Category Archives: theatre

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.


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.

 

 

 

 

 


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.

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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.

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Other useful features

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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


Tina: The Musical (Aldwych Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Moderate Soprano (Duke of York’s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Knights of the Rose – PR

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

It will star Andy Moss as Gawain.

Romance of the Rose Productions presents:

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

A New West End Classic Rock Musical created by Jennifer Marsden

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A TALE OF BETRAYAL, LOVE, BLOODSHED AND REDEMPTION

29th June – 26th August, 2018

Press Night: Thursday 5th July

On sale – 23rd March

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

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

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

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

SET LIST INCLUDES:

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

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE:

Monday – 7.30pm

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – 7.30pm

Thursday – 3pm/7.30pm

Friday – 7.30pm

Saturday – 3pm/ 7.30pm

Sunday – 4pm

TICKETS:

On sale – 23rd March

Wednesday, Thursday Matinee, Thursday Evening, Sunday and Monday

£55 // £45// £33.50 // £22.50 // £15

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

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

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CREATIVES

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

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

Racky Plews – Director and Choreographer

Racky Plews is trained at Sylvia Young and Arts Educational

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Motown (Shaftesbury Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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


Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mother Goose (Questors Theatre)

We all know the pantomime traditions and tropes – the middle-aged man in numerous petticoats as the Dame, a young girl as the Principal Boy, popular songs, bad jokes, audience participation and healthy booing of the villains.

Up in town you have Julian Clary and Nigel Havers treading the boards, while Biggins is in Richmond, but in Ealing an accomplished cast of amateur players including a cute set of children keep the Judi Dench Playhouse audience entertained.

The key villain of Baron von Rumpensmakker  (ho ho) reminded me of Basil Rathbone in swashbuckler mode, and he and his Irish Gonk riding geese stirred memories of old Bernie Clifton’s ostrich.

A hard-working cast including some precocious children who are truly set for brighter things if fate and hard work allow keep things moving with the usual misdirection, sing-song, tap dance, and even a decorating routine worthy of the best of Charlie Drake.  The good fairy, the bad troll, and the wise old goose round off proceedings with a deep-voiced snow monster pulling the finale together.

The Questors is located on Mattock Lane behind Ealing Broadway.


Glengarry Glen Ross (Playhouse Theatre)

David Mamet’s sharp satirical play about real estate and the men who follow leads to coerce the lesser-off to spend money they don’t have on plots of land has a timely revival in the West End, this time under the direction of Sam Yates.

It’s an economical but coarse play, with the earthy language you might expect from cut-throat business conducted in restaurants or across kitchen tables furnished with shop-bought cakes masquerading as home-baked.

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Act One is set in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago, as we watch conversations between three pairings, introducing our core ensemble.

Shelly Levene (Stanley Townsend) was once a great salesman whose name always headed the firm’s results sheet, but he hasn’t delivered in a long while, and dud salesmen only get the dud leads; he tries to persuade office manager John Williamson (Kris Marshall) to help, but John is tough and hard, cynical and inflexible, and without the readies in advance he won’t give the old man a break.

Slightly later in the day, as the red lanterns start to give off a bit of light, and the sun outside sets, Dave Moss (Robert Glenister), a tough and jaded cookie, has a proposition for his more timid colleague, George Aaronow (Don Warrington), which moves from the theoretical to a practical plan to rob the firm and furnish the competition. George seems caught in a sophisticated trap as a supposed accessory.

And in the evening, confident and smug Richard Roma (Christian Slater) strikes up a chat with James Lingk (Daniel Ryan), a potential lead who can be played from the insecurities of his life to make a ‘wise’ investment.  Lingk, a man who probably has never taken a risk beyond taking off his coat on a mild day, is easily persuaded by sex talk and a concentration on his insecurities.

After a rather lengthy interval for a noisy set change, Act Two is set in the sprawling office in which the salesmen sweat for their closures and the chance to progress up the chalk board which records the money they make.

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Levene is full of an impossible deal he closed that morning, but the office has been robbed, and a cop is on site to tease out the culprit, which means each salesman gets their time out in the main room while others are under interrogation.  Roma has a visit from Lingk, who has slept on his decision and prompted by his cautious wife, wants out of his contract.  Tempers fray and unwise words are said.

Mamet’s gift in this play is in making the unlikeable likeable, and in making pauses, interjections, and profanities a natural part of character speech, making those characters believable.  Some actors work better with this than others; Marshall and Glenister are especially good, but Warrington’s accent wanders a bit and Townsend takes a while to warm to his part (but does well in Act Two).  I liked Slater’s outer calm which cracks in the office as he kicks the furniture, and his self-assuredness, but he doesn’t feel like a Hollywood star above the group of actors he is with; instead, he fits in without trying to snatch the attention.

Daniel Ryan is fine as Lingk, and Oliver Ryan makes the most of an investigator who clearly despises the salesmen and their setting.  The ending of the play, too, is a good one, and I’d forgotten it, having seen the film version some years ago and having missed the last stage revival.

Glengarry Glen Ross continues until the 3rd February 2018.

 


Book review: Strolling Player by Gabriel Hershman

Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s.  From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.

Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.

Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.

Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.


Big Fish (The Other Palace)

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Over at the rebranded The Other Palace (formerly St James’ Theatre), something rather magical is going on, with a bit of Broadway pizazz in this show of tall tales, misunderstandings, loss, redemption, daffodils, and fish.

Kelsey Grammer has been imported from the US to make his London stage debut in Andrew Lippa’s musical, itself based on the screenplay for the film (starring Albert Finney) written by John August, itself based on a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is introduced at his straight-laced son’s wedding, shortly after they’ve been fishing. He’s been cautioned not to share his ‘stories’ or even make a toast, but of course, he doesn’t listen. Quickly, though, we realise that all is not well and that his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) will have to make sense of the man who he regards as a stranger and who is starting to slip away.

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While Edward slips in and out of consciousness, with his loving wife Sandra (Clare Burt) and new (and pregnant) daughter-in-law Josephine (Frances McNamee) close by, we meet his young self (Jamie Muscato) and follow him on wild adventures with a witch (Landi Oshinowo), a giant (Dean Nolan), and a circus supremo (Forbes Masson), as well as young Sandra (Laura Baldwin). These boast bizarre and big song and dance numbers – often pastiches – while the real-time/life scenes are more of the ballad type. Little Will is present for most of the time, too, and was played by Colby Mulgrew at the performance we saw; he reacts to the fun and the sadness around him and pulls us in.

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The set is simple enough, utilising sound effects and video projections to give us a sense of where we are, when outside the hospital ward.  A lovely act one closer gives us a stage full of daffodils, which were always Sandra’s favourite flowers, although we might not quite believe the story of how the young Edward and Sandra met.

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Some commentators on this show have scoffed at reports of audiences being moved by events as they unfold, but certainly at the evening performance I attended there were quite a few people dabbing their eyes, and rightly so, as the final scenes are deeply moving, and the effectiveness of this has to be laid at the door of director Nigel Harman and star Kelsey Grammer, who is simply superb in both the humorous and tragic scenes, as well as throwing himself into the boisterous song routines.

Incidentally, front row ticket holders may well get a closer encounter with Grammer than you might have bargained for, which was amusing in itself.  There’s some doubling of roles in a hard-working cast, with Oshinowo and Masson portraying two characters, while the smaller roles in ensemble are well-drawn.  The fantasy sequences are great, and Burt is quietly wonderful in a role which might have misfired, as is McNamee. I found Muscato had a lot of charm as young Edward, although it’s hard to think he grew up to turn into Frasier (still Grammer’s best-known role, and despite best efforts he doesn’t quite shake off memories of Seattle’s finest).

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If you want something which is ‘flipping’ marvellous, with a ‘sole’ and a good line in ‘cod’ philosophy, then make your way to The Other Palace for this short run; it is well worth your time and is definitely the ‘plaice’ to be.


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