Category Archives: theatre

The Wider Earth (Natural History Museum)

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Marcello Cruz and Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to a pre-preview of some scenes from The Wider Earth, together with a Q&A with the cast and a chance to meet some of the amazing puppets from the Dead Puppet Society up close.

Now the production is fully open, and I’ve been invited back to report on the finished article.  The Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum has been turned into a theatre which seats roughly 300 people in a mix of floor and raised seating, and the rotating set we saw in previews has now been augmented by lighting, a backdrop for animation, and an immersive soundscape.

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Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

David Morton’s play has previously played in Australia, following periods of mentoring  in Cape Town with Handspring (creators of the puppets used in War Horse), and further planning in New York.  There is a cast of seven and a number of puppets with personality – including an iguana, butterflies, birds (small and large), fish, armadillos, a duck-billed platypus, and two large Galapagos tortoises.

Bradley Foster, as the young Charles Darwin leaving the chance of theological study behind to join a round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t have puppeteer duties; the rest (some of which have previous experience in the area) do well in making these curious creatures come to life.  It’s also his first leading role and he does well in portraying the young man who grows in knowledge and understanding as he sails.

As we move from Cambridge, where Darwin makes a friend of the Professor (Andrew Bridgmont) who can see his quality and inspires his curiosity, to the Manor where Darwin senior (Ian Houghton) only sees the priesthood as destination for his wayward child, the hill where Darwin promises fidelity and marriage to his beloved Emma (Melissa Vaughan), and onto the ship, we watch as sketches build the landscape behind the stage.

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Melissa Vaughan, Andrew Bridgmont, Matt Tait, Bradley Foster, Ian Houghton, Jack Parry-Jones. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Once on the voyage, captained by the religious and constrained FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), Darwin starts to gain a new understanding of the world around him and the power of nature, as each island landing brings new creatures to study, with their modifications to suit their landscape.  The Revd Matthews (also Houghton), who is on a mission back to Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the “savages”, sees only the power of the Lord, and Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), bought and paid for, only sees a need for returning to his home.  John Clements Wickham (Matt Tait), the second in command on the ship, attempts to be a voice of reason between opposing factions.

The Wider Earth does not assume to give answers about the power of creation, but sows the seeds for the lifetime work Charles Darwin undertook after stepping back on British soil after his five years on the HMS Beagle.  His theories of evolution and of natural selection started by studying beetles, rocks and fauna of unfamiliar terrains, but his account of his work on the Beagle brought him fame and attention.

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Cast of The Wider Earth. Photo credit Mark Douet.

If I had a small quibble about this show, it is that just occasionally the sound piped through speakers around the Gallery overpower the actors on stage, but this only affects a couple of scenes, and I don’t think anything of the sense of the production is lost.  The puppets can be clearly seen and appreciated due to clever lighting and the gifted manipulation of their cast operators, and the story is interesting and easily understandable, even to younger audience members (10 and above).

The programme (£7) is full of information on the genesis of The Wider Earth, and the journey it has taken so far.  David Morton skillfully directs his own work, and the music by Lior and Tony Buchen fits in with the nature theme without feeling superfluous or inappropriate.

The Wider Earth runs at the Natural History Museum until the 30 December 2018; you can purchase tickets here.


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.

 


Wise Children (Old Vic)

Stage view from the audience

I remember reading Angela Carter’s novel about the dancing girls ‘The Lucky Chances’, Nora and Dora, a few years ago and was very intrigued to see how it would be adapted.

I know Emma Rice’s work from her two decades at Kneehigh, including their production of another Carter work, Nights at the Circus, which I saw in Leeds in 2006.

I knew from this it was definitely possible for Wise Children to be adapted effectively. Rice now leads her new company, also entitled Wise Children, but this initial show – which has its press night on the 17 October – has a familiar feel and the creative flair we have come to expect.

Doras, Noras, Grandma and Lady Atalanta at home

When we meet Dora Chance, on her 75th birthday, just five minutes older than her sister Nora, she – played by Gareth Snook – tells us about their home before a party invitation arrives from the great actor Sir Melchior Hazard, their father, now a hundred years old but he has never acknowledged them.

In planning for the party we see the twins’ history played out for us from conception to toddling tappers, from puberty and first love, from disappointments to butterflies.

Young Dora, Grandma, Young Nora

This is a piece of dark, honest drama with period songs, a heavy dose of magical realism, and disturbing undertones. The book actually went a step further with obsession and implied incest, but this show tiptoes around that to some extent.

We meet the twins portrayed through three sets of actors, and casting is gender neutral with the teenage Nora and elderly Dora both played by men. Sometimes more than one set are on stage at once, which is effective and emotionally engaging.

Rehearsal footage with Young Dora and Young Nora

The Chance girls are brought up by their dead mother’s landlady, ‘Grandma’, and are taken care of by their father’s freewheeling brother Perry, who spends money on them but a strange relationship with both is implied, and there are long absences when he isn’t around.

Melchior, now married with frightful ginger twins of his own, reveres them but treats his older girls are curiosities only. Once they have moved from end of the pier jobs with Max Miller-lite comic Gorgeous George, they join their father in Shakespeare, but does he want them for themselves or for their odd dance-strip routine?

Nora grows to be an outwardly confident glamourpuss, sleeping around and hiding her feelings, while Dora stays in the background. They share a boyfriend, gifted to Dora by Nora when they hit eighteen, and continue to live as two halves of the same coin.

A toy theatre, faulty light bulbs, a caravan, orange scarves, an animated flight across London, and doubled up casting helps pull out the shady glamour of the footlights and the misunderstandings of family, sex and secrets.

This adaptation is joyous, always interesting, and even with a few remaining fluffs, mistakes and longuers which will probably be gone by press night, this is a stunning gem of a show with a hard working ensemble and an accomplished distellation of a complex book.

Many characters have been snipped and storylines slightly altered, but from the time we meet the Chances as puppet dolls through to old age, as they get – and miss – their own chances and where the living ultimately walk among the dead, we are walking with them.

Gareth Snook is surprisingly tender as the ageing Dora, and Omari Douglas is fantastic as the tarty mid-period showgirl Nora. Melissa James (showgirl Dora) and Etta Murfitt (elderly Nora) may be less showy, but it is interesting to follow the trajectory of these girls/women as their lives evolve.

Long-time Rice collaborator Mike Shepherd does well in a variety of roles, ultimately becoming the older Perry, and you can almost imagine young Sam Archer who plays Perry in his prime may have ended up this way; less convincing is the transformation of Ankur Bahl as Melchoir into Paul Hunter, who previously mimicked those smutty Miller jokes.

Mike Shepherd in rehearsal

Patrycja Kujawska is excellent as both Lady Atalanta and the boy shared by the growing twins; Katy Owen is a domineering Grandma with a soft heart, a lot of pride, and a fondness for stout, and it is fun to see the acting of Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud as the young twins Dora and Nora, such a contrast to the dreadful Imogen and Saskia.

Playing out after curtain call with ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ underlines the clever use of songs throughout – not simply the period pieces but also work by Louis Jordan and Cyndi Lauper. The greaseprint is thick but it can’t cover the cracks.

Well done to the company for hitting the sexual complexities of this novel, and in making a moment or two genuinely shocking even when the story paints a smile.

Wise Children is a special show which is well worth your time with sparkles, grotty dressing rooms, mirrors and a little bit of ‘Electric Avenue’. You will go out with a song in your heart and a tear in your eye.

Rehearsal photos by Steve Tanner. Production photos from the Old Vic Twitter account.


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.

 


Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre, Olivier)

Simon Godwin’s epic new production of the Shakespeare play of love between the Roman warrior Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra takes up residence at the National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the ill-fated, middle-aged lovers.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

We first find the vain Cleopatra by her opulent pool, with her handmaidens Charmian (Gloria Obiyano) and Iras (Georgia Landers).  She is hot for the soldier who is torn by his passion for her and his duty at home, where his wife Flavia has caused division and dissent before her death.

His decision to leave seems to be an act of bravado to impress his ‘Egypt’ rather than anything in supplication to the ambitious Caesar (Tunji Kasim) and the drunken Lepidus (Nicholas Le Provost), with whom he forms a triumvirate of power.

As is usual with the Bard, events are telescoped into shorter timelines: this period of time lasted ten years in historical record.  Antony, newly widowed, marries Caesar’s ambitious sister, Octavia (Hannah Morrish), and settles into the power he will eventually ditch to return to the bosom of Cleopatra, making her Empress to his over-reaching ego.

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Tunji Kasim and Hannah Morrish – photo by Johan Persson

The best supporting perfomances come from Tim McMullan (the loyal Enobarbus), Katy Stephens (a gender-swapped Agrippa), Fisayo Akinade (Eros, who excels in one amusing scene as a messenger and is tragic at his final hour) and Nick Sampson (schoolmaster Euphronius), although, for a change, most of the cast demonstrate an affinity with the blank verse and its meaning.

The sets by Hildegard Bechtler take full advantage of the Olivier’s revolve, with at least five changes including scenes which have characters rising and lowering into the depths of the drum; while the music by Michael Bruce and lighting by Tim Lutkin do much to give the sense of court opulence and the grime and ritual of the battlefield.

One fatal flaw for me, though, was the jarring change of pace when Antony’s final moments were played for laughs, which left the final act a sadly unmoving experience, despite the presence of the real snake and the dignity of Cleopatra’s exit on her monument.

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Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

Watch for the scope and scale of this project, and for the chemistry (and age-appropriateness) of Fiennes and Okonedo, who are glorious together, but also enjoy the small moments and performances which can fill out a play of this length – three hours and thirty minutes, which flies past.

 

 


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 Wider Earth (pre-preview, Natural History Museum)

It was a pleasure and a privilege to witness an extended scene from the new drama The Wider Earth this evening, along with an opportunity to ask questions to the actors and creatives as a group and individually.

In the planning for five years, this play about the young Charles Darwin has made the journey from Cape Town to London, via New York and Sydney, and marries puppetry, a revolving set, a busy and talented cast of seven (three of which were previously in the National Theatre smash-hit War Horse), and projected animations.

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What we saw tonight was a set partly in situ in rehearsal mode, before it gets its masking, lighting rig, full staging, smoke effects, and all the bells and whistles.  We saw butterflies and a very personable iguana, and the seeds of a battle of wills between Bradley Foster’s Charles Darwin and Jack Parry-Jones’ Robert FitzRoy around the state of slaves from the British Empire.

Foster has a background in movement, having worked with Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera House since graduating from drama school a couple of years ago: this is his first major leading role, and on this brief excerpt he looks very much like an actor to watch, engaging with the new creatures he finds on his HMS Beagle voyage with wonder, and unafraid to step up for injustice.

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Bradley Foster as Charles Darwin

The remainder of the cast both act and perform as puppeteers, a role Melissa Vaughan (Emma Wedgewood, who became Darwin’s wife) describes as “difficult” and “terrifying”, although Marcello Cruz (Jemmy) describes the puppets as “part of the cast”, and the novice puppeteers among the actors speak of their willingness to learn new skills and add to their repertoire.

The creatives from the Dead Puppets Society, Nicholas Paine and David Morton, were mentored by War House puppet supremos Handspring, and have developed a show which has played Queensland, Sydney Opera House, and now, thanks to the ingenuity and contacts of producer Trish Wadley, it is set to open in the impressive Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum.

At close quarters, the puppets are deeply impressive, and took life through computer programming and careful, thoughtful, human intervention.  The larger puppets take up to five cast members to animate (Perry-Jones described a sequence with a shark and a large sea creature which would glow with energy with full sound and lighting effects), the smaller, like the iguana we saw, develop their own personalities at the hands of one performer.

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Image from the original Australian production

The Wider Earth opens on the 2nd October and is booking until the end of 2018.  It is a chance to see a unique type of theatre production in the stunning surroundings of the Victorian palace of curiosities which is the Natural History Museum.

 

 


Exit the King (National Theatre Olivier)

This classic absurdist black comedy by Ionesco is brought to the stage in a new version by Patrick Marber, and covers the last hour in the life of King Berenger (Rhys Ifans), who has devoted his life to pleasure and presided over the destruction of his kingdom to the point that some of them are liquifying where they stand, and his ministers drown in a distant river during the span of the play.

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He has been a cruel, unthinking tyrant to his people, and now, in his fifth century, it is time for him to die. No longer can he command the weather, his palace is cracking apart, and there is darkness across the land.

The only survivors at court are his two wives, sensible Marguerite (Indira Varma) and flighty Marie (Amy Morgan), who flank the King’s opulent throne with smaller ones of their own, a palace Guard (Derek Griffiths), a cleaning woman straight out of Acorn Antiques (Debra Gillett), and a Doctor who also doubles as court executioner in the manner of a jovial Mengele – smiling as he tortures and torments.

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Derek Griffiths and Indira Varma

Ifans is reminiscent of a blend of Spike Milligan and Lindsay Kemp in his wig and white face, a clown without a joke, a pathetic figure with visions of grandeur and divine right, and Anthony Ward’s design makes the most of the Olivier’s space and the famed drum revolve, with a hint of the old Pepper’s ghost trickery when it matters most.

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Amy Morgan and Rhys Ifans

A wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving piece of theatre, expertly directed by Marber and paced with comic touches (the small lecture theatre table that folds out of the King’s throne, the cupboard in the palace walls full of sweepers and brushes), this is a competent revival which deserves celebration.

Buy the acting edition of Exit the King at Amazon UK


The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Noel Coward Theatre)

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Martin McDonagh’s play is a black satire on the Irish Troubles, with the catalyst a small black cat by the name of Wee Thomas. We first meet said cat when his corpse is brought in by dumb Davey, who may or may not have ridden over him on a bicycle, caving his head in.

Trouble is, Wee Thomas doesn’t belong to Donny, but to his son, Mad Padraic, who doesn’t pause at ripping out men’s toenails or shooting them point-blank in the eye with a crossbow, but who cries like a baby to hear his cat is “off his food”, a deception Donny and Davey concoct to communicate the news of his death gently.

Farcical situations abound, from a strung-up torture victim trying to get away on his hands, a young idealist (Davey’s sister, and a girl sweet on Padriac) who shoots out cows eyes from a distance with an airgun as a protest against the meat trade, and an unfortunate cat called Sir Roger who has the indignity of being covered in shoe polish to pass for the deceased moggie.

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By the second half, guns are out, IRA ballads are sung, Padraic cuddles his cat while all around him, Donny and Davey are cutting up body parts, burning off fingerprints, and bashing out teeth.  It’s a joke-filled stream about highly-strung Irish cats, the quality of IRA bombs, splinter groups from splinter groups (anyone else think of The Life of Brian), the nutritional value of Frosties, and grudge-holding.

I first saw this play at its RSC debut in 2001, but couldn’t remember much about it.  It is absolutely hilarious and the ending is absolutely perfect, as Wee Thomas steals the show after all the carnage.

The characters are well-drawn, as Padraic wishes for a Free Ireland for men, women and cats, and appears to enjoy watching The House of Eliott, Mairead is a tough as a button but has an idealistic view of the cause, Davey becomes ever more hysterical, and Christy and his henchmen are stereotypical terrorist dolts.  Even James, in that one torture scene, makes a mark as despite his drug dealing he seems to love his cat Dominic and his ringworm.

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Charlie Murphy and Aidan Turner, rehearsal photograph

Starring Aidan Turner (Padraic), Denis Conway (Donny), Chris Walley (Davey), Charlie Murphy (Mairead), Brian Martin (James), Will Irvine (Christy), Julian Moore-Cook (Joey), and Daryl McCormack (Brendan).  All are excellent, but especially Turner (West End debut), Walley (stage debut following graduation from RADA), and Murphy (who made such an impact in the last series of Peaky Blinders).

Michael Grandage directs with a sure hand, balancing the gore and the comic – although the production slows a bit with an interval in what is just a 100 minute show – but I would have welcomed less scenes set at the front of the stage behind the tree-decorated curtain.  The play itself – written in 1993, but not staged for nine years, still has the power to shock and to intrigue, and it will most certainly make you laugh.  Even as a cat lover I could see the funny side of the whole business.

Buy the text of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from Amazon UK


Julie (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

Polly Stenham’s updated version of the Strindberg classic Miss Julie doesn’t quite come off despite the best efforts of its central trio of cast (Vanessa Kirby as Julie, Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, Thalissa Teixeira as Kristina).

Although the Second World War setting of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which I saw in a television version around twenty years ago, worked well enough, bringing the story right up to date with the privileged white girl getting involved with the chauffeur (even if he’s black, as in this version) would not lead to the catastrophic ending in just one night; in fact no one would blink an eyelid, despite Julie stealing Jean from her only confidante, maid Kristina.

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Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa

This production suffers from additional scenes set at the party, with dancing and drugging guests, which take up around ten minutes at the start of the play.  Much better to get straight into the meat of the play, with the neurotic Julie trying to break out on her birthday, to get away from the path which life has set for her.

Carrie Cracknell directs, and Tom Scutt designs, in a lighted box which only moves following the hard-hitting finale, the only bit which really connects on an emotional level through the whole play.  There is little sexual chemistry between Kirby and Abrefa, if anything he seems on the verge of being amused by her, but mainly bored.

The set, a kitchen suite into which cupboards the party-goers disappear, has potential (and reaches it, briefly, in the scene with the little bird), but doesn’t fit the sophisticated claustrophobia the original play requires, and which might have served Julie better in the Dorfman.

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King Lear (Duke of York’s)

Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television.  Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars.  In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.

When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.

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Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor.  In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.

And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.

Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario).  She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.

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Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.

I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.

A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”.  I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”.  This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.

Buy the text of King Lear from Amazon UK

Buy the DVD of the New London theatre production from Amazon UK


The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank.   A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.

Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis.  Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic.  This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.

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Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini.  It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).

Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate.  The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.

Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation).  Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley (photo by Mark Douet)

“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York.  There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.

Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate.  He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.

“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart.  By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.

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Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.

There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’.  There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business).  And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.

A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull.  There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon.  Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!

The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory.  Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.

 


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.


Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)

Life is too short for a bad Shakespeare. Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, returns to the Bard after a long sabbatical, and unwisely places this tight drama of power and ambition on an Olivier stage which drowns it.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M, are both actors who have excelled in previous stage productions here, but here both seem lost in the way Norris has chosen to direct them, even to the point of mangling the rhythm of the verse.

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There’s a lot of plastic in this production. Severed heads in supermarket bags. Cheap and dilapidated sets. Even the witches don’t gain a sense of horror or magic.

Good things – I like Stephen Boxer as Duncan, in his blood red suit. It’s always a difficult role to pull off as it is so small, but we had the measure of him, quickly.

Making Ross and the 2nd Murderer female was interesting – although the latter was dreadful – but making Fleance a girl was pointless, as she would not succeed to the throne and so was no threat to Macbeth, even with the prophecy of Banquo “fathering a line of kings”.

Removing Duncan’s younger son Donalbain removed the constant problem of what to do with him. He contributes very little – a previous production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse gave him learning difficulties, which at least allowed the character to be memorable. Here we just have Malcolm, but in Norris’s cuts and changes to the text, his big speech with Macduff disappears.

The royal palace of the Macbeths when they reign was as decayed as they were, with signs of a front-line military occupation, with the billycans of the banquet giving it the sense of a greasy spoon affair. The ghost’s appearance though was poorly thought out, and didn’t work.

Having dual casting with Seyton and the Porter gave a new dimension with the Porter’s comedy routine consisting of snatches of plot he has overheard, about the murder of the King – this gives him some power over his employers, but as this character isn’t well-developed enough, this isn’t as developed as it could have been.

I really didn’t like the mangled verse I have already mentioned – blank verse has its own music, so use it! And the drunken dancing on Duncan’s last night didn’t work for me.

This could have been so much better, but was yet another disappointing production from this particular director’s tenure. I would have liked to have seen an intimate production based in the Dorfman, perhaps, which got to the core of the characters.


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.

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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.

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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.

 


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.

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.


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/.


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