Big Fish (The Other Palace)

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Over at the rebranded The Other Palace (formerly St James’ Theatre), something rather magical is going on, with a bit of Broadway pizazz in this show of tall tales, misunderstandings, loss, redemption, daffodils, and fish.

Kelsey Grammer has been imported from the US to make his London stage debut in Andrew Lippa’s musical, itself based on the screenplay for the film (starring Albert Finney) written by John August, itself based on a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is introduced at his straight-laced son’s wedding, shortly after they’ve been fishing. He’s been cautioned not to share his ‘stories’ or even make a toast, but of course, he doesn’t listen. Quickly, though, we realise that all is not well and that his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) will have to make sense of the man who he regards as a stranger and who is starting to slip away.

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While Edward slips in and out of consciousness, with his loving wife Sandra (Clare Burt) and new (and pregnant) daughter-in-law Josephine (Frances McNamee) close by, we meet his young self (Jamie Muscato) and follow him on wild adventures with a witch (Landi Oshinowo), a giant (Dean Nolan), and a circus supremo (Forbes Masson), as well as young Sandra (Laura Baldwin). These boast bizarre and big song and dance numbers – often pastiches – while the real-time/life scenes are more of the ballad type. Little Will is present for most of the time, too, and was played by Colby Mulgrew at the performance we saw; he reacts to the fun and the sadness around him and pulls us in.

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The set is simple enough, utilising sound effects and video projections to give us a sense of where we are, when outside the hospital ward.  A lovely act one closer gives us a stage full of daffodils, which were always Sandra’s favourite flowers, although we might not quite believe the story of how the young Edward and Sandra met.

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Some commentators on this show have scoffed at reports of audiences being moved by events as they unfold, but certainly at the evening performance I attended there were quite a few people dabbing their eyes, and rightly so, as the final scenes are deeply moving, and the effectiveness of this has to be laid at the door of director Nigel Harman and star Kelsey Grammer, who is simply superb in both the humorous and tragic scenes, as well as throwing himself into the boisterous song routines.

Incidentally, front row ticket holders may well get a closer encounter with Grammer than you might have bargained for, which was amusing in itself.  There’s some doubling of roles in a hard-working cast, with Oshinowo and Masson portraying two characters, while the smaller roles in ensemble are well-drawn.  The fantasy sequences are great, and Burt is quietly wonderful in a role which might have misfired, as is McNamee. I found Muscato had a lot of charm as young Edward, although it’s hard to think he grew up to turn into Frasier (still Grammer’s best-known role, and despite best efforts he doesn’t quite shake off memories of Seattle’s finest).

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If you want something which is ‘flipping’ marvellous, with a ‘sole’ and a good line in ‘cod’ philosophy, then make your way to The Other Palace for this short run; it is well worth your time and is definitely the ‘plaice’ to be.


Beginning (Dorfman, National Theatre)

As I type this up, a bit late as I saw last weekend’s matinee, it’s been confirmed that David Eldridge’s perceptive new play will transfer to the Ambassadors.

After seeing another two-hander, Heisenberg, recently, I found it interesting to compare the two, although Beginning takes place in real-time, in the early hours of the morning after Laura’s housewarming party in Crouch End (in ‘the pesto triangle’).

Danny has been left behind as his mates have picked up a taxi and he fancied another beer, and as it turns out, he might fancy the slightly prickly Laura as well. She in turn is up for sex but not really for anything long-term that includes Danny.

So the play ventures from believable awkward talk, to family revelations, the making of fish-finger sandwiches, a flat clean-up and an awkward bit of making out. 

As Laura, Justine Mitchell didn’t quite ring true for me, making me feel her stories of being an MD and of being in a ten-year long previous relationship a bit suspect.
Sam Troughton is more assured as the divorced Danny, who may well be telling tall tales himself to get into this lady’s knickers as quickly as he can – batting away her dreamy description of how the encounter might slowly pan out.

There is a minimal two-room set – table, sofa, beanbag, oven, cupboards. Music is provided before the curtain rises, with wine bottles setting the scene with a nightclub feel, and during one scene via iPod playlist.

The dialogue is sharp and balances cultural references (Strictly) with informal vulgar language. It presents these two people, either side of the cusp of forty, of anything but assured but fairly financially solvent.

Well worth watching, and although it might benefit from a slight trim, the Dorfman pit seats were comfy and there’s a working clock within the set so you can keep tabs on the play’s duration.


Heisenberg (Wyndham’s)

Your enjoyment of this clever drama by Simon Stephens may depend on whether or not you find the idea of a 42 year old woman and a 75 year old man having an intimate relationship acceptable, and whether you find the performances of Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham convincing.

The acting is top notch in this tale which utilises a simple set of tables, chairs and bed which rise and disappear from and into the floor as required.  We get to know Georgie and Alex from their first meeting at a train station, where she impulsively kisses him on the neck and then spins tall tales about her life.

This vibrant American woman has troubles and regrets in her life, and yet it feels OK that she feels herself drawn to the lonely, elderly butcher who loves tango dancing and who is haunted by the memories of both his dead sister and his lost love.

This is a moving piece by its close, even if the bedroom scene feels a little uncomfortable at first.  We understand this pair, thrown together by life, she bored by her mundane job, he lifted up by the whole string of musical genres he reels off when asked about his taste.

The plot may stretch credulity a bit, but the companionable chemistry between the leads keeps this short two-hander constantly interesting.

It is currently set to run until January 2018, and there is good availability at most prices.

 


Wings (Young Vic)

Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, a former wing-walker who has had a stroke and is trapped in a mind which stops her making associations and causes her to speak a babble which makes perfect sense to her but not anyone else around her.

Over a two-year period, this 80 minute play follows Mrs Stilson (we never see her husband, but see her son, briefly) as she starts to make more sense and to make more than transient contact with the world around her.

One moving platform, some see-through curtains, a minimal use of projections, and stellar light work which projects Stevenson’s shadow as she flies, means that the one flashy conceit – our wing-walker spends the vast majority of the play airbourne in a harness doing a staggering range of acrobatic moves that must be as tiring as remembering the complex script – the play has to offer takes most of the attention.

An uplifting play of hope, memory, and language, this is its first revival in the UK for thirty years.  It is a moving and clever play which may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but which I recommend you make time to see.  


Girl From The North Country (Old Vic)

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This play by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, is emphatically not a musical, nor it is a jukebox selection of greatest hits.  Instead, it is a play set in the era of the Depression, with many storylines intertwining, some succeeding and taking flight, some so ephemeral they disappear into thin air.

Into this play are inserted a number of Dylan songs written between 1963 and 2012, which the characters perform to the audience rather than to each other, giving the production a dream quality and the songs a route into the minds and thoughts of the characters who cannot admit them to themselves or each other.

Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) runs a boarding house, which he rents while he fast runs out of money, and he lives there with his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who has dementia and a lack of inhibition, and who told him, shortly before her mind was broken, that she didn’t love him.

He seeks solace with a young widow, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurrup), who waits for a legacy from her marriage that might never come, and shares the confined space of his decaying abode with feckless son Gene (Sam Reid), and adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), who is mysteriously with child and set to be married off to a local elderly and lonely tradesman, Mr Perry (Jim Norton).

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There’s an ‘Our Town’ type narrator, the local doctor (Ron Cook), a bickering couple (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with a son with learning difficulties (Jack Shalloo), and a couple of drifters: one a Bible bashing blackmailer, Rev Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer), and the other a pugilist with aggression in his soul, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene), who take up residence with the Laines.

Hinds doesn’t sing.  He’s the only cast member who doesn’t even join in the group numbers, and this seems deliberate to emphasise his isolation from the rest of the characters (either that, or he really can’t hold a tune!).  His Nick should draw more sympathy than he does; I found his vocal delivery sometimes veered towards the shouty, and that’s a shame when I have seen him do far more nuanced work in other plays and on television.

Bronagh Gallagher, who I remember playing Minnie in a TV production of Shadow of a Gunman many years ago, is absolutely terrific as the ignored wife and devastated mother.  She’s a dab hand on the drums too.  Shirley Henderson, too, is totally convincing as the lost spirit, and the soaring, shining spark which comes alive in song (notably Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young).

I remain unconvinced by some of the plot points, such as why Gene would react in such a racist way to Joe when he has grown up with a black girl as his sister; in fact I felt the story might be taking a much more sinister turn than it eventually did.  Also I did not really feel engaged with his lost love story with Kate Draper (Claudia Jolly), although their duet of I Want You was delicious.

Norton gives yet another superb performance as Mr Perry, who remembers ‘a warm light and a smile’ from his married days, and who seems to have genuine concern and affection for Marianne.  His character is poignant, but he also seems to enjoy singing and dancing in those ensemble numbers.

Cook’s character is more problematic; he is good, but seems superfluous, and I really thought his closing monologue was not needed.  I would have much preferred a fade to black after Elizabeth’s final line.  There’s one standout musical number and performance, but to reveal what and who would spoil a major plot point, so I will leave you to see and enjoy it.

The use of Dylan songs is clever, and it shows that complete artistic control was seded to McPherson and his team: I felt that Slow Train and Hurricane were particular high points.  In a simple set, with instruments of the period, you could summarise this production as being performed by a hard-working cast, but with too many loose threads, with some excellent nuggets here and there (two marriages showing their cracks, people pretending to be what they are not, people being accused of things they didn’t do), and an excellent use of light, shadow and space in the musical numbers.

Girl From The North Country continues at the Old Vic until the 7th October, with limited availability.  A cast recording of the musical numbers has been released on CD and for streaming on Spotify.


Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet musical of theatreland gone by has its first major revival in London in years, and the book by James Goldman has now been returned fairly closely to the original plot, with the songs added for the 1987 revival dropped and the likes of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ returned to their rightful place.

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The set is a depiction of the decayed and partly demolished Weissman Theatre, where the neon still works but the walls are crumbling, the seats are distressed, and the auditorium is ruined.  For me, the opening scene and prologue takes too long to introduce everyone, but that would be true of every version of this show, and it is certainly touching to see the mature showgirls descend the ‘staircase’ (in reality, a less-than-glamorous fire escape) one last time, while their younger selves move in ghostly sequins and sparkles in from the stage.

This show is very much about those ladies who graced the Weissman Follies between the two World Wars, and although we are more focused on the story of two of them – Sally (Imelda Staunton), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) – we still feel invested in the others, from Carlotta the movie star (Tracie Bennett, done up as Joan Crawford in stern red, and decaying from despair, drink, and dallying with young men who ‘mean nothing’), ageing opera diva Heidi (Josephine Barstow, whose delicate depiction of sad memories of an affair with the boss, Mr Weissman (Gary Raymond, who makes an sobering impact in a nothing part, as lost in time as his girls), is as touching as her faded soprano voice in ‘One Last Kiss’, a duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer), to the much-married and knowing Hattie (Di Boutcher, who knocks ‘Broadway Baby’ out of the park from the moment she removes her glasses, but who is surely far too young for the part), and the rather sad Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald, with her memories of ‘Paree’).

Staunton has shone in a couple of award-winning Sondheims already – from 2012’s glorious ‘Sweeney Todd’, to 2015’s ‘Gypsy‘.  Further back she was a stunning Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, so she has the musical credentials, and as an Oscar Best Actress nominee for ‘Vera Drake’, she is also known as a talented actress.  Both skills serve her well as Sally Plummer, a tiny housewife with a salesman husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes), who is cheating on her, and dreams which have never died for her former lover, Ben (Philip Quast, always a favourite of mine, and I’m delighted to see him back in a leading role), who rejected her for her friend Phyllis (perhaps sensing she would be more acceptable material for a politician’s wife).

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This Weissman reunion brings Sally and Ben back together for the first time in thirty years, and in ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Staunton attempts to make a connection which leads Ben to think back to the girl he used to know (Alex Young, who made such an impact in the ENO’s ‘Carousel‘ this summer, as Carrie, and previously in the New London’s ‘Show Boat’), and to look, for a moment, kindly on the disturbed and clingy woman she has become.  When Quast and Staunton duet in ‘Too Many Mornings’, there is a glorious blend of music, memories, and the magic of what could-have-been, however transient that feeling may be.  Staunton may be a little short, height-wise, for the pivotal kiss which she takes as a way out of her boring life with the Buddy she has ceased to see, but we do engage with their relationship from this point on.

Janie Dee’s Phyllis is the textbook example of a rich socialite whose life is totally empty, with a nice house bursting at the seams with ‘the Chagalls and all that’, but lacking love, attention, or the children she so desperately wanted.  She has grown so tired of life, that her ‘Would I Leave You’ is perfectly delivered and completely believable; theirs is a marriage of convenience that doesn’t even feel convenient anymore.  But yet, in the end, she is the one who shows the most strength, and who will, we feel, at least attempt to pick up the pieces.  Her younger shadow is played by the dazzling Zizi Strallen, who has the star quality and energy which must have turned the young Ben’s head while he and Buddy were ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’.

follies-national-theatre-r007Liz Izen, Liz Ewing, Tracie Bennett, Imelda Staunton, Dawn Hope, Janie Dee, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

Peter Forbes is Buddy, a salesman who is really no good, and who calls anywhere he lays his hat home.  His routine involves going out on the road to shack up with Margie, a bright young thing who idolises him (the character always makes me think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Willy Loman, who is stuck in a spiral of not quite reaching the American Dream), and then returning to Sally, who fantasises that in his eyes she’s ‘young and beautiful’.  Their marriage has children, but they have moved away to escape their mother’s neuroses and arguments, so you can imagine the echoes of their empty rooms where the boys once played and fought.

The last section of the show moves from the realism of the crumbling theatre of the past to a fantasy staging of ‘Loveland’, a sequence which I always find problematic, but which brings the young quartet to the fore (as well as Young and Strallen, the young Ben and Buddy are played well by Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig) before moving into the individual follies of each as they are now: Buddy, dealing with a drag depiction of his mixed love-life done in a vaudevillian style; Sally, in a blonde wig and a sumptuous dressing room, ‘losing her mind’; Phyllis, in old and young versions, doing as well as she can to tell us about Lucy and Jessie; and Ben’s Fred Astaire pastiche which collapses into an emotional breakdown.  Although I love ‘Losing My Mind’, and Staunton did it well, this whole sequence remains a problem, and as much as I admire Quast, and he did all he could with the number, the breakdown felt rushed to me, which may well have been a directorial mis-step.

What else?  Bennett channels Judy Garland (again, but beautifully) in the caustic ‘I’m Still Here’.  The mirror number ‘Who’s That Woman’ weirdly has the young chlorines not mirroring their older counterparts, and I felt in this case the Royal Albert Hall concert did this number better (although I did like Dawn Hope’s Stella, and the chance to see Liz Izen’s Deedee in the line-up).  Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are fun, and poignant, as the Whitmans.

This may not be a perfect revival, but it is a great show, and it is rare to see something done on this scale, with so much love and energy – an emotional powerhouse, with eminently hummable tunes.

Do go, and also grab a copy of the fantastic programme, which is full of information, articles, and pictures and can be yours for just a fiver.

 

 


The Mentor (Vaudeville Theatre)

I caught this on its final day, the matinee performance, having noted some decidedly mixed reviews.

Daniel Kehlmann’s play has been translated from the German by veteran writer and translator Christopher Hampton, and I found it a funny, biting satire on the profession of being a writer.

Moving into London via Bath, the play has failed to find a respectable audience, which is a shame as it is largely a series of accomplished two-hander scenes.  F Murray Abraham is the star name, and for those of us who recall his Oscar winning turn in ‘Amadeus’ he is still a considerable draw as the abrasive, arrogant and charming Benjamin Rubin, who has only written one play of note, rarely produced and only read in schools, with a paranoia about TV radiation and an inflated perception of his own worth as a mentor.

He has been hired to mentor ‘the voice of his generation’ (so called by a bipolar critic who ended his life after filing his review), Martin Wegner, a puffed up joke of a man who has been practically bribed into the week by money, finding himself taken aback by Rubin’s only questions about his play being the font it was typed in and the occasional spelling mistake.  He is played well by Daniel Weyman, who convinces as a writer out of his comfort zone.

Wegner has an art historian wife, Greta (played by Suzy Bloom in the performance I saw); she resents her husband living off her earnings and not contributing anything to the housework, and seems too easily swayed by Rubin once they have drunk a few cheap whiskies together (not the kind he constantly tells us is the best in Scotland).  Do they, or don’t they?  And if they do, isn’t the age gap just that bit too wide for decency?

The final cast member is a scene-stealer, Jonathan Cullen as Erwin Rudicek, a camp arts administrator who reveres his guests, but soon decides what he wants is to make a killing with his ‘mood compositions’ which he carries around in his phone gallery.

With a simple yet effective set, with falling blossoms and stone chairs shaped as hards, this play sets awards, frogs, a soggy manuscript, a red pencil, a bottle of whiskey, and a girl fan who falls for her hero while her marriage stutters to a stop, within a glitzy opening of Wegner accepted an award named after the now deceased Rubin, and a closing scene of Rubin himself channelling Wegner’s play ‘Without A Title’ in returning after falling off the perch to give us a last bit of wisdom about whisky.

I liked this play a lot.  An enjoyable piece which, at eighty minutes, was probably slight and short enough.


IAAF Worlds: The Hero

The IAAF World Championships has just taken place, and ten days of track and field athletics came to an end on Sunday evening, with the medal ceremonies including the relay medals which brought Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s tally to six.

There was a farewell to Mo Farah, who retires from the track in Birmingham next week, and who gained a Gold for the 5k and a Silver for the 10k at the Worlds; and a final farewell to Usain Bolt, who retires from sprinting and athletics generally after dominating the short distances for a decade: the Worlds were not that kind to him, though, with a Bronze for his 100m and cramp stopping Jamaica finishing the 3 x 100m relay on Saturday night.

But, the star of the show for me has been this little chap:

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This is Hero the Hedgehog, created as part of a Blue Peter competition, and made into a personality by the team at Curiosity360.  Who is inside the costume we may never know, but s/he proved to be an expert gymnast, acrobat, clown, and comedian, as well as having a subversive side to their personality which caused amusing mayhem throughout the week.

Hero’s interventions included using the steeplechase water jump as a spot to watch the pole vault from a pink flamingo inflatable, ending an Irish Guards fanfare with a tambourine flourish, tumbling down the concrete steps, riding a bike, making sandcastles in the long jump pit, hanging out his washing between the high jump poles, and on the final night, entering the stadium from up high on a zip wire and finishing his performance (as that it was it was) with a dive into the steeplechase water after tormenting a couple of officials by spraying one with water and knocking the hat off another.

Here are links to my videos from that final night.  First, the well-earned medal ceremony for the Best Mascot ever, and the ‘Anthem of Hero the Hedgehog’ plus a montage of his highlights; then his final dive.  Enjoy, and Hero, we hope to see you again very soon.

https://www.youtube.com/DrSRoZbvSIo

https://www.youtube.com/xTgLdQj2TUw

https://www.youtube.com/ftH3Tsl0Wyc

 

 

 


The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican)

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ on at least six occasions (including Ian McKellen at Leeds, Derek Jacobi at Sheffield, and London appearances from Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Roger Allam at The Globe).

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It’s a magical romance which concerns the deposed Duke of Milan (here played by the reliable Simon Russell Beale, himself a former stage Ariel), who is shipwrecked on an island ‘full of noises’ with his daughter Miranda; here they live with his library of books, a monstrous creature named Caliban who they keep as servant, and an airy sprite called Ariel who gives service to his master in anticipation of gaining his freedom.

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Gregory Doran’s production is one of flashy technical and digital effects, in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, including a 3D representation of Ariel – although I found this more distracting than anything else, as the actor playing the part (and causing the body movements of the character) was on stage in all his scenes. However, the technical effects ranging from the light and sound giving the impression of a moving ship at the beginning of act one, a huge depiction of slavering dogs, and the memory of Ariel’s imprisonment in the cloven pine, were impressive.

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Joe Dixon’s Caliban and Mark Quartley’s Ariel were very memorable and touching, balanced out well by the comedy of Simon Trinder’s sinister Trinculo and James Hayes’ Stephano (although the ‘two-legged monster’ routine could have been funnier than it was).  For me, Jenny Rainsford took a while to come into her own as Miranda, and I didn’t feel connected to her until the ‘brave new world’ speech near the end, and Daniel Easton’s Ferdinand was bland and uninteresting.

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Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is the highlight of this production, his small, stocky statute mirrored by that of Jonathan Broadbent’s little ball of hatred as his brother Antonio.  What this Prospero brings to the text is sometimes missed by his colleagues, and the final speech is truly touching as the audience is released (‘let your indulgence set me free’) – if this was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved theatre, it is an effective one.

 


Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

You may recall the jaunty film in which Tommy Steele hopped around with a gor-blimey accent, and this uses many of the songs from it, but with some new lyrics and seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  So, confusingly, this is a musical with eleven songs by the original composer and lyricist David Heneker, from a book by Beverley Cross, with a kind-of new book by Julian Fellowes … and of course based on ‘Kipps’, by HG Wells!

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Charlie Stemp is on leave, so Arthur Kipps is currently being played by Sam O’Rourke, whose infectious energy brings the draper’s apprentice who comes into money sharply to life.  His childhood sweetheart Ann, who holds the ‘half a sixpence’ of the opening song, is played by Devon-Elise Johnson, who convinces as a gawky thirteen year-old as well as a growing women fighting her jealousy and irritation as Arthur becomes sideswept by his attraction to posh Helen (Emma Williams).

The toffs are fun, especially in a new number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, and Ian Bartholomew offers good comic support as a Dickensian theatrical named Mr Chitterlow.  There is a lot of leaping, swinging and boisterousness, and this is definitely a musical in which you can just sit back and be entertained.

Others worth mentioning – John Foster is a joy as both Kipps’ stodgy employer and Lady Punnet’s butler; while Jane How is very funny indeed as Lady P.  Gerard Carey was better as the photographer in the ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number than he was as crooked James, and Vivien Parry was all decaying aristocracy as Mrs Walsingham.   Alex Hope as the idealistic socialist Sid and Bethany Huckle as lovestruck Flo were very good, too, and I enjoyed the new duet which gave insight into the feelings both Ann and Flo seem to hold for Arthur.

Running to early September, this is warmly recommended if you want an evening of fun, and if you can get to see O’Rourke have his moment in the spotlight, please do.


Penn & Teller  (Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith)

They’re back in the UK.  Penn – the big, loud one who has lost both his bulk and mop of frizzy long hair in recent years – and Teller, the little, mute one, are celebrating forty years together as a magic duo this year with a show chock-full of old favourites and new tricks.


With the usual formula of audience participation, manipulation, and a healthy helping of lying, stealing and cheating, the Vegas-based illusionists bring a bit of fairy dust and sparkle to a very hot Hammersmith night.

Teller’s sweet pantomime ‘Shadows’ remains strangely beautiful, and the coin and fish trick remains impressive even when you click how it’s done.  ‘Cell Fish’ is clever but based very much on misdirection and willing stagehands; while a barrel in which the 6ft 7in Penn has crushed himself makes everyone want to stretch their legs.

A new trick which seems to depend on advanced maths brings the whole audience into a ‘Find Love’ card game, while Teller displays a skilfull sleight of hand with a set of animal traps, before accidentally toppling their faithful rabbit into an industrial shredder.

An enjoyable night from true professionals who operate with the slickness of a corporate machine.  Penn seems to have mellowed with marriage, children and a move away from his beloved Slammer with the pleasure jacuzzi he developed with former partner Debbie Harry, although his abrasive stage persona could still peel the paint off walls.

It’s the simplest of tricks which still fox, though: a cup which regenerates coloured balls, an egg which appears and disappears from a bag.  Basic magic without the trappings of show.


Rainbow (O2 Arena, London)

We’ve all lost count how many iterations of Rainbow there have been since 1975, and this current line-up came together over twenty years after the last one: since that time, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, now aged 72, has made several albums with his Renaissance project Blackmore’s Night (featuring his wife Candice on lead vocals, she appears as one of the backing singers here tonight).

Ronnie Romero fills the large shoes of big former voices of both Rainbow (Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner) and Deep Purple (Ian Gillan, David Coverdale), and does admirably well, with a set list which opens with ‘Spotlight Kid’ and then goes through ‘Mistreated’, ‘Soldier of Fortune’, ‘Since You Been Gone’ (featuring writer and musician Russ Ballard on guest back-up vocals and guitar), ‘Stargazer’, ‘Child In Time’, ‘Burn’, ‘Black Night’, ‘Long Live Rock ‘n Roll’, ‘Catch The Rainbow’ and (of course), ‘Smoke on the Water’.

Supported by the Sweet, who, like Deep Purple, formed fifty years ago next year, and retaining just one original member (Andy Scott) entertained with a mix of glam and hard rock numbers from ‘Hellraiser’ to ‘Little Willy’.

But Rainbow, and the return of Blackmore to rock, was the main event here, and they didn’t disappoint: I was also really pleased to see Dio and Cozy Powell remembered by video footage in the background during ‘Long Live Rock ‘n Roll’, a lovely moment.  I hope this isn’t the last hurrah, but if it was, I’m going away happy.


Lettice and Lovage (Menier Chocolate Factory)

This revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980s play is one of two productions running at the Menier at the moment, both directed by Trevor Nunn.  It is the story of a theatrical tour guide who embellishes historical fact to entertain those who visit Fustion House (‘fusty old house’, in our minds).

The first scene is replayed four times across a fifteen minute slot, in which Miss Douffet makes the most of an Elizabethan legend on an old staircase, delivered in an exaggerated stage voice.  Douffet is played by Felicity Kendal, who wears loud and vibrant clothes and has tattoos on her foot and ankle.

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Her over-the-top style gets her in trouble twice, first with a tetchy historian who asks for her sources, then with a civil servant who commands her presence in the offices of the Preservation Society.  This is the staid Miss Schoen, whose father was a German art publisher, but who hates theatrics.  She’s played by Maureen Lipman, who is stiffly arch, especially in her exchanges with twittery secretary Petra Markham.

The turning point comes with a very unconvincing prop cat, and a wildly addictive drink which contains the herb lovage.  It turns Miss Douffet almost human (and we discover her forename is Lettice), and allows Miss Schoen to unbend as she becomes more tipsy (and her forename is Charlotta).  Lettice talks of her mother who played both Richard III and Falstaff – with utilisation of the same pillow for costume.  Lotte tells of a bomb plot she and a boyfriend had in their youth to destroy the hated Shell Building.

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The final act is bizarre, with Sam Dastor as a solicitor defending Miss Douffet (she engages him because his name is Bardolph, which suggests something rather different to the reserved man we see before us).  It would spoil the fun to say why she has been arrested and charged, and we are caught up in an amusing piece of roleplay re-enacted for us in the final few minutes.

This is not a ground-breaking play, but it is acted well, and is a perfectly reasonable piece of entertainment.  I liked the relative simplicity of the sets, which include a picture frame which showcases the sense of where we are (the exterior of Fustion House, the terraces of Earl’s Court), and found the performances on point for the ridiculous plot.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

It must be Edward Albee year around the Haymarket area of London, with both The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and this play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running in high profile revivals within a few yards of each other.

This is by far the better known of the two plays, perhaps due to the 1966 film featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, and it is wearing its years well, with its cat and mouse domestic power games and the young guests trapped like rabbits in headlights, appalled but almost unable to get up and leave.

In this production Imelda Staunton plays Martha, a sarcastic, gin-swilling, braying, frustrated, pathetic shadow of the girl she must have been during the war years in which George courted her.  Now she – as she admits in one revelatory moment – repels his kindness, attention and love with insults, clawing, and hatred.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Conleth Hill is absolutely superb as George, who has been squashed and silenced for so long that the bitterness has grown and simmered under a sad surface.  He’s a man who perhaps once had ambition to lead and rule, but the years have got to him.  Six years younger than Martha, he looks fifteen years older, with a careworn air and a resignation to the life fate has dealt him.

388493_770_preview

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Into their gameplay come a young biologist who has recently joined the college, a blond muscleman who has a clear career trajectory and a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, and his mousy wife who drinks to mask her unhappiness at being unable to conceive or cope with the social demands of her world.  Luke Treadaway plays the young blade Nick who is played to perfection by the older couple as they have done so many times before; while Imogen Poots is tragically wan as his constantly upchucking wife, Honey, who has a love for brandy which might yet turn her into a Martha.

388496_770_preview

Photo credit: Johan Persson

This is a wordy play, but one in which each word has weight and meaning, and the full effect is one of an emotional rollercoaster by the end of act three.  Starting as something of a black comedy, there are laughs to be found through the earlier scenes (trying to identify a Bette Davis movie) which quickly turn into something much more uncomfortable with the arrival of the guests and the games people play.  There was mainly pin-drop silence in the final scenes, which were beautifully done.

This is a sensational revival full of screams, shouts, spittle, smoking, sadness and occasional silence.  James Macdonald directs with a sense of space and occasion, with the one living room set and a number of off-set locations (upstairs, the downstairs cloakroom, the kitchen).  The language has perhaps been a little ripened since the original (the opening salvo to the young couple of ‘screw you’ has become rather stronger) but the meat of the piece is there.

I saw this from the front row so every nuance of gesture, reaction, or interaction was captured, giving the feeling that we were almost additional trapped guests ourselves.  As an honest depiction of two marriages this play gives us much food for thought, conjuring up images of the youthful George and Martha before life and circumstance trapped them, and a vision into the future to what awaits Nick and Honey.

Be quick if you want to see this as final performances are on Saturday 27th May.


42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

This is a big show.  A big big big show which opens with a chorus of 42 pairs of tapping feet as the curtain rises as if to say, top this!


Sheena Easton is still out with the ‘flu, so CJ Johnson is playing the brittle and slightly past-it Dorothy Brock, and she’s a knockout.  The Boulevard of Broken Dreams number is marvellous, and I Only Have Eyes for You is sweet.

As the young juvenile Billy Lawlor, Stuart Neal has bags of energy, and his musical comedy made me think of the great vaudevillian Bert Wheeler, a comic hoofer who also sang and played the eternal youth.

The pivotal role of Peggy Sawyer, who ‘goes out a youngster, but has to come back a star’, only works if the actress has that sprinkling of fairy dust which makes you think she has it, and Clare Halse has the innocence of a Ruby Keeler as well as the steel of a Ginger Rogers.

Tom Lister’s Julian Marsh may well be charmed by this fresh young thing who still believes in her dreams: she makes him less jaded, he makes her more knowing.

Also of note in the leading cast are Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell as writers and low comedians Maggie and Bert.  Howell teams with Emma Caffrey’s Anytime Annie (‘the only time she said no she didn’t hear the question’) for Shuffle Off To Buffalo, while Ivir leads the girls in Go Into Your Dance.

I also like Bruce Montague’s hick millionaire Abner and Graeme Henderson’s dance captain Andy, the former a good comic foil and the latter an accomplished showman.

As for those routines, we get big staircases, a railway station, a mirror which reflects reclining ladies in a sequence which apes the best of Busby Berkeley, chorus lines of high camp and high kicks, beautiful costumes and countless set changes.

The songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, direction by Mark Bramble, and the fabulous orchestra is conducted by Jae Alexander.


Carousel (London Coliseum)

This musical is one of my firm favourites, but the lead casting choices didn’t fill me with joy when they were first announced.  I’m familiar with both Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe as popular singers of mainly operatic fare (although neither have ever sung in a full-length opera), and to me they were hardly the embodiment of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan.

carousel-ENO

However, the supporting cast and the spectacular full-staging has been gathering praise despite some lukewarm reviews from both professional and blogging critics, and I do like the score, so I bit the bullet and bought a couple of tickets in the Upper Circle, which were overpriced and allowed fairly awful views and minimal leg room.

The show, though, has some great numbers and the ensemble pieces were well-delivered (‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, ‘Blow High, Blow Low’, ‘What’s The Use of Wond’rin’), with some excellent chorus work and choreography.  Derek Hagen as Jigger, Brenda Edwards as Nettie, and Davide Fienauri as the dancing Carnival Boy need special mention as they lifted the energy and engagement levels whenever they appeared.

Gavin Spokes gives a real comic edge as well as some serious singing class to the role of Mr Snow, while Alex Young is a splendid Carrie, rightly getting warm applause for ‘When I Marry Mr Snow’ and ‘When The Children Are Asleep’.  This last song is a duet between Young and Spokes, who demonstrate the chemistry that is sadly lacking in the big lead duet ‘If I Loved You’, which should pull the audience in to the sudden emotional and deep love between Billy and Julie.

Let’s talk about Katherine Jenkins as Julie.  It’s been reported that as well as company voice coaching she has been receiving private acting lessons, and they have rubbed off as well as can be expected.  However she cannot both sing sweetly and put across the complex emotional range needed for the character, leaving her numbers to be simply very nice to listen to for the melody.  But in Act Two, where she has to engage with her wayward daughter, she’s fairly convincing, and her casting wasn’t the disaster I feared.

Which leaves Alfie Boe as Billy.  Reviews have not been kind, primarily to the wig which has now been replaced with something more in keeping to what a carnival barker might have worn.  His acting has been derided, too, with him being described as ‘a floorboard’, ‘a child pretending to be an adult’, and similar.

It may be the way the role was directed, but his stance is not in the least sexy or smouldering as it should be, and he’s just not convincing, and we don’t really understand what Julie sees in him.  In fact at the start of the big seven-minute Act One closer, ‘Soliloquy’, the way he stood made me think of the actors who taught thick Prince George how to deliver a speech in Blackadder.

The ‘Soliloquy’, though, is the undoubted highlight of the role, and by the end, the strength of the song came through and the effect was rather touching; we did, at last, believe that this man had found the heart within himself on discovering he was to become a father.

The staging though was odd, with the revolving circle which had been used to great effect in the opening ‘Carousel Waltz’ overture to introduce all the character and the show’s name itself, in letters revolving, oddly, backwards.  In the ‘Soliloquy’ Boe spent most of the number alone, as is right and proper for a number in which the character vocalises his thoughts,  but I expected a bit more use of both space and backdrops than we got.

Act Two started with some drama, as we were told that Alfie Boe had been feeling progressively ill during the first act and was unable to continue, leaving understudy Will Barrett to come on and deal with the tricky scenes of Billy’s death, engagement with the Starmarker (Nicholas Lyndhurst, in little more than a cameo), and as an invisible observer to his daughter’s childhood.  It would be hard to judge Barrett’s singing in Act Two as not much is required, but I felt he acted the part better, overall, and had a more believable engagement with Jenkins, as well as with Amy Everett, playing their daughter Louise.

Lonny Price directs, and Josh Rhodes is the choreographer, with David Charles Abell conducting the ENO Orchestra.  And no matter what the publicity says, this is most certainly not a semi-staged musical, there is a full set, costumes and flavour.  I can’t recommend it unreservedly due to the weakness of the two leads, but it is not the dud I thought it would be.


The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Edward Albee’s 2002 play is only on its first UK revival, and perhaps this is understandable as the audience for a black tragi-comedy about bestiality may be rather specialised.
When we first meet Martin  (Damian Lewis) and Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), their affectionate banter has the flavour of Noel Coward about it, mundane matters of forgetfulness and old school ties.

Hints that not all might be well come with a mysterious business card and an even more mysterious smell, which Stevie detects on her husband.   However his admission that he is in love with Sylvia, who is a goat, is only met with laughter and a joke about ‘the feed store’).

Martin’s friend Ross shows up to interview him, and finds him preoccupied.  Sensing a juicy story about an affair he’s primed to listen, enjoying the details until a photo of the other woman is revealed.  Yes, she is a goat.

Act Two is a moment of revelation, with wife and son incredulous at the news of the identity of ‘a certain Sylvia’.  This is Okonedo’s star turn,  quietly smashing plates and trying to fathom how her perfect marriage has collapsed (‘I’ve never been unfaithful, nor even with a cat.’).

Martin’s ‘epiphany’ when gazing in the eyes of Sylvia seems normal to him, and he displays obvious bewilderment about the other members of his animal-loving support group, with their regret about toying with pigs, geese and German Shepherds.

What starts as an uncomfortable black comedy slowly turns tragic, with the gay son of the house  (Archie Madekwe) struggling to accept his perfect dad could do such things.  His disturbance moves the plot into other taboo areas, briefly, but it is Okonedo’s final entrance and the killer punch concerning Sylvia which underlies the tragedy.

Lewis’ accent seems as vague as his character, but he pitches the role well, and the set design with expanding walls and breakable clay and sugar glass items sets the piece off perfectly.

This play isn’t for everyone – from the gasps in the theatre it hasn’t lost its power to shock, and the language as as ripe as you might imagine given the subject – but if you want something a bit different you might want to give this limited season (into early June) a try.


Window to the soul: singers I would recommend you try

Not movie related but something a little bit different, taking one aspect of film we all take from granted, music, and looking at the greatest instrument of all, the human voice.

These are the singers who have touched my heart, made me smile, made me laugh, made me cry, made me horny, made me dance with the sheer joy of being alive, made my jaw drop with their sheer awesomeness.

Some have been with me my whole life, some I found late, some far too late, but they are all in their own way incredible and part of the fabric of my musical DNA.

I know I have forgotten some. But in the spirit of diversity I have tried to cover most decades since film began. I’d like to include more ladies. I’m sad about the short lives of many of those listed here.

Discuss, ignore, celebrate. Entirely up to you.

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

  • Philip Quast (1957- ). Definitive Javert. Play School Presenter in Oz. Amazing Eyes. Track of choice: Some Enchanted Evening youtu.be/4AgWWBcJ19c

R

S

T

V

W

Y

 


An American in Paris (Dominion Theatre)

The poster and publicity for this present it as ‘a new musical’, but that might surprise the Gershwins, who wrote this parade of songs (some from the 1951 film, some from other sources) which move along the story of Jerry Mulligan – here played by alternate Ashley Day in his debut in the role – and Lise Dassin, played by Leanne Cope, who also did the role on Broadway.

anamericaninparis

He’s a soldier who stays in Paris after the Nazi occupation has been routed to become an artist, as idealistic Americans often do.  He keeps seeing pretty Lise and falls hard for her, knowing it cannot just be coincidence.  Soon they start meeting by the Seine, but she doesn’t want to discuss her past or personal circumstances.

Abrasive Adam Hochberg (David Seadon-Young) is the piano player and the commentator on the action, and it was fun to see him deal with a technical malfunction in the first scene which stopped the show at the big reveal of the video projection: we were soon off again, though, into the busy streets where Nazi sympathisers were still about and idealistic Frenchmen like Henri Baurel saw lucrative futures for them across the Channel.

anamericaninparis2

Jerry finds a patroness in the ‘international dilettante’ Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey), a Ginger Rogers-like cougar who likes a lot more than his paintings, while on the periphery Henri’s parents M and Mme Baurel (Julian Forsyth and Jane Asher) worry about their son’s lack of interest in settling down to marriage, and slowly find their shared love of jazz music coming to the fore again.

The leads are required to mix styles from both grand ballet and musical theatre (Day is primarily from the latter, but his moves look stellar enough to me, and he has a glorious toothy smile which makes you warm to the character; Cope is a ballerina but displays a fine singing voice in her solo ‘The Man I Love’), and the show benefits from a talented company of dancers, swings and chorus.

anamericaninparis3

The sets need to be mentioned: Bob Crowley (formerly with the National and the RSC) is scene and costume designer, and 59 Productions Ltd are responsible for the many projections which conjure up time and place, as well as a feeling of being in a city which celebrates the creative arts.  And the music by George Gershwin with lyrics by brother Ira both feel timeless and a world away, with the friend scene-setting of ‘I Got Rhythm’ rubbing shoulders with Jerry’s solo ‘I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck’ and the four-part ‘For You, For Me, For Everymore’.

A couple of things I would change: ‘Stairway to Paradise’ cries out to be a huge production number with showgirls from the start, and Adam’s part is really reduced (OK, he’s not Oscar Levant who was essentially playing himself in the film, but still) so we lose some of the humour and asides the character could make.  There’s also something of a running joke of Henri being possibly gay which felt forced.

anamericaninparis4

Christopher Wheeldon directs and choreographs in the old style, and he does brilliantly, using his cast and his orchestrations (by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott, conducted by John Rigby).  This is just a good old-fashioned musical, with great tunes, more than competently performed.

And yes there is a long ballet to the ‘An American in Paris’ suite, full of eye-popping colours and flashy moves, punctuated by some tender pas de deux between Day and Cope.  Elsewhere, there are mirrors and windows, and misunderstandings, and even a Jew in hiding subplot, but the story isn’t really why we’re here.  Superlative.


Shirley Valentine (Richmond Theatre)

Willy Russell’s witty and poignant monologue is currently on its 30th anniversary UK tour, with Jodie Prenger playing the part of the mother and wife who grabs the opportunity to go to Greece for ‘sun, sea and taramasalata’.

When we first meet her she’s preparing a meal of chips and egg for her husband Joe, while talking to the wall and to us about this opportunity to go abroad with her friend Jane, and about her children Malandra and Brian, and her old schoolfriend Marjorie who has grown wealthy travelling the world as a hooker.

Shirley-V-83-700x455Jodie Prenger, photo by Manuel Harlan

Shirley Bradshaw, as she is now, has no time for adventure, and has seen the romance slowly decline from her marriage.  Her daughter takes her for granted, and her son has become something of a dropout (the story about his Nativity play appearance is a hoot).  She wonders where the girl she once was has gone and finds herself, at 42, afraid of ‘the life beyond the wall’.

Act 1 introduces these main characters, plus next-door neighbour, nosy Gillian.  Prenger gives Shirley a believable voice, although her accent wavers now and then.  In her very detailed 80s kitchen, with the dated decor she and Joe painted a lifetime ago when they were in love, splashing each other with paint and then washing it off together in the bath, she confides that she is now ignored and although Joe claims he loves her, he’d hardly notice if she wasn’t there.

By Act 2, she’s got her suitcase packed and is ready for Greece in an eye-poppingly awful hat and suit.  There’s a story about her temptation to buy M&S scanties and shocking Gillian with a tall tale about a lover, which her neighbour believes, dropping off a silk robe for Shirley to wear on holiday.

Shirley-V-122_1000_667Jodie Prenger, photo by Manuel Harlan

Act 3 is in Greece, where Shirley has swapped her wall for a rock to talk to, and has discovered love while skinny dipping with Costas from the local taverna (‘I call him Christopher Columbus’).  It’s a holiday fling, as transient as the dream she has of sitting and drinking wine by the sea, but slowly the confidence returns and Shirley Valentine, as she once was, overshadows Mrs Bradshaw.

There are laugh out loud moments in this clever play (‘Gooey’ being one of them, and the anecdote about the stretch marks another), but I found the ending rather sad in a way, as we guess that Shirley may eventually go back to England and home and family, and go back to the life of cooking for Joe and talking to the wall.  Is her Greek adventure simply a middle-aged fantasy?


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Emily Baycroft

Freelance Theatre Producer and Administrator

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is there room for me to sew?

Quilting, Reading and the Movies

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"Whaddya gonna do? I love her. I think she loves me." -Nelson Eddy on the Jack Parr Show, 1960

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Opinions on Classic Hollywood , B Movies, Grindhouse, SF film , Classic Horror, Film Noir, Books, and related subjects by Canadian film guy TERRY SHERWOOD. (This site is not affiliated with author Charles Foster and his book Stardust and Shadows.)

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This blog is all about cinema, movies and stars of every decades. It's wonderful!

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Thoughts on older movies, especially those from the 1930s to 1950s.

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Featuring Gryff, the angry diabetic cat, and the humans who serve him

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Bringing you independent, honest, experienced reviews of current theatre shows. We believe theatre is something truly magical and can be enjoyed by everyone.

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