Monthly Archives: July 2012

Theatre review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre, London

A hit at the Chichester Festival last year, this new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Sweeney Todd’, starring Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton, Jason Manford (covering as Pirelli for a month), John Bowe, Peter Polycarpou, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Lucy May Barker, Luke Brady, and Jason McConville, looks sumptuously high-budget and lives up to the hype which followed it to London.

Ball is a gifted musical tenor with many leading roles to his name including Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, Marius in Les Miserables, Giorgio in Passion. Here, in a role written for a singer with a lower register, he acquits himself well and seems to relish playing a multi-faceted villain, with mad delight in dispatching his customers to the bakehouse below, as well as being a good comic foil to the slightly desperate Mrs Lovett (Staunton, who is excellent in a role still associated firmly with Angela Lansbury).

Elsewhere in the cast John Bowe misfires a bit as Judge Turpin – he’s a fine actor, but not right here, and certainly no singer. Polycarpou however, himself a veteran of many musicals, notably Miss Saigon, is delightful as the Beadle, particularly in the Tower of Bray sequence, where the Beadle, Mrs Lovett, and the hidden Toby make a funny, if bleak, trio. As Toby Jason McConville is convincing and acts his part very well, especially in the final scenes.

For me, the character of Joanna always seems to be a weak link, and here is no exception. I don’t think there is any way to save a song about a Green Linnet, and Lucy May Barker’s soprano is just that bit too high at points – although in her favour she does exude the right amount of innocence and desperation as her situation becomes clear to her. Luke Brady is a fairly impressive Anthony, while Gillian Kirkpatrick’s pivotal role is beautifully played, making her heartbreaking at the conclusion.

The previous production I saw of Sweeney Todd was at the Oldham Coliseum, starring Emile Belcourt in the lead and directed by Paul Kerryson. I’ve had happy memories of it ever since. This new Todd has had money lavished on it to make it more of a spectacular – the set is on three levels and also has a section which moves out to stage front, and also uses trapdoors to good effect – and it will remain in my memory for a long time. As for Michael Ball, I look forward to seeing him in many more challenging roles as he goes into the peak years of his career, no longer a juvenile lead.


Concert review: BBC Proms, Prom 9

A visitor to my blog recently was unchivalrous enough to dismiss my review of the Proms First Night as ‘feeble’. Well, in the interests of strength, let me applaud the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the mighty baton of conductor Daniel Barenboim, and their performance at Prom 9 of the first and second symphonies of Beethoven.

Both these symphonies have a melodious power which, in their familiarity to a listener, calm, soothe and inspire, and the performance of the wind and string sections of the orchestra in particular reinforced this. This is a young orchestra who have enough energy and talent to inspire those who watch them, and clearly, those who lead them too, with young Michael Barenboim in the violin section being particularly noticeable amongst a cast of gifted players.

I haven’t mentioned the middle piece by Pierre Boulez (Dérive 2), but this 45 minute piece of modern music for eleven musicians did not reach me at all. I appreciate that Barenboim and Boulez have a working relationship which goes back to the mid-1960s, and that Boulez cites Beethoven as one of his influences, but for me this Dérive was ten minutes too long and badly needed a more melodic hook. I know that the lack of melody and the sense of the music being a river was intentional, and no doubt the musicians performed well, but it seems to me that the old classics went down better than the experimental at this melting pot of a Prom.


Concert review: The First Night of the Proms

The BBC Proms always seems a ‘British’ affair whatever the music on offer, and this First Night proved that to the hilt with no fewer than four English composers represented with five pieces, each conducted by a different person in a sort of classical homage to the Olympic relay.

The programme was eclectic despite the geographical link – a new percussion and brass-heavy piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage (‘Canon Fever’), conducted by Edward Gardner’; Edward Elgar’s superb ‘In London Town’, with its playful instrument interplay, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; Frederick Delius’ setting of Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem ‘Sea Drift’, sung by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Sir Mark Elder; Michael Tippett’s ‘Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles’, with its folk melodies and Irish jig section, conducted by Martyn Brabbins; and finally Elgar’s overblown ‘Coronation Ode’, originally composed for the crowning of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and revived for their successors George and Mary, conducted by Gardner again. It ends with an early version of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ which seems rather out of place so early in the season. Joining the chorus to perform the ‘Ode’ were Susan Gritton, a light soprano, Sarah Connolly, a feisty mezzo, Robert Murray, a melodious tenor, and Gerald Finley, a serviceable bass-baritone.

The conducting ‘relay’ was rather novel but didn’t really work, and I would have liked to see more of Norrington in particular, who is a fascinating conductor to watch, particularly with reportoire he obviously knows so well and enjoys. Still, in this Olympic year the Proms should be applauded for trying something different, and for presenting a programme of music from ‘home’.


Cinema review: South Riding (1938), BFI Southbank

The latest screening in the BFI Southbank’s ‘Projecting the Archive’ series is Victor Saville’s 1938 film of the Winifred Holtby novel ‘South Riding’, which centres on council corruption and an unusual love story, and stars Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Marie Lohr, John Clements, Milton Rosmer, and a very young Glynis Johns.

We first meet the main cast in the council chamber, and in the schoolroom. These are a mix of business-minded councillors and fair-minded socialists, and the core of the matter is a housing project to replace the slums (here an estate called ‘The Shanks’ where downtrodden women with large families age prematurely and die in poverty, while their children are taken out of education to support them). In contrast to The Shanks we see the palatial home of the family Carne (Richardson and Johns), and discover Cllr Carne’s secret (a wife institutionalised after a series of breakdowns – badly played in flashback by the wooden Ann Todd).

‘South Riding’ has been tackled twice for television, first in 1974 with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the roles taken here by Best and Richardson, and in 2011 with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Obviously both had more scope to develop the story than this 88 minute film, but Saville’s direction, a tight script, and – Todd aside – strong performances, make this a typical entry in the group of patriotic British films which attempted to shed light on the changing political landscape. The print shown at the BFI includes the deeply jingoistic ending which deals with the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, but this is cut from other versions available.


Concert review: Brynfest #1 and #2, Royal Festival Hall

For the past two nights we have attended ‘Brynfest’, a celebration of Wales and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who has pitched up at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a four-day festival.

Wednesday’s show was entitled ‘The Golden Age of Broadway’ and directed by Sheffield Theatres artistic director and Sondheim specialist Daniel Evans (who as a singer himself has appeared with John Wilson at the BBC Proms). Sian Phillips narrated and introduced the singers, including Bryn himself, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham, Emma Williams, and Julian Ovenden, and the music ranged from Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The King and I), Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes), to Darion and Leigh (Man of La Mancha), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady).

Bryn Terfel has a history of recording musical theatre and has performed in Sweeney Todd, so it is no surprise to see him here, having a good time, just as he did in the Sondheim Prom in 2010. Whether singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘So In Love’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, or letting his hair down in ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ he certainly provides entertainment value. Clive Rowe recreated his triumph as Nicely Nicely in ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ and was a sweetly unusual Freddy in ‘On The Street Where You Live’, while Julian Ovenden impressed in Carousel’s ‘Soliloquy’ – less so as Tony in ‘Maria’ (his voice takes on a Jolson-like quality at times which can be distracting but which would serve him well if the musical play ‘Jolson’ is ever revived!). As for Hannah Waddingham, her ‘Something Wonderful’ was just that, while she tried gamely to better the trumpets in ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ with a bevy of chorus dancers. Emma Williams was sparky in her duet of ‘You’re the Top’ with Clive Rowe, both making the most of Porter’s clever wordplay.

The choice for official finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ was inspired, inspirational, and beautiful. A well deserved encore of the lead tune from ‘Oklahoma’ left us with smiles on our faces and humming various tunes on the way home.

Thursday saw a change of pace to Bryn’s more usual milieu – the world of opera. In ‘An Evening of Opera Classics’ he teamed with tenor Laurence Brownlee, soprano Oksana Dyka, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong to present selections from operas ranging from Macbeth to Tosca, Eugene Onegin to Mefistofele. Brownlee is a high tenor with an engaging personality which the audience warmed to, and although Dyka did not move me much with her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (for me, the gold standard of a Tosca is Callas), she had a tuneful if flavourless voice. DeShong – a late replacement as the originally announced singer was ill – has a commanding tone and filled the hall with sound effortlessly.

The best of the night – Terfel’s Scarpia in Tosca aside – was the duet between him and Brownlee in probably my favourite opera duet, ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a beautiful blending of the melody of two human voices. It didn’t disappoint. The Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus – on both nights – were excellent and worked very hard, and nods must go to conductors Gareth Valentine (Broadway) and Gareth Jones (Opera Classics).

A compilation programme from Brynfest is scheduled to air on S4C at 8pm on the 15th July 2012. Last night we were very aware of the camera directly behind us as the operators were having a conversation throughout. Next time, gentlemen, keep it a bit quieter for those of us who don’t like to hear our Macbeths or Toscas punctuated by nattering …


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