Music and lyrics: Sting       Director and book writer: Lorne Campbell

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Who would ever think of launching a show about Geordie shipyard redundancies in New York? Maybe the producers of this new musical believed that the name of Sting as composer/lyricist (and briefly performer) would be enough to guarantee ticket sales. It wasn’t. As a result, this large and very British vessel is tarnished with the label “Broadway flop”, but it is not holed below the water line and the job now is to get it back afloat with the help of glowing reviews and strong word of mouth, ready to sail (hopefully) into the West End. The re-floating process has started well with a sold-out run in its spiritual home, Newcastle, followed by this national tour.

The show is seen here directed by Lorne Campbell, who has also written a new book, based on the original by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. The story has two strands – the closure of the Newlands shipyard on Tyneside, leading to a token act of defiance by its workers, and a love story between Gideon, returning home after 15 years seeking greener pastures, and Meg, the girl left behind carrying their daughter. The love story always feels like an add-on and Campbell does not knit the two stands together completely, but Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee play and sing the roles so beautifully that all resistance is swept away.

The main narrative thread tells of a proud community being threatened with obliteration in the tsunami of de-industrialisation that swept across the United Kingdom from the 1980s onwards. Jackie (Joe McGann) and his supportive wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick) lead the opposition to the yard’s closure. The Government’s case is stated by Baroness Tynedale, who, in a crass misjudgement by Campbell, is played by Penelope Woodman doing a crude Margaret Thatcher impersonation. This is reminiscent of Richard Bean’s abysmal satire of the Wilson Government in Made in Dagenham, a flop musical with many similarities, although The Last Ship is vastly superior to that show in almost every respect. This show would be improved if Campbell were to adhere fully to the principle of telling the human stories and allowing audiences to work out the politics for themselves and Sting, of all people, should know that Socialist drum-beating by multi-millionaire entertainers inevitably becomes tainted by suggestions of hypocrisy.

As director, Campbell needs to do more to enliven several leaden spoken scenes which threaten to sink his ship; as things are, this production demonstrates exactly why so many modern musicals tend to be sung (or rapped) through. So yes, the show still needs more work, but that cannot detract from the songs which are truly glorious, better musically and lyrically than in any new British musical that I can remember. The score is distinctively Sting/Police, but influences ranging from traditional folk to Rodgers and Hammerstein can be detected in passionate anthems and gentle love songs. The singing here, in solos, duets and choruses does full justice to the songs, which often become emotionally overwhelming. As Ellen, the wilful daughter of Gideon and Meg, Katie Moore is just beguiling, but she is only one of a faultless company.

The staging is on a grand scale, with the whole show being performed in front of the shipyard’s high scaffolding. I wish The Last Ship Bon Voyage and hope to see it cruising to the success that it richly deserves.

Performance date: 18 April 2018

Writer: Thomas Eccleshare      Director: Hamish Pirie

⭐⭐⭐⭐

What we want for our children is rarely what they want for themselves, but would it result in what we really want either? Thomas Eccleshare poses the question in this new absurdist satire that scythes through the jungle of modern parenting and gives a glimpse into what genetic engineering could be holding in store for the future.

Max and Harry are not happy with their errant teenage son Nick, so they decide to replace him with a new model who will conform to their idea of perfection, becoming something like a clone of themselves. They acquire their new “son” in much the same way as they would buy a bed from a Swedish furniture store, getting the pieces in a flat pack and assembling them at home. The result is Jân. If his behaviour ever falls short of desired standards, he comes with a remote control which has a rewind button so that he can be made to try again until he gets it right. As a last resort, there is a money back guarantee.

The first quarter of Hamish Pirie’s surreal production is performed inside a small rectangle, surrounded by darkness, halfway back on the stage. This gives a curious effect, like watching a television monitor in an IMAX cinema, but Cai Dyfan’s set opens out to coincide with the point when the play itself begins to take a hold. Eventually, a mass of foliage appears at the very back and, together with a line of sunflowers which separates the audience from the actors, the suggestion is that the characters whom we are watching are in sight of nature but not responding to it in their actions.

Jane Horrocks is terrific as the bemused, caring/non-caring Max and, occasionally, when she slips into her “Bubbles” mode, she lends the play a delicious flavour of AbFab meets Frankenstein. Mark Bonnar also hits the nail on the head as the DIY-obsessed Harry and Brian Vernel, casually rebellious as Nick and straight-faced but never robotic as Jân, is the source of the production’s biggest laughs.

Eccleshare takes us into the world of urban middle classes and tears it to pieces. Here, families jog together, eat whole foods together and aspire for their offspring to become human rights lawyers. Parents parade their children’s academic prowess like prize trophies, as with Laurie and Paul (Michele Austin and Jason Barnett) and their Oxford-bound daughter Amy (Shaniqua Okwok). The hypocrisy of these lifestyles is exposed to the full in two hilarious dinner parties when Jân’s gaffes puncture the illusions of accord and harmony completely.

The sterility of the satire diminishes the impact of the pathos that creeps in late on in the 100-minute play. However, after an uncertain start, in warning us to be careful what we wish for and in stirring up howls of laughter, it all holds together perfectly.

Performance date: 14 April 2018

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

Palmyra (Battersea Arts Centre)

Posted: April 13, 2018 in Theatre

Creators and performers: Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas

⭐⭐⭐⭐

It is good news that Palmyra, one of the big hits of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is seeking out a wider UK audience. The bad news is that the conflict in Syria to which it relates continues to rage no less fiercely.

Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city, was home to monuments of incomparable beauty and historical interest. No more. The theme of this show, created and performed by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, is destruction. The pair revive their comic personas of Bert and Nasi, first seen in Eurohouse, still amusing us with their brand of absurdist physical comedy, but the mood is much darker and childlike squabbling is displaced by raw aggression.

A white plate is broken. Nasi is aghast and Bert taunts him, dropping another plate from high on a step ladder. Nasi explodes with rage, running amok with a hammer, more plates are broken and the value of all plates is diminished to zero. The visual metaphor is obvious, its presentation is visceral, darkly funny and deeply shocking.

The title of the 55-minute show is the only direct reference made to Syria and no explanations are offered for the violence and destruction seen on stage. Pointlessness is the point of the show, or, at least, one of its points. Lesca and Voutsas do not concern themselves with politics nor, specifically, with human carnage; rather, they focus on the irreversible damage to the human spirit that comes from the obliteration of history, culture and beauty. Through comedy, they also dig down to the roots of anger, hatred and revenge and ask us to find our own explanations for things that we might readily pass off as inexplicable.

Palmyra has already picked up several Fringe Theatre awards, well merited for its inventiveness and unnerving power. It leaves its audiences feeling as shattered as the fragmented crockery that remains lying on the floor when the performers take their bows..

Performance date: 12 April 2018

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

Eurohouse (Battersea Arts Centre)

Posted: April 13, 2018 in Theatre

Creators and performers: Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas

⭐⭐⭐⭐

In the almost two years since Britain’s European Union referendum, the pro-Brexit case has felt off-message in theatre. Seemingly theatre makers and theatregoers have joined hands in expressing horror at the outcome and there is initial surprise at finding a fluffy piece of light entertainment that bucks the trend.

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas first presented Eurohouse at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and they are reviving it here for a single performance as part of a double bill with their current show Palmyra. It is a lament for a dying nation, a Greek tragicomedy appearing in the disguise of an hour-long Music Hall comedy double act routine. “Bert and Nasi” could be Laurel and Hardy or Morecambe and Wise – Bert the tall dark one (without glasses) and Nasi the short, skinny bearded one. Both are instinctive comics.

We watch Bert and Nasi, skipping in circles, dad dancing, sharing a pack of M&Ms, performing very basic acrobatics, and soliciting applause with beaming smiles on their faces. The physical comedy is often sublimely funny and there is no hint of any political subtext until more than halfway through. They dance and singalong to My Way (in French), but Nasi tires of the song and asks for it to be changed to Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way. Now the rift appears and their joint dreams of everyone wearing white, standing hand-in-hand around a placid blue lake begin to evaporate.

By the time that Bert demands the return of his M&Ms even after Nasi has eaten them, the dream has already become a nightmare and the show’s metaphor has become clear. Statistics seen on a screen as an epilogue spell it out; this is the story of a proud country being bled to death for the profit of German and French banks. Why would anyone choose to depart from a union that leads to this?

Performance date: 12 April 2018

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

Chicago (Phoenix Theatre)

Posted: April 12, 2018 in Travel

Book: Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb      Music: John Kander      Lyrics: Fred Ebb      Director: Walter Robbie

⭐⭐⭐💫

You can’t keep a good show down! Chicago, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was a moderate success in New York and London in the late 1970s, but it is the 1996 revival, directed by Walter Robbie, that defines it. That production has run continuously on Broadway for over 20 years and it also ran in the West End, in three theatres, from 1997 until it seemed to have run out of steam in 2012. Now Robbie’s production rises again, appropriately at the Phoenix Theatre and the air is once more filled with toe-tapping tunes and raging amorality.

This is a prime example of a Kander and Ebb trademark, that of framing a musical with a specific entertainment style. They gave us a Berlin nightclub for Cabaret, a minstrel show for The Scottsboro Boys and, in this case, we find ourselves landed in Vaudeville at the height of the Jazz Age. One of the explanations for the show’s longevity could be the simplicity of it’s staging – a single set, with orchestra in the middle, serves all needs – and another could be the ease with which star names can be slotted into any of the leading roles to reinvigorate it repeatedly. Yes, Chicago, is a show that can sometimes fall victim to flawed stunt casting.

The biggest name blazoned across the posters here is that of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr, a larger-than-life personality who turns out to be unexpectedly subdued as the dodgy lawyer Billy Flynn. A singing voice with a limited range does not necessarily spell disaster for an actor in a musical, but the Hollywood star’s two big numbers, All I Care About and Razzle Dazzle make little impression and, overall, we really want him to harness the natural ebullience for which he is famed a lot more and burst out of his role.

Elsewhere, the show is still razzle dazzling in most of the right places, with too many great songs packed in to leave room for any boring bits. Sarah Soetaert’s bubbly peroxide blonde Roxie Hart and Josefina Gabrielle’s sultry brunette Velma Kelly are spot-on. Both murderers awaiting trial, they quickly realise that, when the justice system and showbiz go head-to-head, showbiz will win and they scheme to use their notoriety to advance their careers on stage. Incredibly, the book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb is based on real-life events in 1920s Chicago.

Ruthie Henshall has played both Roxie and Velma in the West End and she now completes a personal hat trick by taking on the role of the prison matron Mama Morton, lending her strong presence to the lady that can fix anything, at a price. Paul Rider gives comic pathos to “Mr Cellophane”, Roxie’s cuckolded husband Amos and AD Richardson threatens to shatter glass as the goody-goody Mary Sunshine.

Stacey Haynes is the Resident Director, charged with bringing back to life Robbie’s production and Ann Reinking’s choreography (in the style of Fosse). Combining Kander’s musical mastery and Ebb’s witty, cynical lyrics with glitzy glamour and high-kicking dancing, Chicago remains hard to resist, however often it reappears on stage or screen and it looks set for another successful run here.

Performance date: 11 April 2018

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

Plastic (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: April 8, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Kenneth Emson      Director: Josh Roche

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

With news stories again dominated by sickening violence on London’s streets, the arrival in the city of Essex playwright Kenneth Emson’s Plastic is about as timely as it could get. The 70-minute verse play, a dark thriller first seen at the 2015 Latitude Festival, gives a devastating account of how peer pressure tears into the lives of young people and wrecks them.

Kev (played by Mark Weinman with cocky assurance touched by vulnerability), once captain of the school football team, has experienced a rapid fall from hero to zero. His post-school life has been one of menial work and queues at the Job Centre, but now he waits at the school gates for Lisa, who has signalled that she will surrender her virginity to him on that evening. Madison Clare is remarkably strong as the girl torn between old loyalties and the lure of the in-crowd that hangs around her school’s football team.

In stark terms, Emson’s play shows how the inevitable by-product of an in-crowd is an out crowd. Ben, played by Thomas Coombes as if he is a pressure cooker filled with boiling anger, is an outsider, not one of the popular people, not a member of the football team. Even a friendly voice taunts him with “what are you, gay or something?” when he declines to go with the flow and he looks increasingly disturbed as he repeatedly murmurs a list of American school massacres and takes bloody revenge on a dead creature in his Biology class.

Emson fills the play with images of the futility felt in working class communities where young lives can be seen to be as readily disposable as single-use plastic. Where is the escape for these characters? Jack, seems the most grounded of the four, but, helped largely by the thoughtful performance of Louis Greatorex, he becomes the most interesting. He forsakes the popular people to befriend the isolated Ben, taking the taunts of “faggot” himself and jeopardising his friendship (and possible romance) with Lisa. It takes time for us to realise how much the divisions within the school are taking their toll on Jack.

Josh Roche’s taut production grips like a vice. We feel from the beginning that the ingredients are in place for something dreadful to happen, but it is not knowing exactly what that gives the play its unrelenting air of suspense. Sophie Thomas’ all black set is decorated only by hanging multi-coloured light bulbs and Peter Small’s carefully judged lighting design heightens the tension. 

When the denouement arrives, it is as unexpected as it is shocking. Plastic is a short play, but not a small one. It is topical, universally relevant and it hits home with the force of a sledgehammer.

Photo: Matthew Foster

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

Performance date: 6 April 2018

Writer: Rolf Hochhuth      Adaptor: Peter Thiers      Translator: Peter Sutton,      Director: Anthony Shrubsall

⭐⭐

On 2 July 1961, the bell tolled for Ernest Hemingway, literary icon of the mid 20th Century. His tempestuous life had encompassed four marriages, the lively bars of Havana and the deadly battlegrounds of three wars in Europe, but, in the early hours of that day in his Ketchum, Idaho home, he picked up his favourite hunting rifle and shot himself through the head.

German playwright Rolf Hochhuth has imagined the final hour of Hemingway’s life for this monologue, performed in real time and here receiving its English language premiere. In Holly Maples’ set design, the thickly carpeted study of the journalist and novelist has a small desk at one end a telephone table at the other, flanked on either side by the audience. The 61-years-old Hemingway that enters is ravaged by prolonged mental illness – he is paranoid, delusional and severely depressed – compounded by electric shock treatment that would be considered barbaric in the modern age. His memory, “a writer’s only asset”, is gone.

The chief problem with Hochhuth’s play is that it conflicts with itself. We are informed that its only character suffers from memory loss and an inability to express himself, but we then hear from him recollections from the past that are clear and articulate. If the playwright’s aim is to contrast the dying Hemingway with the man in his prime, we need two points of focus and it seems very curious that Hochhuth has chosen to write the play as a monologue.

As Hemingway resolves to write a suicide letter to his sons, actor Edmund Dehn’s fingers hover trembling over a typewriter, incapable of touching the keys. This is the one moment in Anthony Shrubsall’s production when Hemingway’s debilitated condition is evident. Otherwise, Dehn strides around assertively, confronting members of the audience individually. He resembles a caged bull, or, more pertinently, Hemingway at the peak of his powers. When, we hear, in graphic detail, of a deer that the author had shot, staring into his eyes as he fumbles to put it out of its misery, we think that the anecdote could be alluding to Hemingway’s own dying condition, but we see or hear nothing to endorse such a metaphor.

Hochhuth writes of the nobility of nature and the savagery of mankind in terms that are true to Hemingway, but, for the rest, the play does little more than recap widely known facts, without adding fresh insights into a man who continues to fascinate us. Most disappointing of all is that a play that chronicles the sad demise of a cultural giant simply fails to be moving.

Performance date: 2 April 2018

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