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!

The Ministry of Fear – New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

An espionage thriller that starts off at a church fete with a cross dressed fortune teller is always going to be a bit of a surreal evening and The Ministry of Fear – a stage adaptation of Graeme Greene’s novel by Theatre Alibi does take some unexpected turns.

Set in the Second World War it’s a case of overlapping plots and mistaken identities as a film is being smuggled into enemy hands.

As a dark film noir this could work but on stage something is missing. Despite an impressive warped girder set (Trina Bramman) and an enthusiastic cast, each playing multiple roles, the action never really takes off. There are a few moments of tension and suspense but these are few and far between in the 2 ¼ hour production.

The first act needs much tighter pace to keep the audience gripped (It was telling to note a number of empty seats after the interval.) and by the time the tension does build in act two its too late to satisfy a feeling of disappointment.

One element that does work well is the live score for cello and woodwind, echoing both the joy of the big band era and the terror of the air raid sirens.

There is potential here but sadly the pieces of this jigsaw don’t quite fit together into a classic.

Love never dies, it’s just delayed

So Love Never Dies won’t be heading to Broadway this November after all. Really Useful have announced that the production will be delayed until ‘Spring 2011’ on medical orders.

Given what can only be at best described as ‘mixed’ reviews, it is perhaps an opportunity for the creative team to go back to the drawing board and solve some of the problems facing the show in its current form.

The ending is perhaps the section most urgently in need of attention but there is much work to do on the whole piece if the show is going to work on the Great White Way.

Having had a couple of days to reflect on the show I now think there is an identity issue with the piece. On one hand it tries to be a big spectacle and fails, on the other it is an intimate love story. Perhaps the producers should decide what route to follow – either bump up the magic and spectacle or focus on a Chocolate Factory style chamber piece.

Love Never Dies – Adelphi Theatre

It’s one of the most hotly anticipated shows in years, has received just as much coverage for the negative reviews online as for the show itself and has split critics down the middle.

Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has gone on record to say that people should wait a month before seeing a new musical so one day short of a month after opening night I find myself at the Adelphi to see what all the furore is over Love Never Dies, otherwise known as Phantom Of The Opera 2.

So will I be on the side of the likes of the Independent (5 stars) or the New York Times (who hated it)?

So let’s see what we get for our money? Plot – in serious need of some oil, it takes two hours to get going and that just leaves 25 mins to excite. Music, yes the score is lush but that is mainly down to David Cullen’s expansive orchestrations. Spectacle – some horses in waves pinched from a Guinness advert, some art deco flats and a few pieces of furniture. Direction – static to say the least.

Not going favourably so far then. The problem is that it’s all just so slow and dull. There is no chemistry or tension and you just don’t care about the characters. A character dies at the end but it gets to the point when if they didn’t hurry up you’d go and finish the job off for them.

The main Phantom Ramin Karimloo was off sick for this performance, as was Liz Robertson (Madame Giry). Tam Mutu gave a credible performance as The Phantom with the limited material he is given and Janet Mooney was vocally impressive as Giry. Much has been made of Sierra Boggess as Christine and it is perhaps her rendition of the title number that is the only redeeming feature of the evening. We don’t ever see however any spark of chemistry between Christine and The Phantom to explain their love.

It is a ‘green’ show though – much has already been said about Lloyd Webber’s recycling of the title song from his earlier Beautiful Game but perhaps the show could be re-billed as ‘Magic of The Musicals’ – we get flavours of Salad Days, Sunset Boulevard, Kiss Me Kate, The Boyfriend and even in the otherwise vocally impressive rendition of the title song, an impression of arm-waving Evita.

There is potential here but it needs a serious amount of work. We need to believe the love and the drama and some tension, any dramatic tension needs to be introduced to spark this dead in the water show into life.

WestEnd Whingers blog coined the phrase Paint Never Dries – I’d find paint infinitely more exciting than this dreary show. The show is due to transfer to Broadway in November but I suggest that an entirely new version will be needed by then to save this turkey lasting past Thanksgiving.