Friday, 30 March 2012
It’s a feeling repeated in Gecko’s Missing, as conveyer belts move performers in and out of focus. It’s a device Gecko has used previously in The Race, but here developed to a whole new level.
As with much physical theatre, Missing doesn’t provide a definitive narrative, allowing the audience to overlay their own experiences onto the piece but, in Missing, Gecko arguably stage their most defined piece yet.
As Lilly undergoes medical treatment, she is forced to re-examine her life, both current and in the past. Her memories float through her consciousness as she recalls her parents, her younger self and her career. Of course each individual audience member will have their own take on the narrative but whatever the story it’s a deeply personal journey.
Technically the show combines many themes that Gecko has explored in the past. Music, dance, puppetry, movement and special effects combining to tell a story in visual terms that overcomes language. The key motif here is a series of illuminated frames that replay elements of Lilly’s past. Faded photos and old cine film brought vividly to life by the company so effectively that you forget you are actually watching live action.
The staging is impressive, though doesn’t overwhelm the story. The fluidity of the conveyors and frames moves the action swiftly from tableaux to tableaux, only slowly losing pace towards the end of the 75 minutes when the short, staccato staging is overtaken by a lingering scene that seems at odds with the rest of the fast paced action.
While the effects are clever, sadly they are not quite perfect. The touring nature of the show does mean some sightline issues that need to be addressed. Some framing is missed from side seating and other action is viewed at too acute an angle to really work.
The five strong company; Anna Finkel, Chris Evans, David Bartholomew, Georgina Roberts and Ryen Perkins-Gangnes, drop in an out of scenes with split-second precision. Whether as individual characters or a synchronised chorus it’s a non-stop blur of motion and movement.
Of course, with a show that relies on its audience to come to their own conclusion on the subject and plot all of the above could be completely off the mark. Whatever the interpretation, Missing showcases Gecko’s unique theatrical style, though at times does seem to be an amalgam of previous Gecko creations rather than something totally new.
Originally written for The Public Reviews
Wednesday, 28 March 2012
For Filumena is a former ‘working girl’ from the slums of Naples. For 27 years she has been the mistress of wealthy Domenico but on her deathbed has persuaded Domenico to marry her. As soon as the nuptials are concluded though she stages a miraculous recovery and announces it was all a plan to aid her three illegitimate sons, one of whom could be fathered by Domenico.
As the three, initially blissfully unaware, sons are drawn into the deceit it looks unlikely that it will all end up as happy families.
Eduardo De Filippo’s look at 1940s Neapolitan class divide is somewhat of an unbalanced piece. While a lengthy first act builds up the required tension, concluding with a dramatic cliff hanger, the second, much shorter, second act jumps 10 months with a resolution that is never explained and lacking in that built up tension. In many ways it seems like a whole act has been deleted, leaving the audience wondering what occurred in the interval to so dramatically alter the course of events.
Michael Attenborough’s production looks stunning, with Robert Jones’ sun-kissed Neapolitan villa courtyard resplendent in orange hues. An orange tree, shuttered windows and balconies bedecked with flowers are the perfect advert for the Italian tourist board. Attenborough’s direction however, sometimes misses that fiery Italian passion needed to make this play truly come alive. While the sparring between Filumena and Domenico in Act One does hint at the tempestuous Latin temper, scenes with Domenico’s mistress and the three sons seem oddly restrained.
There are, however, fine performances from the cast. Samantha Spiro excels as Filumena, a masterclass in disdain and withering looks. You can see her analyse ever twist for opportunity and revenge, ever word considered for maximum impact. On the receiving end of Spiro’s acid tongue, Clive Wood physically wobbles but under the outwardly weaker exterior there is a man more than capable of as much deceit as Filumena.
There is fine support from Sheila Reid as Rosalia, a housekeeper more than able to dole out her own put downs, and Brodie Ross, Luke Norris and Richard Riddell as the trio of wildly differing sons brought into the arena for ulterior motives.
There’s much to enjoy here and Tanya Ronder’s translation zips along at a pace, however one can’t help feeling slightly short-changed by the short, weak second act lacking in real Latin passion.
Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Based on the real-life tragedy of explorer Floyd Collins, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s 1996 musical pushes the boundaries of musical construction much as Collins pushed his limits of exploration. A mix of gospel, bluegrass and at times a more discordant score, it’s not easy listening and requires work from its audience. Put that work in, however, and you are rewarded with a piece that both haunts and moves.
While an American legend, the story of Floyd Collins is less well known here. Exploring the cave system of Kentucky in 1925, Collins became trapped deep underground. Above ground a media circus soon ensured the unfolding drama was being followed step by step across America. Much like today, facts were sometimes an inconvenient truth and the story became more important than the victim.
Derek Bond’s production doesn’t shy away from the relevancy to today and one can’t help thinking back to more recent events such as the Chilean mining rescue. Bond also makes effective use of Southwark Playhouse’s trump card, the cavernous brick arches underneath London Bridge station. Strewn with ladders and crates, James Perkin’s design makes full use of the entire depth of the arches to provide an atmospheric, echoing backdrop to this caving tale. As the sound of trains rumble overhead it seems to echo the cadence of the score.
Actors and sound emerge from the distant shadows and full use is made of the reverberation in the tunnels. A gospel fuelled Ballad of Floyd Collins weaves in and out of the story as solos merge into choral and echo around the cavern.
Glenn Carter’s Floyd Collins impresses. Immobile for much of the performance it’s a performance of building frustration and dashed hope but one tempered with the understanding of a man at one with his environment. There’s also fine performances from Ryan Sampson as the cub reporter ‘Skeets’ Miller who first breaks the story but also becomes the first person to really connect with Floyd and Gareth Chart as Floyd’s brother, Homer – torn between a determination to free his sibling on his terms and the tempting lights of stardom.
Tim Jackson’s musical direction revels in the banjo- and accordion-fuelled score, but also provides plenty of rhythmic underscore to build tension. Occasionally the sound balance in the Playhouse vaults does mean some lyrics are lost under the music, which is a shame as these tend to be in the more intimate moments.
This is by no means an easy production and, given the atmospheric setting of the vaults, one that it is difficult to imagine now being played on a conventional stage. That, though, is its strength, theatre and musicals should never be afraid of tacking unconventional settings and topics. Why not play this production in actual caves, basement car parks or echoing warehouses? – Floyd Collins wasn’t afraid of adventure, nor should theatre be.
Friday, 23 March 2012
The line-up includes some of the biggest names in theatre, with dance, drama, comedy and musicals among the schedule.
Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words opens the new season, in a revival staged to mark the 25th anniversary of Bourne’s New Adventures company,Bourne then returns to the theatre later in the year with the world premiere tour of his adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, staged with Aurora growing up in the Edwardian era before reawakening in the modern age.
One of the biggest hits of the season is likely to be a visit by the National Theatre’s smash hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. Just reopened in its third London home, Richard Bean’s hilarious comedy, combining slapstick with skiffle, will play at the venue for a week in December.
In a week when they have announced their new Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, the Royal Shakespeare Company wil make a return to Norwich his African set Julius Caesar, created original as part of the London 2012 Festival.
Drama fans can also look forward to some Egyptian sun with The Agatha Christie Theatre Company production of Murder On The Nile, or for something a bit more chilly Alan Ayckbourn’s thriller Haunting Julia.
In what has already been a strong year for stage musicals in Norwich, two new additions will please song and dance fans. The classic backstage musical 42nd Street will run at the Norwich venue in October featuring Dave Willetts and Marti Webb, while Bill Kenwright will bring his production of Cabaret to the venue as part of a small UK tour, with star casting expected to be announced shortly.
Commenting on the new season the venue’s John Bultitude said:
“We have worked hard to provide a wide range of different shows, productions and performances to ensure the people of Norfolk can continue to enjoy top-class entertainment on their doorstep.”
Tickets for the new season begin to go on sale to members from April. For details of onsale dates check the Theatre Royal Website.
Thursday, 22 March 2012
I've always thought a stage show about an understudy promoted to lead role would make a good plot – oh wait, 42nd Street has been there, done that. Life, though, has imitated art as, following James Corden’s departure to open the show on Broadway, One Man, Two Guvnors producers have taken the rare step of promoting his understudy into the leading man slot.
It proves to be a masterstroke, with Owain Arthur not only rising to the challenge but, in many ways, surpassing Corden’s original. While Corden revelled in the slapstick and had the cheeky-chappy routine down to a fine art, there was somehow a nagging feeling that we were watching a James Corden comic routine. Owain Arthur brings a freshness to the role of bumbling sidekick Francis Henshall, unwittingly working for two ‘guvnors’ when all he really wants is a good meal.
Arthur’s performance is a wonder to behold. Played in his natural Welsh lilt, opposed to Corden’s estuary English, in a way it’s a more subtle performance but one that still provides the overblown clowning when required. There’s an easy rapport with the audience, and it’s still inadvisable for the shy to sit in the very front rows. There’s a charm in Arthur’s portrayal that’s infectious. One gets the feeling that following this performance we shall be seeing many more leading roles from Arthur.
As their predecessors head off across the Atlantic the new company provide more than worthy replacements.
There’s an impressive performance from Jodie Prenger as a lusty Dolly, subject of Henshall’s nervous flirtations, Hannah Spearritt revels in the dim wittedness of Pauline, while Daniel Ings mocks every wanna-be actor with his pent up aggression as Alan ‘Orlando’ Dangle. There’s also great comic work from Gemma Whelan as avenging gangster Rachel, and Ben Mansfield’s nice-but dim ex public schoolboy, Stanley.
Giving Arthur a run for his money in the comedy stakes, though, is Martin Barrass’ geriatric waiter, Alfie. Doddering doesn’t quite cover it, as food precariously clings to plates as Barrass throws himself around the stage in a performance that reduces the audience to uncontrolled laughter.
Nick Hyntner’s direction still packs the punches where required, and has lost none of its energy in its third home. In some ways a second viewing even enhances the comedy as you can pick up lines lost in the laughter first time around. Richard Bean’s script is packed with so many rapid fire jokes that its nuances are able to be savoured on repeat viewing. That’s a rare accolade in farce, where normally the element of surprise is key to enjoyment, but it’s a testament to the skill both onstage and off that, while you know somethings are coming, the anticipation just adds to the enjoyment.
Those who thought that One Man, Two Guvnors success was tied to its original casting have been proved delightfully wrong. As the former understudy takes his well-earned and justified place in the spotlight, one suspects that Arthur’s own understudy, Matthew Woodyatt, is eagerly looking at the next cast change. With its current cast though, One Man, Two Guvnors remains the funniest show in town.
Photo by Johan Persson
Sunday, 18 March 2012
Rose has a dream, a mantra almost as strong and rallying as that of Martin Luther King. She won’t rest until her youngest daughter, June, hits the big time on the Vaudeville circuit as a child star. The small facts that her daughter has be ‘nine, going on ten’ for a number of years and that Vaudeville itself is dying is something she refuses to countenance. When June flees her mother’s control, sister Louise comes in for grooming but a twist of fate sees Louise’s career rising to a height even Rose couldn’t foresee, even if it’s not a sector of the industry she approves of.
Inspired by the memoirs of legendry Burlesque stripper ‘Gypsy’ Rose Lee, Arthur Laurents, Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s musical has become a rarely performed classic. Perhaps because of its relation to the US stage, it’s been more frequently staged in America than in the UK but Paul Kerryson’s loving staging at Leicester’s Curve Theatre is a welcome return to the English stage.
Based in historical reality, there is little you can do to update this show to a modern audience but, in fairness, it doesn't need it. Though firmly set in 1930s America, the themes of pressure to succeed, the lure of celebrity, parental expectations and stepping out of your parent’s shadow remain as relevant today as ever.
Kerryson’s direction focuses very much on the relationship between Rose and her daughters and sometimes, therefore, unwittingly highlights some of the failings of Laurent’s book. Herbie, Rose’s long suffering boyfriend is thinly drawn (though played with conviction by David Fleeshman) while June’s escape from her mother’s clutches is barely a couple of throwaway lines. Overall these are minor points but one can’t help but wonder what could have been.
There are fine performances from Daisy Maywood as June and Victoria Hamilton-Barrit as Louise. Hamilton-Barrit’s transformation from shy second fiddle to leading lady is a remarkable transformation. There is also outstanding work from Lucinda Shaw as Mazeppa, the trumpet-toting stripper, sung with full on gusto.
Of course Gypsy is perhaps the incorrect title of this show, with the spotlight falling squarely on the formidable Mamma Rose. Caroline O’Connor’s performance more than meets expectation. Channelling just enough spirit of original star Ethel Merman, O’Connor delves deep into the part and drags out every inch of emotion and then punches them out over the footlights. A larger than life character this is a larger than life performance to match. A vocal powerhouse, O’Connor also manages to reveal just enough of Rose’s vulnerability, showing just how much she has sacrificed in the name of the, sometimes misguided, dreams for her daughters.
Kerryson’s production doesn’t quite hit every spot but it’s darn close. Scene transitions sometimes seem slow, despite Sara Perks’ fluid flying advertising hording set and there is a missed opportunity with an empty stage overture but they are minor quibbles that can easily be fixed. Gypsy has been something of a neglected gem and it’s wonderful to welcome her back into the spotlight.
Photography: Pamela Raith
Saturday, 17 March 2012
For Henry Molaison, experimental brain surgery in the 1950s in an attempt to cure his epilepsy leaves his with severe amnesia. His memory wiped and the inability to form new memory.
As we follow Henry before and after surgery we realise what a huge loss he has suffered. Burgeoning love, family relationships and the sheer joy of life wiped forever from his brain. As his family ages around him and eventually die, leaving him alone in a care home, Henry doesn’t even remember how old he is. Each day merging in a repeat of half recalled snatches of past events.
Analogue’s 2401 Objects takes us not only on a journey into Henry’s fractured mind, but also into our own brain, encouraging us to think about the precious nature of our own memory and how they are controlled by a tiny piece of brain tissue.
This could all too easily turn into a dry, scientific lecture but Analogue’s fluid staging focuses on the human impact in an emotionally moving evening.
As with their previous productions, Mile End and Beachy Head, this is a multi-media production, combining projection and movement to create a world that is constantly in motion. A moving screen scoops up characters and scenes and allows a non-stop narrative. Forget cinema 3D gimmickry, this is the real deal. Thor Hayton’s multimedia designs add a sense of depth to the production – a description of the invasive surgery carried out on Henry’s brain echoed in a film of an inflight meal being consumed, each incision being echoed by knife and fork.
There’s strong performances throughout the company, switching from character to character as the set revolves and tracks up and down stage. Paul Hassall, Simon Yadoo and Alexandra Maher joined on stage by their stage manager Helen Mugridge. All perform with split-second precision and commitment, telling Henry’s tale with dignity and pride.
Analogue doesn’t shy away from the ethical questions posed by Henry’s plight but don’t provide any judgements. The audience are left to decide themselves if the scientific knowledge locked in Henry’s brain are worth the suffering he endures and if he is even capable of comprehending what happened to him.
Suitably for a show that looks at memory, this is one production that will linger long in the mind.
Originally written for The Public Reviews
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Back in October 2011 I reviewed Chichester Festival Theatre’s sell out production of Sweeney Todd. It was clear then that this show was destined for a life beyond its Sussex run; the star casting of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton just one clue to its future potential.
As widely predicted the show has now landed in the West End, opening at the Aldephi Theatre for a limited season.
Has the journey worked? Yes and no. It is still early days in the run and official press night is not until 20th March (although producers are charging full price from day one) and so the usual caveats apply.
Back in October my review heaped praise on Ball and Staunton’s performances and they still impress. If anything Staunton’s Mrs Lovett has developed even more since Chichester, an absolutely gripping performance full of subtle nuances, coupled with broad humour when required. The comic timing is still spot-on, the singing full of yearning passion and there’s a steely determination under that little frail woman act. If Staunton doesn’t walk away with every best actress in a musical award in 2012 it will be a crime to rival Sweeney’s multiple murders.
Ball on the other hand has somewhat softened his Todd. Chichester saw a chilling intensity and brooding menace and, while vocally Ball still soars, some of the malevolence seems to have dissipated in the larger theatre.
This distance between performer and audience has had the biggest impact of the move. While Chichester suffered problems with blocking not taking into account the thrust staging, the Adelphi’s cavernous three level auditorium puts many viewers at a greater distance from the stage and the resulting lack of intimacy does hamper. With its shadowy lighting and many scenes played at the rear of the stage, it is often difficult to see performers faces clearly.
The design does also cause problems, with performers on multiple levels causing sight line issues from some parts of the auditorium. Even top price seating now seems somewhat remote from the action, and while Anthony Ward’s grimy monochrome industrial setting fills the stage, Jonathan Kent’s blocking still has issues, even on a proscenium stage.
This is still early days in the run and some of these technical issues can easily be resolved. It remains a chilling dark Sweeney Todd, sung with gusto and conviction. With its casting it would always need a large theatre but perhaps that success is also its Achilles heel, losing some of the intimacy. Something for the producers to chew over.
You can’t choose your family, so the saying goes. The same can also be said about your neighbours. For residents of Richmond Road, somewhere in the vicinity of Romford, those neighbours include Beverly, an overpowering creature who brow-beats both her husband and her neighbours by sheer force of will.
There’s an extra character here in the Menier Chocolate factory’s spot on revival, Mike Britton’s set. As the audience take their seats, they stop without fail at the front of the stage to admire the hideously accurate recreation of 70s suburbia. The large print wallpaper, the sheepskin rug, the ornaments – all sparking a sense of déjà vu for those who remember those, thankfully now past, fashions.
The set provides a deceptively innocuous setting for the social bloodbath about to take place. Beverley is holding court, hosting a party for neighbours. In the confines of the living room the façade of happy relationship slips and the fake smiles barely concealing the loathing.
There can be few who don’t know at least the outline of Mike Leigh’s classic play, though Lindsay Posner’s production treats it as if it was a new piece. We may know what is coming but there’s no attempt to ape those iconic performances of Alision Stedman and the rest of the original 1977 cast. Though much copied over the years, and often dismissed as a throwaway comedy, there’s a real challenge for the cast to make what are at heart thoroughly unlikeable characters real and three dimensional. It is all too easy to play them as grotesque but truth is these are all too easily recognisable.
Andy Nyman’s henpecked Laurence isn’t perhaps the weakling that would first seem. We almost feel sorry for him but there’s a streak of selfishness here that stops us. We also veer towards sympathy for Natalie Casey’s Angela, using drink to hide her dawning realisation that her husband Tony (a monosyllabic, glowering Joe Absalom) isn’t just ‘nasty’ but has a violent side as well. The sympathy is tempered though with a growing frustration over Angela’s sheer determination to be ‘nice’. Perhaps the only character we can feel sympathy for is Susannah Harker’s delightfully polite Sue, taking refuge from her teenage daughter’s wild party. A masterclass in the sly look, raised eyes and 101 ways to say thank you, there’s times when you want to help Harker escape this madhouse.
Presiding over proceedings as a gin toting dictator is Jill Halfpenny’s Beverly – a vision of glamour clad in her attention seeking green ball gown. Halfpenny’s creation is delightfully awful, outwardly blissfully unaware of her guests discomfort but actually cannily pulling just the right strings to ensure she remains the centre of attention. Yes she is a monster but there is reasoning behind it, frustration, ignorance and a desperate need to be loved, however destructive that love proves to be.
In its 35th anniversary year, Abigail’s Party shows no sign of settling down into respectable middle age and still offers that opportunity for audiences to watch and think ‘there for the grace of God go I’. As Beverley utters countless times, simply ‘Fantastic’
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
For their 341st musical, the Showstoppers company is faced with the challenge to set a show on a 1910 cruise liner sailing from Venice. Along the way, they are challenged to incorporate the musical styles of Salad Days, Avenue Q, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers, and a bit of 15th Century medieval chant.
The resulting world premiere of Sunk! features a tangled web of love, danger and dreams as passengers and crew face mortal danger. As if the company’s challenge wasn’t big enough thrown into the mix are more audience choices – scenes played in the style of a Mummers play, another violent scene in the style of Sarah Kane and even some tassel-waving Burlesque. Add a couple of gangsters with a love of opera and crochet and the surreal scene is set.
It all makes for a fast-moving montage of theatrical genres that totally involves its audience. Despite the varied suggestions the cast seem un-phased and produce a strangely credible stage musical from the disparate threads.
Framed by a desperate author (Dylan Emery) fighting to pitch his unwritten musical to a famous producer, there’s plenty of sending up the musical theatre canon here but all backed up with an impressive knowledge of the genre. The ever-revolving cast of Les Mis are shamelessly parodied and even the puppets of Avenue Q aren't safe but it’s all done with affection and for the creation of this hybrid musical.
The story may end up being absurd but one can’t help but be impressed by the sheer skill and wit of the company (Adam Meggido, Phil Pellew, Ruth Bratt, Lucy Trodd and Nigel Pilkington). Not only are these first class singers but they possess sharp improvisational skills, constantly changing tact with the new suggestions. Musical director Duncan Walsh Atkins provides a constantly shifting accompaniment, echoing the classic styles being lampooned.
While the good ship La Traviata may have been sunk on stage, there’s more than enough humour and skill on display here to keep the evening afloat. Fans of musicals and comedy should make every effort to catch Showstoppers. It will of course be an entirely different show next time around but this company are more than up to the challenge.
Originally written for The Public Reviews
Sunday, 4 March 2012
Without ever having seen the original film it is hard to make comparison as to how the two compare but perhaps that’s a bonus – and as a stage musical, the show stands on its own two, stiletto clad, feet.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, this is traditional Rom-Com fare, Posh vain boy dumps blonde girlfriend for rich girl with prospects. Only there’s a twist, determined to win back her man blonde fashionista Elle Woods dumps Vogue magazine in favour of law books and enrols at Harvard Law School. It seems a doomed idea, but behind the ditzy exterior lies a sharp brain and Elle soon discovers that she can do so much better than chase her ex.
Tongue firmly in cheek, Legally Blonde makes no bones that the story, while having a laudable core message about self-worth, is as thin as one of Elle’s favoured magazines. It does however play the story with total conviction and energy that it’s impossible not to be swept along by the exuberance.
There’s a real spark of fun running through the entire ensemble with performances that never put a foot out of place, knowing just how much to send up the characters without losing that sense of believability, however absurd.
There’s a surprisingly dark and sinister performance from Les Dennis as crack shot lawyer turned Professor Callahan and a charming and vocally impressive positive influence Emmett from Iwan Lewis.
As love rat Warner, Ray Quinn exudes a greasy charm but does struggle somewhat with the vocal range of the character.
It is perhaps fitting though that the standout performances really belong to the ladies. Niki Evan’s vocal powerhouse Paulette soars with her rendition of ‘Ireland’, combining musical flare with real emotional depth.
The night of course really belongs to Elle herself and Faye Brookes doesn’t disappoint. Strong vocals, a sense of vulnerability mixed with an inner steel and perfect timing with witty one-liners, Brookes’ charm and charisma make it impossible not to warm to her.
Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s songs are unlikely to be ones you will find yourself humming in days to come, but they serve their purpose to provide the emotional drive to the show, combining up tempo dance numbers against more plaintive ballads. Amidst all the froth though listen carefully; those lyrics contain more bite than may initially appear.
Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography make much of the high-octane, comic potential and even manages to include a lampoon of Riverdance.
Legally Blonde is unlikely ever to find itself on the reading list for Harvard Law students but for two and a half hours of unashamedly feel-good fun, it’s certainly one to let your hair down to.
Originally written for The Public Reviews