Category Archives: musicals

Company (Gielgud Theatre)

This reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical about a 35-year old man, Bobby, who juggles freedom with the wish of his married friends that he finds a lasting romance, makes Bobby become Bobbie, a woman dealing with the same preoccupations.

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Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie now has three boyfriends (Theo, Andy and P.J.) who have the trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy in Act One.  Of the five couples who interfere with her life in the name of friendship, one are a gay couple planning their wedding, leading to the hilarity of Getting Married Today where a neurotic “Jamie” (Jonathan Bailey) panics about whether dependable Paul (Alex Gaumond) is the right man for him.

Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes) constantly belittle each other, but in here there is love, too, as Harry explains in one of the great songs of the score, Sorry/Grateful, joined by David and Larry.  Sarah is perhaps borderline bulimic, and Harry is a drunk, but their marriage can stand it because “everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”.

Susan and Peter (Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell) find they are far better divorced than married; while Joanne and Larry (Patti LuPone and Ben Lewis) keep going as she is irritated by him and he is fascinated by her.  In the original show, Joanne propositions Bobby, but here she offers her husband to Bobbie under a sugar daddy arrangement, which didn’t work in the same way for me.

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Patti LuPone as Joanne

Jenny and David (Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders) are square and settled, and humour Bobbie by smoking the joint she offers them, clearly signalling they are grown up enough to move on from all that, and she isn’t.

Bobbie wears killer red heels throughout, and we see her being used by geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young), who decides she isn’t marriage material, and by self-obsessed P.J. (George Blagden), who sees the universe revolving around him (Another Hundred People) rather than making any meaningful connection with others.

A night with dumb Andy (Richard Fleeshman) – formerly April the air stewardess – who has to fly off to Barcelona gives rise to a couple of surreal scenes, with the husbands of Bobbie’s friends visiting her bedroom while she is in coitus, and a dream sequence of many mirrored Bobbies and what could happen if she marries any of her three boyfriends.

The set is excellent, starting with a small lightbox that grows into a line of interconnected rooms, and some use of a box which rises from and sinks below stage level.  Bobbie’s birthday balloons, too, become as small as in Alice in Wonderland, or are large as to be suffocating.

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Gavin Spokes as Harry, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, Mel Giedroyc as Sarah

The songs do not survive the transformation intact: I was particularly sorry to lose the original, poignant lyrics of Someone Is Waiting, an Act One solo for Bobbie who considers how a combination of her friends may make the perfect mate for her.  The same problem hampers Getting Married Today and Barcelona (mistaking Andy’s name for Freddy instead of April’s for June is not quite as funny).

There are compensations, though. Patti LuPone’s The Ladies Who Lunch lives up to expectations, Rosalie Craig’s Being Alive, which closes the show, is moving and effective, and the ensemble number Side by Side is livened up by a farcical bit of movement work.

I can’t get on board with the praise that has been lavished on this production to the point that “the original may never be done again”.

It’s an interesting experiment, and Marianne Elliott is to be congratulated on making it such fun and relevant to middle-aged women (and Sondheim himself for allowing and facilitating the changes to his exquisitely crafted songs), but for me, it didn’t quite come off.

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This remains my favourite Sondheim from a songs alone point of view, but I find that Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd all have a more coherent storyline.  Company remains extremely cynical about relationships, and where for a man the concept of Have I Got a Girl [Guy] For You seemed acceptable laddish banter, when sung by women to another woman it just seems a bit sad.

Photograph credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Company runs at the Gielgud Theatre until the 22 December 2018.

 


Eugenius (The Other Palace)

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This frenetic new musical from Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins takes its inspiration from comic books, 80s music and TV, and the perils of both childhood and Hollywood.

It makes a triumphant return to The Other Palace in advance of a well-deserved transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End at the end of October. (Update – as of 11 October this is no longer happening).

Eugenius tells the story of Eugene (Rob Houchen), a self-described geek who lives with his father and spends his spare time creating the story of Tough Man, Super Hot Lady, and the Evil Lord Hector.

His friends Janey (Laura Baldwin, previously on stage at The Other Palace in Big Fish) and Feris (Daniel Buckley, very funny) are equally viewed as odd by their peers: she has a secret crush on Eugene but he doesn’t seem to know it, and Feris is so consumed by teenage sexual fantasies he even laminates the comics he reads.

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Feris tries to impress the cool gang at school.

When a Hollywood producer’s lackey, Theo (Scott Paige, enjoyably camp) makes a trip into Eugene’s school to look for new ideas, Tough Man is pitched and then within a flash, taken to the city of dreams to be made into a film for Powermad Productions under the direction of Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne).

The trouble is, Hogan’s vision for the story leans more towards fish people and spandex airheads than the tale invisaged by young Eugene.

There’s another problem, too. Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott, EastEnders actor turned stage bad boy) is somehow not a product of Eugene’s imagination, but he’s real and after heading through space for years with only a perpetually cheery robot by his side (Kevin, voiced at the performance I saw by Mark Hamill), sees the film in progress and misidentifies the doltish actor Gerhard (Simon Thomas) as the real Tough Man.

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Super Hot Lady, Evil Lord Hector, Tough Man – photo by Scott Rylander

Hector channels a fair bit of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, while the actor playing the film Hector may just be based just a little on Laurence Olivier, but once the evil one lands on Earth he causes havoc for Hogan’s production.

Carrie, the actress playing Super Hot Lady (Emily Tierney, who has a knock-out dance number), almost falls for the adolescent pimply charms of the portly Feris, while Eugene learns that what’s most important in his life isn’t necessarily the need to “kiss ass”.

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The company of Eugenius

This hard-working company are flat out in fast-paced dance routines, but also give some love and heart to the most proposterous of characters.

It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast but apart from the main principals, I’d like to give a nod to Dillon Scott-Lewis who is a lithe and energetic dancer, and to Tom Senior’s Shock Jock.

The remainder of the cast are Christopher Ragland, Titus Rowe, Laurence Alex Tranter, Ben Darcy, Lauren Cancannon, Amy West, Sasha Wareham, and Alison Arnopp (Space Diva). And not to forget “the voice of Brian Blessed”, which is used to good effect.

With fun songs, audience participation, and silly cultural references, this show is a hard one to dislike. It has bags of heart and soul, and a vibrant message to all those grappling with growing up and life’s ambitions: “don’t shoot for the stars: shoot higher”.

Update: on 11th October it was announced that Eugenius will NOT be transferring to the West End due to the “withdrawal of a key investor”.


Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

I’m rather late to the party as Wasted closes tonight, the new rock musical about the Brontë siblings, who lived in the desolate moorland of Haworth, growing as creative forces who became – the three surviving sisters, anyway – novelists who are still talked about nowadays, women who wrote about topics such as obsession, adultery, and domestic violence which were considered unfeminine in the 19th century.

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We first meet Charlotte (Natasha Barnes) in 1855, in the last year of her life, introducing herself as “Mrs Arthur Nicholls, also Currer Bell, and Charlotte Brontë”, and carrying the child whose birth will kill her and itself.  Nicholls had long been the curate of Dr Patrick Brontë, parson and father of Charlotte and her sisters – Maria and Elizabeth, who died young, Emily (Siobhan Athwal) and Anne (Molly Lynch) – and her brother, Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan).

The four surviving Brontë children are desperate to escape the stifling world of the parsonage and the bleak surroundings (Stuck in Haworth), and retreat into development of private worlds, which they document obsessively in mini-magazines.  Their refrain “We have to work, but we want to write” leads to their finding jobs away from home in young adulthood: while Branwell still dreams of being “a painter … a writer … a flautist … something” (I Am Gonna Be …), his sisters become teachers (Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels) and a governess (Anne goes to Thorpe Hall, near York).

The events at these places of work will inform the later work of Charlotte, who based her novel Villette (not her first to be rejected, as Wasted says: that was The Professor) on her infatuation with schoolmaster M Heger; and Anne, who turned her experience into her novel Agnes Grey.  Branwell joins Anne at Thorpe Hall and starts an affair with the lady of the house, and her eventual rejection of him turns him to drink and drugs (Laudanum My Love), which eventually hasten his death in 1848, shortly before sisters Emily, then Anne, die of consumption.

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Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte

This sequence of events, plus the development of all three sisters into gifted poets, then accomplished novelists, as the “Three Bells” (Currer, Ellis and Acton), is presented within the structure of a rock musical which manages to be clever, witty, inspired, and heartbreaking.  In the music of Christopher Ash and the lyrics of Carl Miller the story of the family is brought to life, including the infamous and dismissive letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte, Emily’s love for walks with her dog (a clever use of beatboxing to invoke the pup in My Soulmate), and Branwell’s sense of being invisible alongside his sister.

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Branwell painted himself out of his painting of his three sisters

With twenty-seven songs (including two variations and one reprise) across three and a half hours, there is bound to be an element of hit and miss, but for me this was simply a matter of audibility of lyrics in a couple of the heavier songs. The score is mainly sharp and varied, and the choreography is well-done, as is the use of microphone cables, paper, speakers, and metal cases as props.  We are really looking at a bare wooden thrust stage with four performers, and a four person band at the back, but it becomes alive with activity, plot and performance.

However some songs – White Violets (a duet between Charlotte and Branwell, where they both contemplate finding first love), No-One to Marry for Miles (a witty song for Anne to bemoan the lack of eligible chaps in Yorkshire), (Ex)ordinary Woman (a powerhouse number for Charlotte and her sisters to showcase their heroines and feminist stories), Before My Time (a bit of fun for Goth Emily) and The Story of Mrs Collins (an eventual rock-out number for Anne about a woman who surely inspired her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) – stand out and are memorable in their own right.

Barnes is the stand-out performer, with an enviable set of pipes and a good grasp of the elder sister who watches, grieves, and eventually “wastes” her life on marriage to the dull curate (“the wrong one”, as her siblings remind her, referring to the choice facing her creation, Jane Eyre).  Athwal may overdo the eye-rolling and wildness of Emily, but she is tempered by the mild Lynch’s Anne.

Branwell may get the worst of the bargain here, being described in the programme as the “Pete Best” of his Beatles family.  That Morgan makes him likeable even when mimicking an injection of drugs, or in attempting to silence his sisters as he is the “genius” of the family shows a gift in acting, although dismissing the Brontë brothers as “talentless” and his work as “crap” feels unnecessarily cruel.

An excellent and thought-provoking new musical, nevertheless.

 


Sylvia (Old Vic)

Note that the entire run of this new musical is now being classed as previews, and that the Old Vic are handing out notices stating “it has radically evolved into what promises to be a genuinely thrilling full-blown musical … the performance … is considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned … what we are sharing with you today is a work in progress”.

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The Pankhursts

There has been drama right from the start of the run, when the original first preview was changed into an open dress rehearsal, which was then cancelled part-way through as actress Genesis Lynea (who played Sylvia Pankhurst) was taken ill.  Her understudy, Maria Omakinwa, has now taken over the leading role for the remainder of this short run, with a minimum of rehearsal time.  Hats off to her.

Running at more than three hours, including interval, this show needs a fair amount of brutal trimming, as well as a focus which perhaps does not include too much stage time for Sylvia’s sister Christabel (Witney White).  I was also unconvinced about the relationship portrayed between Sylvia and the Labour Party leader Keir Hardie: this has been rumoured in some accounts but is in no way confirmed.  More problematic is the brief reference to a lesbian relationship between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, again a rumour which the writers should have the nerve to expand upon if they wish to do justice to it.

Kate Prince, who heads the ZooNation company, and who is behind the book and lyrics for this musical, has tried to address the issue of casting black actresses as Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, and black actors as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, in the name of diversity.  It feels a similar casting quirk that Hamilton has had success with, as is the use of hip hop music and dancing, but I felt that the character of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother as a bossy Red Hot Momma (although Jade Hackett blew the roof off the place) was particularly problematic.

There’s just too much going on, and even as someone who knows the story of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage, I felt a little lost and bored at times.  The sequence with Emily Wilding Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby is 1913 was lost in confusion, although the song which followed immediately after was a high point.  The prison-based depiction of force-feeding was rushed and flawed, and short-changes the issue which went on for more than five years and caused declining health to many women.  For a more in-depth treatment of both I can recommend the television serial Shoulder to Shoulder.

Making the opposition, and particularly Churchill, comedic, is also an aspect which doesn’t quite come off.  Here you have on one side the measured performances from Omakinwa, from Beverley Knight as Emmeline, and from Carly Bawden as Mrs Churchill (Bawden also portrays Kenney), but then you have the over-broad ones from Delroy Atkinson as Churchill and, to some extent, from John Dagleish as Keir Hardie (with red scarf, tie and long socks proclaiming his political affiliation).

The songs are a mix of funk, soul and hip-hop, and the movement and dance sequences are certainly energetic and inspiring, right from the point that Elliotte Williams-N’Dure’s General Flora Drummond exorts the gathering to “make some noise”.  There are just too many songs, and as much as I enjoyed Clementine Churchill’s break-out letter to the newspaper, the letters from the Pankhurst siblings Christabel, Adela and Harry to their imprisoned sister, or Sylvia’s lovestruck memories of seeing Hardie as she grew up, they don’t really push the plot along.

I wanted to see and hear more about Sylvia Pankhurst, who is often hidden in the shadows of her more militant sister and mother, and what drove her to support the working woman’s cause.  I wanted to see more following her break from the WSPU.

As a woman from the same town as Annie Kenney, I was disappointed that she was simply there to make eyes as Christabel, when she had so much more to offer to the history of the movement. She was a strong working woman from a mill town who joined with the middle-class ladies: if you don’t want to give her that credit, don’t use the character.  The use of Ada to composite several women in the movement would allow one of Sylvia’s friends and mentors to be depicted instead of Kenney.

Ultimately this show is nowhere near ready for a full run, and although Omakinwa is doing a great job, she is still using the book heavily in the second act and reading her lines in key scenes including the aforementioned one of force-feeding and a two-header argument with her mother, which would have great power had she been interacting with Knight fully.

This show does have great potential, and has some excellent moments, but there are too many technical issues present at the moment, and too much going on to really focus on the story or engage with the characters, for this to be a true success.  However, I look forwatd to seeing how it evolves and whether it does have a future.

 


The King and I (London Palladium)

A glorious revival of one of the greats of the American Songbook has taken residence at the Palladium, in a perceptive production directed by Bartlett Sher.

The leading principals, Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara, have enviable chemistry and an ear for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious score and lyrics.

With the original book draft plundered for new and apposite political references, and culturally appropriate casting, this show obtains a sense of new relevance, especially in the Act Two showpiece The Small House of Uncle Thomas (“written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe”).

This fits the narrative of the Burmese girl, Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon, in a mature and heartbreaking performance) torn from her home and lover in Burma and sold in sexual and emotional slavery to the King.

This King, though, struggles with the traditions which revere him close to a deity, allow his subordinates to grovel in supplication, and give him many wives and children; and a thirst for modernity and knowledge.

Into this mix comes Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher, who comes to teach the children (and it transpires, some of the wives too) about Western facts and ways.

How much influence the real Anna had on the Siamese King is up to question, but in this fictionalisation a grudging respect and affection develops within the pair, the curious King and the feisty Anna.

Head wife Lady Thiang understands that change is necessary, but also understands her husband – Naoko Mori’s rendition of Something Wonderful is as touching as O’Hara’s Hello Young Lovers as an anthem of knowing devotion.

This is a sumptous production with a talented supporting cast of youngsters and an excellent orchestra. Don’t miss.

The King and I continues at the London Palladium until the 29th September 2018.


Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

“It’s impossible to imagine how a musical could be more epic” is one of the taglines of this new hybrid of rock musical and serious literary references which has charged into the Arts Theatre until 26 August.

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The House of Rose (not York or Lancaster, you’ll notice, this is some kind of medieval house where another kingdom is just around the corner) is ruled by a King and Queen in their dotage, with their heir, Prince Gawain, and daughter, Princess Hannah.

They also have a ‘Lady’ Isobel who seems to have joined their family somehow, and one Horatio who I swear said at one point he was an illegitimate son of the House, but he is the devoted servant of Gawain even though they love the same woman.

In the meanwhile the other Knights include the wet but decent Lord Hugo and the fiery Lord Palamon, and both want the Princess, although the battle and tension between them that should arise from this psychological conflict is not really explored, and is weakly resolved in Act Two.

Then there’s John the messenger boy, who acts as narrator/chorus at various points, and a couple of servant girls who have potential in their characters but remain undeveloped.

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This show tries to shoehorn in some classic rock songs as the plot progresses, but they are forced in with such ineptitude that the audience doesn’t know whether they should be laughing or not (one example of a character saying “would you dance, if I asked you to dance” to lead into the song “Hero”), and by Act Two there is a whole run of questionable creative choices starting with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” over the body of one of the fallen Knights and ending with a bizarre staging of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

The singers are very impressive though, with Andy Moss as Gawain, Oliver Savile as Hugo, Chris Cowley as Palamon, Matt Thorpe (excellent rock vocals) as Horatio and Ruben Van Keer as John as the brave and testosterone-heavy Knights, while the ladies (Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings and Bleu Woodward) do a spirited version of “Holding Out For a Hero” in Act One.

Adam Pearce as the King also surprises with the heart-rending lament from the opera “King Arthur” in Act Two, but this whole sequence sticks out like a sore thumb and simply confuses, as did the reprise of “Bed of Roses” from the royal couple in their garden.

I would have liked more numbers which treated the plot with folk material (“Turn Turn Turn” did well), and with more tightly choreographed pieces – there’s one in each Act, which do have the sense of epic fire we were promised.

Also follow through on those relationships and tangled loyalties which would put meat on the show’s bare bones and give these characters much needed emotional investment for an audience – it is to the credit of the actors that we can engage now and then with their dilemmas, but it is frustrating to have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Ultimately this feels like a show still in workshop mode which doesn’t know whether it wants to include rock songs ironically (like “Rock of Ages”), or whether to present the plot as musical comedy (like “Spamalot”). Quoting – or rather misquoting – Shakespeare and a whole host of other luminaries to make up for a weak book is not enough, and this needs a lot more thought to really succeed.

My thanks to Premier PR for arranging the tickets to Knights of the Rose.


DVD audit 2018 – part 2

More titles from the collection. Film, TV, documentaries, music. There’s more to come!

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DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.


Knights of the Rose – PR

Knights of the Rose will appear during this year’s West End Live, 16-17 June 2018.

It will star Andy Moss as Gawain.

Romance of the Rose Productions presents:

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

A New West End Classic Rock Musical created by Jennifer Marsden

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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/

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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?


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’.


Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo)

Before I put together this review of the musical which started in Sheffield and which now has a new life in the West End, I tracked down the original documentary on which it is based – Jamie: a drag queen at 16 – and watched the basic story of how gay teenager Jamie Campbell was supported by his mother, family friend Lee, best friend Sam(antha), and drag queen Simon to achieve his dream of having a drag show and of taking that character to the school prom.

Jamie-Campbell-and-John-McCrea-1.-ETAJ-Credit-James-StewartJamie Campbell and John McCrea, photo by James Stewart.

Three years in the making, the musical version takes Jamie (now with the surname New) and his mother Margaret, and the basic plot, as jumping-off points to present a narrative filled with pulsating dance beats, big ballads, and racially diverse characters (Lee, a white woman, is now Ray, an Asian woman, and Sam has become the hijab-wearing Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse, who gives what could be a stereotypical character an interesting slant)).

After watching the documentary it feels a bit of a shame that stage Jamie’s final prom dress is so understated, and you only ever see the famous make-up from the posters just once, as ‘Mimi Me’ struts her stuff on the Legs Eleven stage.

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John McCrea (who I saw last some years ago in The Sound of Music as the eldest Von Trapp boy) totally convinces as the teen who is working through both confusion and confidence, and when his doting mum purchases a dazzling pair of red high heels for his birthday, he walks in them as if he’s been wearing them all his life.

The big production numbers are all set in the schoolroom (‘And You Don’t Even Know It’; ‘Work of Art’; ‘Out of the Darkness’), while the slower songs – Jamie’s ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘Ugly in This Ugly World’; and Margaret’s ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’ are in the home or elsewhere (maybe in a single spotlight).

John-McCrea-Jamie-New-and-Lucie-Shorthouse-Pritti-Pasha-in-Everybodys-Talking-About-Jamie-at-the-Apollo-TheatreJohn McCrea and Lucie Shorthouse

At the performance I saw, Rebecca McKinnis was on as Margaret, and both her acting and singing were superb.  I also enjoyed the lovely and understated performance of Phil Nichol as Hugo/Lolo Chanelle and the ‘out there’ shenanigans of real-life drag queens Alex Anstey and Daniel Jacobs, who perform as Vileda Moppe and Vinegar Strokes respectively out there, and as Laika Virgin and Sandra Bollock here; they are joined by James Gillan, a former Marilyn in the Boy George musical Taboo, and who doesn’t feel out of place.

This is a truly life-affirming musical, with memorable tunes and lyrics by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, and if it is a little corny, and extremely camp, it doesn’t care.  I would have snipped out the bigoted dad, and toned down the pantomime queen teacher, and made Jamie really put himself out there, but these are small quibbles.

The musical is about the importance of being yourself rather than hiding behind what others might want you to be, and that message comes out loud and clear, with the audience accomplices in the claps, cheers and whoops that the cast, the fabulous band, and the book (both funny and tragic) deserve.


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.

bigfish 1

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.

bigfish 3

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.


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).

follies-national-theatre-r009Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Philip Quast – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

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.

 

 


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!

Sixpence-New-Artwork

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.


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.


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