Category Archives: theatre

Penn & Teller  (Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith)

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


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

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

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

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

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


Lettice and Lovage (Menier Chocolate Factory)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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

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

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

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


42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Carousel (London Coliseum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An American in Paris (Dominion Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shirley Valentine (Richmond Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.


Honeymoon in Vegas (London Palladium)

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra presented a special concert version of ‘Honeymoon in Vegas: The Musical’ last night at the London Palladium, conducted by the composer, Jason Robert Brown.

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Based on the 1992 film, this musical teams a rather silly story with an old-fashioned but punchy score from Jason Robert Brown, who also penned the lyrics, which are sometimes clever but now and again straying into the area of corn (a ballad ‘Out of the Sun’ provoked giggles across the auditorium with its SPF references and it didn’t quite hit the funny/touching vibe I suspect the song should have).

The book by Andrew Bergman is slight but keeps the action moving, and even in a concert version, images of Vegas showgirls and parachuting Elvii (a definite showstopping number referencing the stance and vocal inflections of the King) are effortlessly conjured up.

Arthur Darvill’s Jack opens up proceedings with one of those delightful list songs, ‘I Love Betsy’, which references all the things his girlfriend likes (“she likes hockey, no, I swear / she likes guys with thinning hair’) while celebrating his love for her.  He puts the song across well, with good engagement with the audience while acting out the text.  His singing was a nice surprise as well, with an old-timer charm.

Betsy is played by Samantha Barks who is slinky and playful, but stronger in her solo numbers (especially ‘Betsy’s Getting Married’ which sizzles and fizzes) than in her duets with Darvill.  Having said this, the whole cast feel more relaxed and comfortable in their roles and in the concert format as the show progresses, and everyone essentially does a good job.

Gangster sleazeball Tommy, who sees in Betsy a resemblance to his dead wife, is played well by Maxwell Caulfield, who makes up for a lack of singing ability with the right characterisation of a wealthy man who thinks he can buy happiness but eventually knows when he’s been bested – by Betsy!  Rosemary Ashe does her best to steal scenes as the ghost of Jack’s mother, while Simon Lipkin is both the Bublé-like lounge singer and the hip-shaking leader of the flying Elvises. 

This show, directed by Shaun Kerrison, is a lot of fun, with the kind of music that makes you want to tap your feet and click your fingers, while the songs move on the action just as they did in the golden age of stage musicals.

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra, now in its second full year, is packed with excellent musicians who can do anything from put on the jazz to provide a beautiful melody.  Their vision is to have fun with music, and also to develop new professional players, and they do both with aplomb.

Thanks to Premier PR for arranging this night out.


Lost Without Words (National Theatre)

On the look for something a bit different, I went to see ‘Lost Without Words’ yesterday evening.  It’s a co-production between the National Theatre and Improbable, a company who work heavily on improvised pieces.

In this case the actors are a group of veterans all over seventy.  Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh, Georgine Anderson, Anna Calder-Marshall, Tim Preece, and Charles Kay (although he did not appear last night).  They are gently prompted and given suggestions by the directors (Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott) who are on the stage, and there are additional people improvising lighting, sound, and musical accompaniments.

lostforwordsimageTim Preece, Anna Calder-Marshall, Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh.  Photo by Atri Banerjee.

I really liked it.  It ran for an hour and I think we had six different scenes.  The first was a mother and daughter at the beach, eating fish and chips, then swimming (Farleigh and Anderson did this one, with some nice work relating to Anderson’s reappearing walking stick).

Then a ‘game’ where the letter s could not be included, which was played as a father emigrating with work and his daughter worrying about it, with slips from both getting oohs from the audience (Preece and Calder-Marshall).  Following that a piece between two people who have lived together a long time but still find everything interesting, at breakfast (“Marmite toast!”), which turned out to be two sisters plus a ghostly visit from mum when one sister had gone for a lie down (Calder-Marshall and Blakiston, plus Farleigh at the end).

A piece where a couple trade wishes and have the last dance of their lives under a conveniently descending glitterball (Preece and Farleigh).  A group scene for a birthday which ended up hinting at cross-dressing and a lovely line about being allergic to rabbit skin (all five).  And a largely solo piece including a brokenly sung aria about love, with a ghostly husband visiting at the end (Blakiston, and briefly Preece).

It was a joy to watch this group of actors at work in a playful, funny, and ultimately touching piece about relationships, age, and dreams.  It is, apparently, totally unscripted, so there were prompts like “this is called Mum decides to swim for the first time”, “one of you says they feel tired and are going for a lie down, leaving this character alone”, “this is the last dance of their lives”, “you were singing something then and it was lovely, so let it come out”, etc.

It doesn’t feel forced or fake, and is beautifully performed.  I’m assuming each show is unique given the improvising aspect.

It plays until the 18th of March and if this sounds like your kind of thing, do check it out.


Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new.  We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film.  Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.

Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer).   It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.

tn1Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.

Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station.  As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’.  Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.

The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain).  The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.

Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?).  Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive.  Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).

twelfth-night-2017-12Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.

Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister.  Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real.  Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.

Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here).  Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.

I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.

tn3Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.

Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.


Round the Horne (Richmond Theatre)

This show is currently touring as the ’50th anniversary tour’ and if it isn’t quite as opulent and high-budget as the version which took up residence in the West End some years ago, it does include a number of spot-on impersonations of the cast of the much-loved radio programme – which you can hear for yourselves in repeats currently running on Radio 4 Extra.

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‘Round the Horne’ carried on from where ‘Beyond Our Ken’ left off, and had the deep-voiced Kenneth Horne as the master of ceremonies and participant in a range of songs, skits and characterisations in each half-hour show.  Douglas Smith was the announcer, with Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Kenneth Williams as the cast who gave us some memorable characters as Julian and Sandy, Dr Chu En Ginsberg, Seamus Android (a parody of Eamonn Andrews), Rambling Syd Rumpo, Fiona and Charrrrrrles, J Peasemould Gruntfruttock, and more.

Musical interludes included manglings of ‘I Remember It Well’ and ‘Poor Old Father’, while Douglas Smith, when not slipping in adverts for ‘Dobbieroids’ plays a life raft, a volcano, and other inanimate objects.  Horne is a spy in ‘The Man With The Golden Thunderball’ and Lord Horseposture in ‘The Admirable Loombucket’.  Paddick and Williams give us Shakespeare’s ‘Seven ages of man’ in Polari, and Betty Marsden shares her recipes to cook rhinoceros and yak.

It’s a tribute to the talented cast to say that at many points they do conjure up the actors they are playing.  Colin Elmer is especially good as Williams, whether singing about cordwangles or going off piste with the script in mock outrage, while Eve Winters is a glorious Marsden, whether throwing herself into the ‘I know you know’ routine or the ‘Many, many times’ in a shaking Thatcherite voice.  You may remember Marsden as Terry Scott’s bossy wife in “Carry On Camping” with the braying laugh.

Alex Scott Fairley is Paddick, Julian Howell McDowell is Horne, and Alan Booty is Smith, and all are excellent.  Miles Russell is the sound engineer who provides musical and effects accompaniment, and the cumulative effect is that of a true radio production back in time at the BBC.


She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

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A delightful revival of the Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical is running on London’s fringe right now, and I heartily recommend it.

You might have come across this story before, in the films ‘The Shop Around The Corner’, ‘In The Good Old Summertime’ or ‘You’ve Got Mail’.  You might have seen the versions shown on television in 1978 and on digital live-streaming last year.

Georg Nowack (played at the performance I saw by understudy Peter Dukes, who was rather good, if a little plain) is an awkward bachelor who serves as one of the sales clerks in the perfumery of Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis, whose decision to use a truly awful accent colours his role) in 1930s Budapest.  He’s been corresponding with an unknown lady after placing an ad in the lonely hearts column, and he’s going to meet her soon for the first time.

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Amalia Balash (a perky Scarlett Strallen, who steals the show with her “Vanilla Ice Cream”) comes to the shop for a job and instantly finds herself at odds with Nowack, and she is also corresponding with a ‘Dear Friend’ which we quickly find out, is her nemesis himself.  In the meantime, Ilona Ritter, a vision of bad hair dye and thick make-up (played with scene-stealing effervescence by Katherine Kingsley, who has a whole library of comic expressions and barely disguised malice) is dating smarmy cad and fellow shop-worker Steven Kodaly (Kingsley’s real-life spouse, Dominic Tighe, who is perfectly hissable) and watching her life slowly slip away.

The main cast is rounded out by Ladislav Sipos (Alastair Brookshaw, playing the twitchy family man who ‘never disagrees’, with aplomb) and a new discovery, Callum Howells as delivery boy Arpad Lazslow, whose “Try Me” is an Act 2 delight.  Norman Pace has joined the cast as Head Waiter, and he’s lots of fun in the restaurant scene, and surprisingly strong-voiced.  I also liked the couple who found romance through reading: “Victor!”  “Hugo!”

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For a fringe production in a small venue, a lot of thought has gone into the revolving sets and production design, and Paul Farnsworth definitely deserves praise for his sparkles, bright colours, and leaf/snow combination indicators of the change of the seasons.  Fine choreography too, and a more-than-decent house band give the fifty-something songs life and breadth (although the repetitive ‘Thank you madam’ refrains could easily be chopped after the first couple of times).  If only the wigs had looked a little more realistic, it would have been quite perfect; but this is a fun little confection that certainly raises a smile in this winter season.

‘She Loves Me’ continues at the Menier until the 4th March 2017.


Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ibsen’s difficult late play comes to the National Theatre in a new version by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove.  In a modern production, set in one white box, minimally furnished, and airless except for one window (adding to the oppression of the story), it begins with two figures already on stage, one sitting motionless on a chair to the side, and one playing the piano, occasionally flinging themselves forward on to the keys in frustration or despair.

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The former is the maid, Berte (Éva Magyar), who throughout the play is present, seeing everything along with the audience, but ignoring all just as she is largely ignored.  The latter is the titular Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson), newly married to academic Dr Tesman (Kyle Soller, here using his American accent rather than the one we have grown used to in his appearances as the doomed Francis Poldark on television) but bored and without purpose.

“Academics are no fun!” she whines, and even stapleguns flowers to the walls when she is particularly fed up.  Not for this new bride the glow of happiness – even the expensive house she now lives in is theirs purely through a quirk of fate, a caprice that made Tesman think she had “set her heart on it.”  She is trapped in circumstances she is powerless to change, in a cage from which she can not break free.

For Tesman’s part he can’t believe his luck, not just that the General’s daughter has chosen him, but that he has “special access” to her body.  This makes him just as unsympathetic a character as their supposed friend, Brack (Rafe Spall) who is a smooth but repellent sexual predator who, in the final few scenes of the play, defiles and abuses Hedda in a most appalling and shocking way, helped by an inspired use of prop design to provide the gore often missing from this play.

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Hedda Gabler is a proud woman, but not in any way a nice one.  She torments her school friend, Mrs Elsted (Sinéad Matthews) and ruins her life, under the cloak of supposed kindness.  She goads the weak-willed career rival of her husband’s, Lovborg, her former lover, into desolation and destruction while fantasizing of the beauty of his “wearing vine leaves in his hair”.  She lies, cheats, manipulates, and destroys.  She is a viper in her words, too, hurting the kindly but interfering Tesman aunt (Kate Duchêne), and pushing away her devoted husband.

This production may rely too much on musical interludes (‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell appears several times, and ‘Hallelujah’ the Leonard Cohen song, as rendered by Jeff Buckley – but clumsily edited – cuts into one scene), but its sparseness and the decision to stage much of the action on the fringes of the stage worked well for me, as it forces the eye to follow the characters as they separate or interact.  Entrances and exits are blurred, so we end up unsure as to the proportions of the room(s) we are viewing.  A video entry phone is the only concession to technology.

Marber’s adaptation may bring more laughs to the fore than the piece requires, but there is no denying the cumulative power of script, direction, and performance.  Wilson, Soller, Spall and Matthews are all excellent, with only Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg missing that final note of mental disintegration that his fate would seemingly require.   Hedda’s final act may shock some, “People do not do such things”, but at least the events of this production are delivered in such a way that she clearly does not have a choice if she is not to spend her days in a living hell.

Image credit: Jan Versweyveld.


A Christmas Carol (Arts Theatre)

Just outside of the festive season a trip to see a retelling of the Dickens classic was in order, although when I say ‘classic’ I was amused to hear one person behind me having the whole story explained to them before the show started.

A one-man show, with Simon Callow in fine feckle as the grumpy and avericious old Scrooge, also essaying at various points the entire Cratchit family, the old Fezziwigs dancing, the jovial nephew Fred, the fat merchants, the spirits, and more.

The story may be familiar but this version has humour and effective simplicity in its sets (a solitary candle, some chairs, clever lighting, a screen, and a handful of props and ideas from a snowy street to an open window).  The power of suggestion comes from Callow’s gift as a storyteller, and this is a lovely festive piece of theatre.

Last performances today.


The Dresser (Duke of York’s)

Ronald Harwood’s play, inspired in part by his own experience as dresser to the actor-manager Donald Wolfit, creaks a little these days but this is still a very enjoyable revival.

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‘Sir’ is the leading man in a touring company (‘next week, God willing, we will be in Eastbourne’), who, along with his ‘lady wife’, presents Shakespeare in a haphazard way to an audience who are probably as bored with the proceedings as those in the company (‘cripples, old men, and nancy boys’).  In this version of the play Sir is portrayed by Ken Stott, and at first I thought he was a little miscast, but as the play progressed he grew into the role and by the end was really rather effective.

In the main role of Norman, the dresser, Reece Shearsmith is wonderfully waspish and camp as the man who has been responsible for the cheering up of his charge and the ‘washing of his foul underpants’ for some sixteen years.  This man sees the lie of the land and realises that the game is up, and yet he still has to play-act just as much as those on stage.  His timing is faultless and his acting cuts straight to the heart, whether making us laugh with his constant refrain of ‘I had a friend’, or touching us with his final scenes of loneliness and desperation.

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Supporting roles go to Simon Rouse, as the doddery Thornton, who for years has soldiered on in the smallest of parts, but tonight has to play the Fool; Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, now too old to care anything for her career or her sham marriage; and Selina Cadell as the quietly devoted but steely stage manager Madge.

I would like to give a nod to the set and staging too, Simon Higlett’s revolving backstage and wings, and Sean Foley’s direction, which is spot on, whether in the intimate two-handed scenes between Stott and Shearsmith, or the amusing opening of ‘King Lear’ (‘methinks I saw the King’) or the later storm, requiring all hands on deck.  In fact, Lear is the perfect depiction of the backstage drama, too, with Norman as the Fool, who although ever present, finds he has ‘slipped out of sight’ when he reads Sir’s book dedication.


King Lear (Barbican)

My second Lear of this month is rather more traditional and definitely much safer than the one over at the Old Vic.

Another collaboration from RSC power couple Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, this Lear is opulent, regal, but, except for David Troughton’s magnificent Gloucester and Natalie Simpson’s sweet Cordelia, the play is strangely unmoving.

A very lengthy opening scene has the displaced and homeless sitting on the stage until they are rudely scattered ready for the entrance of the king, a Sher hunched up and swathed in furs, with a rasping voice.  He appears behind glass which is slowly lowered to reveal the full majesty.

He gives away his kingdom to the empty flattery of his daughters, who clearly loathe him (later, each will recoil from his offered embrace), and in a first display of a mind in disorder, disowns his ‘joy’, Cordelia, cast adrift in her bridal gown to be taken up by a sympathetic King of France.

Antony Byrne portrays Kent and in disguise, particularly, as a tattooed skinhead, he excels, and his final scene is well played.  Graham Turner plays a Fool first confident, funny and chatty, but eventually bewildered in the eye of the storm.  We do not see him in the second half, as is usual, but we are concerned for his survival.

As the brothers who war due to the one’s legitimacy and the other’s bastardy, Paapa Essiedu was not convincing for me due to his total sarcasm for all around him and his throwaway asides; better was Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar who went from a bookish fop through impersonation as Poor Tom to sword-wielding champion with ease.

The relationship between Regan (Kelly Williams) and Cornwall (James Clyde) is presented very much as one orchestrated by her (when he is mortally wounded and asks for her hand, she coldly walks away without a glance).  I much preferred Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, a lady with pure ice in her veins.

The eye-gouging scene may be misjudged – I had trouble hearing lines spoken within the perspex box from the stalls, so I feel for the gallery – but the effect is probably on a par with the thrown eyeball over at the Old Vic.

Where this production misses for me is the final mental disintegration of Lear.  I was not moved either by his recognition of Cordelia or his ‘howl, howl’ at her death.  And I know Sher has the emotional pull in other roles (his superb Willy Loman, for example, so this was a surprise).

I am glad to have had the opportunity to see both London Lears at such close proximity, and both have much to recommend them.  So see both if you can, but you have to move quick to see Glenda Jackson in the role (to December 3rd).

The RSC King Lear continues at the Barbican until December 23rd.


King Lear (Old Vic)

November 2016 will be topped and tailed for me by two new productions of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and this first one is a rather significant one, as it represents the return to the stage of Glenda Jackson after her quarter of a century career change to represent Hampstead and Highgate (later Kilburn) in Parliament.

jacksonlear2

The Old Vic is not the most obvious venue for a modern dress, Brechtian, Lear, with its Victorian proscenium – however, director Deborah Warner and her co-designer Jean Kalman have created a staging which at first looks as if might use the whole stage space (it is fully opened out and set with movable walls, screens, and plastic chairs on which some of the cast sit and chat before the action starts).  In fact most scenes are staged on the front of the stage, which projects into the auditorium necessitating the removal of the first few rows of the stalls.

So, a minimal set and staging (and each scene number projected on to the screens or on top of the proscenium – perhaps to assist those new to the play to stay engaged throughout its mammoth running time; 3 hrs 35 on the final preview on Thursday), and modern costumes.  Jane Horrocks’ toxic Regan wears killer black heels; Rhys Ifans’ Fool is dressed as Superman and in one scene dons a scary clown’s mask; Karl Johnson’s Gloucester wears jeans.

jacksonlear

Glenda Jackson plays the King, and although there is no gender impersonation here, she dons androgynous blacks and reds and has her hair in a short and severe style.  Her authority effortlessly commands the stage in her first appearance, in which her love for Morfydd Clark’s sweet Cordelia (they arrive hand in hand) curdles so quickly to rage you almost have sympathy for Regan and Goneril (a steely Celia Imrie), having to cope with so changeable and terrifying a parent.  She displays a sarcastic vein of humour too, in the ‘crawl towards death’ line, and later, in her interplay with the Fool’ and she handles the storm scenes well in flowing shirt and long socks, in despairing, shattered senility.

Johnson’s Gloucester elicits sympathy as he appears less of a statesman and more of a meddling Polonius-type, and although some of the audience seemed to find his ‘I have no eyes’ line amusing, it was deeply felt and beautifully delivered.  As the bad son, Edmond, Simon Manyonda first appears doing an exhausting workout with skipping rope and press-ups, before dismissing his doting brother Edgar by mooning the audience.  He is a studious and serious traitor, colluding with those watching from the dark and mocking the two daughters who, barren and frigid in their respective marriages, salivate over him.

Edgar, played by Harry Melling, is good in the Poor Tom scenes (curiously by the time we get to the ‘naked fellow’ lines he is clothed, but he does disrobe completely earlier on), although he overdoes the speech stating his father’s ‘heart burst’, striking his chest repeatedly in the echo of a heartbeat.  I note he is one of the Troughton acting family as well as a Harry Potter alumnus, and can see some of his family potential (his uncle David is soon over at the Barbican in the second November Lear I mentioned earlier, playing Gloucester).

Rounding out the cast are Danny Webb as a psychotic Cornwall, all smiles before the steel temper strikes (the blinding of Gloucester is done well, with suggestive shadows and piercing Regan scream); William Chubb as a sympathetic Albany, trapped in a marriage which has decayed for years; Gary Sefton as an ingratiating Oswald; and Sargon Yelda as a strangely young and vital Kent.   The scene where the King of France accepts a dowerless Cordelia is somewhat spoilt by his comic accent, but that’s a small criticism.

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This is Glenda Jackson’s moment, though, and she surely shines.  Her interplay with her fellow cast is convincing – in particular with Ifans’ Fool, Yelda’s disguised Kent (and earlier, in his banishment scene), and her daughters.  Her ‘howl, howl’ as she is dragged in on a carpet with her deceased young daughter is heart-rending, and her refusal of Gloucester’s request to kiss her hand ‘let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality’ is nicely done, as is her recognition of him despite her previous staggering madness with leafed crown.

A nod, too, for the design of the storm, with projections, sound, and large black plastic sheet simply shaken.  The effect is spectacular.

Photos by Manuel Harlan.  King Lear runs at the Old Vic until the 3rd December.  Book tickets at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/king-lear/.


No Man’s Land (Wyndham’s Theatre)

nomansland

One of theatre’s current hot tickets is Sean Mathias’ production of Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’, which is running at the Wyndham’s.

It stars Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst, in the roles originated forty-one years ago by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.  Named after turn of the century cricketers (as are the supporting characters in this play, Briggs – played by Owen Teale – and Foster – played by Damien Molony), these elderly gentlemen are first introduced to us in Hirst’s opulent drinking den, knocking back neat whisky ‘as it is, absolutely as it is’ and sparring with words.

Hirst is the Yorkshireman made good, the working man who has become an accepted member of the literati, while the Lancastrian Spooner has a cultural background but is reduced to collecting beer mats in a seedy pub.  Hirst has a young, leather-jacketed housekeeper, Foster, and a bruising butler/cook, Briggs, who has a beautiful speech in act two about ‘Bolsover Street’.

McKellen’s reactions are, of course, priceless throughout, and he clearly relishes the comment about ‘consuming the male member’, while Stewart is in command on Pinter’s pauses and inflections throughout: making them a formidable team.  They also imbibe a lot of liquid refreshment in act one (which perhaps makes an interval necessary in an 100 minute play), while McKellen relishes a scrambled egg and bread breakfast in act two.

With Pinter, there are no real answers to what his plays are about.  They pinpoint the human condition, the intrusion of strangers, the faultiness of memories, the pointlessness of life.  Every word is weighted, every move is choreographed, the set is minimalist (chairs, a bar, a window, a light, and video projection which makes the trees at the top of the set appear to move with the sound of birdsong).

This is a superior piece of theatre, highly recommended.  It runs until December this year.


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Currently a final year English student at the University of Cambridge. Producing Intern for Fuel Theatre July-October 2016. Aspiring Arts Administrator/Theatre Producer, blogging about my projects (mostly).

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Emily Baycroft

Currently a final year English student at the University of Cambridge. Producing Intern for Fuel Theatre July-October 2016. Aspiring Arts Administrator/Theatre Producer, blogging about my projects (mostly).

MTAS

West End Reviews | West End Challenges | Exclusive West End News

A Red Lip And A Nude Shoe

Dior Dreams On A Kmart Budget

is there room for me to sew?

Quilting, Reading and the Movies

Jaime Rebanal's Film Thoughts

Cinema - moving around life one film at a time.

The Case for Jeanette and Nelson

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

STARDUST AND SHADOWS

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

The Wonderful World of Cinema

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

Movie classics

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

Hiss and Tell

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

TESSA BARRIE'S LOST BLOGS

Random Blogger from Jersey, Channel Islands, UK. Not Noo Jersey, USA. Expect the unexpected. Life's too short to be niche.

[insert title here]

just one of many things i'm still trying to figure out

buchanblog

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The Phantom Frame

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West End Blog

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

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