Red (Wyndham’s Theatre)

A revival of John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), this play brings back its star, Alfred Molina, and director Michael Grandage, for its West End debut, following a 2009 run at the Donmar Warehouse, and later on Broadway.

Alongside Molina’s bald, brash and bullish Rothko, Alfred Enoch plays Ken – a young artist who assists Rothko in the creation of his sequence of abstract canvases of reds, blacks, and browns, destined for the walls of a high-class restaurant for the nouveau riche.

Red 1

We first meet both men in the claustrophobic studio, lit by low lighting and dominated by the huge and bloated canvasses, cavernous blood reds (or variants on red, enumerated in one amusing back and forth exchange) and harsh blocked shapes.  Rothko is self-absorbed, uncompromising, creative, with each painting a child with its umbilical cord ripped from the heart.

As this short piece – just 90 minutes – progresses we see the men achieve an unspoken understanding about art, which culminates with Ken, enthusing about the pop art revolution of Warhol and Lichtenstein, just as Rothko and his contemporaries shook up the establishment in their day, emerging from the chrysalis as a fully formed butterfly, ready to go it alone with his own work (which we never see).

There are moments of pathos in this play, which reminded me at times of the closing moments of Yasmina Reza’s clever three-hander, Art.  Molina displays both the passion of the veteran painter – in the vibrant and almost balletic sequence where he and Enoch prime an entire canvas in maroon tones, leaving them exhausted, paint-speckled, and fully engaged with the joy of creation – and the tragedy of a painter finding himself almost out of time, reduced to ‘selling out’ for the masses.

red

This play is a treat, which made me start to read around about the abstract painters and their descendants.  Both leading roles are judged perfectly, and a nod needs to be made to Christopher Oram’s richly dressed sets, Neil Austin’s lighting design, and Adam Cork’s sound design, which mixes gramophone records of opera, classical and jazz.

Red continues at the Wyndham’s until the 28th July 2018.

 


Black Sheep by Gabriel Hershman (book review)

Gabriel Hershman now has three biographies to his name, all of actors who achieved prominence in the 1960s. The first, on Ian Hendry, and the second, on Albert Finney, were well-written and researched, and now with a step up to an ‘authorised’ biography, this book profiles Nicol Williamson (1936-2011).

NicolWilliamson

Williamson was a firebrand of an actor both on- and off-screen, coming to prominence in a dual screen and stage career which took off in the late 1960s. Yet by the end of the 1990s ennui had set in, with a retreat from performing, and this great actor just fell off the radar. By the time of his death – which was not announced until some weeks later – he was almost forgotten by all but his most devoted fans and admirers.

This book, authorised and supported by son Luke and former wife Jill Townsend-Sorel, sets out to redress that balance. In the acknowledgements Hershman describes his book as aiming to be a “truthful, balanced portrait of a complex man, neither coffee-table saccharine nor a hatchet job”. Luke Williamson describes his father as “the front seat of an exhilarating, terrifying rollercoaster”. Those who met Nicol Williamson, however fleetingly, would agree that he was infuriating, mystifying, and an incredible creative force.

As with the other biographies, Hershman dissects the best of Williamson’s performances as well as touching, where appropriate, on the man behind the actor. On Inadmissible Evidence, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, where Williamson had created the role of Maitland, far older than his own age, he showed signs of dissatisfaction and vulnerability with his performance, asking the cameraman for his view on whether he “was as good as Spencer Tracy”.

By the 1970s this coiled spring would burst into violence during the Broadway run of Rex, the Richard Rodgers musical in which he played Henry VIII, a show in which his dominance of the role must have been something of a strain. By the time he completed his last notable screen role in The Hour of the Pig, he was idly teasing his colleagues and appearing bored, cast only after “the usual suspects” of his generation (Harris, O’Toole) were found to be unavailable. Pig was not treated well in terms of distribution, and is rarely revived now, but the balance of farce and straight-faced interpretation was handled well by Williamson, and rightly treated as a career highlight by this book.

MBDIMDA EC001

Personal issues – alcoholism, two divorces, arrogance, self-obsession, misogyny – continued to blight what can only be described as a troubled life. Hershman addresses these concerns with tact and diplomacy, with perceptive comments from Townsend-Sorel and others who knew him best.

This may well be a tale of a life which didn’t reach its potential in many ways, because the subject was his own worst enemy, and the final chapters inevitably have the sheen of sadness across them, but there are also pockets of celebration. He may have never been good enough for his own standards (by them, better than anyone else!) but the body of work left behind speaks for itself.

This is a very entertaining book, which casts the net widely to locate the man, the ‘black sheep’, which was Thomas Nicol Williamson, a Scot, a grammar-school boy, a boy who loved his parents but resented his sister, a young man who sang Al Bowlly songs but struggled with real love (an odd relationship with Sarah Miles, who seemed to relish his working-class roughness; the hook-up with his stage daughter from Inadmissible, Townsend-Sorel, which turned into marriage and high living), the performer who could essay tormented characters from his jaded older man in Laughter in the Dark to his tense gay lodger in the fantastic TV play Horror of Darkness (which visitors to the London’s National Film Theatre can view in the on-site Mediatheque).

On a personal note I found the Nicol I came to know and admire springing from every page, and it was an emotional read. The occasional glimpses of softness in screen and stage performances (Robin and Marian) were close to how he could be when introspective, caring, and kind. The novel Ming’s Kingdom, conversely, in its pornographic sex scenes and confused situations, showed the bile, the sharpness, and the loathing of women which was a troubling facet of his life (whether the novel is about his second wife Andrea, or a composite of characters affecting his equilibrium).

Hershman’s book is essential reading for biographic connoisseurs, for fans of 60s screen culture, and for those specifically interested in underrated and neglected British performers. It is an open question whether the subject would have approved of the final work, or collaborated with it had he still been alive (Finney did not contribute to Strolling Player). I’d like to think yes on both counts.


Mental Health Awareness Week

Twitter will be sympathetic this week, even empathetic.

Tips will be shared, there will be discussions about ‘stigma’ and how in these more enlightened days, mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical ones.

Except that’s still not the case.  Why is that?  Are people frightened that their own minds might be as fragile as those around them?  Are people embarrassed, irritated, inconvenienced?  Do they see it as yet another modern ‘trend’?

I wrote about my own engagement with the black dog recently.  The more of us who do this, who say, ‘this is me’, in just the same way one discusses a broken arm, a dicky heart, or a chest infection, the more we will break through the awkward silence, the suspicion, the blatant disregard of situations which need our help.

This is me.  Get over it.

Follow the #mentalhealthawarenessweek tags on Twitter.  Read around the links and articles which will be shared.  Take a look at the cartoons and photographs.

Don’t say people ‘confess’ to a mental health condition.  Don’t treat them as something shameful – if a colleague of yours is ill, then treat them the same way you would with a physical ailment.  Send them a get well card.  Say you hope they’ll feel better soon.  You know, ‘normal’ stuff.

Because these are ‘normal’ people.  I hope this week makes that clear, and gets the dialogue moving, continuing, and progressing.

mental-health-facts

Lou’s Top Tips:

  • Put yourself first.  Not anyone else.
  • Fight for what is right for you, whether that is in work or personal life.
  • Engage where you feel up to doing so, disengage where you need to.
  • Don’t feel guilty is you can’t do something.  It doesn’t matter.
  • Find something you enjoy, as that will lift you up.
  • Forgive ignorance, however well meant.
  • Be honest.
  • Value yourself.  If you don’t why should anyone else?
  • Go out and listen to the birds sing.
  • Look back to those you loved, and situations which made you happy.
  • Be mindful.  Meditate.
  • If you believe in something, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong.
  • Be that inner child again.
  • And finally … life is short.  Don’t waste it.

Chess (again), Coliseum Theatre

Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such.  The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.

I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.

The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day.  In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.

Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.

chess uc

chess dc

The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess.  These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged.  None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.

I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week.  Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky.   Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President).  Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years.  X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan.  Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.

event-list-image_14180

In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten).  There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative).  There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).

So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?

First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based.  Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.

Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games.  This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.

This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number).  I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.

In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.

Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.

I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story.  This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.

Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one.  She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them.  Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West.   Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion.  Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!

Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know.  But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her.  Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.

Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe.  Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses.  Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl.  It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.

Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano.  His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok.  He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on.  It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.

The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable.  The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make.  As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.

I mentioned the pricing.  The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket.  I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones.  I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices.  If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you.  It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.

Chess continues for another three weeks.

 

 

 

 

 


Chess (Coliseum Theatre)

I love Chess. It’s the concept album I’ve played the most, and I think it has one of the strongest scores in musical theatre.

With music by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA, and lyrics from Tim Rice, it started life in 1984 as a recording, before progressing to the West End stage in 1986.  It ran for four years before going on tour within the UK, and there was also a Broadway production and others, including one in Sweden, which is available on DVD.  A concert version played at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, also recorded for DVD, and a high camp tour ran in 2010.

event-list-image_14180

Now the musical returns to London for the first time in nearly thirty years, and in this staging relies heavily on the structure of the original concept album, with the addition of Someone Else’s Story from the Broadway production, The Soviet Machine from the London production, and He is a Man, He is a Child from the Swedish production.

Chess-cast-creatives.-Credit-Frederic-ArandaCast as originally announced: Murray Head, Cassidy Janson, Alexandra Burke, Phillip Browne (Molotov), Michael Ball; with Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and director Laurence Connor. Photo credit: Frederic Aranda.

There was a bit of off-stage drama before rehearsals got going for the new production, with original London cast member Murray Head, cast as The Arbiter at the age of 72, having to leave for personal reasons.  I admit he was a major draw for me when booking, so I was a little sad to hear of his withdrawal, but if you want to see him at the height of his powers, you can find the promo videos of Pity the Child and One Night in Bangkok and the Swedish TV broadcast of the truncated Chess in Concert online.

The story of Chess is both simple (a game of chess between an American and a Russian, West vs East, freedom vs oppression) and complex (the American’s partner and second, Florence, a Hungarian by birth, has a father who disappeared during Soviet occupation; the Russian has a wife, Svetlana, and child back home but walks away from them for the love of the game and asylum in England).

Tim-Howar-Michael-Ball-and-Cedric-Neal-Photography-BrinkhoffMogenburg-700x455Tim Howar and Michael Ball. Photo credit: Brinkoff-Moegenburg.

At the time of the concept and first production, the Iron Curtain was still a reality, and the ‘Red menace’ was still a very real threat to the freedoms of the West.  The West, represented by the brash USA, was seen as materialistic and superficial, while the East was viewed as repressive, inflexible, and unemotional.  When Chess was first conceived, it was a reflection of its times, mixing camp and overblown numbers with political commentary.  It was also a hit album, with at least two huge chart hits (I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok).

This production casts widely – the Russian (Anatoly) is played by musical veteran Michael Ball, a tad too old for the part but on good form in both acting and singing terms, sporting glasses and an unruffled expression, even when falling in love with Florence.  She is played by Cassidy Janson – we saw her in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical where she impressed with her high octane energy and vulnerablity, qualities which serve her well as Florence, who moves from one chess-playing lover to another and ends up believing “stories like ours / have happy endings”.

The American (Freddie) is Mike and the Mechanics lead singer Tim Howar. I wasn’t familiar with him but he puts across the obnoxious front of the man who is a hurt little child inside, and he has a powerful set of pipes which stop the show with Pity the Child (I understand that earlier performances had issues with pacing due to extended applause for this number, but on the performance last Saturday afternoon the lights cut to black directly afterwards, curtailing any audience appreciation.

Svetlana, not usually a major role, is played by pop singer Alexandra Burke, who has a belt of a voice but limited acting skills.  At the age of 29 she is far too young for her 55-year-old Anatoly, and her drab – but accurate – Soviet costumes have attracted comment from those who probably seek to see her in sparkles.  Aside from one brief scene at the beginning, she does not appear until the end of Act One, when her character is given the song of Someone Else’s Story, which makes much more sense for Florence.

There are several chorus numbers – the opener is The Story of Chess, led by The Arbiter (now played by Cedric Neal, who gives yet another dimension to the complex yet underused role), followed by the tongue in cheek cavorting of Merano.  There are video projections throughout the production, but aside from showing a plane arrival during this number, and a sequence of slick merchandising product during the American cheerleading number, they are mainly utilised to show blow-up film of what is going on before us on stage.

I enjoyed the British Embassy number, which is hopelessly dated, but very funny, and the acrobats, strippers, and pole dancers of Bangkok, with fire, masks, and that cheesy rap.  The orchestra and ensemble singers and dancers do a fabulous job throughout, required to change focus, nationality, and style as the musical progresses.  Everything about this show is huge in scale – everything, that is, except the chess board, which those with long memories may recall was much larger in those early productions.

This is a big, loud, dynamic show which is about as 80s as you can get.  For those of us who grew up with it, it is a little corner of musical theatre heaven.  For those of you not sure, go if you can. It’s like Marmite, so you may hate it – or you may not.  In any case, I would be surprised if a big production is put on in the West End again.

Chess is on a limited engagement at the ENO Coliseum, and closes on the 2nd June 2018.  I am visiting again this weekend, and will update this review after that – I felt that despite the greatness of the show, it cannot be fully appreciated from the poor sightlines of the upper levels, and I look forward to reporting back from a more premium seat at my next visit.


ABBA: Super Troupers (exhibition review)

A few weeks ago, we visited the new installation at the Southbank Centre, which is a ten-room look at the life and work of the Swedish pop group ABBA, promoted as “an immersive, one-of-a-kind exhibition”.

abba 1

Tours must be pre-booked and are led by a guide – although I felt this simply lengthened the time required to experience this exhibition in total.  Each room is named after an ABBA song, beginning with Super Trouper, which is a cheesy collection of excerpts from their hits, in a small dark space, with a Super Trouper spotlight pride of place.

Other rooms showcase a typical living room of the 1970s, with accompanying television broadcast about the Common Market and a couple of display cases with real ABBA memorabilia – tip, make sure you walk around all the rooms and look at the exhibits as the time allowed to do this is limited, a fake forest representing an outdoor festival, a recording studio which demonstrated the complicated mix of music which made us a particular track – plus a chance to sing along to Dancing Queen, a club bathroom complete with graffiti, a flat with items packed up ready for a new life, and a luxury jet cabin.

01-Installation-vie_-ABBA-Super-Troupers-on-display-at-Southbank-Centre-CREDIT-Victor-FrankowskiPhoto by Victor Frankowski.

There are costumes, video footage, records, some personal items, and a final look at the legacy of the group (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and French and Saunders), but if you compare this with the recent exhibitions on Elvis Presley at the O2, and the Rolling Stones at the Saatchi Gallery, this is something of a disappointment, and would perhaps benefit from a more thoughtful curation of the available space, focusing on what is really rare and interesting so they are not missed.

However, if you are a fan of the group – and of course they have recently announced a reform of sorts with a new song and a holographic tour – this has now been extended until 29th July 2018.  Cheaper entry prices are available mid-week than at weekends.

 

 


SeatPlan (London theatre tickets and seat reviews)

SeatPlan has been online since 2011, and its original aim was to advise theatre patrons which seats are good or bad for particular theatres or productions.

As a member of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) it also operates as an agency to purchase tickets for London-based productions.

Let’s take a tour of the site:

seatplan first page

Here is the homepage. You will note that although SeatPlan started as London-based, it has now branched out to include shows and venues in a number of other cities, and these can be reached by clicking on the city name below the search box.

There is no need to create an account to browse the features on the site. However, if you wish to become a contributor, you can log in via two methods – either by email and password, or by linking your SeatPlan account with Facebook. I found the latter the easiest as I can then operate my SeatPlan account without having to remember seperate login credentials.

Searching for a venue

I searched for the National Theatre, which has three auditoriums, but only two are represented on here (presumably because the Dorfman has flexible staging and seating which can change for each production).

Assessing the seat quality

Once you click on the venue in which you are interested, the first thing you see is a seating plan, with colour-coded seats depending on how they have been reviewed on a five-point scale from poor to good.  This is of course a subjective analysis, but a useful one.  For the National Theatre’s Olivier, the majority of seats are marked as good, and some have photos to reflect this.

Reviews and photos

Reviews are provided by patrons who have a SeatPlan account, and require the venue, production, date (but not time, which would be useful), area of the theatre (stalls, dress circle, balcony etc), row and number, comment about the seat (legroom, view) and an optional review of the show if you wish.

I utilised this function to add a negative review of the seat I was in to see ‘Chess’ at the ENO Coliseum, but to ensure a positive review of the show itself, so I like the ability to add this; however, capsule reviews displayed on the production page only show the review of the seat itself.

Simply click on ‘add review’ to start this process. If you are not logged in, you will be prompted to do so.  All reviews go into a moderation buffer before they are published.

Each photo added to your review – not taken during the show, or without the safety curtain being down – will add 40p to your account.  I believe the reviews alone do not add any credit other to assist other patrons.

Searching for a production

You can search for a particular production in the main search box – the results will tell you at which theatre the production is showing, plus how many performances are currently scheduled for booking.

I searched for ‘Tina: The Musical’, which is currently running at the Aldwych Theatre.

tina

You will note that the easiest thing to do from this page is to book for the production.  To access reviews of the seats, click on either the name of the theatre, or the details of seat photos and reviews (the links all go to the same place).

The booking process

Let’s explore the ticket booking process. Click on the ‘book now’ button and this takes you into a list of performances, and the familiar promise of tickets available at the lowest price for that performance. From here it is easy to progress into a seat plan to choose the tickets you want to book – but there is no link between this page and the one which details reviews of each seat.

I would recommend having two windows open to best utilise the dual functionality of this site, or, start with the seat plan reviews and utilise the buttons on the side to book your show.

tina 2

Other useful features

For each venue, there are details of the various sections with general comments (e.g. “the first row could cause neck-ache due to a high stage”), a map and directions to the venue, and some details on accessible seating for patrons with disabilities.

You can also ‘track’ a venue by ticking a box to get email updates about that theatre. You can do the same for a specific show to access the best price deals.

Clicking on the name of a city takes you to a page which lists productions for the next 12 months, and a list of venues.

Final thoughts

SeatPlan is a good site with a lot of useful information, but it is worth taking the time to figure out the navigation and shortcuts.  There are similar sites out there (for example, TheatreMonkey) but they rely more on the subjective opinion of one person, rather than a collection of viewpoints.  Both are equally valid.

SeatPlan is located at https://seatplan.com/.


Tina: The Musical (Aldwych Theatre)

You’re probably very familiar with the story of Tina Turner – born Anna Mae Bulloch. She was spotted by Ike Turner when she was a teenager and her distinctive and powerful voice livened up his Revue Band for sixteen years of music success and violent domesticity.

The first act of this musical starts in church, when young Anna Mae already seeks attention. Abandoned by her parents she becomes a cotton picker and grows under the care of her grandmother.

On rejoining her mother and elder sister she runs wild and is practically pushed towards the much more worldly Ike, who grooms her into marriage while resenting her superior talent.

Of course we only have Tina’s word about these early years, and by the end of Act One she’s taken her two boys and made a run for it. There are some musical bits in this half, but the show didn’t come to life for me until Proud Mary.

Act Two sees Tina, ‘knocking forty’ and without a record deal. She’s taken on by a Aussie producer and finds herself on the other side of the world, with a new image, a new partner in marketing whizz Erwin Bach, and eventual super-stardom.

Adrienne Warren is note-perfect as Tina, from teenage years to mature rocker. She has her first chance to show off her pipes on River Deep, Mountain High and comes into her own with vibrant energy in the Simply The Best finale.

Produced by Turner and Bach, this show is close to hagiography, with the story clearly slanted to the infatigable determination of Anna Mae. Young Anna Mae is played by a rotating trio of girls (I think we saw Reya-Nyomi Brown) with their own infectious spirit.

Lorna Gayle is in great voice as GG, Tina’s gran, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith convinces in a tough role as Ike – he gets booed as the villain but he’s a good singer in his own right.

Interestingly, Tina’s solo success comes with a step away from the black community and with the help of whites like Phil Spector, Rhonda Graham, Terry Britten and Roger Davies. Even from David Bowie, who reportedly told the record label they would be mad not to sign her – there’s a moment where I thought he would be introduced but thankfully, no.

A decent show but it could do with a bit of a snip and be warned, it takes a while to warm up. Go for Warren’s performance though – she really is that good.


Last Laugh in Vegas (ITV)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had regular variety shows as television entertainment, attracting large audiences and affection. This was the era of sitcoms like Hi de Hi, comedy duos like Cannon and Ball (a couple of lads from my own home town of Oldham), stand-up shows like The Comedians, and a gentler, easier style of music.

vegas

Last Laugh in Vegas carries on where The First Marigold Hotel left off, with nine entertainers between the ages of 64 and 82 taking a chance on appearing live on stage in Las Vegas. Over four shows on ITV, and a final episode on ITV3 which gives us the full 90 minute show, we meet the seven men and two women whose names may have been familiar back then, but which have become less well-known in recent years.

Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have performed together as a double act for more than half a century (even if a couple of decades of that time was spent ignoring each other off the stage), and their natural chemistry and ability still shines through, although Bobby can be a bit of a stirrer and Tommy a bit of a grumpy old man. I even found myself remembering the words to their theme song, and it’s a long time since their series was on the box.

Bobby Crush won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager, and has spent most of his career impersonating the larger-than-life Liberace. He’s an emotional old boy, easily pleased or upset, but his story is perhaps the most touching, as we see in the episode where he watches his younger self tinkling the ivories, reflecting on his need to stay closeted while dealing with the pressures of sudden fame – those large TV audiences I mentioned earlier were huge for talent shows in the 1970s.

Anita Harris was a pop star for a while, but she appears delicate now (although looking fantastic for 75); I last saw her in the Royal Albert Hall one-off concert performance of Follies where she performed a duet with Roy Hudd. During Last Laugh in Vegas we see her vulnerability and learn about her husband’s memory problems, and if she can no longer sing she can still put across a song, which shows professionalism.

Kenny Lynch may have been Jimmy Tarbuck’s stooge in ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s for years, but he’s a reasonable crooner on stage, and an hilarious foul-mouthed grouch in private. Now in his 80s, he has the feel of an old, well-worn overcoat which has a classy past. His close friend (so close he calls him “Kipper”) is another former pop singer (self-obsessed, and described by himself as an ‘icon’), the heavily Botoxed Jess Conrad, the elder of the group. I saw Conrad in the 1980s in a 60s show alongside such luminaries as Tommy Bruce, Terry Dene, Mike Berry, Cissy Stone, and Screaming Lord Sutch, and he came across then as he does now, a deluded lounge lizard. Is it an act? The jury is still out.

Su Pollard may always be Peggy from Hi de Hi, but she has a past in musicals, and I was impressed by her in the musical Shout at the Arts Theatre some time ago. She’s larger than life and the only one of the group who looks as if she would just slot in perfectly in Vegas, and it is no surprise in the final episode to see her get a video message from a drag queen friend.

Bernie Clifton was a fixture on variety shows way back when with his ostrich act – which, if you’re not familiar with it, is hard to describe – and he reprises that here, while showing a softer side with a decent singing voice, and a sense of fun when rescuing Anita’s errant knickers. His obvious joy on receiving a standing Vegas ovation for his singing was touching indeed, and on the evidence seen in this series he seems a genuinely nice chap.

Finally, Mick Miller, the comic with the bald head and straggly hair. You may remember his drunken entertainer act from the past, or his laconically delivered funny lines. Disappointment as a boy when he wanted to be a professional footballer led him to the stage, and it was good to see his act go down a storm.

The reason this show worked – and sadly, it didn’t get the ratings it should have, hardly reaching 3 million – was the blend of ‘reality’ and careful scripting which set up conflicts, introduced the sentimentality of the past and connection with families, and made us laugh at the sight of goat yoga or Jess Conrad attempting to make a cup of tea.

And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Frank Marino, one of the richest drag queens in the world, who acts as the Vegas show’s producer, and who looks like a bizarre hybrid of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.

More, please.

Last Laugh in Vegas episode one expires from catch-up TV next week.


On black dogs, red mists, and blue Mondays

rose-812765__340
Credit: Pixabay

A more personal post …

I’m forty-six years old this year. And all through my life I’ve been hard to get to, hard to define. I was a hard child to understand, says my mother.

At school I had little or no confidence and my friendships tended to be more intense than others. I didn’t make friends easily, I never thrived in a group. I still don’t. I was easy to push around and laugh at.

I struggle with my thoughts and my confidence. Right now I am coping (not always that well!) with anxiety, depression, and frustration. But I have a good job. I have a great husband. I still have my parents. I’m in a good place financially.

It’s never quite ‘right’ but I can’t define why. I feel sometimes that work peers don’t care or respect my professional skills. I sometimes feel like a fish out of water. I wake up in a sweat. I get cramps. I shake. I can’t concentrate or even sometimes find the right word. I forget things. I don’t have the strength to be strong.

So getting out of the door is not easy. Staying engaged and interested in what’s going on around me is not easy. Even getting my point across when I know I have something real and genuine to say is not easy. Not crying is easy because really I can’t but if I could, I would. When you look at yourself and feel like you’re letting yourself down. Letting everyone else down.

I can’t push myself. I’ve done well in my career but right now I don’t feel it. I’ve pushed myself to do presentations, to join committees, to engage in professional spaces. I love nurturing and helping others achieve their potential.

But this black dog has me right now. It will get better, but it hurts me physically as well as messing with my mind. I ache. I feel pain. I feel shattered. I feel weepy. I feel angry. And this time it’s been this way for a year, up and down. Last time it was nearly two. I pushed through that but sometimes you can’t. You can’t. You have to say stop.

So I’m not using this post to complain, just to explain. You can’t stand in my shoes but now and again, just ask me if I’m OK. Send me happy thoughts. Be nice if you see me. Don’t push away my concerns just because they are not yours. I can even make you laugh if you let me (even if I’m churning up inside). Because I sometimes even make myself laugh.

I’m determined. I’ll be back. I’ll be whatever kind of ‘normal’ it is appropriate for me to be. That’s the joy of being unique.

images
Credit: Romp Roll Rockies

I’m still doing my reviews. I’m still reading, watching, enjoying.

Service will resume very shortly!


The Moderate Soprano (Duke of York’s)

There is no singing, operatic or otherwise, in The Moderate Soprano, which returns to the stage following a sell-out run at Hampstead three years ago.

There is Roger Allam in a curiously bad wig (and at one point, lederhosen) as the eccentric John Christie, who made his fortune from building and decided his destiny was to build an opera house in his garden – which became Glyndebourne, England’s answer to Bayreuth.

moderate_soprano_2Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay (Christie) and Roger Allam as John Christie.

The soprano of the title (not moderate as in average, but as in gentle of voice) is John’s wife, Audrey, played by Nancy Carroll, and we meet both of them in the first scene after the Second World War, when their enterprise is to be taken under the control of a Trust, ‘for the people’.

We then go back to see how Glyndebourne came to be, by the tenacity and naivete of Christie, and the help of three refugees from the Nazis: Rudolf Bing, Carl Ebert, and Franz Busch.  So a truly English institution was modelled on the German model by three specialists in the production of Mozart.

There are hints and glimpses of politics pre-war, and these are done well, but they feel a bit lost in what is essentially a light comedy, and David Hare’s play, now split into two Acts with an interval, could do with an additional trim to stop the action dragging to a stop.

Paul Jesson, a stalwart of the RSC who I last saw playing Henry VIII at Stratford-upon-Avon, is Busch, a conductor who fell foul of promoting Jews above Gentiles for their talent in his opera house in Dresden, who was driven out after his orchestra took to wearing swastikas on their lapels.

Anthony Calf (best known perhaps, as Strickland in New Tricks) is Ebert, engaging with the Christies in characteristic Teutonic arrogance, and his assistant Bing is played by the very mannered Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.

The play is complex, but I felt it did not entirely convince.  The performances are broadly good (especially Allam, who gets to the core of the character and Jesson, who convinces as a man displaced and somewhat befuddled by political progress), but there is something missing, and the decline in health of both the Christies is not fully explained, or the fact the private enterprise seems to decline during wartime.

I was also a little disappointed with the frugality of the sets and backdrops, and the dig within the script to people prepared to pay high prices to watch opera (which is also true, these days, of London theatre).

Just a reasonable two hours of theatre, not unmissable by any means, and not an obvious candidate to see out its full run to the end of June; it probably suited the small space of the Hampstead Theatre far better.

FillWyI3NTAiLCI0MjIiXQ-TMS-Nancy-Carroll-and-Roger-Allam-Photo-Piers-Foley-Small2Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam visit Glyndebourne. Photo credit Piers Foley.


Knights of the Rose – PR

Romance of the Rose Productions presents:

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

A New West End Classic Rock Musical created by Jennifer Marsden

image001

A TALE OF BETRAYAL, LOVE, BLOODSHED AND REDEMPTION

29th June – 26th August, 2018

Press Night: Thursday 5th July

On sale – 23rd March

The Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB

Romance of the Rose Productions are delighted to announce the world premiere of a new West End musical created by Jennifer Marsden, Knights of the Rose, an epic medieval tale featuring a timeless playlist of classic rock songs. Headlined by five unforgettable Bon Jovi masterpieces and accompanied by much loved songs from Bonnie Tyler, Meatloaf, No Doubt and more, Knights of the Rose finds court at The Arts Theatre from Friday 29th June – Sunday 26th August.

In this epic tale of betrayal, love, bloodshed and redemption, the noble Knights of the Rose must defend their House and their honour. Even as the chivalrous knights return from a glorious victory, a greater threat against the kingdom stirs. As they face the greatest battle of the age and betrayal threatens to tear them apart, can true love and honour triumph?

With rich interwoven literature from Marlowe, Shakespeare and Chaucer mixed with legendary classic rock music; Knights of the Rose is a glorious fusion of popular culture, evocative of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Bat out of Hell’. This high-voltage musical of Shakespearean proportions charges its way into the heart of London on 29th June, for 9 weeks only.

SET LIST INCLUDES:

Blaze Of Glory – Bon Jovi // Blood On Blood – Bon Jovi // Always – Bon Jovi // Bed Of Roses – Bon Jovi // This Is Love, This Is Life – Bon Jovi // Changes – Black Sabbath // Holding Out For A Hero – Bonnie Tyler // Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler // Hero – Enrique Iglesias // King Arthur: Third Act – Henry Purcell // The Parting Glass – Irish Folk Song // Is Nothing Sacred – Meatloaf // Marriage Of Figaro: Part 1V – Mozart // Don’t Speak – No Doubt // Addicted To Love – Robert Palmer // Hard Times Of Old England – Steeleye Span // Wherever You Will Go – The Calling // He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother – The Hollies // Pilgrim – Uriah Heep

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE:

Monday – 7.30pm

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – 7.30pm

Thursday – 3pm/7.30pm

Friday – 7.30pm

Saturday – 3pm/ 7.30pm

Sunday – 4pm

TICKETS:

On sale – 23rd March

Wednesday, Thursday Matinee, Thursday Evening, Sunday and Monday

£55 // £45// £33.50 // £22.50 // £15

Friday, Saturday Matinee, Saturday Evening
£65 // £49.50 // £38.50 // £25 // £20

Box Office: 020 7836 8463 // https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/

—–

CREATIVES

Jennifer Marsden – Creator // Racky Plews – Director and Choreographer // Diego Pitarch – Designer

Jennifer Marsden – Creator
Creator, Jennifer Marsden, lives in West Sussex with her husband, Tim, and has three grown up children. She is a qualified Barrister and has always had a keen interest in theatre. Jenny began writing over eight years ago and is a member of Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, and the Inner Temple Inn of Court.

Racky Plews – Director and Choreographer

Racky Plews is trained at Sylvia Young and Arts Educational

Directing and Choreography credits include, Thoroughly Modern Mille (UK Tour), Summer Holiday (UK Tour), American Idiot (West End and UK Tour, winner of Best New Musical in the West End Broadway World Awards, Best Director and Best Choreographer nomination What’s On Stage Awards), Footloose (West End and UK Tour), Vanities (Trafalgar Studios, West End), Guys and Dolls, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Into The Woods (The Gatehouse). Racky’s choreography credits include, Flight (Symphony of the Seas), Columbus (Harmony of the Seas), Respect La Diva (Garrick Theatre, West End), Jekyll and Hyde (UK Tour), Josephine Baker (The Beckett Theatre, New York), Cougar (The Belgrade, Coventry), Lost Boy (Liverpool Playhouse), West End Bares (Jerry Mitchell/MAD Trust), Denise Pearson – The Jackson’s World Tour (UK Arena Tour), Forever Plaid (UK & International Tour), Bare – The Rock Musical (Best Choreography nomination Broadway World), Bernarda Alba, and Once Upon A Mattress (Best Choreography nomination Off West End Awards, The Union Theatre), The 48hour Musicals – The Boy Friend (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Crazy For You, and Me & My Girl (London Palladium).

Diego Pitarch – Designer
Born in Spain, London based Diego Pitarch studied architecture and Interior Design in Valencia, Barcelona and at the E.S.A.G in Paris, where he obtained an award for Scenography. In 2001 he completed his MA in Theatre Design at the Slade School of Art in London. His design for Katya Kabanova placed him amongst the finalists for the Linbury Prize. Since then Diego has created more than 100 designs for plays, musicals, ballets and operas for renowned theatres and producers worldwide. Successes include Sunset Boulevard in London’s West End, Spend, Spend, Spend directed by Craig Revel-Horwood, which won a TMA award for Best Musical in 2009, the 2011 European tour of The Who’s Tommy, the 2013 UK and Ireland tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Paul Michael Glaser as well as the 2017 touring production of The Addams Family and Crazy for You. In 2015 The production of 1984 designed for the Altes Schauspielhaus in Stuttgart was nominated for the prestigious Faust award.


Tearjerkers in Musical Theatre

There are as many different types of song in MT as there are shows – big belters, ballads, showstoppers, choruses, comic theatricals, and curtain-raisers.

In this post I’ll share some of my favourite sad songs, tearjerkers, items of pathos, musical beauties. This takes in examples from between the world wars through to the present day: I hope I’ve included some of your favourites.

Kern and Hammerstein: in creating Show Boat a couple of classic love songs were launched. ‘You Are Love’ brings Gaylord and Magnolia together, while ‘Bill’ gives Julie a torch song of regret; the use of a turn of the century stage favourite by Charles Harris, ‘After the Ball’, focuses on father and daughter meeting after a separation.

Rodgers and Hart: ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ from Pal Joey. An anthem of awakened feelings from an older lady. ‘My Romance’, from Jumbo, love in the circus. ‘With a Song in my Heart’, which was a film number, not stage, but beautiful.

Rodgers and Hammerstein: ‘Something Wonderful’ and ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ from The King and I, where Anna Leonowens finds purpose in Siam. ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ from Oklahoma, Curly and Laurey’s unsure steps. ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel, where bluff Billy almost softens. ‘Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful’ from Cinderella, done twice for TV before making it to the stage. ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ from South Pacific, when Emile feels he has lost Nellie, who has been ‘carefully taught’ to fear the unknown.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. ‘Other Pleasures’ and ‘Seeing is Believing’ from Aspects of Love, an underrated circle of love and desire. ‘Old Deuteronomy’ from Cats. ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ and ‘The Greatest Star of All’ from Sunset Boulevard. ‘An Unexpected Song’ from Tell Me On a Sunday, just breathtaking.

Stephen Sondheim: ‘Little Lamb’ from Gypsy. ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music. ‘Losing My Mind’ and ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ from Follies. ‘Move On’ from Sunday in the Park With George. ‘Being Alive’ from Company. He has such an eye for the real detail.

Abba musicals: ‘Pity the Child’ and ‘Anthem’ from Chess. ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ from Mamma Mia, mothers and daughters.

Willy Russell: ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ from Blood Brothers. The tale of twins as alike as two pins.

Richard O’Brien: ‘I’m Going Home’ and ‘Once In Your Life’ from The Rocky Horror Show. Strangely touching.

Gershwin: ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ from Porgy and Bess. ‘But Not For Me’ from Girl Crazy.

Boublil and Schoenberg: ‘Bring Him Home’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘I Saw Him Once’ from Les Miserables. ‘The Movie in My Mind’, ‘Bui-Doi’ and ‘I’ll Give My Life for You’ from Miss Saigon. ‘When Will Someone Hear’ and ‘How Many Tears’ from Martin Guerre. Big belters with a lot of heart.

Bernstein: ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Candide. ‘One Hand, One Heart’ and ‘Maria’ from West Side Story.

Ivor Novello: ‘My Dearest Dear’ from The Dancing Years. ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ from Perchance to Dream. Of their time operettas, but beautifully done.

Noel Coward: ‘If Love Were All’ from Bitter Sweet. ‘Matelot’ from Sigh No More.

Peggy Gordon: ‘By My Side’ from Godspell. A beautiful blend of melodic voices.

‘I Don’t Need a Roof’ and ‘Daffodils’ from Big Fish, a new musical with a lot of heart.

Lerner and Loewe: ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady. ‘It’s Almost Like Being in Love’ from Brigadoon. ‘Wand’rin Star’ from Paint Your Wagon. ‘How To Handle a Woman’ and ‘Before I Gaze at You Again’ from Camelot. The title song from ‘Gigi’, as Gaston falls in love. Five musicals which need big ticket revivals.

Irving Berlin: ‘It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow’ from Louisiana Purchase but best known for the version by Vera Lynn. ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ from Annie Get Your Gun, a sweet pause in a raucous sea of sound.

Jerry Herman: ‘If He Walked Into My Life’ from Mame. ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ from Mack and Mabel. ‘Song on the Sand’ from La Cage Aux Folles. Naked, honest, what ifs.

Bock and Harnick: ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.

What are yours?


Angry angel: a tribute to Layne Staley

Layne Thomas Staley died at the age of 34 of a speedball overdose, sick and emaciated in reclusive squalor. It was a sad ending for the musician who always wanted to be a rock star, achieved the fame, riches and attention and ended up dependent on heroin, secluded from family and friends.

Layne had a fairly typical upbringing in Seattle, with father Phil, mum Nancy, and sister Liz. When Phil went off the scene and Nancy remarried to Jim Elmer, Layne gained a half-brother, Ken, and in time a new little sister, Jamie, to complete the family.

At school he was registered as Layne Elmer, and was remembered as quiet, sweet and sensitive. A good-looking boy, he flirted with alcohol and pot but showed few signs of the excesses you might associate with the music scene.

In his teens, Layne changed his name back to Staley and formed the glam rock band Sleze, with backcombed hair and make-up. His hope was that fame would lead to a renewed relationship with his father (who would eventually make contact, bonding over their shared addictions).

This band evolved into Alice ‘n’ Chains and eventually, once Layne ran into Jerry Cantrell at the Music Bank, the name was applied to a new quartet also featuring Sean Kinney and Mike Starr, and Alice in Chains were born.

Becoming one of the big four of the Seattle grunge scene, with harmonizing vocals and increasingly edgy subject matter, Alice in Chains dived into all the trappings of fame including girls and drugs, with Layne and his girlfriend Demri discovering and becoming quickly reliant on heroin: the run of songs on AIC’s second album, ‘Dirt’, which include Junkhead and God Smack attest to the growing trap of addiction.

Theirs was a turbulent and intense romance, an open relationship of great joy and great sorrow which ended with their 1994 split and Demri’s eventual death aged 27 in 1996. A friend’s account of how they discovered the drug details their excitement at the feeling it brought them, and how he knew then they were lost.

Layne Staley’s main attributes were a voice of wide range, a caring and playful nature, and a love-hate relationship with fame. He was also the epitome of a rock god, constantly experimenting with his hair, clothing and accessories.

His physical appearance slowly declined between the release of the EP ‘Jar of Flies’ and the MTV Unplugged show – by which time the band had been largely in hiatus for three years (other than the Nona Tapes mockumentary).

Layne had tried numerous stints in rehab, always sliding back to the needle – his longest period of sobriety led to the satellite project of Mad Season, a kind of supergroup which included the kind of reflective work which appealed to the introspective and intelligent musician.

The MTV show is all the more amazing if you consider the circumstances of a man so thin he needed more than three layers of clothes to bulk up, with gloves to hide track marks and sunglasses to mask the tell-tale look of eyes that are high. He’s physically weak, but vocally strong. It’s a stunning concert.

Following one more live show in 1996, Layne Staley all but left AIC but this was never confirmed. He never played live again and was only seen in public once more, at the 1997 Grammy Awards, looking thin but OK.

There’d be one more recording session for the Music Bank retrospective release, and photos from that time – his 31st birthday – are very sad to see.

The songs recorded were dark and morbid, and it is questionable why an addict with clear physical problems including muscle atrophy was expected to engage in a recording session. From this point on he retreated to his condo, rarely engaging with the outside world.

His sad decline and death has overshadowed the fact that this man was a talented artist and musician with the face of an angel who couldn’t stop battling his demons.

Fame gave him everything, but he grew to resent it. Money allowed him to retreat into a drug-filled stupor round the clock, even after he lost friends (Andrew Wood, Shannon Hoon, Kurt Cobain) and his girlfriend Demri to addiction. It’s a truly cautionary tale.

Layne was his own worst enemy, but also his greatest publicist. He left writings, artworks and songs which are brutally honest about the world as he saw it. He’s a far more complex case than the shell he became.

His early live performances show a force of nature, skin and dreadlocks, and a truly dynamic performer, while photographs show a sense of fun alongside a surprising amount of maturity for a young man who mainly spent his downtime playing video games.

I think we’re the poorer for not having him around, clean, vibrant, and making the music we would all love to hear.


Long Day’s Journey into Night (Wyndham’s)

Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play comes to the West End in another lengthy production, this time starring Jeremy Irons as ageing actor James Tyrone, and Lesley Manville as his morphine-addicted wife, Mary.

A claustrophobic set lined with books and lights moves the plot forward as first, we see Mary Tyrone in recovery, happy and calm, but soon realise she is in her own reality of dope heaven (or hell). In Manville’s hands the role takes on both the fierceness and deceit of an addict, along with the weakness of the wife and mother who ‘once fell in love with James Tyrone, and was so happy’.

longdaysjourney1

Irons is a theatrical Tyrone, every inch an actor and never a glimpse into the real man. He baits his sons – the shiftless Jamie (Rory Keenan) and the consumptive Edmund (Matthew Beard) – and yet can’t control even the level of whisky in the bottle he keeps on the table. He sees the girl within his wife, but can’t reach her.

The twisting hands, the trailing wedding dress, the lying on the bed with eyes open, the drifting, the drinking, the moments where just for a minute or two Mary Tyrone is happy again. It’s all about her, and the moments where Manville is absent from the stage drag, just a little, in a heart to heart between Irons and Beard where the latter just can’t catch the tragedy of the character.

longdaysjourney2

Keenan, though, is good, filled with self-loathing and self-destruction, on a spiral of disappointment by seeing addiction and disgust all around him. He has his father’s name and perhaps, his weakness too. There’s nothing but a downward spiral for all of them, in this raw and broken world where everyone lies and no one can face what’s really going on around them.


Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.


The Illustrated Vivian Stanshall – book review

Vivian Stanshall was his own peculiar creation.

Born in 1943, and named Victor, this artist, musician and unique personification of the English dandy, free spirit and eccentric, proves hard to pin down.

His widow, Ki Longfellow, has had this book in planning for a long time. Her history. His history. That of friends and collaborators, family and fans, and more.

From the early days as a member of the Bonzo Dog Dada Band – the quirky mix of Studdy drawing and creative canvas – the renamed Vivian excuded a virile and dangerous charm in the most simple of songs. If his Intro was via affectionate spoofs of old 78s, it would be the route to a drunken Viking flame, all consuming much of his legacy in his Muswell Hill flat.

This book is not a biography. Not a memoir. Some of it we’ve seen before (Vivian and Ki’s first date, with him in green with his beard tied with a ribbon, and her, the American who had no clue who he was, regarding him so closely they clicked and understood each other; notes on his solo albums Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit), some is new – the drinking, the chemical experimentation leaving to a broken, brilliant brain and a sensual sensitivity alongside the behaviour one might charitably describe as quirky, but those who lived with it might have felt they were screaming into the void.

The book, which runs to 320 pages of beautiful perfect-bound paperback (and did I say it smells great? Well, it smells great), is, as promised by the title, illustrated, lavishly so with drawings by Ben Wickey, personal photographs from many aspects of Vivian’s life, and writings and paintings by the man himself – he threw his torment and his sense of fun into his art, and wrote love notes to his wife on single sheets of toilet paper – musing while straining?

There’s love on each page. Frustration, too. Loss. Admiration. Regret. It’s a happy book. It’s a sad book. It’s an honest book. There are lyrics – Strange Tongues, Arc of a Diver – which belie the mad and odd image many carry of Stanshall, if they remember him at all. They speak of a perceptive visionary who looked at life and the world so askance that it probably gleamed crystal clear.

Keith Moon, Who drummer, fellow imbiber, partner in frivolities, dead just past thirty. Vivian Stanshall, at thirty out of the Bonzos, creating Sir Henry at Rawlinson End for radio, album, movie. Hubert the hurt who lost his shirt.

Ki opening herself wide open to pull his into that world, sticky, tricky, prickly – the boats, the art, the exploitation, the obsession with cock which made the artist honest and unabashed as addictions removed inhibitions and lifted the Crank into something wider.

Sadness. When Vivian Stanshall died, he was still only young but in that physical shell there was so much strength. That beauty on page 22 (and he was, however curio-bat-crazee that sounds) became the genius, the push me pull me which came apart and reassembled in a shape which couldn’t operate within the normal.

This book is a triumph. It’s pricey for sure, and will cost you the same as a decent West End theatre ticket, or all of the recorded oeuvre of VS put together, but if you are any kind of fan – and it is squarely aimed at the fan – you will feel a connection to the man, or as close as you can get through one woman’s reality of his reality of himself. Or something.


Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Set in the round, this tale of the circus’s greatest showman boasts a memorable score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

The Menier has turned the bar area into a museum of curiosities ‘on loan from the estate of PT Barnum’, into which ringmaster Dominic Owen kickstarts the show by looking for Tom Thumb – in the auditorium itself there are coloured lightbulbs, posters and a circus ring with a tiny stool and piano.

The original productions of Barnum, starring Michael Crawford and Jim Dale, are renowned for their comic timing, showmanship and stunts. This production is high energy but falls a bit flat in its leading performance; Marcus Brigstocke interacts well with the audience in the second half, but his voice is weak and he looks more like a fish out of water than the centre of attention. If Barnum doesn’t steal the show (although he did make it across the tightrope in one go), then there’s something not quite right.

As the ladies in his life, Laura Pitt-Pulford makes a steely yet touching Chairy, while Celinde Schoenmaker hits the high notes as the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

In the ensemble, Owen catches the eye throughout with tumbles and liveliness, Preston and Kelsey Jamieson do lifts and fire work, and the company perform a range of routines from a brass band and tap dancing, to aerial hoops and basic magic tricks (some of which involve the audience at the start).

Recommended even with the central miscasting, director Gordon Greenberg uses the space well and Harry Francis dances with aplomb as Tom Thumb. There’s even a tiny toy train to represent travel and a range of model buildings hoisted on hooks to show location, and ‘a real live elephant’. It’s all rather charming and displays quite an amount of what Barnum describes as ‘humbug’.


Motown (Shaftesbury Theatre)

‘Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street’. Well, it isn’t summer yet but it is time to check out this hagiography about Berry Gordy written by, um, Berry Gordy, in a show he also produced.

Veering between an obsession with Motown star (and Gordy girlfriend) Diana Ross, and the frankly misguided decision to force more than 50 songs into a threadbare narrative, this show only stands on the quality of its songs, which thankfully are good.

There are four big roles and a hard working cast of ensemble and swings who play the rest – at the performance I saw Ashley Samuels was in great voice as Gordy, Kieran McGinn was a bit superfluous as Smokey Robinson (really, all those great songs missing, a waste of this performer’s voice), Lucy St Louis was spirited but no Ross, and Kayi Ushe was the very spirit of Marvin Gaye.

A feelgood jukebox show cluttered with simplistic political commentary about the deaths of President JFK and Dr King, and Vietnam, this show works best when acts are simply allowed to perform (Jay Perry impresses, for example, as both David Ruffin of The Temptations and as Jermaine Jackson), and the medley of dubious 70s acts signed by Gordy really needs to go!

Wigs and stick-on beards are awful, though, and the set is a tad on the cheap side. Ultimately this is a bloated ego trip which doesn’t quite do full justice to the songs (and I would have liked to hear more from Diana Ross as Billie Holiday), and it pales in comparison to other jukebox shows such as ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Sunny Afternoon’.


Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

The 1976 film version of this is one of my all-time favourites, a biting, pulsing, black satire on the power of the media. This production, directed by Ivo van Hove, was obviously appealing from the word go.

Howard Beale is a news anchor. He’s losing ratings, losing patience, and losing his mind. When hard-nosed executive programmer Diana Christensen sees the opportunity to exploit his slide into madness to build an ‘angry prophet’ show around him, corporate monster Frank Hackett sees a way to chisel to the top of the tree at the network, pushing old-timer Max Schumaker out along the way.

The set is interesting, dominated by a huge video screen and flanked on each side by glass-walled offices, and what has been termed the ‘Foodwork’ experience, where diners pay up to £250 a head for a five-course meal, a ringside seat, and a bit of show interaction.

Casting is dominated by Bryan Cranston (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Trumbo’) as Beale, and he’s terrific, at turns vulnerable, bravura, and simply ‘as mad as hell’. You may remember a social media call for people to film themselves saying that iconic line – here those videos pepper the wall to show the national reach of the News Hour.

Michelle Dockery brings a certain emotional blankness to the part of Diana, whether she’s pitching an idea, taking a phonecall, or having rushed intercourse with Max, unable to remove her attention away from work.

As Max, Douglas Henshall feels too young and far from the jaded drunk a lifetime with television has made him, and Tunji Kasim was totally inadequate as Hackett (a role with needs an actor with range, as Robert Duvall demonstrated in the film).

Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay has been cleverly adapted by Lee Hall, although some of the dubious and immoral politics have been filtered out, and the attempts to make the Lyttelton audience studio accomplices fell flat.

Ultimately, this plot remains presient considering how politicians have come to manipulate the media for their own ends, just as network boss Jensen (Richard Cordery) does here for the corporate good.

I enjoyed the staging which allowed both the screen and the ‘reality’ to be watched (and I’d recommend a circle seat for this). I couldn’t get invested enough in the characters, though, which makes this production flashy, stunning, but superficial.


London Life With Liz

Lover of good food, good wine and all things London-related - theatre, music, history and Arsenal FC being some of my particular passions. Join me on my travels around this amazing city and beyond...

Forgotten Television Drama

Uncovering the lost history of British TV Drama

reviewsrevues

Book reviews, author interviews, music reviews. A revue of reviews!

Being Curious

reflections on living with life

Let's Go To The Movies

Film and Theatre Lover!

%d bloggers like this: