjoy but like many stately home visits, Bennett’s People seems difficult to take in in its entirety on one viewing. Bennett’s skills as a writer are evident but less would have been definitely more.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Feature: Theatre UK Award predictions

While many theatre awards focus on London, the Theatre Management Association’s Theatre Awards UK, being held later this week, look further afield and covers the entire country. Perhaps the awards don’t quite hit the headlines in the way the Olivier Awards do but it’s an important area to celebrate and one we need to support.

There’s still some way to go to flag up the strength of regional theatre and these awards do include some ‘big hitters’ such as the RSC and Chichester Festival Theatre but they do go to prove that you don’t need to have opened in the ‘glittering’ West End to receive recognition (although one of the nominated shows, Sweeney Todd, did perhaps garner more attention for its London run than its regional premiere).

The logistics of nationwide awards are enough to make the eyes water – how do you manage judging given the sheer volume of work on offer – but it conversely perhaps marks a weakness in the current awards set up. Night in, night out, companies across the work are producing high quality work that deserves recognition. Does the fact that a member of the judging panel doesn’t make it to their show diminish their efforts?
Does the London focus of the national print critics (with a couple of notable exceptions) also paint a skewed picture of the importance of out of London theatre?

Does the fact that the awards dinner itself is held in London send the wrong message? In 2013 should the TMA really embrace its ‘Most Welcoming Theatre’ category and coax attendees to venture outside the M25 and attend the previous year’s winning venue? Does the TMA also need to think its criteria? Is it a level playing field if the might of the RSC can compete with a small regional venue?

As someone who will talk to anyone about the gap between London and national theatre coverage, such a celebration of nationwide theatre is a welcome step, though the awards barely cover the breadth of productions on offer on any given night across the country.

Judging for any awards is always hard to predict, and as mentioned above, given the geographical spread its difficult to have seen all nominations but on the list are several nominations that I’m delighted to support (and probably in the process give them the kiss of death!)

BEST PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY -  Tim Pigott-Smith for KING LEAR at West Yorkshire Playhouse
In a year of Lear, it could have been easy to overdose on the ageing monarch, but West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production was not only visually arresting, it contained a central performance from Pigott-Smith of immense intensity and gravitas.

On the night I saw King Lear in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s main house, their studio was showing a new musical, The Go-Between. Adapted from LP Hartley’s classic novel and composed by Lear’s composer Richard Taylor, I finally caught the show later in the tour in Northampton and was blown away by the sheer power of the piece. If there’s been a finer new British musical in recent years I would be very surprised. An intimate and complex interweaving of music and story to create a beautiful and moving evening.

BEST PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL – Daniel Evans, Company at Crucible, Sheffield
On a cold, stormy night in Sheffield, it takes a strong company to win over an unsettled audience after a lengthy technical delay. As soon as Daniel Evans and the rest of the Company ensemble stepped on stage though any issues vanished as Evans set the stage alight in Sondheim’s look at love and loneliness.

ACHIEVEMENT IN MARKETING – The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
When a venue closes for a redevelopment, sadly something is often lost in the new building. For Canterbury though the brand new Marlowe Theatre is a total delight.  Though well designed and thought out, it take more than a building to make a theatre and the Marlowe’s press and marketing department are always a joy to work with.

MOST WELCOMING THEATRE – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
OK, possibly some local bias but as perhaps the venue I spend more time at than any other it’s time to sing the praises of this 400 seat powerhouse. Where other venues may play it safe, the NWT team are never afraid to take risks but always with the aim of encouraging and developing new audiences into their theatre. Oh and it serves some of the best jacket potatoes you could ever want!

PROMOTION OF DIVERSITY -Graeae Theatre Company
Anyone who watched the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games can have no doubt as to Graeae’s Artistic Director Jenny Sealey’s passion for raising awareness of diversity. Graeae are never afraid to challenge, provoke and even shock but it’s always done in a highly accessible, and more importantly, engaging manner.

OK, this one is voted for by the public so is perhaps wider open than most categories. Many people think Children’s theatre is a ‘dumbed down’ theatre. The opposite is true – to make a show that appeals to all ages is notoriously hard and younger theatre goers can be the harshest critics. The Children’s Touring Partnership tour of Swallows And Amazons worked its magic on all ages, enthralling and engaging all who saw.

The actual winners will be announced on Sunday 28th October in London. Let’s hope that all nominees receive acclaim for their achievements and that the 2013 awards will cover even more of the UK's vibrant, and truly national theatre scene.

Photo: The Go Between Company