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The first sight of a high pile of rubbish at the centre of a round thrust stage brings memories flooding back from over 30 years ago and the first London production of Cats. Here we have another brand new musical, but no felines and the only junk to be seen is in the show’s set.

The show has  a book and lyrics by Jack Thorne, who demonstrates yet again that he writes for and about youngsters better than anyone else around at the moment. The music is composed by Stephen Warbeck, better known for film scores, and his style? Well, think Suggs and Madness, although it is hard to think of anything else after an early song titled Our Home. It is a show in which familiarity breeds affection, the arc of the story being predictable from scene one, but it is the exuberant telling of it, the filling in of the detail and the fleshing out of the characters that bring joy.

In 1979, a group of special needs kids at a Bristol school get roped in reluctantly by Rick (Callum Callaghan),  a teaching assistant who is seeking his true vocation, to occupy their Winter of discontent by turning a junkyard at their school into a playground. Without calling for help from Nick Knowles, they take to the task and the experience transforms their lives. However corny this outline sounds, Junkyard is underpinned by real anger at young lives potentially going to waste. Thorne and Warbeck, both with Bristol connections, make a passionate plea for a revival of community spirit to unlock hidden talents and let new generations thrive.

The group’s leader is Fiz, played by Erin Doherty with an air of insolent nonchalance that is reminiscent of Catherine Tate’s Lauren character. She could easily have followed her older sister, “dirty” Debbie (Scarlett Brookes), into single motherhood, but she seizes her chance to break out. Nervous and uncertain Talc (a very touching performance by  Enyi Okoronkwo), gains confidence and purpose and street thug Ginger (Josef  Davies) find an entirely unexpected calling. It has to be said that the best that some of the actors playing “kids” can claim is that they were teenagers once, but, having said it, we can move on swiftly because all the performances are beautifully judged.

Directing for his Headlong company, Jeremy Herrin gives the production pace and youthful energy, but it is rather a pity that the cast’s excellent dancing skills are seen only fleetingly. As mentioned before, Chiara Stephenson’s set is rubbish, but its transformations are imaginative and clever lighting, designed by Jack Knowles, adds to its grimy splendour. Over 150 minutes (with interval), the story is stretched a little thin and loses its way slightly in the second half, but Thorne rescues it with with sharp and perceptive dialogue and lyrics. He sets out to inspire us, young and old, and, although his methods are obvious, resistance proves futile.

Performance date: 20 April 2017

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Good French musicals are a rarity in London, apart from one that arrived in 1984 and has remained ever since. This new one composed by Jean-Baptiste Saucray with book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon is so similar to Les Misérables in musical style, construction and melodramatic intensity that it almost feels as if it could have crossed on the same ferry, but no-one is betting on it achieving the same longevity.

The chief difference is that The Braille Legacy is based on fact, telling of the teenage years that Louis Braille spent in a boarding school, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, and the development of the system that enables the blind to read, which still bears his name today. In Ranjit Bolt’s lucid translation, the storytelling is brisk and efficient; the opening song, Paris, gives us all the background detail that we need, taking us to a bustling city of academics, artists and enlightenment where the blind and others with disabilities are regarded as “freaks”. The Institute looks like an import from Dickensian England, presided over by kindly, progressive  Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) and cruel, regressive Dufau (Ashley Stillburn), the show’s equivalent to Javert in Les Mis.

Director Thom Southerland’s brand of quality is stamped all over the production, with what are becoming trademarks clear to see – a central set on two levels (designer Tim Shortall), flowing and uninterrupted movement (choreographer Lee Proud) and impeccable solo and choral singing that has crystal clarity, every word in every lyric being given due respect. The voices here make sounds every bit as exquisite as in Southerland’s Titanic and Ragtime. The first notes are heard as blindfolds are placed over the eyes of teenagers and children, all dressed in their white Institute uniforms, and a lump comes to the throat that never goes away.

Young Jack Wolfe gives a wonderfully controlled performance as Louis, yearning for the right to read and withstanding ejection from public libraries and beatings from Dufau as he progresses single-mindedly towards his goal. Jason Broderick as Gabriel, Louis’ foe turned friend and Ceili O’Connor as Mme Demézière, the Institute’s  matron, also tug at the heartstrings.

The story has dark undertones with the argument that public finances need to be spent on eliminating blindness, rather than on improving life for the blind, looming large and suggesting similar for other human abnormalities. Some may argue that turning Louis’ life into a musical melodrama trivialises these themes, but, once Southerland waves his magic wand and we hear the glorious singing, such concerns dissipate and we succumb to all the emotional manipulation that follows. Vive La France!

Performance date: 19 April 2017

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For all its wonderful comic set pieces, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be a very difficult play to keep on the boil, as demonstrated by Peter Hall’s uneven 2011 production here in what is now the Dorfman Theatre. Simon Godwin’s answer is to open a box full of tricks – topical gags, visual surprises and casting against type all feature prominently – and throw them in, one by one.

Perhaps the biggest single trick is Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious set, a high pyramid that revolves and opens out to become an elegant glass conservatory, a night club, a church and more. Five musicians roam the stage, mingling with the actors playing in jazz and traditional styles, and making music the food of laughs with a torch song version of the “To be or not to be…” speech.. Wrong play, but who cares? A paddling pool appearing centre stage brings back memories of Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale taking a dip in almost the same spot during Nicholas Hytner’s 2007 Much Ado About Nothing. There is so much going on here that the comedy lulls in Shakespeare’s play pass almost unnoticed.

Tamara Lawrence’s Viola and Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian are a delightful pair, almost making it credible that they could pass for each other, but, as always in this play, not quite. Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby Belch is a louche drunkard pursued by Daniel Rigby’s camp, pink-suited Sir Andrew Aguecheek and we get a boisterous female Feste from Doon Mackichan. Of the main characters, only the two dullest, Orsino (Oliver Chris) and Olivia (Phoebe Fox) are played conventionally.

In a deft piece of gender bending, Malviolo is not only played by a woman, he becomes one, re-named Malvolia. Tamsin Greig appears in black, with matching long straight hair, her demeanour is stiff and her facial expressions dour. She is a humourless Puritan, venting her wrath and delivering messages with exaggerated hand gestures. Greig is a mistress of comedy and earning two show-stopping ovations in a non-musical is not bad going, but then comes the downfall, the most emphatic anti-bullying statement to be found in theatre, and Malvolia’s humiliation is every bit as harrowing as that of any of the Malvolios who have preceded her.

Godwin’s success comes at some cost as abundant physical comedy and constant mocking of the text rob his production of some of the play’s romance and lyricism. In their place, we get humour that is laced with a darker than usual dash of melancholy. The confusions sorted, the couplings made and the festivities over, Greig, stripped of all dignity, climbs the pyramid, a figure of abject hopelessness, and Godwin stamps his production as being all about this extraordinary and unforgetable Malvolia.

Performance date: 18 April 2017

Whisper House (The Other Palace)

Posted: April 19, 2017 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

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Anyone who can turn a Frank Wedekind play into a hit musical is worthy of respect and so be it with Duncan Sheik. His 2006 show Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway and won multiple Tony awards, although its West End run was shorter than it deserved. Sheik’s style of angry rock matched well with a drama of 19th Century adolescent angst, but the question now is whether it suits a tale of the paranormal.

The setting is a lighthouse off the north-east coast of America, the time is during World War II. U-boats swarm around and still more sinister forces are at work inside. Christopher (Fisher Costello-Rose and Stanley Jarvis share the role) is a young boy who is effectively orphaned, his mother becoming suicidal after his father’s death. He is sent to live with the lighthouse keeper, his crippled Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington), a lonely and embittered spinster, and her helper Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh), who is Japanese and not welcomed by all in his adopted country at this time. The local Sheriff (Simon Lipkin) does his best to evict him.

When Christopher becomes aware of the presence of two ghosts (Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry) the story, a meeting of childhood innocence, adult guilt and revenge from beyond the grave, takes on key elements of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, adapted into an opera by Benjamin Britten. Of course, Sheik’s style is entirely different and, much as his music has the ability to convey strong emotions, it fails to suggest creepy, supernatural forces. When it needs to whisper, it shouts.

Whisper House began life as a concept album, as did early works by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who recently acquired The Other Palace to showcase new musicals. A seven-piece band, conducted by Musical Director Daniel A Weiss, sits in a crescent behind a circular performance space which descends into a pit. This semi-staging gives director Adam Lenson little to work with to conjure up an atmosphere of sinister suspense, just murky lighting and sea mists, but powerful performances, particularly by Pilkington and Goh give real meat to the drama.

The show, conceived with Keith Powell, has a book by Kyle Jarrow, who shares credit with Sheik for the lyrics. Jarrow gives the show modern relevance by suggesting parallels between the plight of an alien in 1940s America and attitudes towards refugees there now. The story is told almost entirely by spoken word and the songs are sung almost entirely by Bailey and Perry, thereby creating a strange separation in which the ghosts become mere observers and commentators, little integrated into the main narrative until very late on.

Overall, the show feels disjointed, the song lyrics not connecting fully with the story, nor the music with the paranormal themes, nor the ghostly presences with the earthly drama. Perhaps a lot more work is needed to weld all this together seamlessly, but, in the meantime, Sheik’s thrilling rock anthems still provide plenty to enjoy.

Performance date: 18 April 20

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Someone must have a sense of humour to put on this show just outside the boundaries of the City of London, where quite a few people over the years have made a pile for themselves, seemingly without doing very much to earn it. However, if you’re planning to pick up a few tips here before continuing west, be warned that everything you’ll see is at least half a century out of date.

The big point of interest in revisiting this 1961 award winning Broadway hit is the involvement as composer and lyricist of Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, but the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, from an original by Shepherd Mead, now feels pretty ropey. Following the recent revival of Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse, we now pay a second musical visit to a New York office block in the early 1960s and, in terms of meeting the needs of the show, the songs here are arguably at least as good.

The plot follows ambitious young window cleaner J Pierrepont Finch (Marc Pickering) as he gets hold of a self-help manual with the show’s title and sidles his way upwards through the ranks of a New York company. Although not specified, it is a fair guess that the first tip in the manual could be “be born a man”, as the role of women in this company is laughably archaic. While the guys get all the plum jobs, the gals bide their time as secretaries or receptionists and dream of being whisked away to live happily ever after in New Rochelle, where they can cook, clean and tend for their brood. As inspiration for 21st Century women, this is a show that can take its place alongside The Taming of the Shrew, but, back in 1961, sweet secretary Rosemary (Hannah Grover) gets her tentacles stuck into Finch with exactly those dreams in her mind.

The satire lacks bite, the comedy is predictable and dated, but then there are the songs. Even if this show is lesser Loesser, the punchy lyrics and catchy show tunes are still worth hearing as they build up to two outstanding numbers in a second half that is immeasurably better than the first. Pickering gazes into a washroom mirror, singing I Believe in You, with the the chorus behind the urinals and then he moves up to the board room to lead the company on Brotherhood of Man. Rising to the quality of this material, director Benji Sperring’s production now finds the essential ingredient of Broadway pzazz that it had lacked earlier, Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets a kick in its steps and Ben Ferguson’s fresh orchestrations shine.

Pickering shows all the guile of a backstabbing career ladder climber, but often forgets to add the charm that would make his antics credible. His rival, the boss’s nephew Bud Frump is made creepily nasty by Daniel Graham, Andrew C Wadsworth shows dithering authority as the boss himself, JB Biggley, and Lizzi Hills has great fun as Hedy La Rue, his tarty bit on the side who does not do shorthand but can type at the phenomenal rate of 10 words a minute. Mike Lees’ office set in front of sliding elevator doors is well used and his period costumes, particularly the garish ladies’ dresses, are a delight. If the production does not quite succeed in making this a show for 2017, it is not for want of trying.

.Performance date: 15 April 2017

46 Beacon (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: April 13, 2017 in Theatre

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46 Beacon is the address of an apartment building in central Boston, ideal for transients such as actors to take out short leases. Robert (Jay Taylor) is such an actor, coming from London to perform in a city where English accents are revered. One night he brings home with him a schoolboy, Alan (Oliver Coopersmith), who is working as a part-time waiter at the theatre restaurant. His intention is seduction.

In many ways, the genders of the two characters in this new play by London-based American writer Bill Rosenfield are irrelevant, as he is simply offering a version of the familiar coming of age story, showing an encounter that will be quickly forgotten by the experienced party, but forever remembered by the newly initiated one. However, in other ways, the play is more specific, being set in 1970 when the word “queer” was just being replaced by “gay” in everyday vocabulary. Robert makes reference to another play, Mart Crowley’s  The Boys in the Band, which, when revived in London recently, seemed dated because of the expressions of feelings of guilt by its characters. Notwithstanding Alan’s nervousness, there is no guilt here, the pair seeming as confident in their sexuality as are their equivalents in the modern day LGBT community. The framing of the narrative, looking back on the evening from the distant future, emphasises that the play’s attitudes belong to the 21st Century and not to the time of its setting.

Taylor’s Robert is a nonchalant serial seducer, much older than Alan is able to guess, but not a cynical predator. He knows that Alan may be theatre mad and slightly star-struck, but also he senses correctly that he is a willing party to the seduction and fully aware of what is happening. Richard and Alan begin tentatively with gin & tonics followed by foot massages and then they circle each other suspiciously, as if engaged in a mating ritual. Their awkward exchanges bristle with lively wit. Dictated to by the needs of comedy, Rosenfield writes Alan as smarter and more quick-witted in repartee than feels natural for one so young, but Coopersmith compensates with a performance of beguiling innocence that embraces the as yet unsullied wisdom of youth.

Robert informs us at the beginning that his account of meeting with Alan will last precisely 83 minutes and Alexander Lass’s gently humorous production delivers on that score, the audience sitting around the borders of the bedroom in this perfectly suited studio space. The play’s most poignant moments come after the seduction is complete. Alan emerges from between the sheets to mimic, delightedly, the scene from Stephen Sondheim’s Company in which a one-night stand parts from another Robert (“Bobby”) on her way to Barcelona and then he begins to absorb his first lesson on how casual sex and emotional entanglement relate to each other. This is the key area that Rosenfield is examining throughout a play that is consistently perceptive, truthful, tender and funny.

Performance date: 13 April 2017

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Pleas of “not guilty due to diminished responsibility” can often arouse suspicions among the uninformed that lawyers and others are out to manipulate the legal system for their own ends. Sam Hoare’s new play begins with the intriguing situation of a woman, Mary (Lindsey Marshal), facing imminent trial, insisting that that she knew exactly what she was doing and was in full control of her actions, while her psychiatrist, Dr Parker (Rufus Wright) and her lawyer/friend, Layla (Tamla Karl) insist that this was not the case.

The persistence of the professionals in the face of opposition from their patient/client makes an absorbing 25 minutes of drama and then, the crime is specified – Mary’s murder of her child, who was suffering from a cruel disorder – and the play changes direction to ask whether the pressures placed on a mother in such a situation must inevitably lead to responsibility for her own actions being diminished. It feels odd that a drama that runs for only 75 minutes would take so long to declare what it is actually about and even odder that Hoare drives the plot up side alleys at interval during the remaining 50 minutes. Does it really matter whether Mary may be having an affair with Dr Parker or whether Layla may be doing likewise with Mary’s husband Adam (Gwilym Lee)? And do we really need to hear so much of the back story of Mary’s prison visitor Celia (Wendy Nottingham), another mother who had been placed in a similar predicament?

Finding its focus and keeping it are the play’s chief problems, but dialogue that often feels unnatural is another. Marshall shows us Mary’s pain convincingly, but she has to battle against a script that makes the character seem unreasonably contradictory and thereby unsympathetic. Through no fault of the actors in Tom Attenborough’s fluent in-the-round production, the other four characters remain two dimensional. Hoare’s play is undoubtedly earnest and it understands the torment of the parenting dilemmas which it portrays, but muddled construction and unconvincing presentation diminish the strength of the pleas that it is trying to make to its audience.

Performance date: 12 April 2017